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The art of grading - movie-making's silver lining

Lights. Camera. Action. From epic big-screen dramas to spellbinding or humorous television programmes and commercials, the world of entertainment provides an escape from the humdrum, moving and inspiring - at times, even without sound.
The visual impact of colour and contrast has the ability to enhance or detract from the viewer's experience, whether from sweeping landscapes or close-up facial expressions. Essentially to movies what Photoshop is to photography, the world of colour grading or colour correction allows the producer to manipulate colours and enhance certain aspects. It is the process providing productions with a certain 'look', capturing audiences everywhere, but yet so skilfully and artfully executed that the average viewer is completely unaware.

© Stefan Rajewski -

Grading across all genres

Whilst different productions require different levels of grading with commercials, music videos and films receiving the most detailed, as opposed to a sitcom requiring less work than for instance a fantasy series, grading is a process undertaken across all genres of entertainment.

Technology's constant evolution has seen the production of movies and commercials move away from the use of film to high-quality digital cameras, now shooting a form of RAW image. These images, which reproduce what film used to deliver, contain all the information needed for the grading process to bring the visuals to life.

While many high-end grading systems are available, all operating at a similar level and producing similar results, the actual craft of grading is immensely specialised, requiring great skill and attention to detail across even the smallest nuances of colour. The difference lies in the ability of the colourist to use the tools to achieve the best result, with Mushroom Media making use of DaVinci Resolve, the gold standard in post-production since 1984 and grading tool of choice for both Hollywood and many international studios.

But it is not an industry without challenges. The proliferation of software tools, allowing for a certain 'look' to instantly be applied to footage, is often regarded as a shortcut around the longer and more time-consuming process of grading. Although not acceptable for truly high quality finishes, it is lowering expectations in terms of quality and placing increased pressure on industry players to meet quicker turnaround times and smaller budgets.

Technology constantly evolving

Be sure of who you engage with in the post-production process. To ensure optimal, high quality end results, look for a partner who can work with all high quality formats (RED RAW, SONY RAW, ARRI RAW) while also being able to deliver across any file format you may require such as DPX or PRORES. And be sure to look for a grader who listens to you and is able to not only correctly interpret your brief; but also creatively execute, leading to the end result you envisaged and of the highest quality.

A case in point being a recent project for Picture Tree on their latest commercial for Standard Bank. The job required a number of complex 3D titles that director Fausto Becatti wanted to be seamlessly integrated into the shots, as well as a very subtle nuanced grade in order to support the humour of the commercial. The end result was a visually interesting and glossy commercial, but required us to draw on our specialised skill and many years' experience in order to execute.

With technology constantly evolving, larger resolution sensors of high-end digital cameras are creating pressure for post-production houses to deal with bigger images and increased amounts of data. This capturing of higher resolution images is set to continue, especially across feature films. While the current RED digital cinema camera can shoot 5K, an upgrade allowing for 6K has recently been announced with Sony already referencing 8K.

To give this context, the recent movie Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was shot over 167 days produced 443 hours of 4K footage to be reviewed. This footage was crafted into a motion picture at a length of 2 hours and 38 minutes consisting of almost a quarter of a million frames at 45MB each, the equivalent of 3,412,800 3MB mp3 files - a staggering 19.5 years' worth of music!

Creative possibilities

The move from film towards new digital camera formats also calls for a much closer relationship between the grading process and actual film shoot. Previously, when shooting film, post-production would receive the film negative for initial grading, with allowance made for a final grading at the end of the process. Now, with the supply of RAW images, the colour grader is enjoying unprecedented control over the image, allowing for creativity previously not possible, leading to an increasingly enhanced and higher quality product.

But, increased flexibility brings increased responsibility, with colour graders now finding themselves tasked with defining the look of the future of cinema. Using these RAW images, and with tools far more advanced, graders are able to make as many corrections as needed. Depending on the required outcome, certain parts of an image can be masked or others enhanced, for example, highlighting a blue sky or darkening only a face. DaVinci Resolve allows for infinite possibilities when it comes to these types of corrections, which in turn, allows the final look to become more stylised, with many opportunities to creatively manipulate the reality.

But despite technology advancements, it remains a relationship-driven industry and increasingly important to differentiate on skill and experience. With many more players joining the marketplace and advances in software enabling production of higher quality images within a shorter timeframe, in order to continue to deliver truly professional end products, there is a greater need for close collaboration and a personal touch to get the best results at the end of the day.

And on the local front

South Africa as a market is still growing, with only a few local post-production companies competing on an international level. Whilst our local technical ability is of an international standard, we need to continue to push the creative boundaries beyond what is "good" and "acceptable" to the mind-blowing! But we are getting better every year, and with practice comes perfection.
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About Warwick Allan

Owner of Mushroom Media - a post-production studio based in Johannesburg with a client base spanning the likes of BMW, Vodacom and MTN

Read more: Film, cinema