Colour Grading Your Film – Top Nineteen Tips For Working With The Professionals

This is not a guide to grading your film, this is a guide to producing a professional grade for your film by working with experts at the top of their field. As part of your learning process, you should try this for your more ambitious shorts and low budget features. Grade with the professionals.

My first few films, being shot and post produced on film, the old school photochemical route, gave me a VERY healthy respect for colour graders. Back then, the tools available were mind bendingly rudimentary and the guys who graded films were masters. Wizards even.

As such, when it comes to grading now, I always recommend filmmakers go to the best people they can find rather than trying to do it themselves (on their big projects). With the one exception being, if you are super techy yourself or someone in your team is, it may be better for you to grade yourself with one of the powerful tools available. But for most of us, being guided by a pro grader working in a state of the art facility will reap MASSIVE rewards.

We just graded Judy’s film last week, at breakneck speed – a five min short in a two hour slot. Chatting to the grader, he suggested for most low budget features, he would grade in between one and three days. Usually three.

Based on the countless grades I have now done, here are my top tips for leaving happy and with newly made friends.

Go to the best people
The number one mistake so many filmmakers make is they try to grade their films themselves. There is no doubt, the tools available now are cheap and powerful, and with a great deal of trial and error, amazing results can be achieved. But what a professional colour grader with cutting edge kit can bring to your film will blow your mind. Using the right kit and working with a highly talented and experienced grader will give you results in minutes, hours and days that you at home can only achieve in days, weeks and months (even years)… if at all.

Blag a deal
Most post facilities have some ‘down time’ AND really want to help new talent. So why not ask for help? If you can offer money, even if it’s not much, put it on the table at the start. Promise to be organised. Promise to be flexible. Promise you will bring them work if you are lucky enough to get a career. Ideally your editor will already work with them regularly and so there is an existing relationship to leverage. Be confident but don’t be arrogant. Charm, have humility and passion and get the deal.

Sit in on a grade
Once you have a green light, ask if you can spend a few hours observing a grade in action. If you have never done a grade like this before, it will be revelation. The speed these guys work, the tools they have available, the environment (basically a small cinema)… It’s a far cry from After Effects on your mates laptop. Use your social skills to gauge when it’s OK to ask questions and NEVER EVER be a distraction or nuisance. DO NOT OFFER SUGGESTIONS on another persons grade. If you can, sit behind the desk so you can see how everything works and listen to how the grader speaks with the team who are present.

Conform your project to within an inch of its life
Being prepared is the number one consideration. This means getting your film onto a hard drive, with project files, master video clips / camera media, ALL conformed so they will slot easily and quickly into the grading environment. You cannot just turn up and hope you can plug in your drive and it will all be OK. Do short tests with their people to be sure you post process and files are all compatible and fit into their workflow. An experienced editor is worth their weight in gold at this stage.

Have all your titles and VFX completed and in place
Do not grade your film until EVERYTHING is completed – titles, visual effects etc. You do not want to be asking to keep your media on their system while you wait for slow VFX people to deliver shots. Behave as though this is it, you will never do anything to the picture element of your film after you leave the grade. In reality, there are often title tweaks that happen, but it’s best to try to avoid them.

Run a temp sound mix alongside the picture
The grade is not a sound mix, but it is often helpful to run your temp soundtrack alongside the picture, especially when watching completed sequences. It just helps to remember this is actually a movie and not a series of images. The sound is never good in these facilities, and why should it be? It’s all about the picture, so don’t sweat it about the sound. It’s just a guide track.

Prepare to get bumped or wait
I cannot tell you how many times I have been sat in Starbucks waiting for a paying client to leave their grade so I can go in. It’s part of the deal. You will get bumped and that’s OK because you promised you would be super flexible. When they call to say ‘sorry, this job is taking longer than expected’, tell them it’s actually great news as you can now meet with that actor, writer, distributor… make them feel good about blowing you out.

Limit how many are present
Have no more than four people present. At most the director, producer, DP and editor. In my experience, the editor is usually on another job so may only drop in for half an hour, the DP may be on a job too. The DP is a double edged sword as they can often add huge amounts of value, but they can also slow things down if they become pedantic. Make sure EVERYONE is on the same page going in. If you have guests visiting, such as investors, just brief them to stay silent and seat them on the big leather sofas in front of the desk. If you want control over the grade, and you do, when you enter for the first time, mark your territory by sitting next to the grader on one of the swivel chairs.

Define all parameters before starting
Make sure everyone, including the grader, knows how much time there is available, what the running time of your film is, and any major problems you may also have to deal with. All the facilities parameters will have been set in advance with the person who did you the deal (not the grader) and that person will most likely pop in at the start of the grade to make sure everyone is happy. Make them feel like you are super organised. Their nightmare is that you procrastinate and become a pain in the ass.

Know what you want in advance
Know your film inside out, and what you want BEFORE you go into the grade. Do you want colour hues? High contrast? Desaturated looks? And for which sequences? Any day-for-night? The grader only needs to know your vision in a few words, they do this every day and won’t need micro management. Once you agree your ‘look’, then let them do their job. You will often agree a specific look for one shot in a scene and then every shot that follows (in that scene) will be matched to that one shot. So get the first shot right. It’s OK to go back and make changes later, but this should be the exception and not the rule – and always base this on the amount of time available. Often the grader will ask you for feedback, and when they do, be decisive. Don’t be asking around for opinions, there is no time for a debate. By all means empower everyone to speak up if they have concerns, just avoid debate. There is not time for it.

Don’t expect or try to do VFX fast
The grade is not the place to do visual effects. In reality there is lot’s that is possible, you just don’t have the time. So get all your VFX done before going to the grade.

Let the professionals do their job
If in doubt, go with the opinion of the grader. They are a master of their job, where we are merely visitors. Heed their warnings and try not to be too cliché with your ‘looks’.

Decline the free food
Every so often a runner may come in and offer you a large selection of meals from takeout menus. It’s part of the culture to keep the client in the grade and happy, so it makes sense to buy them dinner. Burt you are not paying, so don’t bite the hand that feeds. Decline the offer and send a team member out for your nosh instead.

Fire the director if needed
If anyone in the team becomes a serious problem because they procrastinate or become distracting, you may need to ask them to leave. This would be the producers call normally. The job is to get the film completed in accordance with technical standards and creative vision and an experienced director will know this. But new directors can become infatuated with the tools and just take too long. Keep an eye on the clock and check in with the grader if you are worried – they will let you know if you are behind and how bad it could get.

Figure out what you will leave with
Know what you will leave the grade with – file types? Will sound be synchronised from the final mix and if so, who will those files get to the facility and who will do that? Will you do a 25PFS as well as a 24PFS? How will you backup your master files? Ask in advance and know your outcome.

Thank people and offer gifts
Everything is fixable with enough cash or good will. You don’t have the cash so REALLY make people feel loved by offering gifts – build that good will. Bottles of booze, homemade cakes, anything that creates immediate yummy feelings will always go down well. Make friends, you may need to come back and fix problems and you may well have another film in the future too. Bottom line, people help their friends.

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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