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HOW TO COLOR GRADE DOCUMENTARY FILMS


HOW TO COLOR GRADE DOCUMENTARY FILMS

Lately, and thanks to platforms like Netflix or Hulu, we can access more than ever, a really big catalog of documentary films. Last year, for example, the documentary films that were nominated and awarded at the academy awards, are what everybody was talking about. More than ever, documentary films are in every conversation. But how is the finishing of these films? They follow the same paths those regular movies, or present different challenges in post production because usually, they use a large variety of formats to be filmed. Sometimes inclusive during several years. Even the inclusion of archive footage? Expert Colorist Francisco Lorite, with five documentary films in his catalog, is going to talk about the process that involves grading a Documentary Film.

Being able to color grade feature films always has its challenges, keeping the same look through the movie, yet being able to adapt that look through the whole movie. Then, make that look evolve with the story, and matching the scenes and shots, that were shot on different days --or commercials, where you would bring to the table something extra with your job. You have to bring people into the product, and be a perfectionist, expanding days into a 30 second piece --just masking and rotoscoping every single element of the image, and being respectful with the product.

But something that has some of the same challenges from both worlds is grading documentary films. In these cases, you don’t need to create a look that creates or represents an exciting world and to be able to help the filmmakers to tell the story. If we look at commercials, we need to recreate the world that already exists and we’re connecting something with the audience. We need to create something that helps the audience to recreate the story that we are helping to tell. And of course as always, matching shots, matching different camera moments, and inclusive all together along the years. In doing so, then it all matches together, leaving all the differences out of the screen. First the workflow, when color grading a documentary film, usually we have to use many different cameras, or different lighting setups. To survive at this first stage, we need to speak with the editorial team. Not all common cameras usually used for documentary films, have the ability to obtain a reliable timecode or frame rate. So first we need to make sure that the editors are bringing to their system the right footage.

Usually in this cases, we can opt for two different workflows, if talking editorial we are sure that all the camera metadata is in a safe place, we can use the raw footage to grade, and the online process will not be much different than any other film --except because in every documentary we will find archive footage, stock footage and find footage. As always, editorial will be your best friend to know what kind of files we are working with, but let’s assume that for once we can bring all that footage to our system. Now what? How can I color all of these different cameras, different files, and resolutions? The answer is easy. Patience and establishing a workflow that allows us to obtain the best quality from each image.

First, I like to set up all my shots in a logarithmic color space, for that we can use, an LUT look up table, or the camera raw if our camera works with log files.
The log files, are those files that look flat and keep all the information inside the image range. Then once we have all our footage in a logarithmic color space, we can use another LUT to linearize the image, and we will be doing our color work in the middle. For example, if we are in DaVinci resolve, we will set up the first node with an LUT that brings our image to logarithmic. Then, in the sección reserved for nodes that will affect the entire timeline, we will use an LUT to linearize, so that process will happen at the end of our correction. You can set up an LUT in your options and set up so effectively, for the entire project. The reason to create this specific workflow is to bring all the images together, of course, the images will look different, but we will be able to work in logarithmic. This will give more of a range to work with, by bringing highlight levels and black levels to the correct positions, compensating the differences that the images may have.

The most common factor that the audience will notice in the inconsistency is the contrast, meaning again, our light and black levels. Working in linear films, our possibilities are way less because our signal is already pressing the limits, and constantly fighting with the low bit rate that the lower image resolution has.
Once all our workflow is under control, meaning, being able to do the online and have the best latitude possible in our image, we should able to find the look of our documentary. Something that we never should forget when preparing the workflow for our documentary is the use of Archive footage. With this kind of footage usually, the filmmakers have a strong vision for them. Some of the filmmakers like to respect the oldness and break footage, knowing that the audience will see right away what kind of footage is, not even taking care of the difference in the aspect ratio, allowing into the film several different aspect ratios. This option doesn't imply any special care on our end,, once again just being sure that our black level remains the same, in the letterboxing to avoid the difference in blacks.

However, if the filmmaker chooses to restore the image, it is something completely different and will need a VFX who will be in charge of restoration, or having in the facility a program for neat video where you can do a fantastic work cleaning images. A big recommendation is that if you are going to work with an external VFX post house, which is better if we export the plates, for them to work. Having control in the way of the image processing, and compression workflow. Once we have the contrast adjusted, which should be the first thing to do because adjusting the contrast will bring the cameras together. Second step is to start to work on the look of their film, chosen the right color palette to tell the story, as in the rest of the films, the same process. Just keeping in mind that all these archive images or low res cameras cannot be pushed further than a regular professional film camera.

In the end, it is not that important what camera you choose to film your documentary with -- but the workflow that you can follow in the post, because, usually there are no 2 documentaries that can be done in the exact same way.



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