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Grading for grit: How colorists conveyed the emotion of a social justice movement

Whose Streets? is a documentary that tells the story of the political protests that arose in the wake of the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014.

The film tracks the political movement that spawned in Ferguson and quickly spread around the nation, a subject matter that is both passionate and delicate. For colorists Adam Inglis and Tif Luckenbill at Post Factory NY, tasked with grading the film, this meant taking a subtle approach that didn’t interfere with the film’s content.

Color grading can range from simple exposure and saturation adjustments to complex toning and selective masking that completely changes the look and feel of a shot. In one respect, it is very similar to photo retouching, but the added element of motion throws another variable into the mix. A colorist is a bit like a composer, using color instead of music to make the viewer emotionally connect with a film in a specific way, whether it is the lighthearted happiness of a comedy or, in the case of Whose Streets?, the feeling of grief and outrage expressed by members of a social justice movement.

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In an interview with Digital Trends, Inglis and Luckenbill explained their grading process on Whose Streets?, detailing the challenges of working on a documentary project that combined footage from multiple cameras. With DaVinci Resolve Studio from Blackmagic Design as their tool of choice, Inglis and Luckenbill had everything they needed – except, the nature of the film put strict limits on their creativity.

With all the power of Resolve, a popular color grading software, at their fingertips, it could have been easy to get caught up in “what if” moments, looking at all the different directions they could push the footage. “It’s always fun to play artistically, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to best serve the story being told. In the case of Whose Streets?, that means we hope our work is unnoticed.”

Being unnoticed may be a strange sentiment in most professions, but when it comes to color grading and other aspects of post production, working to get noticed would only serve to distract the audience. As Inglis and Luckenbill put it, “The goal was to reveal and illuminate a powerful, flashpoint event in our society and the ongoing movement it sparked. Our approach in this case was essentially to stay out of the way.”

But having a behind-the-scenes approach didn’t mean taking a hands-off approach. From a purely technical standpoint, the biggest challenge was matching color between different cameras. The primary camera for the film was an Arri Alexa, a high-end cinema camera commonly found on Hollywood sets. But much of the film’s supporting footage comes straight from phones and cheap cameras that protesters were using in the streets, documenting their first-person perspective of what was going on. The lower resolution, limited dynamic range, and high compression of such cameras don’t allow nearly as much latitude for color grading, as does the Alexa. For the colorists, that’s where Resolve came to the rescue.

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“One particular tool that came in very handy on some of the lower quality, cell phone footage in this film was the ability to work in LAB color space,” Inglis and Luckenbill explained. LAB color separates chrominance (color) and luminance (brightness) information into separate channels. It can be useful for removing a color bias from low-quality video that would be difficult to do in an RGB color space. “Throwing a node [in Resolve] into LAB space is one way to affect a particular range of hues without having to key it or pull everything else along with it.”

As the colorists weren’t trying to stray from reality, they didn’t have to ask much of the low-quality footage from phones and consumer cameras. Getting it to a point where it meshed together without being distracting would suffice. But perhaps an even greater challenge was simply time. “A film dealing with such a powerful, relevant, and immediate subject generates a lot of interest and needs to get finished and out there to be seen.”

But while they had to work quickly, they also had to do it right. Color grading is often a collaborative process involving input from multiple people, and Whose Streets? was no different. Inglis initially worked with director Sabaah Folayan to establish looks on various scenes and build the overall arc of the film and the feeling she wanted the color to convey. Folayan continued to stop in throughout the process to tweak things here and there. Once color was nearly complete, cinematographer Lucas Alvarado Farrar went over the film a final time with Luckenbill and made additional changes to reflect his vision.

Grading is an integral component of the post-production process, yet is one of the least understood aspects of it by the general public. However, it is surprisingly approachable. While DaVinci Resolve Studio is built to handle the demands of professional post-production studios, like Post Factory NY, Blackmagic Design also puts out a free version of the software. The free version lacks only a few high-end features, like multiple GPU support, found in the full Studio version. It is otherwise a full-featured program, without a trial period, watermarking, or other limitations that often accompany free versions of other software. With it, anyone with a compatible Mac or PC can start to color grade just like the pros.

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When asked what aspiring colorists and editors can do to learn more, Inglis and Luckenbill were optimistic in their response. “The fact the Resolve is available for download opens up opportunities to learn that simply weren’t there 10 years ago,” they said. “There are a lot of resources and tutorials online that anyone can access to start seeing what’s possible with color grading and what interests them. There’s an enormous toolset available and 100 different paths to achieve a particular end. So dig in and explore what’s possible.”

But they also clarified a sentiment shared by all creative professionals: the tool is not as important as your vision. Just as the best writers must also be great readers, to become a skilled colorist you must learn to observe with a critical eye how color is used. “Watch content differently,” Inglis and Luckenbill said. “Think about the roles color and light are playing in your experience of a show.”

Whose Streets? is the first feature film from director Sabaah Folayan and co-director Damon Davis. It premiered at Sundance last year and has since been picked up by Magnolia Pictures, with a North American theatrical release planned for this summer. You can learn more on the film’s official website.