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

colorists put stamp on highly charged film while staying unnoticed ws 06 grade

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.

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.

It’s a performance piece changing the way visually impaired athletes navigate their world.

“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.

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.


GoPro bumps resolution on Fusion 360 cam to 5.6K with new firmware

Currently available in public beta, Fusion firmware version 2.0 offers a new 5.8K mode that results in 5.6K output when the 360 camera's two hemispheres are stitched together. It also adds support for 24 fps video and RAW time-lapse…

Here are 8 GoPro tips to get the most out of your action cam

There's more to your GoPro camera than just mounting it to your skateboard. Whether it's finding the best accessories or understanding the settings more thoroughly, learn to shoot video like a pro with these simple GoPro tips and tricks.
Movies & TV

Here's everything we know about 'John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum'

John Wick: Chapter 3 -- Parabellum, the third installment of the wildly successful action series that stars Keanu Reeves as a deadly assassin forced out of retirement, hits theaters in May 2019. Here's everything we know about it so far.

Immerse yourself in a new universe with these incredible PSVR games

The PSVR has surpassed expectations and along with it comes an incredible catalog of games. There's plenty of amazing experiences to be had so we've put together a list of the best PSVR games available today.

Sony crams its best camera tech into the new $900 A6400

Love Sony's autofocus, but can't stomach the full-frame price? The Sony A6400 mirrorless camera uses some of the same autofocus technology and the processor of the A9 in a compact, more affordable crop-sensor camera.

These point-and-shoot cameras make your smartphone pics look like cave paintings

If your smartphone camera just isn't giving you the results you're looking for, maybe it's time to step up your game. The latest and greatest point-and-shoot cameras offer large sensors, tough bodies, and long lenses -- something no phone…

With 5-stop optical stabilization, Fujifilm GF 100-200mm is ready for adventure

Fujifilm revealed a new lens designed to deliver on the GFX system's promise of adventure-ready medium-format photography. The GF 100-200mm F5.6 R is a weather resistant, relatively lightweight, 2x telephoto with impressive stabilization.

Olympus teaser shares glimpse of OM-D camera that’s good for more than sports

Is Olympus about to release a new mirrorless camera geared toward sports photographers? The latest teaser offers a glimpse of an upcoming OM-D camera set to launch on January 24, and by the looks of the teasers, it's capable for landscapes…

Nikon A1000, B600 pack big zooms into compact, budget-friendly cameras

The new Nikon Coolpix A1000 packs in a 35x zoom lens, 4K video, and an optical viewfinder, while Nikon's B600 brings a 60x zoom lens to the table. The cameras are modest updates to Nikon's budget-friendly zoom models.
Social Media

Nearly a million Facebook users followed these fake Russian accounts

Facebook purged two separate groups behind more than 500 fake accounts with Russian ties. One group had ties to Russian news agency Sputnik, while the other had behavior similar to the Internet Research Agency's midterm actions.

From DIY to AAA, here's how to take a passport photo in 6 different ways

If you're applying for a passport or renewing one, you need to submit a photo in your official application. There are strict guidelines, but fortunately, it's something you can do at home. Here's how to take a passport photo.
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world will take your breath away

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.

Photography news: Careful, self-driving cars can ruin your camera sensor

In this week's photography news, learn how self-driving cars destroyed a digital camera via lasers. Find out how many patents Canon filed for in 2018. Read about what Tamron lenses are available for the Nikon Z6.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: camera with A.I. director, robot arm assistant

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!