Skip to main content

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
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.

Daven Mathies
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Daven is a contributing writer to the photography section. He has been with Digital Trends since 2016 and has been writing…
Best Camera Deals: Save on Canon, Panasonic, Nikon, and GoPro
fujifilm x t4 review set 2 dm 1

Whether you're looking for the best digital cameras or the best travel cameras, there are a ton of options out there, sometimes too many options, especially for those who aren't familiar with the photography world. Luckily, we've done a lot of legwork for you and collected a range of great camera deals across the spectrum, so even if you want something more sports-oriented, like a GoPro, there are a couple of deals for those too. So, let's jump right into it.
Today's Best Camera Deals
One of our favorite deals is the Canon EOS Rebel T7 going for $400, as it's one of the better DSLR cameras on the market, and it has a reasonably budget-friendly price on it, making it a great starter camera. Of course, if you've been in the game for a while and are looking for a powerful upgrade, the Sony Alpha 7R IV is one of the best full-frame cameras on the market, and while it still costs a hefty $3,200, that's still $300 off the usual $3,500 price tag. That said, if you're looking for something more portable and action-oriented, you can't go wrong with the GoPro HERO11 Black Mini, although if you're a professional content creator, the GoPro HERO9 Black 5K is probably the one to go for instead.

Do I Need a DSLR or a Mirrorless Camera?
Like most things, this really depends on what you're trying to do. Mirrorless cameras have fewer internal moving parts, which generally means they can capture images quicker, so if you're taking pictures of action-packed stuff like sports or animals in the wilderness, a mirrorless camera is a great option. On the other hand, DSLR cameras are great for low-light conditions and are great for anything from portraits to landscapes. DSLRs are also cheaper and have much better battery life, as well as having a decade or two worth of lenses to choose from.

Read more
How to blur a background in photos
A person photographed with iPhone 11's portrait mode.

Introducing a background blur to your photos can draw attention to a specific subject, such as an individual in a portrait or an item in a still life, while also adding a professional flair to your image. This beautiful background blur, also known as bokeh, can be achieved even after shooting your photo, thanks to advances in editing software. This guide will walk you through the process on iOS, Android, Windows, and macOS.

Read more
How to download Instagram photos (5 easy ways)
Instagram app running on the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5.

Instagram is amazing, and many of us use it as a record of our lives — uploading the best bits of our trips, adventures, and notable moments. But sometimes you can lose the original files of those moments, leaving the Instagram copy as the only available one . While you may be happy to leave it up there, it's a lot more convenient to have another version of it downloaded onto your phone or computer. While downloading directly from Instagram can be tricky, there are ways around it. Here are a few easy ways to download Instagram photos.

Read more