Making the color grade: Getting started with DaVinci Resolve

DaVinci Resolve
Ever wondered how movies and TV shows look so polished? Sure, some of it has to do with the type of camera used and how it’s supported and moved, but that’s hardly the only thing. In fact, the final footage you see on your screen or in a movie theater looks a lot different than what came out of the camera. This is due to the process of color grading, and it can work for you just as well as it works for Hollywood, thanks to DaVinci Resolve from Blackmagic Design, an industry-standard coloring software that’s available or free.

We don’t mean “free for 30 days” or “free with purchase of something else.” We mean free. Period. Anyone can go download and install the latest version of DaVinci Resolve right now and begin using it.

DaVinci Resolve combines world-class color grading with a fully functional NLE and it’s completely free. You might be wondering if there’s a catch. There isn’t.

DaVinci Resolve is the program of choice for professional colorists working on everything from low-budget indie films to television commercials and Hollywood blockbusters. With the latest version, Resolve has even grown into a full, non-linear editor (NLE) to rival Apple Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro (although, it still plays nicely as a companion to those programs, too).

Whether you’re a film student, a YouTuber, or an experienced editor who just hasn’t tried it yet, Resolve is a great tool to know. It can bump up your production value without adding any costs. It will also prepare you for working in a professional postproduction environment, if such a thing is in your future.

Resolve is a powerful program that may be overkill for casual users, but it’s worth checking out even if you just want to make basic color corrections without getting into the nuance and artistry of true color grading. So, here’s what you need to know in order to get started.

Before you begin

DaVinci Resolve is available for both MacOS and Windows PCs. As a memory and graphics-intensive application, Resolve will consume however many resources you can throw at it. Blackmagic Design recommends at least 16GB of RAM, although the program will run on just 8GB.

DaVinci Resolve GPU Memory Full

Graphics card requirements are not explicitly spelled out, but obviously newer cards with more VRAM will perform better. Mac users with Nvidia cards should check the CUDA control panel in System Preferences to make sure they’re running the latest driver. You can find more information here.

Other than that, you just need some footage to work with. Resolve is designed to handle professional video formats, like various RAW formats and Apple ProRes, which will give you more latitude for adjustments than the highly compressed formats that come out of consumer cameras. This is where 10-bit versus 8-bit color and 4:2:2 versus 4:2:0 chroma subsampling come in –if those terms are new or confusing, you should definitely watch this great explainer.

You don’t need a professional video camera to get started with Resolve. You should, however, set your camera up to shoot as “flat” as possible.

By default, cameras like to make video look punchy by increasing contrast, but this throws away detail in the highlights and shadows. Set your camera to its most neutral profile, which is often simply called “neutral” but may be “natural” or something similar. The idea here is to record as much information in the shadows and highlights as possible, so that you have a better starting point in Resolve.

Some cameras will even have a profile labeled “flat,” which is designed specifically for giving you more latitude in postproduction. High-end cinema cameras, and even some consumer cameras like Sony’s A6300 and A7S II, have what’s called a Log profile, which is even flatter than “flat.” If your camera offers this option, don’t be afraid to use it – just know that your footage is going to look really dull until you take it into Resolve and punch it up.

Understanding the interface

DaVinci Resolve is broken in to four main workspaces, accessible via tabs at the bottom of the screen. There’s Media, Edit, Color, and Deliver. We’re going to be talking mainly about the Color workspace. If you’ve spent much time in a professional-level NLE before, Resolve will look somewhat familiar to you, but there are many aspects that will be new.

The Nodes window, for example, may look confusing at first, but it’s only as complex as you make it. It’s also one of Resolve’s key strengths.

DaVinci Resolve nodes window

At their most basic, nodes are used to separate different steps in the color grading process. So, you could start by correcting contrast and saturation on the base node, then add a new node to perform a white balance adjustment. A third node could introduce a stylistic colorcast into the highlights, while a fourth could be masked to increase saturation on a specific element in the frame.

Nodes get much more advanced than this, but using them to separate stages in your coloring workflow is a good place to start.

If you’re new to color grading or are coming from the still photo world, Resolve can display exposure and color data in a few ways that may be unfamiliar. In the video scopes area, you have a choice of several different visualizations, but there’s one that should become your best friend: the RGB parade.

Resolve now includes features familiar to still photographers, like color temperature and tint sliders.

You can turn on video scopes from the toolbar below the timeline on the right side of the screen. The RGB parade is similar to an RGB histogram, splitting exposure data into red, green, and blue channels so you can judge color balance in addition to exposure. Unlike a histogram, however, the parade puts highlights at the top and shadows at the bottom, while the horizontal axis corresponds to the video frame itself. So, if there’s a bright white object at the center of your frame, then the RGB parade will spike top and center.

You’ll want to keep an eye on the RGB parade as you begin your initial color correction. It provides exposure, color balance, and contrast information, so it’s a very helpful tool. If all channels are lined up with each other, then you probably have a balanced shot. If, say, the blue channel is registering brighter highlights than the red and green, then your white balance may be off.

Keep in mind that the RGB parade doesn’t know the subject matter of your shot, so you have to use it in conjunction with your understanding of what the colors should be in order to get a correct result. A scene with a lot of sky in it will naturally register more in the blue channel. If there are any clouds, however, there should still be points in the highlights where all three channels match up, indicating white.

Making adjustments

Adjusting colors and exposure is easy in Resolve, but it’s likely a bit more involved than what you’re used to. If it is just a basic white balance correction you need, then the new color temperature and tint controls make for an easy solution. You’ll find them at the bottom of the screen on the second tab of the Color Wheels control.

DaVinci Resolve Color Wheels

However, the real power of Resolve lies in its more advanced controls. We’re going to focus on two: Color Wheels and Curves.

In the lower left of the main screen you’ll find a toolbar with several different options, including Color Wheels and Curves. Click Color Wheels, and you will find four wheels labeled “lift,” “gamma,” “gain,” and “offset,” each with a luminance dial below them. Beneath that are options for hue, saturation, and a few other things. You can essentially think of “lift” as shadows, “gamma” as midtones, and “gain” as highlights. “Offset” affects the entire image equally.

One thing to note is that lift, gamma, and gain are all connected. An adjustment made to lift, for example, will mostly affect the shadows, but it will also affect the mids and, to a lesser degree, the highlights. If you want to darken your shadows for a look with more contrast, you can drag the lift luminance bar to the left, but you’ll notice in the RGB parade that the shadows aren’t the only thing that move. So you may have to go back and increase the gamma luminance to bring the midtones up.

By interacting with the wheels themselves, you can balance the color of the image. If your whites look a bit blue, try moving the gain color selector toward orange. You should see the RGB parade adjust in response to this.

While you can adjust shadows, mids, and highlights completely independently, we recommend sticking with the default lift, gamma, and gain controls when you’re just starting out. Because the effects are smoothed out across the exposure range, it makes it easier to maintain a natural look.

Curves are another set of controls found in the tool bar below the timeline. There is a separate curve for red, green, blue, and luminance channels, but they can be locked together by clicking the chain icon. If you want to use curves to balance color, make sure they are not locked.

DaVinci Resolve Curves Control

To make an adjustment, just click anywhere along the curve line of the channel you want to adjust. This will add a control point. You can then drag it up or down (watch what happens in the RGB parade as you do this). When locked together, curves are often used to add contrast, by dragging the shadows down and the highlights up.

Both color wheels and curves can accomplish the same goals, but they do it in slightly different ways. They also allow you to get creative by adding a color cast to, say, the highlights while leaving the rest of the image neutral. Now you’re moving beyond corrections and into the world of color grading. Don’t be afraid to experiment, as that’s often the best way to learn.

Working with other NLEs

One thing we haven’t covered yet is how to actually get footage into Resolve. If you plan to do all your editing in Resolve, then you can import footage from your camera or hard drive just like any other application. This is done from the Media workspace. If you are editing in another program, then you have a couple of options.

Option one is simply to export your video in a high quality format from your NLE, and then import it into Resolve. For some people, this may be conceptually easier, but you will have to either “bake in” any transitions and effects already in your editing timeline, or hold off on applying any transitions or effects until you’ve gotten the footage back from Resolve.

The preferred method is to export an XML file that Resolve can use to call up the same timeline you’ve already built in your NLE, along with all the source footage. Resolve supports XML files from both Final Cut and Premiere, and it can handle a variety of transitions and effects, plus all of your audio, so you won’t lose anything in the process.

DaVinci Resolve Export XML From FCPX

An XML file offers a lot of flexibility, and it won’t create a redundant copy of the media used in your timeline. It is also much, much smaller and takes far less time to save than exporting a video. You will have to render out new videos from Resolve with all of your color adjustments (from the Deliver workspace), but that’s it. Resolve can also output an XML file to tell your NLE where the video files are.

Conclusion

This was a very rough overview of a very powerful program, so there is much that was not touched on. Blackmagic Design provides a good overview of the new features, and there are plentiful tutorials on all aspects of Resolve elsewhere online. We recommend checking out Premium Beat to get started. Our goal is to introduce you to this powerful option that you may not be aware of.

DaVinci Resolve combines world-class color grading with a fully functional NLE and it’s completely free, so you might be wondering if there’s a catch. There isn’t. Blackmagic Design makes money selling hardware (such as its many cinema cameras) as well as higher-end versions of Resolve and other applications.

DaVinci Resolve Studio, for example, costs $995. If you really want to feel like a big potato, you can step up to the full system: A $30,000 package that includes Resolve Studio and a bespoke hardware interface that will make your home office look legit.

But the base DaVinci Resolve isn’t some “lite” version; it won’t frustrate you with needless truncations designed to sway you to upgrade. In fact, the paid versions offer few, if any, advantages over the free version for single users. Most of the additional features have to do with collaborative editing, working in networked environments with remote servers, or running on Linux machines and clustered GPUs.

The Studio version includes a few more effects, better noise reduction, and stereoscopic support for editing 3D content, but that’s about it. You can compare features across versions on Blackmagic Design’s website, but it’s mostly a long list of “Yes” down the page.

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