The Effect Video Color Grading has on Mood

The mood of an image or video can be dictated by a number of factors, such as composition, lighting, set design, and color. This blog will take a look at the latter, focusing on how video color grading can alter the perception and visual tone of an image. Color grading at its base can be broken down into three elements: shadows, midtones, and highlights. Using these three elements in conjunction with contrast and saturation, we can manipulate a single image to portray three very different moods. As a disclaimer, this blog is not promoting the mantra “fix it in post.” Color grading is a final touch point used to perfect an image to the desired look. It is best to achieve the foundation of the look in-camera, and dial it further in post-production.

For the following examples below, the scene was lit fairly neutral and high key, meaning there is a low contrast ratio between the key light and the fill light. This allows the greatest latitude of play for this scenario. While these examples geared toward a general film and video situation, be sure to think about how these lessons can be adopted in commercial or corporate related settings.

All color grading was done with BlackMagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve 12 Lite software, a node-based system with built-in NLE applications. This product allows for full control over an image; the filmmaker has the ability to alter all aspect of an image individually by assigning nodes. In a basic sense, nodes can be thought of as the equivalent of Photoshop layers.

“I can read the script, meet with the Director and attend story conferences but I really cannot conceive the Cinematography until I experience the locations and the sets. I get my emotional cues from the space.”

DP Nance Jordan

1. Midday – Romantic Comedy

Let us start by breaking down our beginning image. In this photo you will notice the overall tone is rather bright, coming across as midday. There is a light coming in from the bathroom acting as sunlight. It casts a warmer glow, adding a hint of orange to the scene. The shadows are cool, lifting a light blue accent onto the entry wall near the subject’s shadow. On the foreground-right wall, we have a warmer splash of light, perhaps again sunlight from a window out of frame. The contrast is rather low, nothing incredibly crushed. Given the light color grading of this image, it comes off inviting, something we could expect to see in a romantic comedy. For corporate video situations, this grading is well suited for product videos, or even real-estate situations where the objective is to bring forth a calm atmosphere. For the next example, let us see what happens when we warm up the scene.

2. Late Evening – Family Drama

Taking the same image, but adjusting the overall color temperature, we can create a look of late day. Turning the midtones and highlights toward red/orange, we can achieve this effect. Compared to the image above, we can immediately see that the image appears to be later in the day, the light from the bathroom emulates the setting sun, casting a warm temperature throughout the room. The right-foreground wall is completely orange, and the entry wall with the subject’s shadow has lost its blue highlight. The contrast was boosted slightly with the purpose of achieving a late afternoon or evening look. For a commercial, this grading would work well for product videos, or even corporate interviews where the subtle addition to contrast within the image makes the subject appear a bit more dynamic on camera. The next example will illustrate what happens when color and contrast are pushed even further.

3. Night – Suspense Thriller

The biggest change in imagery, our final frame. Immediately, it becomes apparent that the contrast has been boosted, crushing the blacks within the image almost entirely. The exposure around the room comes off rather dark and dim, insinuating night. The bathroom light no longer comes across as sunlight, but appears to be the ceiling light in the room itself, given that the spill around the room from earlier is no longer occurring, but rather it acts more as a spot. This look was achieved by shifting the shadows toward cyan/blue, and moving the midtones and highlights to green/yellow. One would expect to see an image like this in a horror film, or a dark drama.

Closing Thoughts

The impact of color on the mood of an image or scene is undeniable. Whether it be a cool temperature to give off a midday vibe, warm midtones to appear as late-evening, or even a high contrast value to come off as an unsettling horror vibe, knowing the power color control can give you is unparalleled when it comes to defining the look and visual tone of your scene. Having this knowledge furthers the ability of the filmmaker to control their narrative. There is a stigma that video color grading is a repairing device to correct mistakes made while on set, or even to try and save time on location by skimping on gels and just recoloring lights in post-production. By doing this, the filmmaker is not only cutting out valuable potential on set to perfect a look in-camera, but also does not allow the color grading process its full potential to hone in a mood, a tone, and a mentality to the visual look of the piece.

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