cine, Lessons Learned

On Color Grading

A while back, I posted about my Live Streaming Studio V3.1  setup, because many people wanted to know what gear I’m using and how I get the “cinematic” look on a live Zoom call. 

Here, I’m sharing a bit about my further digging myself into a hole adventures into color grading with Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve Studio (free download of the non-studio version). It’s an incredible piece of software. (If you’re thinking about ditching Adobe Premiere – just do it! Go for it. I’ve never regretted it for a second).

This is not a primer on color grading. The following assumes you’re already familiar with some of the key concepts or at least have a faint interest in them. If you’re new to color grading, check out my previous post and Cullen Kelly’s YouTube channel is a fantastic place to start or continue your learning journey.

What started as a necessity during the lockdown era (aka building a professional-looking online tele-presence) turned into a rediscovery of my passion for (I did indeed start out studying to become a film director, albeit dropping out after two years as studying it wasn’t for me) the cinematic image.

And as a person on the spectrum, well… Of course I couldn’t stop digging in until getting somewhere interesting, somewhere where I at last could feel a sense of mastery and understanding of the full stack (lighting, lenses, camera, sound / microphones, color grading, post production), aka being able to make predictable outcomes – and making those outcomes look cinematic and pleasing (to me). It’s become sort of a new hobby of mine (in addition to spreading startup entrepreneurship education, of course).

The quick & dirty setup for the above shoot:

  • Camera: a tiny (300g, w 8,23cm X d 7cm X h 6.6cm), old (launched in 2012!), and cheap (I paid EUR 666,- for it on ebay used, including an 8sinn cage, handle, and octopus expansion cable), digital super 16mm MFT sensor Blackmagic Design Micro Cinema Camera (MCC), ISO 800 (native), 5.600K, shutter at 180 degrees and 24 fps – obviously, exposed to the right (ETTR)
  • Lens: a vintage tiny (the 70mm is the largest in the series, but still tiny) and cheap (EUR 81,- almost mint from ebay) Pentax A110 (s16mm system) 70mm f2.8 on an MFT adapter, kitted with a 49mm lens hood that sports an 72mm ICE “IR/UV” filter (dirt cheap for the quality – and the MMC needs an IR filter if you’re shooting with any sunlight – if you don’t like pink and purple blacks, that is), a Lee 2 stops ND proglass filter, shooting into the sun (as I don’t have powerful enough lights to fight the sun) coming in at far side of face (actually it was quite overcast and raining).
  • Lights: Key, Godox UL150 (silent) with an Aputure Lantern modifier. Fill, Godox SL60 (not entirely silent, but OK – and dirt cheap for the color-accuracy) with an Aputure Light Dome Mini II softbox & honeycomb / grid modifier.
  • Capture format: Blackmagic Design Film Generation 1 DNG (RAW, but not to be confused with BRAW).

Since the last post, I’ve recently changed my Gamma output space from 2.4 to 2.2 (because all I deliver for is online consumption). I’m now also using a “Video Monitor Lookup Table” by Cullen Kelly called “macOS Viewing Transform v1.3“, insuring that what I’m watching when grading is indeed as good as identical (good enough for non-pros, and still good enough for someone like me who has been working with pixels for around 30 years and can spot if one pixel differs 1 in value in any of the RGB values to the neighbours) to what gets delivered (YMMW if you don’t have a P3 Apple display – Mine is a P3 calibrated Dell 5K which uses the same LG panel as in the iMac 5K – afaik). I also use an old Samsung SyncMaster calibrated to rec709 / Gamma 2.2 as the “CleanFeed” to compare to what I’m seeing (r709 Gamma 2.2 on a P3 display?) in the main view – and more and more I find myself also using my iPad Pro with the sweet “DaVinci Monitor” app (just make sure the iPad is on the same WiFi as your Mac running DaVinci Resolve Studio – a stupid limitation, but it’s there – and don’t get me started on the incredible hassle of having to copy and paste the session access token / pwd between devices when using the remote monitor… ARGH! That should be as easy as a click of the mouse, tap of the finger!).

Primaries & Secondaries, My Clip-Level Nodes

Here’s my latest default clip-level node tree for primaries and secondaries – it works very well for me:

Of course, this node tree is almost verbatim copied from Cullen Kelly – and that’s because it’s an AWESOME framework that works very intuitively for me (too) – and disciplines me to keep things really simple.

Of other note, I’ve found using these Curve LUTs (esp. “Film 2”) to get the RAT node (ratio) 90% right out of the box, adjusting the rest to taste – and they don’t seem to break anything in DWG / Intermediate – so far. (Don’t forget to set the right pivot point for your color space in your RAT node: DaVinci Wide Gamut = 0.336).

Not shown in my default node tree above: Sometimes I add the Sat Shaper+ DCTL after the SAT HSV node or instead of it if I’m not completely satisfied with the saturation, just to try out some more options – also its “vibrancy” setting has sometimes helped me get more pleasing color separation / spread in one fast operation. Sometimes I also use the TETRA+ DCTL if there are some gnarly color issues that I’m just too incompetent to adjust otherwise.

Also, I find myself more in the HDR wheels when adjusting exposure in the EXP node these days. I don’t know if that’s considered Kosher by the “pros” or not, but using the HDR controls for exposure feel so much more intuitive and natural for me – so I don’t really care.

My LOOK Node Tree, Timeline-Level Nodes

And this is my latest default timeline-level node tree for the overall “LOOK”:

Remember, you always want to be grading “underneath” your LOOK, aka always have your look nodes on the timeline level active when you start grading your primaries on the clip level.

Of note, I don’t have internal grain activated in the Halation DCTL as I find the MMC, especially at ISO 800, is creating all the organic grain I need. I’m also using the CST IN / OUT to sandwich in a creative LUT from another color space to the mix when I feel like (usually from Arri – who doesn’t love Arri?!), here also using a Fuji 3510 Film Print Emulation (FPE) by Cullen Kelly (free download), Cullen Kelly’s Voyager Pro v2 beautiful “taste” LUTs (worth every penny!), for film density I’m using Film_Density_OFX (sometimes I also use Density+), Dehancer deactivated in this example (it can produce nice results, but I find myself using it less at the moment as I’m still inept at creating predictable and consistent results with it – btw, is there a DCTL / OFX plugin that ONLY does the FPE “analog range limiter” part of Dehancer? That would make me happy!) also deactivated is the Cullen Kelly YouTube export LUT (I only activate it if delivering for YT, I normally use Vimeo for distribution). It’s also worth checking out the fantastic MONONODES utility DCTLs.

Not shown: As I was writing this, I became aware that I should update my timeline node tree with my MONONODES Balance and Clip DCTLs! Now I have four additional nodes (all turned off) at the end of my timeline-level nodes: Balance, White Clip, Black Clip, Sat Clip – all with “monochrome + darken” checked on, and just by turning them on and off I can check the skin balance and potential clipping across all shots (clips) really fast (just remember to select “refresh all thumbnails”, though).

Some more examples

The Input/Output screenshots below are not color profiled, so your results may vary:

Above, BMD Micro Cinema Camera, DNG (log) Film G1, DaVinci Resolve Studio, color management bypassed (this is how it actually looks before you start color grading!)

Color management on (slight bias to green from K&F Concept ND filter, I suspect)

Primaries and secondaries graded under the timeline-level LOOK nodes (LOOK nodes deactivated, notice the bias towards magenta when the LOOK nodes are turned off)

And timeline-level LOOK nodes on (magenta-bias gone – this is why we grade with out look nodes on, folks ;)

BMD Micro Cinema Camera, Pentax A110 f2.8 70mm lens with ND.
BMD Micro Cinema Camera, Pentax A110 f2.8 50mm lens with ND.

BMD Micro Cinema Camera, Pentax A110 f2.8 50mm lens with ND.