Color Grading – The Horror and the Inspiration

This post is a brief review of Patrick Inhofer’s ‘Grade-along’ tutorials for the short film Dead Man’s Lake, which is a more advanced tutorial for Resolve 9 that includes access to some pretty cool ARRI Alexa 10-bit ProRes 4444 files from an actual production. This 8-hour set of tutorials is as close as you’ll get to sitting in the studio for hours at a time with a senior colorist to learn all their hard-earned tricks and insights. To heighten your interest further – this tutorial includes a fairly detailed explanation on how to incorporate a ‘grain’ look into the film using Resolve’s track feature. I could go on and on with all the goodness in this tutorial ….

But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s step back.

If you’re doing color grading work, it’s likely you have heard of Patrick Inhofer, who runs TaoOfColor.com. He publishes a weekly newsletter which is a virtual goldmine of links related to improving and understanding the craft of color grading, as well as divulging news related to software, hardware, and vendors. Finally I had discovered a way to connect with a community of professional colorists who shared a common vision in a craft I was interested in; a place to deepen my understanding of the art and science of color, and, perhaps more important, how to apply these principles meaningfully to tell a story.  Let’s face it — as a colorist you sit alone in a room (sometimes with clients) for hours at a time.  We all know that hardware color grading systems have given way to software solutions, and this dramatic change has occurred over a fairly short period of five years.

I first found Inhofer when I was doing projects with Final Cut Pro COLOR, which has been the tool of choice for a number of years but oh such a pain to use. His newsletter kept showing up each Sunday, and I quickly noticed a pattern: software-wise, DaVinci Resolve was the way to go. So I made the change to DaVinci Resolve a few years ago, back when you paid for the software. There is a free version now. My, how things change.

Despite my years of color grading, Inhofer surprised me with his Dead Man’s Lake tutorial.  He nails the importance of getting every single project in sync with the client’s offline file, and carefully explains all the pragmatic, ever-s0-necessary, little insights required to conform your project with the client’s files.  If you’re not careful, you can run into a virtual minefield of problems, and this is an area every colorist knows.  The impact of this important step did not really hit me until I took on a project before everything was properly locked by the director. I knew better, but everyone was in a hurry so I got caught up in the rush.  I made the mistake of plowing ahead anyway. Let’s just say I learned the hard way to never let this occur again. That project became its own horror story.

It’s not that I did not realize the importance of complete prep and conforming a project timeline; it was that I often found myself confused about how to solve issues that came up during the conform stage. This issue is compounded with Apple’s dropping FCP7, the lack of maturity in FCPX, Premiere sorta-kinda working but changing rapidly, and so forth.

Recently Inhofer took me up on an offer to edit his audio podcast shows for TaoOfColor, so I had a bird’s-eye view on his conversations with the creators of Dead Man’s Lake. Along with this I dedicated some time to carefully review and learn from the accompanying grade-along video tutorial called Dead Man’s Lake.

There are plenty of excellent tutorials around to help with the principles of color and how to use Resolve for completing a base or technical grade and a “look” grade. Experts like Warren Eagles, Alexis Van Hurkman and Denver Riddle all have accessible Resolve 9 training tutorials. Although all of these introductions to Resolve 9 courses are well structured and complete regarding the ‘how to’ of Resolve 9 features, they lack depth around ‘real-world’ project preparation, conforming and debugging issues mixed in with a real-live project, and customer feedback.

Watching each episode of Dead Man’s Lake is like being a fly on the wall with one of Inhofer’s clients. This perspective is what shapes Patrick’s unique approach to teaching, and I find it extremely useful for deepening my abilities as a color grader. To be fair, Inhofer does provide detailed explanations of Resolve 9’s features in the Dead Man’s Lake tutorial set, but this is not a starting place for someone with little prior knowledge with Resolve.

See, the important thing to remember with all the tutorials is that some are excellent for learning exactly how to perform a specific grading function in Resolve. You can move through them quickly and review them later for a spot tip on how to do something you forgot. All well and good, and I own a number of them. But once you start tackling longer, more complicated projects with clients, it becomes critical to prep the color grading workflow with a reference or offline video, and this is where you can get yourself into trouble if it’s not done right with the client.

I cannot emphasize how impressed I am with Inhofer’s treatment of these issues. He explains them in detail with support from several of his ‘war’ stories to help the grader avoid potential disaster, especially in his coverage of various XML issues. The entire experience is like sitting with a senior colorist as he openly and authentically explores the best way to set up the project, solves the gnarly conform issues that can arise, and then moves into the actual workflow of the color correction, grade, and ‘look’ development process.  OK, I’m repeating myself, but this is important if you’re getting all kinds of projects from different NLEs and digital creators who have a wide range of experience (or inexperience) in working with a colorist.

Here are a few highlights from the training. First is a quick overview of what you get:

Inhofer includes a wide spectrum of further reading in his nifty website that supports the Dead Man’s Lake tutorial. All the episodes are iTunes-friendly and, of course, play nicely with QuickTime. All the tutorial sections are extremely well organized so that they can be directly accessed via a drop-down menu on the QuickTime player (my preference).  There is a wealth of information to learn in Dead Man’s Lake, so give yourself time to work through the material slowly, as well as permission to revisit Inhofer’s workflow.  Though I’ve started to depart somewhat with my own workflow process, I always think about his thought process to reset my thinking when I get jammed up or lost in a longer grade.

One of the sections that I especially enjoyed was experimenting with the provided ARRI Alexa ProRes 4444 clips to see how they work in Resolve using various LUTs and nodes. He shows how you can build your own LUT from the ARRI website. Inhofer makes this rather mysterious topic approachable and gives the viewer the tools, references, and strategies to create and apply LUTs when setting up their look for the project. This alone was worth the cost. He also goes on to apply the look to sections of this 5-minute movie and continues to explain his techniques for managing the client and the grading process – again with customer feedback along the way.

One other observation about Inhofer’s tutorials is the way he includes a kind of HUD (heads up display) from three different screens on his desk, so you get the full impact of what he’s seeing while he’s talking. Again it’s literally like being right there next to him in his color suite.  This is one feature best seen versus described.  Those HUD elements come and go in different layouts to fit the flow of what he’s covering in the tutorial.

Check out the Dead Man’s Lake grade-along at the TaoOfColor. I’m not big on horror, but getting to color the project with an excellent soundtrack and beautiful ARRI Alexa footage was a lot of fun. It’s a nice way to learn something new or deepen what you know and hopefully eliminate the horror of a poorly organized and managed color-grading project.

Tom