The Art of Color Grading: Does Feeling Drive Choice, or Vice Versa?

Two top MPC colorists discuss their approaches

Color and light have a huge effect on our emotions and behavior, and have been an integral part of the narrative and aesthetic of film, art and culture for centuries. It's one of the reasons color grading—the process of manipulating a film's hues, tones and contrasts in post-production—plays such an important role in filmmaking today, and why top colorists are so highly regarded for their craft in the advertising industry. 

Yet how artists approach the art of color grading can be very different. Below, award-winning colorists Mark Gethin and Jean-Clément Soret of the Moving Picture Company give us a peek behind the curtain at their craft and discuss how the different approaches they take leads to visually compelling work. 
Gethin, for one, holds that emotion drives decision making—a gut instinct that leads to a sweet spot, helping set a mood that defines the work—whereas Soret's interest in color psychology has led to his appreciation for ways color can deepen emotion, and that this perspective often influences his creative decisions. 

The Approach: Theory vs. Instinct

Mark Gethin: A colorist's work is all about taste, which is hard to define. And we all have different approaches: Some colorists are more technical, others are more cerebral, and some, like myself, go more on instinct. We're all aiming for the same thing: to find the sweet spot for each shot. 

I usually get a sense of what the director/DP are going for just by looking at the cut and taking into account the brand. So, I often can take an initial pass at the grade before I even sit down with the team and talk. My job is to take my client's vision and interpret it in my own way. Sometimes that "conversation" is through discussion or references or just looking through the footage. Initially, feeling is what drives the choices in the grading suite. 

Jean-Clément: Some of the colorist's decisions are not rational; they touch on the artistic, and that is what makes us different. We must always remember that colorists' work is the extension of cinematographers' work. Colorists enhance an artistic direction rather than change it, but what we can do is strengthen emotional connections. 

Grading in Advertising: Subconscious vs. Salient

Jean-Clément: Very much like in music, a crescendo, a break, a harmony of saturation or contrast can elevate an advertisement to a new dimension. There are some codes that define cultural references, like sepia will look vintage, some color combinations will suggest a nostalgic, 1950s Technicolor feel. This color shorthand is particularly important in advertising, where you have only a few seconds to get a message to the audience, so you need to stick to these stereotypes. And of course, some advertisers want to appeal to a more subconscious level of the viewer by integrating their brand's colors into the spot. 

Dougal Wilson's Ikea "Ghost Party" spot is a good example of how the grade supports the concept. In the spot, a bunch of ghosts wearing white sheets are having a house party. It's dull and drab, with a muted color scheme. Suddenly a group of ghosts arrive covered in brightly colored sheets, with dazzling designs. The party brightens, and the music picks up. Here, the grade enhances the boring mood of the first part and uplifts the second part when the party is in full swing. 

Mark: You'll see the grade showing the passage of time, which is a very efficient use of the technique. In Chevy's "Tailgate" spot, directed by Rupert Sanders, we had only 30 seconds to take the viewer through 12 decades. The art direction of the spot, and how it's been shot, goes a long way to achieve this, but my job was to interpret each time period: What do the 1930s or '40s mean to you? Slight painterly effect, or vivid primary colors? Soft but dense contrast? Overbleached, desaturated feel? I had to invoke nostalgia for each time period within a very short period of time, just seconds. 

Chevrolet Silverado | Tailgates
Creatives in Session: Taste vs. Technique

Jean-Clément: The grade that was applied during the edit should be thought of as a starting point for all involved, but creatives have to remember that while it might look interesting, it's often one setting that's applied throughout the length of the piece. That's when you can start to focus in on specific shots and scenes. For example, different kinds of responses can be elicited by adding a complementary color next to the one you want to enhance. It's important to remember that grading is not just about color but is also about texture. This is what you're hoping to achieve during the course of the session. 

Mark: What we do in color is to set the whole tone/ambiance of the piece. We play with color, contrast, windows and texture to find the best possible image. There's more than one way to grade everything—there's no right or wrong in color. It's important to remember it's an art and everyone has different taste, so while I may have an initial approach to something, the final color is a result of some push and pull and collaboration between everyone. 

Emotional Impact: Profound vs. Progressive

Jean-Clément: Consider Les Misérables. It's been adapted for the cinema several times, most recently by the director Tom Hooper, but the different versions look very different; from colorful to gritty to depressing. In each, the grade and cinematography are sending a different message to the audience. And I remember watching Hitchcock's The Birds once on a black-and-white TV set; it was much scarier than the second time, when I saw it in color.

The way an artist applies color can also at times feel counterintuitive: The restrained use of color often seen in the work of the European director Bruno Aveillan, particularly for luxury brands, tends to make his work even more stylish. On the other end of the spectrum, consider the films of Traktor, in which color is often joyful and inventive. 

Mark: In a spot for BMW titled "Legend," I was tasked with creating a fantastical story that was cohesive but changed slightly as we moved through each vignette. Each little story required its own palette to take the viewer on a journey. If I had applied a less stylized grade that was grounded more in reality, it would be a very different film. So, in this instance, the color really supported the story. 

The End of the Process: Final Feeling vs. Perfect Puzzle

Mark: Part of the mystique of our craft is that we can create something instantly that the client sitting in the room can see and feel. Our work is all about being able to translate someone's vision to the screen—whether that's the client, the director or the DP—while maintaining some of our own perspective. And it depends so much on the images we're provided, and how each shot is captured. I think those artists who tend to work more from gut instinct find we get great results by just playing with the images and having a tactile sense of what seems to work best. We're looking to find what just feels right for each shot. 

Jean-Clement: Grading often feels like solving a puzzle—you put the pieces together until they fit perfectly. There is a lot of trial and error in this process. There are different ways to crack a piece to get to a good result, but a good result is very subjective. It will depend on your own taste, within the limitations of the content you are working on. 

Profile picture for user Jean-Clément Soret and Mark Gethin
Jean-Clément Soret and Mark Gethin
Jean-Clément Soret is global creative director of color grading at Moving Picture Company. Mark Gethin is creative director, leading MPC's color grading teams in Los Angeles and New York.

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