Vijey Adithya

The Hidden and unsung art of color grading in Cinema:

The creativity of artists behind the camera often defies categorization, unlike their on-screen counterparts. With exceptional talent as their only requirement, they have the ability to utilize their skills without the confines of traditional labels. The world of entertainment has always captured the imagination of people worldwide, inspiring many to pursue their dreams of working in the industry.

Today, I have worked as a Digital Colorist on features, documentaries, and music videos for various clients that include TUBI Originals, Amazon Prime, Sony, Paramount and many other production companies and independent productions.

One of my recent works “A Fragile Heaven” by the International award-winning director Patrick Skehill has been playing in various international film festivals all around the world. It bagged the Best Colorist category in LOS ANGELES CINEMATOGRAPHY AWARDS this year and had been nominated in the finalist category for Color grading at the Benelux International Film Festival where it will be screened live at the European Film Union Gala in December 2023 in the Netherlands. It was one of the films to be chosen on the long list in the International Colorist Awards 2023.

This pilot version is soon going to be made into a feature with a theatrical release in the USA. In this film, the main ‘worldbuilding’ we wanted to do with our color language was make Seb’s (the main character) world a very disharmonious and unwelcoming place. It is not a place where there is any safety for him and we wanted something uncanny. We kept the film on the darker side (until the end) for the same effect, so the audience would be unaware of what was around him to build his sense of paranoia (danger could come at any moment).

We don’t want the environment to be easily readable to the eyes. Anything could be lurking in the shadows. We had some walls in the frame brighter and I created shapes around those specific areas and turned down the exposure by a couple of stops to make it look dark. There was a dual visual scheme within the film. The home had an orange, and the hospital had a green tint. The goal with the colors, in general, was to add an unnatural shade to each of the places that made them feel overbearing or unwelcoming, while also (counter-intuitively) draining these locations of color.

And these colors become more saturated as the film goes on.  These are lifeless places, with nowhere to go. We are trapped in these individual color pallets. This allows the few moments of deviant colors to pop when they do occur, specifically the streaks in the patient’s hair, her purple-lit room when she’s having sex with her boyfriend, the multi-colored paper boyfriend himself, and of course the ending sequence. But the goal of this diptych design was so that we could merge them as the film progressed.

Some orange starts popping up in the hospital, and green sneaks into the shadows of the home. I would call the orangish tone inside the home a more golden tint. The house was lit with warm tungsten lighting. But, Patrick in post-production wanted to see more of a golden tint in the mid-tones. To achieve this, I increased the greens by 2 points, and it helped us connect with the character’s emotions in closeups that blended with the skin tones organically.

The ending scene stands out because it’s the only exterior in the whole film. It allows us to finally shake loose the trapped and claustrophobic feeling and empathize with Seb’s feeling of freedom. It’s the brightest scene in the film. There’s nowhere for any unseemly elements to hide.. The blue of the sky pairs with the nicer blue couch Seb had bought to improve his home life, as well as the blue flowers and blue streaks in the patient’s hair.

We were trying to set up blue as the color of freedom, or a better life, making it entirely complementary to the greens and oranges in previous scenes. So, the big blue sky, with the verdant natural landscape colors out in the open gives Seb and us a sense of relief.

Colorist Vijey Adithya

So far, my journey has been a roller-coaster ride beginning as an engineer to a Cinematographer and now a Digital Colorist in Hollywood, the land of visual storytellers. Colors and Lighting have been an obsession and wonder to me all through my life and this fascination paved the way to begin my career path in Cinematography. When I started shooting short films during my engineering days, the visual quality wasn’t up to the expectation of a professional movie.

The visual quality of a film is based on colors, lighting, and art direction. Since we didn’t have a huge budget, we tried pushing colors on post-production software like Davinci Resolve to give it a cinematic look. It only helped us to a certain extent, but we still couldn’t reach our expectations, which were trying to attain cinematic Hollywood film looks that we had as our references. This search for attaining the best visual workflow for each project that I shot and graded, evolved, and became one of the main reasons to pursue my film career in Hollywood by joining a film school with a major in Cinematography.

The goal was to work with the best filmmakers in the world and explore the latest advancements in visual technologies and get hands-on with them. I succeeded in that aspect after graduation and started getting many opportunities to work with award-winning filmmakers in big productions which includes the recent film ‘Air’ directed by the Academy Award winner Ben Affleck starring Matt Damon in the lead role, based on Sonny Vaccaro and Nike pursuing basketball rookie Michael Jordan, creating a partnership that revolutionizes the world of sports and contemporary culture.

When I practiced Cinematography earlier, I have come to appreciate the power of colors and how they can shape visual storytelling and the viewer’s emotions. While there are many aspects of image-making that I have control over, I have found that Color Grading in post-production is the most fascinating and impactful part of the process to me. It’s the final touch that brings all the frames together and creates a visual harmony that maximizes their impact. Colorists are often overlooked, despite being a crucial part of the crew.

They are responsible for adjusting the shades, hues, and tones that make up the image and ensuring that there is visual consistency across shots and scenes. This consistency allows the viewer to stay with the film and become transported by the story. Moreover, they have taken on more creative roles, allowing them to enhance the emotional impact of a scene. As a Cinematographer, I used to think that everything had to be perfect on set, but there are many factors out of our control, such as the color of the sky or set pieces that cannot be touched.

That’s where the colorist comes in, utilizing their skills to make any necessary adjustments. While digital enhancements have made things easier, there are still many unknown territories in digital coloring and color science that require extra attention due to being a relatively new field. However, the constant hardware and software advancements mean that there is always something new to learn, making this field both exciting and challenging.

Through my involvement in Color Grading and a workshop conducted by Senior Colorist Walter Volpato from Company 3, I have come to appreciate the emotional impact that color grading can create. 

Digital Colorist Vijey Adithya

As a Digital Colorist, I am mainly interested in image-making and finding new ways to build unique color pipelines for each project that I work on. We must always remember that Colorists’ work is the extension of cinematographers’ work. Colorists enhance an artistic direction rather than change it, but what they do is strengthen emotional connections.

Colors engage your audience’s senses, creating spontaneous sensations and a connection to them. I collaborate with Cinematographers closely right from the pre-production stage of a movie helping them with creating pre-built grades to use on set, dailies and enhancing it in the final color grading session seeking the best version that is delivered to the consumers. These pipelines help filmmakers come closer to the visual look they envisioned and enhance their possibilities of creating the best visual images required for the story.

As I’ve delved deeper into the intricacies of color grading, I’ve developed a true appreciation for it, both in terms of its creative potential and the technical expertise required. As a result, I’m proud to identify myself as a Colorist and am looking for something unique in every project that I work on. 

My color journey evolved as I started getting my hands on many independent projects. One of the hardships a colorist faces is when there are multiple cameras used in the same project where each cam has a different sensor tech with varying color science parameters, and it’s required to convert everything to one single color space container to start working. When VFX is involved, this becomes more complex with the color workflow and requires a lot of time to make sure every department is on the same page.

In a big-budget film like Air directed by the Oscar Winning director Ben Affleck starring Matt Damon, which takes place in the 1980s, color is the most important element here imposing the believability that the story is happening 40 years ago. In such scenarios when visual effects are involved, the color needs to be consistent throughout.

With my previous experience as Colorist for various projects in Hollywood, I collaborated with the visual effects team supervised by Hansjeet Duggal Singh whose notable work includes the recent Avatar part 2: Way of Water. I worked with Hans on maintaining and keeping track of color space, and camera color metadata information constant to the editorial department. The hardest challenge we faced here was the involvement of 3 different cameras (Arri Alexa 35, Mini LF and RED Monstro) that was used while shooting.

The color work happened in the Baselight software with a complex color workflow and my previous expertise in Baselight helped the visual effects team to get all the color pipeline information precisely in a high-pressure situation. Air had many shots with complex vfx work and the metadata information for color was a very crucial part to be taken care of keeping track of the shots and the type of camera it was shot on with specific resolution and frame rates.

Apart from Cinema, I try to implement these Digital coloring techniques in illustrations and Photography which is where I started in the beginning. I have managed to develop a database of reference images with different color pallets, lighting and looks, which I shot personally and collected from various sources for a couple of years now.

These help me a lot when I interact with the client and try to understand what they actually are looking to achieve in terms of the mood and emotion of the story being told. Recently, I have been experimenting with film emulation techniques which is trying to recreate the traditional film look on an image recorded from a digital sensor. I am developing my own powergrades for film emulation that help me replicate a particular film look.

The film industry today is moving towards online streaming where viewership is mostly on mobile phones, laptops and TV’s. In the post-pandemic world, OTT platforms are looking for high-quality video content and color plays a very important role when it comes to visual quality that enhances the viewer’s experience taking them into a whole different world.

As a filmmaker, it is our responsibility to provide the best possible experience that they could get in their private space. With HDR and Dolby Vision becoming the industry standards, we are able to achieve the best visual image quality to project the colors in a more realistic and lifelike aspect providing the best visual experience.

By Punit