Color Grading in Premiere Pro Without Magic Bullet

Posted by Crow on
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Adobe Premiere Pro (most likely your NLE if you edit on a PC) has already cost you $700, do you really want to shell out an additional $400 for a color correction plug-in? If you have the money to spend then you could do much worse than Magic Bullet Looks and Magic Bullet Colorista. It is the best color grading tool avaiable to the indie filmmaker. However, if you are an indie filmmaker, odds are you have to squeeze the snot out of every single penny, i.e. your software tools. You can do the same things that Magic Bullet Colorista can do in Adobe Premiere Pro (we will be using version CS3 for this tutorial), perhaps not as well, but without having to buy a plug-in.

The first thing that you want to do is make sure you have a decent monitor. The one I’ve been using for this movie so far is a 22″ LCD monitor that I got on sale at Best Buy. It’s not very good quality. It’s nice that it has an HDMI input, however, there is very little you can do to calibrate it. If you are not sure about the hdmi meaning and how it can be very important for electronics like monitors, you can go on over to to learn more. Anyway, it just wasn’t going to cut it for color correction. I had a 32″ Sony Bravia 720p LCD upstairs that I thought would work. I hooked it up with the DVI/VGA cable and then calibrated it. You will want to download some color bars on the net and there are lots of free tutorials out there on how to adjust your monitor settings.

It’s much easier to make cuts and play in real-time in Premiere Pro than it is After Effects. Also syncing audio is much easier. Colorista is very similar to Da Vinci 2K or any of the other high-end color grading systems. It has three color wheels for highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. That way you can really tweak every part of your image without having to create masks. You can also easily adjust black and white levels for each (which is really the key) as well as saturation.

Premiere happens to have a tool that does the same thing as Colorista called Three-Way Color Corrector. It’s not as good as Colorista but it does get the job done and actually has a few more options. TWCC has its own toggles for adjusting the black and white levels, but I personally just prefer using Premiere’s Levelseffect first. It gets quick results and can then be adjusted independently for the color correction. Diving into the color you first want to see what your levels did. Are skin tones too pink? Do highlights get washed out? For most of this movie the color is in the shadows. So adjusting that is going to give the image its most dominate tint. In keeping with current Hollywood color palettes I go towards a green-blue color first for the background. It doesn’t always work. You don’t want skin to look blue. So you basically just have to push and pull all three color wheels to get a good result. I like to push highlights toward a yellow/orange but this can mess up the background so I’ve been just leaving it neutral for most shots. Midtones are often the skin color so I try to move that towards orange. TWCC has an essential tool called “Tonal Range” that will let you view your shot as a black and white representation of the color wheels: black for shadows, gray for midtones, and white for highlights. This will tell you exactly where your adjustments will work.

Images from Hollywood Industry

Stu Maschwitz (the creator of Magic Bullet) posted this image on his blog of the before and after of a frame from Transporter 2. You can see that they lit the shot pretty flat so they could get the most out of it in the DI. Typical for most modern movies: the blacks are crushed, the skin is given a darker orangish hue, and the background is moved toward a green-blue color. This certainly doesn’t work for every lighting scenario but it’s a way to start.

This shot is fairly typical of the grading I’m doing. The priest’s skin is much more saturated, as is the grass. The whole image is given more contrast and a soft vignette adds a subtle filmic look.

One of the primary goals I have is to make the actors and the makeup look as good as possible. You can tell in the first image that the actress smeared her makeup on Mike’s face when she bit him. Pushing and puling the midtones can either exacerbate the problem or help diminish it. After the levels and TWCC, I had to add a Color Balance effect, which is really handy if you want to tweak a single color. Like the TWCC you can adjust a certain color in the shadows, midtones, and highlights. I took the pink down in the midtones which made her nose match the rest of her face a bit better. It didn’t affect the blood on her face very much because that is primarily in the shadows.

These next two shots are ones that needed more work because they were shot with camera settings that gave them both yellow hues. The main problem with that is the whole shot is yellow as if it were aged. You want to make the actor seperate from the background. I wanted to keep some of the yellow/orange in Eric’s face but get rid of it from his clothes and the background. This can all be done with the TWCC. He is actually bit too green here, so this shot still needs some work.. I also crushed the blacks and addeed a soft vignette to give the shot a film look.

This was the second yellow shot. I made the background closer to the true color of the room so James (our fight choreographer) can stand out from the wall.

One issue that will come up grading a film shot on digital video is grain. Most of the prosumer camcorders introduce a lot of noise in low light. One thing you can do is to light a stop or two up from what you intend the final to look like and then take it down it post. But in case you didn’t do that, there are a few things you can do in Premiere. First thing that can be done is to bring down the RGB Gamma in the Levels. If a shot is really dark I will sometimes take the Gamma up to 110, but if it brings out the noise then I bring it back to 100. Lowering it to 90 can actually get rid of a lot of noise but also darkens the image. Another thing you can do in the Three-Way Color Correcter is desaturate the shadows. This has been really useful. I don’t know if it’s a result of the lighting or the camera’s chip, but most of the noise in the blacks is a primary blue color. When I adjust the levels it really stands out. You can adjust a single color using several different tools such as Color Pass, Change Color, or Color Balance. Taking the blue down here can help, but also might mess up the entire image. Using one or several of these effects can get results, however you can only do so much and just have to accept what’s been shot. I chose not to use it for times sake, but if your footage is really fraked you can export it into After Effects and try the Remove Grain effect.

The idea was to take out the red fleshy color of the succubus’ face by adding a sickly green and yellow to make her appear dead. I used Color Balance on top of TWCC to give the shot an extra punch of yellow/green.

The is the same scene as above with the same color grade scheme applied. After showing this to the director he thought the green was too intense, especially on the normal humans. Their skin was already somewhat greenish due to the bounce light in the room so adding to it made it look like they were being lit with a green gel.

This shot just shows that a minor color grade can go a long way. Very little was done to the color but the crushed blacks (using the Levels) instantly gave the shot a grittier look.

This is another shot that just needed some minor adjustment. The shot is already very dark so the levels didn’t need to be adjusted very much. In TWCC I took the shadows to a blue green and that removed the annoying orange from the actresses face. For a human I wouldn’t want to do this but this character is a vampire. I only pushed it a little though as I wanted to keep the scarlet color of the blood.

Color correction and grading are essential to making your film look professional. Look closely at movies in the same genre as your story and think about what they did to achieve that look. With a little practice you can get the same results.