Stirring & Stylish: Distinctively Dark Imagery

Color timing 5D Mark II footage – Part 2

In Equipment and Technique on June 22, 2011 at 4:37 am

Last week I began a discussion about colour timing footage shot on the 5D Mark II for the feature film ‘The House’.  Refer to Part 1 for initial details.  Enjoy!

4) Skin Tones – Flat lighting slightly over exposed = bad!  One of the problems with the camera is the way it reproduces skin tones.  They can look pastel or cartoon-like.  Flat lighting exacerbates the problem by creating a consistent wash of light across the actor’s face.  It may be a function of the compression that this particular colour tone looks so flat and textureless, or that the camera simply cannot handle the block of colour.  In either case, adding directional light is generally a good idea, and more attractive regardless of the camera you’re using.  Learn to use your light meter.  Test what sort of contrast you like on-screen, and what the corresponding readings are you can reproduce them from shot to shot or scene to scene.  Over exposure is a big problem for texture in skin tones, and using a light meter can help avoid this problem because judging exposure by the histogram or false colour alone can lead to a wide range of skin tone exposures due to the other tones in the frame.  For example, a low-key shot (where most of the tones are below 50% brightness) you may look at the histogram and say, “Oh, that scene looks underexposed,” and adjust your exposure to compensate.  This will result in opening up the shadows, but also increasing the exposure on the skin tones.  The opposite is true for a high key scene, which could result in an underexposed skin tone.  If you use your meter you would be able to peg your exposure on the skin tones and adjust your other lighting to work with that exposure.

Sometimes having an HD monitor on set and being able to look at the actual image the camera sees makes one lazy.  Shoot the camera like it’s a film camera.  Do the hard work to massage all you can out of it, and you will reap the benefits.

5) Picture Settings – Turn down the digital sharpening, and the contrast.  The sharpening can give the images an odd halo and harshness that looks odd, and very digital.  The contrast can make the dynamic range even smaller, and the lighting more difficult.  By turning down the contrast you may enhance the flattened skin tone problem somewhat, but the alternative is worse.

6) White Balance – If you can have this discussion with the colourist before you shoot, do it.  Every director has an idea of how their film should look.  This can include colour tone, contrast, tonality, etc.  It’s the DoP’s job to get that look on-screen.  The colour settings you use on set while shooting, especially with a camera that has a heavily compressed image, makes a great impact on what you can do in post.  Generally, it is a good idea to use a neutral colour balance if possible, and if you don’t know what the image will look like after colour timing.  If you’ve had the chance to meet with the colourist, and do some testing, you may want to force the white balance (white balance through a coloured gel or filter), or use a filter on the lens.  This way you’re getting closer to the look you’re going for while you’re shooting, which makes the colour timing a more efficient process and gives you the best results.  If you decide to use a forced white balance or filter make sure the director understands that once you shoot the image you’ll have difficulty, if not impossibility, in achieving a neutral colour balance should he/she want to in the future.  A director who is unsure of the look he/she is going for will have a look of fear in his/her eyes, but a director who is certain of the look will proceed.  It is important to know the difference, and respond accordingly.

Also, I noticed that with the cameras we were using that the neutral white balance wasn’t actually neutral.  When we put scopes on the image it was actually quite warm (yellow/red).  So, be careful simply trusting your camera’s presets or auto white balance.  Test it to make sure you’re accurate.

7) Pro Res – There is a new version of FCP coming out, and it may be able to edit the footage from the 5D natively, but for our purposes all of the camera original footage had to be converted to Pro Res for editing.  These Pro Res files are then taken into the colour correction suite.  There are several flavours of Pro Res.  Essentially, the better the Pro Res file, the more you can do in colour correction.  The trade off with having the more robust Pro Res files is that it can cause the computer to freeze up during playback and it takes more storage space to store all of those files, may of which won’t be used.  So, one approach that works well is to create a lower quality Pro Res file for the offline editing process, and then once the picture is locked, create another series of Pro Res 4444 files for the online colour correction.  Talk to the editor about this process, and make sure they know you want Pro Res 4444 for the colour correction.

Final Thoughts:  Overall I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the images the camera creates, and how well they held up to the colour timing process.  Though a camera that shoots a more robust format, and is designed for film production would be my preferred choice, it is tough to argue with the quality to cost ratio of the camera.  Testing and using a meter are key to getting consistent quality images that will look good on the big screen.

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