Colour Grading Documentaries

When you search for techniques for grading documentaries all the results talk about colour correction. There is a cultural association between the natural look and the documentary genre, whilst I respect that this is the case its a shame it has become the sole signifier for a colourist working in the genre. There are some examples of stylistic documentaries in the world but they cannot overcome the prominence of naturalistic palettes.

The argument for realism in the palette is to keep an honest representation and allow the audience an easy entry point into the subtle matter. By stylising a documentary it opens doors on documentary ethics suggesting the filmmaker is distorting the story and not providing an unbiased representation (not that documentaries need to be unbiased).

Personally I believe grading is not a distortion, but an opportunity to accentuate the film and bring the reality closer to the audience. It can highlight particular emotions in an attempt for a particular response to the audience. Whilst reading this point the ethical argument of representation continues, yes it can serve to assist the narrative but at the same time it shifts the narrative into a certain emotional state. Once again are documentaries really unbiased? Colouring the film is another tool in the filmmakers arsenal.

The featured tutorial is just one of many examples in how to approach colour correction for documentary film. Often you will be presented with a range of footage and your job is to find a middle ground where all colours and tones can meet.

Using the video scopes can be the quickest method in balancing the footage. Particularly reference the RGB parade you can balance the three colour channels using the lift, gamma and gain functions. This would be my go to option along with general luminance levels in the video scopes.

I feel there isn’t a huge amount to learn when colour correcting footage. I already feel confident with DaVinci Resolve and it will simply be the case of adapting to whatever footage I am presented with. I can continue to read and watch colour correction tips right up until the grading process begins.


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