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Color grading is the process of altering and enhancing the color of a motion picture or television image, either electronically, photo-chemically or digitally. The photo-chemical process is also referred to as color timing and is typically performed at a photographic laboratory. Modern color correction, whether for theatrical film or video distribution, is generally done digitally.



With the advent of television, broadcasters quickly realized the limitations of live broadcasts and they turned to broadcasting feature films from release prints directly from a telecine. This was in the days before 1956 when Ampex introduced the first VTR (VRX-1000). Live shows could also be recorded to film and aired at different times in different time zones by filming a video monitor. The heart of this system was the Kinescope, a device for recording a television broadcast to film.[1]

The early telecine hardware was the "film-chain" for broadcasting from film and utilized a film projector connected to a video camera. As explained by Jay Holben in American Cinematographer Magazine, "The telecine didn't truly become a viable postproduction tool until it was given the ability to perform color correction on a video signal."[2]

Today, telecine is synonymous with color timing as tools and technologies have advanced to make color timing (color correction) ubiquitous in a video environment.


How telecine coloring works

In a CRT system, an electron beam is projected at a phosphor-coated envelope, producing a beam of light the size of a single pixel. This beam is then scanned across a film frame from left to right, capturing the "vertical" frame information. Horizontal scanning of the frame is then accomplished as the film moves past the CRT's beam. Once this photon beam passes through the film frame, it encounters a series of dichroic mirrors which separate the image into its primary red, green and blue components. From there, each individual beam is then reflected on to a photomultiplier tube (PMT), where the photons are converted into an electronic signal to be recorded to tape.

In a charge-coupled device-(CCD) telecine, a “white” light is shone through the exposed film image into a prism, which separates out the image into the three primary colors, red, green and blue. Each beam of colored light is then projected at a different CCD, one for each color. The CCD converts the light into electrical impulses which the telecine electronics modulate into a video signal which can then be color corrected-color graded for use.

Early color correction on CRT Rank Cintel MkIII telecine systems was accomplished by varying the primary gain voltages on each of the three photomultiplier tubes to vary the output of red, green and blue, respectively. Further advancements converted much of the color-processing equipment from analog to digital and then, with the next-generation telecine, the Ursa, the coloring process was completely digital in 4:2:2 color space. The Ursa Gold brought about full 4:4:4 color space.[2]

Color correction control systems started with the Rank Cintel TOPSY (Telecine Operations Programming SYstem) in 1978.[1] In 1984 Da Vinci Systems introduced their first color corrector, a computer-controlled interface that would manipulate the color voltages on the Rank Cintel MkIII systems. Since then, technology has improved to give extraordinary power to the digital colorist. Today there are many companies making color correction control interfaces including Da Vinci Systems, Pandora-Int. Pogle, and more.

Some of the main functions of electronic (digital) color grading:[1]

  • Reproduce accurately what was shot
  • Compensate for variations in the material (i.e. film errors, white balance, varying lighting conditions)
  • Optimize transfer for use of special effects
  • Establish a desired 'look'
  • Enhance and/or alter the mood of a scene — the visual equivalent to the musical accompaniment of a film; compare also film tinting.

Note that some of these functions are contrary to others. For example, color grading is often done to ensure that the recorded colors match those of the set design. In music videos however, the goal may instead be to establish a stylized look.

Traditionally, color grading was done towards technical goals. Features like secondary color correction were originally used to establish color continuity. The trend today is increasingly moving towards creative goals - improving the aesthetics of an image, establishing stylized looks, and setting the mood of a scene through color. Because of this trend, some colorists suggest the phrase "color enhancement" over "color correction".

Primary and secondary color correction

Primary color correction affects the whole image utilizing control over intensities of red, green, blue, gamma (mid tones), shadows (blacks) and highlights (whites). Secondary correction brings about alterations in luminance, saturation and hue in six colors (red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow). The main objective of secondary controls is to adjust values within a narrow range while having a minimum effect on the remainder of the color spectrum.[1] Using digital grading, objects and color ranges within the scene can be isolated with precision and adjusted. Color tints can be manipulated and visual treatments pushed to extremes not physically possible with laboratory processing. Special digital filters and effects can also be applied to the images.

Masks, Mattes, Power Windows

The evolution of digital color correction tools advanced to the point where the colorist could use geometric shapes (like mattes or masks in photo software such as Photoshop) to isolate color adjustments to specific areas of an image. These tools can highlight a wall in the background and color only that wall — leaving the rest of the frame alone — or color everything but that wall. Subsequent color correctors (typically software-based) have the ability to use spline-based shapes for even greater control over isolating color adjustments. Color keying is also used for isolating areas to adjust.

Inside and outside of area-based isolations, digital filtration can be applied to soften, sharpen or mimic the effects of traditional glass photographic filters in nearly infinite degrees.

Motion Tracking

When trying to isolate a color adjustment on a moving subject, the colorist traditionally would have needed to manually move the mask to follow the subject. In its most simple form, motion tracking automates this time-consuming process using algorithms to evaluate the motion of a group of pixels. These techniques are generally derived from match moving techniques used in special effects and compositing work.

Motion tracking can be combined with other techniques to add light to a subject's eyes or achieve the final look wanted for a scene. This not only saves time on the set (and money) but, when done in close collaboration with the cinematographer, allows greater flexibility in adjusting the overall feeling of the scene.


The evolution of the telecine device into film scanning allowed the digital information gathered from a film negative to be of sufficient resolution to re-export back to film. In the late 1990s, films like Pleasantville and then O Brother, Where Art Thou? pushed the technology to create the digital intermediate, which allowed all of the power of the telecine colorist in a traditional film world. Today, many feature films go through the DI process. Traditional photochemical processing is happening less and less.

In Hollywood, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first film to be wholly digitally graded. The negative was scanned in with a Spirit DataCine at 2K resolution and then colors were digitally fine-tuned using a Pandora MegaDef color corrector on a Virtual DataCine‎. The process took several weeks. The resulting digital master was output to film again with a Kodak laser recorder to create a master internegative.

Hardware-based versus software-based systems

Hardware-based systems (da Vinci 2K, Pandora, etc.) have historically offered better performance and a smaller feature set than software-based systems (i.e. Apple's Color (previously Silicon Color Final Touch), ASSIMILATE SCRATCH, IRIDAS SpeedGrade, etc.). While hardware-based systems always offer real-time performance, software-based systems need to render as the complexity of the color grading increases. On the other hand, software-based systems tend to have more features such as spline-based windows/masks and advanced motion tracking.

The line between hardware and software is blurring as many software-based color correctors (e.g.Pablo [1], Mistika, SCRATCH [2], Autodesk Lustre, Digital Vision Film Master and Filmlight Baselight) use multi processor workstations and a GPU (graphics processing unit) as a means of hardware acceleration. As well, some newer software-based systems use specialized hardware to improve performance (e.g. da Vinci Resolve). Some color grading software like Synthetic Aperture's Color Finesse runs solely as a software based and will even run on low-end computer systems.


The control panels are placed in a color suite for the colorist to operate.

  • For high-end systems most[citation needed] telecines are controlled by a Da Vinci Systems color corrector, 2k or 2k Plus, also called color grading.
  • Some high-end systems are controlled by Pandora Int.'s Pogle, some with a their MegaDEF or a Pixi color grading system.
  • For edit control, a number of systems are used including Da Vinci Systems' TLC edit controller is used or Pandora Int.'s Pogle also has a built in edit control. The edit controller controls the telecine and a VTR(s) or other record devices for frame accurate film frame editing.
  • Older systems are: Renaissance, Classic analog, Da Vinci Systems's: The Whiz (1982) and 888; The Corporate Communications's System 60XL (1982-1989) and Copernicus-Sunburst; Bosch Fernseh's FRP-60 (1983-1989); Dubner (1978-1985?), Cintel's TOPSY (1978), Amigo (1983), and ARCAS (1992) systems. All of these older systems work only with standard-definition 525 and 625 video signals, and are considered near obsolete today.


The controls are shown on-screen and are sometimes accessed as plugin in a host application.

  • Software like Synthetic Aperture's Color Finesse runs as a plugin in host application's like Apple's Final Cut Pro, Adobe's After Effects and Premiere.
  • The Grading Sweet is a package of specialised Color Grading plugins for Apple's Final Cut Pro, designed by cinematographer Ben Allan ACS
  • Sony Vegas has many filters that can provide professional quality color grading.
  • Apple Final Cut Studio 2 Contains Apple Color [3] which is a dedicated software application for color grading.
  • Bones Dailies by Digital Film Technology
  • Other programs have their own Color grading options (for example Edius, in which there is a "Color Correction" video effect - with it, you can do a "day to night*" effect (turning footage shot during the day to look like it was shot during the night).


  1. ^ a b c d Kallenberger, Richard H., Cvjetnicanin, George D. (1994). Film into Video: A Guide to Merging the Technologies. Focal Press. ISBN 0-240-80215-2
  2. ^ a b Holben, Jay (May 1999). "From Film to Tape" American Cinematographer Magazine, pp. 108-122.

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