Understanding Color Management – With this Video from Netflix

Understanding Color Management – With this Video from Netflix

Color management is one of those terms that every filmmaker nowadays has most likely heard of. But hardly anyone really understands the inner workings, let alone the need to implement such a workflow properly. Netflix has released an easy-to-understand 7-minute video on the basics of color management workflows to help us out.

Modern filmmakers have to deal with myriads of strange (and rather technical) terms like color space, log formats, LUT, ACES, REC.709, color-managed workflow or HDR… all these terms may sound familiar and all these terms relate to one common thing: Color. More specifically, they all revolve around the question of how to ensure that what filmmakers see on set looks exactly like what the audience will see on their TV/tablet or in the cinema.

Understanding Color Management

The fact that more recent cameras can capture images of stunning quality in terms of both image fidelity and dynamic range is great. The downside, however, is that screens used to display the resulting video cannot handle the high fidelity and dynamic range in most cases, so the footage will look different on these devices.

So filmmakers face a problem here: the captured footage must pass through many hands, departments and workstations before the final video can be delivered. And since every screen, professional or consumer, processes video signals slightly differently, the result at the end of the post-production pipeline is unpredictable.

messy workflow
A non color-managed workflow. Things can get messy. Image credit: Netflix

When color grading a given timeline, how can you be sure that the display you’re working on handles color exactly the way your audience’s various devices and TVs do? In this example, we’re talking about a display-referred workflow, where the way the underlying footage was acquired is not considered at all. The only thing that “matters” is the type of display you are working on right now.

Netflix Color Management
image credit: Netflix

In contrast, a color-managed workflow will not rely on a specific display type but on the so-called scene data which was captured by the camera in the first place. The technical term here is scene-referred state.

Now, in order to get the most out of each scene captured in terms of color fidelity and dynamic range cameras often use log formats to capture this scene-referred state. As you know, log formats such as Canon’s C-Log 2 or Sony’s S-Log 3 look very dull and flat. That’s because these formats are not meant to look good to the human eye but to store as much information as possible.

Once the principal shooting is done for the day, the logarithmically captured footage needs to be transformed into what’s called a Working Color Space. From there, it’s easy to share the footage with different departments and be sure everything looks the way it should. For viewing the footage on any monitor or projector, this working color space can be transformed again, this time to meet the specific needs of color grading artists, VFX artists, editors, and so on.

working color space
Color management using a working color space. image credit: Netflix


Once post-production is complete and everything is in place, the final timeline(s) can easily be converted to whatever format you want to deliver: REC.709, DCI-P3, you name it. The whole idea is to maintain as much color fidelity and dynamic range as possible throughout post-production, while ensuring that the colors always look as they were intended during shooting. For setting up such workflow the new(ish) ACES (Academy Color Encoding System) framework is a good starting point.

image credit: Netflix

Another resource you might want to check out to further climb in to this rabbit hole is the below video by the great Cullen Kelly who provides us with a more practical approach of how to implement the aforementioned ACES framework into a DaVinci Resolve based color grading pipeline.

Parts Two and Three will take you even deeper into the concepts and the implementation of a color-managed workflow in DaVinci Resolve.

Of course not everybody should bother with using color management and/or ACES. But if you’re working in a team with several departments or with footage from different cameras, implementing a color-managed pipeline in your post prodwuction workflow might be worth a close look for sure.

Links: Netflix Partner Help Center
featured image credit: Setyaki Irham on Unsplash

Do you use a color-managed workflow on your projects? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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