Grading is where you go to the lab and discover all the little “we can work it out in post production” promises you’ve been told during filming were not exactly fiction but not strictly true either. That is not true without a lot of money to pay for extra processes. Grading is where you discover that your director of photography (or DP) has shot everything perfectly for his showreel rather than for the look you requested. Grading is an integral part of the learning curve. Let me enlighten you by way of example.
I stroll down to the labs and I meet Matt (the grader) and Ted (the boss). They shake my hand warmly (because I am a paying customer) and they run a print of Last Train for me. I say to Matt, “I would like these opening shots at the railway station to be dark and grainy to create an atmosphere of inherent violence, subliminal nastiness and edgy reality please.” Matt says to me, “I can only make them grainy by making them lighter.” I say to Matt, “Oh. Why can I not have them dark and grainy?” Matt replies, “Because you need to underexpose them when you shoot so that they are too dark to start with then I can then lighten them. You can only get grainy images by lightening the shots.”
This is all news to me, of course. I’ve been shooting on videotape for ten years, so I was relying on Geoff the DP to produce what I requested and required. “Your DP has shot them perfectly,” Matt tells me. “They look really good.” Of course. I bet the Geoff knows that too. I told him I wanted a really dark grainy look before we embarked on this endeavour and he said, “Sure. I can do that.” Of course he can. He was the second unit cameraman on such films as, oh, Star Wars and Superman among others.
Hmmm. Now I know that my short film differed from what has gone before in a couple of key respects. Our equipment was limited and my budget was nil. However, I cannot help but feel that I have been making a slightly different film from the one the DP was shooting. I was filming a specific story and he wanted something for his showreel. It is ever thus when you do not pay in hard currency. I shake my head. I accept the perfectly lit and composed images. The man is a pro and I am lucky. What can you do?
Matt and I go through the rest of the film on a Steenbeck (basically a projector that is like a large desk with spools on it). I ask for shots to be darkened in some places, lightened in others and colour casts to be added or removed. This is what a grader does. He can adjust the amount of any one or combination of three coloured lights–red, green and blue–during the printing process.
I ask about adding filter effects, such as blurring in some areas of the image as if a shot was taken through smudgy glass with a clear area where the action is. This is the kind of the thing I was told (no, really I was) could be “sorted out in post”. Matt explains to me that that would be an optical effect and I would need to go to an optical house to get it done. With video, I’d simply dial in something from the vision mixing console. I have even seen a telecine grader doing such things transferring film to video. No wonder modern feature films are all opting for completely digital post-production.
Well, my chums, I am learning. I also realised that Andy, the DP on my other film–Fate & Fortune–was exactly right to use filters during shooting. “We don’t think that was a good idea,” said Alex and Bruce, my friends at Whatever Pictures. “You’ll thank me for this later,” said the DP. How right he was. When I eventually get the sound mix and EDL sorted for Fate & Fortune I will thank him profusely for doing what I required. Meanwhile, I will have an answerprint of Last Train in a week’s time and I can see how the grading has turned out. Fingers crossed.