Know the Basics: After Effects Part 7: Color Grading

Today we're going to take a look at Color Grading and how we can use it to create a bespoke style for our videos within After Effects...

Previous tutorials

Know the Basics: After Effects Part 1: Interface
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 2: Timeline
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 3: Effects
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 4: Titles
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 5: Animation
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 6: Masking

Color grading is the process of take the color of our footage and adjusting its color values. This process can be used to ensure that the footage accurately represents color as seen in the real world, or it can be used in a more stylized manner to create a more emotive style which is not necessarily rooted in reality. We'll explore some of the tools After Effects gives us to do this color grading.

Step 1: What is color grading?

Color grading is the process of adjusting the colors in your image to either make them more true to real life or to create a certain mood in the video. An example could be to communicate fear or danger using cold tones such as blues. Color grading is an art in itself so this introduction will be incredibly basic but it may give you a taste for it and a desire to pursue it more actively.

Use color grading to adjust the colors in your image

Use color grading to adjust the colors in your image

Step 2: Basic color correction tools part 1

After effects ships with a load of color correction tools which can be used to grade your footage. One of the primary color correction effects is the 'Curves' effect. You can use this to adjust either the image as a whole or to adjust the red, green and blue wave lengths individually.

Use curves to apply color corrections to specific color wave lengths

Step 3: Basic color correction tools part 2

There are other effects such as 'Color Balance' which lets you affect the contribution of red, green and blue to the shadows, midtones and highlights. This provides precise control because in color grading you will rarely want to color correct the whole image at once. Usually you'll want to put some warmer tones in the shadows and some colder tones in the highlights for example. This effect lets you do that.

Color balance gives you finer control over where your color adjustments appear

Step 4: Using Color Finesse

Now up steps Color Finesse by Synthetic Aperture. This is an external plugin which gives you a wealth of tools and diagnostics to be able to more extensively and accurately color correct your footage. To apply the effect simply select your layer and apply the effect. The 'Effect Controls' window will give you access to the 'Simplified Interface' but you'll more often than not want to click the 'Full Interface' button to open up all the options.

Use Color Finesse to extend your color grading capabilities

Step 5: Color Finesse Interface

The interface to be fair is really quite basic in terms of design but it really does have everything you need at your fingertips! The top right shows you the resulting image after the applied grading although you can adjust that using the buttons next to it. The top LHS shows you a load of 'monitors', mostly waveforms, which shows you how your color is distributed in the image. And finally the lower half contains all of the color correction tools.

The interface is quite simplistic but has all the tools you need

The interface is quite simplistic but has all the tools you need

Step 6: RGB Waveform part 1

My most commonly used wave form is probably the 'RGB waveform'. View this by selecting it from the list on the top LHS. This monitor shows you the distribution of the red, green and blue channels. 0 represents black and 100 represents white. Each waveform moves from left to right and shows the color values from left to right in the image. This enables you to see if your image is properly balanced.

Use the RGB parade to see exactly how your colours are distributed in the image

Step 7: RGB Waveform part 2

To get good color balance you will need to make sure that the white, blacks and gray tones in your image have an equal distribution of red, green and blue. In the waveform you will need to identify where the white and black parts of the image are and check whether those parts have an equal amount of red, blue and green. Reading the waveform will get easier the more you use it.

Use the RGB parade to see exactly how your colours are distributed in the image

Use the RGB parade to see exactly how your colours are distributed in the image

Step 8: Adjustment curves

If your image is unbalanced then you can use the color correction tools to adjust it. I most often use the 'Curves' which can be accessed by ticking the box next to 'Curves' on the LHS. In the lower LHS there are 3 color pickers which let you select from the image what the white, black and grey portions of the image are. As you click them the curves will update. You can also manually adjust the curves to fine tune the RGB waveform.

Use the adjustment curves to balance the colors in your image

Use the adjustment curves to balance the colors in your image

Step 9: HSL Adjustments

These adjustments are similar to the curves although they are in the form of sliders and they let you apply the adjustments to the highlights, midtones and shadows separately. In principal the RGB Gain adjusts the white values, the Pedestal adjusts the blacks and the Gamma adjusts the midtones. You can also apply saturation and brightness adjustments to the color values although I rarely use this.

Use the HSL adjustments to balance the colors in your image

Use the HSL adjustments to balance the colors in your image

Step 10: Vector scope

The final thing I want to talk about is the Vectorscope which is another 'Monitor' which shows you the distribution of colors in your image. The scope is split up in red, green, blue, yellow, magenta and cyan. All of the dots show you the distribution of color from 0 in the middle to 100 at the outer edge.

Use the vector scope to interrogate your color data and see what adjustments need to be made

Top tip: Da Vinci Resolve

If you want to take color grading seriously then you can do your color grading in a separate bespoke piece of software such as Da Vinci Resolve. This provides much more extensive tools. The basic version which to be fair is incredibly extensive is free to use.

Da Vinci Resolve is a great standalone piece of color grading software

Related links

For more from Paul Hatton, check out C A Design Services
Download After Effects
Check out Video Copilot for plug-ins
Find some useful scripts for After Effects
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 1: Interface
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 2: Timeline
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 3: Effects
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 4: Titles
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 5: Animation
Know the Basics: After Effects Part 6: Masking