By Brady Betzel
Color correction and color grading can be tricky (especially for those of us who don’t work as a dedicated colorist). And to be good at one doesn’t necessarily mean you will be good at the other. After watching hundreds of hours of tutorials, the only answer to getting better at color correction and color grading is to practice. As trite and cliche as it sounds, it’s the truth. There is also the problem of a creative block. I can sometimes get around a creative block when color correcting or general editing by trying out of the box ideas, like adding a solid color on top of footage and changing blend modes to spark some ideas.
An easier way to get a bunch of quick looks on your footage is with LUTs (Look Up Tables) and preset color grades. LUTs can sometimes work at getting your footage into an acceptable spot color correction-wise or technically, in the correct color space (the old technical vs. creative LUTs discussion). They often need (or should) be tweaked to fit the footage you are using.
This is where PixelTool’s PowerGrade presets for Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve come in to play. PixelTool’s presets give you that instant wow of a color grade, sharpening and even grain, but with the flexibility to tweak and adjust to your own taste.
PixelTool’s PowerGrade V.1 are a set of Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve PowerGrades (essentially pre-built color grades sometimes containing noise reduction, glows or film grain) that retail for $79.99. Once purchased, the PowerGrade presets can be downloaded immediately. If you aren’t sure about the full commitment to purchase for $79.99, you can download eight sample PowerGrade presets to play with by signing up for PixelTools’ newsletter.
While it doesn’t typically matter what version of Resolve you are using with the PixelTool PowerGrade, you will probably want to make sure you are using Resolve Studio 15 (or higher) or you may miss out on some of the noise reduction or film. I’m running Resolve 16 Studio.
What are PowerGrades? In Resolve, you can save and access pre-built color correction node trees across all projects in a single database. This way if you have an amazing orange and teal, bleach bypass, or maybe a desaturated look with a vignette and noise reduction that you don’t want to rebuild inside every project you can them in the PowerGrades folder in the color correction tab. Easy! Just go into the Color Correction Tab > Gallery (in the upper left corner) > click the little split window icon > right click and “Add PowerGrade Album.”
Installing the PixelTools presets is pretty easy, but there are a few steps you are going to want to follow if you’ve never made a PowerGrades folder before. Luckily, there is a video just for that. Once you’ve added the presets into your database you can access over 110 grades in both Log and Rec 709 color spaces. In addition, there is a folder of “Utilities,” which offers some helpful tools like Scanlines (Mild-Intense), various Vignettes, Sky Debanding, preset Noise Reductions, two-and three-way Grain Nodes and much more. Some of the color grading presets can fit on one node but some have five or six nodes like the “2-Strip Holiday.” They will sometimes be applied as a Compound Node for organization-sake but can be decomposed to see all the goodness inside.
The best part of PixelTools, other than the great looks, is the ability to decompose or view the Compound Node structure and see what’s under the hood. Not only does it make you appreciate all of the painstaking work that is already done for you, but you can study it, tweak it and learn from it. I know a lot of companies that don’t like to reveal how things are done, but with PixelTools you can break the grades. Follows my favorite motto: “A rising tide lifts all boats” mindset.
From the understated “2-Strip Holiday” look to the crunchy “Bleach Duotone 2” with the handy “Saturation Adjust” node on the end of the tree, PixelTools is the prime example of pre-built looks that can be as easy as drag-and-dropping onto a clip or as intricate as adjusting each node to the way you like it. One of my favorite looks is a good-old Bleach Bypass — use two layer nodes (one desaturated and one colored), layer mix with a composite mode set to Overlay and adjust saturation to taste. The Bleach Bypass setup is not a tightly guarded secret, but PixelTools gets you right to the Bleach Bypass look with the Bleach Duotone 2 and also adds a nice orange and teal treatment on top.
Now I know what you are thinking — “Orange and Teal! Come on, what are we Michael Bay making Transformers 30?!” Well, the answer is, obviously, yes. But to really dial the look to taste on my test footage I brought down the Saturation node at the end of the node tree to around 13%, and it looks fantastic! Moral of the story is: always dial in your looks, especially with presets. Just a little customization can take your preset-look to a personalized look quickly. Plus, you won’t be the person who just throws on a preset and walks away.
Will these looks work with my footage? If you shot in a Log-ish style like SLog or BMD Film, Red Log Film or even GoPro Flat you can use the Log presets and dial them to taste. If you shot footage in Rec. 709 with your Canon 5D Mark II, you can just use the standard looks. And if you want to create your own basegrade on Log footage just add the PixelTool PowerGrade Nodes after!
Much like my favorite drag-and-drop tools from Rampant Design, PixelTools will give you a jump on your color grading quickly and if nothing else can maybe shake loose some of that colorist creative block that creeps in. Throw on that “Fuji 1” or “Fuji 2” look, add a serial node in the beginning and crank up the red highlights…who knows it may give you some creative jumpstart that you are looking for. Know the rules to break the rules, but also break the rules to get those creative juices flowing.
In the end, PixelTools is not just a set of PowerGrades for DaVinci Resolve, they can also be creative jumpstarts. If you think your footage is mediocre, you will be surprised at what a good color grade will do. It can save your shoot. But don’t forget about the rendering when you are finished. Rendering speed will still be dependent on your CPU and GPU setup. In fact, using an Asus ConceptD 7 laptop with an Nvidia RTX 2080 GPU, I exported a one-minute long Blackmagic Raw sequence with only color correction (containing six clips) to 10-bit DPX files in :46 seconds, with a random PixelTools PowerGrade applied to each clip it took :40 seconds! In this case the Nvidia RTX 2080 really aided in the fast export but your mileage may vary.
Check out pixeltoolspost.com and make sure to at least download their sample pack. From the one of five Kodak looks, two Fuji Looks, Tobacco Newspaper to Old Worn VHS 2 with a hint of chromatic aberration you are sure to find something that fits your footage.
Brady Betzel is an Emmy-nominated online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood, working on shows like Life Below Zero and The Shop. He is also a member of the Producer’s Guild of America. You can email Brady at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @allbetzroff.