Color grading has the ability to either make or break a final project. Good color grading can take average-looking footage and give it that cinematic, professional treatment you need. Bad color grading can take good footage and give it the look of a low-end, student film.
A recent trend we’ve noticed is the use of flat color grading, in both video and photography. Instead of upping the saturation and boosting contrast, filmmakers/photographers have gone and done the opposite: the blacks are lighter, the colors dimmer, and everything is just flat, flat, FLAT! The use of natural lighting is embraced, giving images a look as if they used no professional lighting and further flattens the look of the image.
Before we get into the “why’s” of this trend, let’s first distinguish the difference between shooting flat for technical reasons and having a flat look for stylistic reasons. Filmmakers normally shoot flat in order to have more freedom in the editing room for color grading options. Basically, by turning down the contrast, color, and sharpness, they are giving their images more dynamic range and more data to work with later on. If you are boosting saturation and contrast in the camera itself, you may eliminate certain colors and looks you may want to change.
However, keeping this flat look in the final edit isn’t the norm. It can make your projects look rough and unfinished. So why are filmmakers leaning towards this when we’re so used to seeing images with higher contrast? Well, it all depends on why you do it. If used with purpose, a stylized, flat look can add a lot to your video: a sense of realism and authenticity.
For example, the HBO series Girls has a very stylistic flat look. Check out the image above: notice how much lighter the blacks are and how the colors have been significantly desaturated. Compare this image with a shot from Game of Thrones. This is the look we’re used to in films: high contrast and lots of color. In the case of Girls, cinematographer Tim Ives made a very conscious decision for the look of the show. It gives it a look that matches it’s desired tone of realism and compliments the setting of the characters’ low-rent, Brooklyn existence.
Take a look at this Apple commercial. In it, we are observing a “real” moment between a girl and her grandmother. We should feel like observers, and this is done by stripping away anything fancy. Another example is the Lorde music video Royals. In the song, she sings about a generation that doesn’t care about wealth, fame, or materialism. This idea is reflected in it’s look. Nothing about it is glamorous, everything is subdued and the lighting appears completely natural, appearing only to come from windows. All in all, it feels real.
The key here is that a “flat” look like this must be used in the correct context. If your goal is to give a more natural, authentic feel to your video, going flat is a reasonable consideration. However, if you’re shooting something involving a stylized action sequence or a fast paced car ad, high contrast and bright colors are probably your best bet. Don’t be trendy just to be trendy: look at your story and base your creative decisions off of it.