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27 Feb2018

Video Editor’s Guide to LUTs and Color Grading

Read any discussion of the work of highly regarded film or video editors, and you’re bound to come upon a discussion of the “look” of their work. This term can mean a lot of things, but it is often applied when discussing the color balance and grading of a film or video. These elements are a big part of what defines the look of a film. Consider the differences in the color balance and grading between “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Blade Runner 2049,” and you can begin to appreciate how important color grading is as a tool in the editor’s kit.

A Versatile Tool for Grading and Finishing Your Video

The first challenge a video editor faces in color grading is consistency throughout their work. While you can use a variety of tools to individually adjust the color levels and RGB values of the clips in your work, it’s a lot easier to apply a consistent set of values to your work as you proceed. That’s where LUTs enter the picture.

LUT is short for “Look Up Table.” A LUT applies a predetermined set of values onto your source material, with the goal of creating a distinctive or specific look as a result. One of the most common applications is to emulate the look of film stock for video footage, but a variety of outcomes can be tailored for different LUTs, including using a LUT to preview how existing images will appear on specific output devices.

Not All LUTs Are Created Equal

One of the factors that create confusion about LUTs is that the term can refer to any of several different software packages designed to do different things in the production process. Carefully employing LUTs throughout the process can eliminate time-consuming and costly color-grading caused by the differing standards of gear used for photography and monitoring. We’ll follow the main categories of LUTs through the production and post-production process.

  • Display LUTs – Display LUTs are used to ensure that monitors and cameras on-set will display images that match a reference standard. Applying these LUTs doesn’t change the actual footage that is recorded but allows the videographer and others to adjust exposures and other parameters correctly during videography.
  • Calibration LUTs – These are used to ensure that the monitor or display you utilize in editing matches up to specific standards. This is especially important when working with a larger production team, as it ensures that you see the same thing that they are when you view the footage.
  • Input LUTs – Input LUTs (sometimes called “camera patches”) are used once you reach post-production. Editors will employ these LUTs as a launching point for the remainder of the color grading process. Typically, these LUTs are designed to alter the footage from specific standards to the standard that has been chosen by the editor.
  • Creative LUTs – Creative LUTs are what many editors think of when “LUT” is mentioned. Creative LUTs are used to add a “look” to your shots – for example, to mimic film stock or to capture a specific look, like in our movie examples at the beginning. As with all LUTs, a creative LUT can’t simply be applied to all your footage with the expectation of consistent results. You may need to tweak your images (or even apply an input LUT) before you apply the LUT to the body of the work.

Applying LUTs to Your Work

Let’s start with one simple precept. Apply a LUT to your footage doesn’t eliminate the need to perform color grading to correct flaws or to apply more sophisticated effects. But LUTs are a great place to start when you’re looking to emulate the look of specific film stocks or film style. Think of your LUT as a bridge between your source footage and the result you want. Most popular video editing platforms, like Premiere or Final Cut Pro, allow you to apply LUTs to your footage as you edit. If you’re only concerned with color grading and LUTs applications, and not the entire spectrum of video editing, you may want to use specific emulation software packages like FilmConvert or DaVinci Resolve. You can split the difference by using plugin software like Color Finale or Colorista to add capabilities to your editing program.

Sourcing LUTs

If you’re just getting started with LUTs consider checking out some of the many free LUTs available from companies like PremiumBeat, RocketStock, or Color Grading Central (one of my favorites). As you gain experience and hone your preferences, you may find that you want to upgrade to more sophisticated packages. Check the forums at sites like Creative Cow, Lowepost, and others for information and advice.

Take the Plunge

It may seem a bit intimidating to move into the world of LUTs. But when you’re ready to move beyond the world of “good enough” and make a statement with your video editing, you’ll find that these are excellent tools to employ. As with any new skill, you’ll find that there’s a learning curve. But there are a wealth of tools and resources available for the aspiring editor. Take the first step and use a LUT on your next project.

– Video Caddy

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