Color Grading An Animated Short Film

October 6, 2021

Colorist Patrick Inhofer shares a behind-the-scenes look at color grading an animated short film - and how it differs from live action.


Part 1: Learning to ‘See’ Like an Animation Director

In the member’s-only Slack channel, I’ve seen the question asked about color grading for animation: What does a colorist do on those projects? If you assume that the animators have control over the entire universe shown within the frame, what’s the point of bringing in a colorist?

It’s a fair question. Remember: In single-camera productions, a big part of the colorist’s job is to provide continuity across sequential images that may have been recorded days – or weeks – apart. A colorist also makes adjustments to exposure and colorfulness due to variations in available light. But in animation, these are problems.

Animators have complete control over lights, textures, and the camera. They can control the dust in the air, the clouds in the sky, and the placement of the sun (or the practical light sources). It seems counter-intuitive that there’s a need for a colorist on these types of projects.

But there are two elements that almost all animated projects run short on: Time. Budget.

Speed and efficiency saves time and money

The true cost of controlling every element in an animated scene is the time it takes to render the final image. The more detailed and realistic the image, the longer it takes. As we all know, time also costs money. There come a point on any production (animated or live-action) where revisions aren’t worth the cost.

Sometimes the cost of a revision may be missing your delivery deadline (time). Sometimes the cost is literal cash to pay for the hardware and human to execute the revision and deliver back the final image. By the time a project gets to the colorist, usually, time and money are simultaneous limitations that the Executive Producer and Director are battling. And that’s where a colorist or finishing editor can be a powerful quiver in a production’s arsenal.

In this Insight, I’ll share my perspective on color grading animated projects.

Over my 30+ year career, I’ve had a few opportunities to flex my muscles in this genre of our industry – including back when I was primarily a finishing editor.

20 years of color grading animations

It was around 1998 that I graded my first animated short. Although, at the time I was operating a tape-based finishing suite (for those of you that were around, I ran a Kadenza – which had several integrated K-scopes – mastering to D-1 with several D-1 and DCT tape decks for laying back when doing multi-layer compositing). I was working at Tape House Digital in New York City and one of the clients of a sister company (Tape House Toons) was director, writer, and humorist Robert Smeigel.

Finishing SNL’s ‘TV Funhouse’

That job was for Saturday Night Live’s ‘TV Funhouse’ animated short series, ‘The Ambiguously Gay Duo‘ (I’ve linked to one of the episodes I remember working on, though the details of my work are lost to the fog of time). If I remember correctly, I spent two seasons working on that show. What did I do?

I did the same thing I do today: I fixed mistakes. I changed colors. I placed rerenders to fix small render errors. I did shot matching where hues or saturation drifted for unknown reasons. But mostly, with a very tight deadline (these were Friday afternoon sessions that had to be delivered for the Friday night rehearsal) these were fixes that couldn’t be done in animation. They had run out of time.

Color Grading CRU’s ‘Legion’ and ‘Chosen Witness’

Fast forward 20 years and a new client walks through my doors in 2019, CRU Ministries. They had a 3:30 animated short titled ‘Legion’. While the content was very different from SNL, and the animation style was also very different, I found the duties I was asked to perform was very similar. Shot matching, fixing small render errors, refining time of day, these were the same duties as two decades ago, when I last worked on this type of project.

But one thing changed between 1998 and 2019: Digital compositing

Legion was created in Maya, rendered out to EXR, and composited in Resolve 16 Studio. It used a Fusion plugin called Cryptomattes to easily import multi-layer mattes into Fusion, with a very intuitive ‘picker’ to build precise, material ID key signals.

My duties as a finisher and colorist hadn’t changed – but the tools to accomplish my goals were as different as the Model T is different than a Tesla. Both cars do the same thing – but are worlds and generations of technology apart.

In this Insight and Series

In the video Insight below, I walk you through the creative aspect of grading an animated short. It’s based on a 9.5 minute short, ‘Chosen Witness’, completed this past April. It was the same team as ‘Legion’ but at nearly triple the length, the demands on the entire team were much higher. They also had a firm delivery date of an Easter weekend release – so we started grading almost two months before delivery.

The team made sure to lock several scenes, so I could get an early start. But they knew at least one scene wouldn’t deliver just before release, so as additional scenes were locked, they were delivered to me for grading.

In this Insight, I also give you a sneak peek into the Fusion compositions and an introduction into how I pulled mattes from Fusion to help my color grading on the Color page.

Coming Up in Parts 2 & 3

In Part 2 I’ll walk you through:

  • The challenges of working in Fusion
  • How to install the Cryptomatte plugin
  • How to use the Cryptomatte plugin
  • Problems using Cryptomattes and my workarounds
  • Optimizing the workflow for real-time interactions on the Color Page

In Part 3 we’ll have a roundtable discussion with the compositor, producer, and director of these two short films.

The Chosen

I’ve embedded the full short film here and then you can scroll down to watch the behind-the-scenes breakdown. If you want to watch ‘Legion’, from two years ago, here’s that link. The video Insight is below. Enjoy!


Chosen Witness © 2021 Jesus Film Project ® All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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