Black and White Grading with Selective Color

I recently came across this post from Little Black Book and really enjoyed it.  It hits close to home and echoes my sentiments on a project that I just wrapped.  Over the last couple of months I have been doing an exciting campaign with NASCAR and Trident Post Production.  So far we have completed over 15 spots with more coming later this year.  It’s a lot of content, but in the world of sports, you have to stay current.  Major kudos to all the teams for staying organized and on top of everything.  It’s no easy task.  Take a peek below at one of the spots we recently completed…

All the spots from the campaign have this treatment  – black and white with specific colors showing through.  For each driver we chose a color that best represents them and show only that color every time they appear on screen.  It’s been used several times in the past and is more commonly known as the “Sin City” look.

For anyone not familiar with the process, it basically involves grading the image in black and white while retaining the desired color information and allowing it to show through in order to create a dramatic impact. The first time I recall it being done was in Schindler’s List (perhaps there are earlier examples?).  It was an incredibly powerful moment in cinematic history.

Communication with the post team was a critical part in making sure this campaign went smoothly.  We had to decide what color we wanted for every driver/car and when to highlight them.  If we were unable to make up our mind, we’d deliver multiple passes for flexibility in the online.  Once that was nailed down we discussed which shots we’d need rotoscoping for.  Some shots I was able to easily mask out on my own.  But for the majority of the shots, it was simply impossible.  Too much work/time and not as effective a result as if it were done with external mattes.

My process in grading the material was fairly straightforward.  I’d go through every shot and do a base grade in color.  Basically a balance job with contrast and saturation.  During this pass I made sure to separate colors as much as I could, all while retaining as much information as possible.  So once this pass was completed, the piece would look as if it were a somewhat finished spot, but all in color.

Next, I would append a node to each shot and in the RGB Mixer tab check the “monochrome” option.  This would allow me to turn the image black and white while having control of the intensity of each red, green, and blue channel.  I would then start grading in black and white while managing contrast, and shaping the image.  Working in this manner allowed for more flexibility than simply turning the saturation down to zero.  I found it especially helpful on skin tones and would recommend it for any black and white work.

At this point I had a very nice looking black and white image, but I still needed to pull the color through.  So in each case I used a Layer Mixer node and connected it back to my original color balance node.  From there, I’d normally use an external matte to isolate the region that we wanted to focus on and work the image over with windows and hue vs. sat curves.  In some instances I had to use HSL qualifiers and a little of my own rotoscoping to remove an undesirable color that I couldn’t remove with curves.  If the color coming through wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, I would tweak with LGG controls until we were happy with the result.

The biggest challenge while working on this campaign was trying to keep everything cohesive.  To make it flow from shot to shot and work in a manner that seemed natural and didn’t distract the viewer.  Since each shot was treated so uniquely, I had to take a step back and make sure that everything worked together as a whole.  So once I had gone through with my isolated color pass, I’d put that portion of the job in the back of my mind and try to work in a more traditional manner.  I really wanted the spot to move smoothly from one cut to the next while helping guide the viewers eye.  It was a nice fine polish and I ended up catching some stuff that really helped the final result.

Ultimately, it was a very fun job to work on.  Organization and communication played a huge role in making sure everything worked properly.  On several shots I had numerous mattes.  Each matte had to be properly labeled, lined up, and QC’ed.  There was no room for error.  A slipped matte would show color in regions that were not supposed to be shown and could easily ruin the desired effect.  So I would put shots on loop and just stare at each region until I was satisfied with the mattes effect.  Sure, it was a little painstaking and not very fun, but it yielded a better result because of it.  Sometimes grading is not as glamorous as it seems!  But attention to detail can make or break a job and nothing cheapens your work more than an easily fixable mistake that was an unfortunate oversight.


  1. Beh Jing Qiang

    Hey Rob

    Beautiful work!! Love it! I have a few questions,

    1) Who created the External Matte? You yourself or with the help of others?
    2) I once graded a B&W Music Video, from my Plasma Monitor I don’t see any banding, but once I exported, there is a very serious banding in a lot of shot. (Weird that the banding can be seen in QT player but not VLC player) Is there anyway for me to prevent banding in my final export?

    • Rob Bessette

      The external mattes were provided by the vfx vendor. They were given the shots 2-3 days in advance and worked around the clock to get them ready for coloring.

      Hard to say on the banding issue. My guess is that you were working off a pretty compressed image (8-bit or 4:2:0) and that was showing through. In Resolve 14 there is a pretty nice OFX feature. I think it’s called “de-banding” or something along those lines. Sometimes if the banding is minor, you can get away with some NR or blur in the offending region.

      • Beh Jing Qiang

        Hey Rob

        Thank you for the answer.

        I had three different footages from different cameras from different projects: Kinefinity, Red Dragon & Blackmagic Design Ursa Mini 4.6 Pro. The Red Dragon is recording RedRaw, Kinefinity & Ursa Mini was recording on ProRes 4444. What I found similar is that these footages are recording in low light condition, and I don’t see any banding issues at all from the original footage & during the grading session, it only appears at some of the shadow area after I graded & exported them.

        I wonder these is it because the way I grade is wrong and causes banding, or because these footages are in a low light condition?

        • Rob Bessette

          Those are all quality formats, so that shouldn’t’ be the problem. If it’s a low light situation that you’re not seeing while grading, it may be a monitor issue. The monitor might not be showing the banding since it’s getting crushed when it’s not supposed to be. It might be worth looking at some bars and see if you can see the pluge. That would be a good indicator.

          There are a lot of variables, so it’s kind of hard to tell, but that would be a good starting point.

  2. Eric-Jan van den Bogaard

    So the “Heimat” (war) movie (1984 by Edgar Reitz) wasn’t the 1st time this effect was used ?
    at one moment there are roses thrown out of the cockpit of the pilot, at such a moment it’s a very effective effect, that will be remembered.

    • Rob Bessette

      I have never seen that before. Thank you for sharing. I don’t think I’d qualify this as the type of work that we’re talking about though. If you look closely at the rose shots it appears as if the entire frame is in color. It’s just harder to tell, since it’s against a white sky. But it’s a dead giveaway when they show the tilt down and you see everything else in color.

  3. Ildus Gabidullin

    You guys forget the story . For 65 years before Schindler, the great Director Sergei Eisenstein in the movie “Battleship Potemkin” used this technique

  4. Ildus Gabidullin

    Hey Rob

    Excellent work!!!

    You guys forget about history . For 65 years before Schindler, the great Director Sergei Eisenstein in the movie “Battleship Potemkin” used this technique


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