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Basic Color Correction in After Effects

OK, who's this guy? I don't know either, but I don't think he's really Italian. However, he is going to be useful in helping to introduce you to After Effects' most basic color correction tools.

(If you'd like to follow along, you can download this clip from the Prelinger Archives, a huge repository of free public-domain and Creative Commons-licensed films. This particular film is available here. I'd recommend you download the MPEG4 version.)

Color correction - the art of changing hue and luminance in film and video footage to match other footage or fix production problems - is a deep subject, and After Effects has some deep tools, including Synthetic Aperture's Color Finesse 3, which we'll look at in detail at another time. But there are many simpler tools available in After Effects too, so let's get started.

Step 1 - Import the Film and Set Up Its Comp

So, import the clip, drag it onto the New Comp button, and trim the comp - we're going to use just the first 10 seconds of the clip for this tutorial:

Preview the comp, and note that the footage changes color several times, due to bad film stock, a bad digital transfer, and probably bad compression as well. (Also note the bad accent.)

To make the clip a little more presentable, we're going to neutralize those color changes.

Step 2 - Locate a Reference Frame

Next, scan through the clip and find a frame that has the best color - I chose the frame at 9:09, as the white of his cart looks pretty neutral there:

This gives us something to match visually for the rest of the clip.

Step 3 - Take a Snapshot of the Frame

Click the Snapshot button at the bottom of the Comp window to put that frame in memory so we can recall it later:

Step 4 - Apply Color Balance

With the layer selected, choose Effect > Color Correction > Color Balance. Once it's applied, enable keyframing for all the Color Balance properties on the first frame. Next, go to your reference frame time (9:09 in my case), and set 0 value keyframes at that point too. (This is so that your reference frame stays at its neutral color value.) Now, go back to time zero, and click on the Show Snapshot button to display your reference frame, then release it to show the beginning frame.

Adjust the Shadow (dark areas), Midtone, and Hi-light (bright areas) Balance values to match the color of the cart in both shots as much as possible, clicking on the Show Snapshot button as often as necessary to see the reference. I'd suggest something like this to start:

Step 5 - Continue Correction

Move ahead to the next major color shift, and re-adjust the Balance values until the clip colors match, as much as possible, the reference frame colors. Continue doing so until the entire clip is as evenly color matched to your reference as possible. You'll probably need to go back between your major color shift areas and adjust the in-between values to compensate for the earlier and later color shifts. Continue doing so, remembering to check your reference frame snapshot frequently, until your clip is color corrected to your satisfaction, something like this:

I admit it's not perfect, but it's tough footage, and with a little more tweaking, it can be improved.

It can be a tedious process to color correct, particularly when the color shifts around as much as this does, but with practice, you'll be able to color balance all but the most difficult footage using this technique.

If you have any questions we'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below!

Check out the entire range of After Effects training available here!

Richard Lainhart

Richard Lainhart | Articles by this author

Richard Lainhart is an award-winning composer, filmmaker, and author. His compositions have been performed in the US, Europe Asia, and Australia, and recordings of his music have appeared on the Periodic Music, Vacant Lot, XI Records, Airglow Music, Tobira Records, Infrequency, VICMOD, and ExOvo labels. His animations and short films have been shown in festivals in the US, Europe, and Asia, and online at ResFest, The New Venue, The Bitscreen, and Streaming Cinema 2.0. He has authored over a dozen technical manuals for music and video hardware and software, served as Contributing Editor for Interactivity and 3D Design Magazines, and contributed to books on digital media production published by IDG, Peachpit Press, McGraw Hill, and Miller Freeman Books. Previously an Adobe Certified Expert in After Effects and Premiere, a demo artist for Adobe Systems, and co-founder of the official New York City After Effects User Group, he was, from 2000-2009, Technical Director for Total Training Productions, an innovative digital media training company based in New York and California.

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