Film School: Learn Colour & Exposure from Your Faves

Reference Stills through Scopes Reference Stills through Scopes

Techniques for reverse-engineering shots you’d like to create.


One way to learn to create images is by looking at the films you love and trying to break down how they work. One informative technique is to pull stills from movies into your editing suite, and look at them through scopes (in this case Premiere Pro, but the principle is the same across DaVinci, After Effects, Final Cut etc). It can be revealing: as an example, for all the YouTube chatter about “cinematic” grading, most movies which actually play in cinemas do not utilise the full spectrum of highlights and shadows, and don’t feature “perfect” skin tones.

Reference Stills through Scopes

Don’t know how scopes work? Here’s a selection of basic and more detailed tutorials:

Case Study: Sicario

A couple of DaVinci Resolve video tutorials demonstrate this approach, each using shots from Sicario (2015), directed by Denis Villeneuve and shot by Roger Deakins. Waqas Qazi contrasts “commercial” with “cinematic” (as in, movies which actually play in cinemas) grading, beginning at 10:43):

RocketStock focuses on further refinement using HSL curves:

False Colour

LensProToGo suggests looking at the false colour in shots from movies – specifically, to learn about light ratio. Without taking the numbers as bible (the comments section is full of corrections and criticisms of the metrics mentioned in the video), the basic concept still holds (which itself is, again according to the comments section, taken from Wandering DP):

Don’t know about false colour? Here’s a handy starter guide:

Try It Yourself

Mason Summers demonstrates how to sample the colour from a movie still, via Photoshop, to create a custom LUT you can then apply to your own footage in your video editor:

Color Grading Central demonstrates how to Let DaVinci Resolve Create Looks For You:

Bonus: this technique can be applied to still images too – PIXimperfect demonstrates how to Steal the Color Grading from Any Image with Photoshop:

Further Viewing

Here’s a collection of our favourite video essays exploring ways colour is used in visual storytelling – and why you should incorporate colour into the planning of your own film productions:

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