How to Color Grade Day-for-Night in After Effects

Earlier this year I was hired as a cinematographer for a local short film. The producers also asked me to edit the film and I've been working on the cut over the past few weeks. One specific shot I worked on yesterday was a scene that takes place at night, even though we shot it during the day. The frame grab below is from the raw, ungraded ProRes file from the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera:

Original, ungraded ProRes file from the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

Original, ungraded ProRes file from the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera

This particular scene was shot mid-morning on a cold, cloudy day. The cloud cover actually worked in our favor. We didn't have to worry about harsh streaks of sunlight hitting the talent. Rather, we were provided with a nice, soft, diffused light, which really helped me out when I started grading the footage.

If you search YouTube for tutorials on day-for-night color correction, you will get a lot of hits. Video Co-Pilot also has some good tutorials. Everyone's method will probably be a little bit different, but here's a run-down of my workflow for achieving this look. I don't claim that my method is the best. Rather, these are the steps I used for this particular project. Hopefully you will walk away from this post with some useful information.

Setting Up the Project

  • I dropped the clip into After Effects and created a new composition.
  • Rather than apply each effect to the original clip, I created Adjustment Layers for each effect I wanted to use on the clip. I like using Adjustment Layers because it's non-destructive and I can quickly go back to the original footage, or mix and match effects to my liking.
  • I added an Adjustment Layer to the composition and labeled it "color grade." I used a combination of Color Finesse and Colorista II to get a base color correction on the entire scene.

Applying a Base Color Grade

  • I pulled the Exposure level down across the entire scene until I was happy with the look.
  • I boosted the contrast and tried to crush the blacks as much as possible. Remember, at night, there is virtually no visible detail.
  • I desaturated the entire image. At night, it's difficult for our eyes to see colors, so it's important to remove color from the scene to help sell the effect.
  • I pulled the Shadows and Midtones more into the blue areas of the color wheel. You don't want it to look too blue. Always keep the blacks black. If there's too much tint in your shadows, an audience might not buy into the effect.

The base color correction looks pretty good, but it still needed a bit more.

Adding Effects

  • I really wanted to give the scene a little more contrast overall. In reality, unless you have an artificial light coming from a streetlight, or storefront window, night time is super dark. But of course, your scene still needs some detail, otherwise the audience won't be able to see what's happening on screen (duh, right?). So, to help create the effect of blackness without completely losing detail, I added another Adjustment Layer and renamed it "edge shadow."
  • After creating this adjustment layer, I added an Exposure effect to it and brought down the level by another stop or two, making the scene blacker. 
  • I then created two rectangular masks, and placed them on frame left and frame right. The rectangular masks were placed at 45-degree angles, creating a triangle shape around the center of the frame. 
  • By feathering the masks, I was able to create a nice vignette for the scene, keeping detail in the center of the frame while letting some detail fall off on the edges.

Finishing Touches

  • I turned each layer into a 3D layer and added Light layer on top of everything. I specified the Light to be Spot, and moved it to the top of the frame, so it would shine down across the center of the frame. I wanted to create the illusion of moonlight overhead.
  • I copied my original footage into a duplicate layer and drew a mask around the porch light.
  • I added an optical flare (A plug-in from Video Copilot) to the duplicate layer to create the illusion that the porch light is on.
  • I keyframed both the mask and the flare so that it would track with the movement of the camera for the duration of the shot.
  • Finally, I inserted another Adjustment Layer and added another optical flare on top of my composition so that it looks like the porch light is causing a lens flare in the foreground. Again, I keyframed the position of this layer so that it tracks with the motion of the camera.
Final, color graded shot from After Effects

Final, color graded shot from After Effects

The resulting image is in the above frame grab. Again, this was my method for this particular shot. It doesn't mean you have to do it the same way. There are several different methods out there. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, or post links to some of your favorite tutorials.