Pro Tips, Tutorials

How to Use Selective Color in a Black-and-White Video with Premiere Pro

One of the most fun parts of filmmaking is when the medium becomes the message or, in other words, when the film’s mise-en-scène becomes part of the story. A great example of this is the 1998 cult-classic Pleasantville, which employed a special color-corrective effect to isolate colors in black-and-white film and underscore the diegesis.

In the film, the two modern-day protagonists, played by Toby McGuire and Reese Witherspoon, get stuck in a black-and-white 1950s suburbia void of passion and individuality. As they explore this world and interact with its socially repressed population, parts of the the black-and-white environment begin to turn to color.

Pleasantville image courtesy of New Line Cinema

The editors were able to achieve this effect by digitally scanning the 35mm film (which was shot entirely in color) and then desaturating it using a MegaDef Color Correction System from Pandora International.

If you don’t shoot on film, but on UHD, 4K, or 1080p video, you can also achieve this effect using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Here’s how to do it.


Method 1: Using Built-in Premiere Pro Effects

I started with this close-up clip of a woman with red lipstick from rocketclips on Pond5.

The first step in this process is to duplicate the clip in your timeline so that you have the same clip on two layers: V1 and V2. Apply the built-in “tint” effect to the clip on V1 to make it black-and-white.

For the clip on V2, select it from the timeline, then draw an opacity mask using the “free draw bezier” pen tool around the section you want to isolate. You can then track it forwards using the “track selected mask forward” button.

Premiere Pro’s built-in track forward button, however, doesn’t always work perfectly, and often requires going back frame by frame to fix the mask so that it stays on the subject accurately over time. This can take a long time.

A much easier and faster method is to use BorisFX’s Continuum suite, featuring award-winning planar tracking software Mocha Pro.

Method 2: Using BorisFX Continuum in Premiere Pro

Continuum comes with loads of film effects, green-screen tools, and more. To achieve the “Plesantville” effect, you’ll use the “BCC Two Strip Color” effect, which is part of Continuum’s “Film Style” suite.

The BCC Two Strip Color Effect can generate a technicolor look, and it includes the Pixel Chooser with Mocha Pro, which enables you to isolate masks to protect regions of the clip from being affected by the color filter.

Important Note: Before you apply this effect, I recommend working from a locked picture. You don’t want to have to re-do the tracking of this effect on new clips later on.

Using BorisFX, you only need to have one instance of the clip in the timeline. Here is the step-by-step:

1. If you haven’t already, install the trial version or your purchased version of Continuum with Premiere Pro CC closed.

2. Open Premiere Pro and search for “BCC Two Strip” from your Premiere Pro “Effects” window. Apply this effect in your timeline by dragging and dropping the effect on the clip. Then, from within the effect, bring the saturation down to 0.

3. Launch Mocha Pro and draw a mask around the section you want to isolate using the “X-Spline” tool and track it forward and back.

4. After you’re done tracking, while still in Mocha Pro, go to “File” and hit “Save.” Go to “File” again and “Export Project” to save the Mocha project-tracking data file to your project folder.

5. From beneath the “PixelChooser/Mocha” dropdown, under “Mask,” choose “Shape – Mocha Spline” and select “Invert Mask.”

6. You then must apply another instance of the “BCC Two Strip Color” effect to the clip. This time, don’t bring the saturation down. Launch Mocha and from the menu, go to “File” and and select “Merge Project,” then select the .mocha tracking data file from step 4. This will merge the tracking data so you don’t have to track again. Hit “Save.” This will apply the Two Strip Color look to just the isolated section.

7. Lastly, and completely optionally, you can apply a BCC Film Damage effect to the clip (also a part of the Continuum suite) to give it a more “film-like color” and older look.

Render the clip out and you’re done.

But what about tracking and isolating more than one color in more complex shots?

Using Continuum to Isolate An Entire Moving Actor

For a more complex shot, I used this clip of two boys playing in the sand on the beach by VIAFilms and tracked one boy to be in color, then rendered the rest of the scene in black and white.

To do this, I went through the exact same steps as above, but more masking and tracking was involved.

As you can see below, there is a separate mask being tracked for every plane on the scene, such as the boy’s head, main body, and leg on left. Each of these parts of the body had to be tracked separately, because the movement occurs on different planes.

This process took about two hours to do on a ten-second clip. This is a tedious and intensive process, which is why I recommended only applying color-masking effects to a locked picture in order to save time.

If you have any questions about anything involved in this process, tell us in the comments below. You can check out more BorisFx tutorials on my YouTube channel.