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It takes a split second for a brain to judge your game’s visual style. Color grading, a post processing visual effect, is often the secret sauce that tells the audience that what they’re looking at has a polish, a unique style or a particular mood. I talked to a developer and an Asset Store publisher to get the recipe.

“To get started, try watching films with colour grading you admire! I’ve watched Iron Man, Blade Runner, Transformers, Battlestar Galactica, Oblivion, and many others – it’s great to pick apart what others are doing, and see why it’s effective. ” says Iestyn Lloyd of Lloyd Digital. He also finds Instagram’s filters quite inspiring.

dropship with without full sizeLloy’d Unity 5 Dropship demo, before and after color grading. Asset is Orbital Reentry Craft by Andromeda Station.

When you know what you kind of style you want to go for, take a screenshot of a scene in your game and open it in Photoshop. Play around with everything under Image > Adjustments until you reach the style you’re happy with. There are plenty of tutorials online (like this one) that can help you along the way.

But how do you transfer that look to your game? Color grading is basically mapping every possible color to another color. Imagine all these mapped colors are stored in a cube, with red value on the X axis, green value on the Y axis and the blue on the Z axis.

A 2D representation of this cube is called unwrapped volume texture, also known as LUT (color look-up texture). After you perform the same color adjustments on a new neutral LUT as you did on your screenshot, you can save it as a new LUT. Then assign the new LUT to the effect and hit Convert & Apply. More info on this workflow is in Unity Documentation, but it’s far from the only way to get color grading.

“There’s a number of plugins that don’t require Photoshop at all – that’s where I got started!,” says Iestyn. “Colorful has a number of easy-to-use presets which can be easily tweaked to give a pleasing result. Chromatica is very clever and is my tool of choice right now. It gives you a number of colour grading tools similar to the ones found in Photoshop right in the Unity editor and allows for split-screen before-and-after previews, among many other features.”

UNT_as_sale_may_FB_asset_2_1200x628Colorful – Image Effects

For artists and any professionals that have experience with image editing software, he recommends Amplify Color: “Amplify Color makes it extremely easy to send screenshots directly to Photoshop for colour grading. It also supports volumes, which can be a very easy way to change the grading throughout areas of your game.”

Amplify Color is a script you apply to camera. After you set up remote connection with Photoshop, you can then send a screenshot from Unity to Photoshop with one click, adjust in Photoshop and then click Read screenshot from Photoshop in Unity when you’re done. Apply it to camera by dragging it to the correct slot.

It also has a “File Mode” that allows users to export an image to any kind of professional software they are familiar with such as Davinci Resolve, Nuke, After Effects or even Gimp, grade it and import it back into Unity.

It’s used in a wide range of projects, from realistic games like The Forest to incredibly stylized creations such as Firewatch, the recent GI Unity Demo or even 2D games such as Night in The Woods.

screenshot7Night in the Woods

“Grading film and VFX is easier since all the shots are mostly predetermined. Grading an interactive and free moving game might be quite tricky. Amplify Color offers volume based color grading and a way to bind third party effects to the scene mood in order to simplify the process. It also provides support for dynamically generated color grading masks, a great way to isolate and grade specific assets,” says Ricardo Teixeira of Amplify Creations, the publisher of the asset.

Another advantage of Amplify Color is it’s flexibility. “We offer Full Source Code with all our products, users can build upon and improve their their tools whenever needed and Amplify Color 2.0, as a free update, is already in the works with an easy-to-use LUT editor within Unity and a few other surprises” he adds. This month, Amplify Color is  half-price to all Level 11 members.

Whatever workflow or tool suits you, color grading opens up a whole new world of possibilities for the final look of your game. With so many new games hitting the market these days, showing off an interesting level of visual polish can help you stand out.

“Just feel free to experiment and be creative! It’s so easy to start playing around with colour grading. There are no rights or wrongs – it’s all about the aesthetic you want to convey to the player of your game,“  says Iestyn.

More color grading resources:

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  1. For years I have said that the one thing I suck at most in Unity was lighting. Creating a scene that looked good. I couldn’t understand why having pro and having shadows didn’t make my scenes look awesome. Eventually I convinced myself it was texturing and proper shaders…

    Then I found out about PBR and I knew THAT was the reason… for sure. If I used PBR materials, THAT would make my scenes look beautiful. Color grading? I never even thought about / knew about that and now that I do, I don’t think any scene can look good without it…

    This is a “must have” for me now, in all future projects. This article has been a real eye opener, thank you. Especially that one youTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFuenozbiE0)

    All I can say is thank you!

  2. For a great collection of LUTs for your game to get started with color grading, check out Cinema Themes:

    https://www.assetstore.unity3d.com/en/#!/content/20394

    A great collection and it’s free!

  3. Gordon Ramsey

    May 13, 2015 at 12:25 am

    It’s becoming pretty frustrating to pay for everything here on unity…

    1. Uh, Unity just recently became free, and as far as I am aware, the asset store items linked in the article are created by the Unity community.

      Oh, and might I remind you that you yourself could create such tools, or find other free alternatives.

      Theres also post processing shaders in Unity that will allow you to do simple color grading:

      Color Correction Curves
      Color Correction Ramp
      Color Correction Lookup
      Tonemapping

      1. Sorry, the link for Color Ramp was wrong

        Color Correction Ramp

      2. Thanks for reminding me of that ramp shader. I have never used it before so never paid it much attention and completely forgot about it already…

        Reading this article above led me to this one a few days ago http://docs.unity3d.com/Manual/script-ColorCorrectionLookup.html but I am slightly confused… Both these processes start with a screenshot of your scene and you then saving the color adjustments … from here it gets a tad confusing for me… it seems you use exactly the same process to both the ramp texture and the 16×1 LUD texture image. Is this the case?

        But most importantly, I was planning on buying the Color package before I saw that Unity has this support built in so what I would like to know is why would one buy those kits instead of using the built in features? Do the built in versions suck or something? Or do the other kits just offer more? If so, what? If it applies color grading then isn’t that what you want? What else could it offer?

        So… What is the difference between the Color Correction Lookup table and the Color Correction Ramp effects and how does this compare to kits like Color? Why would you choose one over the other?

    2. Instead of complaining you could instead look at what these packages do and just build yourself the same functionality.

    3. Alexandre Fiset

      May 14, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      Would YOU work for free?

      Buying an extension like Amplify Color saves you dozens of hours of work for a fraction of the cost.

      If you don’t like it, do it yourself “for free”.

      1. I think he was meaning that some essential things should be the part of Unity and not payed extentions.

  4. very nice article.

    1. Kristyna Paskova

      May 14, 2015 at 11:04 pm

      Glad you found it helpful!