Common Colorist Concerns

The following article was originally published on PostPerspective here.
Tristan Kneschke colored this spot for Pepsi.

Often at trade shows and conferences, there are sessions on the art of color science or challenges of color grading. Since it seems to be a growing topic of interest, as a freelance colorist, I thought I’d focus on some common questions I encounter from clients and colorists new to this quickly burgeoning field.

How do you go about teaching or learning the craft of color grading?
Color grading, like many crafts in the film industry, is honed through a mix of practice and theory. There is no replacement for direct industry experience, but it needs to be grounded in a firm understanding of the concepts of the technology.

A great color resource is Alexis Van Hurkman’s book, Color Correction Handbook: Professional Techniques for Video and Cinema, as well as the collected articles of the Tao of Color’s weekly newsletter (http://www.taoofcolor.com/newsletter). You can learn the programs themselves through training at FXPHD (http://www.fxphd.com).

A colorist will definitely want to invest in a third-party control surface. I’ve tried all of them, and today I’d go for the Tangent Element, which can be bought in pieces as your work supports it. Working without a panel is painfully slow and it’s really difficult to do quality work without one. With a panel you’ll just be able to roll through many more options for look sets, as well as being able to affect multiple parameters at once.

Freelancers today can find themselves working in a vacuum, so it’s important to reach out to the community and make industry contacts. These are people you can share workflow shortcuts with, and can provide constructive criticism as you hone your craft.

How is grading content for Web different than for broadcast?
Clients often ask why I’m using a broadcast-quality monitor when the piece will only be shown on the Web. The reason is because the Internet is sort of an uncharted frontier where, in terms of video, no clear, unified broadcast standard exists. By imposing the broadcast standard on everything I grade, it ensures a technologically correct baseline where everything should look as closely as intended.

In broadcast, we can’t compensate for the unintentional inaccuracy of a “sports” setting on a bar TV. We also can’t predict at what settings someone will have their computer monitor, tablet or phone set. What we can provide is a best-case middle ground in an arena where there is no “normal.”

Environmental shifts can cause problems when I send stills to clients sitting with an iPad in a fluorescently-lit room to evaluate, which is why I always advocate for clients being physically present during the session to ensure they’re getting what they’re seeing.

How do you feel about being a dedicated colorist versus being someone who does several things, including color?
There seems to be a trend occurring in the film industry where artists are taking it upon themselves to learn another craft. This has likely come about due to the relative availability of professional software as well as the economic tightening due to the recent recession. As creatives may find some of their usual gigs becoming scarcer, they expand their services so they can keep paying rent. It’s common to encounter shooters who color their footage, directors who produce their shoots, or editors who elevate their work by incorporating graphics. In these cases the disciplines act symbiotically to strengthen the work.

I primarily provide color-grading services via DaVinci Resolve, but I supplement my income with offline editorial (where my business began) and freelance writing. While a single artist performing a dedicated task in the production pipeline may be ideal, and has traditionally been the case, it doesn’t speak to the reality of our world anymore.

When companies like Netflix and Amazon are shooting their own content to supplement the business models of distributing or selling content, it’s clear a paradigm shift has occurred. In a similar way, freelancers are becoming more competitive by offering more skills. However, this only works when the skills you provide are performed at the same professional level as your clients have come to expect that level of quality from your work. It doesn’t make sense if you edit national spots but your titling looks like it was done in Paint.

To some degree, a pool of charlatans masquerading as professional creatives has always existed, most evidently seen with fresh graduates who have learned Final Cut Pro but don’t know the first thing about being in the firing line during an agency edit session. The assistant editor position here acts to calibrate for the expectations set by the professional post environment.

Kneschke worked on this commercial for Scope mouthwash.

Kneschke worked on this commercial for Scope mouthwash.

Color grading becomes a bit more difficult to gauge, as many clients openly admit they’re not as attuned to evaluating color. It’s one of those things, like music, that becomes hard for some to articulate. Still, when agency clients employ color correction, they intend to collaborate with a skilled artist working on a high-end, specialized system.

At the very bare minimum, the colorist must understand how to read scopes, and at the most must interpret esoteric client comments and translate them into something useful to the image. In session, clients expect to be able to isolate and manipulate skin tones, shape the image with subtle vignettes, compare two shots for accuracy, and manage cut changes as they occur. All of this needs to be done quickly by the colorist, and his system needs to support the speed of the session.

I have seen “colorists” use nonlinear editing systems to grade projects. I’ve also seen “colorists” work without control panels. When these people are unable to deliver on the promise set by the industry rates they are charging, the client walks away unhappy, with a sense that their footage could have looked better. I’ve been called in to re-grade some of these projects, which is a waste of time and money for the client. At this point it becomes necessary to educate the client that there is a better way of doing something without sacrificing the quality of their product.

How do you deal with the verbiage used in sessions? For example, the client may ask for things to look more “fun,” “lighthearted,” or “filmic.”
I’ll add another I hear all the time: to make something “brighter” or to “wake it up” could mean lifting the mid tones, lifting the highlights, or even making the image more saturated.

Though words like “fun” and “filmic” may seem esoteric, they actually do correspond to things that can be articulated in the image. A “fun” image is probably something that has a fair amount of brightness and color saturation to it. Or it could mean that the shot has a funky, Instagram or “fashion” look to it. When I approach a particular project, I consider what the piece is trying to convey and its target audience. Often that tells me a lot about how far the client may want to push the colors.

Tristan Kneschke colored this spot for Pepsi.

Tristan Kneschke colored this spot for Pepsi.

I like to run through a few looks on a key shot before the session begins as a starting point to begin talking with the client about the visual direction. Often, I’ll let the client talk it out and see how close my hunch was. The client may also have no idea how to improve the image, at which point I resort to the message of the piece.

Agency work is not without politics and the client may be more concerned with a particular aspect of the project. For example, I may be focusing on making a woman’s skin look as natural as possible, and the client may be hung up on the color of her blouse.

For more “open-ended” projects like music videos, references are a great place to start. Directors and directors of photography are visual-minded people and frequently have already collected a slew of references to assemble their treatment. Often I’ll bring up an example of something I’ve colored in the past or a YouTube video I’ve seen recently to illustrate what they’re talking about. I discuss a great collaboration and the process that went into the grade of a music video I colored (for Untitled by Killer Mike). in more detail here: (http://nofilmschool.com/2012/09/killer-mike-a-color-grading-case-study).

This preliminary exploration with the client helps me align with what they’re trying to achieve. Then, when they use words like “lighthearted” I’ll know what they’re trying to achieve.

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