18 Feb 2018

Five top tips for colorists

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Be creative, know what you like

“An individual with an opinion stands out in people’s minds. As a colorist, we are working on a project because someone has brought it to us so that we can add something to it. They could do it themselves, maybe they’ve edited it or directed it too, but it’s good for them to take it to someone else for fresh input. So we need to offer something that will aid the story telling. Building looks is possibly the most creative aspect of a colorist’s skillset, but it must relate to the story.

“The story is always the most important thing; if we grade a commercial or a film we are always looking to add to that. For example can help the story by making it more sinister, a bit darker? Can we bring up that pack shot in a coffee commercial? Can we help to draw the viewer in and say ‘this is what I want you to look at’? So we need to be able to offer strong ideas and styles. They won’t all get accepted or liked but we need to be able to do that, and do it fast. A colorist has to be quick in today’s market.

“It’s really important to know what you like. As a starting point, let’s say ‘I like this director, I like this style’. Start collecting the things you like; build up a stock library of films, trailers, music videos and photos and create a store of mood boards that reflect your own artistic interests and personality, and then use them as reference material to inspire looks. Study the history of film and know what was shot on what.

“For instance I like the style of what Roger Deakins shoots. I love his movies. Skyfall was amazing, but I also like the Godfather DP Gordon Willis, LA Confidential DP Dante Spinotti, the list goes on. That’s what I like. When I create a look and present it to the director I need to be able to back that up with confidence and say ‘I like this, and this is why this look suits your product or film’. They might not like it, that’s fine, but you have a repertoire of looks that you can offer as starting point for the grade. You can cite a seminal film or scene where the director may have seen something similar and you then become an integral part of the creative process. You are building a relationship of trust and that’s how you’ll get the call for the next project.”

Understand the new cameras and their codecs

“Along with a strong creative streak, you also need to be technically proficient. Not necessarily with a Broadcast Engineering Masters, but you must have a solid knowledge of the different camera formats, in particular the pros and cons of working with this or that codec and the pipeline you are working in.

“Our initial responsibility is to match the scene. We’ll talk more about this shortly, but it isn’t uncommon these days to be working with four or five different formats on one timeline and that complicates our job. If you don’t understand the inherent characteristics of each file format (raw, log, bit depth, compression and resolution) you will not know how much you can push and pull the images before they break.

“For that you need to identify the weakest link in the chain and know for instance, if it’s less than 10-bit, that’s where your problems are likely to come from. If a client gives us baked footage to work on and the original r3d files are sitting on a drive somewhere, their ignorance isn’t your defence. We are the experts and we need to ask for the assets that allow us to give the client the best possible results.

“On larger productions the colorist is more often involved at the start. This is current best practice and the discussion between colorist, director and DP about the choice of cameras and codecs means that we can avoid images that fall apart in the grade. A good colorist will have a deep understanding of color science.”


Matt Aindow

Matt Aindow is a freelance artist and M&E workflow consultant, in an ever-deepening love affair with story telling via the dark art of colour grading. He believes these are jolly exciting times to be involved in the business, but is saddened that we can't deliver on gender equality. Come on! Member of SMPTE, CSI and DCS. The eternal student.

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