What Makes Colourists So Special?

September 29, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Do these strange inhabitants of dark grading suites deserve our adoration?

Of all the bewildering job titles in advertising and film production, the colourist is the most curious. On the face of it, their job is fairly straightforward – to make the colours on a film look the best they can. The tricky part is how they do it.

It has been said that they are the stars of post production, cherished by their companies and jealously coveted by competitors. According to Televisual’s 2014 Salary Survey, they earn an average of £78,500 a year, more than the average managing director earns, and the top ones take home considerably more than that average. But where does this veneration come from and do they really deserve it? We spoke to four of the most celebrated colourists in London about why they think people treat them like some kind of sorcerers.

They know what people think of them and the way they are treated by their companies. “You hear it in pubs,” says George K of MPC. “We’re treated like superstars. Some think we’re overrated. Maybe we are.” His colleague at MPC, Jean-Clement Soret agrees. “The colourist is now the big magician. The guy who reveals the image in its full glory.” But it’s hard for them to know what people really think. “You get told lots of things when you’re working in any company,” says Seamus O’Kane of The Mill. “They’re dependent on people performing well and feeling happy, so you do sometimes feel like you’re being overtly cosseted and buttered up.”

The most striking thing about the role is the air of mystery a mention of colour grading evokes. “It’s always been seen as a slightly black art,” says Paul Harrison of Finish. “I think it’s a bit impenetrable.” This must be due in some part to the environment colourists work in. Their suites are their own personal bat caves – dark, expensively decorated sanctuaries, custom built to suit their needs and those of their clients; the sharpest of screens at one end of the room, the softest of sofas at the other. And in between, endless buttons, knobs, sliders and gadgets, incomprehensible to mere mortals.

George remembers his curiosity for all this since before he started grading. He used to walk past the dark suites, peer in and wonder what was going on in there. “It was kind of magical,” he remembers. Now he knows those secrets, but admits it’s hard to explain, “my mum and dad still don’t know what I do. I guess if you haven’t got the technical knowhow it’s difficult to explain what you actually do.”

Seamus still doesn’t fully understand what makes good colour grading, despite being repeatedly counted among the top handful of UK colourists. “It does almost seem like sorcery,” he says. “At the end everyone’s happy, but no one actually knows why.”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” wrote sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke, famously, and magical analogies are understandable when you consider the powerful devices and software colourists work with.

It’s not only technology that creates that magic though. Graders are much more than technicians working the buttons on a big machine. They’re artists helping to make moving images more powerful. It’s a woolly process, full of vagaries and gut feelings, as Seamus admits. “Colour is an intangible, very unquantifiable thing. You can have all the mood boards in the world, all the expectations of how it’s going to be, but somehow it just looks right.”

Advertising, indeed all film, wants much more than a realistic representation of colour. Colourists’ talents lie in manipulating the hues, lightness, saturations and contrasts to create the most evocative images possible, building layers of nuance and emotion on the raw footage. “It’s about creating atmosphere and mood,” says Paul. “It’s there most of the time. We just have to bring it out.”

On top of this there’s the challenge, particularly relevant to those colourists working in advertising, of dealing with a suite full of people with different opinions. Sometimes a grading suite can contain a director, a DOP, creatives, creative directors, and even clients. There’s something about too many cooks to be said in that situation.

It’s a particular kind of person that can sit in the middle of seven people criticising your work, but it’s important to remember who’s boss. Humility is a must, no matter how revered a colourist may be. Seamus is philosophical about it. “If you’re too fragile it’s not going to go well. You’ve got to take it and make something else and ultimately convince them that what you’ve done is good for them.”

A good colourist must also have to have a talent for diplomacy, as the many voices in the suite often clash. “Sometimes you get real disagreements,” says George. “You’ve got to learn when to pipe up and when not to.” Balancing these opinions, working out where allegiances lie and who has the final say are all key.

That said it’s important to know when to say no politely and convincingly. The sofa dwellers may think they know best, but a good colourist can show them the full potential of an image. Jean-Clement notes that sometimes people say they’re happy with the flat offline footage, straight off the camera. “They got used to the offline and think it is what serves the piece,” he says. “I have to make a call as to whether I should respect their choice or push them somewhere they didn’t imagine they could go.”

On top of all this a colourist must also be a translator. Lay advertising people don’t speak the language of colour, so graders have to work out what they mean. Seamus finds it amusing. “There are generic terms like ‘warm’ and ‘cold’, but you hear things like ‘fizz more red’, ‘a tad’, ‘a natch.’” George gets ‘fluffy’, ‘muddy’ and ‘milky’ a lot. “A lot of them contradict,” he says. “‘I want it soft but contrasty.’ Fortunately, sometimes they bring you references.”

Some of these skills rely on raw talent, or a certain kind of personality. It’s probably true that only a small handful of people have the right combination of attributes to make it work. But it also takes years to become a successful colourist, which is why the top ones are all at least the wrong side of 30, if not much older.

Experience is vital for learning what works. There are so many variables and every grade provides a unique set. There is no easy way to learn, the colourists say. You just have to practice your craft. “When you’ve been doing this for a number of years, any film that is brought to you, you know straight away how it’s going to work,” says Jean-Clement.

Some solutions are to do with the science and psychology of colour (Jean-Clement says that if someone wants something more blue, sometimes adding yellow next to it does the job). Others are subtle tricks of diplomacy, like George knowing when to step into a tense disagreement and when to stay out of it.

Trust is a vital factor. The grade is a kind of choke point in the process of making a commercial. Over its months of gestation, any given ad has had dozens of people working on it. By the time it reaches the colourist all of these creative contributors have a vested interest in how it turns out. The grade can have a huge effect on the final result and yet it rests on the shoulders of one person, often on one day in the suite. “It’s quite a high pressure job,” says Jean-Clement. “It’s very rewarding and interesting and I enjoy it very much, but every day is a big day.” There’s a lot riding on that person, so agencies and directors need to know they can trust their colourist.

Once that working relationship exists with a colourist it’s a powerful force and a valuable resource. It can minimise the many aforementioned challenges of a grade, smoothing them over. George has certain directors that come to his suite, put their feet up and ask for ‘the usual’. “They know that you know best,” he says, “because you know what can or can’t be fixed or whether a certain something can go a certain way.” It’s hard to earn this trust, but it’s also difficult to break.

That’s why grading is such a personal process. The weight of all this rests not on the back of a company’s reputation, but on the relationships a colourist builds and maintains. “People like to have someone to idolise,” says Jean-Clement. “Colourists are an ideal one because it’s pretty much a one-man show. Of course you take everyone’s opinion into consideration but in the end it’s a very personal craft. You can give the same image to five different colourists and get five different results.”

People in advertising enjoy the grade. The culmination of a months-long process for some, it’s nice to sit in a comfortable room and see your vision bloom into its full potential. “For the fist time in [sometimes] a year they’re seeing on screen what they’ve shot is going to look like,” says Seamus. It’s the big reveal, and the colourist is master of ceremonies. “You take all the energy in the room and you’re a conduit,” says Paul.

If done right, the grade can be a good experience for everyone. “Someone once told me it’s like a sanctuary,” says Jean-Clement. A good atmosphere, relaxing and luxurious, thanks to the armies of attentive runners VFX houses employ.

“Every day is a bit like a long-haul flight,” says Seamus. And an expensive one at that. “You’re sitting in a room for 12 hours or so getting very well attended. If you want some coffee or something to eat you pick up the phone and ask. If you think the room’s too hot you make a phone call. So you can act like a rock star every day.”

But colourists aren’t rock stars, and they know it. “You walk out the door and you’re Joe Public,” says Seamus. “If I were sat at home sending my wife for coffee it would not be popular.” He finds it funny that people he knows from the suite don’t recognise him on the street.

George is similarly grounded. “It always brings me down to earth then I go on holiday and no one actually gives a shit what I do for a living. It’s not that important to people.”

People might talk about colourists like Premier League footballers, but their glamour is limited. Ultimately, they’re a bunch of well-paid geeks sitting in dark rooms all day. And they know it. “The secret is not to take it so seriously,” says Seamus. “If you believe you’re fantastic and wonderful, you’re probably not.”

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