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Why Do We Color? The Role of the Digital Colorist

  • February 18, 2015
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Why Do We Color? The Role of the Digital Colorist

by Mark Todd Osborne

Hello, Hurlblog readers. My name is Mark Todd Osborne. I am a 17-year veteran colorist for the film and television industry. I spent my first 11 years at Company 3, Santa Monica and since then, have been freelancing for several post houses in the Los Angeles area and abroad. I recently had the pleasure of working with Shane on Need for Speed and he has asked me to discuss my experiences color correcting on the Blackmagic Davinci Resolve. In future blogs, I will be discussing such topics as setting up your desktop, balancing a color chart, working with luts and correcting the BMCC. But first things first: Why do we color? What is the true role of a Digital Colorist?

Humble Beginnings

When I first started out as a colorist assistant, I thought the colorist’s job was primarily to set unique and interesting “looks” for music videos, commercials and feature films. Yes, that is certainly a major component, but once I began to sit in the colorist’s chair, I quickly realized there was so much more to it than that!

I learned that creative problem solving, accurate scene matching (which is an art in itself!), efficient workflows, client management (knowing how to run the room) and, most importantly, being a good listener were all important elements that make up the skills needed to be an effective, successful colorist. Simply put, I believe the essential job of the colorist is this: to aid in the process of bringing the Cinematographer and Director’s vision to 100% fruition. A properly lit set will yield a digital negative that should already be 80% there. My job is to bring it from 80% to 100%. The colorist is there to “seal the deal.” Due to today’s budgetary and time constraints, DPs don’t always get the time they need to light the set to the fullest extent of their vision, so they depend on the colorist to give the image additional “shape” they weren’t able to perform on set.

I say 100%, because you should never leave it at 92 or 98%. I always strive to make the image the best it can be and what is appropriate for the overall mood and tone the scene is attempting to convey. You need to explore the “strength” of the image, see where it can go, see where it breaks and then find its “sweet” spot! That’s when you can have confidence you’ve made it the best it can be. One-hundred-percent.

Here is the original uncolored RAW file
Here is the original uncolored RAW file
Here is the same shot colored. It looks pretty good, but it’s only 75% of what it could be.
Here is the same shot colored. It looks pretty good, but it’s only 75% of what it could be.
Here we have the fully realized image at 100%. I’ve snapped up the contrast a bit further, spotlighted her face, brought out her eyes with an hsl key and added some skin softening to give her an overall “glow.”
Here we have the fully realized image at 100%. I’ve snapped up the contrast a bit further, spotlighted her face, brought out her eyes with an hsl key and added some skin softening to give her an overall “glow.”

A Good Listener

I say being a good listener is important, because I would never want to impose a look that is not appropriate to the story being told. Before I touch the control surface, I have a conversation with the artists involved. I ask questions: What is your film about? What are you trying to say/communicate to the audience visually? What is the mood and tone of your film? This helps me “get on the same page,” aesthetically, with what the cinematographer wants to achieve.

Color is communicated to the audience at a subconscious level. It is intended to draw its audience into the scene, to what the characters are saying and move the story forward. It should never distract or “steal the scene” away from the focus of the characters on screen. Examples of this are when the scene is improperly balanced (going from warm to cool to magenta, etc.) or an over-stylized color that is not suitable for the scene. A director once asked me to show him what his film would look like with several looks from other blockbuster movies. Although he liked certain elements from each look, he kept saying, “That’s nice, but it’s not my film.” As a result of going through this process, we eventually discovered the look that, indeed, was his film.

Developing Efficient Workflows

In any project, there are always one or more scenes that need “special attention” for various reasons. Maybe the scene was shot over the course of several days and has serious color temperature issues. Or the crew only had the location for a short amount of time and could not properly light the set. Whatever the case may be, there are only so many hours given to the colorist for the entire job and you need to find ways to solve these problems in an efficient, time saving manner. That’s where experience comes into play. Over time, you will learn better, more effective ways to solve these problems and still keep the project on time and on budget. One thing I like to do is to have several tools that I am constantly asked to use already pre-designed and ready to drop in, such as vignettes and power windows for skies. I don’t like to waste the client’s time watching me build each one from scratch, each time one is needed.

I start with node structure that includes some commonly used tools in place. These nodes are not active, but are ready to go, as needed.
I start with node structure that includes some commonly used tools in place. These nodes are not active, but are ready to go, as needed.

Client Management

One of the toughest aspects to the colorist’s job is how you deal with clients and control of the room. They have be comfortable sitting in the room with you for 8 to 10 hours a day, so you’d better be likeable! Clients also want to know that they can trust their project with you. They need to have the confidence that no matter what problems may arise, you have the skills to provide intelligent solutions and deliver their project safely home. Gaining the trust and confidence of your clients is a skill all unto itself.

Closing Thoughts

I hope this overview helps to give you a basic idea of the role the digital colorist plays and why we color. There is so much more I could say on this topic and have only yet begun to scratch the surface on the intricacies of color correction. I look forward to sharing more with the Hurlblog readers in the near future! If you’d like more information about me, please visit marktoddosborne.com. Thanks for reading.

  • Blackmagic Design
  • Camera
  • Cinematographer
  • Color Correction
  • Color gel
  • color temperature
  • DaVinci Resolve
  • Digital Colorist
  • Digital Negative
  • hurlblog
  • Need for Speed
  • Post / Color

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