The colorist. Much more than colors.
By Carlos Medina, Audiovisual Technology Expert and Advisor
Film and television technicians have been modifying their professional profile and job skills depending on the historical moment in which they have lived. This statement is evident from the very inception of the seventh art, throughout the expansion of the mass media until today, with a more customized and interactive communication in a digital environment.
Who can imagine what George Méliès (December 8, 1861 – January 21, 1938), French filmmaker, pioneer of cinema and of the stop trick techniques had to learn: multiple exposures, the fast camera, the image solutions and/or color film. The same can be said of effort made by the team of technicians that worked alongside Canadian director James Cameron (August 16, 1954) for the filming of Avatar (2009). They used new motion capture techniques and the film was marketed for conventional viewing, for 3D projections (using RealD 3D, Dolby 3D, XpanD 3D, and IMAX 3D formats) and even 4D projections in some South Korean movie theaters.
These two examples are a token of what happened, but also a result. A dynamics that has been driven, on the one hand, by the curiosity of both authors and technicians involved; and on the other, through the changes brought about by the inclusion of work tools and new technologies applied to image and sound. A new camera, more advanced software, a different response level from a microphone, a change in processes and protocols or even the introduction of innovations from other sectors, such as, for instance, 5G technology.
In the present case, the profile of the colorist is very evident: A new professional with very specific roles and responsibilities. Its origin stems from color grading.
On the brink of the fourth industrial revolution, we are seeing now a number of terms from a different time such as laboratory, film and final copy. So, what is a colorist then? What professional profile is currently required for the job?
After getting acquainted first-hand with the process, consulting current documentation and having enquired the opinion of many professionals who call themselves colorists, we can now attempt to define this very fashionable and almost essential profession in the audiovisual sector today.
A colorist is an art technician who is involved from the outset in the creation of an audiovisual work concerning image and lighting parameters in order to achieve an atmosphere, aesthetics and visual sensation that accompanies the cinematographic/television narrative.
Works fully synchronized with the decisions and criteria of the film director or by the head of audiovisual work, director of photography (DoP) and the camera team as well as in keeping with the guidelines of the art department.
Therefore, it is convenient to update the performance of roles throughout the visual creation process in audiovisual work. And not only regarding processes comprising the post-production and/or finishing stages, as it has been until now. In other words, we have to update the classic, traditional vision of the colorist, who is much more than a grader.
In order to be ready to respond to a myriad of situations, audiovisual stories and productive environments in this sector, we have to delve in what aspects have to be taken into account, training and/or expertise achieved and the social skills of a colorist; all this with a view to the present time and a permanence going into the future.
First, some basic multidisciplinary knowledge. We are making reference to training background, that is, understanding about the nature of light, the properties of color, assessing the meaning of colors, aspects relating to visual composition, lighting techniques, measurement and photographic exposure and the importance of color perception and psychology of color. And also, whatever having to do with the vision and perception of human sight and the formation of the image through optics. A colorist should have certain creative inclinations, aesthetic taste and a mind full of artistic influences from many fields such as photography, painting, graphic design or art, among others.
Secondly, the audiovisual production environment. In this sense, we include the knowledge of the different stages involved in the process of making a feature film, a TV series or a video clip, for example. This environment implies knowing production times and deadlines, being aware of aesthetic trends (directors, publicists, DoPs, movie titles…). Processes such as telecine, scanners, intermediate digital (ID), raw material, processed material, conforming, video or DCP (digital cinema package) mastering, just to name a few of them.
In this aspect, it is convenient to know some history about each creation field: cinema, television, advertising, documentaries…; what aesthetics, narratives and artistic movements have developed in the past, what authors have left an “aesthetic” footprint on the audiovisual area. The intentional use of black and white, tacking, sepia, color gamut and/or color dominance. The visual outcome of a clean, colorful image or, conversely, with more noise (grain), in search of a specific “look”.
Third, video technology and technique. Every colorist is potentially a technician. A huge amount of concepts, terms and parameters that range from backups, to deliveries, through workflow depending on the work to be done. Values that affect both analog and digital video signals, such as amplitude and its measurement in IRE; the types of video signals (RGB signal, color component signal or composite signal); creation of audiovisual content on HDR (high dynamic range), S3D or VR technologies; the huge number of formats, codecs and recording media; log and linear curves or the various international standards on color space, among others.
Fourth, every colorist has to acquire social skills and capabilities in order to work within a team, know how to communicate feelings and points of view, listen and read between the lines what the director of audiovisual work wants to achieve and, of course, walk in the cinematographer’s shoes when it comes to decision-making related to image, framing and lighting. In short, leave the color room, leave the equipment, work almost in darkness, and leave the software to coordinate the entire image process and visual finishing. This entails speaking with technicians of a very different types and backgrounds (camera DIT, art directors, costume or production managers, among others).
And in fifth place and last, the work tools. Undoubtedly, it is essential to be up to date with the equipment, software and facilities that make up the ‘color room’: Viewing monitors or projection systems with their technical features and configurations, the software (one or several apps) with which to make changes to the client’s audiovisual material, external playback and recording equipment and computer equipment according to the level of the professional environment where work is to be carried out. Also, decide whether an external console (basic or advanced panel) is required or not.
Currently, we have to be aware of the possibilities offered for collaborative work where interaction is possible with any part of the world, without leaving the comfort of your own color room.
A colorist knows that he works along with other professionals who have assumed color correction in their day-to-day work, such as image retouchers, visual effects technicians, and, above all, video editing operators (cinematographic montage).
Each one of them has been involved in assuming this process of creation and visual decision-making on the resulting image/video due to a democratization of specific software (some free for amateur or professional users such as DaVinci Resolve from BlackMagic Design) and/or control and color correction tools that come with retouching, editing, composition and visual effects software.
There is even an application for performing simple color corrections for iPhone or iPad called ExpressColor, developed by color management specialists Gamma and Density. This new tool features traditional color wheels, with settings for low, medium and high lighting (lift/gamma/gain), plus hundreds of presets so that beginners and professionals alike can quickly create their looks.
Therefore, as a way of clarification, we can say that we would have, on the one hand; technicians who assume color correction, others who are prepared for color grading, and lastly; the figure of the colorist as the professional who brings together solutions, responses and proposals on color and the visual aspect from the origin of the audiovisual work up to the final material (called master broadcast or exhibition) that reaches users/consumers.
Thus, color correction focuses on exposure, contrast, color, and dominants settings within a video clip. It is a basic modification in which a technical criterion prevails, which is also called the primary adjustments. They are usually essential and are always applied when done with editing/montage between the different takes/clips in order to achieve the racord (visual continuity) necessary for the audiovisual to work between the proposed narrative and the viewer.
Color correction are universal, generic and global corrections, because they are applied to the entire image. Tools such as the contour line or the color wheels can be used, for instance.
The goal is to obtain a technically correct editing/montage, ready to become the broadcast/exhibition master, free from visual racord errors and looking as natural as possible. It is clearly identified with a quality control (QC) in aspects as specific as white balance and color temperature, meeting luminance and chrominance standards and contrast balance.
And we can define color grading more broadly as a longer creative process, a combination of technical and aesthetic adjustments. It allows a more meticulous work shot by shot. Feedback, decisions and criteria by director of photography are essential. The changes are the result of said primary adjustments, in addition to those that we call secondary adjustments.
Color grading strives for a specific look designed for the story to be shown and in keeping to the narrative set by the audiovisual director. They are customized, original and unparalleled processes. And they allow adjustments that modify parts of the image within the same frame, the grouping of shots or sequences and the total/final completion of the editing/montage. Thus, in a more complex process where shaping, composition are addressed, together with deliveries by using masks, paths, keyframes, filters, LUTs, static and moving effects, scaling, reframing, powergrades, stills, color matches,… among others.
A new audiovisual industry is beginning to demand that the image as a whole takes full precedence and, therefore, it is essential to take care of the visual finish from the beginning, until it reaches the audience regardless of production field: cinema, advertising, corporate video, independent filming, television and/or the internet. The hiring of an audiovisual work by producers determines when, how and who will be aware of these processes involving the visual aspect and the presence of a colorist.
At first, when the possibility of scanning the photogram (photosensitive film material) became real, the creation of ID (digital intermediate) and, nowadays, with processes perfectly implemented in the digital electronic imaging environment (FHD, UHD, 4K up to 8K) for film, video and television. From the choice of cameras and their configuration, to displays for viewing (monitors, TV sets and video projectors), leaving behind an era featuring low definition, low color response, low sensitivity and high noise levels.
So much preparation, knowledge and experience required can be summed up in a list of main roles of a colorist:
– Analyze the literary script and interpret it from the color viewing and grammar standpoints.
– Work as a team with the director of the audiovisual work, the DoP, the camera team and art departments such as scenery, costumes and makeup/hairdressing/characterization in order to decide the color chart or palette that will be chosen for the resulting image.
– Propose a color range, texture and visual aesthetics.
– Activate the best workflow, from technical decisions for recording (camera settings) through all the intermediate processes -such as shaping, editing and composition-, to mastering (video format and/or DCP (digital cinema package) output.
– Coordinate criteria and protocols (EDL, AFF or XML) with the editor and with all post-production departments that generate visual content such as VFX.
– Know all calibration and color management processes.
– Operate specific color correction and color grading software.
– Carry out quality control work with the necessary adjustments; being in many occasions a job that entails fixing, repairing or correcting the material received.
– Promote visual racord.
– Apply presets and audiovisual content standardization settings for cinema/TV.
– Make changes and modifications in aspects relating to exposure, contrast, color properties, dominants or color temperature to favor specific aesthetics or achieve a visual atmosphere.
– Achieve look and a LUT that are different from the rest of the audiovisual content consumed by the viewer.
– Generate a master of broadcast, exhibition, viewing or distribution according to the environment to which it is directed: cinema, television, direct sales or the internet.
– Meet budgets and deadlines set by the audiovisual work’s production department.
It is worth noting that the role of the colorist has been undertaken by professionals who come from a different previous professional background: photographers, cinematographers, video technicians, photochemical-cinematographic-laboratory technicians, audiovisual restoration technicians and even film/video editors. Currently, there are already training plans and internships in place companies associated solely to the profile of the colorist.
Both technology and equipment and software manufacturers have already enabled the changes to have this done from the beginning -i.e. from the shooting itself, until the delivery of the master. They have facilitated the processes that shape the visual finish of an audiovisual work in a completely digital environment.
The audiovisual industry has to face the fourth industrial revolution of this 21st century. Changes that are coming, or that are already taking place in our society, that are not at all unrelated to those faced by a colorist, in line with what the audiovisual sector demand from this kind of professionals, which is much more than just colors.