Learning on the Job

The job of a colorist is a combination of artistic and technical.  Knowing how to react to a specific situation while bringing forth the best image possible is probably the most important part of the job.  Doing it well and doing it consistently are pretty much what determines how successful you will be.  Experience plays a huge role as to how a colorist develops both professionally and stylistically.  Every color session teaches new lessons that help further aesthetic tastes while fine tuning the craft.

I have been fortunate to work with many talented people during my career.  Directors, DPs, editors, and other colorists have shown me lots of tips and tricks throughout the years that I utilize both consciously and subconsciously everyday.  It’s all a part of the process.  Learning from others and taking those past experiences helps form your own approach to the job at hand.  The role of a colorist is an ever evolving one that is shaped around interactions with others.

However, there is one moment that sticks out for me in particular.  I was slated to color the dailies for an ABC pilot that was shooting in Boston and the DP was Shelly Johnson.  I didn’t know Shelly at the time, but after checking his IMDB page and it was pretty obvious that he was legit.  On his extensive list of films were some pretty big names:  Captain America, Percy Jackson, The Wolfman, and one of my personal favorites as a kid, TMNT2.

Shelly came into my suite a couple of days before principle photography began and we had a chat covering how he wanted the pilot to look.  He had reference stills from multiple movies with similar location setups and we extensively discussed the overall color palette that he has hoping to achieve.  It was quite impressive to see the level of preparation and thought that he had placed into his work.  A true professional.

After the first day of shooting he came by with the footage.  He wanted to oversee the first dailies session to make sure that we were on the same page for the color direction.  The way he described the setup and lighting was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  I normally work on commercials and it’s rare that I get to interact with DPs, as it’s mostly ad agency creatives for my sessions.  I could immediately tell this was going to be a special treat.  He had a fantastic eye and could quickly point out the finer details that really made a shot sing.  At first I was a little timid to push the image too hard (not one of my finer moments, that’s for sure).  But Shelly told me to push it and push it hard.  He said, “You never know how far you can push an image until you break it”.  I’ll always remember that.  Once that light bulb went off for me I was pulling his looks together in a matter of minutes.  We were totally in sync.

The pilot shot for approximately 20 days and it’s needless to say I learned a ton during the process.  Shelly didn’t attend any more dailies sessions after that first one (he had much more important things to do) but he always sent me a voice memo with every batch of deliverables.  The memo would describe the lighting setup and his intention for the grade.  Eventually it just ended up being “just keep doing what you’re doing”, which was pretty rewarding on my end.

Recently, Shelly was featured on The ASC Instagram page and shared some great insights from some of his career highlights.  I highly recommend checking out his postings and reading the detail that he goes into when describing a shot.  It really is quite impressive.

I try to approach every session with an open mind and soak up as much information as I can gather.  If it’s something as little as a client’s beverage preference or something as big as a technique used by an Oscar winning DP, it’s all useful knowledge that will make me better at my job.  And that’s the idea in the long run – to finish everyday a little better at my craft better than where I started that morning.

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