Nowadays I’m finding more and more color sessions are unsupervised rather than the traditional means of clients/agencies sitting in and driving the session. Sure, supervised work still happens frequently, but I’ve definitely seen a shift in the last couple of years. Turnarounds are tight, deadlines are looming, and agency creatives have so many responsibilities that it sometimes makes it difficult to oversee everything.
I see both pros and cons to this. In my experience, if the client is someone who you’ve worked with before and have built a strong relationship with, it’s a good thing. They trust you to do your best work and know what to expect. On the other hand (and this isn’t always the case) if it’s someone you’ve never worked with before, they may be a little hesitant to hand over their project. Remember, they’ve been working on this project for weeks/months and now you’re just coming into the picture. They may have their guard up a little and it’s your job to make them feel at ease. And the best way to do that is through communication.
When grading unsupervised I always try to have a discussion with the client a couple days before the session. Before we talk, I like to get a look at the edit (even if it’s not locked) and bounce ideas around in my head. But when we get on the phone, I let the client guide the direction. If we’re on the same page, then it’s easy. Just run with that. If we’re thinking differently then I offer up options and explain my reasoning for them. When creating “looks” you don’t just do it for the sake of it. There has to be a reason for it. It either facilitates the storyline or creates a feeling that amplifies the message being told. After our conversation I try to provide visual references based off the direction we decided to go. Sometimes the way colors are described and the adjectives used in the conversation can be interpreted differently. What I may think of as “warm and inviting” might not be the same as what someone else thinks. So rather than begin the grade based off a discussion, I try to provide some sort of reference that ensures we’re on the same page.
Once we’re in agreement about the color direction, I go ahead and start grading. If our initial intended direction isn’t working out then I export some stills to share and relay my reasons for concern. I don’t just say “this isn’t working”. I make sure to offer solutions and options that can open up discussions. Sometimes my ideas get shot down, which is totally fine, but sometimes they open new doors and help lead to creative solutions. Again, communication is critical, but you also have to know when to take the reigns and control the session. You need to listen to your clients, but at the same time, run the session. It’s a give and take that has a very delicate balance.
I try to work at a relatively fast pace to keep things moving along since it requires some time at the end of the day to upload postings for approval. I find that good music and closed doors really gets me in the zone. I normally do one solid color pass, take a quick break to reset my eyes, then do a fine tune pass. I feel it’s very important to walk away from the screen every now and again. It keeps you from heading too far down a wrong path. Once I return from my break, I very heavily rely on my first impression once I sit back in the chair. Do I like what I did? I sometimes push the footage around a little further to see if I have explored all avenues. If I end up back where I was, then I’m generally happy with the result. But sometimes I realize I’ve strayed too far from where I want to be and I need to circle back and take care of any issues. Then as a final QC I do one more pass where I double check consistency, tracking, windows, etc. and render out a 1080 ProRes Quicktime for Frame.IO. I have really grown to like Frame.IO as I find it’s very user friendly with clients.
I normally prefer to work off of postings rather than stills, because I find stills generally get over analyzed by the client. Almost as if they’re meant to be stills as a final deliverable. It’s never good news when you hear a client say “I took this into Photoshop and…” While it may get their point across, I feel like stills set you up for unnecessary feedback/changes. And once you open that box, there’s no closing it.
Then there’s the age old problem of “how do I know my monitor looks like yours?” Long story short – there’s really no way to combat this. All you can do is place your trust in your calibrated monitor and know that what you’re seeing is the best that it can be. The last thing you want to do is make changes for different formats. “Well I watched it on my mother’s TV and it looked a little green”. Ugh. No way. No thanks. You’ll also find that the more experienced clients are, the less this kind of thing happens, mainly because they trust the process and they trust you as a professional.
If there is a request for changes you can’t be offended. It’s part of the deal with an unsupervised job. If it goes more than 2-3 rounds of changes, however, there should be cause for concern. You may want to take a step back and try to look at the project from a different angle. What is it exactly that the client is trying to say? Sometimes you’ll find that they continue to focus on one aspect of the grade, when in actuality they really are being influenced by something else. For example, “This shot just doesn’t have enough pop, can we increase the saturation?” So you turn up the saturation and pass along another posting. But after reviewing, the client still isn’t liking what they’re seeing. You have to interpret their feedback and do your best to figure out what they’re reacting to. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the syntax and take the feedback literally. Where they say it was lacking “pop” they may have really meant contrast and not saturation. Or maybe only saturation on the product, so in turn you desaturate everything around it in order to give the illusion it’s more saturated. As you can see, it can get pretty complex. But the last thing you want to do is give them 4-5 postings to review. That just frustrates everyone. If necessary, a quick phone call can help clear up confusion. Deciphering tone and intent over email is not always easy. A change that may seem like a massive undertaking over email may actually just be a minor tweak.
Ultimately it’s your job to take the project over the finish line and make sure everyone is happy at the end of the day. If given the choice, I pretty much always prefer the client in the room with me when I’m working. It makes things go faster and everyone feels a little more comfortable. Changes are instantly reviewable and sometimes the most helpful thing to see on screen is what doesn’t work just as much as what does work. Reviewing that kind of material is way easier to do in person. In reality, though, there is going to be work that has to be unsupervised. And it’s up to you to make sure that everyone feels comfortable with the process. You don’t want to turn down billable hours just because the client couldn’t supervise. So you have to do the next best thing and make the session go as smoothly as possible. Much easier said than done, but if you take the right steps along the way it can be a rewarding experience for all involved. And rewarding experiences lead to repeat clients. And we all like repeat clients.