One of the most common questions I get when it comes to color grading is “How do I become a colorist?”. It’s a tough industry to break into and a lot of people are curious how to get their foot in the door. Almost all the colorists I know didn’t start out as colorists – most were involved in post production, but in different areas. Editing, vfx, stills retouching, etc. And while they were in the post production field they were exposed to color grading and gravitated towards it. That’s what happened with me. I wanted to be an editor. I didn’t even know color correction existed. I was lucky enough to land an assistant editor gig and was exposed to color grading while working at that position.
As I started to gravitate towards color, an assistant colorist position opened up. It was very lucky timing on my end. I made it known to the powers that be that I was interested in the position. Most post houses will promote from within rather than hire from the outside. Trust has been established and there is an invaluable familiarity that already exists. That’s why a lot of times when people ask me how to get into the business I recommend trying to get in with a post house. Even if it’s as an intern or runner. There’s a much greater chance to move up the ladder internally.
Thankfully, I was awarded the position and my career path completely changed. I loved it. I knew with 100% certainty that color was what I wanted to do. I was sitting next to a very experienced colorist with 15+ years of experience everyday. It really was more of an apprenticeship than an assistant position. Don’t get me wrong, I still had to do my job and do it well. But I learned so much during the process.
When I was starting out everything was shot on film and finished in SD. HD was in it’s infancy and not quite established yet. Film transfers were all linear and required a lot of hands on work. All this hands on work normally required a dedicated assistant. Someone to sit with the colorist and keep things moving smoothly. A typical transfer consisted of multiple rolls of film that accompanied an EDL. My job was to shuttle/organize the film and make sure that all the selects were transferred from the EDL. Once everything was colored, it was my responsibility to lace all the film back up and lay it off to tape. It was necessary to have a keen attention to detail that quickly engrained in me the importance of quality control in my everyday work.
In addition to these duties, it was my job to make sure that the session went as smoothly as possible. I had to anticipate client needs/requests, make sure every film roll was cleaned and queued up, and be accountable for all the selects. To me, that was a lot of responsibility. I had never even handled film before. Now I had to handle it all day, every day. I really had to learn on the fly. However, with all those things to do, I still had a lot of down time. I had to be in the suite at all times during a session, but while the colorist was working or interacting with the client, I didn’t have that much to do. Of course I had to be prepared for what was coming next and be ready to anticipate client requests, but there was still a good amount of time where I didn’t really have much to do.
That’s when I really learned how to color. I would spend hours watching the colorist work. Watching his eyes and hands. Watching his interaction with clients. And after a session was completed, I’d ask him all sorts of questions about why and how he did what he did. As I became more and more familiar with the process, I was given more responsibilities. I would be able to set looks before a session started and then ask for feedback from the colorist. I quickly learned how to analyze an image and what worked and didn’t work.
As I progressed, I was given the task of coloring student films. We had a deal with Emerson College that was $350 for a 2 hour transfer. And then $250 for every hour after that. Most students would come in with 1600 feet of 16mm, which is approximately 45 minutes worth of film. Of course they wanted their film transferred in the 2 hour block for the cheapest rate. So I had a little over an hour to color the footage and 45 minutes to lay it off to tape. Talk about being thrown into the fire. But really, that was the best way for me to learn. Being a fly on the way and constantly pestering the colorist was one thing, but actually doing it while supervised was another. It was just me. There was nothing to fall back on or nobody to defer to. I was in charge. There were some sessions that went great – and some that didn’t. There was one session when I accidentally scratched about 10 seconds of the student film (yikes!). I made sure that never happened again. Ultimately a position like this is a win-win for everyone involved (except that poor student who’s film I scratched). I gained invaluable hands on experience without any huge consequences like losing clients or hurting the reputation of the company. In turn, the students were given a cheap, affordable rate to get their film transferred. They always had the option to pay more for the more senior colorist to work on the project, but they almost always opted for the cheaper option.
I did this for about a year. and started to make some good connections. Clients started to recognize that I was capable of coloring and when budgets were too low or the senior colorist was unavailable, I was given opportunities to color real jobs. Nothing broadcast worthy, but still real jobs. Corporate type stuff. A lot of tape to tape work and a little bit of film. It’s kind of funny and backwards thinking, but the better the footage you get to work with, the easier the job. And I didn’t see a lot of nice footage! So I really had to struggle through a lot of the footage, which I think made me a better colorist.
Unfortunately this position isn’t as prevalent as it used to be in the world of color correction. It was critical when film was the norm. It still exists today, but doesn’t play as big of a role. With everything being non-linear a lot of the work can be done before the session even starts. Having that assistant sitting right next to the colorist ready to jump at the next request just doesn’t happen anymore. I do have people sit in with me from time to time, but it’s nowhere as involved as it used to be.
That being said, the best way to learn is hands on. The value of an apprenticeship is something you just can’t replicate elsewhere. Tinkering around on your own with Youtube videos and workshops just aren’t the same. Don’t get me wrong, they’re valuable in their own way, but they really can’t compare to hands on learning. With a job like that the stakes are real. You could win or lose work depending on the results. With the other methods (online tutorials, workshops, etc.) there are no consequences. If things go poorly – oh well. Better luck next time. There’s a certain amount of inherent pressure that forces you to learn and do better than you would if you were by yourself.
That’s why I kind of struggle when asked the question “How do I become a colorist?”. There’s no real straight answer. In my opinion, surrounding yourself with experienced, talented people is the best thing you could do. The assistant and senior colorist must work together as a team to ensure the job goes as smoothly as possible. In some ways, you may say the assistant is actually closer to the job than the colorist. Being that closely involved in the process eventually molds and forms you as a colorist. It’s an immersive experience and becomes part of your everyday life. You start to learn the ins and outs of color without even really trying. And that’s what color grading really is – instinct. Learning how to react to an image in a way that is appeasing without having to think about it. No matter how many books you read or tutorials you watch, it’s just not the same. That necessary instinct doesn’t develop the same. And that’s the difference maker. That’s what makes a successful colorist. And it only comes with experience.