Color Upbringings

A while back we sold off one of our last pieces of telecine equipment – the Cintel Ursa Diamond. I was sad to see it go, even though it hadn’t been touched in years. I spent a lot of time learning my craft on that machine. What used to be a high end piece of equipment that only a select few had access to was now being torn apart for scraps.

That got me thinking about how much things have changed since I started out in the early 2000s. Things are drastically different now for anyone beginning their career as a colorist. I’m not sure if it’s easier or harder. It’s just different. I know that my upbringings in the color suite greatly influenced me for the rest of my career.

When I first started in the color suite I began as an assistant. At the time, it was 100% necessary to have a dedicated color assistant. 16mm and 35mm film were the normal source of acquisition. So once an edit was locked and it was time to color, I had a lot of duties to prep for the upcoming job.

Since everything was shot on film back when I started the first step was to get the actual negative. Once I received the film I cleaned all of it to minimize dust and made sure that everything was rolled out at the heads. If necessary, I would splice on extra leader at the heads and tails.

When the film was ready to go I had to get all the information from the editor. At the time, edits were done from the dailies pass which was normally sourced from BetaSP or DigiBeta. Each lab roll had it’s own designated timecode hour that coincided with the tape. For example, LR 1 was from TCHR 1 and LR 2 was from TCHR 2 and so on.

For each job, I would receive a reference tape for the color session that had the edit with burn in that showed me the lab roll and the timecode that came from each shot. In addition to that I would also get an EDL. I always printed out a paper copy of the EDL and checked it against the reference tape. That way I was sure I had everything I needed for the session and nothing would catch me off guard.

I normally had 3-4 different colored highlighters that I would use to keep track of the shot list and stay organized throughout the session. I made sure to check which lab rolls were going to be used and set them aside for the session in numerical order. I also had the reference tape queued that I could remotely control with my TLC keyboard on a small black and white reference monitor.

All this was prep was the assistants job to make sure that the supervised session went as smoothly as possible. Back then, everything was linear. There was no bouncing back and forth between shots. So every minute was critical. Especially while clients were watching. Once the session started we had to choose a master shot that would represent the overall look and feel of the piece. So we’d review the offline edit and find the shot that we thought was best suited. At that point, I’d have to find which lab roll the shot was on and queue it up for the colorist. As I said before, each lab roll had it’s own unique timecode. And these matched the timecode on the dailies, which were on the reference tape. Every lab roll had a hole punch to designate the starting point of that timecode, which almost always started on the hour. Since I already had the lab rolls cleaned and neatly organized, I’d know exactly where it was. I’d then lace up the film and shuttle to the hole punch. From there I’d have to enter which timecode hour was associated with the lab roll and then shuttle to the shot.

After setting the look for the master shot, the colorist would then save a still to their gallery and I’d take the lab roll down and do it for the next shot. Normally we worked in edit order, but not always. If there were multiple shots from the edit on one lab roll we made sure to grab those for the sake of time. We then proceeded to do this for every shot, referencing the gallery stills for matching. As we went through every shot I would make sure to cross them off from my paper EDL. That way I could ensure that everything was accounted for.

Where things got really tough was if the client changed their mind halfway through the session and we had to put all the lab rolls up again and tweak the color. Each time a lab roll had to get changed it probably took 5-10 minutes each. Over the course of a session, that really added up. It’s a far cry from how things work today where everything is non-linear.

While the session was going on I had to be on the same wavelength as the colorist. I had to pay attention to what he was doing and do my best to anticipate his next move. This entailed listening for client feedback and trying to think like a colorist myself. By knowing what was coming next, I could have the reels ready to change or pull up the reference if there was a question. I really had to stay on my toes.

Once everything was approved, the client would leave for the day and then I had to get to work. All of the color settings for each shot were saved, but they were not laid off to tape yet. I had to make make sure that I had a tape of the proper length striped and ready to go. Then I laced up each lab roll one at a time and lay off the selects to tape in timecode order. Each time I did this I had to make sure that the color settings were accurate and they matched the stills because back then telecine machines could drift. Which was always a scary notion.

Finally, I’d watch back every inch of the tape looking for any digital hits or glitches. It was rare that I’d find them, but I did experience it happening on rare occasions. In addition, I would normally capture the tape back and make a DVD for the client to review.

It was always a lot of work, but it taught me to be detail oriented and laid the groundwork for the rest of my career. Being accountable and prepared are a huge part of doing your job correctly. Not just in the color suite, but in pretty much any career. While in my assistant role I learned so much more than what buttons to push. I learned how to react to client feedback and read a room. I learned that every color session was a new job and that what you did yesterday didn’t matter. But most importantly, I learned how to think like a colorist, which was my most valuable lesson of all.

Just for fun, here’s an old promo video 🙂


  1. Clark Bierbaum

    Great write up, Rob. I started in the early 90’s as an assistant and then worked for several years re-mastering MGM movies. I then moved to Vancouver for a short time (too much darkness / rain) doing miles of dailies with an assistant overnights. I moved to Charlotte and worked with a small post house starting a Telecine division. We opened with a MkIII and after year bought a Y-Front from Nice Shoes. I had to do everything you wrote about without an assistant, after most supervised select sessions I was pretty burned out! The 888 only had one “window” so many times I would have to layoff to digibeta and then do a tape to tape session to add another “window.” I did all the engineering on the Y-Front, 888 and Aaton code reader system since we didn’t have an engineer on staff and the freelancer only did work on the tape machines. The room stayed booked until HD started being requested and the company didn’t have the resources to make the switch and went out of business. I helped the buyer of the telecine package, a post house in San Juan, PR, move and install it so I never had to see “my” Y-front become scrap.

    So amazing how the technology has advanced, I have taken my resolve system, including the calibrated Flanders monitor and tangent panels on “vacation” several times and completed sessions steps from the beach or mountains. All the assets were transferred via the cloud and approvals given via email / text.

    I am glad I was in the industry at a time when you could be paid to learn from accomplished colorists, editors, audio mixers, graphic artists and engineers. I know the input from all of these mentors made me much better at my craft than I would have been if I just sat alone watching instructional youtube videos and playing with free software. I am a firm believer that you need to know the right way to do something before you can effectively “break the rules.” I think a lot has been lost and I miss the creative energy and fun that I found working in a collaborative post house environment, but time moves on….

    • Rob Bessette

      Than you for reading! It’s really crazy how much things have changed. I can’t imagine doing all that work on my own in a supervised session. Must have been a lot of pressure to get things right and hard to keep focus on the task at hand (color) while having to juggle all of the other duties as well.

      The SD to HD switch was a difficult time for us as well. Really tricky to navigate. Acquisition on most material was still film, but a HD delivery was now expected. So our normal way of doing things was no longer valid. We ended up buying an Arriscan film scanner that we still use today on occasion. From time to time I would randomly bill jobs on the Ursa for archival footage that was too beat up to make it through the Arriscan, but I really didn’t use it much after the switch to HD.

      There really is nothing like having a dedicated assistant/apprentice role to learn the craft. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really exist anymore since everything has become so streamlined. Sometimes you learn more from what went wrong in a session rather than what went right. I still remember the first time I laced up film wrong and scratched some of the negative. Fortunately it was only during the slate, but I sure as hell made sure never to do it again!


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