Out of the Dark: What the Democratization of Color Grading Means for the Craft
It was over a decade ago when I first set foot in a Soho grading suite in London. A dark room full of blinking lights, big screens, and a whirly telecine thingy. In my trembling hands was a tray of flat whites, which I quietly placed down in front of the room of clients. "Make it moodier," one of them said, to which my future boss did exactly that in a matter of seconds. I was intrigued. My background had been in 3D, which took days to make one second of difference. Here, though, an entire film could be transformed in one day.
Within months I was in that same grading suite as one of the runners, interns and assistants that the London scene relied on. To learn the ropes as a colorist, you needed access to expensive machinery, large server rooms, and industry expert knowledge. There weren't many courses or online tutorials for this in 2010, so it was imperative that I had the means to get myself to London or New York and make my colorist dreams a reality. All the tricks of the trade were simply passed down from master to apprentice.
From Telecine to MacBook Pro
In just the 10 years of my career, I've witnessed sweeping changes in the post-production industry: from film to digital, standard to high definition, and currently, the move toward HDR. Most striking, though, has been the move away from hardware- to software-based systems. What was once possible only with the aforementioned Telecine suite can now, in theory, be done with a MacBook Pro. It's pretty crazy to think that post houses are now shipping remote grading solutions to their colorists' homes while streaming media across the cloud. If Covid-19 had swept the globe 10 years ago, I don't think we'd have been in business.
The accessibility of the software has also improved. Take, for example, Blackmagic's DaVinci Resolve—a professional grading package used by many post houses, which can also be downloaded for free. A quick search on Google and you can find just about any tutorial you need for it. More than a clever marketing move, it's enabled a new generation of colorists to emerge.
And then there's Instagram, and the dizzying impact having a good grid of quality imagery has had on youth culture. If you go beyond the quick filters the app provides, there's all kinds of editing software out there like VSCO, Afterlight and Snapseed to apply grains, do spot touch-ups, or add Retrolux. You've got this whole new generation of people with multiple photo-editing softwares on their phones, and who understand the difference between tweaking X-skew and Y-skew.
The democratization of color grading
Looking back at my time as an assistant, I was lucky. Sure, I worked hard, but there was also an element of "right place, right time" involved. Most of my days as a color assistant were spent preparing the suite, scanning film and "playing out" to tape. But when I wasn't actively doing something, I'd be busy watching colorists at work with award-winning directors and some of the world's leading agencies—soaking up as much knowledge as I could to understand the culture of client-attended post-production. Soon I'd be grading my first music videos, making mistakes along the way, and constantly being driven to hone my craft by clients, colleagues and mentors. As a result, one of the videos from those first few years is still one of my most-played videos ever at 300 million views. Helps it was Disclosure!
I saw a few CVs land on my boss's desk from aspiring colorists wanting to get into the industry, or runners who were patiently waiting for another assistant job to open up. This is a niche role, and it wasn't easy just to find a similar job elsewhere. I'm sure many gave up on the idea of becoming a colorist, because they simply couldn't get a leg up. I wonder how many talented folks the industry lost out on because of this narrow entry point?
That's why this democratization of color grading is such a good thing. Nowadays, if you don't manage to get a seat in a leading London post house, or you lament the idea of being a runner, you can download some grading software and set up a professional Instagram portfolio of your work. Apart from a small amount of startup capital, there's really nothing stopping you.
In a world of VSCO, what's the point in premium post-production?
But of course, much like myself learning plumbing techniques from YouTube, this DIY approach can lead to a particular dilution of quality. For every talented new individual keeping us on our toes, there are many who don't set their standards high enough. A good portion of my craft has been acquired through feedback from experienced clients, alongside honest and professional guidance by senior peers. I got it wrong many times, and there's nothing like the pressure of a demanding VFX team and a looming delivery deadline to make you constantly reevaluate, each time raising the bar just that little bit more.
Left to my own devices, it's hard to say what my approach to color might have been. Working in a demanding industry has helped shape my taste. One of the most simple but perhaps not obvious choices is to know when less is more. Not every film needs a big colorist stamp across it; sometimes the work of the DoP and the art department speaks for itself. Other times it's entirely appropriate to give it a "look," but it should fit the aesthetics of the film. I'm not a fan of throwing 10 different presets onto an image to see what looks coolest. To me, it's an organic process that may well change 10 times throughout the session, but there's always a journey and a rationale in mind.
The quality versus cost curve
I've seen online personas claiming to be "superstar colorists" who promote their own courses and tutorials. Or perhaps they're selling a LUT pack which will supposedly make your footage look like Blade Runner shot on 35mm. A good rule of thumb here: If they have an array of colored neon lights surrounding their workspace because it looks cool, it's probably best to ignore their advice! This is an extreme example, of course. Not all tutorials are bad—many are excellent—but it highlights how misinformation can spread in an expanding industry, especially when there's money to be made selling snake oil.
A good color experience also extends further than just the colorist. At Ambassadors, I'm fortunate to work alongside many talented people who ultimately make my job easier—whether that's a dedicated producer liaising with clients, the IT department working tirelessly behind the scenes, or the VFX department adding some magic to an otherwise lackluster shot. This collaborative teamwork is something which can't be rivaled by one person, no matter how good we colorists like to think we are, and is perhaps the best reason for choosing a premium post-production service.
The market has changed considerably over the last few years, with more constrained budgets and an increasing focus on social content. A professional colorist can seem overkill for a 5-second Instagram clip, so I can understand why people might choose a cheaper alternative here. A one-stop, one-day editor and colorist combo might be a fine choice. On the other end of the spectrum are the big-budget productions, which don't shy away from hiring the best services they can afford. The issue is the grey area in between, where quality can be in danger of slipping in an effort to cut costs. For TVCs or content that's neither an Instagram story nor a Super Bowl commercial, it pays to have an expert eye shaping the mood and tone.
At the risk of this being perceived as a rant about unfair competition, it's not. I'm a firm believer that open access to any industry is a good thing, and shouldn't be reserved for a fortunate few. Healthy competition helps drive us all and produces novel results. Color, like most creative things, is subjective. I can cry foul about how something is graded, but that's my taste. Ultimately, if the client is happy, then the job's done right.
In this new world of choice for color grading, we should simply all make sure we uphold the best standards for our work that we can. I've worked with clients who are the first to admit they know next to nothing about color grading, and that's fine—it's my job to ease the process, but I'd hope to be given this chance in the first place. Most people think something looks good until you show them what more it could be.