Seeing Color in a Different Light: The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?

Color grading, and more, in the WFH era

"You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." —Morpheus, The Matrix

There is another pill. It's the green pill. Sure, this might be a subtle color RGB reference, but I think the green pill is important because without it you're just not seeing the full picture.

What the heck am I talking about?

Well, we've been in this "new normal" for many months now. OK, I need to stop again, sorry. 

I've got a problem with the phrase "the new normal." Can we workshop that before we move forward? The new normal. Essentially the new normal is something that is different than what we are used to but is routine enough that we get used to it? It's like a reboot, that Hollywood marketing term for using a good idea but starting on a fresh piece of paper. Rebooting our routine. Reinventing our lives. OK, got it. Here we go.

Well, we've been in this routine reboot months now and to say I'm still getting used to it is not even close. Even as I'm writing this, grappling with how to convey my thoughts of this world we are now in, I can hear my wife singing "I can sing a rainbow" with my 2-year-old in the next room. The reboot routine is a hybrid of home life and work life. It's challenging, but it offers some unexpected rewards as well.

I think that is the green pill, the pill that is some strange concoction, or hybrid, of two worlds—a rabbit hole laced with routine.

There's no small irony in the fact that my primary abode now has to serve as a substitute for my second home, which is my color suite at MPC's studios in New York. This newly scrambled environment that working from home now represents. I tell people that I feel a bit like Harry Potter, tucked in that little cupboard under the stairs at the Dursleys.

Living in a compact two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn means my color grading "suite" is hard against a wardrobe and sandwiched between the Peloton and the bed, but it works. That potential of magic still pushes through regardless. We are making it work so that I can continue to support clients and deliver the same results they'd expect to get before the pandemic flipped the way we work upside down. 

Maybe the Stranger Things Upside Down world would have been another analogy I could have used for all of this?

The shift to working from home has me seeing color in a different light. In the more familiar environment of color correction and color grading, my clients and I would talk about the idea, stir in different ingredients and come up with something that creates the universally recognized "thumbs up of awesomeness." You may not call it the "thumbs up of awesomeness," but feel free to use that term whenever suitable because I'd love to see it catch on. We would then go back and forth until we had the look just right and had ticked the boxes we needed to tick. Currently, however, in the upside down world of the reboot routine, that literal in-person collaboration just isn't an option and we need to find new ways to achieve the same result. Fortunately, there are a few ways we can do that. 

Other industries have a lot to catch up on remote working—like learning Zoom, etc.—but for years now the grading suite has embraced the advantages of working remotely. So, we have choices as to how we do that.

One approach, from my cupboard-under-the-stairs grading suite, is to initially hop on a Zoom call to have the conversation that might ordinarily occur in the grading suite. Once we've puzzled out the approach, I will work on my own for a bit and then send over some master shots and stills. We hop back on the Zoom and discuss where it's at, and then may repeat that process a couple more times until we nail it. This virtual collaboration takes some getting used to, but it gets the job done.

An alternative approach, if we want to do something that is closer to a real-time color grade, is to use a ClearView Flex workflow that is built by Sohonet. I've used ClearView and it indeed offers the "over-the-shoulder shared viewing experience" and in my case it was with multiple clients spread over three different states of the U.S.! This workflow works well and is really easy for the clients to use. The obvious advantage here is the instant collaboration and having that immediate feedback, in both directions. This can sometimes be the creative secret source that you ultimately require for some projects.

What's missing from all of this, of course, is the physicality of people—that energy in the room when you're working one on one with clients. This is kind of selfish on my part because obviously we can still get great results in the color grade without folks sitting next to each other, but it's a part of the process that I miss. This is the additional creative fairy dust that comes from the smirks, the body language and the unified thumbs of awesomeness. 

That said, at the end of the day, this is a collaborative process—whether that means physically being in the same room as one another, remote grading (something we already did for many years before this crazy world forced us to do remote grading!) or utilizing tools like Zoom and ClearView Flex. Ultimately we are all working together, using our expertise, our creativity and experience to make something great. 

Being in lockdown doesn't mean you need to be closed down. I believe we have to stay curious. Experiences like what we're going through can make us rather introspective. My first week at home I became a bit wistful, thinking about my career and how I got here. I started as a DP, and I had an amazing Australian DP mentor named David Muir. He's retired now and writing his memoir. But I tracked him down for my podcast, The Color Couch, and asked him to reflect on how he's gotten to where he is. It was a really interesting conversation, which I'd love for you to listen to. Funnily enough, I used SquadCast, an excellent platform that's easy to use for remote audio interviews at a high quality.

OK, it's a little plug for my podcast, but The Color Couch is one of my outlets and staying connected and sharing stories is key. It genuinely helps me feel less isolated and gets me excited creatively. The opportunity to speak with artists and technicians, producers and writers about what gets their hearts pumping feels like cold water on my face and shakes off some of the lockdown blues! It's also a damn fine excuse for me to have the talk show I always wanted.

We are living through restrictions that most of us have not experienced before, but compared to our parents or grandparents, the majority of us have a treasure trove of get-out-of-jail-free cards to keep us motivated and inspired. In my house we've signed up for a service called Mubi.com, and we're watching a whole bunch of amazing films that I seldom had the time to watch before. I recently watched Variety, which is a 1983 independent film directed by Bette Gordon. Just like Yoga, I wonder why I don't do it more—the film felt like electricity to my creative tendencies and reminded me of why I love this industry. I also finally saw the Waco miniseries. However you may feel about it politically, what a masterful piece of storytelling. Don't get me started on the performances—simply blew me away. Inspiring? Absolutely.

I've touched on ways to work with what you have, technology, juggling home life and work life balance like a Dr. Seuss cat standing on a ball. I mentioned the importance of collaboration regardless of the circumstances and utilizing technology to achieve that, and I gave you my insight on how to escape the claustrophobia of lockdown though creative outlets and inspiration.

Borrowing on the lyric "I've gotta go, I'm running out of change," I'll leave you with a tip that works for me. I think it's important to dress well when you are working. Needles to say, this varies considerably depending on the job you do, but regardless, I think it's important to dress properly and I have not let that slip during the upside down routine reboot phase of "the Rona." There's something about it—it puts you in the right mindset for being at work, and when you get on the Zoom call, you look so flash. For a good part of my career, I wore a bow-tie to work every day. There was something about the act of putting on my tie that got me in the right space. David Lynch said, when asked why he wears his shirts buttoned all the way up, that it kept his head on straight. And I love keeping this up now, even when I know I could be in sweats all day. Just a thought.

So, what color pill do you take? You don't necessarily get to choose, to be honest. The pill that's being forced on us at the moment by this pandemic doesn't taste so good, and the side effects are pretty awful. To stay with this analogy a moment longer, we know what color pill we've taken, so while we are down this particular rabbit hole, it's important to do your best, keep grounded by being inspired and look after each other.

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Vincent Taylor
Vincent Taylor is senior colorist at Moving Picture Company.

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