“Dealing With the Colorist”


So you’ve decided to take the big leap and shoot film. You’ve talked about what kind of look you’d like and you head off the set with camera, lights, gels, light meter and every other piece of gear of you think you’ll need to make you vision a reality. You wrap of the shoot for the day or the whole shoot depending on your project. Now it’s time to pack the film off to the lab, but have you done everything you could to tell, the colorist, the person who will transfer your film to video what kind of look you want. In this little ditty, we’ll talk about what goes into getting what you want from your video transfer.

I’ve experienced and have heard many a horror story about bad transfers. Some ugly video comes from a bad colorist or inferior equipment, but the majority comes from poor communications. This communication should begin well before you come to the set. All kinds of things need to be established before you even shoot. You need to talk to your lab and transfer house and set up the ground rules. Some production houses will assign a colorist to your project, which is a good thing, and sometimes it’s whoever’s on duty when your film comes into the telecine suite. Sometimes money determines how well this works. If you getting a bottom of the basement rate, you may not get to choose who transfers your film. You need to get the name of your colorist and start talking to them as soon as possible. It’s good to establish a repoire, talk about films which you’d like to reference, color palates and compare notes. Most of the time, you’ll find somebody who’s in tune with your vision and rarely, you’ll find that you are not in sync and it’s better to know before the process has started and you wonder why your rushes look somebody else shot them. You may need to ask for another colorist if that’s possible. This would be a very rare thing. I have never switched colorist. Usually we work things out and get to work.

At the same time, you should talk with your editor and/or post house to find out what they need for the edit. To what format will the film be transferred? Beta-SP, Digi-Beta, Hi-Def or Mini-DV? My advice is chose the highest format you can afford and make Mini-DV copied to feed your non-linear editor. What framing? Full frame or 1.85 to 1? You should ask if they have any special technical needs so you don't have any surprises later in the game.

What can you do on the set to help out the colorist? Shoot a gray scale and color chart under standard light, be that 3200 degree Kelvin for tungsten film or 5600 Kelvin for daylight balance. You can attach this to the slate or shoot it separately. Big movies shoot them with each shot, but that can get expensive for indies. I tend to shoot them at the head of a role or if we switch locations. The color chart and gray scales are standard on which colorist can calibrate their equipment to your film stock. From there you proceed to light your scene in the style you want. Here’s something I’ve learned from some mistakes. If you want to create some non-normal look, say a cold blue, unnatural look or a striking, warm, sunset look with your lighting, you should let the colorist know what’s up. I usually put a note right after the slate and before the shot that reads “Leave Blue In” or “Let it go Warm!” I’ve shot color charts followed by cold looking scene which was intended to be cold and blue, only to have the colorist ignore the color chart and time everything to look normal. This made me look bad to the director because he didn’t understand that the colorist had ignored the color chart. That’s when I started adding those little notes and phoning the colorist. Now on a short film you may be able to sit down with the colorist and give direct input during the transfer. This is the best way, but sometimes economics, time and distance won’t let you be there, so these little notes can save you. On the features I’ve shot I’ve talked to the colorist as much as possible and when the shoot wraps, I try to attend the transfer of the final batch of rushes. On some films, I never got to set foot in the telecine suite. I also like to call the colorist and tell them or leave a voice mail saying, “Hey the stuff on roll 23 and 34 will be very green, leave it that way.” The more guidance you can give the colorist the happier you both will be. Now, you should be open to input from the colorist. They may have some ideas that will help you. NOTE: I also shoot an ID slate at the head of each roll with the movie title, production company name and contact info so if the film gets separated from its’ paperwork as it makes it’s way through the lab, it could be visually identified and get back to you.

I usually set it up that the first set of rushes get turned around as quickly as possible, spending the money on next day shipment to and from the lab. You want to see what your pictures looks like starting off. Is the camera working fine? Is the framing right? Are you and the director in sync? Are you in sync with the colorist and lab? These are answers you need before your get too far down the road. If your camera has a problem and is ruining your footage you need to know ASAP. One of the earlier features I shot, I didn’t see an inch of film for over a week. It was nerve wracking. I’d call the lab whenever I could from the set and they’d say it looks fine and there are no scratches, but that doesn’t tell you if you’re nailing the look or not. I can relax after seeing that first batch of rushes. If you think you might go to a film print for the final product, I insist that we see at least a roll or two projected which means going through a one-light or best light workprint. It’s an added expense, but again you can relax and also it’s great to sit in a theatre and see your film on the big screen like it’s supposed to be. If you’re doing a good job, then it’s a huge lift to the crew and cast. NOTE: For the first screening, limit who sees this to the director and DP. If something is off, they can work it out without a bunch of side comments.

Another thing you can do to make life easier for the colorist and lab is having the proper paperwork. I know, paperwork is a pain in the ass, but it can save you time, money and may save your ass if something get lost. Label everything consistently and clearly. A roll of film just labeled #12 isn’t very helpful. Make sure you’re in sync; literally, with your location sound mixer in labeling and ID each take. When you’re being charged hundreds of dollars in a telecine suite and the guy syncing your dailies can’t find a sound roll or a take, that can add up to lots of wasted time and MONEY! NOTE: On some films we have done a MOS transfer and did the syncing at another facility to save money. If you going straight to video, this can work, but talk to your editor and/or post house before doing this.

So the key to working with your colorist is communications. That’s really to key to working with anybody, but because the colorist never comes to your production meetings or set and comes into the process late in the game, it’s even more important. So get the colorist phone number, email address and address so you can send them some Cheryl’s cookies. Hey, there’s no law against bribing your colorist.


Scott Spears is an Emmy Award winning Director of Photography with 14 features under his belt. He’s also written several feature screenplays, some of which have been made into movies. You can learn more about him at www.scottspears.net