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Arts & Entertainment

How to Become a Film Colorist: 4 Tips for Working as a Colorist

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

The work of a great colorist can vastly improve any short film, feature film, or television show.

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What Is a Film Colorist?

A film colorist is the post-production technician responsible for designing a film's color scheme in order to achieve a specific style or mood. After a film is shot and edited, the footage is sent to the film colorist. Working closely with a film's director and cinematographer, the colorist ensures that the completed film looks precisely as intended. The colorist also corrects technical color errors and, when necessary, adjusts colors to give the picture a natural appearance.

Professional colorists work out of a controlled environment called a color suite. Color suites have neutral gray walls and proper lighting so that the colorist can make accurate judgments when viewing colors. Originally, colorists altered the actual film stock using photochemical processing, but in modern Hollywood, digital colorists use computer software to achieve a similar result.

What Does a Film Colorist Do?

A film colorist's duties typically fall into two categories: color grading and color correction.

  • Color grading: This is the process of adjusting the appearance of video footage for either creative or technical purposes. Some characteristics colorists adjust via color grading include contrast, color, white balance, black level, saturation, and luminance. Colorists use color grading for artistic purposes to ensure that the film's color palette conveys a specific atmosphere, style, or emotion. For example, in The Matrix, all the scenes taking place inside the computer-generated world are tinted green to match the feel of early monochrome PC monitors; this allows the viewer to identify the world in which each scene takes place.
  • Color correction: A subcategory of color grading, color correction specifically focuses on correcting technical mistakes in order to make the video footage look as real and natural as possible. Color correction is necessary because cameras can't capture light in exactly the same way as the human eye. Additionally, when filming long scenes outside in natural light, the sun moves over time, which causes the lighting to change. A common example of color correction is adjusting the light so it appears consistent in the same scene. Color correction is also used to optimize the footage so any added visual effects (VFX) blend in as seamlessly as possible.

A film colorist does most of their work in post-production, but there are a couple of exceptions. Colorists sometime work with the cinematographer during pre-production to create lookup tables (LUTs) to establish a predetermined aesthetic for a film. Colorists occasionally work during principal photography to deliver color-graded dailies to the producers.

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4 Tips for Becoming a Film Colorist

You don’t need to go to film school to become a colorist, but you do need to learn the necessary skills in order to navigate the colorist job market.

  1. Look for a job at a post-production house. Post houses are entire studios that focus specifically on the post-production phase of filmmaking. These are the perfect places to search for an entry-level job, such as a post-production assistant. Since investing in your own expensive color grading hardware and software isn't always an option, working in a post house gives you access to the high-end equipment you need to learn the ropes. Once employed, inquire about opportunities to help out the professional film colorists. Your goal is to not only learn from the colorists, but to also become their go-to hire when they need an assistant colorist.
  2. Study the craft. Before you can reach your creative potential, you need make sure you have a technical understanding of the job requirements. Read books on color theory and study the manuals for the industry-standard color grading tools. Hone your skills by watching video tutorials or taking classes. In your free time, practice your skills and try out new techniques.
  3. Build a showreel as you gain experience. An easy way to build experience is to search for independent features or short films that are being produced in your area. Often, independent filmmakers have such tiny budgets for a film colorist (or no budget at all) that they're willing to take a chance on a colorist with less experience. Once you've colored a few projects, your next step is to build a showreel of your work to send out to directors so they can see your skills and unique style.
  4. Meet talented directors and cinematographers. Even if you become a master colorist, your work is only as good as the footage you're color grading. That means it's imperative to meet talented filmmakers with whom you can build relationships. Your goal is to have a network of gifted, successful directors and cinematographers who will turn to you when they need a colorist. This not only helps you get jobs from within your network, but it improves your showreel, which makes it easier to be hired outside your network as well.

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