Chris Layhe: Colorist

As a colorist and color grader - a color grading specialist on film projects and color correction specialist on video projects of every type and size - I know that I’ve done my job well when you can’t see what I've done.

Colorists are there to pick up the pieces as the guys who actually do most of the “fixing it in post”,  when perhaps not every frame of every image shot by even the most gifted of DPs will be perfect.  Of course, only an idiot would believe that a camera can do that – or even that a perfect frame is what you want in the first place… many scenes you shoot want a look or styling at the end of the day, whether it is a beautiful golden hour landscape, a gritty street interview or a glossy fashion image – all far from a perfect frame. But what most people can agree on is that you don’t want to have that burnt out window in the corner of the shot, an actor with a green face, an actress with a giant spot, or images that bounce around the frame like demented kangaroos. 

I get rid of those problems, as well as making everything smooth between frames, so you don’t have any faults that make one frame stand out, or every cut introducing a different color cast… while also making sure that you get the highest possible quality that can be achieved from your footage in the final masters.

As a color grader I can do this two ways – in an ideal world I go right back to the original camera footage and rebuild the project timeline with this, and then correct it shot by shot at the highest possible resolution. This is the “right way” and gives fabulous results every time, but it is slow, and so expensive – exactly how expensive and slow depends on the type of faults that have to be corrected and how often they occur, but think in terms of several weeks to get the finished and mastered production back, and a matching budget. In an indie film world, or for a corporate program, time and budget are always the enemy, and so there is an alternative approach, where I slice up your existing best output master file into individual shots, and then color grade each of these – instead of the original camera footage.  In most cases the results aren’t going to be as good, and there will be some compromises that have to be made, but the end result will be faster to reach and the budget can be significantly lower.  Like everything else that we do in the film and video industry it is a balancing game between desire for the best possible project and the reality of time and budget, and I work with you, explaining the options and consequences, and together we find the right individual solution.

If there is time on a project I like to both edit and grade a video or film, as the two are so closely linked, and that way I can put a rough grade on the footage as it is edited so the client sees everything more or less as it will be. With our powerful systems this is an easy step to take, and as we have been working on 4k, 6k and now 8k footage since RED’s first high resolution image (CLAi were one of the earliest adopters of the RED digital cinema system) we not only understand the challenges of large sensor work, but we usually work in 4k for every element of the entire project.

The goal is always the same, to make your film or video look as good or better than what you envisioned in your mind – before reality stepped in! Good color grading should be invisible, but it should bring a little something extra to every story, and account for the differences between international and national audiences, and multiple possible delivery options… and I think we manage to attain that on a daily basis. Fortunately grading doesn’t need to be done locally any more, and so although I’m physically in the South San Francisco Bay I work with clients anywhere there is an Internet connection – and have got well tested workflows for making this very successful and totally painless. Often color grading is part of a post finishing package, where I not only grade the footage, but also finesse the edit, run the final audio mix between sources, check all of the technical standards are met and then master the final project in multiple forms for you.

This is the color correction and grading reel, which demonstrates some of the techniques that I use, primarily within Da Vinci Resolve Studio, to bring new life to old ideas, save projects that have major problems, and simply make well produced pieces look spectacular… it’s the Art of Color Grading.  As this little video uses 4k footage exclusively I decided that it would also benefit from bring created in 4k so you can see the smooth color transitions, subtlety and detail that this image size provides – although you will have to go to https://youtu.be/y84UoTxs52g and change your viewing size to 4k to get the benefit of all of those pixels.

COLORIST

Colorists are the forgotten children of the video and film industries. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the quality of advertising for cameras, which imply that with the latest and greatest chips and sensors every frame of every image shot by anyone will be perfect. Of course, only an idiot would believe that a camera computer can do that – or even that a “perfect” frame is what you want in the first place… most scenes you shoot want a look or styling at the end of the day, whether it is a beautiful golden hour landscape, a gritty street interview or a glossy fashion image – all far from a “perfect” frame.

Once this makes sense you have entered the world of the colorist, color correction and color grading. For us folk who turn a frame of data into a great image we look for frames that are flat and colorless with lots of data and latitude. The camera operator’s job is to provide the composition and this sort of exposure, and the colorist’s job is to turn this raw material into a completed film or video project, with the consistent look that the producer and director are looking for in each part of the story. So we smooth out the little differences within a visual sequence, remove any glitches, clean up shake and build appropriate looks for parts of the story to enhance the audience’s emotional reactions and understanding. And we provide the highest possible quality in picture and audio so it can be shown anywhere.

In doing so I normally go right back to the original camera footage, rebuild the project timeline, and then apply primary and secondary color grading to get the images just so – often going 10 to 15 secondary layers of correction deep to enhance particular aspects of a section. Much of this work is slow and tedious, with lots of rendering time, and I prefer to do this solo, then bring in the producer, director and DP for their opinions and notes on possible changes – a very different process to telecine film correction that needs all hands on deck all the time. This makes color grading a discipline that is perfect for remote working, where the production team get regular updates via the Internet to respond to, much like a dailies process.

If there is time on a project I like to both edit and grade a video or film, as the two are so closely linked, and that way I can put a rough grade on the footage as it is edited so the client sees everything more or less as it will be. With our powerful systems this is an easy step to take, and as we have been working on 4k, 6k and very soon 8k footage since RED’s first high resolution image (CLAi were one of the earliest adopters of the RED digital cinema system) we not only understand the challenges of large sensor work, but we usually work in 4k for every element of the entire project.

The way I handle the colorist role is to automatically include my time to do a great color grading job on every CLAi production. Then, much as I do with independent editing, I spend a lot of my days as an independent color correction specialist on both film and corporate video projects. I will often also handle the final audio mix to tie the sounds in with the visuals as tightly as possible, and then look after mastering into multiple formats for delivery at the studios here in Santa Cruz.

The CLAi 4k Colorist Reel - The Art of Color Grading