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Top colourists on the art of the grade

Blog
07 December 2018

Leading movie and high end TV colourists - Adam Inglis, Adam Glasman, Asa Shoul, Jean-Clément Soret and Paul Ensby - reveal the secrets of their craft, and explain the techniques they used to grade movies like The Danish Girl, Peterloo, Baby Driver, Slumdog Millionaire and The Lady in the Van


Adam Inglis
Freelance Colourist
Credits include
Churchill, Sherlock Holmes, Peterloo, V for Vendetta, Dredd, Swallows and Amazons, The Nice Guys, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Blue Planet II, Wolf Hall, Poldark

I feel that a ‘good” grade’ is an appropriate grade. By appropriate I mean one that should always serve and be dictated by the story.

I don’t think you should really notice the colourist’s work, even if it is quite extreme and you certainly shouldn’t be able to work out what tools they used to achieve it. If it seamlessly integrates with the style, themes and other elements of the production, then while you may feel it, you’re not going to notice it as being out of place.

I’m normally off doing other grades while the shoot is going on; the shoot side of things is taken care of by the DIT. I might work with the DoP on tests and LUTs before the shoot but then we only start the grade properly once we get into the suite.

The film itself is the biggest influence on what we do in the grade. I have often said that the film will tell us how it wants to be graded. However, the film does not work in an artistic and cultural vacuum. Other films, paintings, photographs and the natural world all contribute and inform the visual language that we are working with. I try to see as much of these as I can to enrich my understanding.
I like to work in a series of passes, rather like drafts of a script, coats of paint or sanding a piece of wood. I don’t feel that you can always get it right first time and that it’s best to get the basic structure in place first before building upon that and allowing the grade time to evolve naturally.

I start with the big picture decisions and then work all the way down to smaller details. It gives you freedom to change direction and feel how things flow much like a piece of music. Get the scenes in place first, then the shots and finally individual elements of the shots.
Everyone on a film should be working towards what the director wants at all times. I don’t feel there is such a thing as ‘my’ vision of the grade; the film is the director’s vision. The role of the colourist is to find the best way to get to our destination, much like being a taxi driver – you use your knowledge and experience. There’s no point taking your client to the museum if they want to go to the airport.

I don’t feel that the director and DoP have to be in the room with me at all times. There’s a certain amount of work I can do, and often do faster, on my own. It can be efficient and productive to take a direction from them and then have some time alone with the material to then present something to the director or DoP that they can react to with a fresh set of eyes.
I am a big proponent of HDR, especially for wildlife films where it finally allows us to achieve the ‘window on the world’ feeling that we have been working towards for so long.

I don’t see any difference between the way I approach a TV drama or a feature film, nor even why there should be any difference. Wildlife documentaries however are different – the images should look and feel as real as possible, which is actually a very precise target to hit. In the fiction film world, artifice is part of the storytelling, it’s what separates ‘art’ from ‘reality’.

I love seeing film prints but there’s no question that digital exhibition has made a colourist’s job easier. I am an ACES advocate. It’s not unusual for films to be shot on multiple cameras and have multiple delivery formats, so the more order we can apply to that chaos, the better.

I work on Baselight, Resolve, Nucoda and Lustre, with Baselight being my first language system. You can’t really restrict yourself to just one system as a freelancer.

I think communication is the most important skill. Getting inside the creative minds of the director and DoP is the key to efficiently crafting an effective final product. You need to get to that synthesis of vision. In an ideal grading scenario, a colourist doesn’t need to be asked to do something since they’re already doing it anyway.



Adam Glasman
Senior Digital Intermediate Colourist
Goldcrest Post
Credits include
The Danish Girl, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri, Cold Mountain, Anna Karenina, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Skyfall, Casino Royale, World War Z, Rush, Marley, In Bruges, The Death of Stalin, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Macbeth, The World’s End, King of Thieves

I come onboard in pre-production, where I am generally involved in camera/lens and hair/makeup tests. At this point I may be given a script and discuss the look with the DoP. I often work with the test material to create look LUTs, allowing the DoP to preview material onset in real time with an approximation of the intended grade. This can be applied to the dailies for editorial, or references can be given to the DIT or onset colourist on larger productions.

With most projects, I grade previews in advance of the main DI. Although the material is generally of a lower quality and resolution (HD MXF from editorial) than available in the final grade, previews can be a useful part of the look development process. They allow filmmakers to see grade concepts in context for perhaps the first time.

Vfx-heavy productions often require grading work during the shoot, so the VFX vendors have the ability to preview their work with something close to the final look.
I generally prefer to work with the DoP in attendance. My role as a colourist is to achieve the DoP/directors vision, so I won’t try and impose my taste. However, I will attempt to guide the grade in a direction suited for the material and narrative. With regular clients, I tend to be more vocal as they obviously trust my judgement.

The most important step in the process is watching an up-to-date cut of the movie before commencing the final grade. Next, in collaboration with the DoP, I create look references for all key scenes in the movie and get this approved by the director. At this point I grade all material chronologically using the references. When complete, I review and adjust with the DoP, making sure everything is consistent and working in context and then show this completed version to the director and producers for final sign off.

Inspiration can come from other films, commercials, photography and art. I am often asked to look at the work of certain photographers and artists to use as grading references. Recent examples were photographer Saul Leiter and the paintings of Francisco Goya.

I’m usually given two to three weeks to grade a feature. This can increase greatly with VFX-heavy tentpole features. As an example, I recently graded Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom which required over six weeks to complete. This is partly due to the number of delivery formats, which in this case involved DI, 3D, SD (rec709), Dolby domestic HDR, Dolby theatrical HDR, Dolby theatrical 3D, and domestic 3D. Time constraints are generally much greater with broadcast projects.

A broad knowledge and love of cinema is essential for features colourists. A good technical understanding of the process is also a great help. I studied image science and worked in stills before I moved to features post, and my background has proved invaluable. Perhaps the most important skill is the ability and confidence to control the grading room. This really comes from practice and experience.





Asa Shoul
Senior Colourist
Warner Bros. 
De Lane Lea
Credits include
Mission Impossible: Fallout, Isle of Dogs, Annihilation, Ex_Machina, Baby Driver, Kick Ass, Yardie, The Constant Gardener, Layer Cake, United 93, Clash of the Titans, ‘71, Brooklyn, The Crown, Generation Kill, Tin Star, SS-GB and The Alienist

A ‘good grade’ is one that is consistent, doesn’t bump from shot to shot and feels appropriate to the subject matter, genre and medium. A ‘pushed’ grade, where environments, and skin tones might look unnatural or heightened might work with a fantasy or comic-book story, but it might jar the viewer if it was applied to a documentary or more natural feeling film.

I try to get involved as early as possible. Ideally at script stage, but definitely at camera and lens testing, then costume hair and makeup. We’ll start to exchange looks via images from different places, (these might be paintings, photographs or stills from other films). For The Crown, we did a number of tests just looking at lipstick so that we could nail it and avoid me having to adjust it in the grade for hundreds of shots. Testing for costumes to see how they appear with particular looks applied is important particularly with a pushed grade.

Inspiration is also dependent on the subject matter, the period the film is set in but also the mood and emotional content of the film; we might decide to attach broader tones to emphasise character arcs and beats within the film.

The DoP or director might brief me about the project, but I am prepared for this to change. The initial brief from director Matthew Vaughn for Kick Ass was to go for a naturalistic almost documentary look, as the main character did not have super-powers. This eventually changed, and we referenced Dick Tracy and similar comic-book looks, creating a vibrant airbrushed film.

The starting point of any grade is to play with the image and see initially where it wants to sit. It’s important to understand the latitude that the exposure has given you to play with and to find how far the image can be pushed. I’d balance scenes without diving in to adjust face colour or skies and so on.

My first pass is to balance shots together, then a pass to work on the look of the film, then further passes to shape the images, applying grads and shapes to highlight areas of the frame or push them back into shadow.
I can develop a shorthand with some previous clients. I can usually get pretty close to their desired look with an unattended first pass. With new clients it takes time, perhaps a day to understand how they see an image, their preferred levels of contrast and saturation and the terminology they might use to describe colour or an emotion.

I don’t try to drive anything to my preferred look. I like diversity and to explore new looks anyway, but if asked I feel it’s important to be honest if you feel the image is being compromised or the look is working against the narrative.

I use Baselight. It was designed by colourists and colour-scientists and continues to be developed by Filmlight in a collaborative and inclusive way.

I think it’s important to be able to start again on a scene if you think a new approach will give a better result. Patience is a key skill for colourists, as is not being precious about what they may have offered.



Jean-Clément Soret
Supervising DI Colourist
Technicolor London
Credits include
Slumdog Millionaire, The Other Boleyn Girl, 28 Days Later, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, T2 Trainspotting 2, You Were Never Really Here, Serenity, Steve Jobs
127 Hours, The Twilight Saga Eclipse, Sunshine


On movies you get involved early as you are asked to give material for the dailies. It’s mostly last minute on commercials, but some projects are all about the grade, in that case you have pre-grade sessions before the big one. Also, the look can evolve during post and is finalised at the end.

A brief from the director and/or DoP is usually done with references of previous work done together, or from other people’s work, as well as movies and photos, but it’s rarely to be taken literally, there is always room for improvisation and input.

My influences come from my own culture and background, or my back catalogue of work, anything I do when I don’t sleep.

When film was around the starting point in grading was a print from your camera negative at 25 points RGB print value. This was a true representation of the DoP’s work without any creative intention.
I try to emulate this before we start grading, a flat raw image doesn’t mean anything other than the range of exposure you have on your image.

I tend to present something I believe is working for the project to the director/DoP as I go along. I try a few things, but options narrow naturally very quickly. I don’t like too much forced looks unless there is a good reason.
I respect all opinions in the room but put a good degree of my vision in a grade, that’s what keeps me going after so many years.

A ‘good’ grade is one that suits the cinematography, is well balanced, adds production value, and meets the client’s requests, but with subtlety.

Different types of project command a difference in approach. Drama is a race against the clock, commercials are a luxury, movies are in between; the more time you have the more you can explore, think and give attention to detail.

Some clients have embraced HDR, and it almost becomes a second grade. Others haven’t and the HDR looks almost the same as SDR. There is a bit of skepticism about it. We will see how it develops.

One current trend in grading is that everyone wants their digital to look like film. Print looks have been popular for a while. On the technology side, new kit makes [the job] easier but new technology can also make workflows unnecessarily complicated.

Two pieces of advice for colourists: Always go too far, you can always back down later but at least you will not regret missing an opportunity. Attention to detail is key.




Paul Ensby
Senior Colourist Company 3 (Deluxe)
Credits include:
The Lady in the Van, Allegiant, Amy, Mary Queen of Scots, Great Expectations, A Quiet Passion, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Riot Club, Electric Dreams (TV series), Watership Down (TV series), Origin (TV series), Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars

There isn’t a right or wrong grade. I look for things such as, does the grade help enhance the narrative, and technically is it well matched within scenes?

When I get involved varies with the project. Sometimes I am involved in camera testing, right through dailies and finally through final DI. In some cases, I only get involved after the project is edited. I’m not normally hands-on again until the finishing process, unless asked to specifically look at a problematic set up during the shoot.

Defining the look is a collaborative process. [At the beginning] working closely with the DoP and director, we would normally try to form some early reference images of the look or looks. I then prefer to show them something I have worked on, albeit even a basic grade, based on what we have discussed previously. Ultimately, the director/DoP will have the final say but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t contribute based on previous experiences.

When looking for inspiration, I love the early Technicolor films such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, right through to the Sergio Leone westerns.

I tend to do a basic matching pass initially to gauge the flow of the film, then go through the project adding more secondary corrections, then a third pass and so on. With this way it’s easier to know how the film feels on the run, rather than getting bogged down in smaller details too early.

I’ve used Davinci Resolve since I moved to Company 3 in 2014. Blackmagic has added many features that help but the excellent tracker for windows has saved me a lot of time recently.

How long you typically get to grade a project varies. Movies tend to take anything from five days to four weeks depending on the show, while for broadcast drama we get a lot less time. Maybe two to three days per episode!

I’ve delivered several HDR DCPs. HDR opens up the limits where SDR can’t reach. With enough care and attention, it can look amazing! Some scenes explode with contrast and detail which is great. Other scenes require a lot of containment as often the image needs a subtler, softer approach.

I am not seeing an overall trend in film grading, but personally I have pulled back a little from everything having to look like 35mm film!

Diplomacy, patience and time management are essential skills for a colourist. An ability to identify how or where to improve an image quickly helps. Plenty of experience dealing with all sorts of formats and a creative eye for detail is important.


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