The grade provides a consistent ‘look’ to a drama, but a great grade can enhance mood, focus and narrative flow.

In Televisual’s Spring issue, we asked four top grading artists about their craft.

In the first of the series, here’s the interview with Company 3’s Tom Poole (12 Years a Slave, Spotlight, Euphoria Cruella, Judas and the Black Messiah, Small Axe, Drive, I Tonya, The Place Beyond The Pines, Foxcatcher)

With the second season of Euphoria, DP Marcell Rév used cross processed 35mm Ektachrome. There’s this beautiful, creamy texture to the image. Digital advancements are amazing, but I do think there is a tendency for things to become homogenised. A lot of DPs and directors would love to take a risk like Euphoria – a major studio allowing cross processed Ektachrome on a TV show that was already successful on digital. Hopefully, it opens the gate up to more filmmakers being able to be experimental within episodic.

You have certain relationships with DPs. The one I have with Marcell is similar to the one I have with [12 Years a Slave DP] Sean Bobbitt. It’s like a drummer and a bass player and you just have that cadence, and it works perfectly. When the DP finds their colourist, and they have that vibe, it’s the best feeling in the world. You’re lucky when you get those relationships. And if you have a good relationship with a DP, you can be honest with them. Ultimately, it’s the director and the DP’s footage, but I think good relationships have positive conflict. An editor will debate with a director about the cut and a colourist will debate with DPs.

Colour science is very important. I create a lookup table for every show that I work on. Some colourists, and there’s nothing wrong with this, just have their go-to LUT. For me, there are so many variables to the quality of lenses or the filtration that’s used and the lighting that’s used, I like to build a lookup table that is a good base of how the project was shot and that works for the package.

I’ll watch a piece by myself a couple of times, just to get a sense of it and make notes of things that jumped out to me. And then I create a colour bible where that first session is really loose and you’re just setting a couple of shots on each scene in the movie and moving on. And then I’ll string out those selected shots so you’re looking at a sizzle reel of the scenes in order and how they play off each other. And then we’ll make tweaks from there. It’s very instinctual, you’re not sitting on a scene. A good analogy would be sculpture – you start chipping off big blocks, and getting the shape and, bit by bit, you slowly start focusing more on detail.

I don’t really reference other films. I reference photography a lot. I like it when the image on the screen looks like it could be printed on photographic paper – where there’s a texture to the highlights, texture to the black, and it doesn’t feel like a video image, it feels like a moving photographic print. The people that influenced me when I was coming up were people like Jean-Clément Soret and what Jeunet was doing with Amélie or City of Lost Children and Delicatessen. They were very strong photochemical looks back then. When we were coming up as telecine artists, everything you saw at the movie theatre was a film print and we were always aspiring for that print look. So, we always had that association of the projected film print as being the ultimate version of something.

A good grade complements the narrative. The viewer shouldn’t be too conscious of the grade. That’s not to say you can’t have a heavy look, but for a good grade the number one thing is that it facilitates the DP’s vision. There are colourists that want to have more recognition for their contribution to a film. For me, the only recognition I need is for people to talk about the cinematography in a positive light. If so, I’ve done a good job. 

There’s a lot of responsibility. I’ve seen the pain and suffering filmmakers go through to get their films made. I’ve seen the process ruin people’s marriages; I’ve seen them get sick trying to finish a film. And so, as a colourist, you need to have all your boxes checked and make their life easier. In the beginning when I was coming up, to me it was all about ‘how does my work represent who I am as a colourist?’ As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised the relationships and friendships I have are the most important things in a career. Because you can be really talented, but if people don’t like you, and you’re not a good communicator, you’re not going to have a long career.

I’ve trained a few people over the years who have gone on to become colourists and some that haven’t. You could have people that have an amazing eye, but they just hate the client dynamic and the pressure of having people sitting behind them. It’s about being personable, confident, a good politician, a problem solver. There’s a lot of left brain/ right brain stuff. You have to be very creative, but you also have to be incredibly technical. 

Jon Creamer

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