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What does a colourist do?

Colourists contribute to the mood and look of a film by defining its colours. They work with the director and director of photography to decide the palette; whether it’s restrained or hyper-coloured, whether it uses milky colours or primary ones. Colourists are able to contribute to these looks by changing the luminance levels (brightness) and chroma (colour).

Film and TV dramas are usually shot on digital cameras in a raw format, which means the information about the colour is captured in the data but can’t be seen until the colour is applied. If shooting on film, the rushes are taken to the lab where they are processed and then scanned into a digital workflow. It’s the job of the colourist to perfect the way in which the colour is put into the picture. This is known as grading.

When colourists receive the files in the edit, they stylise the colour in line with the vision of the director and director of photography. They match the shots, balancing colour saturation and luminance so no one shot stands out in the sequence. They also offer creative solutions to picture-related problems. They might know what to do with under or over exposed images, or provide day for night corrections, for example.

Colourists are also responsible for ensuring the film complies with the law around luminance levels and chroma.

What’s a colourist good at?

  • Understanding colour: know how to use colour to enhance a story, appreciate the psychological effect of colour, have a good eye, know what look fits the style of the drama
  • Knowledge of digital and film process: understand how best to get the creative look from the raw camera negative
  • Knowledge of film production: be aware of the whole process of making a film or TV drama
  • Using software: adept at using colour editing software, such as Baselight or Davinci Studio, keep up-to-date with software developments and know the best tools for the job
  • Communication: work well with the director, understand the vision of the director of photography, share the process with the edit assistants and the script supervisor
  • Attention to detail: be patient, work with tiny changes in colour and tone, keep attending to detail when under pressure

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