Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

Advice From a Professional Colorist on Mastering Color in Film

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Color is a powerful tool for those making movies, television shows, commercials, or anything else video related. With the rise of advanced post-production programs that make harnessing the potential of color easier and more efficient, colorists have become an increasingly essential part of the process (for example, just try to imagine Moonlight without the impact of colorist Alex Bickel). For some high-level insight, we caught up with colorist Tyler Fagerstrom (Sinister, Boyhood, 20th Century Women), who shared his advice on what it takes to perfect this craft.
 

The Importance of Consistency in Color

If there’s one function that color correction arguably serves over any other, it’s visual consistency. “One of the primary goals is to create a cohesive look for a shoot that often can’t achieve it naturally,” Fagerstrom explains. And that’s not just about visuals, but seamless storytelling, as well.

For example, during an outdoor scene in South by Southwest Audience Award-winner Mr. Roosevelt, the sun kept moving in and out of clouds (a common challenge with exterior shoots) and affected the lighting. “It was really distracting in the scene,” says Fagerstrom. So he tweaked it in post. “As the sun was coming out, we’d bring everything down. As the sun went away, we’d brighten things and create contrast.” Of course, there are more ambitious applications, too — consider the color schemes in the films of Michael Bay or the late Tony Scott — but the goal is always consistency.

 

Enabling Fruitful Collaboration

A colorist’s goal may be consistency, but aspiring to achieve that is about achieving another purpose: “You’re doing many different things to create the mood and the vision of what the director and DP are going for,” says Fagerstrom. Being a colorist, in other words, means collaborating to realize that vision.

That frequently begins with early meetings to set the look of the film, and often include a “look book” — a collection of color references from other projects to convey an ideal color scheme for a project. But colorists can also guide that process by asking key questions like: “What do you want this to look like? What is the mood here? What are we trying to do?” Then their job becomes to help visualize those answers. “We’ll set a couple of test looks. We’ll do three or four different looks,” he explains. Those get presented to a director or director of photography, and the process goes on from there.

Ellar Coltraine in 'Boyhood'
Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
 

Know the Tools of the Trade

Every trade requires the right tools, and for those looking to harness color there are a few options. The industry standard is DaVinci Resolve, according to Fagerstrom. “It’s probably the most common entry-level color correction platform, just because it’s the least expensive,” he says. “If you’re looking to start figuring out the nuts and bolts, it has a really solid color-correction platform.”

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Other options include Lustre, Nucoda, SCRATCH, and Baselight, if DaVinci Resolve doesn’t fit the bill. “At the end of the day, they all work in similar ways. You’re going to affect color and light in a similar manner each time,” says Fagerstrom, clarifying that there can be minor differences. “How they’re structured and how much the program can do for you (versus how much you have to reverse engineer yourself) varies.”

Ethan Hawke in 'Sinister'
Ethan Hawke in Sinister
 

The Two Sides of ‘Fix It in Post’

“We’ll fix it in post” has become such a common expression in filmmaking that it can be easy to overlook what it ultimately represents: a deep trust in the abilities of post-production pros to complete a director or cinematographer’s vision. That trust doesn’t go unappreciated by Fagerstrom. “It’s really encouraging that they can say, ‘You know my aesthetic. I really trust you to be able to just go and do this and make us look good.'”

But he also notes that the inherent trust there can lead to unexpected challenges for colorists and their tools. “It’s not a magic fix-all button,” he emphasizes. To some extent, you can recover things that weren’t quite right on set. There’s a lot we can push it toward. But at the end of the day, if you shoot a day-for-night, and you’ve got hard-noon shadows everywhere, there’s a limit to what we can do.” That means that managing expectations is also a part of the job.

Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in 'Prince Avalance'
Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche
 

Make Educated Choices to Represent Emotions

One of the reasons Fagerstrom fell in love with color was because of one of its most potent uses: “Creating an emotional through-line of a piece using color — I like that deep meta-narrative that you’re trying to tell.” Achieving that requires giving serious thought to what your color choices mean and why you’re choosing them.

“An earmark of a more inexperienced colorist is arbitrary color – color for color’s sake – without a thought-out reason as to why,” Fagerstrom explains. Experts don’t use color frivolously. They’re aware of inherent associations – like warm reds and yellows conveying happiness and cool blues conveying sadness – and deploy them with intent. “You’re always trying to have a reason in the narrative for the look that you’re going for.”

Annete Bening in '20th Century Women'
Annette Bening in 20th Century Women
 

Learn Your Color Scopes (Then Unlearn Them)

When asked what advice he’d give to those learning to master color, Fagerstrom offers a spin on the old adage, “Learn the rules before you break them.” The “rules” in this case are color scopes: “Scopes are really powerful visual tools that represent what the color, luminance, and lighting in your image is doing,” he says. “Learn how to read those. Learn how to reference those. Do so until you’re really comfortable with them, because that’s how you get consistency across the board.”

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But Fagerstrom also stresses that once you’re comfortable with scopes, you shouldn’t become shackled to them. “If you’re locked to your scopes, you’re just going to be grading technically,” he explains, which can prohibit fruitful experimentation. “Let your creative ability and process drive. Try stuff and see what looks good, because at the end of the day, color is all about making things look good.”

That, incidentally, is the origin of Fagerstrom’s passion for color, and what led him to become a colorist. “I just really adored the idea of taking somebody’s beautifully shot images and making them stunning; making them as good as they could possibly be.” You’d be hard pressed to find a better mission statement for any artist.

Top image: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, and Greta Gerwig in 20th Century Women, courtesy of A24