Film and TV drama

Colourist

Also known as: Grader, Post digital imaging technician

Colourist

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.

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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

Who does a colourist work with?

The colourist works closely with the editor, director and director of photography. It’s quite a solitary job as much of the detailed work is done alone.

How do you become a colourist?

Most colourists start out as post-production edit or tech assistants or runners and get to know the post-production process well over several years. Go to our runner job profile for details of how to get in.

At school or college:
If you want to go to university, A-levels or Highers in art and design, photography, graphic design, graphic communication, physics, psychology or computing science are useful. Or you might want to take the following Level 3 vocational qualifications:

  • NCFE Applied General Certificate in Art and Design
  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • BTEC National Extended Diploma in Creative Digital Media Production
  • UAL Applied General Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design

If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you:

  • Aim Awards Diploma in Creative and Digital Media
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (3D Design)
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Graphic Design)
  • OCR Cambridge Technical Diploma in Art and Design (Photography)
  • OCR Technical Diploma in Digital Media (Moving Image and Audio Production)
  • BTEC National Diploma in Film and Television Production
  • BTEC National Diploma in Film and Television Visual Effects
  • BTEC National Diploma in Graphics
  • BTEC National Diploma in Photography
  • UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design
  • UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Creative Media Production and Technology

Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training, so they’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. You might find studios offering the following apprenticeships:

Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will be giving you the skills you want. Go to how to become an apprentice to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region or approach companies directly.

Make films:
Build a portfolio. This is essential for impressing admissions tutors and people in the film industry. Just as important, it’s the best way to learn about editing, seeing what works and what doesn’t.

Look for post-production companies:
Most are in London, but not all. Contact them and ask if you can do work experience. Go to how to approach employers to learn how.

Get a degree:
It’s not essential, but have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses in film and TV. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the film and TV industries. Choose one which gives you access to post-production facilities.

Network:
Go to ScreenSkills events, especially Open Doors, where you can meet people who work in the industry. Give people in post-production your details and ask if you can do work experience.

Network online:
Create a LinkedIn profile. See if there’s a Facebook page or other social media group for people making films or videos in your area. Join it. Create a ScreenSkills profile.

Become a trainee:

Apply for ScreenSkills’ Trainee Finder scheme as a post-production trainee.

You might also be interested in…

Being a production designer in film and TV drama.

Further resources