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 and if 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. A tiny number of productions are still shot non-digitally on film. In these, the film 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.
Many documentaries also go through the grading process. The process is very much the same, although the colourist may need to deal with the added challenge of integrating footage from many different sources. These could be archive material originally filmed in black and white or footage captured on a mobile phone.
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 that no one shot stands out in a sequence. They also offer creative solutions to picture-related problems. For example, they might know what to do with under or over-exposed images or provide day-for-night corrections.
Colourists are also responsible for ensuring the film complies with the technical requirements around luminance levels and chroma.
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- Ten best uses of colour of all time
- How to manage post-production
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 files or negative
- 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 script supervisor
- Attention to detail: be patient, work with tiny changes in colour and tone, keep attending to detail when under pressure
How do I become a colourist?
Most colourists start out as post-production edit or grading assistants or post-production runners. They get to know the post-production process well over several years.
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 work with training, so they can be a great opportunity to earn as you learn. You might find an apprenticeship as a post-production technical operator in a post-production company. This could give you good experience of managing files and provide you with useful contacts in the post-production industry. From there you can make your way into being a colourist.
Check out What’s an apprenticeship? to learn more about apprenticeships and find an apprenticeship to find one in your region, or approach companies directly. Go to ScreenSkills information on apprenticeships for the main apprenticeship schemes in screen.
Build a portfolio:
This is useful for impressing admissions tutors and people in the post-production industry. Just as importantly, it’s the best way to learn about colour grading, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Keep doing it. Go to build your portfolio to learn how.
Get a degree:
It isn’t essential, but if you want one, take a subject that you really enjoy. You might want to add a Masters degree in editing or post-production, depending on where your interests lie. Or 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.
Take a short course:
Go to the list of training courses recommended by ScreenSkills and see if there is one in grading.
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.
Create a LinkedIn profile. Find the Facebook groups or other social media communities for people working in grading. Join them and join the conversations. Create a ScreenSkills profile.
Search for jobs:
Research post-production houses. Regularly check their websites to see if they are advertising for runner roles. Check out ScreenSkills job boards and Animation UK job vacancies. If they aren’t recruiting, send your CV anyway and ask them to keep it on file.
You might also be interested in...
Being a production designer in film and TV drama.
- International Moving Image Society
- Bectu (the media and entertainment union)
- Bectu Ratecards
- UK Screen Alliance
- ScreenSkills resources directory