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How to Talk to a Colorist

by alexis
In the Grading Suite

Update–While it’s been many years since I’ve written this article, this remains the single most-read thing on my site. I chalk it up to every new generation of clients having to contend with the same learning curve, as they try to figure out how to get the best out of their artistic collaborators. Communication is the key to pretty much everything in our industry, and this is no different.

Funnily enough, as I’ve been writing this I’ve had three conversations about the importance of communication in the grading suite, two with different colorists of experience, and a third with the audience of the Dec. 2nd AENY user’s group, during my Q&A. Now seemed an appropriate time to get it out the door.


Over the years I’ve worked with a variety of clients, both experienced and inexperienced. In the process, I’ve come to realize that it’s not enough to know how to evaluate an image, read scopes, make clever adjustments to enhance the talent and environment, have an awareness of the history of film and contemporary trends in cinematography, a knowledge of color theory,  an artistic sensibility, and the know-how to work quickly and efficiently so as not to waste the client’s time and money. These skills are all vitally important, but unless you only work on your own projects, there’s one thing missing.

The most important part of my job as a colorist is interpreting just what the heck the client is asking for.

The truth is, most people don’t spend their time talking in great detail about color. Color is such an experiential thing that unless you’re an artist, designer, cinematographer, or you work at an ink factory, you probably don’t need to articulate anything more detailed than to point at a loud shirt shirt to say “that’s ugly.” In our daily lives, we know what we like when we see it, and that’s probably the beginning and end of the conversation. “Does this tie go with this shirt?” No. “Does that color look good on the kitchen wall?” Maybe. “So what do you think of my new shirt?”

I don’t blame anyone for sitting behind me in the suite and saying something to the effect of, “I can’t tell you what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.” I’m the one who decided to pursue this arcane task we call color grading, and as a specialist it’s my job to provide options and recommendations—that’s the whole point. So I see it as my job to bridge the gap between the image as it sits on my display, naked and quivering, and the inner vision of my client, longing for the visual greatness they know should somehow be there.

And yet this can be challenging. An anecdote I like to tell is of the client who insisted “you need to make the image brighter.” Now, since I’ve always tended to equate “brightness” with what is technically a “lightening of the luma of the image,” I raised the midtones a bit. I was wrong. “That’s not right, make it lighter.” Momentarily disarmed, I tapped my chair arm as I tried to think of what else he could mean. On a lark, I raised the saturation. “That’s it!” he exclaimed. “Perfect, it’s much brighter.” And so the session proceeded.

The point is not that the client was perhaps not using the terminology as I would have defined it. The point is that the client clearly articulated their need, and it was my job to interpret that need, and translate it into an adjustment. That’s fine, but in that vein I’ve often wanted to offer a sort of crib sheet, breaking down the fundamentals of image evaluation, in order to provide a glossary to help bridge the gap a little bit faster.

That said, here is a client-friendly image analysis primer, intended to provide a quick orientation prior to any grading session for folks who are looking for a bit of insight.

Brightness is Lightness

Top: The original, dark image. Bottom: Made brighter by boosting the midtones only.

The foundation of the image is whether things are darker or lighter. Most folks correspond “brightness” with how light something appears, although this isn’t always the case.

Usually when people talk about lightness, they’re talking about the midtones and highlights of the image. The way we colorists look at things, every image can be divided into three regions—the shadows, midtones, and highlights. The shadows and highlights speak for themselves. The midtones, as the name implies, include everything in-between the darker shadows and the ligher highlights (for example, people in the frame often fall into the average midtones).

Most color correction applications have a lot of control that can be exercised over the lightness or brightness of the image. Hilights can be made darker, shadows can be made lighter, and the image can be darkened or lightened either overall, or within specific regions of lightness or brightness. For this reason, it’s also perfectly fine to ask for a specific part of the picture to be darkened or lightened.

Here’s one other thing to think about: While the shadows and highlights are (usually) broad regions of the image, the black point represents the darkest thing in the picture and the white point represents the absolutely lightest highlights. It’s possible to brighten the lighter shadows while leaving the black point deep and dark. The result is a limited adjustment to Contrast (covered next).

With this in mind, the following are very useful requests:

  • “The image is good, but the shadows look washed out, could you make them darker?”
  • “I like everything, but could you brighten the highlights so they’re really strong?”
  • “I like the deep blacks, but could you lighten the shadows a bit so we can see her face?”

Image lightness and contrast are intimately linked.

Contrast Is a Stretch

Top: Original, low-contrast image. Bottom: Higher contrast by dropping shadows and boosting highlights together.

“Make it more contrasty” is a common request. It’s also a good request. Contrast is a measurement of the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of the image, so it follows that raising image contrast involves either brightening the highlights, darkening the shadows, or (frequently) both. The result of a reasonable contrast boost is often a more striking image that appears cleaner and crisper. The result of boosting image contrast too much can be clipped shadows, blown-out highlights, and increased noise in the middle of the image (but hey, some people like that too).

Of course, it’s not all more. Lowering contrast is often appropriate if the goal is to create a more subdued look (lowering the light levels to make it appear to be evening, for example). Day-for-night adjustments often benefit from compressed contrast.

Either way, don’t be afraid to be specific about contrast, since contrast can often be tightly controlled within specific regions of the image.

Here are comments that would make me perform a contrast adjustment:

  • “Could you make the image pop more?” (contrast is the first thing I’d try adjusting)
  • “Could you make the shadows darker and the highlights brighter?” (expand contrast)
  • “Could you lower the highlights to make the image dimmer?” (lightly compress contrast)
  • “The shadows are too black and chunky.” (raise the black point to compress contrast)
  • “Could you make the background more contrasty without affecting the actor’s face?” (make a targeted contrast adjustment)

Saturation Is Intensity

Top: A muted, low-saturation image. Bottom: A highly saturated image.

Saturation refers to the intensity of a color. Pale, pastel colors are less saturated, while vivid, rich colors are more saturated.

So, if an image looks a bit dull, it might be a matter of raising the saturation. Conversely, if an image seems busy or distractingly colorful, lowering the saturation is a good fix. As with all things, targeted adjustments to the saturation of specific elements within the image are possible, and in fact this is one of the most frequent types of  targeted corrections I make.

Here are requests that would make me reach for the Saturation knob:

  • “The image is a bit mute, could you make it more colorful?”
  • “I don’t know, it looks kind of, gray…”
  • “Whoa…that image is out of control.”

Comments that would make me try a targeted saturation correction include:

  • “Could you make the red car pop more?”
  • “Can you subdue the woman’s blue sweater?”
  • “The actor looks a bit pasty.”

Hue Is Just a Name

All available colors distributed around a standard video color wheel.

This is the one thing I don’t need to explain. Hue is simply the name of the color you’re referring to.

There’s no need to get tricky with fancy color names. Even though there are a zillion of ’em, I personally tend to stick with the ones that were used in the small box of crayons (I could never remember all the ones in the big box). The truth is, at this point in my career I often find myself thinking in terms of the Vectorscope’s angular distribution of hue, but you probably didn’t want to know that.

Hue is a great way to identify specific elements within a scene. Hue is also a great way to describe a colorful transformation you want made to an image, such as:

  • “I want to emphasize the orange in the sign.”
  • “Can you make the plants look healthier?”
  • “The sky is too sunset-like, could make it bluer?”
  • “I’d like their skin to have a nice orange glow.”
  • “Do you see that yellow in the lighting? Could you get rid of that?”

Cool and Warm Are Important Descriptions, Too

Top: A “cool” blue treatment. Bottom: An orangey “warm” treatment.

Describing an image as “cool” or “warm” might sound artsy, but don’t worry about sounding like a cliché. If you’re describing naturalistic lighting, the physics of the light sources all around us dictates that lighting actually does range from warm reddish-oranges to cool blues, relative to the temperature of the illuminating light source (the illuminant, if you like 25¢ words). Candlelight is considered warm, noon-time sunlight, especially on an overcast day, is considered cool.

  • Sunrise, sunset, candlelight, interior incandescent lighting, bonfires and sodium-vapor streetlights are all variations on reddish-orange, warm lighting.
  • Noon-day sun, overcast days, properly filtered fluorescent and compact-fluorescent lighting, and computer/TV/cell phone displays are variations on white-blue, cool lighting.

Nearly all natural and many man-made light sources fit along a sliding scale from red-orange at the warmest, to blueish at the coolest, so describing a “temperature” actually makes all the sense in the world. If you describe a shot as being hot, warm, luke-warm, cool, cold, or icy, I’ll get what you’re saying.

Along the same lines, there’s a question I’m fond of asking in the suite; “what time of day is it?” Whether an exterior or an interior, the time of day the audience is supposed to perceive gives me a valuable clue as to what quality of light will elicit the desired response.

On the other hand, don’t feel the need to limit yourself to the colors of nature. Even though artificial fluorescent lighting appears white to the naked eye, it can lend a “greenish” cast to a scene recorded to film or video as the result of being improperly filtered or white balanced. While technically that’s an error, many directors and cinematographers have also used this as a creative choice. So, even though it’s distinctly unnatural, greenish lighting has entered the repertoire of the contemporary colorist, as well.

What, Exactly, Do You Want Me to Change?

Top: The original grade. Bottom: selectively making the man’s shirt more vibrant (nothing else is changed).

This last point is a good one. Don’t be afraid to identify simple, specific things you want changed:

  • “Her face is too dark.”
  • “The yellow shirt is ugly, is there something you can do?”
  • “Her red sweater is distracting.”
  • “There’s a little purple in his blonde hair, could we get rid of it?”

Honestly, you don’t even need to articulate why you don’t like something; the important thing is that if there’s a visual element that’s bugging you, tell me, I’ll figure it out. And I’ll be sure to let you know when there’s something that I think needs addressing.

All modern color correction software has the technology to make specific, isolated changes like these. While there are a variety of tools with which to do so, all you need to do is tell me what needs fixing, and I’ll figure out how to get it done.

But Wait, There’s More…

However, those are the basics. While there is obviously much more to the art and science of color correction, in terms of general communication, this is a great foundation to start with, and I hope this helps you to identify individual specifics of images that you want manipulated when working with your friendly neighborhood colorist.

If you want to know more, you can always check out my new book, “Color Correction Handbook: Professional Techniques for Video and Cinema.” While it’s written for the practicing or aspiring colorist, there’s something in there for everyone who wants to know more about how color grading works. As they said in the old G.I. Joe cartoons, “knowing is half the battle!”

Special thanks to Yan Vizinberg, Abigail Honor, and Chris Cooper for images from Cargo, Lauren Wolkstein for images from Cigarette Candy, and Bill Kirstein for images from Osiris Ford.

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Wanda Doerner December 4, 2010 - 12:42 pm

You have hit the nail on the head. Most producers/clients don’t understand color at all and lack the terminology to express what they are looking for. As editors – WE are interpreters and most clients only know what they don’t like.

In the TV world (news) it is even less sophisticated with looming deadlines putting the responsibility on individual editors to now converge the use of all video/audio and graphic components in place under tight deadlines. My task is to “just fix it” no matter what given the time available. And … then animate it as well. Thanks to your Advanced Color Correction & Effects manual and that wonderful Encyclopedia of Color Correction (which I inhaled) … I just crank it out according to my “eye” and with decades of previous still experience with images – it’s almost automatic for me.

I only wish I had the time and opportunity to use the COLOR application in and of itself … most of the time I use the 3-way color corrector for all of my deadline work.

Some day – I look forward to just tackling the Color app – which looks like a tempting playground to me. I know that your expertise and manuals will guide me along that path as always.


Wanda Doerner

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Flinkman December 18, 2010 - 5:57 pm

Great reading, thank you!

Aleksey December 30, 2010 - 3:07 am

This is great, will be useful, i can see myself showing this to clients, before I start working with em =)

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daren scot wilson September 10, 2013 - 2:13 am

“Most producers/clients don’t understand color at all…” Indeed! And you can add to that top-notch scientists, even if their professional area of responsibility is imaging.

This is a great article. Working in the sciences and visual arts, I’ve dealt first-hand with the jargon/concepts gap, translating guesses, naive assumptions and “just make it look better” into the right manipulations. Though I worked almost entirely with still images not video, so much of my work was just like what colorists do.

Something like this is necessary in all fields – for the same thing happens in audio, illustration, fine art, interiors, etc.

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