An Interview With a Colorist

Originally posted May 28, 2015 on Ajambule.comdavid-hildreth

David Hildreth and his wife live in Tempe, Arizona where they keep busy raising their first little girl. When not working he really enjoys cooking with his wife. David is a team member at Visual Peace Media and has worked on coloring at least one of their documentary films, Dance the Past Into the Future by Mario Mattei.

I’m intrigued by the role he plays in helping craft a quality film so posed a few questions to him…

What exactly is a “colorist”?

A colorist takes video and helps improve the image, much like how a photographer will re-light or re-touch images. Generally this starts with matching shots from scene to scene or fixing exposure and white balance issues. From there you can add a look or feel that helps tell the story.

How did you first hear about this kind of job?

Before film school I had no idea there were so many specialties in the film industry. I had no idea that some people got paid to just make graphics or just cut a certain type of story. Colorists are as much technicians as they are artists and that appealed to me.

How does one go about becoming a colorist?

Lots of practice. Like most of filmmaking it’s increasingly easier to get into. But there’s still a lot of guys out there who’ve been doing it as long as I’ve been alive and they’re not very quick to divulge their secrets. A good colorist is good because of experience.

What’s a typical work day look like for you?

I do all sorts of post for a living. But a full day of color usually starts with cleaning up the edit. From Premiere or Final Cut or Avid I then take the footage into color grading software like DaVinci Resolve and watch the film a few times. You need a good idea of what the whole film looks like, what the story is and what sort of issues the footage has. From there I’ll pick a scene and get the footage to a good neutral point. Once it’s all neutral you can add a look to help support what’s happening in the scene. Maybe it’s dark and moody, maybe it’s bright and sunny, it depends on what’s happening in the film.

Does your job entail another other responsibilities, or things that often go along with being a colorist?

Online editing is often a huge part of being a colorist. Depending on how the film was edited there can be hours of work in just preparing the edit to be sent to the color grading tool. Nesting, in-timeline composites or fx all need to be simplified and streamlined. Before an edit can be sent for color you’ve pretty much got to have all your edits on one track and all your fx baked in. That can get tedious over a feature length project. After color is done it’s generally necessary to apply titles and some fx back to the color graded video. That and other finishing duties are the responsibility of an online editor. Many colorists are the de facto online editor on the projects they color. That’s definitely where the technician part of the job comes in, passing broadcast or manufacturing QC can be tricky.

What are some of the popular programs you use to help colorize video?

I primarily use DaVinci Resolve. But that’s just one tool, there are many out there.

What advice do you have for filmmakers to make your job easier, less work?

When shooting digital you should always avoid clipping highlights. That’s an old rule but it’s still true. I can do a whole lot to help brighten an image but it’s really tough to bring back overblown video. Shoot a stop under if you’re not sure. For editors, I really wish there was more discipline when cutting. I do spend a lot of time cutting and I understand that it’s easier to have a messy timeline and unorganized bins. But you’re not saving yourself any time in the long run. Simplify your timelines down to a few tracks and organize your project neatly.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m currently co-directing my first feature length doc. The working title is Felled, it’s about urban lumber. We’re taking a big huge Aleppo pine tree that came down here in Phoenix in a monsoon storm and making a family dinner table from it. The trees we have in our cities are beloved when they’re shading our backyards but when they fall or have to be removed they’re generally treated as trash. As a Christian I feel we’re called to be better stewards of creation that that. Especially in a desert like Phoenix where I live, it’s awful to grow these trees and then just throw them away. The film documents making a table and giving it to a young family in an attempt to provide some redemption to this beautiful wood that otherwise would have taken up space in a landfill. Along with talking to experts and artists across the USA about craftsmanship, ecology and for some how their faith guides them in that.

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Any favorite films/genres?

I have two great loves in cinema: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Lawrence of Arabia. haha. They’re about as different as can be, but I love both for different reasons. I can watch Ferris any day, any time and be entertained. Lawrence on the other hand is just a triumph of filmmaking. I love big huge epics.