Colorist Ian Vertovec with DP Cameron Duncan

Essential Color Grading Skills: 8 Strategies for Managing Client Notes

As a professional colorist, I’m obsessed with making images look great.

Above and beyond my paid work, I’ve spent thousands of hours developing my techniques and deepening my knowledge, and I put in more nearly every day.

Against this backdrop, it’s all too easy to forget the collaborative nature of this art form. I could be the most talented and knowledgeable artist in the world, but without the ability to effectively collaborate, I’d make a terrible colorist.

At the end of the day, the colorist’s most important role is to give expression to the filmmaker’s creative vision, and this can only be accomplished through great collaboration.

But, to adapt one of my favorite sayings, talking about color is a bit like dancing about architecture. Receiving and communicating visual ideas through words is rarely easy, and it’s all the more difficult with remote color workflows devoid of body language, facial cues, and sometimes even tone of voice.

The colorist’s most important role is to give expression to the filmmaker’s creative vision, and this can only be accomplished through great collaboration.

Yet this is precisely why it’s so important to develop tools for navigating collaborative relationships effectively.

Today I’m going to share eight grading strategies for handling common client notes, as well as some guiding principles recently shared with me by some of our industry’s top professionals. Let’s get started!

1. “It looks too contrasty”

It’s rare that a week goes by without my hearing this note at some point.

It can be phrased in different ways and can mean different things, but being able to address it well is critical. For me, that starts with asking good questions, both of myself and of my collaborators. Here are a few I like to start with when addressing notes about contrast

What’s the frame of reference?

Everything about the human visual system is contextual.

A romantic sunset vista can be blinding if you’ve just stepped out of a basement, and a softly lit interior can be a shadowy void if you’ve just walked inside. The same is true when we’re grading motion images: if your frame of reference is a log-state camera negative, any reasonable level of contrast will look “slammed” by comparison.

Even if your collaborators are used to a stock camera LUT, the addition of a stronger look may elicit this note.

So what’s the solution? Change the frame of reference.

Find some still frames with contrast your client likes, and compare them to where you’re at. You may find that you’ve indeed gone too far with your contrast, or your client may withdraw their note after experiencing their image in a new context.

Is exposure in the right place?

Often, “it’s too contrasty” is an expression of what Walter Murch calls “referred pain,” meaning a symptom whose root cause is really elsewhere.

In this case, the root cause is often exposure. You’ll be amazed at how often the impression of too much (or, for that matter, too little) contrast goes away when you simply take a second look at your exposure and really dial it in.

Is it the right contrast?

There’s a hidden danger any time we’re given a note about an attribute for which we have a corresponding knob.

A good colorist recognizes that while they may only have one knob labeled Contrast, there are myriad ways to introduce and remove contrast from an image. Remember that contrast can be linear, non-linear, tonal, spatial, colorimetric, or any combination of these.

Sometimes it’s not a question of how much contrast you’re introducing, but what kind of contrast.

2. “This shot needs more saturation”

As we discussed in “It’s too contrasty,” this note is practically begging for literal interpretation: just grab the Saturation knob and turn it the direction you’re being asked to.

But just as with contrast, a good colorist knows that responding in this way usually isn’t the best approach. Think of this way: if your client knew the exact prescription for what adjustments were needed, they wouldn’t have hired you.

Since they did, it’s your job to give them what they want, even if they’re not asking for it in the perfect way. Here are some principles to keep in mind when it comes to notes on saturation:

  • Many times we feel we need more saturation when what we’re really after is more separation, or contrast between colors. Try adjusting your overall balance to find a “sweet spot” for color contrast before reaching for that Saturation knob.
  • Even in cases where more or less color truly is what’s needed, it’s usually not that every single color needs to be boosted or subdued in equal measure. Instead, it’s a matter of identifying 1-2 hues which are feeling lifeless or garish, and making gentle localized adjustments in those areas. This creates a change in the dynamics of the colors, rather than simply effecting a global increase that may not feel that different for the end viewer.
  • Here’s another trick you can try: the next time you’re asked for more saturation, simply add some red. If you’re asked to take saturation out, remove some red. It sounds crazy, but it’s often all that’s needed. Why does this work? As we’ll further discuss later in this article, our vision system is highly sensitive to skin tone, and the addition or removal of red directly impacts its saturation, which in turn affects our perception of overall saturation.

3. “Open it up/Close it down”

This is my favorite of all the notes we’ll be discussing today because it’s both explicit and evocative.

The only trick to addressing this note well is to understand its photographic roots: it’s a direct nod to the way cinematographers work in production. “Open it up” is universal code for “admit more light”, and “close it down” means exactly the opposite—admit less light.

On set, this can be accomplished in many ways but, with color grading, there’s really only one: making a photometric exposure adjustment. If you’re working in a color-managed log grading space (which you should be!), the best way to do this is with your offset controls.

Give it a try: spin your Offset wheel to the right, and watch how your shot “opens”, then observe the way it “shuts” when you move the other direction. Now it’s just a matter of deciding with your client how far to take it!

 

4. “The skin tones look off”

This is a common note, but its root most often lies in faulty concepts, rather than faulty grading.

Here’s why: most of our clients recognize that skin is the most important element of any frame it occupies. As a result, it’s the element most harmed by color grading’s worst myth: the idea that our central task is to correct the image.

Color grading is about enhancing the image, not finding and fixing its perceived flaws. Any time we fall prey to this myth, we’re doomed to fail.

So what’s the right way to address this note?

Most of the time, it’s simply about not taking the bait. It’s very easy to hear a note like this and go to work on the “problem”. A better response is to gently guide the focus of the conversation back toward how we want the images to feel, rather than how the images “should” look.

One way to do this is to plainly ask your client how they’d like things to feel, especially if you can subtly remind them that there’s no such thing as “wrong” skin tone—only skin tone more or less in harmony with our creative intent.

Of course, like the rest of this article, this advice assumes that you’re properly color managing your footage, transforming it from what the camera saw to what your display can reproduce.

If you’re failing to do this, or doing so improperly, you’ll get inaccurate reproduction, which is the sole exception to the above “no wrong skin tone” rule.

5. “The image doesn’t pop”

This can be an especially challenging note—not because it’s too literal and specific, but because it’s too vague.

How do we determine what that means? More saturation? More contrast? Do we need to break out some wacky filter or LUT?

The first question I like to ask myself when addressing this note is: how much of this grade thus far have I spent on correcting the shots versus developing the look? While both are obviously important, this note often comes up when there hasn’t been enough time spent on crafting an overall look—or the look you’ve crafted really isn’t working for the client yet.

You might respond by asking your client if they feel this way just about the current shot, or about many of the shots in your timeline. If it’s the latter, this is a clear cue to zoom out from shot-level grading for a bit, and spend some more time on cultivating or re-imagining your global creative look.

Conversely, if you conclude that the note is more about an individual shot than the overall piece, here are some ideas you can try:

  • Save a still of your current grade, then take it back to zero. Sometimes taking a fresh crack at a shot from its original state leads to different decisions, or it can simply allow everyone to see that while the shot may not be perfect, you’re making steps in the right direction.
  • Move on to another shot. If you’re feeling stuck or like something is missing but you don’t know what, the best thing you can do is maintain your momentum by continuing forward. Invariably, when you return to the shot with fresh eyes, you’ll know exactly what’s needed (or what isn’t needed!)

6. “This doesn’t look like I remember”

This one unfortunately is becoming more and more common in the era of remote workflows.

While there are a few potential causes, the first we have to consider is that there’s something amiss between your display and the client’s. Assuming a solid mixed delivery workflow, you’ll want to focus on how your client is reviewing your work, namely their display and viewing environment.

When you’re inquiring about these details, ensure your tone is curious rather than investigative.No one wants to feel like they’re being scrutinized, and it’s all too easy to give that impression in these conversations. This advice goes double for the next step: suggesting changes to the client’s review setup. Maintain a theme of knowing how important this work is to your client, and wanting to ensure that they see the most meaningful representation of it as possible.

Think of this way: the corrective attitude we discussed in “The skin tones look off” doesn’t work any better with people than it does with images.

There are a few other common culprits for this note worth mentioning:

  • Something in your grade or render settings has been bumped and you need to figure out when and where this happened so that the problem can be neutralized as quickly as possible. While you’re looking into this, reassure your client that details matter to you, and that if a mistake has been made, you’ll get to the bottom of it and make it right. Nobody’s perfect, but we can be perfectly honest.
  • Something unrelated to the grade has shaken your client’s confidence in the work you’re doing. The culprit could be a misunderstood remark, a reminder of a past experience, or a problem in their personal life, just to name a few possibilities. The key isn’t to find the cause, but to recognize its result, and find a way to reassure them. This is where knowing your client comes into play: some will be best served by being shown side-by-side proof that nothing has changed in an unexpected way. Others simply need to be confidently told that no mistakes or oversights have been made, and that their project is in skilled hands.

7. “Can you make it more cinematic?”

Similar to “It doesn’t pop”, this note is simply too broad to be meaningfully implemented.

Pair this with the fact that it comes up all the time, and it’s easy to get frustrated by it. The key is to take the note as an invitation to learn more about your collaborators, rather than an impossible direction.

When it comes up, I’ll nearly always take my hands off the controls and engage in a dialogue about what “cinematic” means to the person or people I’m working with.

What films, commercials, or shows best embody this idea for them? Can we take a minute to pull in some reference frames and discuss what we find most compelling? And while it’s important to let your client lead this conversation, don’t be afraid to offer your own perspective on cinematic grading.

Despite the myriad interpretations we can make of the term “cinematic”, one constant for me is that “cinematic” should cue global adjustments, not local ones. Whatever the specific aesthetic your client has in mind, you want to find its perfect expression once and then apply it consistently, rather than manually aiming at it shot after shot.

8. “These shots don’t match”

Unless you’re brand new to color grading, you’ve gotten this note many times, and you’ve probably never enjoyed it.

There’s a strong emotional charge to being told you’ve failed to do what many think of as the most basic task of the colorist. With this in mind, what’s most important in responding to this note is to take a breath, and focus your response not on how you feel, but how you want your client to feel.

Emotional quotient aside, the key concept to keep in mind is that there are two distinct types of matching:

  1. Literal, which we can define as how tight an absolute match we have between contents shared by two frames, such as a red dress or a white wall.
  2.  Contextual, which we can define as how smooth or bumpy the cut from shot A to B feels.

Literal matching is fairly straightforward. It can be quickly accomplished with some basic technique, and objectively confirmed with your scopes. Sometimes all that your client wants here is a confidence check that you’re getting a literal match.

 

Contextual matching is much more subjective and is more often the type of match that’s missing when your client gives this note. Now that you’ve set aside any defensive posture, you can probe the pain point with genuine curiosity, and work together to find the ideal flow.

When working on contextual matches, it’s especially important to remember that the eye is more sensitive to contrast than color. If your contrast or exposure “bump” between shots, there’s no amount of color balancing that will smooth things out. But the opposite is also true: nail your exposure and contrast matching, and you’re much further than halfway home.

One additional tip here: at the right moment, an intentional mismatch can be a highly effective dramatic tool. Don’t be afraid to use it!

Best-laid plans

Every time I start to think I’ve got the perfect playbook for successful collaboration, I find myself challenged by a new project, client, or circumstance and I realize my playbook won’t help me.

In these situations, we have to rely on broader principles to reach our goals. In writing this article, I began thinking not only about my own guiding principles, but those of my colleagues.

I recently sat down with some of my favorite colorists to discuss how they approach client collaboration, and I can’t think of a better way to wrap things up today than with their insights!

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about client collaboration didn’t come from a colorist. And we weren’t even discussing this subject.

It was from a friend offering me his secret to a successful marriage: “If you want to have a good spouse, be a good spouse.”

I’ve truly found this to be the golden rule when working with clients: if you’re dedicated, attentive, and selfless, you’ll find your clients mirror these traits, and you’ll both have a great working experience, regardless of whether you’re a first-year colorist or a twenty-year veteran. Happy grading!


Featured image courtesy of Light Iron.

Cullen Kelly

Cullen Kelly is a Los Angeles-based senior colorist with credits spanning film, television, and commercials, for clients and outlets including Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Microsoft, McDonald’s, and Sephora. With a background in image science as well as the arts, he’s passionate about the intersection of the creative and technical, and its role in great visual storytelling. In addition to his grading work, Cullen is an educator and proven thought leader, with platforms including his podcast The Color Code as well as his YouTube channel.

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