Advice on Growing Your Career as a Colorist, From an Industry Veteran

I have a confession to make.

As a professional colorist of 15 years, I’ve spent most of that time wondering if I’m on a viable career path. Sure, there have been moments along the way where my progress and growth felt plainly evident, but they’re few and far between.

And this isn’t just my experience: it’s shared in some form by every colleague I’ve ever discussed this with. There seems no way around it. The path to becoming a professional colorist is steep and unpredictable, now more than ever.

Many of the most successful colorists working today made their names climbing the ranks of post houses or film labs. No easy feat, but at least they could see a growth path and learn from their seniors.

Today, color grading is more popular and accessible than ever, yet traditional post facilities are shrinking and consolidating their ranks. A new generation of colorists are purchasing their own software and hardware, self-educating online, and building brands and businesses that don’t rely on such facilities.

So what’s the more viable tactic: working your way up in a post house, or carving your own path?

There’s no single right answer. The reality is that your control over this is limited at best, and insisting on one scenario versus the other can blind you to unforeseen opportunities.

Don’t aim at a specific short-term outcome. Instead, focus on creating long-term opportunities for yourself.

My suggestion? Don’t aim at a specific short-term outcome. Instead, focus on creating long-term opportunities for yourself. Because while every colorist’s journey may be unique, there are guiding principles we can all apply to make the most of our circumstances and talents.

Grow where you’re planted

Every colorist starts in a different place, be it financially, socially, or creatively. I teach colorists from all over the world—some in locations that don’t have a post house in sight and where the average year’s salary would barely cover the cost of a reference monitor.

But there’s opportunity in every situation if you’re willing to look for it. This requires an open, imaginative mind, and a sense of play (not coincidentally, these are some of the best traits for a colorist to embody in a grading session).

Here’s a great example. Early in my career, I noticed that many of the filmmakers I met told me they weren’t looking for a colorist—they wanted to learn to do the job themselves. But instead of getting frustrated that I wasn’t connecting with more potential clients, I started offering one-on-one training.

Don’t be so fixated on what you want that you fail to recognize what you have.

The more I taught, the more I found I enjoyed and had a talent for it, and it remains a significant part of my business to this day. And as a kicker, some of my best color grading clients actually started as training clients who realized they’d rather hire me than invest the necessary time and money to become a skilled colorist.

The takeaway? Don’t get so fixated on what you want that you fail to recognize what you have. Getting creative with the hand you’ve been dealt—rather than bemoaning the one you wish you’d been dealt—is the very essence of succeeding as a colorist.

Raise the bar

I talk with colorists all the time who have lofty goals:

  • Cultivate relationships with great filmmakers.
  • Become a senior colorist at a large post facility.
  • Land a big-budget film or show.

When we start to realize how difficult these things are to achieve, it’s natural to wonder if we should scale our expectations back. My answer? Hell, no. The above goals aren’t too big. They’re too small.

With goals such as “book a big show,” we ask the natural question: what’s the fastest and easiest way to get there? But this is a distraction from a much more important question.

“Where have I yet to max out my potential?”

Driving your continued growth as an artist and professional should be your prime focus as a colorist. No matter your career path or career stage, every minute you invest in your growth makes you more valuable and better prepared for opportunity—whenever and wherever it comes. The same can’t be said for time spent agonizing over how to land that big gig.

So how do we go about driving our growth? Here are some key areas we should constantly be improving our knowledge of.

Grading tools/techniques

This is a no-brainer. There’s a growing body of quality knowledge offered on YouTube, in virtual courses, and of course right here on Frame.io Insider. Paired with experimentation and practice, such resources are a great way to build your hard skills.

And if you feel like you’ve exhausted online resources, start reaching out to other colorists who do work you love. They won’t all get back to you, but you’ll be surprised by who does—especially if you lead with genuine interest in forging a connection, rather than specific questions about technique or “secret sauce.” The more colorists you connect with, the more opportunity you’ll have to grow in your craft.

Cinematography and production

There are few better ways to improve your grading than by deepening your understanding of how images are made in the first place. Core concepts like exposure, contrast ratio, fill, and ISO are critical to understand if you want to collaborate with filmmakers on their terms.

But more than knowing what these things mean, you need to know how and why they’re used. This allows you to more deeply connect with the images you’re grading, and to elevate them with photographic adjustments anchored by the filmmaker’s original creative intent.

Psychology

At the end of the day, what we do as colorists isn’t about cameras, displays, computers, software, or LUTs—it’s about collaborative storytelling. Doing this effectively is all about psychology and human nature. So you’ll need a keen understanding of both.

I’ve met plenty of colorists with a great eye and a stalled-out career due to their ignorance of this subject. So grab a book, listen to a podcast, or take a course on the topic. Heck, just start paying closer attention to subtext: the unspoken wants and needs that underlie every human interaction. If you can understand and communicate on this wavelength, you’ve got the foundation of a great career.

Negotiation

Whether you’re in business for yourself or working for a company, being able to assert your value and make great deals is an essential skill that takes dedicated effort to cultivate. Without it, you’ll discover for yourself that the worst-case scenario for a journeyman colorist isn’t getting no work—it’s getting lots of work on unfavorable terms! This leads to embitterment, burnout, and an unsustainable career.

The worst-case scenario for a journeyman colorist isn’t getting no work—it’s getting lots of work on unfavorable terms.

And remember, negotiation isn’t just about money—it encompasses any and all terms of an agreement. For a colorist position at a company, these terms might include things like health benefits, paid time off, flexibility to work from home, or freedom to take on side projects.

For an agreement to grade a project, these terms can include overall timeline, schedule of payment, number of hours/passes, and the way you’re credited.

Color science

Color science is the native language of all motion imaging and, the better you understand it, the more confidence, freedom and creativity you’ll bring into your grading sessions. It’s a massive field, and you don’t have to become an expert—you just have to let your innate curiosity lead you into new areas. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • How do color management frameworks like ACES and Resolve Color Management work, and how does this impact the image?
  • In simplest terms, how do human vision, cameras, and displays work and relate to one another?
  • If you could design your own color grading software, what tools would you include? Would there be any new or novel ones that you’ve never seen before?

Cinema and art history

It’s not enough to be literate in contemporary films and shows. The complete colorist has a personal connection to film and art history, and understands that the more they study great art through the ages, the more context and inspiration they bring to the table as an artist.

Remember that the key here isn’t to master each of these subjects, or to feel bad that you haven’t studied them more deeply. What’s important is to focus on a higher goal than landing your next job or gig. Put simply, that goal should be constantly growing into the very best colorist you can be.

Don’t ask for things—offer value

One of the defining moments in my career as a colorist was when I made the conscious decision to stop asking for things. It’s our natural inclination to focus on what we want, but most of the time succeeding as a colorist means focusing on the wants and needs of others.

No client ever booked a colorist based on what the colorist wanted.

This holds equally true whether you’re trying to land a job at a post house or book your next color client. The reality is, no matter how nice they are, no hiring manager ever made a hire based on the needs of a candidate, and no client ever booked a colorist based on what the colorist wanted.

So in both situations, the key is to talk less and listen more. In a job interview, this might involve asking questions like:

  • What’s currently working great for your company?
  • What are some of the key bottlenecks/pain points within your company?
  • What would the worst possible hire for this position look like? How about the best one?

Sometimes you’ll have to ask more than once, or ask follow-up questions to really get the insight you need. But once you’ve learned where the other party is coming from, you can speak to their needs rather than yours. The key is to be honest about what you feel you can offer to remedy their problems or achieve their goals.

Here’s another great tip: if after hearing them out, you don’t think you have significant value to offer, tell them. Things may not work out for that job or gig, but that person will always remember your choice to be honest when it wasn’t easy. And in my experience, it’s just as likely you’ll find they respond by trying to sell you on the role!

Prioritize relationships over gigs

Whether working for yourself or for a company, the work we do as colorists is project-based. It often feels like this is the only meaningful metric for our progress: what are you working on now, and what are you working on next? As a result, it’s very easy to get fixated on that next project.

But ask any colorist you admire, and they’ll tell you the secret. Most of their current and upcoming projects aren’t the result of their prior credits or slick salesmanship—they’re born of client relationships they’ve made long-term investment in. And it’s critical to observe that these relationships with high-profile filmmakers often begin long before the filmmaker had that high profile.

It’s important to diversify, and to seek relationships you enjoy regardless of the work they may lead to.

What can we learn from this? Shift your focus from landing big gigs to discovering and connecting with emerging filmmakers. You can do this by reaching out to film schools, attending film festivals, or even just by browsing social media with purpose. Remember, this isn’t about trying to predict who will be most successful—it’s about using your own taste to find creatives you align with.

Of course, not all of these investments will pay off. That’s why it’s important to diversify, and to seek relationships you enjoy regardless of the work they may lead to.

The road never ends

I don’t know a single good colorist who’s satisfied with their career or their craft. The best are grateful for the opportunity to do what they love for a living, but always hungry for growth.

I wish I’d recognized much earlier in my career that the feeling of “I made it” and the accompanying sigh of relief never really comes. You reach a summit, and you realize there’s an even higher one beyond it. This is why it’s so important to embrace the process.

The alternative is to focus on results, and your best-case scenario with that approach is to have a successful career that you never enjoy, because you’re too busy worrying about what’s next, comparing yourself to others, and inventorying the goals you’ve yet to achieve.

Embracing process promotes patience, gratitude, abundance, and joy. These qualities aren’t just a gift you give yourself—they’re a gift you give your clients. Once you start sharing that positive energy, client will go out of their way for a chance to soak it up.

This leads to a universal truth worth emphasizing—clients love being in the room with colorists who love being in the room. When you’re confident, passionate, and content with the work you’re doing in the moment, it’s not just contagious, it’s magnetic.

Final thoughts

For an article that’s supposed to be about a colorist’s career path, we’ve talked precious little about specific strategies for navigating this business. That’s because, for a professional artist, the journey is a personal and inward one.

Making a career as a colorist is an opportunity to meet yourself, build your craft, and share both with the world. The details will look different for each of us, but the principles we’ve discussed today can help all of us find a more meaningful and fruitful career. Happy grading!

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.