5 Strategies For Supervised Sessions

July 2, 2016
Robbie Carman C.S.I.

Supervised color grading is hard! In this Insight, Robbie shares 5 strategies for managing a supervised session.


Attended Grading Can Be Difficult!

Last week Patrick & I both were in China leading a dozen or so classes for young & aspiring Chinese colorists.

It was an awesome experience on so many levels, but one unexpected theme that came up consistently in our sessions were requests for tips about working with clients in supervised sessions.

In most live classes that Team Mixing Light teaches, predictably the themes center around technical workflows, creating looks, gear, etc., and not the more mundane subject of managing client communication & feedback in a supervised session.

Our students in China we interested in tools and techniques of course, but many of them were looking for help for working with clients in the room.

One student put it well (through translator):

‘I feel like I’m a good colorist when I’m by myself, but with clients in the room, I get nervous and have a hard time performing.’

Ever felt like that before?

Every colorist I know (myself included) has felt like that at some point in their career, but working supervised like many things in color correction takes practice & application of successful workflow strategies.

Even though Dan & Patrick have lent their thoughts on working supervised in previous Insights, the questions that we got from our students in China got me thinking about my perspective.

With 14 hours on a plane to kill back to the U.S… I decided to put fingers to my keyboard and share my thoughts on this subject in this Insight.

The Review Session vs. Starting From Scratch

Before getting into my 5 specific tips on working supervised, I want to discuss two separate but related types of supervised sessions – the review and the starting ‘from scratch’ session.

While clients are in the room for both types, there is a big difference from the colorist’s point of view between these two types of supervised sessions.

For most of us, the standard review session tends to be a little easier – you’ve already spent hours with the footage and the client has probably seen still or sections of your work.

The review session is meant to simply get the client in the suite – i.e. a reference environment to watch things down and make minor tweaks.

Don’t get me wrong, there can still be plenty of work to do and opinions to manage and all of the tips below will help, but at least in my experience, because the project is already graded there is inherently less stress in a standard review session.

The start from scratch type of session is a different thing entirely.

Most of the time you’ve at least had some time to properly conform and load in a project, but unlike a standard review session, the client is with you in the room looking at the same ungraded timeline as you are and just like you, is thinking ‘where do we start!?’

It’s the feeling of instantly having to perform, and giving an amazing performance that puts many colorists into a panic and nerves manifest in many peculiar ways.

Early in my career, I’d find myself forgetting where things were in the software I was using even though I knew it thoroughly, talking WAY too much (I know that’s a shocking coming from me!), making bone headed mistakes with grade management, missing details in shots that would have been obvious if I wasn’t nervous.

 

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Nerves manifest in different ways during a supervised session. I get tight hands and tend to tense my body.

 

Talk to any psychologist or doctor and they’ll tell you that all sorts of things happen both mentally and physically when you’re nervous.

For some people, simply being exposed to a ‘from scratch’ supervised session more often calms their nerves because it becomes more regular. Others have to consciously work at managing their nerves.

I happen to be the type that has to manage my nerves, so in addition to the specific tips below, here are some general ways to manage the stress and nerves of a supervised session:

  • Be rested – coming into a supervised session tired and cranky is only going to make things harder. You’re way more likely to make stupid mistakes, interpret feedback as an attack, and not be as engaged in the grade as you should be.
  • Avoid The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy – if you tell yourself a supervised session is going to suck, or you convince yourself the client will be difficult, most likely you’ll feel that way once the session gets started. I try to go into every supervised session (even if I’ve worked with the client before) with no expectations or assumptions.
  • Be Aware – do you know your physical and mental signs of being nervous and stressed? For me, my body gets tight – I can feel my grip on my mouse become stronger and my movements with my control surface become more rigid. I also find myself clenching my jaw and lifting my shoulders. It takes some practice, but becoming aware of these things as they’re happening and then consciously working to control them will help with stress and nervousness in supervised session greatly.
  • No One Is Going To Die – I have friends and family that are doctors, nurses and serve in some of the most dangerous theaters in the world with the military. Those jobs are often life and death – literally. While color correcting a project with high strung clients might seem high stress, it’s not life and death. If you remind yourself of that (often) you’ll be surprised how much more relaxed you can be in a supervised session. No one ever died from too much magenta!

These days, sixty percent of my supervised sessions are the garden variety review session with 30% supervised ‘from scratch’ and 10% some form of remote review. Some colorists like Dan are doing the ‘from scratch’ variety of supervised session nearly every day!

In my experience, commercial and short-form colorists seem to get more ‘from scratch’ supervised sessions because it’s less of an investment in time for a client to attend those grades.

Also, because of the nature of commercial and short-form, there tend to be more heavy handed grades that can benefit from direct client communication.

Regardless, the more you’re attended the more you’ll get comfortable with supervised sessions.

#1 Never Go In Cold

No matter if you’re walking into a standard review session or a ‘from scratch’ review session never walk in cold.  NEVER.

What do I mean by cold?

Not knowing what is going to happen when you hit play on the timeline.

For the standard review, there are several things I check for before being attended:

  • Detailed Watch Down – I tend to focus on getting from the first shot of a project to the last, in doing so, I know that I’ll come back and do a watch down of the project and refine in passes. Working like this means that it’s requirement that I go back and do a detailed watch down on my own before the client ever comes for a review. If you also work like this, you’re looking for shot problems, consistency in shot matching and other ‘mistakes’.  You don’t want easily fixable things showing up when watching down with the client.
  • Marked Shots & Documented Questions – No one gets it perfect the first time. Even in a standard review, there will be shot to shot problems and questions you may have for the client. During my watch down I mark all the shots that I might have creative questions on so they are easy to find, I add my thoughts to those markers so I know exactly what the issue was and I can explain the issue easily to the client.
  • Checking For Changes – Often when grading you’ll get shot swaps and fixes from a client. Before a review session, I make sure all of those things have been cut into the project. The client worked hard to get you fixes and updates, it’s embarrassing if you forgot to get them in and get them graded.
  • Leave A ‘Nugget’ – I know this sounds ridiculous, but I often leave 1 or 2 mistakes or slightly objectionable grades in a project. Why? Clients like to feel they contributed to a project, but many of them don’t have the same refined sense of color that we as colorists do. I often have clients after an hour long show say ‘Looks great!’ and then I look down at my list of 50 notes! Leaving one or two easily fixable issues (know where they are!) for a client to comment on, makes them feel involved.

 

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This is what a prepared colorist looks like!

 

For a ‘from scratch’ supervised session, it’s all about prep.

Here are several things I do to not go in cold with a client in supervised from scratch session:

  • Let Them See Something! – Even though you might be seeing the actual project for the first time when sitting down with the client in your suite, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know the direction to take the grade. If I get a project the night before or even a few hours before a supervised session I’ll find a couple shots to do some test grades on and send to the client for comment, or least have them ready when the client walks in to have a discussion about how we start the session. Knowing how the client reacts to a sample grades before being attended goes a long way for managing the session.
  • The Right Cut – This sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times especially with short-form projects I’ve started a from scratch supervised session with a client and they say ‘what’s this? This isn’t the right version of the cut!’ Having this happen can really set a poor tone for the rest of the session. Always verify before the session starts that you’re working with the right version of the cut.
  • Know The Project! – While you might not be intimately familiar with every single shot in a project if you just sat down to grade it, in my experience, you will have seen at least a representative cut of the project prior to the supervised session (even if it’s just hours before). Watch it! Furthermore, know the technical details – camera, codecs, etc., of the project. To the client, not knowing a scene or technical details has the potential to make it seem like you don’t care about the project.
  • Have 2 Directions Pre-Planned – It’s hard to perform on demand in the context of a supervised session. I never go into a session without at least 2 creative directions in my head. Those directions might ultimately be wrong, but you’ll save a lot of face with a client by having something to show them, and starting with a good plan is the first step to where you’ll probably end up with the grade.
  • Don’t Start Grading Too Soon – Huh? I think a mistake that a lot of colorists make is they say hello to the client and just jump right into grading. That might work if you know the client, but if not, make some time for some small talk, getting the client a drink, making them comfortable. You’re about to spend a few hours of some pretty intense time together, spend a few moments to be human and get to know the person you’re working with.

Preparedness comes in a lot of forms, and we’ll talk about some additional ways to prepare below, but the more things you can do to feel prepared for a session and not just ‘wing it’ the better.

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