5 Things Keeping You From Becoming A Better Colorist

5 Things Keeping You From Becoming A Better Colorist

December 13, 2014
Robbie Carman C.S.I.

Everyone wants to get better at their craft. In this Insight learn about how to overcome 5 common barriers to becoming a better colorist


Day 13: 25 Insights in 25 Days Holiday Marathon

Identifying Roadblocks Is Half The Battle

Recently, I had the privilege to go to Japan and speak at InterBee 2014.

I was beyond excited to go and I really had an amazing trip seeing the sites in and round Tokyo and even getting to Mt. Fuji.

I highly recommend a trip to Japan as it was just a fantastic experience.

During the course of teaching DaVinci Resolve & SpeedGrade, I had 3 or 4 students (thru a translator) come up and relate a very similar story and with an identical question.

Each conveyed how they’ve been grading for several years now and felt like they had very good mastery of the tool they were using, but felt stymied that the quality of their work, and the level of the projects they were working on hadn’t increased over the years.

Then each one asked “what can I do to be a better colorist?”

I know this is going to be hard to believe…

But I had nothing to say!  

Honestly, like most of you, I spend most of my time actually grading and not considering in a detailed way, how I can get better, or more importantly analyzing my work to figure out if there is anything that’s keeping me from being a better colorist.

On the plane ride back home (all 14 hours of it), I thought a lot about roadblocks – technical, atheistic, and even personality issues.

While I’m sure there are many more things keeping any of us from becoming a better colorist, in this Insight I wanted to share some of the results of my thinking and give you 5 things that at least in my opinion are keeping you (and probably me too) from becoming a better colorist. 

I’m Being Negative, But Really I’m Being Positive!

If you skim the headlines in this Insight, you’ll most likely think that this article is just accusations and pointing the finger at you as a misinformed and bad colorist!

Well, an author has to get page views somehow!

In all seriousness, I am being negative.  My top 5 list of things holding you back is all about problems.  These problems (and probably many others) are indeed holding you back.  

But PLEASE take these negative headlines and turn them in to positive things in your grading life. I’ve included short actionable lists of things you can do to improve.  I look forward to hearing from you too and your take on things to do to improve.

For full transparency, one of the reasons I write articles like this is to give myself a kick in the pants – like most of us, I need reminders on how to improve.

Your Brain, Eyes & Body Are Holding You Back

You’ve probably heard over the years that your eyes lie to you all the time and that your grading environment is vital to your success.

The compulsive lying that your visual system does can, in part, be due to the process of adaptation.

Essentially adaptation is the process in which your visual system tires to make things seem correct and natural even when they could be very far from correct.

For example; an off white shirt that after a min or so of viewing the shot now looks pure white.  A blue that looked really saturated when you first got to the shot but now doesn’t look saturated enough.

Adaptation is even more sophisticated than that; it’s always trying to convince you that two colors that are exactly the same, are different under different lighting conditions or two colors are more or less intense under different color casts. When you start looking at examples of these phenomena it can get pretty trippy.

While adaptation is pretty heady stuff, I encourage you to check out THIS article for a detailed description of the multiple phenomena that make up adaptation.

Some of the culprits of adaptation include:

  • Improper room setup – those red walls in your sight lines in your suite might be a good interior design choice in many offices, but not so much for grading. Sooner than later, you’ll be pulling warmth out of shots faster than a January day in Alaska. Opt for neutral colors of walls, furniture and even flooring. Non-controlled ambient lighting, practical lighting that’s not day light balanced and even how bright other screens are in your room can all be tricking your visual system.
  • Spending Too Long On A Single Shot – If you work on a shot for more than 45sec to a 1 min, your brain has already adapted and what you thought looked good and correct might look terrible when you view the same shot 10 minutes later. Grade in passes and get from the start of the project to the end and then go back and refine. Don’t try to perfect every single shot in a single sitting.
  • Not Using Your Scopes – I’m always amazed by how many colorists I see who have scopes in the room, but seldom look a them and rather just do their grading by feel or by eye.  That’s a sure fire way to create inconsistency and be prone to the pitfalls of adaptation.

When it comes to adaptation, you have to remember that you need to work and sometimes work hard at avoiding it.

If you know that every colorist (and really every human) is susceptible to adaptation and other tricks of the human visual system then you can fight back.

Actionable Ways To Fight Adaptation, Your Visual System and Fatigue

Ever since Patrick first showed me his ‘Why Color Grading Is Hard‘ presentation a few years ago where he detailed how it’s a constant fight with our visual system and body to be a good colorist, I’ve been consumed by the idea of getting better and more knowledgeable about my body and it effects how I grade.

Besides the color science and physiology aspects behind adaptation, I’ve also realized in the past couple years, that fatigue plays a big role in how we grade.

Staying fresh can be challenging when you’re working 15 hour days, but it’s vital to the quality of your grading

Here are some things that I do to lessen my fatigue and avoid adaptation as much as possible and in general, be sharper in the suite:

  • 5 minute breaks out of the suite and NOT looking at a screen like my phone or tablet.  Do this at least every 2 hours but every hour would preferable.  Taking a break puts less stress on your eyes.
  • Every 20-30 min look at the confidence spot in my room.  A confidence spot is a a card that is true black, gray and white under controlled lighting (about 12″x12″) so you can quickly “reset” your eyes. This gets me back to reality if I’ve been looking at a shot too long. You’ll be amazed how looking at a confidence spot for 15 seconds and then back at your monitor can bring truth back to your grades.
  • Avoid harsh light transitions – This one gets me all the time. Be careful about throwing on the overheads in your room to look for something or walking out into a bright hallway and then trying to get right back into your grading. Give your eyes 5 min or so to acclimatize to the lighting conditions where you’ll be working.
  • Water.  Enough said. It’s important to stay hydrated. I also keep some eye drops close by that I use once a day as needed.
  • Neck and shoulder stretches. Have you ever gotten a terrible headache when grading?  For me keeping my neck and shoulders relaxed and stretched out really helps.
  • Use a standing desk.  I know this is not for everyone, but I’ve got a standing desk in my suite and while at first I was more tired at the end of the day, now it gives me so much more energy.
  • Go Home! – Trust me, I know that sometimes this just not an option but if its 10pm I’ve learned that any grading I do late at night I’m just going to redo in the morning.  So I usually head home and then get in super early to complete the work from the night before.

In my experience if you’re aware of adaptation and the role that fatigue plays in your grading then you’re half way to preventing these things effecting your grading.

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