The Subtle Art

Robbie Carman

A couple weeks ago, I was talking to a colorist friend over a few drinks when he mentioned that he’d been having a lot of problems with a young colorist he had just hired.  When I asked him if it was the quality of work, he responded “nope, thats not it”.  I asked if it was his promptness or work ethic, he responded,”thats not it either”.  What then, I prodded? My friend responded “he thinks he’s always right, and the client doesn’t know what they’re talking about!”

My friend went on to explain that clients had been complaining to account managers with quips like “he just told me point blank – my idea for the scene was dumb!”  and in one case, a client had even requested to never work again with this young colorist – yikes.

My friends story was something I’d heard before from other creative friends when talking about young artists – not just those interested in color.  It’s also a trait not exclusive to young artists, but to those who haven’t learned the subtle art of working with clients to achieve their vision.

As creative artists, we have passion for our work.  I know when I grade a spot, movie or even a corporate piece I often project my creative opinions on the piece.  I often feel strongly about the decisions I’ve made – things like contrast level, saturation, color temp as well as more aesthetic things like vignetting and focusing, grain/noise and framing.

Here’s the thing – even though I feel passionately about my creative choices – it’s not my project!  I haven’t spent weeks, months or even years living with the footage, crafting the best story, and agonizing about the smallest details.  Many producers who walk in to my suite have strong ideas about what they want their projects to look like. Who am I to tell them that their creative vision is wrong?

My role, and I would argue your role as a colorist, is to not convince clients that your way is better than their way, but rather to interpret their vision and combine it with your own.

Ok, while this is a politically correct way of saying you should never tell a client directly that they’re wrong, it’s not saying you can’t tell a client they’re wrong! Let me explain:

[blockquote]Client:  I really want to have a lot of contrast in this scene, let’s go deeper, keep going, more. Stop! Thats it! What do you think? I love it! It looks amazing!

(Imagine the picture on screen – it has zero shadow detail, and the blacks are super crushed – its ugly!)

Me: Ok, I see what you’re going after, I like it, but let me do a couple quick things on a new version of this shot.  What do you think about that?

(Imagine the picture on screen – lightening up shadows quite a bit, bringing down mid-tones to keep contrasty feel while returning detail in the shadows.)

Client: Yeah, I think I like that, can I see what we had before?

Me:  Sure, here is the first version, and then the one I just tweaked, before and then tweaked.

Client:  Yep, I like it!  They’re similar but the tweaked version just works better.[/blockquote]

Ok, so even in this very simple situation I think you can see the subtle art of telling the client they’re wrong while you’re telling the client they’re right.

Initially, the client requested a very high contrast look.  I executed the request, (which you should always do) but it resulted in a very crushed look, and in my opinion an ugly image but I didn’t mention that.  Next, I told the client I liked the direction they were going in, giving them confidence in their overall vision but I made tweaks that I knew would improve the image and keep in general, their desired look.  Finally, I showed the client their version and then mine. This is an important step as it makes it obvious to clients that you’ve improved upon their look.

Now, in the case of my friend and the junior colorist who clients where having problems with, the situation like the one above probably went something like this:

[blockquote]Client:  I really want to have a lot of contrast in this scene, let’s go deeper, keep going, more. Stop! Thats it. What do you think? I love it!  It looks amazing!

(Imagine the picture on screen – it has zero shadow detail and the blacks are super crushed – its ugly!)

New Colorist: Man, I don’t like it at all…it’s not a good look.  I’ve got a good look for this scene. Have you seen those really low contrast, flat commercials that are popular?

Client: I have, but…I don’t think that’s what I’m going for here….

New Colorist:  Trust me – its going to be great, see check this out – its beautiful.

Client: Errrr…I’m not sure…I’m not a big fan.  Can I see the grade we did before?

New Colorist:  Oh, no we can’t, I’m sorry I didn’t save that grade. [/blockquote]

Ok, sure, that might be a bit of an extreme example, but I think you get the general concept and the difference between these two approaches.

You might be thinking “Rob, what about clients that have no idea what they want?”  In those cases, you’re obviously going be a little more heavy handed with your vision as the colorist, but you should take the opportunity to educate your client – tell them about the steps you’re taking and what they’re doing to the images.

You might also be thinking “Rob, I’ve discovered that with a lot of my clients I find I do my best work when there is a lot of back and forth, maybe even arguing about what we should do with a shot or scene.  Is that wrong?”

Absolutely not! Those are the best types of clients and ultimately where you want to get with every client.  In those situations you’re truly an equal in the discussion; the client is pushing you, you’re pushing the client, and hopefully you’re producing a fantastic product. I have a client that every few weeks when he comes in, wants to throw something at me and I want to tell him to get the hell out of the suite – but that’s just because we push each other and at the end of the session we always end up giving each other high-fives.

If you have any thing to add please feel free to leave a comment.  I plan on writing more blog posts like this one – part of what we do in the suite isn’t technical but is more psychological and I find that really important and interesting.




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