Kevin Shaw

It was a long time coming, but colorists finally got their own professional society in 2016, with the founding of the Colorist Society International. The CSI calls itself an “educational and cultural resource” for the industry, and invites professional colorists, DITs, telecine operators, restoration artists and color scientists to join. Launched at NAB 2016, the organization had more than 100 members after four months and now counts 197 regular members on its roster along with four CSI fellows — Dale Grahn, Lou Levinson, Charles Poynton and CSI President Kevin Shaw. We asked Shaw about the role of the colorist, the organization’s mission, and the future of the profession.

Q: How do you define the role of a colorist? Is it a creative position, a technical position, or a hybrid?

A: Definitely hybrid. Of course there is a very technical aspect. The colorist must understand camera capture, color science, delivery specs and so on, but those are just the foundations needed to do the job. Colorist Society International focuses on the creative contribution, which takes many forms. Sometimes it is the whole look of the project and is planned with the cinematographer and director. Other times, it involves polishing the raw material as part of the finishing process. CSI members have begun a description of colorist responsibilities.

Q: What kind of advocacy does the CSI engage in on behalf of the colorist community?

A: CSI was set up to represent colorists to awards bodies, trade shows and other professional organisations. To date, that has included discussions with Academy ACES, BAFTA, [and] several unions and trade bodies. We are in discussions with IMDb, for example, to create a color department for IMDb credits. Currently, colorists are spread between editorial, special effects and sometimes even camera departments. At NAB 2019, we were able to work with the NAB to host a colorist birds-of-a-feather meeting. That would never have happened were there not an organisation representing colorists. There have been unexpected examples too. We have often been used as a reference for working visa applications to various countries. Of course, just being able to identify professional, full-time colorists from everyone else is an important representation in its own right.

Q: Cinematographers and colorists have an almost symbiotic relationship. What can be done to make the relationship more efficient and effective?

A: Any direct communication between cinematographers and colorists can save an enormous amount of time and money, and result in better quality images. CSI is actively encouraging color-managed workflows from on-set to finishing. But often the short answer to the question is “involve the colorist much earlier.”

Q: HDR is a serious advance in color science. What are the biggest issues facing working colorists just starting to take on jobs that include HDR deliverables?

A: HDR is more than just an advance in color science. It is the biggest change to image aesthetics I can think of. The nearest example is the change from black-and-white to color. It is that different. So the biggest issue is getting that across — helping people to understand this is not just a matter of delivering more pixels, or a different color space. For the colorist, there are several important issues. First, the technical guidelines we have used for television and theatrical projects up to now no longer apply. Second, it’s not enough to simply convert from SDR to HDR or vice versa. The image has to be interpreted to remain conceptually valid while retaining the artistic intent between the two versions. Third, consumer televisions are a long way from our very expensive reference monitors, and our current consumer monitors are likely to look quite lame in only a few years. We have to be aware of the limitations of the pipeline all the way to the viewer. All these things need time and experience to learn, yet we are usually asked to deliver HDR without much appreciation for the extra creative work that needs to be done.

Q: How comfortable are directors and DPs with HDR, and do you have any advice for creatives who want to acquire footage that will look great in both SDR and HDR?

A: I think DPs, especially, are uncomfortable with HDR. Like colorists, the rule book was torn up and experience upset, and it’s going to take time to come to grips with the full impact. Directors should be very excited about HDR and the new colors, styles and visual tricks they can play with, but I think very few have really seen what HDR is capable of. Even if they have, getting funding for something that will work only in HDR is still a way off. The audience size is not big enough to justify it yet. I do believe in time HDR will be normal and watching SDR will be as odd as watching SDTV.

My advice for creating footage that looks great in HDR and SDR is to plan, shoot and finish the HDR first. It is common practice today to start with SDR in mind but that often restrains the HDR potential. Another thing to remember is that any form of clipping shows the limits of HDR. Ironically, shooting very high dynamic range subjects like fireworks, neon lights and high contrast lighting is hard to manage. It is better to shoot a dynamic range that is easily handled by the camera. The results will be more realistic content captured in a manner that stresses the camera and display capabilities.

Q: Can you highlight any misperceptions people in the industry may still have about the process of color-grading?

A: I would rather focus on the actual responsibilities of the colorist than what people think they do. But to answer the question, people still believe that the color grade is something that must happen after the edit and after picture-lock. They believe that the purpose of the color grade is only to match everything nicely. They may think that it doesn’t matter how the source media is delivered to the grade. In fact, the color grade process should start before or during shooting. There is no such thing as “neutral” in grading. We need those large raw camera files to do the best work. That’s just a start. The role of the colorist is still very misunderstood. CSI was created to address that.

Q: We’re starting to see the application of AI/machine learning technology to color-grading tools, such as the ability to quickly match tones across different shots. What kind of technological advances are coming next to color science, and do you have a wish list of tools and features you’d like to see vendors bring to market?

A: AI is very much in its infancy. Auto-color-correct has been an idea ever since I started in the industry decades ago. The fact that we are still waiting for it to happen proves that even matching needs a human eye. I am not saying that machine learning has no place. I welcome it, but color-grading is about creative decisions. Moving between color spaces is the province of color science.

With the rise of HDR and multiple deliverables, colorists are going to use a lot more color science, color management and tone mapping in the future. Tone mapping will be the next LUT fix-it tool. The biggest change I expect in the short term will result from new display technologies in the home and in the theater.

I do have a long wish list of features, mostly quite esoteric. However, colorists have always had to adapt existing tools to work in new ways. We need specialist tools to work in scene-referred workflows such as Academy ACES, and we need specialist HDR tools to deal with the tonal values above diffuse white. Further out, I would love to have a way to get a depth map from a (2D) image. Beyond that, I would like a control surface that is less about menu after menu of buttons, knobs and balls and more about touching the image …

Colorist Society International: