How To Become a Colorist
The Colorist digitally processes the final image of a project. They work on a variety of media ranging from commercials and features to short films. The role is a sort of hybrid between visual effects work and cinematography.
A Colorist’s day is typically a balancing act, working on multiple projects with various Directors and Producers. Sometimes it’s in person and other times it’s internationally through a remote session. The scale and type of project typically determine the number of sessions required to complete it.
“Usually, the Colorist begins by setting the overall look for each of the scenes using a wide shot. Once the client agrees on an image the Colorist moves on to match each of the other camera setups for that section.
“After a first pass has been made, everyone reviews the work in its entirety before going back to finesse the fine details. This cycle repeats for every setup on every project until it’s time to go home,” explains Tyler Roth, a Colorist who works on big-budget commercials as well as on films like the acclaimed indie Porto.
The average annual salary for Colorists is approximately $44,300. The salary range for Colorists runs from $36,000 to $53,000.
Colorists are either freelance, with their own hourly or day rate, or union, with set scale rates.
Roth says he “works 70% commercial, 25% features and 5% short films but the ratio is different for each Colorist.”
Usually, his schedule goes from 9 am to 6 pm, Monday through Friday, for commercial work. He devotes two to three hours per thirty-second commercial spot and in a given day may work on three to five projects. After hours and weekends are when he does the bulk of his feature film work.
However, all of this is variable depending on the job and client. Therefore, he often has one Assistant who works from 9 am to 5 pm and another one who takes the 4 pm to 12 am night shift to prep projects and handle exports. It’s a very busy schedule that varies throughout the week.
The people he or she interacts with most are Directors, Producers, Assistant Colorists, and Coloring Assistants.
“The entry-level position within a coloring company is to work as a Runner, doing whatever the company needs. It can include getting a lot of coffee. Whatever the task is it’s important to impress the higher-ups with attention to detail, organization, and client service skills,” says Roth.
By showing interest and motivation, an individual can get promoted to become an Assistant Colorist or Coloring Assistant. Their job is to prep projects for the Colorist and render out completed work. Sometimes they do low-level computer maintenance and file repair, as well.
With an official title change to Junior Colorist, the individual begins to find their own work. The final promotion to Colorist depends on their work ethic, the client base they develop, how big the company is and the number of color suites available.
The most important step to remember when trying to make the leap to Colorist is that it’s all about building a client list. This will make the aspiring Colorist sellable by the company when attracting potential clients, which drives promotions. The career trajectory of a Colorist is based on self-motivation.
“The best way for someone fresh out of college to become a Colorist is to get a foot in the door at a coloring facility,” says Roth.
Whatever job is available, grab it, whether it’s an Office Manager, Intern, or Runner position. Even if it’s not the facility where the aspiring Colorist ultimately wants to work they’ll acquire experience in workflows and day-to-day tasks.
Be aware it can take multiple internships before landing a job that can launch a career. Due to the number of applicants, it can be difficult to break in so even if the opportunity is getting someone else’s coffee, take it.”
- Getting a foot in the door at a color facility is crucial.
- Work on as many projects as possible.
- Build a montage reel of past work. It doesn’t have to be a bunch of big Super Bowl commercials to be good. It can be three cool shots from a music video. Always keep it short (sixty seconds at the most).
Experience & Skills
Roth explains, “The best way to prepare for becoming a Colorist is to acquire technical savvy.”
Learn file types and codecs. Doing so will develop an understanding of how the color edits and computer interact, which will help with problem-solving down the line.
Additionally, it’s not a bad idea to dabble in the filmmaking process. Understanding visual effects and cinematography will give a good foundation since coloring footage is essentially a hybrid of the two art forms.
Also, don’t forget to constantly consume movies, television shows, and art to improve your palate/taste level. Much of learning coloring involves working with the software and gaining practical experience but acquiring a knowledge base will help an aspiring Colorist succeed faster.
The best candidates to become Colorists naturally have a good balance of artistic and technical inclinations. They’re also business savvy. As an artist, they need to be able to react to and create different palates.
From a technical perspective, they’re constantly working with expensive equipment that is easy to break. Business know-how comes in handy because Colorists constantly deal with production agencies and Directors. Reading the room and selling their work is the only way for a Colorist to get ahead.
It helps to look at things from the client’s perspective. They’re paying for a costly room and the Colorist’s rate, so time is of the essence. Therefore, they need to believe they’ll receive a certain quality of work without any problems.
Since it is a client-driven business, taking direction well and enjoying collaboration are essential. When a Colorist isn’t working they should focus on where to get their next job, which usually means going out to sales dinners or meetings. “The Colorist [him or herself] is a brand that needs to be personable, artistic and technically competent,” says Roth.
Education & Training
The most important education for becoming a Colorist is to get practical experience, although many people attend film school and specialize in post-production. Learning cinematography and practicing with the software can be a good foundation.
Roth says, “There are some specialized courses people can take as well, but many aren’t that great. There are a lot of different ways to color. Much of it depends on personal style and workflow. If an aspiring Colorist can shadow a professional, get their hands on a system and practice, they can learn through experience, which is the best teacher overall.”
At the end of the day, beginners should focus on getting in with a company so they’ll simultaneously get practical experience and be able to pay their bills.
“It’s difficult to find good online forums or resources for coloring because many of them are run by inexperienced people fresh out of college. However, the Lowepost Colorist Community (run by Stig Olsen) is an amazing resource.
“It has some free content but there is also a section to pay for premium material. The best Colorists in the world submit project breakdowns and stills and discuss their work.
“Additionally, check out YouTube for technical tutorials. It’s easy to find a myriad of videos on coloring software, color grading, using color space, and working with HDR footage. Online materials can be great but they aren’t a substitute for practice or experience,” explains Roth.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“It’s important to find the right balance between taking free work to gain experience versus waiting for paid work. One effective method is to do work for free in exchange for referrals to other potential clients. It’s easy to become the freebie person.
“Colorists always need to be improving their brand, even from when they first start. It’s important for them to have a game plan for how free work will establish their reputation.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake for beginning Colorists is they want to take on every project for free without establishing a game plan to set themselves up as a professional. The right balance between paid work and giving discounts evolves over time.
“It’s important to think about it as early as possible to create a sustainable career. Many people don’t talk about or think of the business side of being a Colorist. It bites them in the long run.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What is the artistic intent behind an image?
“Most aspiring Colorists rarely ask about the artistic intent behind a coloring job and instead focus exclusively on the technical aspects. They think if they know how it was generated they can emulate it, which isn’t bad for becoming a technician, but won’t inspire them artistically.
“It can also make people believe that for something to be good it needs to be complicated. Great color grading is great color grading. It doesn’t need to be complicated. A beautiful image can be created with only four layers if it achieves the artistic goal.
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Why is business so important for Colorists?
“It’s the business aspects of being a Colorist that separates the top-tier professionals from everyone else. People rarely consider how learning business skills will help them land better jobs. They will be able to offer better discounts, create a more impressive demo reel and have a company behind them to take care of menial tasks.
“Developing a brand that can be sold isn’t easy. It takes time and effort but it also allows for larger jobs and the circumstances to do better work. The business of coloring is the secret of success that’s never talked about in any textbooks or forums.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Collaborative! It’s easy to get stubborn, but at the end of the day, the Colorist is a vendor making other people’s dreams come true.”
Tyler Roth began his professional career as a Colorist in 2006 and opened Company 3’s Chicago facility in 2012. Based in the Midwest, Roth’s clientele spans the globe with Directors, DPs, Editors, and agency teams in Los Angeles, New York, London, and Tokyo.
His day-to-day is national and international commercial campaigns for brands such as Reebok, Lamborghini, Samsung, Porsche, Miller Lite, LEGO and Chevy Camaro. Roth’s numerous film credits have brought him to world premieres at Cannes, Sundance, SXSW and TIFF.
Roth has engineered Company 3 Chicago to be robust enough to handle the rapid turnover of the advertising industry as well as the long-term, high-bandwidth demands of the feature film world.
This has enabled Company 3 Chicago to provide feature film grading and delivery for the Jim Jarmusch-produced Porto, shot on film and graded and delivered at 4K, and Stephen Piet’s Uncle John which premiered at SXSW and received critical acclaim from directors David Lynch and David Gordon Green. Roth has also contributed to the Wachowskis’ Netflix hit Sense8 and James Demonaco’s The Purge: Election Year.
Roth has become well known for being a fast, technically-minded Colorist specializing in creating stylized and unique looks for both commercial and feature film projects. His background in cinematography and visual effects streamlines communication with his clients, allowing for a seamless workflow from his grading suite to final release. His list of music video credits includes work for Korn, Ezra Furman, Watsky, and Nick Lowe.