The Colourist & Cinematographer Relationship

The Australian Cinematographer Society ran an online webinar with a panel of three colourists. CJ Dobson CSI, Deidre “Dee” McClelland CSI, and Fergus Hally CSI. Hosted by Warwick Field ACS. The aim was to answer questions from cinematographers about our role as colourists and how we can be of assistance to them before during and after a shoot.

You can find the recording of the session here with many questions answered beneath:

Dee’s Answers to some of the Questions from

ACS Colourist Cinematographer Relationship online panel – 25 June 2020


Q.5 & 10  Operator vs Collaborator:


When you have a professional colourist on board for your project, you are getting a skilled creative person with years of experience. Essentially a specialist who will help craft your images to look the way you had initially envisioned. When you allow a colourist to collaborate and suggest some options that you perhaps hadn’t thought of, you get even more than you had expected. Fresh eyes, a new perspective, a different insight into where the images may improve are the added advantages of having a professional colourist. If on the other hand a colourist is treated like an operator, given specific commands only without any input for the colourist permitted, you may find that you’re really not making the most of the opportunity to refine and polish your images to their best potential.


Q.6 & 7. Information required by the colourist for a grading session. LUTs & Reference material.


Information is always greatly appreciated, so here are some things that help me:

-who the Cinematographer is and their contact details if possible

-what camera it was shot on

-which LUT was used for rushes (provide it if you can)

-reference material (other movies, photos or shots in the timeline/offline that  best demonstrate the overall direction).

-the story or mood that you’re hoping to engender

problem shots that didn’t work for one reason or another – what were you hoping to achieve, how can I help you get there?

– scenes that are intended to be silhouette and have been shot that way

– shots that are purposefully shot ‘hot’/bright.

– time of day/night or any day for night scenes etc

– issues with actors regarding blemishes or complexion – if I can, I will help with these in the grade, if I cannot in the time permitted I can discuss other options.

-deliberate changes in colour (for e.g. to depict different country/mood/characters)


Information that I don’t necessarily need (to save you time typing these requests) is which shots are under exposed/over exposed, mismatched camera’s/lenses/filtration and all the reasons why…. There is never any need to apologise for these issues; Cinematographers are always under the pump to get so many things done in the short time they have – so I do understand! Usually I can see immediately which shots aren’t quite sitting at the correct exposure or colour temperature and my first task is to balance the timeline so that they all flow cohesively. That first process naturally, goes without saying.


Q.8 & 9. Power grades or LUTS as reference for colourists.


A LUT or Look Up Table, brings an image values from the source footage (camera original) closer to the desired output value, for editing the colour space is Rec709; a properly balanced broadcast monitor. This LUT is only ever a rough guide for the final look.

It is always good to understand what the editor and director have been viewing over the previous weeks as they cut the film/series.

When I am given a LUT for the grade in Rec709 colour space, I get an understanding of what has become familiar to the director. However, as a LUT can skew colours and change the range in ways I’m unable to discern, I am inclined to create my own similar look, knowing how it was made allows me to control the outcome best. This is especially pertinent when grading in P3 or XYZ colour space in a theatre where the Rec709 LUT really does restrict the potential range for colour and contrast.

For more information on colour space please take a look at the chart here:


  1. Entry level for a colourist.


This is currently a very difficult question to answer with most companies relying on freelancers and the lack of infrastructure to mentor a new person through all  the processes of post(also Covid has limited the number of people going in to post houses). We briefly spoke about it during the panel. My suggestion was to keep at it; shoot your own material if you have to, work with an up-and-coming cinematographer or fellow media student to just hone your skills as a colourist.


Start a ‘look’ library of your own footage

  • shots you have graded (perhaps some ‘before and after’s).
  • Challenges that you overcame with a grade – difficult lighting/weather/exposures
  • Experimental grades

How about downloading footage that you think would look better with your magic touch!?


Ask experts for help or tips – most people love to talk about their experiences and feel honoured to be asked.


There are links to tutorials (including fxphd tutorials from Warren Eagles – mentioned during our session), different ‘looks’ and styles on my resources page as well as guilds and groups in the film industry that can help:


Here is further information regarding the role of a colourist that might help too:



  1. Workflow for VFX


Because by the time the grade is scheduled, almost right at the end of the process, having a chance to pre-grade the VFX plates and return them to the VFX vendor is almost impossible.  With series work, I am usually given a background plate in my timeline to grade. The ungraded version has already been sent to the VFX house prior to my session for them to get the VFX done and returned to me as soon as possible. Once the VFX arrive back (in the same colour space as it was sent out to them), the grade should copy across to the new shot without any problem. There is often a need for a bit of a tweak to ensure it sits well with the surrounding shots.


In a feature film, any pre-grade I give the VFX team is not usually the final grade and the look may change drastically as I work further with the DoP. A grade change on the baked-in graded VFX plate, will likely compromise the image and be restrictive.


My preferred way of working (due mainly to time constraints) is to have the VFX created using the camera original raw media. The VFX house can apply a viewing LUT to see how the shot may look with a grade and also to discern how well the VFX is sitting in the background plate. They then send back the shots in the original ‘raw’ flat looking format, allowing me to adjust the VFX image in any direction within the PS/XYZ colour space.


  1. Time Management in a grade session


There is only a limited amount of time to get a grade completed.  If I find myself getting stuck on a shot and spending too much time on it, I will move on and come back to it. The priority is to get a balanced grade, then a pass to service the look and feel of the story, ensuring that the DoP and Director are getting the results they require. Once the essentials are covered, go back and spend more time on the difficult shot(s).  Often coming back the next day with fresh eyes and new ideas can make the difference.


It may be that the shot cannot be fixed in the grade (within the time constraints) and it may be wise to seek advice from perhaps a VFX expert or the person who will be doing the online and mastering – there may be tools in their system that can tackle the problem more efficiently than the grading system.


Containing expectations of your clients – letting them know what is and isn’t possible in the time frame is key. Often I have to be quite firm and explain the time allotted and the amount of work that we need to get through. Mentioning that you may need extra time to persist with something that is low on the priority list will have them reconsidering the situation.


Also, allowing yourself to let go of things you cannot fix and managing your own expectations is very important. We all want to give our best to our clients and will work hard to give them the result they want, but if it is to the detriment of their budget, delivery date or quality, be brave enough to discuss the issue and always seek wiser people to help! Offer up alternatives instead of just saying ‘it can’t be done’.


The way I run a feature film grade session:

Take a look at the locked cut (offline) prior to grade

-Note which areas look like a challenge and any other questions that arise

-Discuss the cut with the DoP and/or director and get a brief from him/her

-Commence the ‘balance’ grade (perhaps using a bespoke LUT that emulates the look they have become used to during the edit as a starting point)

-Bring in the DoP/director and perhaps work on the scenes that they’re most worried about to set their mind at ease.

-Set the look for each scene (perhaps selecting a wide shot) and save reference stills

-Go through and commence the actual ‘look’ grade using the stills as references.

-Bring back (DoP and) director for final tweaks and official sign off.


For a TV series time is even shorter;

  • Commence the ‘balance’ grade (perhaps using a bespoke LUT that emulates the look they have become used to during the edit as a starting point).
  • Talk with the DoP/Director regarding the look_ they are often still shooting so it can be an email or phone call. We may have had discussions during make-up wardrobe tests, LUT creation.
  • Apply the look scene by scene through out the time line. Often I send reference stills to DoP as I go and get feedback overnight.
  • Review with Dop/Director – make tweaks and render final episode.