The Interview Series – James Willett Colourist

In this blog, we interview James Willett, a freelance colourist with a reputation for precision as much as for creativity. From workflow to creative services, James is committed to being at the forefront of his craft. We got together with James for a spot of lunch a couple of weeks back so we could get his thoughts on how technology is changing post-production and how the role of colour grading in commercial video can be of benefit to your business. 

James Willett’s Colourist Showreel

Hi James, please can you start by telling us what colour grading is?

The process of colour correction or as it’s often referred to, ‘grading’, can take many forms. In simplistic terms though there are two sides to it. First, there’s what could be referred to as the balancing side. Here, you are making something technically correct rather than doing anything creative. For example, say you’re presented with an  interview where the sun goes in and out behind the subject. The editor may have had to cut the piece together out of order and coupled it with some cut-aways from a different shoot. The whole piece will thus jump around in time. You have to manipulate the differences between the shots so that to the viewer they work together and look seamless.

The other side is the creative part. Without getting too arty about it, a film or a video is telling a story and through the manipulation of colour, light and shade we as colourists contribute to this.

Take The Matrix, for example. If you ask anyone to use one word to describe the ‘look’ of that film they are bound to say ‘green’. It’s true, too. Go and pull the Blu-Ray from the shelf and you’ll see what I mean. BUT, not everything is a single shade. You could throw green across the whole film but it wouldn’t look right. The skin tones, for example, would look plain wrong and if there’s one thing in an image that a viewer is sensitive to it’s the actors’ skin tones. It’s a subliminal point of reference. Get that right and you’re halfway there.

So, instead of turning everything green, you might push greens and blues into the shadows and a touch of green into your highlights, or, you may change a specific hue so a blue might shift more towards green.

What role does the director play in this?

In an ideal world, the colourist is on board before the camera even turns over. The director will first decide the look and feel of what they want to achieve. You don’t get that from just manipulating the image further down the chain in the hope it will ‘look right’. It is down to the way shots are lit, the camera used, the lenses, the weather, how the costumes and make-up interact with the light, the list goes on.

It’s a bit like taking a racing car and putting a novice behind the wheel. You can have the most amazing colourist and grading suite ready to manipulate your image but if you haven’t got the expertise at the beginning of the chain, you may be trying to roll things in glitter. Yes, we are ‘faking’ something but it’s harder to get to the desired point without everything else in the process working together. Having said that, we can still drastically change things!

I understand why colour grading is important for a Hollywood film, but why is it important for a commercial film for a product?

I do a lot of product films, in particular cars and fashion. Here, a video will often run alongside a stills shoot and I will be given colour references to which everything has to match. For example, you may have lovely shots of a car on an open road in bright sunlight and then some pictures from the stills campaign where the car is photographed in a perfectly lit studio. The car may be the same colour – it may even be the same car, but it won’t match because of the different scenario in which it has been shot. This is where the colourist gets to work.

How much do clients need to worry about all of this?

In theory, not at all, other than to understand that what I do is part of the process. When someone is shooting a film or video, the image is ‘monitored’ on set and due to the way that image data is captured these days, it may even have a ‘rough look’ applied to it that hints at where the grade may go. Then, when clients see a rough edit they are looking at a familiar image even before they hit the grading session with the colourist.

In the grade, we work from the final edit and tend to grade ‘in context’; you don’t always know how shots will grade up alongside one-another within a scene till you get going. Say you put three shots together, graded them and then inter-cut another 10 shots. In this situation, there is no guarantee that the three original shots would continue to work with their associated grades. As your eye goes from shot to shot it will pick up on different things and what worked previously may no longer work. There’s never a dull moment, so to speak, when it comes to the grade!

How much manipulation can you do?

The tools we use today are now so powerful we can achieve a vast amount in the grade. For example, on the fashion jobs I can now go in and clean up moles on someone’s neck, remove wrinkles or maybe change the colour of a model’s eyes. A lot of colourists don’t like doing this as they feel they should be painting with a broader brush. I enjoy that as well but I do rather like the technical, fiddly stuff.

Thank you James.

James is as a freelance colourist based in London but has worked on a wide array of productions all over the world. You can find out more about James Willett on on his website where you can also view further examples of his work. Got any further questions for James then you can also reach him on twitter @james_willett where he is very active.

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