Whether it’s Wes Anderson’s vibrant color palette in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or the comic-styled color disruptions of Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City,” the color of a film sets its mood and tone. Film color schemes are refined by colorists, who use their technical expertise and aesthetic eye to create atmosphere and comprehensive visual narratives.
A film colorist works with the director and cinematographer to design a film’s color scheme in a way that fits its tone and mood. The colorist is also responsible in a more hands-on capacity for color grading, color correcting, and adjusting any other errors in the footage that has to do with color.
“The role of the colorist is to help enhance that image and to be the cinematographer’s ‘hands’ by understanding his vision and making sure the audience will see the program or film in the way the cinematographer intended it be viewed,” Norman Nisbet, colorist for films including “The Neon Demon,” “Melancholia,” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” told Pushing Pixels. “The colorist has a responsibility to convey the cinematographer’s intent.”
“Baby Driver” Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Film colorists use color grading software to adjust color in film footage. Their primary tasks are:
- Color correction: A film colorist’s first pass is often color correction, where they adjust images to fix issues such as overexposure and dark shadows. Color correction is most often used to ensure colors appear onscreen as accurately as possible and to maintain consistency in lighting from shot to shot.
- Color grading: The colorist digitally adjusts the footage’s color scheme to fit the feeling of the film, with a particular focus on:
- Hue: Literally what a color is, without any indication of its brightness, vividness, or darkness
- Contrast: The distinction between any two opposing aspects of your footage—lightness and darkness, black and white, or any two different hues, for example
- White balance: Adjusting what is “true” white in the image, as most lighting—especially outdoor lighting—does not appear purely white
- Saturation: The intensity of a color in your footage
- Brightness: How bright a specific color is in your image
All of this is in service of fitting the exact “look” of the film as conceived by the director and cinematographer, which is carefully chosen to convey tone, mood, genre, and themes. For example, in “The Matrix,” the colorist uses a desaturated green hue whenever characters are trapped in the digital world.
This monochromatic green creates a nauseating sense of unease and also calls to mind the green digital rain of a late-’90s computer monitor.
According to ZipRecruiter, the national average salary for film colorists is $50,880.
Although some colorists have salaried positions, most are contractors who set their own rates and hours. Earning potential depends on location, experience, and project size. Generally, freelance colorists charge between $700 and $1,000 per day. Colorists who join the Motion Picture Editors Guild earn minimum rates for their work:
- Weekly: $2,253.00
- Daily: $486.00
- Hourly (if working one day): $60.75
- Hourly (if working one week): $56.33
“Don't Worry Darling” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
The skills and experience needed to break into the field include:
Since you’ll use color grading software to color correct and color grade, you need to have fluency in at least one of the following top color grading programs:
- DaVinci Resolve
- Magic Bullet
- Color Finale
- Adobe Premiere Pro
- HitFilm Express
- Final Cut Pro
Color theory posits that certain colors engender specific emotions in viewers. You’ll use this theory often when determining how to color a video. Some common color theory associations are:
- Red: passion, anger, power, love
- Orange: sociability, joy, success, courage
- Yellow: happiness, youth, illness, poverty
- Green: greed, evil, nature, unease
- Blue: sadness, calm, intellectualism, loneliness
- Pink: femininity, naivety, beauty, sweetness
- Purple: power, fantasy, other-worldliness, desire
Additionally, colorists must understand different types of color schemes and what they do for a film. The main types of color schemes are:
- Complementary: Colors across from each other on the color wheel, such as blue and orange, are aesthetically pleasing when paired.
- Analogous: Colors in close proximity on the color wheel, such as red and pink, create a sense of continuity.
- Triadic: Triadic color schemes consist of one primary color and two accent colors evenly spaced in thirds on the color wheel.
- Monochromatic: Like “The Matrix,” monochromatic color schemes use a single color and its various shades and tints.
- Sepia: This warm golden tone creates a nostalgic look.
- Bleach bypass: This color scheme, used in “Saving Private Ryan” and “Minority Report,” creates a bleak black-and-white image on top of a color image.
Colorists often work closely with the director, video editor, and cinematographer to make lookup tables (LUTs), establish color spaces, and create updated color gradings.
The ability to communicate well is also vital to achieving a desired film aesthetic. “A colorist should know his client—bond with and read the intentions of his client,” Nisbet said. “And then translate the message onto a hard format in visual form. A colorist should not only have a keen eye but also a keen ear.”
On top of these skills, the path to becoming a film colorist requires foundational knowledge and experience in the field.
You don’t need to attend college or film school to break into a career as a colorist. However, studying film and film production, technology, and photography is a good way to learn about the industry, postproduction, and color grading software. If you choose not to commit to a formal education, immerse yourself in the fields of film and color to learn about color theory and colorist techniques. These are just a few of the many colorist courses available online:
- Cinematic Color Grading: Making Your Videos Come Alive
- Color Grading: Introduction with a Pro Colorist
- Creating a Short Film: 11 Color Grading
Software-specific courses can help you master color correction and grading specifically in Premiere Pro Lumetri Color panel, Final Cut Pro, or DaVinci Resolve.
For aspiring film colorists, experiential knowledge—and an exceptional show reel to show for it—is much more important than earning a degree. Seek out jobs as a postproduction or film colorist assistant to get some experience under your belt.
“The Green Knight” Courtesy A24
- Find a mentor: Not only can a professional film colorist mentor provide you with insider insight and information—they might also be able to connect you with a job down the line. Finding a mentor can be one of the biggest benefits of pursuing a formal education—but don’t underestimate the (less formal) power of social media. Search #colorist or #colorgrade on Twitter or Instagram and politely reach out to professionals for advice.
- Network: Keep building those connections by interacting with as many professional film colorists, directors, and cinematographers as possible. Join groups such as the Colorist Society and the Motion Picture Editors Guild, and attend events such as FilmLight, Colour in Film, and the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) colorist forum. You never know who you might impress with your enthusiasm for becoming a colorist.
- Create a show reel: The show reel, a brief (one to two minutes) summary of your color grading work, is your visual résumé. Be sure that your show reel demonstrates your technical abilities and creates a narrative about who you are as a colorist.
- Start small: Start by looking for entry-level jobs as an assistant or even an intern at postproduction houses. These positions provide access to quality equipment and software, while also letting you rub shoulders with the movers and shakers in the biz. For example, Nisbet started as an editor’s assistant for an audio-visual company before moving up in rank to postproduction assistant—and then finally making his way into the world of film coloring.
- Then aim big: Once you have some work experience, post your creations on platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr, and Truelancer, and seek freelance colorist gigs. You can also next-level your job search by exploring film colorist, film colorist assistant, and other postproduction jobs in our comprehensive crew jobs database.
- Keep building your portfolio: Be vigilant about staying up-to-date with industry trends and technological advancements. Keep your showreel and portfolio updated accordingly.
- Think creative: Nisbet emphasizes the role of creativity in postproduction. “Look at the films we see these days,” he said. “How far have you been taken from reality? I’d say just about anything can be done in post.” As a colorist, you have extensive creative control over the final product, so why not lean visionary? Use your imagination, be creative, and have fun with it—your work will reflect your enthusiasm for the career.