Concentrating on Colour: “It’s Our Job to Show Audiences Colours They’ve Never Seen Before”

How the TBD Post team blend a snap of saturation with a crackle of contrast to make the content really pop The decision to set up shop in Austin was a wise move from TBD Post founders, Brandon Thomas and Ted Griffis. Placing them at the nucleus of a thriving creative media community, their location…

Concentrating on Colour: “It’s Our Job to Show Audiences Colours They’ve Never Seen Before”

How the TBD Post team blend a snap of saturation with a crackle of contrast to make the content really pop

Concentrating on Colour: “It’s Our Job to Show Audiences Colours They’ve Never Seen Before”

The decision to set up shop in Austin was a wise move from TBD Post founders, Brandon Thomas and Ted Griffis. Placing them at the nucleus of a thriving creative media community, their location sets them apart from the Hollywood machine. The now Emmy award-winning post production facility has all bases covered; editing, colour grading, VFX, sound design and mix, finishing and delivery. 

Working in tandem with the rest of the team, colour is one of TBD’s departments experiencing a massive uptick in client demand. In this conversation with three of the company’s top colourists – Brandon Thomas, Cory Berezenden and Brian Singler – LBB’s April Summers is schooled on the subject of colour science, as talk turns to why HDR is the new storytelling tool getting them excited for the future of their craft.

LBB> How did you get started in the industry and where did you learn your craft? 


Brandon> I’m mostly self taught, after falling into colour about 15 years ago. My background is in cinematography, MoGraph and VFX, and I think I was just in the right place at the right time because colour ended up being a really great fit for me. There wasn’t much of an online community at the time, so I learned by working on a ton of different projects and reading everything I could find about the subject.

Brian> It started when I was a DP because when I was shooting I was finding that images often left something to be desired, so I would jump into colour in a project to make things look better. I also mostly learned from experience and doing things over and over again. In terms of learning techniques, there was probably a point about 10 years ago or so, when I had consumed every single video about the craft that existed online. I consumed as much as I could and did a high volume of work, in order to learn the ropes – I didn’t actually get to collaborate with other colourists until a couple of years ago!

Cory> My journey has been so different! I left Texas and moved to California and started at a post house in client services – serving coffee, doing the fruit plates and food orders – but I really loved what the colourists were doing. Over the years, I became an assistant for a lot of different colourists, which meant sitting in a suite as someone else was colouring for ages. If you know colourists, I started with the likes of Marshall Plante, Bob Curreri, Beau Leon, Steve Scott, Clark Muller, Bob Festa and others, and each of their approaches were totally different, so I got to watch a lot of great colourists explore their own unique style. I would sit and observe how they ran the room, how they communicated with clients, their speed and approach to the craft, so I guess I’m a culmination of a whole bunch of different people’s approaches to colour as a result.

LBB> How would you describe your different approaches to colour?

Brandon> It’s such a subjective craft and I feel all have very distinct inclinations and tastes. When I look at Cory or Brian’s work, I think they’re both a little bit more rock n’ roll than me; Cory loves strong contrast and Brian gravitates toward a more printy, cinematic feel, whereas I lean towards a more naturalistic look. We all approach things very differently and I think we’ve learned a lot from seeing how each other works and collaborating together. I know I need to try to push myself further, and when I do, I really like the results.

LBB> Cory and Brian, what led you to join the TBD crew?

Cory>  I knew the market in Texas was growing, plus it felt familiar because I grew up there, so I decided to join TBD. In doing so, I got to continue evolving colour-wise, while also getting more family time – it was the perfect choice.

Brian> I came to TBD for several reasons. One of them being the fact I had been alone for my entire career – as the only full time colourist in the city of St. Louis. I knew Austin offered more opportunities to work on long-form content, with all the film festivals and the features that Brandon and Cory have worked on. A lot of colourists want to do movies, and I certainly wanted to as well. Also, there is infrastructure at TBD that doesn’t exist anywhere in St. Louis: we have two grading theatres, as well as a lot of other high-end tech and gear. It was a culmination of the infrastructure, the long-form higher end work, and the experience of working with these guys that led me to join TBD.

LBB> How would you summarise TBD’s approach to colour? What makes the TBD team unique?

Cory> I’ve worked at a lot of post facilities and the most unique thing about TBD is the fact Brandon and Ted have curated a team that works so diligently at what they do, delivering their best work all the time. You would never know how immensely busy it gets here, because everyone approaches the work in a calm and collective way, and just gets stuff done. At other places I’ve worked at, I’ve seen emotions run crazy high, and things can get very stressful as a result, especially when it’s coming from the top down. TBD’s positive environment comes from the leadership here and I really appreciate it.Brian> We care very much about each project individually and about the people involved. We’re outside of the Hollywood factory which allows us the ability to give clients a little bit of extra time and love, or a different take on their project, that they’re not necessarily going to get elsewhere.

Brandon> Ultimately, we’re the final stop in getting the project to as close to the dream version as possible. When we’re doing our job well, we’re solving problems and making the work the best it can be.

LBB> How do you assess the colour and grade requirements of a spot? What’s the process like before you start applying the creative? 

Brandon> Typically it starts with creative conversations about the story we’re trying to tell and how we’re going to get there. Having conversations with the directors, DPs, or agencies, where we work together to figure out the creative direction for colour so the earlier in the process we can be involved, the better. We love doing camera tests with filmmakers, helping come up with creative solutions and collaborating on the look and feel of things.Brian> For me, it usually starts with what I call the “colour kickoff call” where we look at the project together and determine the creative direction. The director and the DP will often give me lots of adjectives about how they want the piece to feel, then it’s my job to take those abstract terms and turn them into something concrete that can be seen and felt. They’ll often provide references from movies, films or commercials which demonstrate certain aspects they might want to encapsulate. Standard questions I ask include: “Are you thinking this should be a deep contrast? Should we do a more lifted contrast? Are we looking for lots of saturation, less saturation, selective saturation? Are we looking to evoke an era? Are we looking to emulate film or any sort of digital process?” When you deal with hundreds and hundreds of projects, you end up curating this big list of questions that helps you figure out the requirements of each new project. You do your best to bring that vision to life by opening up a back and forth dialogue, sending hero frames and viewing links to the client, so they can see the progress and provide feedback.

LBB> What are your favourite types of projects to work on and why?

Brian> Any project in which the visuals were well thought out from the very beginning — where there was a clear palette in mind and production design, makeup and wardrobe were all significant parts of the process. This is because, in my opinion, you can only enhance the beauty of something that is already beautiful in front of the lens. I love when a project is clearly very well thought out in that way; whether it’s narrative, commercial or a documentary. Projects that are trying to create a world or a mood, a feeling or an era, those are the most fulfilling and fun to work on.

Cory> Similar for me. I like projects which require colour to be a big deciding factor in the emotion and where the storyline goes, especially for features. With features, you essentially want to tie the whole world together, but you’re going to have different looking scenes, so that through line needs to be consistent while also having a handle of how you want the viewer to experience each scene. When a client asks for us to help convey emotion, you get to experiment with something that evokes the emotion they were looking for, and then you get to create it. With those sorts of projects you feel like your input as a colourist truly helped tell this story, and the viewer is experiencing the correct emotion that the DOP wanted, because of the colour. That’s really fun.

LBB> What do you think is the most surprising aspect of your job? 

Brian> Some people don’t realise that colourists sit in a dark calibrated room at all times when working!
Brandon> Yeah, normally it’s like we’re sitting in a dark comfortable cave. I think one of the most fascinating things about our job is how it’s the intersection between the technical side, visual effects, and the creative side of things.

Brian> There’s a couple of funny perceptions out there about colourists. One of them is that there is always magic happening in the suite, but in reality, there is much more to the job than the artistic part of it, and not all hours of our day can be devoted to the craft, there’s so much more to do logistically. This being said, it’s the artistic part that drives us and what keeps me in my seat every day.

LBB> How often – if ever – do you guys collaborate on a project? 

Brandon> It depends on the project. With short form stuff, more often than not we’re owning a project individually, but when it comes to longer form projects, we often jump in and help each other. Whoever has a free afternoon or an open day can help carry on someone else’s work and help polish things up. We’re trying to nerd out together more often by spending time workshopping, deconstructing and doing post mortems of projects, to learn from each other. We try to collaborate creatively, more so on the craft than on individual projects, especially when it comes to some of the newer technologies like HDR and tools that we’re using on the colour science side of things.

Brian> There’s certainly been more collaboration as HDR becomes more of a reality because that’s something I’m learning, and Brandon has been able to teach me a ton, and Cory is jumping into that, too. There’s going to be plenty of opportunities to share on that frontier and will be part of our collaborative process going forward.

LBB> Can you tell us a bit more about HDR and how it is used during the colour and grading process?

Brian> As filmmakers, we’ve been confined to this limited colour gamut for almost 40 years, right? Then in the last five to ten years, we’ve seen an explosion of new display technology, yet the industry has been slow to produce content in a way that is reflected best on all those new mobile devices, smart TVs and stuff like that.
Brandon> The simplest way to explain it is that we have been working in a range of luminance from zero to 100, but in HDR, we are going from zero to 1,000! We gain access to so much more colour and luminance which is an amazing creative tool. We have so much more control over the level of detail in the shadows and how much darkness we can really utilise before it becomes blocky, mushy madness. HDR presents so many more creative possibilities. Then DolbyVision takes your work and intelligently scales it to look as best as possible on your iPhone, iPad, or whatever device you’ve got. It’s a way to future-proof things and give content a longer lifespan, but more than anything, it gives us the opportunity to push things further artistically than we’ve ever been able to before.
Brian> HDR is so much more capable of taking advantage of new technology. Not only that, but for the first time we can grade on a master display, and have that content scale itself to appear the best it can be on whatever device a consumer happens to be using at the time. As a result, there’s been a change in how we approach the craft: we are grading it to be scalable on whatever display the consumer might have today, in addition to whatever the display technology of the future might be. The work we do today can scale to the device of tomorrow, which is so cool. It’s neat to be a part of this ever-evolving new technology and to know we’ll be ready by the time HDR goes mainstream, entering the commercial world.

Brandon> Yeah, it’s coming for sure, it just takes time to shift over all the infrastructure. Even Instagram is displaying HDR now though! There are already tens of millions of HDR devices out there.

LBB> How do you see these advancements in technology improving or advancing the role of colour? 

Cory> Like Brian said, we’ve been used to a certain amount of colour information – I love colour, I’m always cranking the saturation. It looks really cool. Brightness-wise, you can go to 1,000 but typically we’ll stay in the 200 to 300 nit range, which is still two to three times the brightness and colour volume that we’ve been used to seeing. It’s like when we went from black and white to colour, now we’re upgrading from colour to HDR and it’s like, “Oh wow, those colours were in there the whole time?”
Brian> Absolutely. We have more storytelling devices than ever before. Although you may not hit max brightness, it’s there if you feel it’s needed, story-wise, or if you’re trying to jar the audience, or go from a dark scene to a light scene, or see the finer details of an explosion or something very bright. We’re always trying to show viewers colours they’ve never seen before and, now, our paintbrush palette has a bunch more options, which is super creatively exciting.
What’s also really cool is being able to educate directors, DPs, agencies, and anybody else in the pipeline, on these new tools that they didn’t even know about, and how we can use them to tell the story. Demoing to clients, for them to see what things look like in HDR, is really neat. Taking advantage of HDR rests in our hands, as colourists, more than almost anyone else at any other part of the process. It’s all about guiding filmmakers to take advantage of these tools and, as colourists, we’re the ones who need to teach filmmakers how these new tools can help tell their stories.
Brandon> There’s been an incredible increase in the quality of camera sensors over the last 15 years and it makes me hopeful about what we can achieve on the display side of things as well. Display technology hasn’t evolved all that much in decades but, along with HDR, I’m looking forward to more colour innovations that we’ll be able to take advantage of in the future. I’m just excited for anything that gives us more creative opportunities to put something on screen that hasn’t been seen before, even if it might seem jarring or unusual at first. The more colours we can access, the more we can try to push the boundaries of what we’ve known till now.