Thinking in Color - Blog Intro and "About Me"

Hello and welcome to “Thinking in Color” 

Why write a blog? Why Dredge up the sordid past? Do I really need to add my voice to the cacophony of colorist gurus on YouTube?

         Well, my hope is that this will be a little different. It'll be more like self therapy for myself and if you happen to be a fruit fly on the wall that sees an opportunity to profit from this forgotten brown banana of a blog, then by all means...

         I’ve always wanted to write something addressed to my younger self, a decade ago, when I was stumbling in the dark. How I wish, for example, to be able to teleport back into my Korea Town garret in 2012, if only for a second, to tell my younger self:

“Don’t waste your time with Adobe SpeedGrade young Stephen, it’s a trash software” 

“but…but… spectral Stephen, it’s free. It comes with your Adobe Suite” 

“In this life you get what you pay for young Stephen… It is such a trash software can only lead to pain...and it shall be discontinued soon. Goodbye…” 

“Wait! Spirit! How do I debayer Red footage without selling a kidney for a red rocket card. I'm so poor,  please don't go”

“goodbye destitute Stephen…goodbye….”

I happened into color correction by accident. I finished USC in 2012 with a degree in Cinema Studies, a degree of questionable value, comprised as it was mostly of a lot of knowledge about semiotics, "Simulacra," and “The Society of Spectacle.” This had the dual effect of making me insufferable to speak to at parties (a problem I still have) and having absolutely no marketable skills upon graduation (which I have remedied).  

This was also at the same time that a confluence of forces made film production and color correction more affordable: Cameras suddenly became a lot more powerful and less expensive, more or less affordable computers could begin to debayer raw footage (with difficulty) and previously expensive color correction software came down in price. 

A brief history lesson. In the “old days” of color you needed massive infrastructure and human capital just to do the simplest tasks. I’m not even talking about photochemical processing, that goes without saying, but even Digital processes such as conforming were a huge undertaking. If you go on Lift Gamma Gain you can glean a lot of a knowledge about how immense of an undertaking coloring Oh Brother Where art Thou was, even just conforming it - every single step of that process was immensely difficult. 

Things that I do in matters of seconds now took forever back then. For example, I remember working for days on end trying to get Red Raw footage to playback in Adobe Speed Grade (I never did), or trying to color on Avid on USC’s terrible system. A lot of this was discouraging, but I remember thinking that there was something to color, I was fascinated by it. 

I was a huge fan of Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.” I remember seeing that film and thinking that “This was it, digital cinema had come into its own.” However, the roadmap on how to get there was far from clear.

In those days there wasn’t a lot of information online about color, or, to be more precise, the good information was nigh impossible to separate from the trendy “10 steps to color big booty butts real good” or the “Smash the like for my ultra mega awesome orange and teal LUTs ” hucksters.  What is more, the class they taught at USC about color correction was woefully lacking in actual knowledge (I was not admitted to this class actually, ironically, as I was of the lowest caste in the Film school hierarchy, far below the brahmin Production students). But then, as now, with the proliferation of online gurus and online courses, for me, the test is always the same on whether or not you should listen to a person “Do they do good work?” This is the same test I advocate for any reader of this blog consequently. If you don't like my work - no sweat!

So, it took a while, but essentially what happened is that I kept at it and made tons of creative mistakes. Cinematographer friends sent me footage, cautiously first. Later, with some more enthusiasm and eventually in such quantities that I could not keep up. I reached out to colorists I trust and asked questions sometimes.

Financially I was a pauper. Anyone in the game will tell you that film is a pay to play industry. I remember buying Resolve Studio for $1000, that was all the money in the world to me back then.

In the beginning I worked on some of the hardest footage imaginable, and all of my gear was melting from constant heat issues. I’ve sent a Trash Can Mac and two MacBooks to the color morgue so far. I hacked all the above with sketchy EGPUS at some point or another. No joke, I once put an ice cooler with a little fan near my trash can to get through a feature film export on Red without GPU glitches. This was at 3am with multiple failed renders - you get the idea. 

In those days the actual color work was oftentimes a freeform sort of "discovery." I had no idea at the time why it “wasn’t working”, but it turns out in retrospect that may have been a great way to learn. I have lots of really creative solutions that other people may not have explored. (It’s also perhaps a reason I’m drawn to heavier looks, you can “hide” more in them, but more on that later). 

I don’t write this as apologia, I'm really proud of my work, but rather so that you can see where I come from, how I learned, which is mostly from making a ton of mistakes, continually ruthlessly reevaluating myself, and organically building a style with the modest resources at hand. that's basically me in a nutshell.

Here’s an interaction that sort of encapsulates the scrappy, creative vibes of the first stages of my color journey.

I was in my early 20s, at a party (remember earlier the parties thing I mentioned earlier) with a bunch of other film people and I got to talking to this guy over a cigarette:

“Bro, man, so what do you do dude?”

“Colorist, you?"

”I take photos of naked women for money” (huge grin)

“That’s cool.” 

“So you’re a colorist - that’s like hair, right?”


“What kinda stuff?” 

“Oh you know {insert music video name] just now, short docs, mostly that” 

“Dude man, you’re the guy!” 

“What guy?”

“The… the…the guy! (Points finger) The… Laptop Colorist!”

“Jesus man, not so loud, *Whispering* Is that what I’m known as?”

“Uhh yea man, people’s just like call the laptop colorist. He’s great” 

I didn’t have the money back then for a Flanders and output card. I just had my macbook and an adjustment output LUT. Tough times! Slow times! 

This blog isn’t for everyone. If you work in a post house environment and are used more to being part of a team, I’m not that guy, I can’t in good faith give advice for that style. I do everything myself, Conform, delivery, post sup, basic VFX. I shoot as well, I probably know your camera system, even the menu system on that camera system. I know lenses as well. I know lenses so well that I can usually guess which lenses they are within or or two guesses just from seeing the footage (especially anamorphic). I’ve shown other colorists my organizational methods and sometimes it’s like “Oh God man I cannot unsee that” and sometimes it’s like “Hmm…that’s clever… I think.” I have many many war stories. I've sued ludicrous clients to get payment "Bro don't sue me, not chill!" I've had drives held hostage. I crawled in a tiny attic on my hands and knees in 110 degree heat to wire up a DCP projector. So that's that kind of stuff you can expect to read.

I’m not longer as crazy with color as I used to be, using like 10 LUTS in layer nodes, denoising entire timelines on iMacs in neatvideo for 60 hours, those days are gone. I used a fixed node tree now… most of the time, I’ve sort of got my pulse on things and check in on forums, but I still mostly work intuitively with an experimental approach on weird stuff like tetrahedral scripts in fusion and sometimes for the right project I do crazy stuff, like make a halation stack from scratch, which I did once. This is all time permitting. 

Now, with regards to what you can expect to read here… There are a million amazing videos and blogs and lessons on there about how to color but not a lot about why

On the surface this is a stupid proposition:

“Steve bro we know WHY we’re coloring man… you balance the shot from baked in 5d, then you slap an orange and teal lut on it, call it like 'Dunkirk from color look' and print that sucker to mp4, no? I’m gonna finish it in Sony Vegas I think.”

Yep, you’re the color game baybeeee. 

I’d like to get into more of how I think. Some war stories to illustrate that point maybe. Keep it light.

When I was coming up there was none of that info and seemingly there’s still a dearth of it.

For example, I’ve gotten good at looking at an image, just any image, and I can tell you if it’s Sony, Canon, Arri, Panasonic, Go pro, just from the image with it’s native lut, most of the time in log even, how the highlights act, what the log feels like, I can “just tell.” I can usually even tell you what lenses are being used within a guess or two, especially if it's anamorphic. Just from looking at the log image.

I can also tell you if the footage is “Challenging” (A very carefully chosen word) or “easy” just from the log image as well. 

I can also do the “colorist speak” pretty well. When a client says “Add some contrast” for example, it doesn’t always mean that at all. This is because the English language has remarkably few words for color. It’s very hard to talk about! (A future article perhaps). 

Anyway, Welcome to the new site, check some stuff out. As you can tell I’m finally putting my writerly degree to work, although this entry is long winded and a little repetitive, but that's ok, this is the first entry and it doesn't really have a theme apart from "WELCOME" and it' been a decade since my last essay for film school so... Enjoy!

Yours Truly, 

Stephen D.