What is a Colorist and Why Every Film Needs One

Have you noticed how films look so perfect right now? Even documentary films and short films look like Hollywood movies, already. Yes, the camera may contribute to the improvements but the main reason is that most films are finished and graded by a colorist.

But, what is a Colorist? A colorist is someone who creates looks for films. It sounds simple but there are a lot of things to consider. The look he creates should help tell the story in the scene, should satisfy the visions of the director, and should match the brand palette of the film. He needs to correct imperfections in every shot. He should be able to match all the clips. He also needs to create depth and direct the eyes of the viewers. Sometimes, they also do some simple VFX work like sky replacement, adding light rays, etc.

To make sure that you understand the nature of the job of a colorist, I’ll discuss each of them.

Main Tasks of a Colorist

Creating a look for the film

Have you seen Mad Max: Fury Road? How orange the sand is and how teal the sky is – those were intentionally created by the colorist.

In every film, the director will either have a specific look in mind and it’s the job of the colorist to decode the director’s visions and turn them into reality.

We want to make sure that the director is satisfied while maintaining the correct practices in color grading. For example, no matter how pushed the color is to blue, you’re still going to see the deep blacks are real blacks.

I’ve had an experience where the director wants a strong vignette but I don’t want the scene to look unnatural so I pumped more softness on the mask to make the vignette more subtle while giving what the director wants for that certain scene.

Directing the eyes of the viewers

This job is done by the cinematographer in the production stage and by the colorist in post-production.

These are common techniques you can do to direct the eyes of the viewers in post-production:

  • Create a garbage matte around your subject and darken the parts outside.
  • Sharpen the parts where you want them to look. I usually sharpen the eyes of the subjects to make the viewers look directly at their eyes.
  • Desaturating the unimportant parts
  • Adding contrast to the object you want them to focus on
  • Create a soft vignette
  • Creating a color contrast between the subject and the background. That’s why most films have complementary colors for their palettes.
  • Create more depth

Fixing mistakes in production

There will always be mistakes in the production stage. It may be as small as exposure and white balance or as big as the light source is now in a completely different place.

Shooting an outdoor scene with a limited budget and time can be the cause of the light source being in a different place since the sun is moving. The shadows will be very different and so it’ll be very obvious that the scene was filmed at different times.

That type of mistake will be very challenging for the colorist since the way the face was lit is completely different. It can be fixed by masking the face and adjusting the shadows to match every scene. Sometimes I even need to qualify just the shadows and do subtle changes to seamlessly match these scenes.

It’s important to also match the sky. Most of the time, you’ll need Sky Replacement for the sky since they’re very dynamic. I highly recommend Eric Whipp’s course to master this skill. He’s the colorist of Mad Max: Fury Road and if you notice, the sky in that film is so unique but it was perfectly matched across each scene.

Adjusting Textures

Whenever I watch films, I can’t help but notice how films with awesome grades will make you feel how rough a wall is, how soft the subject’s skin is, how slippery a floor is, etc.

These can be done in post-production. You can make skin smoother a brick feels harder. You can use the blur tool, Mid/Detail, and even just the color wheels. A great combination of hue, saturation, and brightness has a tremendous effect on how an object is perceived.

For further learning on this topic, I recommend Waqas Qazi’s color grading course. He is the master at this. He’s very detail-oriented when it comes to grading and he’s great at teaching.

Why Your Film Needs a Colorist

Recently, I’ve seen a posting on Reddit. “Looking for somebody to teach me color grading because we ran out of budget for a colorist.”

I have been a Filmmaker, myself, who grades my own films. They were mostly short film-style music videos and cinematic pre-wedding videos.

My focus, back then, was on cinematography and directing but I really love to grade my videos better than traditional music videos or prenup films. I took the extra mile and started using DaVinci Resolve.

I was getting better at color grading my films after every film I make. Until I took different courses.

That made me respect color grading more and realized why every filmmaker hires a Colorist for their films.

Color Grading is a Subject of Its Own

Filmmaking is like running a company. Let’s say the CEO of a company is the Director. The main focus of the CEO is to achieve the main goal of the company. That goes with the Director, as well.

In every company, there are different tasks required. The bigger the company is, the more the number of tasks required.

The CEO hires specialists for each field. He hires managers, accountants, programmers, engineers, lawyers, marketing specialists, salesmen, etc.

Sometimes the CEO does one or 2 things. He may be managing and marketing for the company while other people take the other tasks.

Just like the Director sometimes directs and edits his film.

But, you’ll never see a CEO do everything. There are fields that are better left alone for specialists.

While I was learning color grading, I realized that this is something that should be done by a specialist. At that point, I was contemplating whether to keep my filmmaking career and hire a colorist or be that specialist.

I chose to become the colorist since I fell in love with how I can make ordinary shots look like a Hollywood scene through color grading. And, I’d love to work with famous directors and cinematographers all around the world.

Even though I’m doing this for almost 2 years full-time, I’m still learning from every project I take and every film I watch.

That’s one of the reasons why having a quick run-through or just watching a Youtube video won’t make get you from newbie to pro, or even average.

In Color Grading, You Need a Trained Eye

Or eyes.

It takes a lot of experience to notice the things you need to improve in an image. A simple blue overcast on your subject’s brown shirt can make a huge difference in the overall feel of a scene. Without a trained eye, you might miss these small details that could’ve made your film way better and more professional.

Shot matching your clips is one of the challenges you’ll face in color grading and it’ll be very difficult to match shots without training. A Youtube tutorial can make it possible for you to create a look in a short time but to match clips perfectly needs more time to master. Not to mention if they used different cameras, shot outdoors naturally with the sun being very unpredictable, overexposed some shots, missed their white balance, etc.

Recently, I graded a short film that was 90% filmed in the middle of a forest. There were scenes where it should take place at the same time of the day but I’m sure that one part was filmed in the morning and the other part was filmed in the afternoon.

It is inevitable because of how many takes one scene needs. And if you’re an indie film without a huge budget, you want to lessen the days of shoots as much as possible. One day costs a lot. You need to pay your crew, pay for meals, gas, etc.

Now, it’s the job of the colorist to make sure that every scene feels like the film is just flowing naturally at the same time of the day. We don’t want the audience to feel any awkwardness or, worse, let them notice that the shots were filmed at different times.

Color Grading isn’t Just About Colors

A colorist’s jobs are to create a look and maintain them in every scene, drawing the eyes of the audience to where it should be, adding more depth, skin retouching, adding texture, and adding subtle effects that would sell the story more.

Color Correcting or color grading is a term that actually underestimates the nature of the work. There are so many things to consider when color grading that I consider it is the cinematographer in post-production.

Let me take you through the process of creating this look. This is one of the simplest grades but it still takes quite a few steps to get this look.

First, I’ll balance the image. I can either use a color space transform, a conversion to Rec. 709 Lut, or I can manually balance the image. In this case, I chose to manually balance the image.

Balanced Image
Sharpened Image
Adjusted Log Wheels
Created the look
Added effects on the brightest parts
Film Grain

In a simple grade like this, I wasn’t limited to just creating the look. There are other steps involved that have nothing to do with colors. Colorists are also cinematographers in post-production. We are not just coloring these clips.


Now, you have a clearer view of what a colorist does and how important they are in every film. With high-quality cameras now available to everybody and the standard of the viewers getting high, color grading is a growing industry.

It’s best to start learning color grading so you can produce better films or you can work as a Freelance Colorist. The average salary of colorists in the US is $500/day and with the demand growing, you’ll never be wrong with mastering this craft. The best thing is you can do this remotely so you have the whole world as your client base.