Who’s in Control, the DP or the Colorist?

Is the Director of Photography still the sole “Auteur of the Image?”

I would say not. At best, in the digital age, the DP shares this creative role with the Colorist.

I believe color correction is more and more becoming an integral part of the creation of the image. And I don’t see DPs trying to reclaim this powerful control of their images.

bruce logan color correction grading example before and after post

With the advent of high quality digital imaging in many RAW formats the only thing a DP can “bake in” to the image is the composition, the lighting, and the camera movement. Not to denigrate these important aspects, but the DP has many more arrows in his quiver, which are increasingly being taken over by the Colorist.

The Origins of Color Correction

Back when DPs shot on film (a few still do) their work was graded in the lab by a Color Timer on a Hazeltine. This is an analogue printer, which senses notches in the edge of the film and instantly drops a new pack of filters into the light source, correcting and balancing the image from scene to scene.

bruce logan color correction hazeltine brochure screenshot from 1969

This pack of filters was varying intensities of the colors yellow, cyan, and magenta and also the density of the light source.

This gave the Timer very limited control of the image, and NO control of contrast. This meant that the DP had to create the “look” of the image with lighting, exposure, choice of film stock, and possibly by flashing the negative.

If the DP wanted to create a vignette or to knock down the intensity of a sky, or diffuse a woman’s close up he had to do it in camera with filters in front of, or behind the lens.

In short the DP had to create the entire image. The Color Timer had an important role in balancing the end result, but it could not really be called creative control.

Color Correction in the 1970s and 80s

Cut to 1977.
The Rank Cintel Flying Spot Scanner Mk.3 was used to transfer film to video tape.

Around that time I was becoming heavily involved in shooting television commercials, which made me an early adopter of this revolutionary new technology.

In the early eighties, Encore, a high-end postproduction house in Hollywood came out with a proprietary Telecine system, which had Secondary Color Control. This is the ability to isolate each color individually and manipulate it without affecting the remaining image.

Playing around with this powerful new tool, I used it heavily in this Karen White music video.

Color Correction in the 21st Century

Cut to the third millennium.
In 2000, the Coen brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou was the first film to use the toolset we had been using in the commercial and music video business for many years. But this time, the end result was a film negative instead of a video tape.

bruce logan coen brothers color correction

This was the birth of the Digital Intermediate – or DI. Although almost every movie was still shot on film, this began the slippery slope of the DP relying on the post-process to control the image.

It became very easy for the DP not to take the time on set to use a flag on a hot white door-jam, or to set a grad filter on a hot sky, because he knew he could knock it down when he got to the DI suite.

With the advent of the Sony CineAlta HDW-F900 (first used on a feature film by George Lucas on Star Wars: Episode III), capturing feature film images digitally slowly became the norm.

And with it, digital color correction tools have burgeoned. Powerful masking, rotoscoping and tracking tools are now incorporated into ubiquitous color correction software.

What used to be a multi-million dollar professional color correction suite has now become free desktop software.

DPs, Take Back Control!

So, back to my rant about DPs giving up control of their images to the Colorist.

I was certainly never going to do this. But, I am never one to shy away from embracing new technology. I knew the best way to stay in control of my images (beyond taking care on set and honing my DP skills) was to master the Colorists software myself.

I have a good background in digital imaging and VFX. I have been in color suites sitting beside the Colorists telling them what I wanted for many years. And I have been cutting my own reels on my desktop for some time and have done a lot of minor grading in Final Cut Pro.

So, when DaVinci was bought by Blackmagic Design and came out with a full color correction suite for under $1000, I was all in. Next came a really steep learning curve in producing and manipulating images for the big screen DCP.

bruce logan asc color grading suite

I have graded every feature film and almost everything else I have shot since. I can be so competitive with my desktop suite! With the fact that the director/producer gets the DPs eye and original intent, it becomes a no brainer to have me do the work.

Next blog I will go into detail about my “steep learning curve.” And how I go about grading a feature film.

Let me know if there is a topic you would like me to cover.

Keep Shooting!

Join the conversation

4 Responses to “Who’s in Control, the DP or the Colorist?”

  1. Mutoscope on March 15th, 2016 8:20 pm

    Hi Bruce

    Nice concise article. Although I wonder if simply ‘doing it yourself’ is a good solution to regaining control over your images. I think there needs to be more of a dialog between how the DP can work with a colourist and vice versa. Having someone else eyes on an image is always a bonus.
    That being said I feel a few colourists will always defer to the Director in these circumstances. Which is the way it should be done. But who generally knows the most about an image? The DOP and the Colourist, so primarily it should be a collaboration between these two to achieve the Directors vision.

  2. Colorist_NYC on March 23rd, 2016 12:10 pm

    A agree with Mutoscope. Plus, I agree that the DP needs to be more involved in the image. I have to admit that as a professional colorist now with over 9 years of experience there’s a lot of film/projects where I ended up being more responsible for the final look than the DP. It seems a lot of DPs are done once the final day of shooting wraps. Not all, but most honestly. Also, with the democratization of cinema (not that its a bad thing) anyone can buy a camera and be the DP on a film. Guess who ends up fixing their errors, shaping, matching, and creating a look in the end? My favorite projects are those where the DP is involved, shot it beautifully and at the very least sends me a look book or calls to talk about the image. Sadly in most cases I never see or talk to them and me and the director make a lot of creative choices without them.

  3. Bruce Logan on March 28th, 2016 2:11 pm

    Yes, Colorist-NY, I hear that so often. “If I can just buy that RED, I’ll be a DP!” LOL

  4. JustAnotherColourist on December 24th, 2018 10:25 am

    Hi Bruce.

    I have a lot of respect for you, as both a DP and a Colourist. I’m going to disagree with you on this one. The advent of digital tools has created a new collaborative position in filmmaking. Having spent time on both sides of this discussion, I personally feel that it’s the DP’s job to get the best into the camera, then the Colourist’s job to get the best OUT of the camera. Obviously, we all work in concert and collaboration with the Director’s wishes and vision.

    This is not a popular opinion around Orange Dr., but by following your logic, the Sound Recordist should be the “author of the audio”, and should take over the Sound Editor and Re-recording mixer’s jobs.

    In the Academy, there are separate awards for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Best Production Design gives awards to both the Designer and the Set Decorator. VFX awards go to as many as 4 on the team. Cinematography stands alone in their insistence that they are “solely responsible for the image”. It’s time to acknowledge the skill and art of a new collaborator in what is a highly collaborative overall endeavor.

    The DP’s art and vision will always be welcome in the DI suite. Just as the Editor can expand the Director’s vision, DP’s should acknowledge that the Colourist has the ability to expand and put the finishing touches on their work.

    Happy Holidays, Bruce.

About the Author

Bruce Logan, ASC was born in London. His love of imagery started when he was hired by Stanley Kubrick to work under Douglas Trumbull on 2001: A Space Odyssey. He came to California in 1968 and worked as a DP on over a dozen films, including: Tron, Star Trek, Airplane, Firefox, High Road to China, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Big Bad Mama, and Jackson County Jail. He did visual photography for most of these films as well. He has shot commercial films for most of the major companies: Pepsi, GE, Visa, Chevrolet, Pontiac, DuPont, Contac, Sprint, Amtrak, Suzuki, Sunlight, and Armstrong. And—he has applied his talents to making music videos for such high profile performers as Prince, Madonna, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Glenn Frey, The Go-Gos, Karyn White, Tevin Campbell, Hank Williams, Jr., and Michael Cooper. See Bruce's full bio here.


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