What Is A Colorist In Film? Understanding What A Film Colorist Does

Color graded still from Impak's Eaze Music video

Even though it seems like everything we watch today is digital, digital filmmaking itself is still a relatively new practice. The adoption of digital intermediate (digitizing footage to manipulate colors and other characteristics) didn’t gain popularity until around 2005, at which point 50% of Hollywood films utilized digital intermediate to manipulate the image before final viewing. In the years that followed the digital cinema camera became a more viable option in Hollywood as well, opening the door for a new role in the industry: digital colorists.

The idea of manipulating the colors in an image to improve the look was nothing new. This process dates back to the practice of ‘color timing’ where a timer had to manage how much time a piece film spent in the developer. This later evolved into the practice of adjusting printer dials to change the amount of red, green, and blue light an image had shined through it.

What Is A Film Colorist?

Let’s start off with a definition first. What is a colorist? A colorist is a person who works to sculpt the colors in an image to create an aesthetically pleasing image that adds to the story or message. This includes both color correction, as well as more nuanced look development.

As a professional colorist, my only goal is to craft a more aesthetically pleasing image with the footage in a way that adds to the message of the project without damaging the footage. There are a number of tools that I can use when coloring a project such as adjusting the hue and saturation of certain colors or adjusting the brightness and luminance of an image by manipulating certain controls and tone curves.

Outside of just color and exposure, colorists will work with an image’s texture. The most straightforward application of this is adding grain to an image, but the idea of adding texture of an image can go much deeper. Creating contrast or adding grain in certain areas of an image can add texture to the image and is something any color grading workflow should keep in mind.

What Does A Colorist Do In A Film Production?

While some may see color grading as finishing touches in post-production, a colorist can be a valuable asset to have on hand from pre-production onward. The look of your project begins as soon as you begin storyboarding and thinking about cinematography, set design, and wardrobe.

From day 1 a colorist can begin working with the director, cinematographer, and any other members of the production team to determine how to best develop the look to best serve the film and its message. By allowing a colorist to work with the team in pre-production the whole crew will have a better idea of how the final product will look when on set. This allows everyone involved to refine the look and feel of the project during the shoot, instead of being stuck trying to make changes in post-production that may not best suit the footage.

Designing Show Luts and Helping with Pre-Production

The most concrete way a film colorist can lend a hand on set is by building a show LUT. A show LUT is a Look-Up Table (lut) that is built specifically to be used on set by the crew. This allows the cinematographer, DOP, and other crew members to see what the final shot is supposed to look like and they can adjust accordingly.

This means exposing the shot can be done with the final tonality and contrast in mind. If there is a piece of wardrobe that doesn’t look good with the look, the crew on set can make the decision to change it out. For everyone on set, a Show LUT can help shape the way shots are captured to better lend to the project’s message.


In some productions, a film colorist – typically called a “dailies colorist” – will produce “dailies” for the cinematographer and director. This will allow the production to see the grade and adjust it on a daily basis. This can be key to creating a look that works alongside the way the footage was shot. In some cases, directors and cinematographers may want to make specific tweaks during the production – such as changing an accent color – without overhauling the whole look or waiting until post-production to make the change. A dailies colorist can help make these adjustments with relative ease while also keeping things consistent across the film.

Color Grading And Building a Look For Your Film

The foundational element to color grading in any project is look development. Shaping your color to develop a specific palette, tone curve, texture, and overall feel across your footage is what colorists refer to as ‘look development.’

In order to develop the look for your film, a colorist will begin by developing your look on either test footage designed for look development, or sample footage from the film. This can include crafting certain colorist, shaping the highlights and shadows to create a desired contrast ratio, and other tools to create depth and interest in an image.

Adjusting Your Footage Shot to Shot

After developing a look for a project, a colorist will then go shot-to-shot to ensure the whole piece is balanced, and that the look is behaving properly across all the clips and match looks across different cameras. For example, if exposure was changed slightly between two clips, a colorist will be able to correct for that. If something feels off, or if there is a specific issue with one particular clip, a colorist may need to adjust the look on that footage in order to help the film ‘look right.’ Ensuring scenes flow seamlessly and don’t distract the viewer is something that helps add to the polish and professionalism of your piece.

Working With A Visual Effects Team

If a production has heavy computer generated graphics and a visual effects (vfx) team working on it, having your colorist assist in the VFX workflow can help marry your CG with your footage. By having your visual effects team render their CG elements in an ACEScg space, a colorist can work to grade the CG elements alongside footage in the same color space.

Mastering Your Footage for Various Deliverables

Lastly, having a colorist master your footage for numerous viewing types can be key to ensuring your piece is seen consistently across various device types. Mastering footage for a movie theatre, a HDR tv, or YouTube all require slightly different transforms to map your colors to the proper display.

A proper color management pipeline can be the key element of a workflow that allows a film colorist to simply and efficiently master footage for various viewing methods. This can allow for updating an existing pipeline to transform your footage to a different deliverable while still maintaining all the work done to craft your look.

What Are The Benefits of Working With A Colorist?

As with many things on a film crew it helps to have a specialist manage one area of the production pipeline. Any good colorist will have a deep understanding of how to manipulate your image to craft the look you want. Outside of look creation, the specific attention to look across the entire piece can help curate consistency from shot to shot as well. A good colorist can be invaluable to any production team, and can be that extra piece that will elevate your project and further enhance the work done on set.

Why Not Color Grade Myself?

Of course it’s not an issue to grade your project yourself or to work with your editor to get the grade you’re looking for. There are plenty of resources out there and if it’s something you want to do I can definitely recommend going down a color grading rabbit hole. But on the other hand, leaving editing to your editor and bringing a specialist on board to manage color is something that can save everyone the trouble if that’s not an area your crew already specializes in. It depends on a number of factors from budget to current skillsets, but depending on your project it may be the right fit.

Looking For A Colorist?

If you’ve ended up making it to the end of this piece and are thinking you’d like to work with a colorist, you’re conveniently in the right spot. Feel free to get in touch by filling out the for below, or explore my work to see if you think I’d be a good fit for your project.

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About The Author: RK Color

RK Color is a Film & Video color grading company, dedicated to producing unique and creative looks across a variety of footage.

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