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Color Grading Insight From Pro Colorist Alexis Van Hurkman

Tristan Kneschke

We interviewed professional colorist Alexis Van Hurkman and asked him to share how an aspiring colorist can tap into the competitive world of color grading.

The niche world of color grading is filled with highly specialized artists that have made it their craft to perfect the subtle art of manipulating moving images, matching shots, and crafting grades that realize their creator’s vision. I recently chatted with Alexis Van Hurkman, one of the more visible personalities in the field.

Hurkman has literally written the book on DaVinci Resolve, the instruction manual for the popular grading software that clocks in at a staggering one thousand pages, not to mention also having written The Color Correction Handbook and The Color Correction Lookbook.

Color Grading: Color Correction Lookbook
A still from the cover of Alexis Van Hurkman’s Color Correction Lookbook

“The Handbook is the vegetables,” Hurkman says, “while the Lookbook is the dessert.” The Lookbook is the smaller of the two volumes, but Hurkman says it’s the more fun of the two, focusing on interesting grades more so than the Handbook, which teaches a budding colorist the practice of color grading through an application-agnostic methodology. “The Handbook is about fixing the images, and the Lookbook is about screwing them back up.”

Hurkman also wrote an Encyclopedia of Color Correction which pertained to the now-defunct Final Cut Pro 7, but he’d written about color for Final Cut since software version 3 way back around 2001.

In addition to writing technical documentation, Hurkman has also created half-a-dozen Ripple Training series for Resolve. And then of course there’s the regular darkened-room grind of the professional colorist.

Best-Case Scenario

Color Grading: Zombie Movie Still
Video still via Alexis Van Hurkman

Obviously, Hurkman’s got many pots on the kettle, but we first discussed his writing career, his entrance point into the world of color.

When I write documentation like for Resolve, I consider myself to be the first end user for new features that have just been engineered or that are in the middle of being re-engineered. To make the writing resonate with an editor or colorist, it’s really helpful for me to know what users will want to use the new tools for. I try to present real-world examples on how to use the controls.

Hurkman found color correction in much the same way I did: while he was working as an editor, clients would ask him to make a few color tweaks to their footage.

Once you learn a little bit about color correction, you can’t unsee the problems. I’d make a few changes here and there. Gradually, clients came to me for that particular service.

For a while, Hurkman still didn’t consider himself a colorist, but clients liked the image fixes. Over time, Hurkman realized that he enjoyed color grading. This was 2005, a time when clients not commanding considerable commercial budgets were considered an underserved market for color.

As he started getting busier, Hurkman migrated to Final Touch, which later became the Color program in Final Cut Studio when it was acquired by Apple. He received a coincidental call around that time to write a user manual for the program, since he had written documentation for the color sections of Final Cut Pro in the past. It was a perfect fit and a great learning experience for the types of skills he was rapidly acquiring.

It was nice to be an actively working colorist in a busy market while also being involved with the technology. I was able to bounce back and forth. That’s always suited me. I like being involved in development, but also being a practitioner of the arts. If all I did was client work, I’d probably get bored. I was looking to maintain a balance of technology and creative work. That’s my best-case scenario.

When Apple pulled the plug on Color, many colorists were left without a supported software program. Good thing Blackmagic Design timed their release of Resolve as Color was on its way out. A colleague of Hurkman’s suggested he reach out to Blackmagic when he was working on the first version of his book on color correction. On the call, Hurkman suggested working on the Resolve user manual. Blackmagic was into the idea. Since Resolve 9, Hurkman has helmed writing the entire manual.

At Blackmagic, Hurkman wasn’t interested in just being a writer.

I made it clear that I wanted to participate in the design process. Over the years, as they got to know where I was coming from, and I piled on more feature requests, they were interested in me being part of the team.

Hurkman now provides product consultation to Resolve’s development team.

Approaches to Color

Color Grading: Van Hurkman Color Grading
Video still via Alexis Van Hurkman

Hurkman’s philosophy is about being as project-specific as possible.

There are many different ways you can organize the grading of a project, even based on the different methods for grade management alone. For me it really depends on what kind of project it is. I’ll organize a thirty-second commercial much differently than I organize a feature-length documentary. How I organize the grades will affect how I approach the individual grades.

First and foremost, the client comes first.

I consider the first morning with a new client to be the most important part of any grade. That’s when my job is to reverse-engineer their aesthetic, try to figure out what they were going for, what they like, what they don’t like. I need to figure out what the client is all about. At the end of the day, if a client wants to do a certain thing, then I have to realize that as best I can. If I’m on the ball and doing my job well, by the second or third hour, I should start creating grades for new scenes that the client responds to positively right off the bat.

I’ve had this exact experience in session, where my sensibilities have “tuned” to the client’s particular look over the session duration. The same goes for memory colors and skin tones: while the realm of acceptability are tiny percentages from each other, there is nonetheless a preference for where on the vectorscope clients prefer their skin tones to live.

You have to communicate well with the client. You have no choice. Otherwise you don’t have a career.

After all, these are the people cutting your checks.

For people who are new to client service work, it can be difficult to hear the client, but you absolutely have to be flexible. If they want you to make the change that’s terrible, in your opinion, you still only have one choice: make a change.

True. The mark of an amateur is considering the first pass of something to be the final.

The diplomatic part of working with a client is to steer the change toward the one of ‘least harm.’ When a client has a change, it means something you have isn’t working. Their particular fix may or may not be the answer, and you may be able to suggest something that’s better, but what’s inarguable is that what you have now isn’t working. People without experience get the two confused.

It’s also important to analyze what the client is actually saying to you, keeping in mind that color can be difficult for some to articulate. When certain clients say something should be brighter, they may actually want you to saturate it instead of increasing the luminance. If a client says something is “too warm,” there are a myriad of actions you can perform to cool the image off. Is there too much warmth in the highlights or the midtones? Or is it just in the subject’s face? Maybe they’re reacting to some color contamination in the shadows. If a client requests a “cross processed” look, what are they really asking for? Do they really want a vintage film look, or do they want something that resembles a contemporary Instagram filter?

That’s where your creativity comes in and where you can be a hero. But you have to hear that ‘there is a problem here’ before you can do anything. If you don’t like what the client is suggesting, you better have a useful suggestion immediately.

The State of the Industry

Color Grading: Army Commercial Still
Video still via Alexis Van Hurkman

I brought up the topic of generalists versus specialists. Is having hooks into multiple job opportunities part of being a modern post professional, or a freelancer in general?

I think it’s inarguable that below a certain budget, clients are looking for post professionals who wear multiple hats. They’re looking for one professional who can do multiple things for one price. That’s the reality for that market, but that creates opportunities for, say, editors who want to embrace finishing and color.

For people who want to stay focused, that model may not work as well. Sharpening (and specializing in) a certain skill helps assure that you’ll get really good at it. And, as the adage goes: if you don’t use the skill, you’ll lose it.

When you work with a client, one of the things they’re paying for is speed. They’re paying for you to not waste their time. That’s where specialization comes in, and I’d love to see more of a return to that. It shouldn’t just be reserved for high-end projects.

Yet, Hurkman understands both sides of the equation. The tools are more capable than they’ve ever been, and accessible in most universities. With education and software availability, it’s gotten easier to jump into the game, and as a consequence there are a lot more players, and rates have slipped as a result.

The middle of the market has been partially consumed by generalists. It was absolutely inevitable, once the technology reached a certain threshold.

I wondered if the low-end, where the generalist might live, was in danger of bottoming out, or if that had already happened. After all, colorists can be replaced by flashy “look” filters, but of course nothing can replace the sheer skill (not to mention charm) of working with a flesh-and-blood colorist in session. Hurkman believed the generalists were already here.

Three years ago, we were in a transition where color was being added to the generalist’s toolkit. Today, that’s already happened.

Hurkman used the example of audio professionals he knew who had gradually been slid further and further downmarket, to the point where projects they were mixing were being taken by editors who mixed in Avid Symphony. This was also the time when ProTools was becoming more accessible (i.e. affordable) and served to dry up the midrange of their work.

Those working in the industry for even half a decade can witness these transitions from other disciplines as well as their own, but Hurkman offered hope.

There will always be a demand for premium post-production artists: editors, audio mixers, effects people, colorists. As long as there’s material that commands a budget, people working at that level will want to work with specialists, and with a structure and workflow that allows work to be done very efficiently. If you have one person doing edit, sound, and color, you are scheduling that person ‘in serial…’

Which is a very colorist thing to say. In other words, that person would only be able to do one thing at one time. On jobs with larger budgets, it’s of course not uncommon for several processes to be occurring at once.

The Future of the Industry

Color Grading: Color Correction Example
Video still via Alexis Van Hurkman

That’s the state of the industry today. But where’s it heading?

That’s part of the greater conversation about careers in media. Right now, colorists are in the same boat as editors, sound mixers, filmmakers, and screenwriters, and the boat is a certain size that will only accommodate so many people to make a dedicated living. There aren’t unlimited jobs.

Continuing a career takes a lot of hard work, networking, and may require moving to an area that’s underserved or that supplies more work.

I can’t honestly say where it’s all going. It’s interesting, because at no time in human history has the creation of media been more accessible, the distribution more ubiquitous. But at the same time, how do you get paid? It’s sort of ironic. It’s never been easier to make and distribute media, but it’s getting harder than ever to actually profit.

It’s also logical, though. It’s precisely because these tools are ubiquitous, and pretty much anyone can make something and upload it, that there is just more noise and less signal. There’s a lot more sifting to get to the really good stuff. Nonetheless, Hurkman had positive words of wisdom for those just starting down the color grading path.

One good strategy is to try and figure out what you’re better at than anyone else you know, and what kind of work you’re really into more than anything else. Find your strengths and use those to market yourself and find a place in the industry. Find clients that benefit most from your combination of skills. If you find out what your superpower is, then you have an advantage in that you can have a goal for yourself. You can find the work that needs you. Finding a niche is incredibly helpful.

The other thing I’ll say is for employers. Film majors have a unique skill set that not every college graduate has. If you’re required to make films, you learn about budgeting, management, leadership, how to organize and schedule a project, and the importance of preparation. Those are all powerful management and leadership skills, in any industry.

It’s a really exciting time to be in the business right now, with the relentless spread of technology pervading so many aspects of our lives.

Video is finding a place in more areas, from in the workplace as a communication tool to just posting videos for your friends. These video tools are accessible to any people who want to communicate effectively, not just for dedicated video professionals. Knowing your way around a simple editor and knowing how to make a few color adjustments is going to serve anybody well.

Watch Alexis Van Hurkman’s award-winning short, The Place Where You Live, below.