Jason R Moffat, a Colourist who has worked on over 140 short and feature films, talks to us about his role creating the final vision of a film, and his thoughts on Film versus Digital.
I originally come from a photography background and it was during the late 1990’s I was exposed to Motion Picture Film grading, in this period my primary work was stills restoration and retouching for commercial and fine arts projects. In 1999 I was approached to be part of a design and animation studio in Soho, and it was during this time I became more connected with film work. It was I suppose the ‘dawn’ of Digital Intermediate Grading for feature films, when film stock was still the primary format for filmmaking (Film Neg > Scan > Digital Grade > Film Print), and Photochemical Colour Timing was still quite common, so it was an interesting time to be exposed to the technology. It wasn’t until a little while later around 2009, when I setup my own suite, and have been working as an independent that way ever since.
Going into Colour Grading full-time was fairly spontaneous, I had been working with photographic material in one form or another since my teens, so being exposed to the technology was exciting to me. Around this time 'O'Brother Where Art Thou' was released, and promoted in the post world as being the first fully 'digitally timed' feature film, I went to see it, and it was beautiful, this helped galvanise me to concentrate on film. I think it was simpler to make this leap back then, as relatively few companies, never mind individuals, were offering colour grading, it was fortunate timing.
The role of a colourist has evolved quite dramatically during the digital-film revolution of the last decade. Digital filmmaking, and not forgetting Digital Cinema, has made a significant impact on workflow and aesthetic. Initially digital-capture was hailed as the new film, and in those early days it clearly wasn’t, I spent a lot of time working towards a film aesthetic, stretching digital material into a film-sized box and sometimes reducing the ‘abruptness’ of digital presentation vs a film print. Digital has come a long way, and most professional filmmakers realise that film and digital are just different and the choice between the two is based on a variety of criteria not limited to: taste, budget or practicality, and either will do the job.
I know it is controversial talking about Film Vs Digital, but for me, Digital and Film are just so very different, I am personally a bigger fan of film, however I don’t see one as being better than the other at telling a story. Having so much material to work with over the years, with properly exposed material I find that digital doesn’t achieve the density I like, or what I like to call the ’solidity’ of film, and film of course cannot compete with the immediacy of digital. I think generally speaking on-set film is a more focused, disciplined medium. I have been working with more film this year than I have over the past few years, so film is definitely not ‘dead’, well not in my studio anyway.
On a base level, my role hasn't changed since I started, however I do find myself discussing the impact of the technical options more: which camera or recording format (Red vs Alexa vs Sony F55 etc) may work better for a particular look. The relationship with DPs is as strong as before, but the discussions have shifted a little to accommodate the new technologies. In the industry as a whole, there seems to be a relentless desire for bigger, better or faster, it seems fleeting and not really connected with the craft. Ultimately grading, just like directing, editing or the role of a DP, is a skill which takes years to master properly, and is constantly evolving depending on the material and the creative people you are exposed to. Tech will come and go, the importance of skills will remain. There's an art to it, and each colourist has their own way of achieving harmony on the big screen.
Approaching a film grade varies depending on the genre or the period the filmmakers are going for, how it is lit and how much influence the production design has had on the final look. Before I start working with the footage, choosing film-stock profiles and that sort of thing, a discussion is usually had with the director and DP. Once we are all clear on the general direction, I will perform tests on a varied selection scenes, which helps me become more familiar with the combination of the format, lighting and the lenses, and how they react to profiles and setup grades. It’s through this process I get a better sense of what we can technically achieve, whilst ensuring flexibility and the continuity a film needs to be visually coherent.
Most projects are rewarding in some way, but on the whole I find shorts and art pieces the most immersive, they are generally more focused on the vision than catering to a wider undefined audience. The cost-to-time ratio is dramatically improved with short films compared to indie-feature work, and I feel the energy level during production and post maintains a certain level which is difficult to maintain on features. As you’d imagine, when you get to bigger budget films, there is less difference in the visual potential of shorts vs long-form. There are additionally some editorial choices made in feature films which tend to be more dependent on the audience, whereas shorts seem to me more consistent to the initial vision. All of this influences how I react to a particular piece, as I’m sure it does for most people in the process.
There are still plenty of directors out there who make features which are subtly paced and still appeal to a wide audience, not because there’s any reason for these films not to be appealing, but because the 'blockbuster' model seems to be more pervasive these days. So I’m thankful for filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Coen Brothers, Cristian Mungiu, Andrea Arnold and the like, who make films which seem to defy what distributors may deem, I imagine, as risky films.
I learned very early on that the process of grading is a collaboration, you have to gain the trust of the people you work with, they rely on you to realise their vision and not to fuck it up for them on the final stretch. They are also coming to you after what has probably been a long, stressful stretch, so I always try to be as flexible and accommodating as possible. Once you realise this, these directors, DPs and producers come to rely on you, some become friends and long-term collaborators.
What I like most about my work is that I work for myself, with new people almost every week, from every part of the globe, making, hopefully, beautiful films. What’s not to like? The intensity of the work is something you need to get used to of course, as you’re not sitting at your desk by yourself waiting for 5.30 to come, you are generally working a 100% focused day, with people around you in the room all focusing on what you are doing, but that is rewarding in itself if you love what you do.
I can’t claim to be an expert on filmmaking, but from my perspective and the exposure to conversations in the sanctum of the grading suite, I’d say: Keep it simple and build a team you like, trust and can work with, do as much as you can on-set, it always shows in the final piece, and DO NOT fix it in post if you’re making your masterpiece.
It may seem obvious reading it here, but it is people you collaborate with, and not a big post-house which will help make a beautiful film, do not obsess about using a particular facility because they did this or that film, or have the grading system you’ve been told by some guy down the pub in Soho ’is the only one to use’. Make sure you get the colourist you want to work with, otherwise walk away, I have literally had people close to tears on the phone asking me to step in on grades where they are being treated poorly or dismissed as too low-budget to care about. I’m not alone in finding it offensive when films are finished badly at the very end after 1000’s of hours and 100s of people have worked hard crafting a film together. Do the research, find out what you are getting for your money and whether it's enough to finish the film properly, or again, walk away.
For budding colourists, the only way to improve your skills is to grade as much varied material as you can, and always remember it is a collaboration, forget looking on the internet at tutorials for the latest tricks on achieving 'great skin tones’ that ‘Hollywood look’ etc. Once you have the basic grounding, you can look up something specific if you really need to, you will get better and individual in your style by collaborating with filmmakers. Spend time looking at films shot both on film and digital, look at films as a print vs digital projection and become familiar with the differences so you are able to give an informed opinion, or observation about the two approaches, in this way you will develop your own instinct and feel which will keep people coming back to you.
To find out more about Jason's work or for project enquiries visit his website.