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Q&A with Alexis Van Hurkman

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Peachpit interviews writer, director, visual effects artist, and colorist Alexis Van Hurkman about his new book, Color Correction Handbook: Professional Techniques for Video and Cinema, the skills you need to become a successful colorist, why color is so important in video and cinema, and developments and resources in the world of color correction.
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Peachpit: How is The Color Correction Handbook different from other books on the market? What makes The Color Correction Handbook stand out from the crowd?

Alexis Van Hurkman: I believe my book goes farther then most in tying together the last fifty years of imaging research on how the human vision system works, with information about color theory, painting and design theory and practice, video engineering, and practical everyday grading techniques used throughout the industry. Color correction is such a multi-disciplinary activity, I'm often astonished at how many different professions contribute useful information that affects how I work, and I've tried to connect the dots among many disparate fields to address how certain adjustments work, why they're effective, what the practical limitations are, and how they can be varied to make each technique your own.

It's also the first book on color correction that directly addresses the tools and methods that are available using high-end grading workstations, enabling folks to get a peek into how professional colorists do what they do. Despite this, the focus of every chapter is on the techniques themselves and how widely all of these workstation's toolsets overlap. It's the methods, not the technology, that my book focuses on.

Peachpit: Who needs to read the book?

Alexis: Anyone who's interested in professional grading. Whether you're an aspiring colorist or a professional who's looking to add some new skills to your arsenal, I've tried very hard to create a book that will be useful to colorists at all levels. I've been hearing great feedback from beginners who really appreciate the foundational information tying how we see to why we make the kinds of adjustments we make, to industry veterans who are interested in the research on memory color and audience color preference that I include. A colleague of mine even mentioned that one of his clients, a producer, read my book in order to be better prepared for the grading session; apparently the session went really well.

Peachpit: Is this a software-specific book?

Alexis: Not at all, it's completely platform-agnostic.

Peachpit: What software is covered in the book?

Alexis: Grading applications that are directly referenced with both screenshots and examples include DaVinci Resolve, Filmlight Baselight, Autodesk Lustre, Assimilate Scratch, Iridas Speedgrade, and Apple Color. Additionally, you'll find information on how color correction techniques work within NLE's such as Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer, and Adobe Premiere.

Peachpit: What is on the DVD that accompanies the book?

Alexis: The DVD contains two bonus articles, as well as more than 150 QuickTime clips from actual movies that appear throughout the book. While the Handbook isn't written to be a step by step tutorial, the media lets you work through many of the exercises that are presented and experiment with the techniques on your own.

Peachpit: What skills do you need to be a successful colorist?

Alexis: Where to start! As I mentioned earlier, in my opinion grading is a tremendously interdisciplinary activity. Anyone who's serious about working as a dedicated colorist needs to combine a keen eye for detail, an overall understanding of video engineering and video signal analysis, an artistic design sense, knowledge of contemporary looks and visual trends, client management skills, a feel for narrative, and of course a sound understanding of one's software and hardware tools.

Peachpit: Is there a difference between color correction and color grading?

Alexis: Technically, not really. However, colorists working for film have always tended to refer to what they do as "grading," while colorists working in video finishing have tended to refer to the job as "color correction." For a variety of reasons, I've personally adopted the notion that "color correction" refers to the process of making corrective adjustments to a series of clips in order to fix problems and take care of utilitarian issues such as matching all of the shots in a scene. "Grading," on the other hand, is a word I like to use to refer to the process of taking an image and manipulating it much more extensively for creative effect. It's a bit of a snobbish distinction, but valuable nonetheless to distinguish the solidly quantifiable aspects of what we do from the more ineffable, artistic side of the job.

Peachpit: Why is Color so important for video and cinema?

Alexis: I was chatting with a colleague recently and we were discussing a common phenomenon: clients who often begin a session by saying "I actually like the way the program looks now; we only need to do some really small things," and then, after seeing what's possible, changing their tune and wanting the entire program polished to a more extensive degree. In the offline edit, it's easy to get used to the ungraded media you've been working with and to assume that's all the look you really need, but I find that even the simplest adjustments often make a big difference, adding a level of polish that distinguishes the truly professional productions.

Peachpit: What do colorists do?

Alexis: Technically, colorists make both general and targeted adjustments to the color and contrast of each shot in a movie. Creatively, colorists extend the vision of the images crafted by the cinematographer, art department, and director, building upon what was accomplished during the shoot to improve the look of each shot, balance the shots within each scene, add creative flair where necessary, all the while making sure that the video signal stays within the appropriate numerical boundaries for proper exhibition and broadcast.

Peachpit: In your opinion, is Color correction more of an art or a science?

Alexis: Ideally, it's both. Pragmatically, it's the art that really gets people's attention, but then again I'd say that an understanding of the science underlying vision, perception, and optics only improves one's art.

Peachpit: What are some of the most exciting developments in the world of color correction?

Alexis: Personally, I'm most excited about the expanding toolset of modern digital grading workstations, wherein digital compositing techniques are slowly filtering in to expand the corrective and creative possibilities of what we do. Furthermore, the falling cost of professional grading software and the necessary accompanying hardware means that more independent productions have access to a level of polish that was once available only to the highest of budgets.

Peachpit: What inspires you in your work?

Alexis: My clients. I work on a diverse variety of programs, from documentaries to indie narratives to spots and cable programming, and every time I'm handed a project of vision and ambition, it makes me want to put as much into the visuals as I can. I'm also endlessly inspired by visual artists in every field. Interestingly, I've always been fascinated by sculpture, and the attempt to create a similar feeling of depth within the two-dimensional medium of film is a terrific challenge.

Peachpit: What are some of your favorite examples of movies that use color to great effect?

Alexis: To be honest, the only movies with grading I find truly memorable are those where I didn't actually like the visual treatment. For me, a grade succeeds best when it so perfectly meshes with the visuals, narrative, performances, and direction that I'm carried away by the whole of the experience. For a typical narrative, I think that effective color correction augments the experience, rather then dominating it. That said, the obvious exception to this would be visually forward media such as commercial spots and music videos, but I digress…

Peachpit: What do you recommend to aspiring colorists and students for developing a career in this field?

Alexis: Do the work. You can read all you want, and buy all the software and equipment you like, but at the end of the day you need to get your hands on as many different types of programs as you can and grade them. Quality and speed both come with experience, and lots of it. When I started, I was lucky enough to be segueing from working as an editor and compositor, and once I started adding simple color correction to the services I performed, clients increasingly came to me not for editing, but for color correction. After a while I discovered that, while I had no notion that I would ever one day call myself a colorist, that was most of what I was doing in post-production, and I liked it! So I started taking pro bono projects for a little while, to gain experience and work on a greater diversity of programs, until I felt comfortable enough with the positive feedback I was getting that I began going after paid work. I think the story is the same in every postproduction discipline; to get better at something you just need to do it. A lot.

Peachpit: Are there important resources you recommend (favorite books, blogs, newsletters, conferences, etc.)?

Alexis: Well, first off I'd absolutely recommend Steve Hullfish's book, The Art and Technique of Digital Color Correction. He comes at the field from a very different angle than I do, and does many terrific interviews with veteran colorists in many different regions. I think that our books dovetail nicely. I would also recommend the movie Visions of Light, a documentary about cinematography that is incredibly insightful. As far as blogs go, I find much valuable information from Roger Deakins' forum (www.deakinsonline.com) as well as http://www.cinematography.com. The work we do as colorists rests upon the work initially done by the cinematographer. I truly believe that the better cinematographers and colorists understand one another, the more harmonious the process will be.

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