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  • Juan I. Cabrera

Five tips and tricks when grading an indie feature film

Many people believe that working on blockbuster projects is much more difficult than on smaller ones, but anyone who has ever been involved in both worlds knows it is really not like that. A $200 million movie usually has no shortage of lights, sets look amazing, the cameras and lenses are probably the best that can be, and you normally have a huge VFX team to fix anything that couldn’t be fixed on set. That makes color grading way simpler. Almost anything you do looks pretty and is more about subtleties, logistics, and many color versions and reviews.

On the other hand, smaller projects might have some serious light challenges, or they might not have been able to get the right lenses or enough cameras. It is also true that since they normally don’t have economic access to top-notch VFX to fix most problems, a colorist has to spend more time, be more creative, and have the “helping hat” on all the time to fix some of the issues on the suite. However, it can be super rewarding to get something that was very challenging and take it to the point where nobody thinks about the budget and can just enjoy the story, the scenery and not get distracted by all the issues you fixed.

Think about this: Once the movie is out in the world, nobody is going to think “oh, that style sucks, and those shots don’t color match probably because they didn’t have the budget, but I’m sure the colorist did his best”. It’s your name and your work out there, so make sure it represents you! If the time or budget really doesn’t allow you to do a good job (I’ve been there too) just don’t put your name on it.

One of the most important resources to have on an Indie movie is time. With time, you can pick it up whenever you are not crazy busy, and really try some cool stuff… That’s the kind of opportunity we had when we worked on the SyFy movie Atomica, directed by Dagen Merrill, and DPd by Timothy Burton in 2017. The movie didn’t have a set deadline and needed a lot of love for it to be what they had dreamed it to be. So after a few meetings with the team, we jumped to the challenge and took care of VFX, Color Grading, and Mastering.

1. Take control

In some cases, you will find yourself working along with seasoned professionals and robust workflows, but sometimes you might happen to be one of the most (if not THE most) experienced people in the post team. You should talk with all the members of the other teams to have a clear picture of what’s going on and where things stand. Remember: It is better to test everything, even if it feels redundant, rather than finding the problem too late in the process. Try to become a hub of information and give technical advice to whoever might need it, but do it humbly and respectfully. Nobody likes a cocky know-it-all regardless of how many big credits you have.

2. Set limits and expectations

Working on an indy project is sometimes a little bit like doing a job for a friend… You want to help your friend out, but you don’t want to be his slave forever, and also you don’t want to end up fighting with him either! In this case, it helps if you have the conversation about the amount and type of work as early as possible. Don’t rely on good intentions and “we’ll figure it out later”. Assign a maximum number of hours (even if you want to go over out of the kindness of your heart) talk about what happens when you go OVER those hours, and what happens when they ask you to do something that was not talked about before. Try not to have any loose ends.

On the payment side, always get paid in stages. I usually do: 25% before you start work, 50% when color grading is approved, and 25% before sending the deliverables. That way you are covered in case anything happens, and if they pull the old “What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?” just blame your accountant because he got tired of dealing with unpaid invoices from the past.

3. Have fun and try something new

It might sound like a cliché, but if you are working on Indie, you should try to have as much fun as you can and make an effort to try new things and push the limits… Yes, I get it. The pay is probably less than ideal (and sometimes is absolute crap). Still, if you have already decided to take the job, you will have a much better experience if you approach it positively. You might get something else out of it besides money: nice images for promotion, a good relationship with producers, better knowledge of new techniques, figuring out an issue that you have come across multiple times… But of course, it will all depend on your relationship with the client and how much time they give you to do your work.

Sometimes it is difficult to try new workflows that need a lot of testing, or technologies that might have bugs on big productions, but usually you have more time when you are doing indy and, if something goes wrong, you can always stir the ship in the other direction. I always try to test something new when I do indy. That’s how I did my first ACES project, my first HDR project, my first animation project, and many other things...

4.- Saving the day

Besides color, do you like playing around with VFXs? Do you use After Effects? Do you like design? This could be an opportunity to let loose another creative side of you. As long as you are OK with spending the time, and learning something new in the process, you can have a good opportunity to design some amazing credits, or doing some artful split-screens to fix that terrible thing that happened on set… The team will be incredibly grateful and you will get to test yet another skill for the field!

5.- Build bridges

A friend of mine told me once:

“Most directors do short films because they can’t do features… But cinematographers do short films for fun!”

In other words, try to make your sessions and working with you an absolute delight, because you never know where your next gig is going to come from! I can trace 85% of all the work I have ever done here to ONE event. From there, people introduced me to people, and those people to other people, but it was that single event that skyrocketed my career. So if they are taking advantage of you, they are not clear on their directions, and everything is 3 times more work than what you talked about; just breathe… Collect your thoughts, and write a very polite and professional email to the producer(s) explaining the costs of the actual work needed. The more “surgeon-like” you approach it, the better. Passion and feelings are sometimes difficult to deal with (trust me, I’m Spaniard. I got two servings!) but still, you never know what bridge you will be burning… So build bridges FOR YOU instead of destroying them.

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