The Colourblind ‘Colourist’

It may come as a surprise to you, given the name of this website, but I am colourblind. Yes, how daft. Why would I choose to go into a profession where colour is so important? I actually don’t have an answer to that, I must be mad. 

So throughout my career I’ve not had too much of a problem with this minor disability, I’ve worked around others who see colours ‘properly’ (don’t get me started on that – I could waffle on for days). In the early days of making videos of high school events and selling them on VHS to my friends I had my parents. Then flatmates, co-workers, random people in the street, and now my wife and kids can help. I’ve had a few disasters along the way when no-one checked my work – one video in particular about 15 years ago – entirely greenscreen with a virtual studio. I thought I’d pulled the best key ever, until the client very calmly asked me why they had red hair (their hair was not meant to be red). 

So over the last year or so I’ve tried to educate myself on colour theory and science so I can at least make sure that the colours are accurate and true. One of the benefits of working in a digital space is that really at the most basic level all the colours are just numbers. Numbers that can be represented by a graph, chart or scope. So I began to really learn how to read my scopes. This is an example of my readout on a shot (using Nobe Omniscope): 

Nobe Omniscope
Colour reference scopes from Nobe

These three main scopes from the top left clockwise are my histogram (shows the balance of colour and luminance from left to right, left is black and right is white), then a little reference image of the shot I’m looking at, then my vectorscope (which shows the colour saturation of the image – the further out the lines travel the more saturated the image, and each of the primary and secondary colours has a target it aims for, plus a rather handy ‘skin tone’ reference line to give an idea of where skin tone should be on the chart), then my RGB Parade, which shows each of the primary colours separately, and within each colour I read left to right the area of the image it’s referring to, then top is the brightest and the bottom is the darkest.

 Between these main scopes I can colour correct an image to a point where I’m scientifically accurate and there are no ‘casts’ of colour creeping in which shouldn’t be there. I can make sure that the exposure and saturation are correct, and that no-one has bright red hair if they’re not meant to. 

My challenge is in being creative with colour, as this is based on taste and instinct rather than maths. I may never be able to do this, as for me it will always be trial and error. Not being able to see the colours that a director or client is referring to means it’s just impossible for me to go beyond my numbers and graphs. 

I’m glad I’ve taken the steps to learn what I have, and I feel confident that I can get 50% of the way to a perfect image on my own now, and the last 50% is why professional colourists exist. I’m never too proud or stubborn to ask for help, so if a project requires a proper grade then I’ll hire an expert. 

The rest of the time there’s my very patient wife and kids!

Pulling Focus

As a freelancer who works from home, I’m sometimes asked by my friends with a ‘proper job’ how I stay focussed and on task with so many distractions around me. The truth is – practice. Well, practice plus the fact that I’ve only worked for myself for over ten years, so it’s also a habit. 

I’m very aware of when I concentrate best. For some people it’s late at night, for others early in the morning. For me, it’s when it’s quiet. The time of day depends on what work I’ve got on. As I’ve got two kids at home from 3pm on a normal weekday I try to either get up and work early in the morning (4am-ish), and get the bulk of my ‘concentration’ work done before they get up. For me that’s things like quotes, creative proposals, accounts, and study. Then, when they’re off to school, the rest of the world is at work, so that’s when I have meetings, phone calls, emails, etc. That’s when I book my shoots as well. 

If I’ve got an edit I need to work on, then my brain shifts a little. I tend to work best on edits in the evening, through to the early morning (depending on whether I’ve got an early start the following morning). So I try to reverse my day – get up to take the kids to school, then do the shoots / meetings / business work, then have a break with them after school, then when they’re in bed I hit the edit suite and don’t look back until I’m done. 

Now, this system wouldn’t work for anyone else, I’m sure, but it works for me. I look forward to the edit session, I’ll have spent the whole day with the story or the concept mulling around in my head, so when I sit down to work it’s a matter of laying down what’s in my brain already. That’s why I find it hard to edit first thing in the morning when I’ve just woken up – my brain needs the time to digest and process the video at hand. 

Conversely this is why first thing in the morning is the best time for me to do the grunt work of my job – it’s almost as though I can trick it into doing work before it’s properly awake. This is also why first thing in the morning is the best time for me to write pitches and concepts – my analytical brain isn’t yet awake, so my dreamlike creative brain takes over and runs the show (I do let the analytical brain step back in and check my work before I send out any proposals though!). 

Every day I try to do some study too. It is usually different week to week as there’s just so much out there to learn! I love to read, so I’ve got (too many) well read books on all kinds of topics. Some of my go-to resources for online learning are MZedLinkedin LearningLowepost, Youtube, and a fantastic editing productivity course called The Editing Chef, run by Piotr Toczynski (Cut to the Point). I always study best just before I go to sleep, so that’s when I do it. Whether reading a book or watching a lesson, it always seems to stick in my brain if I do it just before I sleep. 

There are other ways I keep myself on track too. I use an ‘all in one’ communications app called Shift, which allows me to see at a glance my email accounts, WhatsApp, text messages, Facebook Messenger, calendar, accounts portal, and heaps more. This stops me from opening multiple browsers and running the risk of getting distracted. I use a plugin with this called SaneBox which sorts my emails as they arrive into the categories I have set up, which prevents me from missing important messages if I’ve muted them while I’m focussing on something. Having a dedicated time to respond to emails and messages (rather than pinging them off all day) is apparently really important, but definitely not something I’ve mastered yet. 

Finally, I use an app called Toggl to track my time throughout the day. It helps me understand how much actual time I’ve spent on something (not how much time I feel like I’ve spent). I don’t use this for direct billing of my clients, but I use it to guide my quoting on future jobs. I know to a pretty high degree of accuracy how long certain things take to do properly – because I’ve timed it! It also has a great function where even if you don’t add any information as to what you’re working on, it can still track your time in various programs and tell you which files were open and when. Having this running all the time while I’m ‘at work’ really helps keep me on track – what would someone else think if they looked at my tracked day? Would they think I was being productive? 

Being a freelancer is a real privilege, I mostly get to set my own hours and work when my brain is ‘ready’ for it. I know how lucky I am to be able to work this way, and I’m grateful to all my clients who support me and  the business. Every day I try to be better than yesterday (although that also means that today I’m worse than tomorrow…!). 

What are your favourite productivity methods and tools? I’m always looking for more! Drop me an email and let me know!  

Thanks for reading. 

Element 3D – A Gateway Plugin

I’m a big fan of Adobe After Effects. Watching an expert create art within this software is pure joy (and I’m not meaning myself – I mean watching an actual expert!). Over the years I’ve picked up a bit of knowledge, simple practical stuff that I use every day as an editor (titles, motion graphics, object removal, and so on), and recently I’ve been training to pass my ‘expert’ exam in its use, so suddenly my knowledge has become a lot deeper and well rounded. I’m constantly finding new reasons to bounce a project from Premiere out to After Effects for a bit of polish, and I’m loving my clients’ reactions to the result.

One thing that After Effects has struggled with in the past is 3D. It used something called 2.5D, which basically means moving 2D planes about in 3D space. It’s OK, and it works, but sometimes you just want that third dimension, dammit!

Almost ten years ago a plug-in came along from Video Copilot called Element 3D. This allowed actual 3D extrusions and models to exist within After Effects, a genuine game changer at that point. I still use Element 3D almost every project, whether it’s adding some depth to a title, or even creating a full 3D cityscape flythrough for a dream sequence. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s reliable.

However, after almost ten years, it’s definitely showing its age. Between workarounds and idiosyncrasies, it’s fine for day to day use, but if you want to wander beyond its bounds then you’re stuffed. You can create interesting shapes and movement, but no actual modelling. Lighting your scene is a real pain, reflections are faked and just ‘good enough’, shadows are the same, and rendering liquids – forget about it. 

So I’ve been exploring three new pieces of software to allow me to scratch that itch. The first is a very popular modelling and animation program called Blender. It’s free (open source) and has a huge following. Learning how to use it is a matter of finding one of the many courses and teachers online that you like the style of and working through the lessons.

Through playing with Blender, I got the courage to give Unreal Engine a go. Unreal is also free, and in a lot of ways very similar to Blender. Its main purpose is to create video games, but it’s been hijacked recently into film production, specifically creating virtual sets behind actors in high budget productions such as The Mandalorian. The ability to use a real camera on set to control the virtual background behind the talent is so fascinating and exciting to me. I’m not anywhere near that stage, but understanding the possibilities of the program means should the need arise I know what is possible and the steps to take to get there. 

The third piece of software is actually built into After Effects, and brings me back to the point. Cinema 4D allows for the models and scenes from both Blender and Unreal to be brought back into After Effects and used in traditional effects work for video. Recent uses in my professional work of all these programs are things like 3D map animations with topography, some ‘invisible’ nature effects shots which allow for joining aerial shots with ground shots seamlessly, and some pretty snazzy motion graphics and titles.

I’m only at the beginning of this particular journey, but the more I use these programs the more possibilities I think of. There are so many ways to translate these into better visuals and videos for my clients and for my own projects – it’s going to be such a fun journey and who knows where it’ll take me.