Recently we had the opportunity to talk at length with Colorist Juan Cabrera, ASC Associate Member.
Juan provided some incredibly valuable insights on his journey and on the art of being a colorist for major motion pictures and television. Juan also shed some light on how everyone at all levels of the production workflow can benefit from learning that the journey from beginning to the end really begins in pre production. Very enlightening to say the least. Check it out!
PH: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and some of your journey to becoming a colorist? What does it mean to you to be recognized as the first Spanish colorist to become an ASC Associate member?
Juan Cabrera: Of course! I was born in Madrid, Spain, and since I was a kid I always wanted to draw and create stuff, but I wasn’t good at drawing at all! Around age 10, I started messing with computers (The first one was a Sinclair Spectrum 128KB), and I realized I could create things with them. I started programming, then got into graphics, and later into animation. That was the first aim of my career, but there weren’t that many opportunities in Spain, so I started leaning towards Visual Effects and ended up working as a VFX artist and VFX Supervisor for almost ten years… Then, almost by accident, I got offered to do the color grading of a short film. I had never done color grading before, but I felt confident because I had been dealing with color and integration all my professional life… so I took the chance! (I had to read the software’s manual hours before sitting on the chair) and I loved it!! There was something about working with the picture as a whole that was incredibly rewarding, plus being able to really make a difference, instead of being one of a team of tens or hundreds, really did it for me. It felt natural, I felt comfortable, and it was the right moment too since digital color grading was just starting.
At one point, I decided to take another chance and come to work in the US when the whole 3D revolution was happening, and it too proved to be the right timing. I was fortunate to be involved with many great projects, but in my mind, I’ve always been that kid who was unable to draw and hammered his way in with computers… So when the ASC invited me in as an associate member, I felt so incredibly honored. When I checked the names of other associates and realized there were very few colorists, and none from Spain, I was blown away. I feel so honored.
PH: You have worked on some high-profile film and television projects. For the uninitiated, how are the workflows different? In your experience are there any similarities?
Juan Cabrera: Against what people might think, working on big movies is WAY more comfortable than working on smaller ones! Think about this: In a $200MM film, they usually have no shortage of lights, sets look amazing, the cameras and lenses are probably the best that can be, and you typically have a colossal 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, MANY color versions and reviews.
The smaller projects might have some severe illumination challenges. They might have been forced to shoot on different days with very different light conditions, might not have been able to get the same lenses or cameras, did not have access to top-notch VFX to fix most problems… So, at the end of the day, you have to spend more time, get more creative, and have the “helping hat” on all the time. And, of course, budgets are tight, so it just makes it all more difficult… But it can be gratifying 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.
PH: Did your experience as a VFX Supervisor and Animator help prepare you for your role as a colorist?
Juan Cabrera: Absolutely! When you are doing VFX, you spend a lot of time working on integrating the digital parts onto the image. The only way to do that correctly, besides endless trial and error, is to really understand how image acquisition and color profiles work. Once you feel comfortable with the color science side, it is much easier to get things to look similar faster. Additionally, both animation and VFX, allowed me to see the images as something malleable and easy to manipulate. It helped me be comfortable with using heavy masking when needed, better tracking, doing split-screens, re-building time-ramps, and ever combining multiple layers or effects to be able to get a specific result.
PH: You have won two Lumiere Awards and your work has been nominated for Best Color 2020 HPA. What do those awards mean to you professionally and personally?
Juan Cabrera: Professionally, I don’t know yet! Hahahaha. People like to see the Lumieres at the office. They are golden and shiny and feel like an Oscar, but 3D productions really slowed down after that… The HPA nomination was amazing, but then we got hit by a pandemic, so it is difficult to say. To me, the most significant symbolism of those awards is to show that a boutique color studio can produce content at the same level of quality as a big facility and even make the process more enjoyable. Personally, they were two of the proudest moments of my whole career.
PH: Do you think you like working better by yourself or are people always hanging out and trying to make “suggestions’?
Juan Cabrera: Well, I need those people to tell me what they want! As much as I love to offer creative suggestions and design a great style, I am very aware that I am part of a larger process. I have to provide a service for the cinematographer, the director, and the producers. I always felt working with the cinematographer is an incredibly rewarding process. The cinematographer is the person who has spent the most time talking about look and style with the director, so being able to work together speeds up the process significantly. In fact, in Europe it is commonplace to work with the cinematographer by your side the whole time. I had never heard about “supervised vs. unsupervised” until I started working in the U.S.
PH: You have a great quote that you believe post starts in pre. What do you mean by that?
Juan Cabrera: Plenty of the issues that we see when we are in the room could have been fixed in 5 seconds on set. Sometimes it is a light that should not have been there, sometimes it is some rushed make-up or wrong filters. Most people don’t realize that “we’ll fix it later” doesn’t work as they think it would, and it usually takes way more time and a higher cost… But it also means that you should start having technical conversations about post and discussing formats and workflows as early as possible, often even before the shoot starts! For example, a cinematographer I work with often was forced by production to use a Blackmagic URSA to shoot a feature. He had always been an Alexa guy, and he was really concerned about the camera. He had never used it and felt like it was going to limit his craft severely… I suggested we should take the camera to do some intense testing, so we spent 3 days shooting all kinds of different scenarios: daylight, night, interior, exterior, under-exposed, over-exposed, colored lights, different color temperatures, different compression ratios… And we took all of that into the color suite to break it and find the camera’s sweet spot, and we did! That camera had horrible highlights and worked better slightly under-exposed, and in ProRes444XQ. That way, he was able to adjust his lighting accordingly and shoot with confidence. If we hadn’t done that and found at the end a bunch of cut-off highlights and compression issues, the movie’s global quality would have suffered severely… So please always test, test, and test again! Talk with your Post Crew. All departments. Get everyone on the same page and comfortable as early as possible.
PH: In your professional opinion, what kinds of things can people do to make your job as the colorist (and their experience) a positive one?
Juan Cabrera: First and foremost, bring us into the project as early as possible, and let us have conversations with the editorial, camera, and production departments to define the workflow properly.
Don’t force us into some workflow “you used in some other project” because it might not be ideal for the current one. Let’s analyze and value options.
Let color handle all exports, masters, VFX plates, etc… That’s the only way you can be confident everything will be accurate and correct. Be open to being surprised by your colorist. Same as with sound mixing/design, color is a combination of art and technique. We can follow orders, but we can also add artistic value, and maybe we offer something you didn’t think about that could take the project to the next level.
Bring all the references you might have for the look that you want. These could be videos, photos, drawings, clothing… whatever! The trickiest part in a color room is communication. “Make it warmer” or “more contrast” means different things for different people, believe it or not. It is essential to develop that common language as early as possible.
Please involve the cinematographer in the color grading process!!! I think it’s a big problem with the American way of doing things. Any cinematographer will be grateful and excited to be part of the sessions, and they always add a lot of value to the process.
Realize we can estimate the hours for a job, but some things might take longer. We are not making that up. Color grading software doesn't do magic. Talk to your colorist and make sure you agree on time and money, and realize that if you don’t give (or want to pay) more time, there is only so much your colorist can do.
PH: What are some of the most common misconceptions that people have about working with a colorist?
Juan Cabrera: This is precisely what I mean by “Post-Production starts in Pre-Production”. Sadly, some people expect that we have a magic machine where they can almost re-shoot the project in its entirety!... There are indeed MANY things that can be fixed, improved, and enhanced in Color Grading, but it has its limits. I often say “I can tweak and balance the light, but I can not change its direction!” At the same time, every colorist is different and has a different approach to dealing with the picture… So, please take the time to know your colorist and create a space to just try things before moving into the actual work. You might be pleasantly surprised!
Max Winslow and The house of Secrets Director: Sean Olson
But also, never underestimate the power of a good camera, good lenses, and a good crew… No, you can’t shoot something with an iPhone, without lights, with a couple of friends, and expect it to look like a $200M production shot in ARRI with anamorphic lenses. Image quality matters a lot! And the better the quality, the more possibilities you can have afterward.
As for anecdotes:
- I had to create an artificial shadow on the side of a character’s face through the whole sequence because someone forgot to turn off a light on set for half of the takes.
- I have been asked to color a full feature (badly shot) in only 4 days.
- I have been asked in multiple projects to try to hide some object in the middle of the shot that the director or some producer hated (who obviously didn’t hate it that much when they were on set nor have VFX money to take it out)
- I have been asked to make some actor’s performance “more intense”
- I have been asked to change the actor’s shirt from brown to blue… while the actor was in front of a brown wall.
- And many more I try to forget! :-)
PH: Tell us about LightBender and what was the push to move to LA and open your own place?
Juan Cabrera: Moving to LA was something I wanted to do since I was 15 or 16 years old. Back in the day in Spain, there was no place where I could learn computer graphics or animation, and my family couldn’t afford to send me over here to study. I ended up jumping into the fire and starting my own company when I was 17 years old with three other partners. I guess that got me started into the entrepreneurship approach and showed me there is a lot you can improve and optimize when you are not working for a big company… Sometimes bureaucracy and rigid structures kill both the creativity and the efficiency of the process. At the end, all of those problems are passed on to the client in one way or another. I’ve always tried to avoid that.
I started LightBender almost seven years ago. We are a Color Grading Boutique. I call it a boutique instead of “facility” because I don’t like the factory-like approach some of the bigger places have… We want to be accessible, an open book to our clients, and a place where they feel comfortable and creative. We are in Santa Monica, CA and have five color rooms (SGO Mistika and Resolve) with 512TB of centralized storage, MPAA/Netflix security compliant, Dolby Vision Certified, remote review using Streambox, etc. Most of our work is scripted TV and Feature Films, but we have also done quite a few documentaries, music videos, and commercials. I like getting involved in the process as early as possible and help the team design the best workflow for the project, from cinematography to editorial. Besides Color and deliverables, for some projects, we have also taken care of VFX, graphics, titles, etc.
PH: Are there any current production trends that are making their way to post you want to comment on? Do you want to share your current workflow(s)?
Juan Cabrera: There have been many new technologies evolving lately, like ACES, HDR, Cloud work, remote review (especially in the times of COVID!), and we are happy to use them all… but only if the project requires it. I don’t believe in “one workflow to rule them all”. I think any workflow has to be adapted and tweaked to best serve the project. A couple of examples: ACES has many advantages in the technical and color management side, but it also has a tendency to deliver images that might feel a bit more “electronic” or vibrant than other techniques, so we try to use it with caution and only on projects where the workflow would benefit from it. On the HDR side, I prefer to create the standard Rec709 master FIRST and then build the HDR master and metadata afterward. From a pure HDR workflow point of view, this is not the way you should do it, but I’ve noticed that if the HDR pass is done first, the Rec709 version sometimes suffer, and the truth is that right now, the Rec709 is the master 98% of people is going to be watching.
So more than a workflow, these are my work guidelines:
- Talk as early as possible with everybody involved.
- Run as many tests as needed to make sure everything is solid.
- Start checking footage as early as possible (even before editorial is locked)
- Make the Assistant Editor your best friend in the world so the turnover work is spotless (and remember friendships should work both ways! If you can do anything to help alleviate the burden of their work, do it!)
- Talk deeply with the Post Supervisor about deliverables and determine if the project requires any specific technical workflow.
- Talk with the Cinematographer about the look and feel of it. About the challenges they had on set. About what references they had to start with, about his intentions… Remember you are on the same team and, sometimes, you might have to help him the same way he would help you.
- Talk with the director about their vision, hopes, and fears.
- If possible, start the color work BEFORE editorial is picture lock to avoid rushing at the end.
- Try to keep reviews on point but relaxed… Manage expectations if you are in a rush, or if you need everybody to focus. Make sure everybody understands the workflow and why things are being done in the way they are being done.
- Be honest. Don’t hide technical issues under the rug. Find creative solutions as early as possible.
- Review often and in playback. Sometimes you obsess with two shots, but the playback is the essential part. Does it flow? Does it work overall?
- When working with a shot reference, always use the same reference. If you keep changing the reference you might be little by little inching away from the original color without noticing.
- Work at the highest quality or resolution and then scale-down for deliverables. If dealing with multiple resolutions or aspect ratios, find the common one and design your workflow around it.
- Test your outputs early so you can fix any unforeseen issue when there is still time, and not at 3 am on a Friday.
- Never grade SDR right after grading HDR. Your eyes would be entirely out of whack. If you have to do SDR and HDR on the same day, do SDR in the morning.
- Work like the job is the most important thing… Because once your work is out in the world, all people will see is if it looks good or not. Nobody will think if there was a limited budget, not enough lights, or whatever… If you see a technical issue, FIX IT! Don’t leave it in hopes nobody will see it.
PH: Anything I left out? I think you pretty much covered it all!
Juan Cabrera: Well, first of all thank you for having me! It’s been a long journey to get to this point and I hope this is just the beginning of many more adventures to come. I’ve met some amazing people in my career, and I owe to every single one of them where I am today. But if I was to thank only one person, I would love to thank my wife for being by my side all these years, for making all the sacrifices, for moving to a different country with me when she was already happy in Spain, for giving me an amazing daughter and a home to come to after all the battles of the day are fought, and making everything worth it.