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#PostChat: The evolution of the colorist

By Randi Altman

This week’s guest on #PostChat was Alexis Van Hurkman, a director and colorist who has written scripts, maintains a blog  and has many books and manuals to his credit. He also consults with Blackmagic Design on their color grading product DaVinci Resolve, which was the topic of this week’s #PostChat – check out the transcript of the conversation here.

In his role as consultant, Van Hurkman works with Resolve’s design team to help develop a grading tool with the user’s perspective in mind. The latest iteration of Resolve, version 11, is due out this summer and features an even more robust NLE than version 10. Is it important to have editing tools within a grading system? Van Hurkman thinks it depends on who you ask, and the project you are working on.

“For me, having an NLE inside of my grading application has been fantastic,” he says. “I used Resolve back when there were no editing tools, so I can say with authority that it’s hugely useful to be able to replace clips, trim scenes, and take care of whatever prep work or last-minute changes I need to right within Resolve, without having to take a detour through another editing application. And for my personal projects, I really look forward to executing my next edit from scratch entirely inside of Resolve 11, and being able to fluidly move between editing and color.”

Right after Resolve 10 was introduced — the version that featured editing tools for the first time — Van Hurkman heard from other colorists who told him they didn’t see the need. But that changed once they got their hands on the software. “A few months later, those same people were telling me, ‘I’ve been re-editing VFX and replacement stock video like mad, right in Resolve, and I love it.’

So the evolution of the colorist continues. At first there were grading tools with basic VFX functionality, and now there are editing tools included. “The role of the colorist is changing in the same way as the role of the editor has changed,” explains Van Hurkman. “Clients and employers want you to be able to do more. I’m not saying this is ideal for all companies, because there’s a lot to be said for a dedicated colorist who’s totally focused on the art and craft of color, but just as managers don’t get to send their memos to the ‘typing pool’ any more, smaller shops are going to require that colorists know more about editing and basic timeline compositing. This allows them to take care of various issues that arise without having to send for the assistant.”

In addition to being a colorist and consultant, Van Hurkman directs, and he likes it. “I’ve long said that my worst day on the set as a director is better than my best day behind a desk, and being in the midst of a short film currently, I stand by that. Directing is one the most invigorating activities you can do; it’s about invoking creativity in real time while the sky is falling. Then, of course, grading cool projects is always great fun. I think what’s most important for me is having a variety of work, since each career feeds the others.”

Van Hurkman’s last three grading projects include a feature-length documentary, Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Dangerfor director Sam Feder; a pair of promo pieces for director Jonathan Chapman; and a Craftsman lawnmower spot for producer Bill Prouty.

In his spare time (ha!), he’s been working on his own sci-fi short, The Place Where You Live, which is slowly winding its way through compositing. “I’ve got two other short projects (no VFX!) I’m planning for later this year, and there’s always my long-term sci-fi animation project, Starship Detritus, that my partner Ryan Beckwith and I continue to develop. Filmmaking is difficult to do as a part-time activity.”

The consulting and technical writing part of Van Hurkman’s world has given him the opportunity to step back and look at things in a different light. “All too often, you’re so busy doing the things you know how to do and you never have time to step back and evaluate your methods, think about why you do certain things, and explore to see if there are other tools or better methods you might incorporate.”

How did Van Hurkman’s career become so varied in the first place? “One of the reasons I went into post was I wanted to avoid being one of those directors who, after finishing the shoot, has no idea what to do next,” he explains. “I had an aptitude for and interest in learning and working with post software as an editor and compositor in the ’90s, so being in a position to understand the emerging digital workflows that have come to dominate the movie-making process has been a huge win for me as an artist.”

PostChat is a weekly Twitter conversation that happens every Wednesday night at 6pmPST/9pmEST.  Follow #PostChat.

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