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Colorist Chat: I Am Not Okay With This’ Toby Tomkins

Colorist Toby Tomkins, co-founder of London color grading and finishing boutique Cheat, collaborated once again with The End of the F***ing World director Jonathan Entwistle on another Charles Forsman novel, I Am Not Okay With This. The now-streaming Netflix show is produced by Entwistle alongside Stranger Things EPs Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen, as well as Josh Barry. The director also once again called DP Justin Brown.

Toby Tomkins

Adapted from Forsman’s graphic novel of the same name, the series follows a teenage girl named Sydney as she navigates school, crushes, her sexuality and sudden on-set superpowers. You know, the typical teenage experience.

Here, Tomkins talks about collaborating with the director and DP as well as his workflow.

How early did you get involved on I Am Not Okay With This?
Jon Entwistle had reached out to DP Justin Brown about his interest in adapting this graphic novel after working on The End of the F***ing World. When the series then got commissioned and Justin was on board, he and Jon convinced production company 21 Laps that they could do the grade in London with Cheat. There were some discussions about grading in LA, but we managed to convince them that it could be a quick and easy process back here, and that’s how I got involved.

I was on board quite early on in the production, getting involved with camera tests and reviewing all the material with Justin. We worked together to evaluate the material, and after Justin chose the camera and lenses, we built a color pipeline that informed how the material was shot and how the show would be captured and pass through the color pipeline. From then, we started building off the work we did on The End of the F***ing World. (Check out our coverage of The End of the F***ing World, which includes an interview with Tomkins.)

What kind of look did Jon and Justin want, and how did they express that look to you? Film or show references? Pictures?
There were quite a few visual references, which I already knew from previously working with Jon and Justin. They both gravitate toward a timeless American cinema look — something photochemical but also natural. I knew it would be similar to The End of the F***ing World, but we were obviously using different locations and a slightly different light, so there was a little bit of playing around at the beginning.

We’re all fans of American cinema, especially the look of old film stock. We wanted the look of the show to feel a little bit rough around the edges — like when things used to be shot on film and you had limited control on how to make any changes. Films weren’t corrected to a perfect level and we wanted to keep those imperfections for this show, making it feel authentic and not overly polished. Although it was produced by the same people that did Stranger Things, we wanted to stray away from that style slightly, making it feel a bit different.

We were really aiming for a timeless American look, with a vintage aesthetic that played into a world that was slightly out of place and not really part of reality. During the grade, Justin liked to put a line through it, keeping it all very much in the same space, with perhaps a little pop on the reds and key “American” colors.

Personally, I wanted to evoke the style of some teen film from the late 20th century — slightly-independent looking and minimally processed. Films like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That certainly influenced me.

You have all worked together in the past. How did that help on this show? Was there a kind of shorthand?
We learned a lot doing The End of the F***ing World together and Justin and I definitely developed a shorthand. It’s like having a head start because we are all on the same page from the get-go. Especially as I was grading remotely with Justin and Jon just trusted us to know exactly what he wanted.

Tomkins works on Resolve

At the end of the first day, we shared our work with Jon in LA and he’d watch and add his notes. There were only three notes of feedback from him, which is always nice! They were notes on richness in some scenes and a question on matching between two shots. As we’d already tested the cameras and had conversations about it before, we were always on the same page with feedback and I never disagreed with a single note. And Jon only had to watch the work through once, which meant he was always looking at it with clean, fresh eyes.

What was the show shot on, and what did you use for color grading?
It was shot ARRI Alexa, and I used DaVinci Resolve Studio.

Any particular challenges on this one for you?
It was actually quite smooth for me! Because Justin and I have worked together for so long, and because we did the initial testing around cameras and LUTs, we were very prepared. Justin had a couple of challenges due to unpredictable weather in Pittsburgh, but he likes to do as much as possible in-camera. So once it got to me, we were already aligned and prepared.

How did you find your way to being a colorist?
I started off in the art department on big studio features but wanted to learn more about filmmaking in general, so I went to film school in Bournemouth, back when it was called the Arts University College Bournemouth. I quickly realized my passion was post and gleamed what I could from an exceptional VFX tutor there called Jon Turner. I started specializing in editing and then VFX.

I loved the wizardry and limitless availability of VFX but missed the more direct relationship with storytelling, so when I found out about color grading — which seemed like the perfect balance of both — I fell in love. Once I started grading, I didn’t stop. I even bribed the cleaners to get access to the university grading suite at night.

My first paid gig was for N-Dubz, and after I graduated and they became famous, they kept me on. And that gave me the opportunity to work on bigger music videos with other artists. I set up a suite at home (way before anyone else was really doing this) and convinced clients to come 30 minutes out of London to my parents’ house in a little village called Kings Langley.

I then got asked to set up a color department for a sound studio called Tate Post, where I completed lots of commercials, a few feature films — notably Ill Manors — and some shorts. These included one for Jon called Human Beings, which is where our relationship began! After that, I went it alone again and eventually set up Cheat. The rest is history.

What, in addition to the color, do you provide on projects? Small VFX, etc.?
For I Am Not Okay With This, we did some minor work, online and delivery in house at Cheat. I just do color, however. I think it’s best to leave each department to do its own work and trust the knowledge and experience of experts in the field. We worked with LA-based VFX company Crafty Apes for the show; they were really fantastic.

Where do you get inspiration? Photographs, museums?
Mostly from films — both old and new — and definitely photography and the work of other colorists.

Finally, any advice you’d give your younger self about working as a colorist?
Keep at it! Experience is everything.