Coffee & TV’s head of colour on her childhood behind the iron curtain, abortive career as an artist and the complex politics of the grading suite
The global top tier of colour graders is a tough club to break into - the greats are working every day, applying their slightly mystical craft to the best films from all over the world. But Simona Cristea is one of the few graders to break into this top flight in recent years.
Now head of colour at London post house Coffee & TV, she began her career in Bucharest, casting aside a potential career as a painter to become a much more technical kind of artist, colour grading commercials. With the advance of technology the tools she uses have changed drastically since then, but her artistic eye has continued to serve her well.
LBB’s Alex Reeves sat down with Simona in her cosy, candle-scented grading suite to learn more about how she approaches her craft.
LBB> You grew up in Bucharest in Romania. How do you look back on your childhood there?
Simona> I grew up there on my granny’s farm. It’s very interesting because until I was 11 years old it was a highly closed country - a communist dictatorship. Not as bad as North Korea, but getting there! The ‘80s were really bad. I remember queues for the butcher to get food.
I was a child. I was happy. My mum and dad were great. But I do remember that oppressive environment where you couldn’t speak to your neighbour about politics because you don’t know who they are. It was really hard for my parents and their generation.
But all of that was over in 1989 and in the ‘90s the beautiful capitalism came. It wasn’t just the fact that we had Coca-Cola; it was the fact that we had freedom. It was a big moment when the Iron Curtain dropped and we could finally see the world.
LBB> You were 11 when that happened. So old enough to understand what it meant.
Simona> Yeah. It was bizarre. I remember my parents and all the other parents listening every night to this radio station called Free Europe, telling the country what was really going on. It was illegal to do that and highly dangerous. You could go to prison if they caught you.
I remember all that mystery. And I love the fact that I have that. I always tell my friends here that the ‘80s here were very different. In Romania we weren’t brainwashed, but they tried to brainwash us. There was all this fake news on the telly about our ‘great dictator’ and how amazing we were, fighting against the tyranny of the West and all that bollocks.
LBB> But you never bought it?
Simona> No. Never. I’m sure a few like the elites were loyal. But the people like my parents never bought it. We knew it was all rubbish. So that’s me in the ‘80s!
LBB> What were your big passions growing up?
Simona> I loved painting and drawing. I went to art school from the age of 12. Photography, watching movies, reading lots of books. I was a bit of a nerd. I always did my homework. I was top of the class. Until I was 16 when, you know, boys happened.
I loved geography. I used to know all the capitals. I still love stamps. My collection is pretty random. For me it’s almost a way of escaping. You see all these stamps from countries that don’t exist anymore. I guess if you want to go back to my communist roots in Romania, we always wanted to travel. So seeing stamps from all those countries was amazing.
LBB> You were an artist first, before getting into grading. Can you tell me about that?
Simona> Yeah, I started as an artist. I still have a lot of brushes and paints and canvases at home waiting for me to have the right moment to use them. I don’t have time now. But I switched from painting on a canvas to being a colourist and for me that’s a great deal!
LBB> It’s just a different kind of canvas?
Simona> Exactly. This job is so creative and amazing and I’m very lucky to be doing it. But I haven’t painted in a while. I used to have exhibitions when I was a student and a little after that.
My life was set up for me to be an artist, which my dad was very worried about. He wanted me to be a lawyer or something like all parents do. After I established myself as a colourist a little bit in Romania he told me that they were worried I was going to be a starving artist.
LBB> How did you make that transition from being an artist to a colourist? It’s not the most obvious career path…
Simona> At uni a friend of mine told me that a company in Bucharest were opening up a grading department. I didn’t know anything about it. But they were looking to train people from the art university, which is very clever, I think. You can be an engineer, but you need to have the eye for it first. And I became very technical throughout my career. The things that I did, changing cables and all that stuff. When I used to work on film you had these big telecine machines - very scary and powerful.
LBB> So you got a job there. How did you learn your craft?
Simona> This place had an English colourist - one of the old school guys. He trained me and two other girls. We were 15 people to begin with and the whole process lasted about a year-and-a-half for them selecting, then just the three of us were left. We spent a lot of time with this guy but because he was very expensive, my boss in Bucharest said we needed to do the work instead. So I was thrown into the deep end aged 21, which was terrifying.
It worked for them. It was a production house as well as a post house and the boss was an executive producer so would just force everyone to work with me. They also did film but I was the commercial colourist. I had to learn quickly but I was lucky.
LBB> As a colourist, your suite is your own personal domain. Does it feel like a hosting situation when you have people in for a grading session?
Simona> It absolutely is. One of the skills of being a good colourist is to know how to work the room. When you have the agency, director and client in the room, all talking at the same time, you need people skills to understand what to pay attention to and where you can compromise and still produce a really good result at the end. It’s interesting. I love all that.
You see all the personalities. Obviously you need to be really good at your job and have a good eye, but you have to entertain your clients. They come in and say it’s nice and relaxing. I like to make sure people are in a good place so we can have a good day. We do tend to have the best room in the house as colourists. We spend a whole day with clients. It needs to be a good environment or we’ll kill each other.
LBB> What colourists do you particularly look up to?
Simona> When I moved to London in 2005 and even before that I used to look at The Mill and MPC’s websites. I still look up to the same people - Tareq Kubaisi, Seamus O’Kane and Steffan Perry - these big, amazing colourists. Whenever I cut my reel I always compare it to their work and if it sits well next to that then I’m happy. Even now I love Simon Bourne’s work, George K’s - the big heavy hitters.
LBB> Colourists are so cherished by the industry, but I don’t feel like everyone knows the actual nuts and bolts of what you do. It’s almost treated like a-
Simona> Dark art! I think it’s getting more understood now because the software’s changed and it became more accessible. It’s POSSIBLE for people to grade in their bedrooms. I don’t want to sound like a snob, but there are different levels of being a colourist. Like Instagram - anyone can put a filter on and it looks great but there’s a difference between what we do and that. The attention to detail. A lot of the time it’s not so much about creating a look. It’s just making the picture look real, like it’s un-graded. You CAN do it on your laptop at home, but maybe you should save a bit of dosh and do it properly.
Now it’s more accessible though. People can self train. But I think it’s so important to have a mentor. When I was at Prime Focus I had Tareq. Just being in a room with him it was fascinating to see how he works the room, how he grades. I do it with our junior colourists. I like to share all that information. I’m proud when they look at what I do. It’s very important to pass it on. I don’t think you can go on a course that will teach you how to become a good colourist. I think you can learn the technical stuff, but you need to learn it FROM someone.
One thing I want to retain in the colourist world is this special thing about the job. I think it makes a better colourist if you learn that skill really fucking well. For me, grading is very subjective but technically it needs to be right. If it’s technically wrong I’m not having it. Not everything goes in grading. Some people think that it does.
LBB> Is there anything you regret in your career? Or anything you wish you’d known earlier?
Simona> I’m one of the lucky ones. My career went really smoothly. I think maybe I would have liked to have kept a bit more time for myself. But if I did that maybe I wouldn’t be here. I think I’m OK.
Simona> I felt like I’d made it: ‘Now I don’t care, I’m fine.’ That one’s a massive deal because your peers vote. What I love is to have the respect of my peers. I had texts from my friends saying they’re going to vote for me. It’s nice!
I started to build my career steadily for the last 14 years and in 2017 it finally happened. If I wasn’t in that top 10 it wouldn’t matter much. I’ve got my clients and my work coming in, I’m in a brilliant place and I’m happy. But it felt like I’ve made it. And as a colourist you’re not inventing penicillin, you’re just making the pink look nicer than another colourist.
Also, it’s teamwork. It’s not my film. I want clients to be happy and if they’re not happy I want to be there to see their reactions. A lot of the time it comes with experience. They trust me. I say ‘I think that’s great’ and suddenly they’re happy with it. They come to us because we’re like doctors. That’s what it means to be in that top tier. If I was a client I would go to grade with Simon or George or Tareq because I know that I can trust them.
LBB> It must be so hard to decide - you have films coming through your suite every day. But what have you recently done that you particularly enjoyed working on?
Simona> I did this Paloma Faith video. Jamie Travis directed it and the DOP was Daniel Landin, who is amazing. He’s like a god. It was beautifully shot and it was a pleasure to grade it.
In the olden days when I worked on film, the DOP would always be in the grade and it’s so helpful when they are because they know their film, they can advise what can or can’t be done. For me that’s very strong support. I think directors know that but agencies don’t like DOPs in because I think they think they slow it down. I don’t see it like that. They’re a bit of a buffer between the grade and them.
LBB> It’s all very political in the grading suite, right?
Simona> It’s very political. I’ve been in situations when the director and DOP didn’t see the same thing. We’re all people and they just didn’t like each other, I suppose. That’s interesting as well. It does happen. And that’s why you need to know how to run the room.
LBB> I loved the film you graded for iZettle last year in a dystopian world. A bit Blade Runner!
Simona> Yeah. A lot. That was the inspiration. They didn’t want it to be too grey and depressing. They still wanted the colour to shine through.
LBB> But grading doesn’t always need to include colour, as you showed in the Dsquared2 video you did last year with Mert & Marcus. What are your biggest considerations when the film is black and white?
Simona> With anything I always reference film. I go back to things like Taxi Driver. Anything Roger Deakins (god!) worked on. The same with black and white. I look to the noir period. Henry Cartier-Bresson. I give myself some references like that in my head.
There are many types of black and white. I always try to recreate a film feel and texture. With that Dsquared2 job we really went for that noir, really rich black look. I also like it when it’s a bit silver plated. The whole point of black and white is if it looks grey and flat then it’s boring. Black and white is not easy. If you take a picture and turn it black and white it looks terrible. You need to add texture. I love to add grain into it, to make it look like film, like a Polanski. Or go the other way like a Rankin or Vicky Lawton, super sharp, crisp, modern.