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Making the Grade: Connor Coolbear

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Electric Theatre Collective's Connor his love of visual arts, adapting during a global pandemic and working with Cadbury and The Weeknd

Making the Grade: Connor Coolbear

Connor’s portfolio includes commercial work for Apple Music, Cadbury, and Haig Club, alongside top music videos for Slowthai, The Weeknd and Metronomy.

Connor is the fountain of knowledge at ETC when it comes to colour grading, and possesses an encyclopedic comprehension of cinema and pop culture to draw references from. Alongside his technical prowess he is a skilled colourist collaborating regularly with talented directors such as Duncan Loudon, Alex Lill, Greg Barth and Raja Virdi to name but a few.


What was your first experience with the world of colour grading – and when did you decide that being a colourist was a role that you wanted to pursue?

A recently built colour grading suite was lying idle at my university. There was a natural pull to the dark room with buttons and screens so I started to investigate. Once I found out about the role of a colourist and the powerful immediacy and creative tactile change it can carry I was locked on since!


What was the project that you felt really changed your career?

Probably the video for Tastes Good with The Money by Fat White Family directed by Roisin Murphy. It was the first time I had a dozen plus people in the room. Lots of coming and going, creative suggestions from all angles and celebrating. It was a fairly tricky grade but the intangibles of being a colourist really came to light; wrangling the room, always having an ear out to the back of the suite, navigating the food and drink situation, conversing with clients and playing good tunes whilst creating looks and balancing shots within an allotted time period. It really flipped a mental switch on the importance of pursuing working relationships in a finite amount of time.


How/where did you hone your craft and did you have any particular mentors?

Definitely here at Electric. All the colourists I have worked with here have been very open with their creative and technical processes, with advice and critique always available. Our head of colour, Luke Morrison, has played a fundamental role in my career - facilitating my colour journey as a mentor to me in the truest sense of the word. The time spent learning with these guys, who I now get to call my peers, has been totally priceless.


Tell us more about your creative process

I usually watch through and identify a wide, or a hero shot, that is representative to the creative theme and direction of the spot. From that I will try and catch a vibe or reference point through a chat with the director and/or DP to emulate or challenge. I really like to draw on visual references, from cinema particularly, even if it's just a sprinkling or a feeling to push or pull from.

This is followed by supplying contrast and shape to the frame and seeing how that relation works between different setups. Once that is adjusted accordingly I will go about adding tone and separation to create the ‘look’ of the piece and the consideration of textural elements.

Colour is incredibly collaborative so essentially you act as a conduit and, with guidance by listening to different approaches, you will discover a happy medium that is ultimately best for the spot and the client’s approval.


From experience, we’ve found that colourists often love art and photography - when you’re out of the studio, what inspires you?

I think a love for visual arts is a must for colour graders, it’s pretty intrinsic to the job! I try to draw inspiration with a wide cast net. Films are the biggest catch by a considerable amount as moving image is the business we’re in; helping to understand approach to storytelling, sometimes photographically and sometimes not. Some of the smaller fish in this inspiration net would include chatting twoddle and good craic with mates, which helps with not becoming a stiff. Beautiful knockouts, guitar bodies, art installations, well told jokes, hot coffee and cold beer are all in there somewhere too.


Colour grading is largely a digital affair, but there’s also been a resurgence of film over the past few years in commercials and music videos. What are your thoughts about working on film versus digital formats like 4K? And what are your favourite techniques for capturing a vintage or tactile feel?

Working on film is always a pleasure as it skips the step which is asked for quite a lot of the time! Not only does it showcase skintones and organic texture, it evokes a ‘human’ feeling and embraces its flaws. The best technique to capture a vintage or tactile feel really is to shoot on celluloid. Obviously that doesn’t always happen, budget permitting, so emulating photochemical processes is something all colourists have become adept at. On the flip of that though - crisp, clear, well shot digital footage sometimes fits the bill perfectly and is a joy to grade up.


When working in commercials, what role can colour and a grade play in enhancing a brand’s assets and what sort of conversations do you have with creatives and clients about that?

Sometimes there is a ‘look’ that the brand holds fast to for it’s campaign that goes through its stills photography, logo design and commercials that the grade needs to adopt also. My belief is that if the spot requires it to be stretched a little then it should. Understandably a brand product on an end card for instance should remain consistent. But say for example; if a subject falls into shadow, relighting their face for a few frames inexplicably is not advised. Maybe combatting this request with directional ‘light’ as if it were flagged on the day would be an avenue to explore.

There should be a little leeway when it comes to moving images that have been shot in a real and alive environment, and even those that are being replicated digitally. Subtle nuanced differences with the grade can help steer the spot towards a certain creative notion and help it sing, but the ‘established look’ can maintain a throughline of the brand’s assets.


How do you ensure that each colourist-director partnership is a success?

That is always the goal rather than the reality. Be yourself (to a degree) and do some good grading and you’re on the right track.


What advice would you give to budding colourist?

I was one fairly recently, so my main advice for a traditional route would be to worm your way into somewhere that has talented artists with the goal of finding mentorship. Advice and experience that is passed down is incredibly powerful and if you can act as a sponge during the day and then practice during the night, you will see progress through persistence. Keep developing visual taste, be sound, work really bloody hard and get on with knowing the technical ins and outs now, so you don't have to think about it too hard later.


In your opinion, what’s the difference between a good grade and a great grade?

A good grade has client approval and a great grade ends in fist bumps and beers.


How is the craft and trade of colour grading changing?

I guess the obvious choice would be the remote working our industry has adapted to due to the pandemic. Although we had the capability prior with international clients, they would still be in a grading suite somewhere viewing the same signal from our reference monitors getting oat milk flat whites delivered. Now all jobs are remote and although there are some definite benefits, I really miss the director-colourist relationship that is found in the suite, and clients coming in to finalise their projects. It’s a lot easier to steer the ship when you’re all looking at the same monitor. There are only so many calibrated iPads we can send out for live proper monitoring (provided that the internet signal is decent) but you just never know when a producer on the move is using a phone on Night Mode in the sun to add comments to approval files; ‘This looks a little Indian summer’. Our job is usually done over the course of one day rather than weeks/months so accuracy and immediacy are paramount when you are hosting different clients five days a week.


The Weeknd - Save Your Tears/In Your Eyes AMA Live performance 


Cadbury - Worldwide Hunt


Haig Club - Make Your Own Rules


Metronomy - Whitsand Bay 


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Electric Theatre Collective, Fri, 12 Mar 2021 10:15:32 GMT