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Making the Grade: Jonny Thorpe



Glassworks London's lead colourist Jonny on a love of post production, inspiration from photography and the keys to successful partnerships

Making the Grade: Jonny Thorpe

Jonny Thorpe is lead colourist in Glassworks’ London office, where he has honed his distinct and nuanced style across commercials, music promos and short films. 

He has graded with advertising’s big hitters, and has a deep immersion in Glassworks’ VFX pipeline with a thorough technical understanding of CG and visual effects, but above all relishes developing relationships with emerging and like-minded directors and DoPs, in the UK and beyond. 

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? 

I knew I wanted to go into post production since the age of about 13, although for the longest time, I imagined that just meant being an editor. It was only when I started as a runner and walked into a telecine suite for the first time that I considered I might want to be a colourist. That consideration lasted about a week before I was certain. Baselight’s mad looking desk with all the balls and lit up buttons were just too alluring. 

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

It’s hard to say if there’s one project alone that changed my career. It feels more as though I’ve been slowly building a portfolio over the past few years and one job has led to another. There are different things to be learned from different projects. As is the case with many other colourists, certain music promos have helped raise my profile. The Slowthai videos I’ve graded for directing duo The Rest are probably the best example of this. I’ve been working with Alex and Lewis for years now, and in many ways, we’ve developed our respective crafts alongside each other. As Slowthai’s profile has grown, it’s nice to think you’ve played a small part in building an artist’s visual identity. 

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

I’ve been lucky to work with and assist some really talented colourists, all of whom have inspired me in some way, or given me words of advice/encouragement when I needed it. As for honing my craft, I just spent thousands of hours practicing. I was assisting on jobs during the day, prepping projects / match grading extra takes / making small grade tweaks when the senior colourist was busy. Being able to look at the way grades were built was useful and gave me a sort of starting point to work from. Then late into the evening I was grading anything I could get my hands on. I’d show anything I graded to people whose opinion I trusted and let them tell me everything that was wrong with it! Not great for self-esteem, and I wouldn’t necessarily agree with what they thought, but it was an exercise in trying to see things I hadn’t before. 

Tell us more about your creative process 

Most of the time, I’m introduced to a project pretty late in its development. It makes sense, as our role as colourists is in the finishing of a piece of work. But I like to know a bit about where an idea has been since its inception. I think it gives me a better understanding of what’s expected of the final film. So in having an initial conversation with the director/DP, I like to have a look at whatever resources they’ve been referencing. The initial treatment and any images they think capture what they want. It’s good to play with some different looks when you’re getting a feel for the footage, but putting the prep in early on can help you avoid floundering. 

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

I do find photography inspires me as a colourist, probably more than watching films does. Maybe it’s something about capturing a feeling or telling a story in a single frame. Other than that, I also try and keep some kind of work/life balance. That basically means getting as much sunlight as possible! When you’re doing a job you love, it can be hard to switch off sometimes. I’ve found giving myself time away from thinking about work gives me a chance to find inspiration in more unlikely places. 

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? 

I love film photography and it’s great to see the format surviving and still offering the kind of images that are unobtainable on digital. When it comes to grading, I don’t really have a preference for either as you can have beautiful images with both, and it’s more important that the chosen format suits the end goals of the director. Although, I will say that sometimes, film can be more forgiving. Even with a top range digital camera, you’re often going to need an experienced DP and maybe even some good lighting work to look great. 

Capturing a vintage look is a bit more involved than slapping on a 4:3 mask and some heavy grain. Different film stock reacts differently to certain colours and levels of light. You need to consider this when trying to create a convincing look. For me, this is where reference images are really useful. 

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?

Commercials are always interesting when it comes to the grade. Colour, of course, plays a massive role in more ways than in a traditional narrative film. You’re helping convey the story within the confines of the film you're working on, but there’s also a sort of ‘brand universe’ that the film sits in, where certain rules apply beyond just product colours. How strict these rules are varies a lot, and in an ideal world, the director and end client are in total agreement about everything by the time we’re in the grade. It’s not uncommon though to be the intermediary in the room and trying to give everyone what they want. Always a fun challenge though! 

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

There are a few things that make for a successful partnership. Communication is an obvious one. I need to know what a director expects from the grade and I need to be able to manage those expectations and communicate what's possible and where we could explore some other ideas. It’s tempting for colourists to want to leave their mark on a film, and ideally you’ll have a chance to do that. But it’s important to remember that you’ve been brought on board to help bring someone’s vision to life and the film doesn’t belong to you. That being said, having trust in your colourist is really important. It’s something that naturally happens the more you work together but allowing the colourist to work without sitting over their shoulder questioning every button press will stop things grinding to a halt. 

What advice would you give to budding colourists? 

Grade as much as you can. It’s the fastest way to get better and, because every colourist works differently, it’s the only way to find how you like to grade. Show your grades to people, especially colourists whose work you like. It’s tempting to hide your work when you’re starting out, but be shameless about it and you’ll get some great advice. 

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

It’s all subjective and even personal taste changes, but generally speaking, a good grade can be anything striking that shows a technical proficiency. I think a great grade can be this too, but it works to serve the story in terms of mood/style. Not every picture needs to be a showreel shot pushed to breaking point, and there’s a lot to be said for showing restraint in the grade, but a great grade can use colour to elevate the feelings the director wants to evoke, making it more than the sum of its parts. Going back to the ‘Colourist-Director partnership’, a great grade is one that’s built from an understanding of what story is being told, or what feeling is being conveyed. 

How is the craft and trade of colour grading changing? 

There are just way more colourists than there were maybe 10 years ago. Probably because the technology needed is so much more accessible these days. There’s also a seemingly never ending amount of visual content being created and consumed. This means there is a lot of bad work out there but also some great work that might not have existed if the only way to start grading was in a Soho telecine suite late at night. That way worked for me and I wouldn’t change anything if I was to go back in time. But it can’t stay that way forever and the democratisation of colour grading is probably a good thing in the long run. 

One thing I think about a lot when it comes to the trade of colour grading, is when a colourist is asked if they have a certain style that they’re known for. Almost every senior colourist I’ve met has been quick to deny they have one. If you’re known to grade a certain way, you’re in danger of pigeonholing yourself. I definitely want the opportunity to work on as many different projects as I can, so it makes sense to me, but with the amount of work out there and the number of colourists growing, I wonder if having a signature style that helps you stand out in the crowd might be more useful than it has been in the past.

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Glassworks, Tue, 30 Mar 2021 10:45:47 GMT