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Making the Grade: Keeping Things Grounded with Jack Caswell
Post Production
New York, USA
Forager colourist on how Resolve changed the game, genuine curiosity and why the 'perfect image is a boring image

Jack Caswell is a Los Angeles based colourist.  

LBB> 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?

Jack> I started experimenting in film school in North Carolina. I was studying there as a DP, and no one was really doing full grades on anything other than Final Cut 7 or Premiere, and even that was very limited. When the free version of Resolve showed up, that changed the game for me. My friend and roommate Tyler Harmon-Townsend, who’s now a badass gaffer in New York, was the first to dig into the software and figure things out, and I learned a few tricks from him. The rest felt so intuitive to me. It was like having a second chance to shape everything the way I wanted it. That’s what my relationship was with colour for a while, grading short films and music videos I had shot, and I continued on like that when I moved out to LA. Eventually, some of my clients and creative partners I worked with as a DP would also give me things to grade that someone else had shot. And those relationships branched and grew over time as I honed my skills. It all happened very naturally for me, and I’m so grateful to those early creative relationships, many of which continue to be valuable partnerships in my creative career to this day. 


LBB> Tell us more about your creative process 

Jack> My creative process varies greatly depending on the client, and also if I’m working in person or remotely. In person is almost always preferred, from a creative point of view. Before a session, and after watching through the piece, the very next thing I look at is the director’s and DP’s prior work to get a sense of their tastes and vision. Then I look at whatever creative brief the client has provided to get a full picture of the direction that this thing needs to go in. Ideally I’ve had actual conversations with the creative minds behind the piece. When I actually start the grade, I’ll usually begin on a frame that I feel best represents the piece as a whole, usually something with skin tone and lots of background information, and I work outward from that. I do my primary grade. I isolate skin tone, highlights, shadows, specific colours, etc. Since I’ve already digested vision and intent from previous conversations and briefs, it’s usually a pretty intuitive process from there, as I interpret the references I’ve been given and put my own colour flavours and tastes into the mix. The most important guiding force is the emotional value of the sequence itself and how I can add to that. I try to listen to music that gets me into the mood of the piece. Sometimes I take a short walk outside just to remind myself what the real world actually looks like, to keep things feeling grounded. If I’m working in person, it’s a pretty seamless conversation, and changes happen fluidly. If I’m working remotely, once I feel good about that initial shot, I bring that over look to other tentpole frames and environments throughout the piece and see how it flows together. 


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

Jack> The best way to approach these relationships is from a place of openness and genuine curiosity. Those early conversations are absolutely essential. I love really getting to know people outside of their work, as well. I find that it opens up creative conversations. I never fight a director’s vision. My job is to add dimension and definition to that vision, and that starts with having open conversations where I can fully digest their ideas and bring them into my own aesthetic (and mine into theirs) for the duration of the project. Are there times where I need to push back against a note? Absolutely! And I do so with patience, questions, and by coming at it from the perspective of someone who understands what the Director is ultimately trying to accomplish. After all, I’ve been hired for a reason, and my perspective is valuable. But I’m always ready to get outside my comfort zone and embrace new ideas. 

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

Jack> There are plenty of technical practices that influence a good or great grade, but that’s like a whole series of workshops worth of information, so I won’t get into that here. I’ll speak instead from a more creative and intuitive perspective. Good colourists can make a frame look pretty. The waveform will look full and you can see all of the tonal and colour information that it’s possible to see within the image. There will be gorgeous falloff on faces and backgrounds, and skin tones will be in that juicy 60-80% range. But a pretty image is all it will be. A great colourist, on the other hand, is there to add something to the story and feeling of a piece, within the vision of the director. They might decide against pulling down that harsh hot spot on the wall from that lamp because it adds something real and visceral to the scene. They’ll acknowledge actors’ natural skin tones and tints, as opposed to making everyone look the same. They’ll let certain areas of the frame go fall off in a way that enhances the feeling of a sequence. And above all, they’ll see a frame in the context of a larger piece that has ebbs and flows and mood shifts and vision and intent behind it. A ‘perfect’ image is a boring image. 

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

Jack> The things that inspire me change all the time. But I’m very heavily inspired by the great street photographers of the 20th century. Weegee, Henri Cartier Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark, Vivian Maier, Eggleston, to name a few. Their work is the reason films look the way they do today. These artists didn’t just capture reality. They could create a story in a moment, within a single frame. And the end result didn’t simply reflect the perspective of the naked eye. The specific framing, lens, and film stock added extra dimension to the moment by hiding certain details, focusing the eye, and creating a world on film that doesn’t look exactly like reality, but rather an enhanced, emotionally charged reality that can shift and change as history reveals new meaning and depth. There’s also something exciting about the randomness of the way they ‘found’ these moments and embraced environments and situations, which is an attitude I try my best to bring into my work. 

Work from Forager
Eyes Closed
Free N Joy