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Making the Grade: Matt Branton on the Magic and Romance of Film
Post Production
Dublin, Ireland
Windmill Lane colourist explains how he got into the industry and why knowing when to down-tools is so important

Matt Branton graduated from the University of Salford in 2000 with a degree in Media Technology. He moved straight into broadcast camerawork and editing for a Manchester-based production company, where he spent six years, before making the move to Windmill Lane pictures in 2006.

Since then, Matt has graded a wide variety of projects in the colour grading department, working with many directors and DOPs in feature films, commercials, drama, documentaries and music videos.

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?

Matt> I started off in post production as a tape op, and got to know the industry from that point of view. My background was in editing, so that was initially what I wanted to do, but there was no opportunity to do that at the time, so Telecine, as it was known then, was what I decided to follow. Luckily, it suited me much more than editing ever did!

Initially, I was an assistant, and got to work a lot with film, but my main experience of grading came when the job transitioned to DI. I started off like most other colourists, grading short films and music videos, then moved on to commercials and eventually feature films and drama.

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

Matt> I guess working on The Siege Of Jadotville would have been a big step up at the time. It was one of Netflix’s first feature films, and one of the first few films I’d used the ACES workflow from start to finish, including VFX. The job was pretty complex, and as it was an early Netflix title, the technology and deliverables were changing as the project went on, eventually ending up as a DolbyVision title.

Creatively, it was a challenge also, as we had to figure a way to make it look of it’s time (it was set in early 1960s) whilst also being contemporary. There were also certain locations that needed separating out with definitive looks. There was a lot of back and forth on it, we got there in the end, I’m really proud of it, it was a lot of fun.

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

Matt> I’m very lucky I was able to hone my craft on the job with an incredibly supportive team at Windmill Lane, especially Dave Hughes who has been my head of department and mentor the whole time.

LBB> Tell us more about your creative process - (e.g.when you get a project, how do you go about developing a look?)

Matt> I’ve never really had a go-to process for any of my jobs. I very much feel each project has its own life, and deserves to have it’s own process. I certainly wouldn’t just do the same thing for every job, I’d feel that’s disrespectful.

Most of the time, it’s really just as simple as watching it through and getting a feel for it. I would generally be able to get it very close to what the client wants pretty quickly. Very often I’d use a LUT from a library I’ve created in order to get a particular starting point I feel is suitable, or sometimes I’d feel it’s better to start from scratch. I always make sure I leave plenty of room for creative license and client changes further down the line.

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

Matt> I do enjoy both art and photography, and I’m definitely inspired by them, but I think I may be more inspired by music. It seems strange that a non-visual medium would do this, but creatively it’s all in the same world, and anything that inspires you to be creative is a good thing. Intuitively understanding mood and feel is very important to me.

LBB> 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?

Matt> There is a certain magic and romance about film that can be hard to recreate digitally for sure. I try to avoid making the images look like film as much as possible, but I would encourage the process of making it feel filmic. It’s a fairly loose explanation I know, but I would generally use a combination of curve grading and subtle plugins. It’s very easy to go too far with that process though, it can look really fake and cheap quite easily!

I did a job recently where we did a digital workflow and sent the conformed pictures to be printed to film. We then rescanned the conform back to digital and did the grade post-scan. What we lost in full control over the image was more than made up for by the look that we were able to achieve in the end. I’m a big fan of working with film, but I wouldn’t swap it for the consistency and control we have now with digital pictures.

LBB> 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 (e.g. is there often a strategic/consistent ‘look’ for a brand? Can these be too heavy handed?) 

Matt> One of the things I enjoy about working on commercials is the variety of skill sets needed. There can be wildly different looks and skills used between a story based commercial and something very technical, like a food shoot.

One very usual point would come up in conversation with clients about brand colours, and how they appear in the shot. Very often we would spend a good amount of time manipulating other colours in the shot to match the brand, or enhancing certain areas to pull focus to what’s important in the shot. All of which is as vital as the overall look, it all needs to come together to create a pleasing, eye-catching spot. It’s generally only 30 or 40 seconds long, so it needs to be perfect!

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

Matt> The relationship between the colourist and the director and DOP needs to be a really tight one. Being able to understand what their vision is and being able to carry it out is a real skill. I always try to ensure the environment is such, that my clients feel confident that they can make their creative decisions, knowing they’re in safe hands, even if I (politely) disagree with them!

LBB> What advice would you give to budding colourist?

Matt> Knowing your system inside out is an obvious one, but more importantly, knowing how to interpret a brief from a client, and how to understand what they want. It’s the easiest thing to grade footage to the way you want it, but the real skill is grading it to the way THEY want it! This can only be gained through experience of working with clients. The more practice doing this, the better colourist you’ll be.

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

Matt> I think knowing when to down-tools is very important. It’s so easy to just keep on tweaking the images, but building up your instinct as to when you stop grading is something that shouldn’t be underestimated, just as when an artist knows when a painting is finished. Bizarrely, sometimes no grade, or very little grading is the correct decision. It all depends on how best the image suits the narrative.

LBB> How is the craft and trade of colour grading changing?

Matt> With technology getting much better and much more available and accessible, colour grading is no longer a niche role. This does bring challenges and certainly more competition, but it definitely has increased the quality of work that we see on our screens. Pretty much everything that’s on streaming platforms looks amazing visually, that’s the standard we live up to now.

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