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Making the Grade: Matt Turner

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With 25 years experience in post production, Absolute Post's Matt chats strange creatures of the dark room, the language of colour and a yearning for the return of cinema

Making the Grade: Matt Turner

Matt has over 25 years of experience working in post-production.

His colour grading career began in 1997 at The Mill and has since held tenures at Framestore and Company 3 LA. During his career he has worked amongst many of the world's’ top commercials directors, including Daniel Kleinman on Guinness’ Cannes Grand Prix Winner, ‘noitulovE’. 

Matt joined Absolute in 2012, becoming founder and partner of Absolute’s grading arm.


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?

As a runner walking into a grading suite for the first time, I was instantly intrigued. Who were these strange creatures working in a such a dark room on a bizarre console, all flashing lights, dials and glowing orbs? I have always adored cinema and my curiosity of this scene made me want to understand how it was all connected, how this part of the filmmaking process played a crucial part in the finished article.

Madonna – American Pie, 2000


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

Perhaps it was Ringan Ledwidge taking a chance on me when I was pretty inexperienced. 

The first project we worked on together was adidas, ‘Boats’. After that, we started working together regularly and that got the ball rolling.

 

adidas – Olympics 2000 – Boats, 2000


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

I began working at The Mill in the ‘90s, even before the Scott brothers got involved. It was an exciting place - they were producing so many incredible ads which have stood the test of time, like Levi’s, Stella Artois, and of course Guinness. I was working with directors such as Frank Budgen, Tarsem and Jonathan Glazer. I remained there for nine years and was fortunate enough to be mentored by Fergus McCall and Adam Scott, both pioneers in the world of grading. 

Guinness – noitulovE, 2005


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

In commercials, the turnover is so rapid that there’s rarely much time to explore look development before a shoot, so sadly too often it’s on the day of the grade. However, I’ll always read the treatment and research the directors and the DOPs work beforehand if we haven’t worked together previously. It’s immensely satisfying and beneficial for all if you already have a working relationship with a director or DOP. 

I always ask, “how do you want it to feel?”, rather than simply “how do you want it to look?” The language of colour is so limited; with the naked eye we see millions of colours, shades, tones and hues, yet we only have a handful of names for them, so exploring the feel and emotional intention really helps to translate someone’s vision. It’s incredibly hard to explain nuances of colour or a look, but a feeling? That’s something we can much more readily relate to. 

Bridgestone - I’ve Been Everywhere, 2013


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

I miss cinema so much! That’s really my chief inspiration but outside of a dark room, it’s nature – the endless brilliance and beauty of the natural world, the versions and variations of colour when you come to look - really look - around you. I don’t actually own a television. That, and cooking. The obsessive focus and attention to detail is somehow very similar to grading, it’s a sort of performance.

A$AP ROCKY - L$D (LOVE S$X DREAMS), 2015


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?

Having learnt the craft on film, witnessing the swift and traumatic death of celluloid was a terrible shock which happened almost overnight. One day it was all 35mm and then suddenly compressed Canon 5D took over and one almost had to relearn grading with these new, eye popping video formats. Then along came the Alexa and the sigh of relief was palpable in grading suites all over Soho. 

The resurgence of film is fantastic. What I’ve noticed, though, is that people’s interpretation of the look of film varies wildly. What does film look like to you? Handheld 8mm? Grainy & gritty 16mm? Vintage Black and White? Glossy and rich 35mm? Negative? Print? 

There are plenty of tools we have to emulate film: LUTs, grain, vintage lenses. There are endless possibilities but what you really need is a good DOP on board who understands lighting.


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? 

The grade has always been important. You have a very limited amount of time to grab the audience’s attention, so it has to count. A strong look always identifies a brand and makes it memorable. A good colourist will be hyper aware of brand colours within a spot, clients shouldn’t even need to ask to make a product legible, you just instinctively do it. Conversations about look development occur on every project and coming on board at a much later stage in the process than the agency and production team often gives you the objectivity to really help resolve problems. That aspect can be incredibly satisfying. 

Havana Club – Colour In The Dark, 2017


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

With any collaboration you have to factor in different outlooks, but achieving the desired vision is always everyone’s main priority. As a colourist, you shouldn’t be bending a look to your will, you need patience, understanding and an ability to appreciate variations of taste. If you can begin with those attributes, you’re on the right track. It also helps being married to a director, I get to see the other side of things in quite an illuminating way. 

Erdem x H&M - The Secret Life Of Flowers, 2017


What advice would you give to budding colourist?

Ideally you need a mentor, someone who knows the craft. That, and practice, practice, practice. It takes a very long time to train your eye. I thought I was there after three years, but I was only just beginning. 


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

Wow, that’s a very difficult question to answer, it is so completely subjective. I think a great grade has to have immaculate matching: it should draw you in with its subtle and effortless wonder and the contrast should be all in the mid-tones without clipping or crushing. But above all, it should make you think “damn, I wish I’d graded that.”

adidas - GMR, 2020


How is the craft and trade of colour grading changing?

It’s changing rapidly, the scramble for the dominant HDR format is so interesting at the moment. I’m curious to see whether it’ll really catch on or not. It wasn’t long ago that everyone was talking about 3D, when was the last time you watched a 3D film? 

There are some extremely talented freelance colourists in London now and the trade has evolved massively over the last year. This is disrupting the status quo in a fascinating way. There are huge changes coming to post-production in general, especially for the giants with their titanic overheads. Iceberg Ahead! 


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Absolute, Fri, 26 Feb 2021 10:22:08 GMT