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Making the Grade: Noticing the Colours of Life with Jason Zukowski
Post Production
Toronto, Canada
The Studio Feather colourist on falling in love with his craft, grading everything he got his hands on as an up-and-comer and how tech is freeing up more time for creativity

Jason Zukowski is a colourist with a passion for film and advertising. After graduating from Confederation College’s Film Production program, Jason worked as a DP, editor and director before finding his home as a colourist in Toronto's bustling advertising community. With over a decade in the chair, Jason has become a go-to colourist for his following of DPs and creatives- contributing to many award-winning campaigns including Sapporo, Skittles, Huggies, Land Rover and Toyota.

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

Jason> My first job in the industry was as a colour assistant working overnights. This was just at the end of the film days, and all of my student films were shot on 16mm, so I used to lace them up in the scanner and re-transfer them when I had nothing to do. This is how I learned to grade. Before long they were giving me short films and PSAs to grade. I had thought at the time that I may go into directing or cinematography, but I ended up falling in love with colour grading and decided to pursue that path. 

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

Jason> Hard to say, but the Sapporo ‘East Meets West’ campaign comes to mind. Not only did it look awesome and win a ton of awards, but it had a series of short docs that accompanied the spot that were really cool. 

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

Jason> I started off at a company called Notch and I primarily learned from the colourists there: Bill Ferwerda, Elaine Ford and Gary Chuntz. I remember they would give me exercises like matching shots together by scopes only - stuff like that. They would often leave the handles, cutdowns or french versions for me to do, so I had to copy their grades and dissect them. I learned quite a bit doing that, but I also learned a lot by just grading whatever I could get my hands on, as much as I could. 

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

Jason> I usually like to try out a few look options to start. I may choose to work with colour space transforms, LUTs, film emulation, or a combination just to see what works best for the project before I get into the grading. Sometimes the clients will have a look in mind and send references, but oftentimes, they want to see what’s possible.

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

Jason> As I became a colourist, I started to notice the colours of life a little more than I used to; what colour different times of day are, what a sky looks like toward the horizon, the greens of a tree etc. I also love photography, but I especially love paintings. In a painting the artist chose the colours you’re seeing and there’s something I like about that. 

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?

Jason> I have found that with film, you often start with a pleasing look (they shot it on film for a reason right?), whereas with digital you sometimes have to work it a little more to get it where you want. That is becoming less true all the time though, as digital progresses. 

When trying to emulate the look of film I try to think of the process that film went through: a negative – colour timing – print stock… and I re-create that process digitally.

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?) 

Jason> Usually on a commercial, the colour pallet has been selected to have the brand colours so we will enhance that in the grade. Sometimes there is a consistent grade for a brand, and if it’s a strong look the viewer may know what the brand is before any supers even come up. Often though, the task is to make a spot stand out in a sea of advertising, so a strong or unique look can really help. 

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

Jason> Having a shorthand with a director is key. I also find it can help to be involved a little in pre-production. I’ve had directors request custom LUTs they can shoot though. And then we can use that LUT as a starting point in the grade. 

LBB> What advice would you give to budding colourist?

Jason> Do it a lot. It’s the best way to learn.

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

Jason> A good grade will be consistent and nice to look at. A great grade is whatever suits the project best. Perhaps it’s a bold grade that stands out, but maybe it’s something more subtle? 

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

Jason> As cameras and software get better, as colourists we’re spending less time correcting and more time grading and crafting the look. 

Work from Studio Feather
Act 3 - The Dash
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Act 2 - The Order
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