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Making the Grade: Ruth Wardell



OKAY STUDIO's colourist on her creative process, inspirations, and advice for budding colourists

Making the Grade: Ruth Wardell

Bringing a freshness and originality to all her projects, Ruth’s reputation continues to grow, working with mega brands Adidas, Nike, Prada, and Gucci, and forging key relationships with directors such as Jess Kohl, Camille Summers-Valli and Leonn Ward.

Standout music promos for the likes of Jorja Smith, Sam Smith and Mabel display a complexity and in-depth knowledge of her craft and she was awarded the Best Colourist Award at the Ibiza Music Video Awards 2018 for Q-Tip feat. Demi Lovato.

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?

Ruth> I interned at a small post house called The Look whilst I was at university. After a few months of running and working as a technical operator, I was able to have a go at grading. I remember a day when the office was particularly quiet, and one of the colourists set up a project for me to grade. I was left alone for the day and I didn’t leave the suite. That was the moment I became obsessed and I never looked back.

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

Ruth> It’s hard to pinpoint one as I think there have been many projects that have contributed to change in my career, but the one that comes to mind is Dirty Danger - So Real. This is the first job I worked on with DOP Hunter Daly. We hit it off and became good friends and now frequent collaborators. We’ve worked together a lot over the years most recently on eight live performances for Jorja Smith and Vevo. 

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

Ruth> My core knowledge of grading really came from my time working at ETC. During my four years in the colour department I worked with a number of great colourists, but Jason Wallis was the most instrumental in my career. I’ve known Jason since my time at The Look, and he has been a close friend and mentor for 8 years. He has taught me so much over the years, and continues to support and encourage me.

LBB> Tell us more about your creative process.

Ruth> Before I chat to the client I like to have a quick look at the footage. I go through the edit and see how the footage looks, where it naturally sits, and if there are any obvious problem areas. I then have a briefing with the director/DOP/client establishing and discussing their vision. I’m also an advocate for sending visual references that demonstrate the look the client wants. The language for describing colour is varied and can be ambiguous, so I find reference images are the most useful. In terms of the grade itself, I begin with a corrective grade, then I move onto a more creative look. 

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

Ruth> Film and photography have always been huge inspirations, but I tend to draw inspiration from many forms of visual arts. One of my favourite pastimes has always been going to galleries, and now we’re allowed back in them I try to get to as many exhibitions as I can. 

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?

Ruth> I enjoy working with both digital and film and I think they both have their purpose and strengths. If footage is well shot, both mediums are a pleasure to grade. Film, for instance, is often the reference point for a lot of clients and I’m often asked to emulate it when grading digital footage. Film has a strong intrinsic look and feel that has to be built manually in digital footage. I try to stretch film less, and stay truer to the scan than I would do with digital footage. On the other hand I find that well shot digital footage serves the purpose for clean crisper aesthetics. I’d also say digital is more malleable in a way and at times can be pushed further than film. In terms of creating a vintage look, there are many ways to bring cleaner digital footage into a more tactile world through a mixture of matching reference images, and then using LUTs and grain. 

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?

Ruth> I think this varies between commercials and brands. Some brands have strong looks or colour palettes that come through in all their commercials, and others are a bit more ambiguous. I think in every case product is key and ensuring this stands out and colours and textures are presented accurately is crucial. Using colour swatches, product images, or even having the product to hand are all great ways of making certain the product is showcased correctly in the grade.  

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

Ruth> Listening to the director and developing an understanding of them as a creative and their vision. Through this you can build a common language that allows you both to contribute knowledge, advise and ideas to the grade. 

LBB> What advice would you give to budding colourist?

Ruth> Watch, listen, ask questions and grade as much as you can. There are a plethora of amazing colourists out there who have a diverse levels of experience and knowledge ready to pass on to budding colourists. Find a mentor and learn from them. Watch them and gather an understanding of the craft. Then it’s all about practice, experimentation and implementing the lessons you’ve learnt. 

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

Ruth> I’d say a good grade successfully enhances a project. A great grade inspires and becomes a reference point for others.

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

Ruth> Definitely Instagram. Not only does it allow a colourist to publicise and curate their own portfolio, it also opens a direct stream of communication between clients and colourist. A client has the capability of seeing a colourists work that they like and messaging them directly. As a result more and more grades are coming through DMs on Instagram.

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OKAY STUDIO, Fri, 10 Sep 2021 11:28:55 GMT