Watch out for kids who are “awkward, a little nerdy and shy”, as CHEAT colourist Karol Cybulski described herself growing up. With the right environment and nourishment, those are the kids who grow up to become creative gamechangers.
Growing up in a small village in Leicester, it’s no surprise that a young Karol had no inkling that she might make a career in grading films, since the vast majority of people don’t even know what a colourist is.
As far back as she remembers, she has been drawn to the arts. “I've always been quite obsessive with my passions, whenever I’ve found something I love it’s always taken over my life” she says, citing photography and music as big obsessions growing up.
As it happens, she was deep in her film obsession when it came time to go to university, so she studied film at AUB in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. Her experience was mostly positive, but she became aware that a film degree is far from necessary for getting into the industry. “I think it's also very hard to design a course that fully caters to all the varied roles within the film industry,” she says. “I'd say the main value came from the friends and contacts that I got to study with and that I discovered grading.”
That discovery led to her first professional grade while she was still studying for her BA, for an online mini-series for a Norwegian sports channel. Karol graded it remotely from her “humble bedroom suite” at the time, working on a PC she’d built and three monitors, one calibrated of course (“yes, my housemates thought I was very odd”, she says). It went well and, looking back, was a good test for the working from home new normal of life in 2020/21.
Around this time, Karol got her first taste of life in a big company, briefly running at The Mill in London, which was “a blast and such a valuable insight into the workings of a post house”.
Shortly after finishing her BA, Karol moved to Berlin to develop her specialism in colour through a postgraduate year on the UP.GRADE course, studying colour science and grading at the DFFB. She thought the experience was wonderful, with “the most incredible teachers (Dirk Meier) and countless international practicing colourists and colour scientists (Charles Poynton) as our lecturers. Coming from a mostly creative background, it was really helpful in me topping up on the technical side of the job, to really gain confidence on that side.”
By this time, Karol was deeply invested in becoming a colourist. “Once my mind is set on something I get super focused and determined,” she says. She continued to build a portfolio of grading work freelancing alongside her studies, eventually moving back to the UK in 2018. But she says her biggest growth in grading - focused honing of her craft - only came once she joined CHEAT and began grading regularly, after a couple of years of assisting full time. “Lessons from one grade would feed directly into the next session, and built into a really nice sense of flow, always adjusting my approach, until working, creatively and practically, suddenly felt a lot smoother. Working closely with the senior colourists has also been invaluable for learning, (something I hope to never stop doing) and I'm endlessly grateful for the collective knowledge and experience that is shared when you work in a small, close team.”
Her greatest lesson so far has been to trust herself and always enjoy the process - “we're just trying to tell stories, not perform brain surgery. Also, that knowledge really is power.”
From her three years at CHEAT Karol points to one project that felt like a milestone - Netflix series The End of the Fucking World season 2, which she was the lead colour assistant on. It was the first HDR (high dynamic range) show CHEAT graded, which Karol found equally exciting and challenging on a technical / delivery front. “It showed me that I love the rhythm of long-form projects and affirmed my desire to work across both long and short form as a colourist myself.”
The current jump in viewing technology between SDR (standard dynamic range) and HDR is, in Karol’s view, “possibly the most meaningful jump in technology for storytelling we've had since the jump between black and white to colour. The increased dynamic range (from a max brightness of 100 nits in SDR to now, anywhere between 1,000-4,000 nits) gives directors, DOPs and colourists alike a lot more headroom to make realistic images that weren't previously possible to achieve, and the change in technology offers an opportunity to experiment and discover exciting and original ways to use the increased latitude in the stories we tell.”
Her obsession with colour grading has only deepened over the years. She openly professes her love for every element of it, from the creative to the technical and the social / collaborative sides. “No day or project is ever the same, it really is a wonderful job,” she says.
“More specifically, I love the power that colour and grading has in the storytelling process, in how drastically it can impact an audience's response by setting the emotional tone and its capacity to create unique worlds for films, firmly baking in their character and identity.” Her biggest guiding principle is always to help create a deeper emotional connection in the audience to the story and build convincing and unique worlds for each project.
Working with a big team of creatives and clients, when their visions and priorities for the film don't align, especially on commercial projects, can be challenging, but she still finds it a fun challenge. “[It] just needs approaching with a different lens, with a delicate balance of speed, experimentation and compromise.”
The industry’s lack of diversity is a source of frustration for Karol. “Even through a limited gender lens, there are distinctly fewer women than men in creative HOD roles, especially when you look at the camera department. I feel optimistic though, in my experience I've noticed that education is playing a huge role in evening out the playing field. I'm lucky that I know so many wildly talented young women who are working their way up now, so I'm hopeful that in five to 10 years the balance will be much better.”
On the subject of closing that gap, she counts herself fortunate that at the beginning of last year to meet and get to know several other female colourists in London, who all put out incredibly high quality and inspiring work. Really fills me with pep, ya know?
More broadly, she’s been excited by the “hugely increased creative quality and diversity” of stories being told in the long-form series format in the last few years. In particular, Karol’s been enchanted by shows like Michaela Coel’s voice in I May Destroy You, which she calls “uniquely sharp and honest”. She also loves theatre and can't wait until we can safely go again and wants to shout out Complicité - “a company who I think are doing excellent, innovative work.”
Pining for live theatre addresses the pandemic-shaped elephant in all our rooms. Karol’s been locked down in London for most of the past year, working from home like her first professional grade. “It's really been a journey,” she says, “definitely tough and a shock at the beginning as I'm sure it was for most, but it taught me a lot about myself and I'm very grateful that it's slowed me down and I generally feel a lot less rushed these days.”
Thankfully, outdoor activities have been possible, as Karol’s in love with the outdoors and very passionate about the environment and living sustainably. She’s still been able to climb - she describes herself as “an absolute fanatic about it” and tries to go bouldering as much as humanly possible. “It's my favourite way to switch off from the day, you have to focus both your mind and body on a puzzle / challenge (basically meditation) which washes away any lingering stresses from the day. It's also incredibly fun, and a very social sport, so perfect for catching up with friends.”
Following up on her “huge soft spot for photography books,” a recent addition to her list of obsessions has been book making and binding. “I'm not great, I just really enjoy it!”
But while she’s got plenty to fill her free time with, it’s unlikely that Karol’s obsession with colour will wane anytime soon. Her motivation is singular and confident: “Purpose, and a healthy mix of fear and fun is the magic combo that I've found drives me and keeps me moving forward.”