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Telecine Colorist  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotTelecine colorists use technology to turn the images on film into images for video. Using workstations that translate film into electronic signals they can manipulate, they make it possible for film to be shown on TV. The colorist is fighting the degeneration that happens each time a film is copied or transferred -- the idea is to match the color quality of the first-generation film.

Colorists are also responsible for establishing the color of that first-generation film. The challenge is to set the desired mood of a scene, then match the colors within it between takes filmed in changing light.

"A lot of [the coloring process] has no basis in reality," says Tim Gatena, a telecine colorist for a large post-production house that has colored films like Titanic and TV shows like Law and Order.

"You have separate controls for different colors and influence them according to the mood you're looking for," says Gatena.

"For instance, if it's a cold winter day, you'll use more blue than red, because red looks more like a hot, sunny day. So it's all subjective.

"When you're filming outside, or you're in a room and the light changes a bit, the colorist has to change with it," says Gatena. "As the sun goes down, the light temperature and color temperature shift dramatically. You're constantly counteracting it."

dotToday, most of the work is done in digital format on computer workstations that help speed up the once painstaking process. But the work remains highly technical and exacting, requiring both artistic flair and technical know-how. And colorists and industry groups see job growth for people who have both.

More telecine colorists are finding work as independent contractors or freelancers. These workers usually do not receive benefits from their employers, but instead work for the duration of a specific project for a lump sum or a weekly or hourly fee.

dotTelecine equipment is extremely expensive, so the technology is concentrated in relatively few locations. A state-of-the-art studio can cost nearly $2 million to build and equip, according to industry groups.

"We got our scanner [a machine which analyzes and manipulates the film data] for $1.4 million," says Gatena. "That was a sweet deal, because it was a demo. You're also looking at between $30,000 and $40,000 per year on upgrades."

Because of the high cost of equipment, many production companies have fewer studios than colorists. As a result, shift work is often the norm.

"We're open 24 hours a day almost seven days a week to keep up with client demands," says Kathryn Plousos, a telecine colorist.

She notes that in order to pay for the cost of the equipment, colorists must make the best use of it around the clock. "Rotating shifts mean sometimes you'll have to work from midnight to morning."

Most telecine colorists work a standard workweek, but rush projects can force artists to work late nights and weekends from time to time. And colorists working on industrial or commercial video projects may have to travel to the remote site to complete the work more quickly.

The work does involve a lot of repetitive motions -- clicking on a keyboard and turning dials. It can also be a strain on the eyes, as most colorists work with screens about the size of a computer monitor and are scanning each inch of videotape for minor color flaws.

"You've got a TV monitor within five or six feet of you, and you're looking hard through scopes all day," says Gatena. "So it can cause a lot of wear and tear on the eyes."

At a Glance

Turn images on film into images on video

  • You'll work a standard workweek, with occasional late nights and weekends
  • Colorists need artistic flair and technical know-how
  • Most have undergraduate degrees in broadcasting, film or media studies