True Colors: Parke Gregg

Colorist Parke Gregg explains his contribution to the filmmaking process and how color and lighting can drastically change the story. 

Directors and cinematographers focus on how to tell their story, but it’s people like Parke Gregg who ensure that the visual details of a film work in tandem with the director’s vision. Gregg, a self-taught colorist who’s now co-founder of the video post-production studio Stuck On On in Austin, Texas, uses a mix of technical know-how and creative instincts to ensure that the look of projects ranging from Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight to Lil’ Wayne music videos aesthetically capture the director’s intention. That can mean simply adding in a few light visual effects or changing the entire tone of a project by colorizing each frame. The results can be radical, which places extra pressure on Gregg and his team to thoroughly understand the purpose and feel of a film before making their artistic mark. Here’s how he does it.

Get In Media: When you get film from a director, what specifically are you looking for in terms of color correction?

Parke Gregg: It’s definitely a multi-faceted discipline because there’s a significant technical component where we’re dealing with frame rates and multiple codex and levels. You dive deep into the science of digital video. You have to couple that with a strong creative component, so as a colorist and as a DI [digital intermediate post-production] editor, you’re constantly wearing multiple hats. Nowadays, the creative component is significantly growing.

The colorist is truly on the storytelling team and is much more of a collaborator with the [director of photography] and the director than possibly in the past, so every project is different. Sometimes the main focus is just to match cameras or fix mistakes that happened in production. Depending on the director and the project, quite often we have the opportunity to dive down deep into the story and use color as a mechanism to set the mood and set the tone and reinforce certain story ideas. If something’s going the wrong direction, we can shift the attitude and the feeling with the color grade. In addition to that, more and more visual effects are taking place during the [digital intermediate process] instead of going out to a traditional VFX house. There’s a lot of stuff that we can do just on the fly, so that’s yet another component that the colorists and DIs are now working on.

Before Midnight - Trailer from Stuck On On on Vimeo.

GIM: When a director comes to you with their cut of film, how much of an impact can [a colorist] make in terms of the look of the movie?

PG: Quite dramatic, especially with digital acquisition because it will usually be shot very flat. You do have full latitude during the DI to push it in the directions you want to go. A horror film like Boneboys [2012 film later renamed Butcher Boys], you would not recognize the two movies because it was not bright, but a lot of scenes were lit in a way where you could see everything. That was fine for acquisition because you then had the options of what area you wanted to put into shadow and lose detail while keeping areas that you needed. Those decisions could all get made during the DI. A movie like that, we really end up relighting a lot of it during the DI, meaning create shadows, create highlights, and let other areas go to darkness.

GIM: How does genre impact your job? For example, how does working on a project like Before Midnight stack up to working on something like Butcher Boys?

PG: Very different, obviously. With Before Midnight, we’re going for this Mediterranean, golden-hour look and the movie could not always be shot during golden hour. A lot of scenes were shot over multiple days at different times of day, but in the final movie we have to do a lot of time trickery and kind of smooth out where there were time and light differences. We want to blend that and give it this golden, attractive look.

In Butcher Boys, the whole thing takes place at night in alleys and basements. It was shot digitally, but they really wanted an aesthetic that felt like old school, 16mm film, so at times we would add film grain and dirty it up and let details in the shadows go away. With a horror film, quite often the scariest things are the things you don’t quite see and so it’s good to have the shadows truly be hidden. It’s definitely a different approach than to a movie like Before Midnight, where the details in the shadows are beautiful and the tone and the highlights were very important to smooth out. We spent a lot of time fine-tuning it.

Completely different approach. The toolset is the same. The visual storytelling mechanisms are the same. It’s just a different aesthetic. That’s one of the things that I really like about my job, because working on a movie like Before Midnight and working on a movie like Take Shelter and a movie like Butcher Boys and a documentary like Before You Know It by PJ Raval, it’s all completely different aesthetics. That allows me to change things up and to keep everything fresh. That’s one of the things I love about my job, the diversity.

Take Shelter - Trailer from Stuck On On on Vimeo.

GIM: How much overlap do you have with a visual effects studio?

PG: A lot. We definitely work together because as a colorist and a DI, you should be the very last person to touch the project, so all the components have to come together on your system. All the visual effects shots get placed. A lot of times we’ll get the VFX shots kind of separated out, so we’ll do the actual layering and compositing together with the plates in the color correction process so that we’ll have full control over the look and tone of it. A lot of times there are boom mics that need to be painted out or compositing in a photograph or something. A lot of that kind of stuff doesn’t have to go to a VFX shop, but the major VFX shots still need to be done by someone that specializes in that. We just work with them to make sure it fits in with the project and everything goes smoothly.

GIM: What equipment or software do you use on a regular basis?

PG: For our DI work and our color correction work, our predominant tool is SCRATCH made by Assimilate. It’s a high-end color correction DI-conforming tool and the normal suite of Adobe products and Final Cut Pro and Avid.

GIM: Visual effects technology is moving so quickly. What do you see happening in the future of your industry?

PG: It is moving very quickly and right now with the toolsets evolving the way they are, the role of color correction and DI in storytelling is expanding greatly. That’s exciting for me. It’s exciting for my clients because that always has a trickle down effect where smaller, low-budget projects have much, much more capability of achieving a big-budget look and feel and also more advanced storytelling.

As the tools are evolving and expectations with digital acquisition, that puts the pressure on us to keep pace because it seems like there’s a new camera format coming out every six months and the existing formats are maturing. People are always using different camera systems, for better or worse, and they may or may not have a complete understanding of those camera systems. That increases the requirements on our end to fix more things and have more technical expertise. Then you couple that with expectations that directors have for what they now know that they can achieve during the color correction from a creative standpoint. We’ve just seen our role growing and expanding more and more. Two years ago, I was never asked to do visual effects of any sort and now, probably for the last year, every project I’ve had some component, whether it’s something simple like painting out a boom mic or more recently it’s been like compositing in elements into the final image.

GIM: What advice for people who want to move into your profession?

PG: It takes a lot of practice. I learn something new on every project and hopefully I’m able to apply that to the next project and continue to build on that. If you’re not in a position where you’re getting new projects regularly, practice is key. There are some really advanced color correction tools that are available for free or are really inexpensive. Get those. Work on Photoshop. Work on stills if that’s all you have access to and really get comfortable with using digital tools to manipulate images. In addition to that, it’s the basics. Get books on color theory and understand the science of it, because once you get the technical component of color and color theory, then that really enables you to understand and know where you can take it from a creative standpoint.

GIM: What’s the greatest challenge in your job?

PG: Finding that look and feel within the context of the director and DP’s wishes and desires. Because every project is different, most DPs will have a very different vision for their work as do directors, so transitioning for me, personally, between each project, I have to remind myself to hit the reset button. Basically, I have to learn a new rapport with the DP and director because they will have different concerns than the last project. I don’t consider that difficult, but that is a challenge because every project kind of has its own vernacular. As a colorist, I need to key in on that and achieve those goals while kind of more silently making sure that technically all the requirements are met. That’s always a fun challenge.

Related Content

Have some feedback for our editors? Contact Us