The shadowy art of subliminal storytelling
While the director, showrunner, producer and DP all take part in the creative conversation that determines the colour palette of a film, the grade is where it all comes together.
Many of these key creatives will call on Jet Omoshebi, a senior colourist at Goldcrest Films to colour grade their work. She brings to the job over 30 years’ experience and her recent credits including some top box set binges, including The Undoing, The Witcher, The Terror, A Very English Scandal, Line of Duty and The Night Manager.
Creating ‘the look’ of a film, TV series or a commercial is quite an abstract process, yet it’s key to helping shape the narrative. Omoshebi compares the subliminal impact colour can have on emotions to the role of music on a production.
“When you’re telling a story, you want viewers to become connected and to understand the character’s journey. Colour can help with this very subtly by changing the way you feel in terms of emotional response, in much the same way that music does,” she says.
Omoshebi gives an example of how colour cues can guide viewers through a narrative. “There might be a situation where a character is hiding something and you may want to bring some shadow into their shots, to hide them a little.
“Or you might want to subvert their colour. So that rather than a kind of bright sunny yellow, you bring a slightly sick yellow into that to convey an unsettling situation.”
“You’re basically the interface between someone else’s tastes and this huge machine of ones and noughts, so you have to be able to remove all the technology and try to make it a space for ideas.”
“The colorist’s role has become even more important because there’s this a real need for consistency. There’s nothing worse than trying to immerse yourself into a world and it being inconsistent from one director and one creative team to the next,” she says.
If the grade is the more artistic side of her craft, then colour correction is the more technical aspect. Omoshebi explains that this often involves evening up things that are shot non-sequentially or content that has been shot on different cameras or with different lenses at different times of day.
“The technical part of my job is making scenes fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, by putting the pieces together to make it look as if everything is in order,” she explains.
Making the world of the characters feel seamless, consistent and authentic has become crucial in the era of multi-episode drama – an increase in which has been fuelled by demand from streamers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
“We consume drama now in the same way as we do books: we are happy to live in one world for a while and stay within that one story,” she says.
Interpreting the vision
To work out the look and nuance of each scene Omoshebi claims that it’s crucial for her to be able to understand the vision and the key themes of a story.
While it’s sometimes the director who leads this conversation, it can vary. It could be the creative who first brought her on board who likes her sensibility and admires her taste, or someone with whom she has had a previous working relationship with.
She adds that it’s not unheard of now for broadcasters or streamers to want to get involved in this conversation: “They often want to be part of that creative conversation too and understand what the vision is,” she adds.
At what stage the colourist becomes involved in the process of deciding a film’s look also varies. In Omoshebi’s opinion, the earlier the better, so she can read the script, look at the design boards and collaborate on the technical aspects of the colour pipeline.
However, she adds: “While being involved in the beginning is beneficial for both me and the production, it’s not always possible. Some shows get greenlit very late in the day, so then it’s up to us to interpret what is required.”
Vocabulary for color
Interpretations can be a challenge she adds, because there’s no common vocabulary to describe colour and emotions.
“People will use words like ‘rich’ or ‘visceral’ or ‘honest’ or ‘expensive’ and you just have to interpret what they mean. So, it becomes this very instinctive relationship which comes through just talking and trying to work out what their tastes are,” she explains.
“Obviously you read the script, so you can understand what the story is about, and you can get people to send references of what they like, but then it’s really trying to elicit that emotional language about what you want something to feel like,” she says.
Omoshebi adds that her own creative and technical input within this process is usually appreciated.
“People expect you to offer up ideas in the colour grade: you’re basically the interface between someone else’s tastes and this huge machine of ones and noughts so you have to be able to remove all the technology and try to make it a space for ideas,” she says.
While she acknowledges that some colourists have a very definitive style and are hired specifically for it, she prefers to act in service to the project that she’s working on. Rising above as the pendulum of visual trends swings one way and then another must only have served to boost the longevity of Omoshebi’s career.
As she observes: “At one point, things looked extraordinary, really filtered – but then people started to realise that this sort of look could sometimes get in the way of an emotional response and take you out of a story. Now there’s a move to strip that all away and to make things look more natural.”
Omoshebi also observes that there’s been a drive to make the more recently set period dramas look as authentic as possible. “If something is set in the eighties, then there’s a real move to emulate those looks, the cameras, the film stock to make it look as authentic as possible.
“You now see that in TV shows, especially if they contain archive, you’d be hard pushed to spot which bits are archive and which bits have been filmed. Expectations have increased so much and people are striving for a real honesty in what they are portraying.”