Why I’m Leaving the Color Grading Business

I’m closing shop after nearly twenty years of media-related projects, seven of which were dedicated to color grading. Why would I give up the excitement of grading films and the satisfaction of sitting in front of all that cool gear, doing what always seems like magic to me? What about the friendships and the yearly trips to NAB and the camaraderie of so many amazing colorists, DPs, editors? I’ve been wrestling with this question throughout 2015 while fretting over a gradual evaporation of color grading-related projects. A new inspiration has emerged during this journey.

In early 2015 I noticed a drop in my web traffic, and new leads fell away to zero. With brio and focus I redoubled my efforts to uncover new projects. I dug deeper into my contacts lists to reach out to folks I hadn’t seen lately. I dusted off a number of creative ways to expand my visibility, given the ever-changing nature of social media. I know this drill since starting SEO work on websites in the mid-1990s. It’s the same with post-production projects. You have to earn your right to be a professional, you have to patient with the ebb and flow of business, and you must get out and hustle for new business. My mantra is Always be improving yourself.

But soon I started down the path of saying yes to whatever came my way, even if it was for free. Yeah, I was that desperate. I felt sick about breaking a cardinal rule against taking any job ‘no matter the price,’ but I reasoned that working for free was better than sitting in the studio with nothing to do. At least I was staying current with the relentless pace of increasingly sophisticated color grading tools and video post-production in general, compounded by so many different digital camera technologies. Still, something was off for me personally.

I was good at my profession as a colorist and had earned my wings on dozens of full length narratives and documentaries, shorts, and music videos that brought me numerous testimonials from highly regarded clients. I had the number-one SEO position in Google for keywords ‘Austin color grading variations’. I had contributed many hours to creating free how-to DaVinci Resolve videos, and was frequently giving color demos for local companies, providing tutorials at the local university and other educational organizations, along with creating a podcast show where I interviewed dozens of high-profile people in the local and national video production arenas. Despite all this effort, new project opportunities were slipping away, and the average negotiated pricing was dropping to uncomfortable levels.

My interest in color grading as a full-time occupation started later in life. As my practice evolved I felt excitement and passion, despite being older than the majority of my peers. Truth is, I had age on my side to win projects with filmmakers who appreciated the insights I brought from my life experience. I felt a jolt of excitement when helping younger filmmakers become successful in their vision.

As the months in 2015 ticked by and the bills showed up like clockwork, business continued to be sparse. I had spent nearly fourteen years as a technology consultant for websites and media production, so I understood the importance of weathering the droughts and bridging business with other income streams. But after turning 60, remarrying, and seeing five grandchildren come into our world, the worry of waiting for a thaw in business was morphing into misgivings about the wisdom of pressing on. Being a 100% independent colorist in Austin, with no long-term ties to any production house, studio, ad agency, and or even a cadre of returning independent shooters, meant business would always be up and down, with no steady paycheck.

What I hadn’t counted on was color grading software being given away, color training becoming super-cheap, and the cost of powerful, high-quality gear dropping dramatically. I did see it all coming — I even encouraged it — I just didn’t fully grasp how it might impact my business so quickly. I had invested so much money and time in a studio, equipment, and going to training workshops that I felt certain I could navigate around these changes with persistence and constant focus on professional acumen as a colorist.

We’ve all heard the diatribes regarding amateurs (non-professionals) downloading free audio software, free editing software, and free color grading software to produce creative projects on shoestring budgets, and how that didn’t mean they had talent or an eye for inconsistency of quality. Was I starting to buy into that load of horse dung? I feared my mind was subconsciously on a witch hunt to make myself feel better about something I actually had no control over.
While free software and free talent may win when budgets are tight, one undeniable point is that you cannot take free to the bank to pay the bills. I cannot blame professional or citizen colorists for wanting to learn new tools and making color grading a part of what they do as an editor or DP. Many of us have done projects for free just to improve our skillsets. We have to do that to stay current, and learning new tools is the fun and exciting part of working media these days. There is no barrier any more to being a colorist, except learning the tools and developing your eye for color. This is all part of the evolution of tools, and we’re seeing it everywhere in the software industry.

However, to survive as a colorist you need creative relationships that yield ongoing business or you find a way to get hired full time. I think it helps these days to be a colorist and a specialist in graphics work. Bottom line, though, is clients want more done with fewer people and less money.

Here is where I felt the rub. I believed in myself, yet I was bordering on a dangerous sense of entitlement that I ’should’ have more business. Self-importance fueled my belief that I’d earned my right to be doing better financially. Getting to the root of it, I felt angry. I didn’t want to admit it to anyone, but underneath that anger was the real cause of my frustration: I had hit a point where the amount of work needed to find new business and evolve new relationships to prop up a profitable stream of color grading projects took more energy than I was willing to expend. I wasn’t bouncing back like I used to.
A new inner challenge was aching to get be let out and played with for reasons I never fully realized until I hit 60.

Something was shifting in me as a grandfather who had remarried following years of being a widower. Sitting alone in a dark room, color grading for hours at a time, day after day, reminds me of an insight I had recently while scanning in family pictures from the ’80s: The only person not in the pictures was me. I was always behind the camera.
Being a colorist, as exciting as it’s been, is like being the guy behind the camera: important yet invisible. I want to be available and visible to my grown kids and grandkids. I want to pass along some of my insights and experiences. I also have a number of literary ideas I’m working on as a writer and creator and producer. So I’m stepping out to do my own projects.

Ironically I’m involved in marketing with a company which is bringing a new revolution in programming forward. Ironic because the name of this new wave is called “no-code programming,” which for all practical purposes is a tool for citizen developers. The beat goes on, eh? Only I’ll be on the vendor side of creating and selling these new tools, instead of the user side. Luckily for me I’m working with a team of people whom I’ve known since the late 1980s when we were involved in artificial intelligence research projects. Some of those far-out ideas are becoming real, especially in the area of making programming possible without having to write and debug lines of code.

I have the opportunity to help usher in this new reality, and you’ll be hearing more from me soon. When I look into the future for the grandkids, I ask myself what the tools and the economy will be like in 2025. I want to be a part of their world and give them insights along the way to help them be successful. This is the new inspiration for me as I sell the gear in my studio and move forward in inspiring curiosity about the future.
— —
There are so many amazing people to thank for the last seven years of color grading and video production projects. Kai Ferguson is at the top of the list of friendship and professional guidance over the years. Patrick Inhofer for his ever-patient tutoring and friendship. Without his heartfelt teaching style, I don’t think I could have completed all the films that came my way. He helped me more than once avoid complications, and occasionally dug me out of a hole. To Pam Inhofer for always being so kind and thoughtful to me. I am thankful to Jim Wicks for his camaraderie and guidance on various personal and professional issues. Jim checked in with me every few months just to see how life was going. The entire team at SpectraCal for their trust and guidance in learning all the ins and outs of display calibration and listening to my marketing suggestions. And Dave Abrams for his continued friendship and amazing expertise with everything related to display calibration at the high end, along with his solid insights in running a business efficiently. Ray Coronado as a friend, tutor, and confidant. I don’t know what I would have done without his steady, calm voice of reason in taming the beast of display calibration, and probes in particular.

I see myself remaining in touch with everyone. After all, I’m still keenly interested in picture quality. You just can’t go back to awful-looking displays once you know how things should look!

I’m going to miss you guys at NAB 2016, but know that I’ll be around.