Creative Lives — “I get to colour in pictures for a living. That’s pretty good!” Meet Film and TV Colourist, Scott Ferguson

Posted 27 June 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

After landing an editing placement at Yellowmoon Post Production as part of the Northern Ireland Screen Scheme, Scott Ferguson is now a full-time final colourist working on Hollywood blockbusters in Holywood, Ireland. He’s worked on all seven seasons of Game of Thrones and is currently at work on Disney’s The Lodge. To top it off, his debut feature film, Bad Day For The Cut recently had its world premiere at Sundance. But Scott will tell you that he’s still got a lot to learn. It’s a role that he describes as simply ‘colouring in’ but also sees him employing some technical wizardry of his own – using colour to aid storytelling, and sometimes turning night into day and vice versa from the comfort of his light-controlled editing bay. We talk to this Belfast-based colourist on his career journey so far, as he gives us some top tips for getting into the industry. 

Scott Ferguson

Job Title

Final Colourist, Yellowmoon Post Production (2009–present)

Based

Belfast

Education

Paid placement at Yellowmoon via the Northern Ireland Screen Scheme (2009)

Social Media

Scott colouring The Third Wave. Director: David Freyne, Director of Photography: Piers McGrail

Scott Ferguson

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Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job? 
Colour grading is the process of altering and enhancing the colour of a film or TV show, putting the final polish on the picture elements of a production, and matching shot-to-shot and camera-to-camera to ensure nothing feels out of place. Colour grading has evolved to become a key part of the creative process, with storytelling through colour, manipulation of the audience’s emotions and perceptions all part of modern colour grading. Colourists are on the finishing team along with the sound mixer and online editor.  

What does a typical working day look like?
A typical working day starts when my 17 month old son decides it does. I have a short 15 minute commute to Holywood where Yellowmoon occupy four beautiful Victorian town houses. I start around 9:30 and work until I'm done, which is usually 7 or 8pm. My day is a mixture of colouring, exporting finished grades for Online, prepping the next job and addressing any notes for current projects.

How did you land your current job? 
I was placed at Yellowmoon eight years ago on a paid placement scheme by Northern Ireland Screen. The scheme gives people with an interest in film and TV production experience in their chosen department, and provides funding for a training course. When I was learning how to edit at Yellowmoon, digital colouring was still a very new field, but I chose to do a training course on colour correction and grading. I can’t say enough good things about the scheme from Northern Ireland Screen. Without it I honestly don’t know what I would be doing. After the scheme ended our MD Greg Darby offered me a short term contract and then a full time position shortly after that.

I was a year into the position at Yellowmoon when it was announced that HBO would be shooting Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland and that Yellowmoon were going to be their post-production facility. I was asked to be a production assistant and general dogsbody in the editorial department, which I was delighted about. During one of the initial meetings the topic of colour came up – specifically how we would be managing the dailies colour (the process of colouring every piece of footage shot every day for the editors, directors and producers to show a rough approximation of what the finished show could look like. It also has technical and quality control benefits). I sheepishly mentioned the colour training I had been on (basic as it was) and all of a sudden I’m colouring dailies for HBO. 

It was the most stressful six months of my life, but when it was over and the fog lifted, all I wanted to do was colour. I spent the next 4 years colouring the dailies on any show or film that would let me (The Fall for BBC1, Morgan for 20th Century Fox and continued as one of two colourists on Game of Thrones) whilst also working as an assistant editor on other projects. I’ve spent the last three years or so as a final colourist. 

“I sheepishly mentioned the colour training I had been on and all of a sudden I’m colouring dailies for HBO.”

Game of Thrones Season 7 trailer

Where does the majority of your work take place? 
All of my work takes place in my colour suite at Yellowmoon: a colour and light controlled room with blacked out windows, all necessary for me to do my job. Colouring is 100% digital so everything is done in front of computer screens and grading monitors.

How collaborative is your role? 
Colouring is a very collaborative process. I work very closely with the director and the director of photography (DOP’s). It’s their vision you are trying to put on screen, so people skills are essential to maintaining good working relationships during very stressful periods of the production process. You end up forging relationships with directors and DOP’s who will hopefully come back to work with you on their next projects.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
All the bits before and after a grade are the least fun. Prepping sequences, managing media, exporting for Online and making DCP’s [Digital Cinema Package] are all absolutely essential, but not as fun or creative as wrestling with a particularly difficult scene. 

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
I finished colouring my first full feature film, Bad Day For The Cut which had its world premiere at Sundance this year. Written by Chris Baugh and Brendan Mullan, directed by Baugh and shot by Ryan Kernoghan, Bad Day was a wonderfully collaborative process from the start. Chris and Ryan had a fair idea of how they wanted the film to look so it was my job to make that a reality. From the cold green palette of the countryside to the sodium drenched city streets and moonlit luscious beaches, Bad Day has a really distinct look which I’m really proud of. A huge part of that is down to Ryan’s gorgeous photography.

Colouring process for The Shadow Hours by comic book writer and film director Kyle Higgins

Before and after still from Bad Day For The Cut. Director: Chris Baugh, Director of Photography: Ryan Kernaghan

Before and after still from Bad Day For The Cut. Director: Chris Baugh, Director of Photography: Ryan Kernaghan

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I worked in a gunsmiths, and wanted to do that for a while when I was 15. But then I left school at 16 and went to study Media and Communication at technical college. Once I sat down in an editing bay for the first time, that was kind of it. I wanted to be an editor for the longest time while I was training, but that fell by the wayside once I started colouring. 

What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
My parents both work jobs with very, very long hours; they have a very strong work ethic, so that’s how I work. They were always very supportive; as a 16/17 year old growing up in Northern Ireland and wanting to work in film and TV production, there wasn’t really much of an industry here. They could have said, ‘Yeah that could be nice but you have to get a real education,’ but there wasn’t any of that. They just asked what they could do to help; it was huge to have that support. 

“Learning how to edit gave me a decent grounding, but vocational training is where you learn your craft.”

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
It’s not, really. When I was studying media, digital editing was only just coming into the frame. Digital colouring wasn’t even on the horizon at all as far as learning that in a school environment goes. That’s the way the industry is; the tech moves so quickly that you just have to keep moving with it and keep adapting. 4K and HDR are the deliverables of the minute, but in six months time it could be something brand new. Learning how to edit gave me a decent grounding, but vocational training is where you learn your craft. It’s mostly a case of being thrown into the deep end and putting in real time and man hours to learn the software. It feels much more like a trade craft than something you can study in university.

What were your first jobs?
My actual first job was washing boats in a marina! I certainly don’t think I would have had enough experience to get a position at YellowMoon had it not been for the six month placement I completed there first. I don’t think I would have a job in the industry, let alone a career if it hadn’t been for the Northern Ireland Screen Scheme. I think schemes like that are incredibly important in maintaining and nourishing an industry like this. It gives young people an opportunity to get into an industry where there is no risk for the companies that are taking them on. They’re getting free labour, but the people who are doing the labour are being paid by a third party to get an experience they probably couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. 

Before and after still from Bad Day For The Cut. Director: Chris Baugh, Director of Photography: Ryan Kernaghan

Before and after still from Bad Day For The Cut. Director: Chris Baugh, Director of Photography: Ryan Kernaghan

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career? 
The Northern Ireland Screen Scheme was hugely important, but a lot of it comes down to experience. To be honest, I don’t think my grades would have allowed me to go to university, so I just started working. I was a camera operator and editor for corporate videos, and the experience of actually working on shoots, sets and in small post-production workspaces, getting to grips with deliverables and sitting up to five in the morning trying to figure out how to do all of that is a pretty formative thing. 

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Probably Game of Thrones. Back on Season One, they were still trying to nail the workflow outlines for the editorial process. Every shot from every day went through me to get a colour treatment first before being sent to the editors. There’s not really much room for error; you have to learn very quickly. That was my job for six months while we were shooting. After that, they brought on another dailies colourist for Season Two. I have been one of a team of two colourists on all seven seasons so far.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
As you’re working through the software, you’re always finding new ways to do something. But it doesn’t really matter which version of the software or which manufacturer’s product you’re using; colour is colour at the end of the day. 

Honing your eye is also something that comes with time and experience. I think that’s a process that will continue throughout my career. I can see the difference between footage I worked on last year and the footage I’m colouring now. 

“The hours can be grim, it’s a stressful environment and sometimes I have to spend time away from my family. But, I would do this for free. I genuinely enjoy my job.”

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Any job brings its own challenges – whether that’s from a workflow or grading perspective. Sometimes the light can leave pretty quickly on set and you have to balance that out. I’ve never had a real nightmare job that was a challenge from start to finish, but you’ll always have scenes that are more difficult than others. Over time you learn new ways to do things and solve these problems.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
Overall, yes, but I thought there would be more colouring. Of course, I still colour loads, but there’s also a lot of media management, production of deliverables and DCPs for cinemas. 

People think colouring is just a light touch and that it won’t be very different from the original footage. But we can actually do a huge amount in terms of completely transforming the image. Sometimes you need day instead of night, or you need to grade something for night when it’s been shot in daylight. 

Before and after still from Bad Day For The Cut. Director: Chris Baugh, Director of Photography: Ryan Kernaghan

Before and after still from Bad Day For The Cut. Director: Chris Baugh, Director of Photography: Ryan Kernaghan

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I think colouring is where I’m going to stay; I’d like to continue to improve. I am still what I consider to be in the infancy of my career as a colourist. I’ve been doing final colour for around three years, which isn’t a particularly long amount of time. I have two feature films coming out this year, so hopefully the more I improve I can continue onto bigger jobs.

Could you do this job forever?
The hours can be grim, it’s a stressful environment and sometimes I have to spend time away form my family. But, ultimately, I would do this for free. I genuinely enjoy my job. It’s stressful but I get to colour in pictures for a living. That’s pretty good! 

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I know a lot of colourists who have worked with DOP’s and cinematographers early on in their careers. You build up a familiarity and working relationship that often means they’ll come to you as they move onto bigger things. To be progressing in this job is to be improving and bringing in higher profile jobs. Once you’re doing final colouring, it’s just the calibre and profile of the jobs you’re doing that teach you to grow. From features and documentaries to TV series with higher budgets and so forth. 

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a colourist?
You’ll have to be prepared to put the time in and work your ass off. Initially you’ll be in the more administrative side of media. You’re more likely to get hired as an editing assistant before making the move to colour.

Most importantly, just colour. The industry standard software I use, Da Vinci Resolve, is free to download. We use calibrated monitors and interface devices but you really don’t need the bells and whistles. There are tonnes of tutorials and free footage online. Shoot stuff with your friends and start grading it. And try to train your eye a little bit; watch a load of TV and films, and see if you can figure out what it is they’re doing and then try to replicate it.  

Trailer for Bad Day For The Cut (2017)

Posted 27 June 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Film, Digital
Mentions: Scott Ferguson, yellowmoon, Northern Ireland Screen, HBO, Game of Thrones
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