An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a digital colourist.
I call David Tomiak after work one Wednesday evening. I’ve already come to realize that he’s a very busy guy; we’ve been playing phone tag for days, just trying to schedule this interview. About two minutes into the call, I learn why he’s so hard to get a hold of. Tomiak is the owner and sole creative force behind Silver Lining Post, the professional colour house he operates in Vancouver, B.C. With a client list that includes Unicef, Playstation, and Mazda, his schedule is as jam packed as it is eclectic.
But the key to Tomiak’s success isn’t his connections or his skills (although he has both); rather, it’s his super social personality. “I think what’s made my business successful is that I’m an extravert,” he explains. “It feels comfortable when you work with me.” By the end of our call—which ends up feeling more like a chat with an old friend than an interview—I’m completely convinced.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. How old are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
I’m 24. I’m from Calgary, Alberta. I’ve been doing professional colour correction for film for two years.
And what exactly is colour correction?
It’s basically like Instagram or Photoshop for video; you’ve finished the filming, finished the edits, and now you want to give it a “look” or a style. Like when you’re shooting photos and you have a raw image, raw footage doesn’t necessarily look like it did naturally. You have all the information, but your eye is never going to see what the camera sees, because your eyes are so incredibly powerful compared to the camera’s lens. So when you take your shot, it often looks very flat; there’s no contrast, no colour to it—it just looks very boring. Yet, it’s been able to hold all the information that your eye would see. Because of that, you have to take it to somebody to give it back that look that you wanted to achieve. That’s where I come in.
So is your main goal is to make the shot look more natural?
It depends. Sometimes it’s making it look more natural in ways that aren’t even natural. Sometimes it’s tricking the eye to look where you want the focus of the shot to be. For example, I’ll darken a corner to draw your eye to another corner, things like that. But yeah, my main job is to make it look like I haven’t done anything. Because if the colouring throws you out of the story and out of the piece, then you’ve kind of done your job wrong.
My main job is to make it look like I haven’t done anything. Because if the colouring throws you out of the story and out of the piece, then you’ve kind of done your job wrong.
But on the flip side, there are movies like Mad Max (the new one). It’s so colourful, so orange and so blue. If you ever want to see what a colourist does, look at Mad Max. That gives you a perfect example of what we do—to an extreme.
Why would they want the footage to look so orange and blue?
The point of it is they want it to pop, to seem intense, very “wow.” It was a very bold move. If you looked at the treated image next to a normal image, you’d be like, “Why the hell would they do it this way?” But the thing that people forget about is that your eyes adjust to it. If you saw one image like that beside a normal image, you’d think, “That’s too crazy.” But since they did the whole film that way, your eyes adjust to it so fast that you don’t even realize.
Tell me more about how you got started. How did you end up in this line of work?
I was raised in Calgary and then moved to Vancouver when I had just turned eighteen to study film. I didn’t know anyone here, but I thought Vancouver was the place to be; it’s like the Hollywood of the North. I went to Vancouver Film School for a year, got out, and then just started volunteering. For about a year and a half, I volunteered on sets as much as I could; I just got out every day and put my head to the ground.
From there, I met a guy named Stefan Berill, and he and I started a company together called Brass Tacks Films. We serviced music videos, music documentaries, that kind of thing, and because of that, we started going on tours with bands, filming interviews and music videos with them. I was doing colour correction for all our videos at the time but never saw it as a career. Then, two years ago, I broke both my arms in a biking accident. I couldn’t film anymore—I couldn’t even hold a camera. So I started doing colour correction. From there, I started my own business called Silver Lining Post and set up a studio. Now I do that full-time in Vancouver.
Is it pretty typical to volunteer in order to break into the industry?
I think so, yeah. I think there’s a misconception about film. It is an art, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also a trade. You do internships and you meet nice people and you just try to get yourself into the community. Because the thing is, you’re working such long days in film—fourteen or fifteen hour days—that, as good as you are at your job, it actually matters more how good of a person you are: how social you can be with people, how good your work ethic is. What makes really great people in film? What keeps them around? It’s about your personality, about being able to apply yourself and be the hardest worker.
What makes really great people in film? What keeps them around? It’s about your personality, about being able to apply yourself and be the hardest worker.
What kind of training or education do you need to enter this career?
The biggest thing for me was volunteering, but there’s a bunch of different ways you can educate yourself in film. Looking back now, I wouldn’t recommend people go to film school; I’d recommend you save that money and get yourself on set. Because that’s the thing about film school: you pay $15,000 or $30,000 and you come out and you have to find a way to pay your student loans. So you get a job at the liquor store or wherever, and then, when, the next day, someone calls to say, “Hey I need a day call on set tomorrow morning. Can you be available?” all of a sudden you’ve limited yourself because of that job. But if you can spend that 15 grand that you were going to spend on school and just volunteer for six months, eight months, or even a year? That is the best schooling you can do for film, at least in my mind.
But there are great programs out there. If you want to be an artist—a director or something—and not a technician like I am, there are programs that teach you about writing, the history of film, and that’s amazing too. So if you’re looking more into the writing or directing world, I think it’s great to do school. But if you want to do a trade, I would personally say that you can learn a lot from self-learning. Art school is great, but at the end of the day, you don’t need a degree to work in film. If you’re good at what you do and you keep working at it, you’ll keep getting hired.
Art school is great, but at the end of the day, you don’t need a degree to work in film. If you’re good at what you do and you keep working at it, you’ll keep getting hired.
What drew you to film? And to colour correction specifically?
I love documentaries. I love that I could potentially have a job that lets me travel the world and tell stories about really beautiful, amazing people. That’s really why I got into film. Because I love talking to people, I love interviewing people, I love the connection with people. And I also love holding a camera. But I was never a “film kid.” When I got to film school, I hadn’t seen any movies; I was very sheltered as a child. I was the kid in film school who everyone asked, “Why are you in film?” My answer was always, “I like picking up a camera. I like telling real stories.” I feel like the real world is so interesting in itself that you don’t have to make up fiction.
What got me into colour correction was that I realized I could make really good money doing it. When I started doing colour after my arm, I realized that this was a really good business. There was very little to no one in my city doing it in the way I’m doing it, as an independent person. I saw that there was a niche I could capitalize on and charge a premium for. Plus it was really only one degree away from what I was already doing. I had initially gotten into cinematography: lighting and camerawork. As a colourist, I could work closely with cinematographers, but instead of being on set I now sit on a chair. I still get to be creative, I still get to sculpt the image, but just in a little bit of a different way.
How do you find work as a colorist? Is it difficult to seek out jobs?
No. I’m a 100% word-of-mouth based business. I pride myself on being a really social person, whereas some people who work on computers full time can be more introverted. So I think what’s made my business successful is that I’m an extravert and that I go and sell myself.
As a colourist, I sit with the cinematographer or the director as I work, so that they can give me their opinion on how they want their film to look. But what’s made me a little bit different in this industry is that I don’t just sit there and work; I talk to my clients. We have conversations, we laugh and discuss things, we hang out. It’s like I’m the mom-and-pops version of my job, which is typically a very intense, stark, and professional thing. A mom-and-pops colourist—that’s how I like to market myself. It feels comfortable when you work with me.
What’s the job market like right now?
There are a lot of businesses similar to what I’m doing in Vancouver. They’re called post-production houses. But they charge a large amount of money because they have an extreme amount of overhead. They have so many employees and assistants. They also tend to focus on the luxury of it, bringing you food, coffee etc... So colour correction, traditionally, is a boutique thing—the cherry on top of your film. And that’s the way it’s been for the past 40 years. But people don’t necessarily want that stuff; they just want to see their films being taken care of and not pay a very large amount of money for it. I saw that niche and jumped into it. Toronto has a lot of guys who are doing what I’m doing; so does LA. Vancouver just doesn’t.
Would you say the business is changing a lot right now?
I don’t think my business is dying, by any means, but colour correction is definitely at a place where people are going to stop caring as much. Nothing is perfect colour anymore. Up until ten years ago, you had a controlled environment of what people watched on. You either watched on TV—which all had the same calibration because there was no need for HD or anything like that—or they saw it in the movie theatres, where everyone had the exact same projectors. Now, people watch movies on their LG TV, their Panasonic TV, their Mac computer, their iPhone, their Samsung. All of those devices have different colour profiles, so even after colour correction everything looks different now. Even the colour correction between Safari, Chrome, and Firefox is different. So that’s a new challenge we’re all trying to grapple with now.
Could you walk me through a typical day of work?
Usually I’m in the office around 9 or 10 am, and answer emails for the first hour. I like to book in one or two colour sessions per day. Depending on how much of a budget the person has, I allot them a certain amount of hours. Say they have $400, I would give them four hours. So I’ll do that project for four or five hours, then maybe finish things on another project. (I usually try and have about six or seven projects on the go at one time.) But sometimes the client wants to meet at 8 am, sometimes at 11 am, sometimes at 6 pm, so there’s no routine, really, to my day.
Because of that, I try to cater my day so that I’m not going crazy. As a colourist, I can’t work 15 hour days; my eyes just won’t allow me to. Because I’m staring at a computer screen trying to decipher colour, there’s only a certain amount of hours in a day that I can work, while still giving the client that $100 an hour effort. I can’t do it, because then the projects suck; the client isn’t getting what they paid for. But that’s been a learning process; I’ve only really realized that in the last six months.
A Day in the Life of a Digital Colourist
I get in the office
Work on a project
Drive to drop off a hard drive, then drive back to the office
Colour session doing final notes
End of work day
What kind of hours do you end up working in a typical week, then?
60? 70? Typically, I work seven days a week.
Tell me about your work environment. Where do you work and who with?
I’m in a shared office space; there are eight filmmakers with me here. With colour correction you need a very specific room. You can’t have any light leaking in because it messes with the light that you’re seeing on the computer. When you’re outside, for example, the light is actually really blue, but because your eyes adjust, it looks white. That means if you try to tell what a colour is when you’re outside, it will actually be different from what you’re seeing it as, because your eyes have adjusted. So I need a very controlled room; my office walls are painted 18% grey (because that’s a neutral colour), and I have zero light pollution in my room.
So although I have eight other filmmakers with me in the office, they’re all in a big, open room, and I’m in an enclosed setting. I’m like a zombie. I’m in a dark room all the time. Seven days a week I am staring at a screen in a dark room. That’s what this job is—which is hard on anyone. But I’ve learned to control it; I insist that clients are in the room with me, I will not do over eight hours, I give myself breaks, I stand at my desk, I do other things.
I’m like a zombie. I’m in a dark room all the time. Seven days a week I am staring at a screen in a dark room.
What’s the work culture like? Is it a social career?
It’s extremely social, very friendly, and very easy going. You are usually drinking beers by 4:30, if not a little bit earlier. Everyone works for themselves, so you just hustle. People are running around all day going, “I have to be on this shoot in ten minutes,” or “I’m editing this music video right now,” or, “I have to go shoot a businessman talking about his retirement.” People work on the weirdest projects, because we’re all independent filmmakers. So it’s nice. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have these guys in my office too. It would be very lonely otherwise.
What’s the best thing about your career?
I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. Last year, I took a trip down to South America for a month to shoot a fun little documentary with my friend Regina. So I control every aspect of my life. If I want to leave early to do something else, or I want to go camping in the middle of the week, I can do that. Before I did colour correction, I wasn’t able to do that because I was held back by money. Now, because I make money doing this—doing the thing that other people don’t want to do—it has given me complete control over my life. That is the perk of it.
I can do whatever I want, whenever I want...If I want to leave early to do something else, or I want to go camping in the middle of the week, I can do that.
What’s the worst thing about your career?
Sitting in a dark room, alone. Especially when it’s 30 degrees outside and your friends are on set. Even if it’s a gruelling set, at least they’re outside, they’re on their feet, and they’re doing things. Whereas you are in an an office, in a chair, in a dark room, staring at a computer. That is so hard to get over.
What’s your work life balance like?
I’m not sure it exists. My work life balance is starting to level out, but I don’t think I can answer that right now because I’m not really there yet. I work way more than I should. But that’s because I’ve only ever known work; I went straight to Vancouver after I graduated high school. But it’s getting better. I still have to create a routine for myself, but it’s getting there.
Why is this kind of work a good fit for you?
I think it suits my personality really well. I’m sociable, I talk to people, and I can put things into perspective. I know that it’s worth me sitting down and pushing through the hard things because what I’ll get to create is better. But I’m also very, very young for my job, and there’s so much to learn in this business. I think any young entrepreneur will tell you the exact same thing.
Who struggles in this line of work?
People who can’t understand that it’s a mixture of technology and art, that you’re half technician, half artist. You have to understand that you’re limited by cameras, by the footage people bring you, by time, by expectation—all of those things. You have to manage your time well. You have to manage how deep you want to get into your artistry versus how technical you know it needs to be. So it can be very hard to find assistants, because they can be either too artistic or too technical. A lot of people get fed up with this work. They see this job on the surface and think, “Wow, that’s really cool. I want to do that.” Then they jump right in without really realizing what it is; they don’t realize that we’re literally fighting natural instincts by sitting in a dark room looking at a screen.
What kind of person would you recommend this career to?
I would recommend this career to people who want this, but more. Colour correction is amazing because it’s one of the only things in film that allows you to keep your own schedule, control your own life and then, on top of that, do whatever filmmaking you want past that. I’d recommend it to people who want to work in film, love the creativity of it, are also kind of technical, and understand that this career allows you to work in a passionate art but also have the freedom to have your own life. I think that’s the thing that people in art often don’t have; they have no work life balance. I can come off of a day and actually work on my own projects—and feel inspired to do that. But if you’re on set and you work a fourteen hour day, it is going to be really hard to come home and work on your own project for the next four hours.
It’s a really good fit for people who are good with computers, who are good at troubleshooting. You have to be able to find out how to fix issues, and if the fix to an issue doesn’t exist, then you’ve got to be able to create it. You have to deliver. You’re the final person to go through the film, so if there’s an issue, it’s on you.
You have to be able to find out how to fix issues, and if the fix to an issue doesn’t exist, then you’ve got to be able to create it. You have to deliver. You’re the final person to go through the film, so if there’s an issue, it’s on you.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in colour correction?
Manage your time. Don’t work too much. Since you’re doing it on your own, you have no schedule; you can work as long or as late as you want. It can be gruelling. My other piece of advice would be that not every film is your masterpiece. You go through so many projects that you cannot be as emotionally invested in them as the directors are. They want everything, and you have to learn to be the person who doesn’t give them everything. Because you can’t, because that doesn’t exist. You’ve got to be the voice of reason, because otherwise, the project can go on for days.
What do you wish that you had known before going into this career?
I wish I would have known that it is way more technical than you think it is. Then I would have figured out the technical parts early on, instead of having to learn them at four in the morning when I’m freaking out because nothing is working. It would have been a lot easier to go to one of those post houses and intern for a year, learn all the little tricks, and then go do this.
Where do you learn all the tricks now? What do you do when you get stuck?
Figure it out myself. I can call some friends and learn some things, but mostly, I learn workarounds. But on the flip side to that comment, I’ve learned how to troubleshoot really well. Most issues I can resolve—and if I can’t find the solution to that issue, there’s always a workaround to it. Like in anything in life, there’s always a workaround. So I like it because it’s also made me, as a person, easier to get along with. I’m have more of an, “Oh, whatever, we’ll work it out” attitude.
I’ve learned how to troubleshoot really well. Most issues I can resolve—and if I can’t find the solution to that issue, there’s always a workaround to it. Like in anything in life, there’s always a workaround.
There’s a reason post houses exist, and it’s because so many things can go wrong. When you’re a one guy system with nothing around you but yourself, you have nothing to say, no one to help you, no one to bring you in. I’ve almost quit this job five or six or seven—or a million—times, on a seventeenth hour when nothing was working. But that’s the reality of doing it yourself in a field that doesn’t really exist as a one person thing.
That’s why I’m so excited for young people coming into the field: because they know computers naturally. I didn’t grow up with the internet as much as these kids have. From the age of five, they’ve been exposed to the web; their sense of being able to work around computers is amazing compared to what I have. That’s such an exciting thing; young people will come in and be able to say, “Oh, why don’t you just try this, and then do this?” They’re going to do it instinctively, which means they can bring creativity to it as well.
Traditionally, colour has always been an old man’s game. No one young thinks they can do it, but now the technology is allowing them to learn it. Of course, a lot of young people are still afraid of it—because you have to buy all this gear, you have to make sure that your room is calibrated properly and that you have a dark room. But it’s actually not that expensive to do; it’s more that it’s time consuming and can seem daunting.
What kind of career trajectory does your job have? Are there many opportunities to move up in the business, or do people typically stay in one role for a long time?
It depends. If you got hired as a colourist at a post house, you would do the rounds. As a Junior Colourist, you wouldn’t get to do the most creative projects. You would be working on editing, onlining, finishing, all the technical stuff, as you work your way up in the ranks. Both are ways of eventually becoming a colourist, I just like doing it independently more.
But the way I’m doing it? I don’t know. This company is very specific to me, which makes it very hard to think about expanding it. I’m just riding this wave right now. Call me back in five years and I’ll let you know.