Light and shade: Get to know film colorist Yibin ‘AB’ Su
Yibin ‘AB’ Su wasn’t 100% sure what he wanted to do in the film industry, but he knew he wanted to be a part of it in one way or another. It was after an internship with D&Q Post Production, he quickly discovered that his passion was in providing the highest quality of color grading. Through demonstrating his high level technique and talent, Su quickly became one of the hottest color graders in the Chinese and American film industry.
Now, Yibin ‘AB’ Su is ready to help the next generation of filmmakers and colorists become acquainted with professional techniques. In a Zoom workshop with up and coming filmmakers, Su is looking to help people get a grasp on the basics of the DaVinci Resolve.
We spoke with Su about his experiences on past projects and his workshop, as well as the importance of color grading in the filmmaking process. You can read the full interview below.
Tell us about your history in the film industry. How did you start your journey?
I was aiming at production positions like producing, cinematography or gaffering while I was exploring my options in college. B, but I didn’t get any luck with it when I was looking for internship jobs. There was only one post-production company, D&Q Post Production, that ever got back to me, so I just took it because there’s no other choices. I started as an assistant editor in that company, a role in which I didn’t enjoy at all.
But right on the second day of my work, I met the senior colorist and we totally hit it off. And he showed me what he does. That was the first time I knew about the field of color grading and I completely fell for it. And I mustered up the courage to ask him to be my mentor. That’s how I started my journey in color grading.
My boss agreed with the change in positions and allowed me to take on the role of the conforming artist/assistant colorist in the house. I spent the daytime doing my duties, and at night, learned color grading from my mentor at night. This whole crazy schedule lasted for approximately two weeks, giving me little time to sleep. Later on, after I had a grasp on color grading, I asked my boss and my mentor to give me real jobs to work on to prove my skills.
They were more than satisfied with my first work and started to transition me into the role by giving me the ower priority sideshows as a test. Back then, there was a huge variety of content, which allowed me to practice different techniques. Along with the tight schedule and rushed deadlines, I learned to work quickly and efficiently without sacrificing quality.
One and half years later, I decided to chase my production dream so I came to the United States for a film master’s program (City College of New York). In order to make ends meet with living expenses and tuition, I used all my spare time to do freelance color grading projects. After graduating and having a taste of doing production work in the industry, I felt a non-stop growing passion for color grading through all the expertise I gained.
I was determined to step into the industry as a professional a full-time colorist, and and received an offer for my current job, where I am working in the Color Department at Gloss Studio.
You worked as a professional DIT and colorist for Hunan TV and Hangzhou D&Q Post Production Co. Ltd. What’s the most useful skill you learned while working for these companies?
I would say it would be the general personality of being a post-production worker. When I first launched my career, I did not know much about post-production. In D&Q, they have a policy that everyone has to take one week of editing training camp no matter what department you are in.
That means that the people on the production, financial and managing staff all know the basics of what goes into post-production. This process is meant to make sure that other people can step in to fill in necessary roles rather than waiting on other colleagues. I gained a sense of caution, persistence, thoroughness and learned to be self-demanding. My experienced really stepped up my personal standards of high quality work and my time at D&Q will stick with me for the rest of life. I really appreciate all the people that have brought me to where I am now.
Another thing I feel grateful for is how the people at D&Q were so willing to help me get my foot in the door. My color mentor played the biggest role in my career, who passed down so much of his knowledge of color grading to me.
What is the most difficult aspect of working as a colorist?
It would probably be the communication with the client, who is usually the director of the piece. Being a colorist is a creative job but we need to take orders from the directors to follow their vision, despite, the directors might not having full knowledge about color and light. So in a conversation, it is part of the colorist’s’ job to get into the directors’ minds and understand what they expect to have.
When the colorists speak about their work, it is important for us to speak as simply as possible to communicate our intentions with no extra bells and whistles or technical terms that would over complicate the conversation. Besides that, colorists should be adaptable and able to cater to directors’ taste. A large part of the job is about being adaptable to different personalities and the ability to have a clear conversation. As long as that is done, the rest will come through easily and smoothly.
You recently completed a workshop on DaVinci Resolve. What inspired you to embark on this project?
Even though I’m primarily in the film industry, I still have a lot of friends that work on other forms of media, such as visual art, vloggers, and educational-purpose video makers. Color grading is an exclusive world, and even if they are part of the world of filmmaking, they don’t quite get to know about it. Within the two years I have been living in NYC, when people met me for the first time, I am always asked to show them how to do it.
When the last person I met asked me the same thing again, I had the idea to make a webinar to show the process to everyone that is interested in the art of color grading. I organized the webinar to have a casual environment to better help friends out and showing them how to color grade through a quick tour in DaVinci Resolve.
I also invited students from City College of New York to participate in the event. I did this because the last time when I was invited to share a little experience with their current students, I heard about their concerns of color, which sometimes stopped them from moving forward to finish their projects.
As someone who has found success as a colorist, do you feel a responsibility to help the aspiring colorists of tomorrow?
It would be a stretch to say that I am helping the aspiring colorists of tomorrow because I still don’t think I’m on the very top of the industry yet, and that everyone has their own method of color grading. But as I look back ointo my journey, I really appreciated that my mentor opened the door for me.
When I just started my career, I realized that what I have learned was not enough to hold me up. And my mentor walked in, shined a light on my path and lit up my passion. I don’t aim to be someone else’s mentor anytime in the future but I definitely look forward to inspiring people one day, just like how my mentor did for me. I think it’s very meaningful and it brings more possibilities to our industry.
Do you feel colorization is an underappreciated part of the filmmaking process?
No, I don’t think that’s the case because colorists do get well paid and are highly respected for the professional expertise we provide. However, I believe that it’s considered to be one of the last steps of post production shortly before Quality Checking, which is also done by the color department.
I totally understand that the production team has some pressure to make the best of the extreme notes and feedback for the color process. However, it should be known that colorists can not make something out of nothing and that the visual experience relates more to the content itself rather than the luma and chroma. I hope that clients could be a bit more patient and understanding towards that is possible in the realm of what a colorist can provide.
You colorized the documentaries The Hurtful Truth I Never Told My Parents and HAPI. Does your approach change depending on the subject matter?
It does. Color grading is really about using luma and chroma to help tell the story and should fit right into the pace and the vibe of the story. The category of the genre are important too. For fiction, it takes quite a lot of consideration about the emotion and dynamic in the scene. Is it passive, aggressive, quiet, intense, realistic, dreamy or devastating? Based on the understanding, colorists get to choose color palette and grayscale to stylize it.
For documentaries, it’s more generally realistic but also dependent on the content. For example, The Hurtful Truth I Never Told My Parents, is about why Asian families are known to avoid talking about mental issues. It’s a crooked thought process, is not healthy and the documentary touches upon sensitive topics. I decided to focus on the power of emotion, using realistic rich colors, to show that everyone has their own ups and downs.
HAPI, on the other hand, is about finding bonds among economy, culture and history and is more of a serious research topic. To showcase that, I left it bright and cold to focus on the power of the voice of sense.
How closely do you work with the filmmakers when colorizing a project?
It’s pretty close. I always invite directors to come over to look at the piece together on the same calibrated monitor. We then have a chat and bond over the project, which helps smooth out the collaboration a lot. We will keep in touch online everyday to update each other on the process, and at the end of the process, I sometimes invite them to come over again to look at the final pass to make sure we are on the same page.
Do you prefer working on projects you have an emotional connection with?
I do. So far, all the projects I have done are chosen intentionally. I like to be surprised by the story and be able to connect with the characters, also to see different values from different filmmakers. It’s a journey of having joyful visual experience. When I do that, I find myself more motivated to go the extra mile to put my own insight into the projects. I take more time to consider what effects will be good for the story as well.
What is your favorite part of being a professional colorist?
My favorite part is that I am able to do work alone in a dark room. While I am still working, I also think of it as personal me time. Despite my ability to get along well with people. I have a bit of social anxiety so I enjoy working alone as it allows me to think more.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
Yes. It might be hard to find mentors since it’s an exclusive world. And I also feel like quite a lot of colorists think of our expertise as superb craftsmanship and usually don’t like to spend time teaching others. Professional grading courses are extremely expensive, which makes color grading pretty inaccessible.
If I were a beginner, I would learn the basics from the many free basics tutorials that are available online. Black Magic Design, (the company that makes DaVinci Resolve,) has its own free training site. The information provided is basic, but thorough.
After having the knowledge of the basics, those looking to gain more experience should keep practicing and apply for jobs of assistant colorists. In that way, they’ll get to meet senior colorists in a company who could potentially become mentors that’ll lead them further.
The variety show Back to Field is one of your most notable projects to date. How did coloring for television differ from coloring for film?
The biggest difference between film and TV projects is that TV shows have tighter schedules and a rapid turnover. For example, we did two to three projects every season and had to color up to two 90-minutes-long episodes every week. For film, we usually get an entire month to do one 90-minute-long feature. Because of the time constraints, the industry typically has lower standards for TV projects and the team is expected to just carry out minimum work on them.
However, work for films need to be detailed and perfect, which allows me to be more creative. TV projects relate to quick workflow and also a lot of different forms or different media, which means the staff has to be very technical-savvy to have instant workarounds for urgent situations. That’s a secret to how I got to grow my skills in such a tight timeframe.
Has COVID affected your working methods? If so, how have you worked around it?
Yes and no. Remote color grading had existed long before the pandemic. As I said earlier, colorists are always alone to do their jobs, so there is no difference whether they are working at home or in studios. One thing that did change is that we are no longer able to meet clients in person to talk or view the last pass before releasing the final product.
For my personal work experience, I just make sure we communicate on the phone as much as we can, allowing us to stay connected and have better conversations. I also help clients to set up an appropriate environment to watch the piece, so the content clients see on their end would be closer to what I see and what the audience will see.
Who are your biggest artistic influences?
The first person that came to me is the director Ridley Scott. The image style of his work is exactly the style I am looking to achieve. My favorite two pieces of his are Black Rain and Blade Runner.
Both of these works have high contrast, along with a deep black and large noise film texture. They use a complicated color palette but also a bit flat in saturation. Even in his recent works like the Alien series and Raised by Wolves, you still can see that style a bit.
How important do you think color is to the storytelling process?
I personally really think it’s less important than other aspects like cinematography, production design or editing, and especially the story itself. However, making films is a lengthy process and all aspects of post-production play an equal role in the final product. I believe that color grading should be valued as important as other post-production roles are.
Other parts of the storytelling are more about the artist “to creating what they want, but color grading is more about optimizing with what they have”, giving it a whole different meaning in the whole workflow. When it comes to color grading, contents have already been made and we can only use what we have to fix problems. At the end of the day, colorists might be the game changer and the life saver.
What music inspires you to create?
Strangely enough, we always try to avoid getting affected by music so it’s a known process within the industry to shut down the audio of the videos. I do listen to music while doing color such as soothe post-rock music, which helps me focus, but . doesn’t help much in my process.
What has been your greatest professional success?
When I was in China, I was lucky to be involved in multiple hit shows like Back to Field, with 1.8 billion views,. The Coming One, with 4.5 billion views, and Hilarious Family, with around 1 billion views.
Now, because I work in a local well-known post production company, I get to work with clients like Versace, Cartier, Skii, WNBA, and other big brands. I even had the chance to work on materials of big celebrities like Simone Biles and Cody Simpson.
How about your biggest professional failure? What did you learn?
I haven’t had any situation that I would call big failures. However there were a couple of collaborations that fell through in the end. It’s all about getting along with the people I’m working with and sometimes I found it hard to match the energy from some of the clients.
Recently I have been learning how to interpret color terms in a better way and also to be more understanding. Sometimes it’s hard for clients to fully know what I do and I have to accept that problem.
What advice do you have for aspiring colorists?
Color grading is not a huge field but relates to so many aspects in the film industry. My experience is to say keep grinding and practicing. The more we do, we have more solutions to future projects and allows us to have a better understanding of color.