Making the Grade: Bringing Intentions to Life with James Bamford
As The Mill London’s head of colour and a multi-award winning colourist in his own right, James has some of the industry’s most prestigious accolades under his belt and is widely recognised as one of the best in his field and a true collaborative force. James is an expert combination of exceptional technical skill and a wealth of industry experience, alongside being a permanent fixture in Televisual’s ‘Top 10 Colourists’ poll. He is known for his cinematic style that delivers awe-inspiring imagery and enhances the story within every frame.
Recent creative highlights include winning a Gold for his work on Deka ‘Kiss’ at the Kinsale Shark Awards, a Gold for Guinness ‘The Purse’ and a Bronze for Carlsberg ‘The Lake’ at the Creative Circle awards. All three are also nominated at the postponed 2020 British Arrows Awards. Collaborators include the likes of Adam Berg, Hanna Maria Heidrich, Matthew Vaughn, Oscar Hudson, Nicolai Fuglsig, Henry Hobson, Tom Green, Jan Wentz, Aoife McArdle, Taika Waititi, Daniel Warwick, Max Fisher, amongst many other leading directorial talents.
LBB> What was your first experience with the world of colour grading – and when did you decide that being a colourist was a role that you wanted to pursue?
James> I originally joined The Mill in pursuit of a career in 3D or CG, however after starting as a runner, as was the norm back then, I became fascinated with the mysterious dark rooms of colour. After that I spent all my time there, I was hooked!
LBB> What was the project that you felt really changed your career?
James> I don’t think one project can define you, the journey was a long one, however a particular project springs to mind – Volvo ‘The Epic Split’ directed by Andreas Nilson, with Jean-Claude van Damme, doing the splits on two trucks to Enya soundtrack. It generated a lot of attention and topped 108 million views.
LBB> How/where did you hone your craft and did you have any particular mentors?
James> I started as a runner seventeen years ago at The Mill, I suppose it was like an apprenticeship, I learnt the craft by working under some of the top colourists in the industry like Fergus McCall, but Adam Scott was my Yoda!
LBB> Tell us more about your creative process
James> Initially I try to be a sponge, I listen to all the creative inputs for the job, take it all in and understand how they want it to feel. The art of the colourist is then to take all those intentions and bring it to life on screen. It will inevitably depend on the job as some will be more straightforward than others, such as a specific era or film reference, which can be quite literal, whereas some projects are more loose by definition. This is where I will have more freedom and draw more upon my instincts as a colourist. I don’t really have a set way I go about things, I try to keep each project separate, that way I don’t get channelled into a look that has been overused.
LBB> From experience, we’ve found that colourists often love art and photography - when you’re out of the studio, what inspires you?
James> Good question. I love film, old and new and I guess a lot of inspiration comes from that. Also, I love playing around with photography but most of my pictures these days are of my kids. I think as a colourist you tend to look at life through a different lens and inspiration can come from the smallest of things.
LBB> Colour grading is largely a digital affair, but there’s also been a resurgence of film over the past few years in commercials and music videos. What are your thoughts about working on film versus digital formats like 4K? And what are your favourite techniques for capturing a vintage or tactile feel?
James> It’s a digital affair now that’s true, however having cut my teeth on grading film I remember the digital insurgence being rather disappointing in its early stages. This of course is not true now but it’s amazing how many requests I get to give the footage that filmic/cinematic look. I suppose it’s like hearing that crackle on the record player, it’s that organic feeling that resonates with you. Personally I love film, it happens to capture more than digital, it seems to capture the atmosphere more.
There are a number of techniques used in grading to achieve this. Film emulation LUT’s do a fantastic job of replicating the printing process and you can always add grain to give a little texture. One great way a few filmmakers work around this problem is shooting the finished project out to film. This can really help ‘bed’ the VFX in and also give that tactile feel. The great thing is we have a treasure trove of tools these days to get the very best out of every image.
LBB> When working in commercials, what role can colour and a grade play in enhancing a brand’s assets and what sort of conversations do you have with creatives and clients about that?
James> On a new campaign you might want to create a look that is easily identifiable and associated with that brand. Colour is such an important part of the storytelling process and a target audience can be reached easier if the grading is directed towards them.
Sometimes that can be a conflicting conversation, in a creative process you can forget you’re trying to sell something. There are always ways to increase brand awareness within an image and you can shape and manipulate that to steer the viewer into it.
LBB> How do you ensure that each colourist-director partnership is a success?
James> Trust. Plain and simple. When you start working with a director you need to establish this, or some form of it, as everything else builds from that. For example you create a common language between you that can explain their intentions in the easiest way. Also they can trust that their visions can be held and fought for on their behalf.
LBB> What advice would you give to budding colourist?
James> Question everything, strive for perfection (although never achieved!), step away from the normal, research new ways of doing things, never stop learning, go the extra mile and never get comfortable.
LBB> In your opinion, what’s difference between a good grade and a great grade?
James> Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For me grades should take you on a journey without knowing you boarded that train. I think all considered grades will do this to an extent, the great ones just sing out to you.
LBB> How is the craft and trade of colour grading changing?
James> Over the years there have been many changes and we as colourists have evolved and adapted, especially recently with Covid. Pre-Covid we were doing remote grades with other parts of the world where clients were unable to attend. This has now become common practice and I have like so many others have a grading room setup at home. Filmlight have been amazing in accommodating our needs during this time, and being able to utilise tech like Clearview flex gives our clients a professional experience from their homes too. This flexibility has opened so many doors, maybe cloud grading could become the norm. How this moves forward will be interesting to see. I think we will be able to take away what we have learnt and use it our advantage, yet I think nothing beats being in a room together and collaborating on a look.