Meet Colorist Ryan McNeal

We would like to introduce you to Ryan McNeal, an independent colorist, providing color services to all scales of projects, large and small across a wide range of mediums, tv, film, music videos, and web content. In this post you’ll discover how Ryan went from hired hand to owning his own studio, the techniques he uses to bring out the emotional intention of the images he works with and, how he uses Blackmagic gear and Resolve to stream, edit, and color his own projects as well as his clients’.

Los Angeles Post Production Group: Can you share how being an oil painter inspires your work as a colorist and what tools you use to be able to help tell a story and influence viewer’s emotions?

Ryan McNeal: Although Film, TV, and Streaming are all relatively modern mediums to work in, the art of story-telling through visual media started at the dawn of humanity.  We are very visual creatures and visual storytelling is a pretty universal language.  For me, the great painters in classical art history discovered and pioneered many techniques that filmmakers employ every day.  Composition, controlled color pallet, dramatic lighting, emotive subjects, etc.  When I color, I am motivated by the art of the shot and approach it like a painting.  What are the hues that will best tell this story? How much of the subject’s world should we see?  How isolated should the subject be?  What is the base emotion the audience should feel?  Is this a harsh world? Or a soft one?

Broadly speaking, I use a set of techniques to execute the emotional intention of the images.

            1. Creative correction – control of the color pallet to evoke the right emotion and genre. This may or may not include film emulation, depending on the project.
            2. Creative shaping – vignettes, pinches, gradients of luma and/or hue to build up or breakdown the focus of the image.  Where are we looking?
            3. Texture – Images can be soft or sharp, in many senses of the word.  I selectively add and reduce contrast in areas of the image as well as sharpness.  Additionally, bloom and halation can be used to soften highlights. 
            4. Color Density – How heavy the colors feel, this is more to do with luminance, rather than saturation.  Film, for instance, is generally more dense in the shadows than the highlights, whereas video is linear and equal throughout the tonal range.
            5. Grain – In most narrative, even a small amount of grain is helpful in battling aggressive compression algorithms.  A noticeable degree of film grain can be pleasing to the eye, depending on the aesthetics of the film. 

LAPPG: Your work as color assistant at Company 3 lead you eventually into becoming a freelance colorist and starting your own independent color studio with your wife, Becky, called RKM Studios. Can you tell us about the process you went through from moving from an assistant at a big company to going off in your own?

RM: Going freelance after working for a larger company was scary.  I thought for sure I had enough clients and was ready.  Reality was I quit right when my handful of clients didn’t have any work.   I put a small office on a credit card and started hustling.  I would wake up early, hit Mandy and Craigslist each day and apply to everything, regardless of pay.  I saw myself as being in this mode of needing to build out my network and I would worry about the income later.  I got good at nabbing gigs on Mandy, having learned that you can stand out by specializing and not being a jack-of-all-trades.  I paint, I draw, I do photography, I write, I direct music videos, and I color.  But to Mandy jobs, I was just a colorist and nothing else.  Consistently I was told that was the reason clients picked me: I applied early, and I wasn’t trying to be everything.

My wife was working full time and I was getting enough freelance to keep the bills current.  I would often work 16 hours and had a poor sense of boundaries with clients.  I soon got busy enough to get the office space off my credit card and asked my wife, Becky to join me and help start a legitimate business. 

That was about 7-8 years ago and since then we’ve grown into a 6 person team, having recently brought on another colorist, Michael Schatz.  As a small team, we are nimble and able to provide a boutique experience.  We’ve carved out a niche by providing high quality work and treating every project with careful and intentional collaboration.   Clients love that we get involved and care about achieving the best image for their films.

RKM Studios

LAPPG: What services does RKM Studios currently offer and how much of the work you do is now remote collaboration?

RM: We provide creative color grading services for film, tv, streaming, and social media.  We work in SDR and HDR and have two color suites setup for accurate viewing environments.  We also offer online finishing services for long-form projects. 

We’ve seen continued interest in remote sessions beyond COVID reasons.  DPs are rarely paid to attend color sessions and often have to choose between working on paying gigs or being in the color session and missing out on work.  We’ve had a lot of DPs, especially long time clients, thrilled to be able to jump on the remote stream from set so that they can still be a part of the discussions without giving up work.  Of course it’s always best if we can all be in the same room, but with the way things are evolving, that is more and more a privilege rather than a requirement.

We’ve also been doing a lot of hybrid sessions, where the director or another creative is present at our studio, and we’ll have one or more creatives on our remote stream at the same time.  For our stream we use the Blackmagic Web Presenter 4K units with calibration LUTs to ensure high-quality real-time video anywhere in the world. 

Color Suite at RKM Studios

LAPPG: What advice do you have for colorists just starting out and what skills should someone cultivate to be able to do this work successfully?

RM: You can only learn how to be an artist through experience.  For the gear and the software, the internet can teach you just about anything, but to develop your critical eye and create art, you have to culture and enrich the artistic side of yourself.  Study classical art, study art history, study color theory and how it can be applied psychologically.   Photography is an excellent adjacent hobby that can teach you all about cameras and capturing images, as well as retouching.  Personally I do analog film photography as a hobby and develop my own photos for this reason.  Get inspired by art that isn’t film.   Go to museums, look at graphic design, go to gallery openings and find out what other people think of art.  Pay attention to the psychological reaction to art from those around you.   Most of the up-and-coming colorists I see on LiftGammaGain (colorist forum) are very technically minded and are overly engaged with the tools and the gear.  In the beginning, you’re hired because you’re the guy at the right price with the gear, but as you develop, you’re hired for your taste and speed.

Similar note, post production is not a “you build it, and they come” type of business.  You are hired on the equation: (Reputation + Reliability) * YourNetwork = nColorGigs.  Don’t waste money buying all the right gear before you’ve proven that you can make it work for you.  A decent laptop and a Resolve Mini panel is enough to get started on student and low budget stuff.  You have to create a brand and culture meaningful relationships with filmmakers so that you grow and maintain your network.  If you are unpleasant to work with, you will struggle in freelance.   I was an introvert and it took me a long time to come out of my shell and be more approachable.  I learned my lesson, and I offer it in kind.

Have humility.  Ego will destroy everything it touches.  It’s easy when you are good at something to wield that as a weapon against those you work with.  That makes you difficult and it will inhibit you from learning.  You will work with many people that know less about color, image design, art—that’s why they are hiring you.  Make sure you always approach disagreements with grace and a problem solving attitude.

Ryan McNeal working with DaVinci Resolve at RKM Studios

LAPPG: RKM Studios does really impressive work from music videos for Alicia Keys, Panic! at the Disco, and the Jonas Brothers to commercials for Nike, Acura, Hasbro, and Red Bull. What types of projects get you most excited to work on and are most projects collaborative or do directors generally come in with a particular vision which you deliver?

RM: Thank you for your kind words! I am most excited about projects that are creative, it’s fun to work with colors that aren’t typical and try new things.  But more than anything, I want the relationship to be positive.  The works you mentioned above, those filmmakers are some of the nicest, patient collaborators we work with, and I value that experience so highly.  You either have the privilege of spending 8 hours together making art, or you are trapped in a dark room with unpleasant people for 8 hours making mud, and I’d rather it be the first.

Every project is a different experience. Sometimes the filmmakers have a very specific vision, and the area I can play in is narrow.  Sometimes the filmmakers do not have any specific vision for color and are looking for a creative to collaborate and dream up a look with them.  I find I have to adapt to whatever’s needed, based on the experience level of the client.   

Examples of Ryan's Work

LAPPG: When first starting out you generally don’t get to do higher profile projects like these. Can you talk about how the work has evolved?
RM: In the beginning I was sifting through work on Mandy and Craigslist.  No project was beneath me since I needed to build my skills and my network.  It was about forging relationships.  There are three clients I still work with today that discovered me on those platforms.  All of them had super low-budget projects, but I was willing and eager to put in the time and make the connection.  Nearly 8 years later, those clients bring us some of the biggest work we’ve gotten.  It’s important to invest in people, because your network brings you the work, and everyone is trying to grow.  You never know who’s going to be the next big thing.
Over time, I got a couple creative projects that got me noticed by a little bit higher caliber clients.  And then that work got me noticed by even better clients, and so on and so forth.  The power of referral is huge.  All our work comes from referral.  We also  curate our social media presence and website to promote the work that we want more of.  These days, that is long-form narrative.
It’s cool to work on high profile projects, but I’ve learned to not be overly engaged just because there is a celebrity attached.  Often times, the presence of a celebrity ends up making the job all the more difficult from a communication and efficiency stand-point.   If the celebrity has a culture of fear around them, it leads to creatives worrying about approval and second-guessing their work.  I think it takes a seasoned producer to handle the approval process and expectations, otherwise things quickly get off the rails.
My post producer and partner Becky is excellent at that sort of communication and it is so much easier to work with difficult personalities when they know the limits of engagement.

LAPPG: When you own an independent studio in many ways you can be always on the clock as you need to do whatever it takes to get your client’s project out the door on time. How do you deal with ever tightening schedules and delivery dates?
RM: It takes a team to deal with the turnaround expectations in our industry.  When I was freelance on my own, a 16hr day was prescribed by the work.  Now with a small team we can efficiently break up the work and move even quicker.
It starts with the prep workflow.  We prep and color all jobs expecting last minute edit changes, overall color notes, and pickups.  By creating a pipeline to handle the chaos, the chaos isn’t so overwhelming.
I am always exploring new tools and tech to push the envelope on speed and efficiency.  Every second we cut out of the process adds up when we are responsible for dozens of projects per month.
Recently we worked on a feature doc where the deadline was tight and we needed to be able to color at the same time that the online was happening.  So the company doing the online was able to work independently to create the online in Resolve while we started color separately and they just sent us their .drp file when it was ready and we updated mid-color with no issues.  It was a smooth process and cut out a lot of time which allowed us to hit the client’s deadline!  Without that solution we would have needed to wait a full two weeks before starting color.

LAPPG: You and your wife, Becky have been working together for a long time. How do you two balance the work and what are some of the things you’ve learned to make this professional partnership run smoothly while maintaining your relationship since the lines can be blurry between work and home in this type of situation?

RM: Becky and I work really well as a team.  Open and clear communication of expectations is key.  We always talk things out.  It is important to be extra support for each other.  As business owners, we find ourselves worn out, overwhelmed, and stressed.  We each try and take on some of that weight when it is becoming disproportionate.  We also try and set boundaries.  Sometimes ineffectively.   During the work-from-home period of 2020-2021, it was really hard for us living with our work.  I congratulate anyone who can do that, we cannot.  Moving back into an office space was important for the growth of our company, but also for our mental health and being able to physically separate work and home life.

LAPPG: You also work as a director and enjoy taking a bold and cinematic approach to your projects. Your most recent short film, Desert Rose premiered at acclaimed film festivals including the Academy Qualifying HollyShorts Film Festival in Los Angeles. Congrats on that! What gear did you use to help you tell the story you wanted?
RM: Thank you!  Desert Rose was a very fulfilling personal project and I am very excited to get my next narrative endeavor off the ground.

For Desert Rose, we shot Red Helium and used Kowa anamorphic lenses.  I love the decided vintage feel of that set, it was perfect for our western.  I also direct music videos and usually we do a paper edit in DaVinci Resolve.  I like to put in titles that describe what is happening and edit that to the music to feel out the timing.  Then we edit in Resolve and Color in Resolve.   We’ve been doing that for years now, and it’s been great to see Resolve mature fully into a more-than-capable NLE.  I do my own VFX on my directorial projects, using a combination of Blender, After Effects, and Resolve to build, composite, and color each VFX shot.

Images from Desert Rose

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