Color By Design

An Interview with Colorist + Instructor Natacha Ikoli

By Rachel Baron | August 3rd, 2020

Natacha Ikoli started out as an editor in film, working in institutional positions at the UN and UNICEF. It wasn’t until she started freelancing that she found her way into the artful world of color grading. “Kind of randomly, a friend of mine put me in contact with someone who was doing coloring,” she said. And the meeting proved serendipitous. Natacha found she had transferable skills and started pursuing color editing full time, holding positions at Company 3 and Color Collective.

Now Natacha is freelance once again, working on her own filmmaking projects and partnering with studios as their colorist. “I was always trying to stay engaged with the medium. For many filmmakers in New York, balancing skills and meandering for a bit is common.”

On top of it all, she leads our DaVinci Resolve Color workshop tomorrow. We talked to her about some of her favorite examples of color, what she’s currently working on and her dream of seeing more women colorists in film.

Rachel Baron: What are some formative experiences you had during your study of film?

Natacha Ikoli: I assisted and got to a place where I was a pretty decent editor but then I assisted again as a colorist. Learning from senior editors was the most valuable part of my learning experience. Sitting next to someone who’s got some tricks and is willing to share them with you. Concrete examples. I know a lot of people use video tutorials, but I find having the proximity to someone a little more senior and experienced is the most valuable part of my experience.

RB: Can you tell us a little about your philosophy around the process of color grading?

NI: In general, because I came through color grading by way of editing, I always keep in mind that it has to inform the story, it has to support the story. I know some colorists are very inclined to create these beautiful, stylized, standalone frames and that’s like one skill that I respect. But to me it always has to be connected to how it serves the narrative structure. So I always try to see color grading as a pillar of storytelling, because it’s the first thing people will see through their eyes. Always trying to remember it’s not just about aesthetics and making something look polished and stylized, but it’s also like how does this approach connect to the rest of the story?

RB: What is inspiring you currently?

NI: I love movies. I love 35mm films because there is a quality to the actual negative that’s really hard to recreate in digital color grading. A lot of the films I find exquisite often happen to be shot on film so the color process is kind of baked into the film. I’m thinking of Salome, technicolor, as just beautiful production design and because of the technicolor process, it’s just enjoyable to look at and very vivid. Also Pariah, a more recent film, where just the skin tone and palette is rich and the contrast is the right density. Chernobyl more recently had a very, very strong look and palette that tended to lean a little greener. But it really supported the drama of the nuclear explosion.

A lot of European movies that have a softer look, like Two Days, One Night by the Dardenne Brothers. Everything is very lifted and low-key but in the context of a story that’s really tragic. It’s the contrast between a tragic story and a really ethereal environment. We could continue like this for a long time. I also love Days of Heaven, because everything was shot at golden hour, notoriously. It’s a conversation that you get to have in production and post. The decision to shoot at golden hour creates a palette de facto and you do have a certain look for the entire film because of that decision you made on set and it does affect how you experience the movie.

RB: How have you found balance between working as both a colorist and a video artist? How do you approach your own projects versus those of others?

NI: So this has been made easier since going freelance I have to say. When I was attached to a studio and having to go to the same place every day as a commitment to your assignment, it’s really hard to design your time on your own because you are tied to those rigid hours. Since being freelance, between jobs, you do have those gaps of time on your own where it allows you to refocus on what you want to do. Time management has been much easier in that respect since going independent. I can block out on my calendar when I am available for hired work or when I’m working on my own project.

RB: Any projects you'd like to share?

NI: There’s a project I finished this year titled Farewell, Amor that premiered at Sundance this February and was directed by Ekwa Msangi and shot by Bruce Gaul. It was really beautiful cinematography to begin with. I’m just really proud of that project because we had a lot of moods to create, it’s a triptych so three different stories that come together. That as a colorist is always super exciting. You know when you have to create three separate things but also link them at the same time and make them distinct but also with some element of connection. That’s going to be available to see hopefully soon, once the festival rounds are over.

And as of right now, I’m working on a short documentary that profiles a young American who is a DACA recipient and lives in Arizona, who’s trying to get permanent status. It’s an example of a project that’s documentary-based that’s shot really beautifully and the filmmakers don’t just tell the story, but also have a visual emotion through the film. I love working on documentary films because there’s usually multiple DPs since they’re shooting over many months or years and a lot of times there’s archival material, different cameras. The challenge is very different on narrative fiction because then as a colorist, I really get to have a voice on how I want to color it because there’s not a single DP attached to it so it becomes a conversation between me and the director and where we want to push. Those are the projects of this year, very different because my role changes when working with doc filmmakers than a DP who has a very specific vision and I’m there to support that vision.

RB: Anything else to add?

NI: I would like to encourage more women to take on coloring because it’s a very male-dominated part of the industry, and it feels really sad that it’s that way. Not everything is about gender but I do think we are in an area of perception and we can’t deny that we all have different perceptions of the world outside. And when it’s the same kind of people putting their perception on the world of film, ultimately you do get something that tends to seem and look the same. The more diverse eyes we have on content, the more diverse palettes and textures. I just want to say to women who are considering a colorist role and are a little intimidated by the technical aspects of what a colorist has to do, there’s a lot of creative input as well. Don’t let the few of us be alone! New York had like 6 or 7 women colorists and we all know each other. And then in LA, there're a few big names, but I would also like to recommend that people check out Free the Bid that lists women in post. If you’re looking for a technician, give it a chance and hire a woman.

Just one more spot left in DaVinci Resolve Color! Be sure to check back in the fall when we have a whole new roster of