Serious about colour: the SAGE acronym

Photo credit: Rowan Cloete, S.A.G.E


Written by Rowan Cloete, S.A.G.E.

Deadline. As a post-production person, you have a deeply internalised understanding of the word.

It is never our friend, yet it is also sometimes that which inspires the best in us. It hones our thoughts and can force magic from the well where otherwise cerebral thought could have steered intuition into a quagmire of options and paralysis.

As I sit down to write this, I am in Phuket, Thailand, bent on having a vacation. And I have deadlines on my mind. My South African reality trails after me, an ephemeral chord that has me checking for Wi-Fi, teamviewer-ing and checking in on emails between the dolphin show and the Big Buddha temple. The world has become a place where intention can shine across seas, for better or worse. And I have a deadline to write this piece for you, which is just what I need to get it done.

I am passionate about the role of colour in story-telling. Yes, it is how I make a living. But every time a well-shot frame sits in front of me, and develops into something truly beautiful that delights the client and leaves audience suspended in belief, I am thrilled. To make the average beautiful, and the beautiful breathtaking, is a huge privilege for me (which I think I share that with the folks that work on makeover shows). When something leaves me it has hopefully become the best version of itself, and doing so honours the many hands that have contributed their intention and talent to the frames that I have been entrusted with.

Colourists are not celebrated publicly. Digital colouring is a young art and there are no special award categories for our contribution, either technically or artistically. Its inherent value – like editing – is invisible when done right and glaringly obvious when not. It is done in dark rooms with no windows (hopefully) and the best practitioners are not millennials, nor do they aspire to have many followers. It happens at the place where the artist and the technician are the same, and softly-glowing control surfaces are played like eldritch pianos to bring continuity, mood, focus and shine to the picture. We deal with the good, bad, or ugly, and where we start from determines where we end up.

Truly beautiful pictures develop from those that are well considered and executed before they reach the colourist. The sensible bring him or her on before they’ve shot the first frame. The dismissive let budget or time run out before the colourist gets to make the story shine. If picture is 50% and sound the other 50% of the movie (to paraphrase George Lucas), then colour must be an additional 50% – a secret sauce without which a movie nowadays will struggle to be a blockbuster, or a romcom, or a period piece.

The South African Guild of Editors is a voluntary, non-profit company which represents film and video picture editors, assistant editors and sound editors (and colourists). In its 20-plus of existence, SAGE has become a robust player in our industry. With a core body of 120 or so members, the Guild represents most of the best local post-production talent in feature film, TV drama, documentary, insert, on-line and sound editing (and colour). We count celebrated names like Megan Gill and Catherine Meyburgh amongst us.

I have been a member of SAGE for five years and have served on the executive committee for some of those. I joined SAGE with a desire to better understand the issues that affect me as a post-production professional, and to make a structured contribution if possible. Understanding that nothing in the guild comes as a rite of passage, it was with a few butterflies that I submitted work I felt was representative of my best efforts to the SAGE acronym committee this year (once a year SAGE members in good standing have the opportunity to apply for the use of the SAGE acronym after their names).

The SAGE acronym, S.A.G.E., indicates peer recognition by the guild of excellence in the field that it represents. It is the highest honour that SAGE can bestow on a member.  Being a SAGE member doesn’t mean that you can automatically write the acronym after your name on opening and closing credits. Only those members who have been awarded the acronym are allowed to use it.

The acronym application process aligns itself with the international standards set by the American Cinema Editors (ACE) and Australian Screen Editors (ASE) associations, making it a rigorous process for both the applicant and committee. According to the SAGE constitution, applications for acronym accreditation require that the editor:

  • Be a current member of SAGE, with a minimum of five years continued paid-up membership.
  • Have been a Full member for at least one year before applying.
  • Have at least five years’ industry experience as an editor.
  • Have demonstrated their ability to advocate the role of editors in the industry.
  • Submit a body of work that is considered to exhibit a consistently high standard of editing.

An acronym sub-committee, consisting of a minimum of three SAGE members who hold the acronym, review the applications and make recommendations to the executive. Successful applicants are accredited with the acronym and presented with a certificate bearing their name and the date of their accreditation. They can frame this totem and put it up in their suite, double their rates and always get paid on time (jokes!).

This process is by now fairly well established for story editors, but a colourist submission presented a new challenge to the existing modalities. My attempt was the first colourist submission it had to consider and it left the committee intrigued, but not satisfied. Recognising that some adaptation was necessary to accommodate my submission, I was given opportunity to rethink the existing presentation format and submit my work again.

Understanding that at its heart, the guild celebrates the editor as creative force, I focused on presenting scenes from features I had worked on in a side-by-side, before/after format. In one case the creative use of colour to establish milieu and continuity was shown to have furthered the narrative considerably. In another, the ability of the grading environment as a vfx tool was demonstrated. The selects were supported by a written submission detailing what was achieved and how. Technical proficiency and artistic sensibility should be evident when the nodes are peeled off. A contact sheet of all the shots of each feature before and after the grade was also presented and showed that colour follows story in having a discernable thread and a unified whole.

This approach, I believe, will be the blueprint for coming colourist submissions. It worked for me! The committee felt the required boxes were ticked and henceforth I will be Rowan Cloete, S.A.G.E.

As a final thought, this is a huge honour for me – made greater by being the first colourist to receive the right to use the acronym. In the short term I will use it to keep starting conversations with other editors and colourists about the importance of affiliating with a professional body like SAGE – if you don’t take yourself seriously, you have no chance of convincing a producer. I might even write an article or two about it. In the longer term, perhaps a visa application?

Jetlag is taking its toll and I have a ferry to Phi Phi Island to get my family onto in the morning, so this piece must now fizzle to a close (besides, I am on deadline). From there, we might take a day trip to James Bond Island. I hope the grade in the movie has served it well, as I will be sure to compare it to the real thing when we get there.

Rowan Cloete is a colourist, editor and actor. He is a member of SAGE, SAGA and a SAFTAs judge. When he is not bound to a deadline in a dark room, he rides a mountain bike in the sun and will hopefully one day soon finish his BCom degree.



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