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In Living Color: Meet Colorist and Finishing Editor, Mike Nuget

Initially a member of the Technicolor-PostWorks team, New York based colorist and finishing editor Mike Nuget recently decided to branch out on his own. Over the past 16 years, he's been applying his skills in color grading, editorial finishing, and visual effects to television projects and documentaries, including the recent FX series The Americans, Netflix's docu-series Rotten, ABC drama, Quantico, TV Land's Younger, the PBS documentary series, Soundbreaking – Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music, and the recent Academy Award-nominated short, Edith & Eddie.

Mike recently sat down with Avid to talk about his career and share some tips and tricks for using Symphony Color Correction in Media Composer.

What has your journey in post been like?

I started my career in 2003 at Rhinoceros Editorial in the traffic department, running around NYC in the snowy winter delivering ¾" tapes to advertising agencies. I moved into the machine room for a few months to learn all the decks and patch bays, and then went into the assistant online editor position. This was right around the time of HD really breaking out, so instead of moving into the offline editorial position, I decided to stay on the post side. In 2005, I took the leap to Postworks to continue as an online assistant. Although instead of just assisting, I was thrown into the fire on the very first day by having to run my own session.

After a few years, I became a full online editor using Avid Media Composer and the Symphony color correction tool. My first ever color job was a series called Carrier for PBS. The Director of Photography, Bob Hannah, won an Emmy® Award for Outstanding Cinema Photography, and was nice enough to give me an Emmy® Citation for my help on the series. I guess you can say my first taste of color was a successful one.

You're both an editor and a colorist. Where does editing end and finishing start for you?

Hmmm, that's a trick question! Does editorial ever really stop? [He laughs]

I try to be as organized and cleaned-up as possible. Because I do both jobs, I try very hard not to mix them up. I like to have all of my attention on the task at hand, which means spending as much time as I need to clean up shots and getting editorial as close to 100% before I turn my focus onto the color. This way, when I am coloring, I don't have to think, "Did I remember to fix that stutter, or resize this or that, or paint that boom out?"

That's both the beauty and curse of it. When you tell your clients that they still have the ability to edit even though we are coloring, it can open a can of worms. But I like doing both sides, so it's really exactly what I want. One of my biggest philosophies is to never tell the client "no", or "I can't". And I think (and hope) that's one of the things that clients like about me.

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From the short film, The Nude Model. Courtesy of Charlotte Bydwell

How do you approach color grading? Do you have a particular style of working, or does it depend on the project?

The short answer is that it's always dependent on the project. Promos/commercials are different from TV; TV is different from documentaries; all are different from film, and so on. But, I think I approach color in a very similar way to most: expose the shot so you can see everything you have to work with, add some color and contrast, then just dive into shaping and tweaking, and then finish off stylizing it.

I do like to separate things into layers. I will never mix my initial exposure layer with anything else, and the same goes for my initial color layer. Even as I move down or up the stack, I try to keep things neat. I guess that probably comes from the finishing editor in me. Sure, you can do many operators in one layer or node, but, for me, that would just get messy. I like to know where everything is and be able to jump back to it immediately if I need to. And with unlimited layers, why not take advantage of it?

Software based applications are now readily available to everyone and costs have come down. You can easily buy a full grading system for a lot less than ever before. 10 years ago, it was almost unheard of to have a grading suite in a home. I could not have jumped to the freelance world without my own system.

Mike Nuget, colorist and finishing editor

Do you see things with a different eye now than when you began color grading?

Yeah, definitely. I am literally learning new things on just about every project I work on. Whether it's a new technique to achieve something, or a new tool I discover, there's always a new button to hit. Usually, all of the new tools do something that has never been done before so you start to approach color grading differently knowing that you have them in your back pocket. Plus, now with all of the new color spaces and things like HDR, we're literally seeing things that were never seen before. Keeps you on your toes. I'm currently working on the HDR version of the Netflix series Rotten that I previously did in SDR, and there is so much more detail that you can see, it's amazing. It really changes the whole feel of the show.

You use Media Composer and Baselight. What are the advantages of using this combination?

The power of the color tools within the Baselight Editions Plug-in are incredible. Just about everything you can do in a full Baselight system is right there within the Avid platform. While the Symphony color tools work well and can get you just about where you want to be, the Baselight plug-in can take you to the finish line and then some. When clients realize what you are now capable of, they just love it. And all the while, staying inside the Avid platform, which is familiar and comfortable to them, also allowing you to still work on the editorial side of things while coloring. So, the biggest advantage is probably just the fact that you can get high end professional color grading right there within the Avid platform.

You've worked on a variety of projects. How do they differ and what do you enjoy most?

There are so many differences within the different genres that you really have to approach them on a case by case basis. I really enjoy all of them in different ways. Commercial work is fun because you get to dive into the color tools much more. Usually, there's beauty work involved which requires you to spend much more time on each shot. As opposed to non-fiction/reality work where there are usually so many edits and less time. You need to move fast and balance many different shots with each other. Something like a narrative feature will usually be paced slower and is kind of a combination of the two. You can spend time finessing shots and at the same time you should balance scenes, as well as give the film whatever overall "feeling" it's trying to convey. Then there are documentaries. These are fun, because you can really put your mark on it as a colorist. Most of the time, you just need to make it true-to-life, but you can really change the feeling of certain scenes based an audio cue, or whatever storyline is happening at that moment. Some documentary filmmakers don't really concern themselves with thinking about color while shooting; they're just trying to capture the subject. A lot of times, these things are not set up because they are running around a lot, or they're dealing with archival footage which they don't have a choice on how it looks. So, they rely on a colorist to help them make it look great. This means that I get to feel like a part of their filmmaking process, and that's something I really enjoy.

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From the docu-series, Rotten. Courtesy of Netflix

How would you describe your "look"?

I'm not sure if I have a "look," per se. It will really depend on the footage that will drive me one way or another. One thing that's fun to play around with is black and white footage. I like to spread the gamma curve as wide as possible, and then really play with the low-mids to deepen the blacks, without crushing them and then the high-mids to open the shot back up. Some people might just think, "Oh it's just black and white so you don't have to really do too much to it," but I like to try dig out all of that extra information.

What do you think you offer that other colorists don't?

I think the two biggest things that separate me from others is not so much coloring itself, but the fact that I am a finishing editor as well. I also know and work on multiple platforms. This allows me to take advantage of whichever workflow fits the job the best. For instance, if a show has been edited on Media Composer and there are many layers and effects going on, staying in Symphony might be the way to go. But if I need to, I can just dive into the Baselight plug-in. This, along with being a finishing editor allows me to be a part of the entire post process, before, during, and after color. So, it's nice being able to not only work whichever way the client wants, but also help them realize what might be the best workflow for their project. Plus, this also opens the door for me to be more available to work at many different facilities.

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From the feature, Anya. Courtesy of Carylanna Taylor & Jacob Okada

How important is the technology you use and how has this changed in the years that you've been grading?

Technology is everything! I love seeing all the new stuff coming out every year, but it can be a double-edged sword because you can't ever stop learning! Since I started grading, the biggest thing that has changed is that software based applications are now readily available to everyone and costs have come down. You can easily buy a full grading system for a lot less than ever before. 10 years ago, it was almost unheard of to have a grading suite in a home. I could not have jumped to the freelance world without my own system.

What advice would you give to a junior colorist starting his/her career today?

Learn, Play, Watch!

Learn: With YouTube, Vimeo, and everything else out there, it's easy to find tutorials. Thankfully, there is a great community of colorists who like to share their talents and tricks. Plus, most of the manufacturers have tutorials readily available on their own sites. There is always something to learn.

Play: Download a program, try a free app like Media Composer | First, and hit every button! Undo is your best friend, ha. Just literally hit a button, see what it does. Hit the next button, see what that does. Eventually, that stuff will soak in and you'll start using combinations of all the buttons you've learned and there you go, you're coloring!

Watch: If you can, find a senior colorist who is willing to let you sit with them. Even if they won't show you exactly what they are doing, just sitting behind a great colorist will help you learn techniques that you never thought of. I still love doing this. I don't get much time to do this anymore, but when I can, it's just awesome.  Every colorist does things different, the outcome might be very similar but the way to get to it could be drastically different.

Who would you ask to color grade your own movie? Or would you do it yourself?

Ha! Well, of course I would probably try do it myself, but I will say that, I've had the extreme pleasure of working alongside some colorists who I think are some of the best out there. So, I could easily hand my project off to them, or at least collaborate with them!

What's next for you?

This seems to be the million-dollar question these days. Everyone I meet lately is asking the same thing. For now, I really want to experience the freelance world. I've never been freelance before and I want to see how it feels. The most eye-opening thing for me is to just meet new people and see other facilities. I've been in the business a pretty long time now and have worked with many people, both co-workers and clients, but always under the same roof and only hearing about other places.

I really don't have a definitive plan right now, and I'm OK with that. Who knows, maybe in a few months or a year I'll be full-time somewhere again, or maybe this is my new path. Either way, it'll be an adventure.

The September issue of the Avid Storyboard newsletter incorrectly stated that Mike Nuget was the colorist on The Americans and Quantico. He was the online editor for those projects; John Crowley, was the colorist.

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