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Taking Giant Steps with Jacob McKee

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We recently sat down with Jacob McKee at a busy coffee shop. Jacob is a friend of ours, as well as an extremely gifted Colorist. He’s worked on music videos for Joji, Bad Bunny, and Doja Cat, to name a few. He’s also had his hand in dozens of commercials as well as short films.

We discussed how he manages the many hurdles in the post-production world, taste as the great equalizer, and his lack of plans for the future. We’re really excited to continue to see Jacob’s career flourish, and if you’re not familiar with his work, there’s no better time than now. Enjoy.

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MW: So man,  I’m really interested. You recently joined up with Forager. Can you explain a little bit about what that’s like and what they do? How is it different than what you’ve been doing before?

JM: Yeah. So they came at a really interesting time in my journey out here. I had just left a couple of bigger post houses. The Forager guys started their own deal because they were in a similar boat and had a lot of the same concerns and frustrations as I was having in regards to these bigger companies. But it’s been great because it allows me to have a producer and have someone take care of a lot of the work that I don’t necessarily always have the time or energy for. I’m really bad at the paperwork and email side of things, and it would be the reason why I might not get a job on something. So they do a lot of the legwork and allow me to focus on the work I’m making. But we’re kind of heading into this decentralized post-production future where you don’t have to be sitting in the same room with someone to get a video done. My producer lives in Portland, the guy that founded the company is in New York. It's a cool network of people that you don’t see very often. 

MW: So, the way I see it in my head is that it works similarly to a director who is trying to get represented by an agency, right?

JM: Yeah, it’s kind of like a roster, in a sense.

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MW: Is there a right time to make that transition? For other freelance colorists, for example, is it something they should latch onto as soon as possible?

JM: I would probably recommend the path that I came through on. I assisted at a few of these larger production houses, learning feature workflows, commercial workflows. When you start at the bottom tier, like assisting or running, you learn to understand how to talk to clients, how to work with other artists and producers. It’s hard to learn how to manage these workflows if you’re at home watching Youtube tutorials, you know? They can only get you so far. And they can also be rather toxic. I try not to go to tutorials anymore, just because I feel like they’re always trying to sell me something. But getting that traditional background of learning how a company operates, and funneling what works and doesn’t work into my own solo career seems to have worked really well so far. I realized it was time to transition into freelance because I was getting more work through personal projects than the company I was at. 

MW: Before you got into assisting at these bigger production houses, were you self-taught or formally trained in color and color theory? 

JM: So I went to Savannah College of Art and Design and majored in Film and TV. I originally wanted to do cinematography, and then realized that everyone was better at shooting than I was. I saw color grading as this relatively new side of film that was getting attention. By that I mean, attention in the public eye. A lot of the tools were available for free online, so the barrier to entry was pretty low. It also seemed like a more realistic way to land a 9-5 job that was still relevant within the film industry. So I kind of just dove into that. Student projects were really a great way for me to hone my skills and learn the software, without any of the risk of an associated budget. I was able to get an assistant position right out of school because of that, which I’m still incredibly thankful for. 

MW: Now you’ve been working a lot with Psycho Film and the TDE group. How’s it been working with them?

JM: Super cool. I’ve been a big fan of those guys for a long time. The DP I worked with, David Bolen, who shoots a lot of their stuff, put me in contact with them. I geeked out when I got that email from them about working together on something. We were on the same page about a lot of stuff. They’re all pretty young as well, and making really amazing music videos for TDE and Dreamville, and have got some really fresh ideas. But it was their attitude that I connected with the most. You can tell they’re just making videos with their friends. That’s what it’s all about. Except their friends are like Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus.

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MW: At the end of the day, people want to work with their friends and those close to them. It just makes any project that much more intimate and special.

JM: Yeah, exactly. You can be the best colorist, or DP, or whatever. But if you’re a pain to work with, no one’s gonna want to be around that. And coloring specifically, is such a personality game. You don’t want to be a robot just pressing buttons. You want to bring something more to the table. Your own experiences, your own taste. That’s what people are paying you for. It doesn’t matter how complex the grade is, as long as you get it done on time and your taste is good. And coloring definitely is the cherry on top of any project. Directors and DP’s will work on a project for months and see it a million times, but coloring is this exciting time where they can chill and watch it all come together. 

MW: You really get to breathe new life into the project so close to the finish line.

JM: Exactly.

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MW: What are some of the challenges of being a colorist that people might not be aware of? Obviously it’s not as simple as picking a color and adjusting it a little bit and calling it a day.

JM: Yeah, definitely not. I have no idea how people view colorists. Whether I might be seen as some cool artist, or nerd sitting in a dark room pushing buttons. Either is fine really. But a lot of the challenges for colorists are the same for everyone else in the creative field: managing workloads and overworking. Just like everyone else, I came to LA for work, but also more importantly, to have more of a life outside of this career path. I will say, one of my biggest headaches can be client communications. And that just stems from people not having the right vocabulary to express what it is they want. Trying to interpret what someone means when they want the grade “moodier” is a near impossible task. But color is so based on feeling, that it’s hard not to get caught up in those conversations. 

MW: I feel like colorists and editors are really subject to this unending critique or feedback from clients. How do you maneuver those conversations, or tell someone when the project is done? 

JM: When I was solo, setting boundaries was my biggest obstacle. That’s one of the glories of having a producer. I don’t have to be the bad guy. Having that buffer, having the producer be the one to say: We have one more pass, and then it’s getting out of the expected budget, has been such a weight off my shoulders. But she does a really good job of establishing clear communication at the beginning of the project: How many rounds of revisions, when we expect to get revision notes. All of that. It’s definitely one of the tougher parts of the job. But you have to be able to weigh the value of these relationships. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and put up with the endless revisions because you value that relationship or you believe in the final product, and I think it’s good to be aware of that, because it definitely pays off. 

MW: I want to circle back to the point you made about client’s not having the proper vocabulary to address their wants and needs. How can that be remedied? 

JM: I think it’s a larger issue of just knowing what is and isn’t possible in the hands of a colorist. Color is by no means a cure all. It’s not going to make your footage shot at noon look like a dark, moody night, you know? So to me, the best work I’ve made normally involves the least amount of correction on my end. If the image looks fantastic straight out of camera, it’s so much easier to push the vision further in the actual grade. But not every project can be so clear and easy, so helping client’s put words and ideas around the feeling of the video through color is what I excel at.

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MW: What’s been some of your favorite work so far, and why?

JM: Anything Jared Hogan touches is always fun. The Joji video we did, Demons, I did that on a laptop I borrowed from a friend. I did it in my cousin’s bedroom, and had no idea who Joji was when I was doing it. It was a pretty simple grade too. I think it was one node and a LUT, but don’t tell anyone that. But it was awesome to work on that and see it garner millions of views once it was released. And that video led to a lot of other amazing work. We also did the Slow Dancing In The Dark video, which was just as rewarding.

MW: You and Jared have done a lot together. What about your relationship with him makes it so easy to work together?

JM: Yeah, once you work with someone for a few projects, you start speaking the same language and you get to know what they want. You’re both adapting to each other. So it’s at the point where I know what Jared wants, or is expecting, before it’s even voiced. And sometimes I try and challenge it and send over something I know he’s going to call out, mainly because I just want to try it out. Not to pump him up or anything, but everything that guy does is really cool and timeless and has his distinct thumbprint on it. It just goes back to taste. Working with someone who has good and similar taste, everything is deliberate and intentional. It’s like a well-oiled machine. Everyone knows their part and is there to play it well. And it makes for a really seamless production and a great final product. 

MW: Once you find someone who you have good chemistry with, why look somewhere else?

JM: Exactly. Me and Jared are just good friends. Work is almost secondary to us. It’s more so an excuse to hang out or talk on the phone. 

MW: I’ve started to notice mainstream audiences really paying attention to color palettes and themes. Stuff like the Joji music videos, or when Stranger Things first aired, people immediately gravitate towards those and latch onto them. It’s been cool to see color grading starting to gather some of that attention and gain this niche following.

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JM: Yeah for sure. And be recognized as an art form in its own right. Everyone is trying to stand out and not look like someone else’s work. Color is a really essential tool in that arsenal, you know?

MW: It’s crazy to try and think of all the decks and treatments that those Joji music videos have appeared in. You guys really just created an entire aesthetic out of thin air it would seem. And now it serves as a pretty good model for other Indie artists who are trying to define their own look and feel through their visuals.

JM: I was still assisting at a bigger post-production house at the time, and would see my work come in as references for upcoming commercials for our senior colorists. That was a pretty clear sign to me that I was ready to keep moving forward. That said, it was pretty rewarding to see that people were actually paying attention to the work we were making. It definitely made those 3am nights more worth it. 

MW: I asked you this earlier, but I was so happy when you told me that Drop by The Pharcyde was one of your favorite music videos ever. That one is definitely up there for me. What about that video makes it so special for you?

JM: You know, keep it simple, stupid. It’s just the rule. It’s just a really simple idea that is executed extremely well. Every video needs it’s thing. You only have three or four minutes to really capture someone’s attention. So it needs a thing that you can explain to someone on the street. Did you see that Pharcyde video where everything is backwards? Did you see that Joji video with the goat legs? It was already a dope song, and Spike Jonze really came in and added another layer to it. 

MW: I’m pretty sure I remember reading that Jonze hired a linguist to phonetically sound out the lyrics backwards, and then wrote them on giant cue cards for Pharcyde to rap while filming just to make it as realistic as possible. 

JM: That’s so crazy. But it definitely paid off for him.

MW: Jonze is kind of an icon for a lot of young creatives in the film industry. He started off making DIY skate videos and transitioned into music videos from there. And now he’s an award-winning director and founded Vice and is doing incredibly well for himself. Is there anyone who you recall looking up to as you started your creative endeavors?

JM: It’s kind of an expected answer for people in our generation but definitely Kanye West. His whole story, the make five beats a day for three summers straight. He really grinded to get to a level where he has a platform for himself, and he was the first one that I saw doing that. So I just naturally gravitated towards him and his work ethic.

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MW: Speaking towards this idea of work ethic, what seperates a good colorist from a great colorist?

JM: I know we’ve touched on it a few times, but I think taste is the best singular answer I could give. Having good taste is essential. It’s kind of the great equalizer. We all pull from outside influences to inform the work we make, but being able to pull from the right influences and spheres really makes the difference to me. Spheres that are unique to you as an individual, but somehow still relevant to the work being made. How can I take this information and simplify it down and translate it into what I’m doing? And there’s no right answer, you know? I’m still figuring it out myself.

MW: As we wrap this up, do you have any goals that you’ve set for yourself? Whether that’s work-related or personal.

JM: Yeah, practically speaking, do more features and get my own office this year. Those are some of the easy ones. I don’t have any goals set by 2025 or anything. I’ve tried life-planning before and it didn’t work too well for me. It’s pretty hit or miss. That was part of coming out to LA for me, is I told myself I’d go with the flow more. An ongoing goal of mine is to just not be consumed by this work and having a life outside of it. I don’t want to be Mr. Color Guy working on rap videos in his 60s. I think there’s a balance of work and life that I’m still trying to nail down.

MW: It’s been amazing to see your trajectory in such a short amount of time. You’re only getting started. I can’t wait to revisit this conversation in even a few months, and see all the progress you’ve made. Keep going forward. 

JM: Thank you. I appreciate it. I really do. It’s been so good for my mental health, even these past six or seven months, to be out here. It means I can come hang out with you guys and get coffee when I want to, or actually meet up with a director and not DM over Instagram. It all feels very surreal. I’m excited for the things to come.

Taking Giant Steps with Jacob McKee

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