Generator Ep. 010 – Dennis Dunbar: The Man Behind the Movie Posters

In this episode, viewers will hear from Maine-based portrait photographer, Matt Stagliano, as he interviews Hollywood retoucher and digital artist Dennis Dunbar. Dennis is the man behind some of the most iconic movie posters in the film industry, like Blair Witch Project, I Am Legend, 1832, Deadpool, Jumanji, and the list goes on and on... From the early days of Photoshop to modern color grading techniques, from film to frequency separation, we talk about it all. If you ever wanted to get a feel for what it's like to work as an integral part of the commercial and film industries, this is a conversation for you. You can find more of Dennis' work at his website,

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Full Transcript of Generator Ep. 005 - "Styling Your Life and Business"

Matt Stagliano 0:00
Hey friends, I know you’ve seen them the unforgettable movie posters. Blair Witch Project I Am Legend creed Deadpool. Well, have you ever stopped to think about the fact that there are artists out there that make these movie posters for a living and that it can be an actual career. My guest today is Dennis Dunbar and he is the guy behind some of the most iconic images in film. As a professional retoucher, Dennis has been in the industry for decades working with some of the top tier talent agencies and the best talent in Hollywood. And we get to sit here and listen to him for the next hour, which is pretty cool for a nerd like me. We talk about how he got into the industry, the early days of Photoshop, some of the things that photographers get wrong when retouching and some of the techniques he uses to make his art. Dennis is incredibly kind startlingly humble. And I really enjoyed learning from this legend. So sit back and relax and join me as I talk to the Wizard of retouching himself, Dennis Dunbar.

Dennis, thank you so much for joining me today, I’m excited to talk to you, because we’ve got your webinar coming up on color grading, I’m trying to get the inside track before you teach it. So I’m really excited to have you here. Thanks for joining me today.

Dennis Dunbar 1:40
Thank you for having me. Thank you for having me. And I’m very excited about that webinar. It’s been a while since I’ve done one on color grading. So I’m trying to like retool it and figure it out. And I realized that I started writing articles about color grading, like, Okay, this is gonna be like, first one’s gonna be a brief overview. And then there’s like a lot of other articles to write about it. So good thing is, I don’t have to think about what the next article will be. It will be the one that flows from this one I’m working on now. Is there ever a brief overview of anything in this world? Is there ever a brief overview of color grading or retouching, again,

probably, probably not, probably not. But I enjoy the, the, I enjoy writing the articles, it’s just really hard for me to sit down and get them done. So it’s like once every three months or something like that, I got to do this more often, I got to be more consistent.

Matt Stagliano 2:33
You know, you’re not alone. I think anybody that has their own website, or runs their own website and knows about the power of blogging and writing and articles.

Inevitably, the sentence that I hear from them afterwards is I can’t do that more, gotta be more consistent. It’s always the last thing on our list. So, you know, as I was going and researching some of the stuff that you’ve done in the past, I did come across a lot of articles and a lot of videos, and it just astounded me how much education you’ve put out there. Before we get into too much detail, give some of the listeners a little bit of the background, maybe maybe the overview of kind of what you’ve done. And that has led you up to this point where you’re, you know, one of the top retouchers in the film industry and commercial industry, right. There’s a small kind of special forces group of you all.

Dennis Dunbar 3:28
Well, when I was in college way back when I was studying mechanical engineering, and I wanted to taking every course except engineering courses. So five years in, I was only halfway through the program. And like, I’m telling myself something, I really don’t want to be an engineer. And at the same time, a really close friend of mine picked up a candidate at one and he was the first person I could relate to who was having a lot of fun trying to create something interesting with photography. He called it artsy craftsy. Because, yeah, no illusions about being great photographer, but like, these are not boring. Here’s me and Mabel in front of the big tree kind of vacation photos, you know, people would show back in those days. So like, Oh, I got into photography, and like that swept me up. And like, stopped going, you know, I dropped out of engineering college because I really wouldn’t get anywhere enrolled in a local adult education program that had a good photography program. I learned a lot about photography, and that led to working in one of the rental houses in Hollywood in the late 80s. It was Irina’s PRs, who ran his photographic rental service, and it was probably one of the biggest in the country. And so everybody is anybody can do they’re like Gregory Heisler and, and Lynn Goldsmith and Henry Dilts. And like all these famous photographers and stuff came through there regularly. And so when I left there, I was working as a photo assistant, working with advertising photographers, I think like I got to, you know, find out how to sell

aren’t shooting and doing on my own. And then I started hearing more and more about this thing like, you know, the National Geographic use computer to move the moon for the cover of one of their magazines. And you know what a big scandal. That’s cool. So at one point, it just started to get me more and more interested. So I remember there was one summer it was like 1990 91 or something. Every day, I wasn’t working as an assistant doing some else I was trying to find information about how you use computers to do retouching. And so that led in February of 91, to getting a computer signing a lease or like a $50,000 lease for wicked fast to FX and all the bells and whistles and stuff in those days. Like our 600 megabyte hard drive was right, I gained rights at most. And it was Photoshop one, there was a nother competing program called Color Studio, that people who wound up writing painter created college studio, but another company bought it and then didn’t do much development. So Photoshop, pass it by. But you know, we started out working on that. And I thought, I gotta figure out how I make a living and make this lease payment. So I started contacting photographers that I had worked with, offering to do free portfolio pieces just like you learn, you know, one thing led to another I started working with, occasionally with this photographer, JP Morgan, he’s still around, he’s he’s leading the education program at one of the local junior college is out here, Mount San Antonio, great guy. And he was he was doing a lot of work with Roger Corman who was the king of the great movies, you know, like Little Shop of Horrors, Attack of the 50 foot woman, you know, Death Race 2000 perfectly all this kind of stuff. And Roger wanted to go from the old fashion cut and paste and airbrush to computer stuff. So JP said, Here’s Dennis, that’s what he does. So for about 10 years or so I did all the retouching work on Rogers posters and their marketing stuff. And it was, you know, a lot of schlocky movies, a lot of straight VHS stuff, stuff you’re not going to put in your portfolio or brag to grandma about especially not bragging to grandma about with Rogers model for his business, what he did a lot was he had a lot of high turnover of people, because he kind of viewed it as if I hire people who are learning, I don’t have to pay them as much. And as soon as they know what they’re doing, I have to pay him more. So I’ll fire them and hire their assistant, and, you know, just keep running that. So he had a lot of designers that freelance for him. And as the designers, you know, figured out what was what they went on to other jobs. Well, that became a networking thing for me. So that started leading to getting, you know, working on movie poster stuff, and other things with that way. And I still also would work with photographers. So that’s kind of how I got started in working on on movie posters, and all that. And in the 90s, I wound up having, you know, two or three people working for me at a time or whatever. And I would compete with big retouching houses like I magic or metaphors, you know, there were some big places that you know, charge $700 An hour or whatever for retouching work in those days, so I would compete with them. But I never worked in houses though, so I never quite knew how I how my work stood up except the fact that while I got I got some jobs and then I hired a freelancer who had worked at the other places to help me out with some projects. Oh man, you got nothing to worry about your work holds up with those. So you know that that was really good. At the end of the 90s the workflow seemed to flip I think computers start to get you know, agencies the entertainment agencies to do the design work for movie posters and stuff started getting a handle on on the on the technology so they like we want people to come in house and freelance in house. And so I flipped my business model and you know, instead of being a manager I went back to being the retouching and like love that went to a lean and mean kind of work model where if I have a big project I call up friends and and you know we we work together on it, but ever since then I’ve been working freelance and and on different movie posters and ad campaigns and all kinds of stuff. It’s been a lot of fun. Yeah, it’s it’s impressive to

Matt Stagliano 9:27
go on your website which is Dunbar digital, and look through just the portfolio of work right so I’m going through and I didn’t realize knowing that we talk I didn’t realize how many of the the movies that I love or the I should say the iconic images the I Am Legend poster, right the rock Jumanji poster, some of the Harry Potter stuff, Blair Witch, right? All of these images that are relatively iconic in the film industry. It’s cool to see that you’ve been able to work on some of the Those projects, right? Yeah. So before we get into some of some of that, you’ve got to have seen so many trends come and go. So many tools come and go over the years. How has it been to watch the progression of that? Has it made your job easier? Has it made it harder? Do you find yourself, you know, in older workflows and trying to adapt it? How do you stay adapted and current to kind of this ever changing landscape of tools?

Dennis Dunbar 10:29
Well, one of the things I do love it, the tools have evolved and gotten a lot easier. Sure. Back in the day, when you started out you working on a complex composite, and you had no layers. So you had to save a lot of different versions, and you had to figure out tricks for like, hit there was there used to be a way with Photoshop, where you could have two documents open, if they’re the same size, you can use the command to align the upper left corners for your tone source, and then you could clone from one to the other. So that was your undo, like, if you pasted something in like, oh, man, there was a mistake, you know, we got to erase some of this stuff. That was how you undid it. So you had to keep thinking about these tricks and workarounds and things, you know, the tool won’t let me do this, I need to do it. So how can I find a way around it. So we don’t have those issues nearly as much, guys, I love the idea about layers. I remember, Silicon Graphics, was trying to sell their their computers in the mid late 90s, for doing photoshot work on it. And so they gave they had like a program where they had six radios, we would call their selves, their pet artists. But I guess he now you call it sort of an ambassador to thing where like, here’s the Silicon Graphics computer, it was a little one, one of the big mastermind, but it was the Silicon Graphics computer, here’s the software and stuff, we want you to use it. And then we’ll have you come talk around conferences and software. And I remember one of the things one of the programs that ran on, it wasn’t Photoshop, but it was another one that like, oh my god, I can make an adjustment layer and I can brush a curve setting in somewhere. But it’s not universally oh my god, this is the greatest thing ever. And now it’s like, you know, it just becomes so much easier. So I do love that the tools have evolved a lot. I think the we’re getting better results faster. So we’re not, you know, I don’t have to step till 5am multiple days in a row anymore. But I remember lots of those days starting out, you know, computers were slow, and you just had to pound the workout, too, we don’t have to do that. I think the craft of what we’re doing is it encouraged us more to you know, get to get fluent with the program, the technology. But it’s more about the artistic craft, now than just being somebody able to figure out a workaround. And being more like the hacker mindset, I have something for that. So I really liked that aspect. And the tool is getting better, like we’re doing more work like in color grading than we did in the past. Because the tools weren’t there. So I love that the art of it is evolving and improving. And we still have these new tools coming out. Ai stuff is a big buzz thing. And while I’m not so worried about idea of AI image generation, the idea about using AI for in painting or out painting really intrigued me. Because like, you know, I worked on some posters looked like a wet plate kind of shots for the Paramount show. 1883 Yeah, Sam Elliot. That crew, right, yeah. And like the the character poster for Sam Elliott, they cut up the top of his hat, and they cut off his shoulders. And he only went down to like, you know, just below the breastbone. And I needed more of his body. So I had to figure out look for other shots and stuff, like, here’s one or I can steal a shoulder, I can flip that and make another shoulder either. So AI tools could be a way of solving that like here, you know, give me give me more of his body like that can be really great. or adding in something that was missing, getting rid of things you need to get rid of, like how do you get rid of this tree? You know, Content Aware in Photoshop is so so on that it kind of works well. But you know, AI can be really good for that. So always trying to incorporate new tools and examine other workflows. And that’s one of the things I love about the the teaching workshops and stuff because I’ll go back and look at something I might have taught like five years ago, and I look at the outline and the DeMolay. Lord, I do that completely differently. Now, what was I thinking doing it that way? And I think that’s, that keeps it fresh and exciting. And, you know, it really encourages you to embrace the idea about you know, a love of learning, and always you know, working Something new. And that’s exactly the kind of person I want to be. Because as as we get older and time goes on, if you’re the I’ve got my little bag of tricks, and I’m not going to do any more with that your life is going to get stale and boring. And you’re going to fall into a rut really quickly. I have older photography, friends who are that way, like, I don’t want to learn the other computer program. I don’t want to learn another camera. I’ve got my thing. And I like that like, and then I have other ones like Energizer Bunny, they’re, you know, 75. And they’re Energizer Bunny and reinventing themselves again. Maybe I didn’t necessity, but they’re still doing it. Like, that’s the inspiration I want to follow.

Matt Stagliano 15:39
Yeah, it’s amazing when you have someone with a student mindset, and it’s this ever is lifelong pursuit of learning. And those are the people that I’m always super interested in. Because the folks that never stop learning, or at least quest that knowledge, inevitably are far more interesting, because they’ve tried a little bit of everything, right? And they just kind of figure out what works and what doesn’t work. But going back to when you first got started, and there was only a handful of you really starting to get into the mix of art and technology. How was that scene of your peers? Was everybody helping each other? Were you all just kind of in this, this mode of this is the really cool stuff? And we’re never going to turn this into something if we don’t work together? Or was there a little bit of you know, friendly competition? How did it how did that scene evolve?

Dennis Dunbar 16:32
That’s a That’s a great question. So when I was first starting out, like I said, I spent a summer, you know, I got the old fashion yellow pages from the phonebook. Because this was pre Internet, and, you know, calling everybody I could I could find and there was this guy, Daniel Clark, who had a recharging company. And when I got a hold of him and tell him what I wanted to learn, you know, what I wanted to learn. He’s like, Why should I tell you, you just be competition, click. And then I found another guy who ran a digital department in a big camera lab can’t remember the name of the lab anymore. They’re not around. But this guy, Charles James, ran the, the digital department for that. And Charles philosophy was, the more I teach people, the more I’m going to grow clients, and they’re gonna be our customers. Right? So that was his philosophy. So he gave me You know, I paid a bunch of money to get lessons on a dicho Imaginator, you know, million dollar computer. And then, you know, another handful of lessons on Photoshop and Color Studio on a Macintosh. When I was first starting out, every time I would get a job or have a question, I would go right down to that lab and talk with him about it. One of the guys who worked with him was reached out your friend I’ve known, you know, practically since the beginning, Daniel E. Cough. And so Daniel remembers me coming in peppering him with a bunch of questions and stuff, and half the time to no more than one answer and half the time. Like, why should I tell you that? But now, now that Daniel laughs and says, like, Yeah, I’m responsible for half of what you know. So, you know, there was the range of people who like this my bag of tricks, I’m gonna protect my territory. And then a few that wanted to help, but there really wasn’t a great network, and finding the other people and getting to know them was difficult. And that’s one where like, my friend, Lisa Kearney, who I met when she was first working with, she assisted one of the clients that I had, you know, she she worked in house at at one of the big retouching companies metaphor. She wanted working in house there, and she built the network through the crew that worked there. And I missed out on that in the 90s. Because I was always working on my own or hiring people to work for me. So I was always trying to build that community. In the 90s and early 2000s, it was really tough, because everybody was so busy. Why should I drive an hour to come somewhere. But a couple years before the pandemic, we actually, you know, started being able to successfully pull together a group of people, we call them la pixel pushers, we would have meetings like every six or eight weeks or so we’d get together at somebody’s house or a restaurant, just to get to know each other. So there’s only the last six, eight years, you’ve been able to really build a network of people who not only have known each other through work, but get to know each other as friends for that, so that part’s been really great.

Matt Stagliano 19:21
You know, I’ve noticed kind of the same thing over the past 10 or 13 years or so that I’ve been doing this, there’s been much more of a movement towards collaborative work less singular, less, keeping all the secrets to yourself. It seems to be like everybody’s sharing knowledge these days, which is really nice. Coming back to the some of the posters, you were talking about it as art directors or the production houses, give you these projects, or they bring you in earlier and earlier asking your opinion or you always on the reaction side where they say, hey, here are the images you get, make something or they bring you in or earlier in the process as the concepts get developed,

Dennis Dunbar 20:02
well for movie posters, stuff, it’s not very often. Yeah, the process for movie poster stuff is there is a pool of entertainment oriented ad agencies. If you go to imp, and movie poster, but I m p is a website, they have a thing where they show all the movie posters and stuff coming out. And they have a tab for designers. And you’ll see like, you know, page of designers, but there’s maybe eight or 10, that agencies like BLT or icon ours, or I just starting to work with another one AV squad, there’s a handful of those companies that do the majority of this stuff. And so the studio’s give them, sometimes it starts off with in the scripting phase, they haven’t even shot the film yet. And like, just start coming up with rough ideas. So they’ll have sketch artists or somebody like that, sketching out ideas that the art directors are kind of giving them for this just to get some rough ideas about things. So it goes from there, through many, many, many rounds of designs, they call them cops, and the studio, the studio’s dictate the terms for everything. So they’ll say we’re going to take these five ideas you had, and give it to your competitor and see what they’ll do with your ideas. So everybody knows, like, that’s just the rules of the game. Yeah, you’re gonna get that. So it goes through all these rounds. And sometimes you get this is count 142 that we finally got approved to go to finish. And the finishing stage is where you go from the lower res, roughly built comp, to building the big final art and polishing it and making it look perfect and ready for final print. So that’s the stage I come in. Gotcha. And movie posters, stuff. It’s not very often like, you know, sometimes they’ll get a request, like, Hey, can you come in and polish up some comps for our presentation, whatever. And it helped, you know, make them a little bit better. But mostly, it’s the finishing work. When I’m working with photographers, it will be the opposite, like we’re bidding on this job. I think we’re going to have maybe 20 shots to reattach, it’s going to be like people in a park, can you give me an estimate for the recharging? Like, I have no idea what they’re gonna look like. And, and so, you know, we’re just hoping to throw darts at the dartboard and hope you’re close enough for that right there for drivers who have experienced reps can be really great, because the reps have a really clear idea about what the client expectations will be like, what the shoots normally are, what clients budgets are, like, one of the better reps in the country, Heather elder, anytime I’m working on a project, and it’s one of the jobs she’s representing, somebody on her team is gonna be on it. Like, I know it’s gonna go great. You know, so So sometimes you come in really early in the process for that. And sometimes you’re like, right at the very end, like, a few weeks ago, I got to contact from a lifestyle photographer, like, hey, you know, the client had more retouching notes than I can handle. Can you do this? Can you jump on these things and just do this retouching stuff? So sometimes it’s very, very late in the process, and sometimes very early.

Matt Stagliano 23:26
I was looking through your commercial portfolio. I’m fascinated by retouching. I’m not good at it. I do i but I’m fascinated by guys like you and Steph McCullough and like high end REIT, commercial retouchers that are working on big brands, because it’s always amazing to me what you’re given and what the public sees. And that by no means am I saying like the photographs that are taken or poor photographs. But the subtle manipulation in it in the impact that those subtleties create fascinates me. And there was one image that you had in particular of a gentleman paddleboarding, it looked like in the the Aqua Ducks of of La somewhere. And the thing that struck me the most was generally speaking the before and after, and these can be seen on your website, the befores and afters is the before shot was good, you could probably get a cropped in and color graded a little bit of great, but by repositioning the paddle border, make them a little bit larger, adding a little bit more drama to it, and having it look still natural and seamless. Is such a testament to the work that guys like you do because it has so much more impact. Are those creative choices yours? Or is this working hand in hand with the brand and the art directors to say we’re really thinking about this is that relationship is that how that works? Or are you given basically when you get to that point where you are the real touch with that as being hired, that you have carte blanche based on what you know of their brand. How does that generally work in terms of your creativity input, versus what they’re telling you how to be creative.

Dennis Dunbar 25:14
It’s almost always a case where I’m being hired to help execute the client’s vision, vision help bring that to life. So like the paddleboard thing, Kate turning was a Bedava on that, and she’s an amazing photographer. The only gripe I have is like, I want to do more work with her. She’s great. So she had the idea like you’re here the different shots I did, I want this in the foreground, I want the guy moved over here. I want this in the background. So it was some of that. And then I was like, oh, you know, we need the color to pop, you know. So I start experimenting with color grading and like finding like color grading and doing that. So I got some creative input for it. But mostly, it’s a question of like, how am I bringing your vision to life? I think the worst thing for a retoucher is when the doctor says, here’s a bunch of shots, just make them look beautiful. Those are the times when like, you know, they’re landmines, they’re, you know, they have expectations. They’re not telling you about them. I’m so surprised you miss this. How could you not have seen that? So, you know, it’s really the retouchers job to bring the client’s vision to life. Sometimes they want you to know that upfront about asking you like, you know, what do you think about this? How do we handle that? for it? And other times, like, you know, I want your input, but like, Yeah, I’m gonna go with my own thing. Do you know Emily? T? She’s Yeah, sure. Yeah, one. So I get to work with her on some project and stuff. And Emily’s really good about whether color. So sometimes I’ll make a suggestion about like, oh, you know, what, if we move the color in the background, like, No, you know, I love that you did that. But I want to go my way like, okay, Emily’s also the last few projects, she said, to me, have been things where it’s a lot more of a creative thing, like, you know, here’s the shot, I just worked with her on some, something she called Gothic cowboy she shot when she was in South Africa. And there are some really nice shots like, what can you do to to make these, you know, assays and make them sing a little bit more? And so in that case, is more a matter of looking at that, like, how can I make? How can I enhance the lighting? You know, the composition is really great. The color grading is really good. It’s just like, how do I enhance the lighting and make it about the subject and help tell that story. And fortunately, she’s been really enthusiastic about about the work I’ve done in that. Because it’s one of those areas where you like, you get a lot more creative input. It’s like, oh, here’s what I think you know, what helped, like, Oh, I love that. What a great idea.

Matt Stagliano 27:44
I suppose it’s just like anything, it’s the more that you know about that personality, the more you know about their work, you understand where to push where to pull back. And it’s a really important thing, I think, for people to understand just how powerful some of those subtle changes can be the smartest photographers I know, don’t try to do everything themselves. There’s got to be someone there that does help you that last mile. And it seems to be you’ve found yourself in this wonderful position with great photographers, where you’re really helping them bring their visions to the world, so that we get to see what they’re doing in the way that they envisioned it? How many rounds do you typically go through? Is it 234? Or five? Is it months long? Is it a week long? What’s your typical turnaround time for something like that?

Dennis Dunbar 28:36
That depends a lot on the project. You know, like, when I’m working on a project with a photographer, and we do an estimate, I’ll tell them, we’re gonna include two rounds of revisions in the estimate. Now, that’s not between me and the photographer, that’s between when we as a team present to their client. Gotcha. And the reason for that is, is, you know, as I’m sure, you know, kid in the candy store, if he thinks all the candies free, he’s gonna want to stay there for hours and eat every piece of candy can. So with commercial clients, with agencies or you know, business or whatever, you kind of had to put a reasonable limit on that. And say, like, I’m happy to do more, but we’re going beyond what we promised. So we’ll have a conversation about budget. So I do that with photographers, and usually like, you know, but I really like okay, you know, a couple changes, like maybe there’s 20 images. And so, on the first one, you go through more rounds. Now I’ve got your look data, then, yeah, we’ll do that for all the rest will present to the client. And then we get the two rounds with that. Pharmaceutical jobs can involve more rounds. So it’s part of the reason why, you know, you can do one estimate hire for a pharmaceutical job, because they can say we need we need this in two days, and then they’ll take two weeks to get back to you with the feedback on that which is real always kind of fascinating. But I hear pharmaceutical stuff is all driven by legal that the lawyers determined everything for that. So, so that’s its own thing by product job or, you know, a lifestyle shoot or something like that for a photographer, it’s usually two or three rounds, for movie posters stuff. That’s gonna be, you know, it’s entirely driven by the agency I’m working with, and the, and the studio they’re working with, there’s so many moving parts with a movie poster and stuff. Sometimes it’s really complicated, whatever. And like, you need a lot of eyes looking at things like, Oh, I didn’t notice this little crumb sitting over here on the side, because there’s so much stuff going on. So you go through those processes. And usually with that, you know, the agencies tell you, you know, track your hours and build the hours, as opposed to, here’s a layout, give us an estimate and stick to that layout. There was a project I worked on with a friend recently for one of the streaming companies, and that one went through way more rounds of revisions than we thought. And it was partly a mix of the studio, The End Studio being picky about things, but also the art director, deciding Oh, there’s one more thing I saw one more thing, I felt like, this was supposed to have gotten to the point where it’s been submitted to the, to the stars in the film The talent for approval. And that should just be like, Oh, can you just make my you know, take this thing away from my eye. And then you’re done. It should be like that guy, like, oh, let’s change the hair. Let’s change the background. Let’s so sometimes the the train comes off the rails and and like, okay, we’re just tracking the hours, a friend of

Matt Stagliano 31:41
mine the other day, he’d said to me, when there’s two people in a car, it’s easy to decide which radio station you want to be on. Or when you’re on a bus, and you ask every single one of those people what radio station we should be on, it just gets to be chaos, there’s got to be one job. That was the job that you said, I am never doing this again. There’s got to be something that sticks out. Like, no matter what I do for the rest of my career, that is never going to happen again. Do you ever have one of those jobs,

Dennis Dunbar 32:10
there are people I don’t want to work with, or agencies who I don’t want to work with again, just because like, okay, that’s just a train wreck in the early 2000s, when I was doing a lot of freelancing in house and started freelancing at this one, small entertainment, edit and see the Miss Balkan and it was great. And I freelanced there like a percent of the time for a year and a half. And so they wanted to pattern me full time. And that was great. A few weeks after I got hired full time the production manager left to go to another place. So I became the production manager as well, if I had to help out with with doing the production side, which is like you have you had the layout for the AD AD, you take the recharged artwork, you put that in, and now you’ve got all the text, you’ve got the titles, you’ve got all the little logos and stuff have to go in, you have to make sure all these specifications are right, you get all that delivered everything packaged up, right, that’s what the production side was. So like, you know, it was a way to keep busy and like sure I want to help out. So I did that there. And then it went to another place. That that paid a lot more, but the support team for that was a lot different. So it didn’t work nearly as well. And so I realized, like, you know, the production side is something that I don’t want to get into doing like, Oh, can you just put this in the final layout and add all the crops? And like No, no, can you just can you just, it’s like, every time, every time since then that I’ve tried to help out like, No, this, this is why I don’t do that anymore. When I went back to freelancing on my own. I did the finishing work for one place that oh, you know, we don’t have a somebody to do the final mechanical thing. Can you do that for us? And then they’re building block, you know, that was all the legalese stuff had to go around the frame for this. And it was like just a nightmare to get that right. And then they weren’t familiar with the process. So they didn’t know about what size things had to be like, every time I’ve tried that. So I don’t I don’t do that side anymore. I don’t like to do mechanical. They don’t like to do production work. So that was a lesson. Yeah, most mostly, I’ve been really lucky. Almost all the clients I’ve worked with had been had been really good. I haven’t been burned too often with a client that doesn’t pay you or something like that happens on occasion. Sure. But you know, I’ve been pretty lucky that way. Right? So I’ve been I’ve been fortunate fingers crossed it keeps up that way.

Matt Stagliano 34:35
That’s good. I think I think you’ve learned already how to navigate like you said, that minefield, switching off of the actual work for a second and going more towards passion for you. I know that you do not only the retouching movie posters, commercial work, but you’ve kind of found this wonderful place that you love to live in color grading and teaching color grading and just talking Color Theory has that always been something that out of all of the techniques and workflow that you created is that your happy place, just doing doing color,

Dennis Dunbar 35:11
I’ve taught classes and workshops in Photoshop and retouching for a very long time. And I really enjoy doing that. The color grading thing, I think, for the last three or four years has been an area like, here’s a whole new area to explore and learn, you know, learning about color harmonies and, and how that works. And like that shot with the paddleboard that you talked about. One of the things he was doing with that was Photoshop used to have a tool built into it called the color themes extension, it died for some reason, I had no idea why Adobe didn’t keep that loving. But it was a really cool extension. So you could have your image up and have this extension window pop up. And you could sample colors from your image and map them out on a color wheel. You can have up to five, five colors that you could sample at one time, but you see how they all relate it. And then you’re like, oh, you know the blue on this guy’s shirt. If I move it a little bit towards cyan, it’s in a better Karla color harmony with all the other shots. So that was what I did in that shot. And, you know, it was just fascinating. Like, once you make the move like, wow, everything just falls together better now. And you know, sometimes it’s a matter of changing the mood for that a friend in in Serbia, Marcos tomato vich is amazing photographer. And he puts on a photo festival every year in Serbia called Photo Rama. Okay, so I got to go there a couple of times and speak, he’s invited me to come back again this late June, to go back to Serbia and do it workshop there. So I’m looking forward to that. But one of the shots where I was working on an article about color grading, he had a really a Serb ethereal looking shot from somewhere in Serbia, it’s on top of a hill. And there’s like an old carnival thing. So there’s a call merry go round kind of thing off in the distance, you see the hills going down in the city and the sunset and stuff. And it was really kind of moody like, and I was looking at this, like, Oh, if I moved the shadows this way, it just everything just become sort of like this tense, kind of spooky thing. If I move the shadows this other way. Well, now there’s this really warm, uplifting, hopeful kind of image. And just the power of making a subtle change, and the different feelings, feelings that created them different moods that created, I was really powerful. And so it’s, it’s the latest kind of thing that last few years. And so I really loved exploring and learning more about, you know, an awful lot of what I tried to show people is about the workflow thing, this is one of the things where as a researcher, if you work with other retouchers, if you work in a place where you’re sharing files, with other researchers, you will learn workflow really well. Because you know, you learn this, why you have to name your layers, this why the layer water should go in a certain way, here’s how to build a file. So it’s adjustable and workable at all. And one of the things that you really learn is like what color grading is, if you’re doing the color grading at the end, and you keep your color grading layers as simple as possible, it’s a lot easier to dial in and to like you have 10 images, and they all have that in the same color grade. Now you just copy one set of layers and adjust them a little bit as you go from one to the other. And you have a consistent looking batch of images. And there are some people like you know, I just use this extension throws on, you know, a dozen layers, and I do another dozen layers and new doesn’t work. So I’ve got all this at 5% this one to 3%. Like what you don’t really know what’s what, and you don’t know how to adjust something, and you don’t know why it’s working. So I much rather people start off learning why it works, and being intentional about the color they’re doing and keep it simple. So it’s easier to manage and work with. And those are the kinds of things I try to teach you about the color grading as opposed to here’s a great trick for making this poppin in certain way.

Matt Stagliano 39:09
You know, it kind of comes back to what we were talking about earlier, where as tools improve and do better things for us. It also makes us lazier and not learning where some of this comes from. Right, you should have a decent understanding of color harmony, before you start using a lot of these plugins. Otherwise, if you are asked to make any changes, you really don’t know where to start. I learned that lesson really hard really early on. When I was trying to create consistency between images, I grade one image and it would look awesome. And then I do the next image and then it didn’t look so great. So I tried to copy but it didn’t apply the same way to the same image and it just it started to get real muddy real quickly. And I started to understand that my workflow was just all over the place, and it never was consistent. Where do you find that most? Photographers? retouchers? Where do they go wrong in their workflow that eventually they correct. But where’s some of that common mistake area,

Dennis Dunbar 40:17
biggest thing is remembering to have a real critical eye. And I don’t mean, you know, criticizing your work but an eye, an eye for detail and an eye to, to see when things are working when they’re not. When it comes to being a retoucher, it really helps if you have a background in photography or in art, because you need to understand composition and color and lighting and things like that. I’ve seen people who were who were more technical minded and didn’t have a background of that. And they could show you every page of the manual and explain every tool in that. But when it comes to doing work, they have no clue about why this doesn’t work. So that’s the first thing is, you know, make sure you’re understanding that. So they’d be like the photographer that, you know, thinks you’re doing a great job of retouching, but like women, there’s a big smear mark over here that you completely forgot, because you’ve got, you forgot to give a close look at your image. Another thing, like you said, is learning to have a regular workflow, you know, I find that it’s really helpful for me, if I’m doing a portrait, that I have a set way that I work on this, not that I’m trying to be too restrictive. But I find I find if I’m doing retouching on a portrait, I’ll have one layer that I make, where I just clean up, everything I know has to go out. And that’s sort of my get familiar with the image kind of thing. So you know, I was zooming close, and particularly with faces, I get caught up in, in chasing down stray hairs and things. I’ve spent a lot of time cleaning that up and stuff, but I’m getting too familiar with the image. And then like, Okay, I’ll look at this, like, Okay, I know, the eyes are going to need some work, particularly you know, if it’s a middle aged or older person, especially if it’s a woman, you know, you’re going to want the lines around the eyes worked on somewhat, maybe lines on the forehead, or whatever. So we’ll make a separate layer for lines around the eyes, and I’ll call it lines around eyes, rejects those out, and then it can slide the opacity up or down. Based on how strong it should be just a little hint, like very low opacity. Like, oh, we really want to step on this and make her look 20 years younger, great. We just saw the opacity up. So having that workflow really helps with that adjustability, not flattening layers. Because if your commercial retexture if you’re working for other people, you’re never the final decision maker. So when you were like I did a bunch of this work, and I flattened it, and then I did a filter on it. Like, Well, now you’ve locked yourself into a decision. Like, why do you why do you go so far? And taking the lines out from under the eyes like, well, I thought it needed like, Well, can you bring them back somewhere, you know, a little too heavy, like, oh, that’s about 20 steps back and it flattened things. I don’t know, if I had the layers, right, that was a real problem. So not flattening layers, keeping your your file structure in a way that you can adjust and be flexible with. And then doing the color adjustment, the color grading. Last for that there are people who like will do that right up front. And then you do retouching on top of it like well, now I’m locked in. So you really liked the idea of of cool shadows and warm highlights. But now you decided I want to reverse that, well, not now you’re kind of locked in and you’re not going to get as good a result. So it’s a matter of, you know, being methodical like that and those are the areas where I find drivers running into that. And then people who haven’t been checked, you haven’t been in a situation where they like, share their files with other people will like, you know, composite artists who start off with the subject. And they put the background on top of they kind of hold in the background for this show through and then they do something else and they cut another hole for the Saturday show through like, you know, the subjects on top, you just have one mass to worry about. And it’s easy to adjust. There’s there’s one friend of mine that that does a lot of compositing work. And she said like, ya know, everybody tells me I’m wrong. I made this work like, nobody’s gonna tell you you’re wrong. You’d have an easier time if you change that workflow.

Matt Stagliano 44:16
Yeah, you know, I find the same thing when I’m working with videos. Well, I talked to a lot of people about color grading video, which is its own bag of worms altogether. And there’s the current trend of just grabbing a lot lookup table and just throwing that on top of the footage and then working on exposure and shadows and highlights. Then there’s the school that’s just kind of get your white balance shadows highlights, get all the exposure stuff done first, and then add the luck. And that’s kind of the camp that I sit in because it’s the last step the color grading for me is always the last step. So alright, chalk one up for Matt doing something right. Things that you had mentioned in there, give me pause because I could go down a million different roads with techniques and workflow logos and all of that. I take Kate Woodman, for example, her color work, right where she gets a lot of this in camera right away. It’s wonderfully harmonious, and it adds so much emotion and element. Do you find yourself as a personal style? Forget about the art directors and whatnot? Do you find yourself leaning in one style or another bright and airy versus dark and creepy? Where do you if you had carte blanche to do anything you wanted, where does Dennis’s heart lead for your grading and your style and your voice.

Dennis Dunbar 45:36
I’m a big believer as a retoucher, not having a style. I know, I know, friends who would have said like, you know, reach out your friends who shoot you know, working on like beauty stuff, like, people hire me for my style, like great when it’s not that Sally want, you’re not gonna get a job for my personal work. Like, I started out in photography, but I spent the longest time not really, you know, being serious about trying to, you know, take good photos, or whatever. So last summer, my wife and I went to Newfoundland, and we took a workshop with Renee Robin and Curtis Jones. And just had an absolute blast, my wife gave me a Canon AR six body. So I had to get some lenses, we had a Canon M five body that we already had some lenses for. So you know, we had a great time shooting. And that rekindled the whole leveling, I can take decent pictures, I can, like, not masterpieces, but Rekindle that love. And then last January, I had a bunch of friends and we went to Death Valley and had a chance to shoot and like the success rate came out a lot better for that. So in those, it’s more about my style, what speaks to me this up, and when I’m shooting, I find I tend to be drawn more towards dark, mysterious, you know, not quite Gothic, but almost in that kind of vein, you know, feel about things. My wife for longest time, like a lot of the photography we do before them would be I go to a city for to do a workshop or something, I would take a half a day afterwards, just walk around taking pictures. And then like, Oh, here’s this cool building. I sound like I’m trying to change your alley. Why is everything dark and moody with you? I don’t know, something kind of cool. So So I think my own grading style tends to be more like dark, moody. But you know, I find myself varying, because like some shots, we didn’t death battle like this, it makes an awesome black and white, and playing around with black bicep, this other one like, ooh, if I do this really kind of cool, radical color grade on it. And what’s really kind of cool and interesting. So you know, I find that it’s more playful in that sense, you know,

Matt Stagliano 47:41
as someone that lives in the world of taking other people’s work and helping them realize their vision, when you’re shooting like you did in Death Valley? Do you go into your photography with a certain vision in mind of what you’re going to do afterwards? Or are you trying to get it in camera right there? Do you have to, you know, battle your own habits of knowing that you can do anything in post? But are you trying to get everything done in camera so that you do as little work as possible afterwards?

Dennis Dunbar 48:15
Yeah, that’s a that’s a great question. I feel like I’m still like, almost back in the beginner stage in terms of of shooting for that weight, which is a lot of the fun to find something you know, so long, like, Oh, now, I’m starting over again, in some cases, in some cases, where you look at the scene, like Oh, this guy, I just want to capture this way it is, and you know, maybe enhance the contrast or something like that. And other things like you talk to look at it like, Oh, what if I play with this and make it go like way that way. So in mid February, the friend who originally had the idea to go to Death Valley, the fine art photographer friend that I worked with, she had a show at the Palm Springs modernism festival. So my wife and I went to the Palm Springs for the weekend. And the day after we went to the show, we were going around the Annenberg does have some big home there, some biggest data, whatever you get tours of, so we’re on a tour of the gardens, whatever like that. And so like we had some time, like, oh, you know, there is these cool cactuses, or whatever, I’m gonna shoot these just because it’s got some sort of a graphic looking thing. And they’re like, I’m definitely going to play with it afterwards, because I’m trying to get some element. Whereas like, sometimes when we’re in Death Valley, shooting a landscape or shooting a model, I just want to capture, you know, the look of this model or the look of this landscape. So I’m still figuring that out. One of the things I worked on from the Palm Springs thing was you know, there was a barrel cactuses in the garden that I found this color grade that was really great blue shadows and sort of a, a greenish yellow highlights and look. Wow, that looks really cool. So last weekend, my wife and I worked walked down to the local farmers market. On the way back we’re passing that as these tall cactuses like, hey, that would look cool with this too. So I’m sitting there That was the intention of adding that color grade to it. So that’s sort of a blend. But I’m still feeling my way out, you know, as a photographer is still figuring out how to knock the rust off and be more intentional. Rather than just, you know, happenstance for

Matt Stagliano 50:13
it, get on the bus. It’s it’s the lifelong journey, right? We’re always trying to get a little bit better and learn a little bit more. And like you said, stay in that student mindset as long as we can. So what’s coming up for you? What, what projects do you have in the works? What are you working on outside of the webinar that I know you have coming up in the education in the movie posters and whatnot? What else do you have coming up

Dennis Dunbar 50:37
supposed to start working with the new entertainment client, which I’m really happy about a chance to work in that I have no idea what their project is going to be. So got that going on planning different classes and things. So like, got the color grading seminar coming up. And then I’m going to be doing in person classes here in in the LA area in May, or early May, I’m doing one on portrait retouching. And then I think, a few weeks later, we have one scheduled for frequency separation. So it’d be like, in person, again, you know, with a group of students, which would be a lot of fun. And one of the things I want to I want to keep working on more is developing the idea about doing workshops and things, you know, as Nicole had been encouraging me, like, don’t rely on other people to invite you and ask you to do this stuff. You know, you’ve got enough together to go into your own. So I’m trying to work on developing that, because it’s something I really enjoy. And figure eventually, somebody figured out like, oh, yeah, like, just lots of younger people will send the retouch work to like, well, they’ll still want to learn from me. So, yes, you have to think of these plans out, you know, start building a house and expect to live in it the next day, you have to plan out years in advance and start, you know, building your plans. Now, it’s I’m working on that aspect.

Matt Stagliano 51:53
You know, there’s been this huge move for a lot of folks in the creative industry to, to start stepping up and teaching others what they know. And this kind of comes back to that collaborative question that I asked you way earlier about groups of friends helping each other out, it seems to be we all have these different specialties, we can all do amazing things that other folks can’t do, why not put that knowledge out there, the barrier that I see a lot of us getting caught in is, well, I don’t know how to put it out there, I’ve got the knowledge, I want to do it, I have no idea how to sell it, teach it, get people in front of me record it, do any of that stuff. So that seems to be the barrier. It’s a big struggle for a lot of folks. And I’d love to see you blossom in that space. And we’ll have a lot more people understand what you do. When it

Dennis Dunbar 52:43
comes to color grading, you mentioned Kate Woodman, and she you know, we call her the queen of color. She has a great course with prove it to you on color grading, which she does a lot with. So there’s a lot for that, you know, the thing I really enjoy about the teaching is not only that you’re giving back to people, but the best way to learn how to master something is to teach it, because you have to think of it differently. But also during the course of sharing that with other people, something somebody will make a comment, somebody will ask you a question that sets your mind in a different way. And then when you have a group of peers when you built up, you know, connected with a community of peers, everybody sharing like, like, when I was first trying to figure out read frequency separation. I was freelancing and house that at a retouching boutique here in LA. And that friend Dan E. Cough was, was there. And I mentioned like, yeah, you know, I’ve been playing with frequency separation, I haven’t quite found a real use for it yet. And just out of the corner of his mouth, he said, as he’s passing by, so it was really good for wrinkles, and he walks away. And so that weekend, I went home and it’s like start playing with like, oh my god, the floodgates open. Now I understand this, and I see the power of this thing. And then like Earth, Oliver had had his previous separation, 2.0 workflows, even more opens the floodgates. So it’s in sharing these things and connecting with people and everybody sharing things, that your bag of tricks just grows and multiplies. Yeah. And if we have the idea of like, I have a little bag of tricks, I’m going to protect it, your bag of tricks will get shrink or smaller and smaller over time. Whereas the more you share, the more your bag of tricks grows, and the better you become. And the other great thing is socially, you wind up connecting with peers and friends and and you know feeling much better as human being because you’ve got a community around you that you connect with. Doing something

Matt Stagliano 54:41
a certain way is just a way it’s not the way right and there are every time I talk to a photographer, retoucher, or producer of any sort artists of any sort. I’m fascinated by how their mind works in the process. And I realized oh, I Thought this was the only way you could do frequency separation. And then there’s nine other slightly subtly different methods to do it that have pros and cons, right? And you just find the right specific screwdriver for the right specific screw. And you know, you go with that rather than trying to go after the screw with a hammer, because it’s all you know how to do. So the more you have in that toolbox, the better and it’s just, I love hearing that people are sharing these different techniques and tweaking it and seeing what works for them in different situations. That always makes me feel really good.

Dennis Dunbar 55:37
That reminds me, Nina, Batista is a good good teacher and a good diver. He has a different workflow on frequency separation that is share with me like, I’ve got to spend a little more time playing with it, because like, like, oh, that could be some cool ideas for that, like something I hadn’t thought. He’s got interesting

Matt Stagliano 55:54
tools. I’ve done workshops with Nino, and great guy, great photographer, and really into the actions and making things a workflow work better for people and cutting out a lot of the steps that they could make mistakes on. So he’s giving people a little bit more of a path. And I really liked that. Dennis, this has been amazing. I’m very sensitive to your time. I know I’m taking up most of your afternoon. I hope we get the chance at some point to sit down at a table together and laugh a little bit more. But thank you for being so generous with your time today. I’m really looking forward to the webinar with the artists Forge. I will be there I can’t wait for it. I cannot recommend it more highly for anybody that wants to learn from one of the best. So Dennis, thank you. I will talk to you soon. And I hope you have an amazing rest of your day.

Dennis Dunbar 56:47
Thank you very much. It was pleasure talking with you and always great to be with you


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