Stefan Sonnefeld - How he got his start
Issue: April 1, 2012

Stefan Sonnefeld - How he got his start

Los Angeles native Stefan Sonnenfeld was not born into the entertainment industry ‑ in fact, his parents made sure that he was exposed to diverse cultures, perspectives and influences by sending him to an international boarding school in Greece for his high school years.

Sonnenfeld finished school intent on earning a business degree and starting a career in banking, but a summer job at a Hollywood post house changed all that. He was delivering cans of exposed film from the set of Michael Mann's TV series Miami Vice to the telecine facility and he almost instantly became fascinated with the worls of post. "I just loved the whole process," he recalls. "I completely responded to the technical and creative elements that come together in post."

He abandoned his banking plans and went to work full time at a facility, gaining experience at a succession of post houses. "I worked my way up in the vault," he says. "I was a tape op. I liked the work I was doing but I always wanted to do more, to learn more. I had the opportunity to work in standards conversion for TV shows. In those days, if you converted video from NTSC to PAL, or the other way around, you had to make adjustments to the color too. That's really how my work as a colorist started to develop."

This was technical work — using color grading tools to essentially match the images — but this seemed to come naturally to Sonnenfeld. As soon as he could, he segued into a position assisting colorists who were working in commercials and music videos. This afforded him a perfect vantage point to observe how successful colorists thought, how they could impact the feel of an image and help directors and cinematographers realize a vision. And he could see how sought-after colorists interacted with a diverse roster of clients.

While assisting by day, Sonnenfeld stayed late at night, teaching himself the color grading console and learning how to be creative and efficient through long hours of trial and error. He'd color any project that came along, including friends' student films, to hone and improve his skills and to demonstrate his abilities.

After he had built a solid reel, Sonnenfeld was able to move behind the grading console himself as colorist, working on a great number of major music videos. "I was in the thick of that business pretty quickly," he says of his music video work for top recording artists including Santana, Sade and Boyz II Men. His efforts also led to work on major commercials by leading directors including Michael Bay, Tarsem Singh and Dominic Sena.

By this point, Sonnenfeld had built a name for himself and a list of clients who continually requested him. Many of the directors he'd worked with on short-form projects were now also directing features and they were asking for him to handle the color when their movies were being mastered for TV and home entertainment — this was before there was such a thing as a feature DI.

Sonnenfeld was responsible for a significant number of projects his employer (Pacific Ocean Post) was bringing in and by the late '90s he decided to make another career change. "I loved the work but I didn't love working for somebody else," he says. "I thought I could do things better so I started Company 3."

There, with a small group of colorists, Sonnenfeld built Company 3, starting with music videos and commercials. In the early 2000s, as feature films really started taking advantage of digital color grading, he began evolving Company 3 into one of a feature post facillity. Significantly — one of his first DI projects was the Tom Cruise thriller Collateral…directed by Michael Mann.