Color grading choices

If buzz equals sales, then Blackmagic Design has a hit on its hands with DaVinci Resolve for the Mac. They have successfully cashed in on DaVinci’s mystique with the desktop crowd. Blackmagic Design even seems to be getting the interest of Apple Color users, in spite of the fact that Resolve really doesn’t have anything significantly better to offer, aside from the brand name. Ironically, a number of big DaVinci users have told me off the record that they are moving on to Quantel, Autodesk and other advanced systems. For these customers, “big iron” support is something they’ve grown to rely on and that clearly isn’t Blackmagic Design’s plan for DaVinci.

My experience is primarily as a desktop software user, so I’d like to compare and contrast some of the options at this level. If you are looking for a dedicated desktop color grading tool, there are four viable options – Avid Media Composer, Apple Color, Adobe CS5 (using Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse within After Effects) and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. I’m going to skip over Avid DS and Autodesk Smoke simply because I’d like to concentrate on the under-$5,000 solutions. Likewise, I’ll exclude Avid Symphony – partially out of cost and partially because most of the toolset matches that of Media Composer. As a past Symphony user, I know that it has a few really nice bells-and-whistles that improve grading efficiency, but the inherent toolset – what you can do with an image – is largely the same.

When you look at those four solutions, you find that they all offer a similar toolset – curves, lift/gamma/gain color balance adjustments, trackers and secondary color correction. When it gets to this last point, Media Composer comes out pretty weak. There’s no integrated secondary correction (note: Symphony does have limited secondary control), but you can get to a similar result using the animatte/intraframe editing/paint tools, plug-ins and nesting techniques.

When you use Color Finesse within After Effects, you do have color-isolation-based secondary correction, which is much like the same feature that’s in Symphony (but not included in Media Composer). The downside of After Effects is the lack of a true shot-to-shot color grading workflow. (There is a standalone version of Color Finesse, which uses a similar roundtrip approach to that of Apple Color, but it has never caught on and is not included with the CS5 bundle.)

Unless you are a masochist, it’s a really only a choice between an integrated tool, such as Avid’s, and a dedicated grading application like Resolve or Color. Although I’ve done really nice grading work with Avid Symphony and Media Composer, I really consider them to be mediocre grading tools given the competition. For dedicated grading, it really does boil down to a Color versus Resolve choice. Let me interject that I’m mainly talking about grading for commercials and long form projects that need grading for a “look”. If grading is an integral part of a complex composite for a visual effects shot, then none of these solutions is good enough. In those instances, advanced applications like Avid DS or Autodesk Smoke really do have an edge. Some of those results can be achieved with Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Studio and Adobe CS5, but often require a healthy set of special-purpose plug-ins to augment the built-in tools. I’ll skip that for now and concentrate on standard grading.

One of the things that struck me as I worked with Resolve for the review was just how good Color actually is. Resolve has some very limiting hardware requirements, while Color will run on most newer Mac Pros and Macbook Pros and use just about any monitor. People tend to forget about the fact the Apple has done a good job of enabling Final Cut Studio to work across a wide spectrum of OS versions and hardware combinations.

Not so with Resolve. What this tends to mean is that Color functions quite nicely in a multipurpose suite for editing, graphics, audio, effects and grading. Resolve, on the other hand, dictates a machine and room that is built around the needs of Resolve. On the plus side, DaVinci leverages the CUDA power of certain NVIDIA cards for greater real-time performance. Unfortunately this chews up your slot space and limits you to one brand of graphics card. I personally would never build a “DaVinci room” unless I knew it would primarily serve as a color grading suite.

Both toolsets feature primary and secondary grading (vignettes and HSL keyer), but only Color integrates with Final Cut Pro using an XML roundtrip. Color also includes the Color FX room with a plug-in architecture and available third party plug-ins. Both apps work well, however, for me the only reason to pick Resolve over Color comes down to three reasons: 1) you haven’t invested in the FCP/Studio suite, 2) you feel the DaVinci name will bring you clients, or 3) you have a talented colorist available to you who performs better with Resolve. Given these points, it would seem to me that Resolve has a greater appeal to Avid editors than to owners of Final Cut Studio.

As I mentioned before, you might need to deal with color grading as an integrated feature within the editing interface itself. If this means desktop solutions like Premiere Pro/After Effects, Final Cut Pro/Motion or Media Composer, then you’ll want to add some filters specifically geared around color. The most recognized solutions are Magic Bullet Looks, Mojo and Colorista II, but don’t forget the others. Each of the popular packages from Boris, GenArts, CoreMelt and Noise Industries includes filters for color manipulation. The stand-outs include DV Shade, PHYXSapphire and Luca Visual FX.

© 2011 Oliver Peters

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