Understanding color correction in FCP X

Click on images for an expanded view.

One of the many new things to get used to in Apple Final Cut Pro X is the new way of handling color correction. Instead of a familiar color-wheel or curves-based grading tool, FCP X features the tabbed Color Board. This tool is a mash-up between the two color correctors and some of the image adjustment filters in previous versions of Final Cut.

Apple did not roll the functionality of Color into FCP X. If you are a fan and user of Color, then that’s a great disappointment. Color continues to be viable as an advanced grading tool, but for most FCP editors it was merely a source of confusion. Unfortunately, Apple never put much effort into developing and marketing Color and simply used it as a carrot to attract new FCP users (“you get this $25K color corrector for FREE”). Exit the FCP 3-way. Exit Apple Color. Enter the Color Board.

The Color Board toolset

Color correction takes three forms in Final Cut Pro X : automatic Balance, Match Color and manual adjustments in the Color Board tabs. When you select a clip and click Balance or Match Color, the changes are made in the color profile of the file, which means that the actual parameters that were adjusted are invisible to the user. The image and waveform/vector/parade displays change, but no slider positions have been altered in the Color Board controls. So, you still have additional correction/grading control on top of the changes caused by Balance or Match Color.

In actual practice, I’m generally not happy with the results of Balance. I’m sure the derived color balance is mathematically correct, because I see an off-center vectorscope image become more zeroed on the display. However, the image frequently looks too cool or blue than would be the case if I had simply done the balance manually. This is no eye dropper control that lets you pick the color you’d like to use for determining a white standard. In the case of HDSLR footage, like from a Canon 5D, the normal camera settings frequently yield images than are high-contrast, very saturated and somewhat orange. Here, the Balance feature often does a nice job. On the other hand, when I use this feature to automatically balance Log-C images from an ARRI ALEXA, the contrast is corrected, but I’m usually not happy with the balance changes to the picture.

Another aspect of this correction is that the Color Board controls behave differently. In the Log-C example, if I automatically correct the image using Balance, then I don’t have nearly the range of saturation available on the global slider (Color Board Saturation tab) as I do if I corrected the image manually. But, when I increase saturation using the global slider PLUS the low/mid/high sliders, then I have a lot of range. Quite possibly this is a bug. If you are working with ALEXA Log-C footage, none of the LUTs or filters designed for LogC-to-709 correction work in FCP X. Not to mention that support for REDCODE raw files (or any other raw motion format) is nonexistent to date.

Match Color is another automatic correction tool, which is designed to alter the grading of one clip based on the color of another. Select the clip to change, pick a frame on another clip to match it to, which then alters the first clip accordingly. Like Balance, this change is made in the color profile, so you don’t really know what was adjusted to achieve the results you see. An interesting aspect to this is that if have graded a clip with the Color Board and then you match another clip to that graded clip, the changes in the second clip are made in the profile and not by making comparable adjustments in its Color Board settings. Unfortunately, in most of my tests, Match Color didn’t do a very good match at all and generally could not achieve a perfect match of the exact same footage to itself. That is, correcting a clip and then trying to match an identical duplicate of the clip to that correction.

Color Adjustment tabs

The Color Board Color Adjustment slide-out panel is where you make manual color correction/grading changes. It’s divided into three tabs for Exposure (brightness, contrast, gamma) Saturation and Color (hue, tint, balance, phase). Each tab has four sliders (or button controls) for a global, as well as shadow/midtone/highlight changes. The layout is divided into a positive and negative range, so you add or subtract values by moving the slider (button control) above or below the default middle line.

The functions of these tools are a combination of both the basic and 3-way color correctors from FCP 7. Apple would suggest that this non-standard (no color wheels) layout conserves screen real estate. In fact, it takes three tabs to equal what is done in one screen by Magic Bullet Colorista Free, which would occupy the space of a single tab. I presume the tabbed design works well with gestures, so I would imagine that Apple’s long-range goal is to conform to future OS designs and to work with its own track pad.

The Color tab is where you adjust hue and color tones and is the replacement for standard hue offset (color wheel) controls. This philosophy is similar to split toning used in Adobe Lightroom. Instead of shifting the color wheel towards or away from a certain color, you move the slider (button control) over to the desired color in a positive or negative direction. This gets more confusing than the Saturation or Exposure tabs, because you aren’t limited to an up or down travel for the control. If you want highlights to be more red, then move the highlight button into the upper red area of the color swatch. This adds red tinting to the highlights of the image. If you want to make the shadows less blue, then move the shadows button into the lower blue region of the color swatch to subtract blue. There are a number of preset Apple “looks” under the gear icon in the lower right corner. Once you get the grasp of this, it’s pretty easy, but overall, it feels very imprecise compared with standard hue offset controls. Of course, none of the control surfaces like Avid Artist Color or Tangent Devices Wave work yet.

I do like the overall quality of the corrections made. In the past, when you compared the results of grading with the standard FCP 3-way filter versus a plug-in like Colorista, the latter was considered to yield cleaner results, since they each used different color models. It seems to me that the corrections in FCP X are also cleaner than using the 3-way in FCP 7. I would certainly rate this as an improvement and part of Apple’s plan to maintain pristine image quality in FCP X.

Masking

The Color Board offers two modifiers per correction – a Shape Mask and an HSL keyer or Color Mask. The HSL keyer is similar to the limit controls opened when you twirl the disclosure triangle in FCP’s 3-way filter. It doesn’t seem to be very good though and doesn’t have as much control as the older FCP keyer. It’s certainly not as precise as similar tools, such as in Colorista II. For example, I found it impossible to isolate a single color with any accuracy. I would recommend using it more for general isolation, like skin tones, in order to control subtle corrections.

There is also a shape mask, which is limited to oval and rectangular vignettes. The mask size, “squareness”, aspect and softness parameters are adjustable, but you can’t do a user-defined shape. In both color and the shape masks, correction can be applied inside and outside of the mask. As a general rule, you should only apply either the shape or color mask to one correction, but multiple masks can be applied in a single correction. When you do that though, the same correction settings appear in all masks. If you want additional masks with different corrections, then you will have to add more correction filters by clicking the rainbow “+” icon.

Unlike the filter stacks in FCP 7, color correction layers have a fixed order that can’t be re-arranged. You can’t move Correction 3 above Correction 1 and 2, as you could with several 3-way correctors applied on an FCP 7 clip. Likewise, actual effects filters are always added after color correction in the Color Board. There are two workarounds for this. The first is to work with Compound Clips – the new term for a “nest”. If you want to add a correction after the application of a filter or apply an additional overall correction to series of clips, select the clip(s) and click Option-G for a new compound clip. Now apply the new effect or correction.

It is also possible to apply some pseudo “look” effects to a group of clips on the Primary Storyline by adding a custom generator as a Connected Clip. The custom generator color, blend mode and opacity can be changed to achieve the desired effect on top of the clips. In addition, you can apply Color Adjustments to the generator. So for example, if you’d like to add a golden wash to a set of clips, then using this technique might be an interesting approach.

Workflow – or lack thereof

One of the big changes between FCP 7 and FCP X is that there is no color grading workflow. You can no longer create custom layouts for grading or use the Playhead Sync – Open feature to step through timeline clips without clicks. These two aspects of FCP 7 allowed you to work in a color correction mode, much like Avid Symphony. Their absence makes color correction much slower in FCP X.

You also can’t drag-and-drop correction settings from the filter pane onto another clip. FCP X does offer a Paste Effects function, but you have no ability to limit this selection to only filters or corrections as you had in the FCP 7 Past Attributes window. You can save Color Board corrections as presets, but there’s no way to copy a setting to a bin and then apply it to multiple selected clips on the timeline.

One last issue is that source-side effects have more or less been done away with. This has been replaced with the “open in timeline” command. When you select a clip and invoke this, the clip will open in its own mini-timeline. Now adjustments can be made to the clip (scaling, color correction, effects). These changes have been applied to the clip in the Event Browser, so every time you edit that clip to another timeline, the clip already includes the applied effects.

If you want to color correct footage BEFORE editing it, using “open in timeline” is the way to do that. But you can’t copy-and-paste effects or corrections this way from one clip to another. To do so with multiple clips, you have to go through the “open in timeline” dance for each one. It seems to be a necessary workaround, because Apple eliminated the dedicated Viewer-Canvas design. Another example of different, but not better nor easier.

While there has been a lot of advanced work done on the color side of Final Cut Pro X, using it for sophisticated color correction has now taken a serious step backwards compared with most of the previous versions. Never mind the fact that Apple Color is gone or that there’s no legacy “send to Color”, which could have helped. In the past I did a lot of grading – including feature films – strictly in FCP. That doesn’t seem like a viable option any longer with FCP X.

©2011 Oliver Peters

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