Getting started with Adobe SpeedGrade

The addition of SpeedGrade to Adobe’s Creative Suite 6 line-up gives users yet another powerful tool for film-style color correction and grading. The Adobe SpeedGrade interface is minimalist with few menu commands, so it will help for new users to seek out some of the online tutorials before diving into their first project. I will briefly provide some pointers here to help you get started.

Configuration

Adobe SpeedGrade functions on dual and single monitor systems, but video output is only possible with SDI-equipped NVIDIA graphics cards (PC only). If you have a second display connected to a DVI or DisplayPort connection, then the video viewer can be moved to the second screen. In the Settings–Display menu, enable “Dual Display Output”. If you normally place the system menu on the right hand display of a Mac, then it’s possible that the interface will cover the viewer, leaving you to wonder where it went. In that case, a minus value for the left edge will reveal the image. I have two 20” Apple Cinemas, so a left value of -1680 pixels places the viewer on my left display and the rest of the interface on the right.

Getting media into SpeedGrade

There are currently three ways to bring media into SpeedGrade. If you are cutting in Premiere Pro CS6, then you can use the “Send to Adobe SpeedGrade” command. This will render intermediate, uncompressed DPX frames, which will relink automatically to clips on a new SpeedGrade timeline. The need for intermediate files is because SpeedGrade doesn’t support some codecs that are native to Premiere Pro, like AVC-Intra. DPX files maintain quality, but are unlikely to play in real-time without a fast drive array. You can also bring a complete show as a single file into SpeedGrade and use the scene detection function to “notch” the timeline at the cuts. The fastest method for most projects is to export an EDL (edit decision list) from your NLE, which will reconnect to the original media within SpeedGrade. For instance, if you are cutting a project made up of ProRes media, then this would be the preferred method.

Media and file imports are handled through the tabs at the top left corner of the interface. Next to the Monitor tab is a file navigation tab, which often defaults to the Desktop. Additional tabs can be added by clicking the plus symbol. Set the file type pulldown menu to “all files” and navigate to the location of the EDL file. Select the correct EDL and click the plus symbol in the corner of the selected icon for that EDL. This will add the blank EDL clips to a new timeline. Next, to reconnect the media files, set the file formats pulldown menu to “Movie Formats” and navigate to the location of your camera files.

At the bottom of the SpeedGrade interface, go to Timeline–Reels and choose “Load from Desktop”. This will now link all selected movie files based on the info from the EDL and populate your timeline clips with video. Make sure all frame rate settings match throughout the system, otherwise you might get an error message when combining media and EDLs.

Understanding the layout

Once you are ready to start grading, you’ll want to set the interface to the Monitor tab in the top portion and the Look tab in the bottom. The thin timeline strip separates these two portions. The Monitor is the place for scopes, transport controls and viewer, except when the viewer has been moved to a second screen. You can step through your clips by dragging the playhead underneath timeline bar, by using on-screen transport buttons or JKL keyboard commands.

One unique SpeedGrade function is the ability to have numerous “live” playheads at different points along the timeline. All can simultaneously playback in real-time, depending on the horsepower of your system. If you want to create a second (or more) playhead location, Command+Drag (Mac) the active playhead by its handle to a new clip on the timeline. This duplicates the playhead at that new location. You can click between the playheads for active color correction on each, which is great for shot-matching. The offset is maintained, and you’ll see both viewer windows update in real-time as the timeline is played. Multiple playheads can be configured to fit the screen or as splits. Their layout is controlled in the Timeline-View tab. To remove unwanted playheads, simply grab any inactive playhead by the handle and drag it to a blank portion of the interface until a red “x” appears in it and then let go.

Starting color correction

The Look tab is where the action occurs. This section is divided into three panes for layers, controls and presets. Layers are similar to those in Photoshop and can hold primary or secondary corrections, filter effects and LUT (look-up table) adjustments. You can show or hide a layer, adjust its opacity and change the stacking order.

The color correction controls appear in the center of the Look tab. Depending on preference, levels and balance can be adjusted using color wheels and sliders, only sliders or by numerical entry. The control of color parameters is very extensive, with four settings groups divided into overall, shadows, midtones and highlights. In the color wheel view, these are similar to the way such controls work on competing systems, using an offset/gamma/gain model. However, there are also sliders for input and output saturation, contrast and pivot point, and temperature and magenta (tint). Each of the shadow, midtone and highlight groups also have luma range sliders, which control the cross-over from shadow to midtone and midtone to highlight. This design leaves all the controls right in front of you and provides more versatility than other systems using typical hue offset color wheels and curves.

The bottom portion of the Look panel is reserved for preset and saved grades. SpeedGrade ships with a number of LUTs, filters and preset looks and masks. These preset examples are stored inside the application package and this is one of the few Mac OS X applications, which allows you to access media from inside the otherwise hidden, application package contents. Here you can pick from various Bleach Bypass, Day for Night, Sepia and other stylistic presets. I suggest copy-and-pasting these from the package contents to a documents folder for easier access. You can also save your own grades in the .look file format. These .look files may also be used in Photoshop CS6 and After Effects CS6.

Beyond the primary

When establishing a grade, you are adjusting the initial primary layer for a clip. If you want to give the client options – like a cool look or a warm look – simply add another primary layer, create the alternate color correction and toggle the eyeball icon between the two layers to show/hide the results for each. You can also mix between two or more full screen primaries by adjusting their opacity sliders. Click the inside or outside mask icon on a primary layer to “window” an area or apply a vignette effect. To control the mask, move to the Mask tab, select and apply one of the presets or create a custom shape. SpeedGrade includes a very handy on-screen widget for adjusting all of the mask parameters. The Mask tab is also where you’ll finder SpeedGrade’s tracker.

Secondary layers are used for HSL keying, such as isolating the color of a shirt to change its saturation or hue. In the Layers pane, add a secondary layer, which will reveal color-picker and keying tools, as well as a modified set of color correction controls. To view the keyed area, select a Gray-out value from the pulldown menu. Once you have tweaked the key the way you’d like it, you can select the alpha or inverted-alpha icon in the Layers pane to control how the correction is applied. One handy tip is to go overboard on a correction and then back off of the intensity by adjusting that layer’s opacity. Lastly, you can also apply a mask to a secondary, if you need to further restrict the keyed area.

One final type of correction is to add a custom look layer in the Layers pane. Clicking the plus sign on the bottom of the Layers pane brings up a pulldown menu with a long list of filters (emboss, blur, bloom, etc.) and looks (bleach bypass, day for night, etc.). When you apply one of these, adjustment parameters appear in the center of the Look tab. So, Gaussian blur control sliders appear where color wheels are usually seen when you select between a primary and a custom layer in the Layers pane.

In addition to building grades for each clip, it’s also possible to apply grades to all or a portion of the timeline. For example, if you want a common vignette on all clips, it may be more desirable to apply a grading layer across the entire timeline, set the vignette, which would then be applied to all of the clips below. This timeline grading layer can also be toggled on and off using the familiar eyeball icon next to the timeline track.

Output

The last step is rendering your work. There is currently no roundtrip back into Premiere Pro or any other NLE from SpeedGrade. To access the render controls, click the Output tab in the upper right corner of the interface. This is where you can set render format, framing, target location and other settings. If there’s no format preset for your desired target – for instance, ProResLT – simply create a new one. You can render out the complete timeline as a single, flattened movie file or the individual timeline clips with handles and source timecode. Separate clips with the new, baked in color correction can be reconnected to an edited timeline in any NLE, based on matching file names and timecodes. Other options, such as LUTs and burn-ins, plus native RED .r3d and ARRIRAW file support, are offered, which also makes SpeedGrade attractive for generating color-corrected dailies on set.

Remember, that if you get stumped, the F1 keyboard command brings up the Help documentation. To learn more about SpeedGrade, check out Adobe’s intro videos at Adobe TV.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet / NewBay Media, LLC

©2012 Oliver Peters

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