Filmmaking Pointers

df_fmpointersIf you want to be a good indie filmmaker, you have to understand some of the basic principles of telling interesting visual stories and driving the audience’s emotions. These six   ideas transcend individual components of filmmaking, like cinematography or editing. Rather, they are concepts that every budding director should understand and weave into the entire structure of how a film is approached.

1. Get into the story quickly. Films are not books and don’t always need a lengthy backstory to establish characters and plot. Films are a journey and it’s best to get the characters on that road as soon as possible. Most scripts are structured as three-act plays, so with a typical 90-100 minute running time, you should be through act one at roughly one third of the way into the film. If not, you’ll lose the interest of the audience. If you are 20 minutes into the film and you are still establishing the history of the characters without having advanced the story, then look for places to start cutting.

Sometimes this isn’t easy to tell and an extended start may indeed work well, because it does advance the story. One example is There Will Be Blood. The first reel is a tour de force of editing, in which editor Dylan Tichenor builds a largely dialogue-free montage that quickly takes the audience through the first part of Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) history in order to bring the audience up to the film’s present day. It’s absolutely instrumental to the rest of the film.

2. Parallel story lines. A parallel story structure is a great device to show the audience what’s happening to different characters at different locations, but at more or less the same time. With most scripts, parallel actions are designed to eventually converge as related or often unrelated characters ultimately end up in the same place for a shared plot. An interesting take on this is Cloud Atlas, in which an ensemble cast plays different characters spread across six different eras and locations – past, present and future.

The editing style pulled off by Alexander Berner is quite a bit different than traditional parallel story editing. A set of characters might start a scene in one era. Halfway through the scene – through some type of abrupt cut, such as walking through a door – the characters, location and eras shift to somewhere else. However, the story and the editing are such that you clearly understand how the story continues for the first half of that scene, as well as how it led into the second half. This is all without explicitly shooting those parts of each scene. Scene A/era A informs your understanding of scene B/era B and vice versa.

3. Understand camera movement. When a camera zooms, moves or is used in a shaky, handheld manner, this elicits certain emotions from the audience. As a director or DP, you need to understand when each style is appropriate and when it can be overdone. Zooming into a close-up while an actor delivers a line should be done intentionally. It tells the audience, “Listen up. This is important.” If you shoot handheld footage, like most of the Bourne series, it drives a level of documentary-style, frenetic action that should be in keeping with the concept.

The TV series NYPD Blue is credited with introducing TV audiences to the “shaky-cam” style of camera work. Many pros thought it was overdone, with movement often being introduced in an unmotivated fashion. Yet, the original Law & Order series also made extensive use of handheld photography. As this was more in keeping with a subtle documentary style, few complained about its use on that show.

4. Color palettes and art direction. Many new filmmakers often feel that you can get any look you want through color grading. The reality is that it all starts with art direction. Grading should enhance what’s there, not manufacture something that isn’t. To get that “orange & teal” look, you need to have a set and wardrobe that has some greens and blues in it. To get a warm, earthy look, you need a set and wardrobe with browns and reds.

This even extends to black & white films. To get the right contrast and tonal values in black & white, you often have to use set/wardrobe color choices that are not ideal in a color world. That’s because different colors carry differing luminance and midrange values, which becomes very obvious, once you eliminate the color information from the picture. Make sure you take that into account if you plan to produce a black & white film.

5. Score versus sound design. Music should enhance and underscore a film, but it does not have to be wall-to-wall. Some films, like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, are driven by a score of popular tunes. Others are composed with an original score. However, often the “score” consists of sound design elements and simple musical drones designed to heighten tension and otherwise manipulate emotion. The absence of score in a scene can achieve the same effect. Sound effects elements with stark simplicity may have more impact  on the audience than music. Learn when to use one or the other or both. Often less is more.

6. Don’t tell too much story. Not every film requires extensive exposition. As I said at the top, a film is not a book. Visual cues are as important as the spoken word and will often tell the audience a lot more in shorthand, than pages and pages of script. The audience is interested in the journey your film’s characters are on and frequently need very little backstory to get an understanding of the characters. Don’t shy away from shooting enough of that sort of detail, but also don’t be afraid to cut it out, when it becomes superfluous.

©2014 Oliver Peters

The Ouch of 4K Post

df_4kpost_sm4K is the big buzz. Many in the post community are wondering when the tipping point will be reached when their clients will demand 4K masters. 4K acquisition has been with us for awhile and has generally proven to be useful for its creative options, like reframing during post. This has been possible long before the introduction of the RED One camera, if you were shooting on film. But acquiring in 4K and higher is quite a lot different than working a complete 4K post production pipeline.

There are a lot of half-truths surrounding 4K, so let me tackle a couple. When we talk about 4K, the moniker applies only to frame dimensions in pixels, not resolution, as in sharpness. There are several 4K dimensions, depending on whether you mean cinema specs or television specs. The cinema projection spec is 4096 x 2160 (1.9:1 aspect ratio) and within that, various aspects and frame sizes can be placed. The television or consumer spec is 3840 x 2160 (16:9 or 1.78:1 aspect ratio), which is an even multiple of HD at 1920 x 1080. That’s what most consumer 4K TV sets use. It is referred to by various labels, such as Ultra HD, UHD, UHDTV, Quad HD, 4K HD and so on. If you are delivering a digital cinema master it will be 4096 pixels wide, but if you deliver a television 4K master, it will be 3840 pixels wide. Regardless of which format your deliverable will be, you will most likely want to acquire at 4096 x 2304 (16:9) or larger, because this gives you some reframing space for either format.

This brings us to resolution. Although the area of the 4K frame is 4x that of a 1080p HD frame, the actual resolution is only theoretically 2x better. That’s because resolution is measured based on the vertical dimension and is a factor of the ability to resolve small detail in the image (typically based on thin lines of a resolution chart). True resolution is affected by many factors, including lens quality, depth of field, accuracy of the focus, contrast, etc. When you blow up a 35mm film frame and analyze high-detail areas within the frame, you often find them blurrier than you’d expect.

The brings us to post. The push for 4K post comes from a number of sources, but many voices in the independent owner-operator camp have been the strongest. These include many RED camera owners, who successfully cut their own material straight from the native media of the camera. NLEs, like Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Apple Final Cut Pro X, make this a fairly painless experience for small, independent projects, like short films and commercials. Unfortunately it’s an experience that doesn’t extrapolate well to the broader post community, which works on a variety projects and must interchange media with numerous other vendors.

The reason 4K post seems easy and viable to many is that the current crop of 4K camera work with highly compressed codecs and many newer computers have been optimized to deal with these codecs. Therefore, if you shoot with a RED (Redcode), Canon 1DC (Motion-JPEG), AJA Cion (ProRes), BMD URSA (ProRes) and Sony F55 (XAVC), you are going to get a tolerable post experience using post-ready, native media or by quickly transcoding to ProRes. But that’s not how most larger productions work. A typical motion picture or television show will take the camera footage and process it into something that fits into a known pipeline. This usually means uncompressed DPX image sequences, plus proxy movies for the editors. This allows a base level of color management that can be controlled through the VFX pipeline without each unit along the way adding their own color interpretation. It also keeps the quality highest without further decompression/recompression cycles, as well as various debayering methods used.

Uncompressed or even mildy compressed codecs mean a huge storage commitment for an ongoing facility. Here’s a quick example. I took a short RED clip that was a little over 3 minutes long. It was recorded as 4096 x 2304 at 23.976fps. This file was a bit over 7GB in its raw form. Then I converted this to these formats with the following results:

ProRes 4444 – 27GB

ProRes HQ (also scaled to UHD 3840 x 2160) – 16GB

Uncompressed 10-Bit – 116GB

DPX images (10-bits per channel) – 173GB

TIFF images (8-bits per channel) – 130GB

As you can see, storage requirement increase dramatically. This can be mitigated by tossing out some data, as the ProRes444 versus down-sampled ProResHQ comparison shows. It’s worth noting that I used the lower DPX and TIFF color depth options, as well. At these settings, a single 4K DPX frame is 38MB and a single 4K TIFF frame is 28MB.

For comparison, a complete 90-100 minute feature film mastered at 1920 x 1080 (23.976fps) as ProRes HQ will consume about 110-120GB of storage. UHD is still 4x the frame area, so if we use the ProRes HQ example above, 30x that 3 min. clip would give us the count for a typical feature. That figure comes out to 480GB.

This clearly has storage ramifications. A typical indie feature shot with two RED cameras over a one-month period, will likely generate about 5-10TB of media in the camera original raw form. If this same media were converted to ProRes444, never mind uncompressed, your storage requirements just increased to an additional 16-38TB. Mind you this is all as 24p media. As we start talking 4K in television-centric applications around the world, this also means 4K at 25, 30, 50 and 60fps. 60fps means 2.5x more storage demands than 24p.

The other element is system performance. Compressed codecs work when the computer is optimized for these. RED has worked hard to make Redcode easy to work with on modern computers. Apple ProRes enjoys near ubiquitous playback support. ProRes HQ even at 4K will play reasonably well from a two-drive RAID-0 stripe on my Mac Pro. Recode plays if I lower the debayer quality. Once you start getting into uncompressed files and DPX or TIFF image strings, it takes a fast drive array and a fast computer to get anything approaching consistent real-time playback. Therefore, the only viable workflow is an offline-online editorial system, since creative editorial generally requires multiple streams of simultaneous media.

This workflow gets even worse with other cameras. One example is the Canon C500, which records 4K camera raw files to an external recorder, such as the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q. These are proprietary Canon camera raw files, which cannot be natively played by an NLE. These must first be turned into something else using a Canon utility. Since the Odyssey records to internal SSDs, media piles up pretty quickly. With two 512GB SSDs, you get 62 minutes of record time at 24fps if you record Canon 4K raw. In the real world of production, this becomes tough, because it means you either have to rent or buy numerous SSDs for your shoot or copy and reuse as you go. Typically transferring 1TB of data on set is not a fast process.

Naturally there are ways to make 4K post efficient and not as painful as it needs to be. But it requires a commitment to hardware resources. It’s not conducive to easy desktop post running off of a laptop, like DV and even HD has been. That’s why you still see Autodesk Smokes, Quantel Rio Pablos and other high-end systems dominate at the leading facilities. Think, plan and buy before you jump in.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Final Cut “Studio 2014″


A few years ago I wrote some posts about Final Cut Pro as a platform and designing an FCP-centric facility. Those options have largely been replaced by an Adobe approach built around Creative Cloud. Not everyone has warmed up to Creative Cloud. Either they don’t like the software or they dislike the software rental model or they just don’t need much of the power offered by the various Adobe applications.

If you are looking for alternatives to a Creative Cloud-based production toolkit, then it’s easy to build your own combination with some very inexpensive solutions. Most of these are either Apple software or others that are sold through the Mac App Store. As with all App Store purchases, you buy the product once and get updates for free, so long as the product is still sold as the same. Individual users may install the apps onto as many Mac computers as they personally own and control, all for the one purchase price. With this in mind, it’s very easy for most editors to create a powerful bundle that’s equal to or better than the old Final Cut Studio bundle – at less than its full retail price back in the day.

The one caveat to all of this is how entrenched you may or may not be with Adobe products. If you need to open and alter complex Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects or Premiere Pro project files, then you will absolutely need Adobe software to do it. In that case, maybe you can get by with an old version (CS6 or earlier) or maybe trial software will work. Lastly you could outsource to a colleague with Adobe software or simply pick up a Creative Cloud subscription on a month-by-month rental. On the other hand, if you don’t absolutely need to interact with Adobe project files, then these solutions may be all you need. I’m not trying to advocate for one over the other, but rather to add some ideas to think about.

Final Cut Pro X / Motion / Compressor

df_fcpstudio_fcpx_smThe last Final Cut Studio bundle included FCP 7, Motion, Compressor, Cinema Tools, DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro and Color. The current Apple video tools of Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor cover all of the video bases, including editing, compositing, encoding, transcoding and disc burning. The latter may be a bone of contention for many – since Apple has largely walked away from the optical disc world. Nevertheless, simple one-off DVDs and Blu-ray discs can still be created straight from FCP X or Compressor. Of course, FCP X has been a mixed bag for editors, with many evangelists and haters on all sides. If you square off Premiere Pro against Final Cut Pro X, then it really boils down to tracks versus trackless. Both tools get the job done. Which one do you prefer?

df_fcpstudio_motion_smMotion versus After Effects is a tougher call. If you are a power user of After Effects, then Motion may seem foreign and hard to use. If the focus is primarily on motion graphics, then you can certainly get the results you want in either. There is no direct “send to” from FCP X to Motion, but on the plus side, you can create effects and graphics templates using Motion that will appear and function within FCP X. Just like with After Effects, you can also buy stock Motion templates for graphics, show opens and other types of design themes and animations.

Logic Pro X

df_fcpstudio_lpx_smLogic Pro X is the DAW in our package. It becomes the replacement for Soundtrack Pro and the alternative to Adobe Audition or Avid Pro Tools. It’s a powerful music creation tool, but more importantly for editors, it’s a strong single file and multitrack audio production and post production application. You can get FCP X files to it via FCPXML or AAF (converted using X2Pro). There are a ton of plug-ins and mixing features that make Logic a solid DAW. I won’t dive deeply into this, but suffice it to say, that if your main interest in using Logic is to produce a better mix, then you can learn the essentials quickly and get up and running in short order.

DaVinci Resolve

df_fcpstudio_resolve_smEvery decent studio bundle needs a powerful color correction tool. Apple Color is gone, but Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is a best-of-breed replacement. You can get the free Resolve Lite version through the App Store, as well as Blackmagic’s website. It does most of everything you need, so there’s little reason to buy the paid version for most editors who do some color correction.

Resolve 11 (due out soon) adds improved editing. There is a solid synergy with FCP X, making it not only a good companion color corrector, but also a finishing editorial tool. OFX plug-ins are supported, which adds a choice of industry standard creative effects if you need more than FCP X or Motion offer.

Pixelmator / Aperture

df_fcpstudio_pixelmator_smThis one’s tough. Of all the Adobe applications, Photoshop and Illustrator are hardest to replace. There are no perfect alternatives. On the other hand, most editors don’t need all that power. If direct feature compatibility isn’t a need, then you’ve got some choices. One of these is Pixelmator, a very lightweight image manipulation tool. It’s a little like Photoshop in the version 4-7 stages, with a mix of Illustrator tossed in. There are vector drawing and design tools and it’s optimized for core image, complete with a nice set of image filters. However, it does not include some of Photoshop CC’s power user features, like smart objects, smart filters, 3D, layer groups and video manipulation. But, if you just need to doctor some images, extract or modify logos or translate various image formats, Pixelmator might be the perfect fit. For more sophistication, another choice (not in the App Store) is Corel’s Painter, as well as Adobe Photoshop Elements (also available at the App Store).

df_fcpstudio_aperture_smAlthough Final Cut Studio never included a photo application, the Creative Cloud does include Lightroom. Since the beginning, Apple’s Aperture and Adobe’s Lightroom have been leapfrogging each other with features. Aperture hasn’t changed much in a few years and is likely the next pro app to get the “X” treatment from Apple’s engineers. Photographers have the same type of “Chevy vs. Ford” arguments about Aperture and Lightroom as editors do about NLEs. Nevertheless, editors deal a lot with supplied images and Aperture is a great tool to use for organization, clean up and image manipulation.


The list I’ve outlined creates a nice set of tools, but if you need to interchange with other pros using a variety of different software, then you’ll need to invest in some “glue”. There are a number of utilities designed to go to and from FCP X. Many are available through the App Store. Examples include Xto7, 7toX, EDL-X, X2Pro, Shot Notes X, Lumberjack and many others.

For a freewheeling discussion about this topic and other matters, check out my conversation with Chris Fenwick at FCPX Grille.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Why film editors love Avid Media Composer


The editing of feature films is a small niche of the overall market for editing software, yet companies continue to highlight features edited with their software as a form of aspirational marketing to attract new users. Avid Technology has had plenty of competition since the start of the company, but the majority of mainstream feature films are still edited using Avid Media Composer software. Lightworks and Final Cut Pro “legacy” have their champions (soon to be joined by FCP X and Premiere Pro CC), but Media Composer has held the lead – at least in North America – as the preferred software for feature film editors.

Detractors of Avid like to characterize these film editors as luddites who are resistant to change. They like to suggest that the interface is stodgy and rigid and just not modern enough. I would suggest that change for change’s sake is not always a good thing. Originally Final Cut Pro got a foothold, because it did well with file-based workflows and was very cheap compared to turnkey workstations running Media Composer or Film Composer. Those days are long gone, so trying to make the argument based on cost alone doesn’t go very far.

Editing speed is gained through familiarity and muscle memory. When you hire a top-notch feature editor, you aren’t hiring them for their software prowess. Instead, you are hiring them for their mind, ideas and creativity. As such, there is no benefit to one of these editors in changing to another piece of software, just because it’s the cool kid on the block. Most know how they need to manipulate the software tools so well, that thinking about what to do in the interface just disappears.

Change is attractive to new users, with no preconceived preferences. FCP X acolytes like to say how much easier it is to teach new users FCP X than a track-based system, like FCP 7, Premiere Pro or Media Composer. As someone who’s taught film student editing workshops, my opinion is that it simply isn’t true. It’s all in what you teach, how you teach it and what you expect them to accomplish. In fact, I’ve had many who are eager to learn Media Composer, precisely because they know that it continues to be the “gold standard” for feature film editing software.

There are some concrete reasons why film editors prefer Media Composer. For many, it’s because Avid was their first NLE and it felt logical to them. For others, it’s because Avid has historically incorporated a lot of user input into the product. Here are a dozen factors that I believe keep the equation in favor of Avid Media Composer.

1. Film metadata - At the start of the NLE area, Avid was an offline editing system, designed to do the creative cut electronically. The actual final cut for release was done by physically conforming (cutting) camera negative to match the rough cut. Avid built in tools to cut at 24fps and to track the metadata back to film for frame-accurate lists that went to the lab and the negative cutter. Although negative cutting is all but dead today, this core tracking of metadata benefits modern versions of Media Composer and is still applicable to file-based workflows.

2. Trimming - Avid editors rave about the trim mode in Media Composer. It continues to be the best there is and has been augmented by Smart Tools for FCP-style contextual timeline editing. Many editors spend a lot of time trimming and nothing matches Media Composer.

3. Logical layout - When Avid started out, they sought the direct input from many working editors and this helped the interface evolve into something totally logical. For example, the keyboard position of JKL (transport controls) or mark/clear/go-to in/out is based on hand positions when placed on the keyboard and not an arbitrary choice by a software designer. If you look at the default keyboard map in Media Composer, there are fewer layers than the other apps. I would argue that Media Composer’s inherent design makes more layers unnecessary. In fact, more layers become more confusing.

 4. Script integration – Early on, Avid’s designers looked at how an actual written script might be used within the software. This is completely different than simply attaching copied-and-pasted text to a clip. With Media Composer, you can set up the bin with the actual script pages and link clips to the text of the dialogue. This is included with the base software as a manual process, but if you want to automate the linking, then the optional ScriptSync add-on will lighten the load. A second dialogue-driven option, PhraseFind, is great for documentary filmmakers. Some editors never use these features, but those that do, wouldn’t want to work any other way.

5. Built-in effect tools - The editorial team on most features gets involved in creating temporary visual effects. These are placeholders and style ideas meant to help the director and others visualize the effects. Sometimes these are editorial tricks, like an invisible split screen to combine different takes. The actual, final effect is done by the visual effects compositors. Avid’s internal tools, however, allow a talented film editor or assistant editor, to temp in an effect at a very high quality level. While Media Composer is certainly not a finishing tool equal to Avid DS (now EOL’ed) or Autodesk Smoke, the internal tools surpass all other desktop offline editors. FCP X requires third-party plug-ins or Motion 5 and Premiere Pro CC requires After Effects. With Media Composer, you have built-in rotosplining, tracking, one of the better keyers, stabilization and more. All without leaving the primary editing interface.

6. Surround mixing – Often film editors will build their rough cut with LCR (left-center-right) or full 5.1 surround panning. This helps to give a better idea of the theatrical mix and preps a sequence for early screenings with a preview or focus group audience. Other systems let you work in surround, too, but none as easily as with Media Composer, assuming you have the right i/o hardware.

7. Project sharing – You simply cannot share the EXACT SAME project file among simultaneous, collaborative users with any other editing application in the same way as you can with Media Composer and Avid’s Unity or Isis shared storage networks. Not every user needs that and there are certainly functional alternatives for FCP and Premiere Pro, as well as Media Composer. For film editors, the beauty of the Avid approach, is that everyone on the team can be looking at the exact same project. When changes are made to a sequence for a scene and the associated bin is saved, that updated info ripples to everyone else’s view. Large films may have as many as 15 to 20 connected users, once you tally editors, assistants and visual effects editors. This function is hard to duplicate with any alternative software.

8. Cross-platform and easy authorization – Media Composer runs under both Mac OS X and Windows on a wide range of machines. This makes it easy for editors on location to shift between a desktop workstation and a laptop, which may be of differing OS platforms. In the past, software licensing was via a USB license key (dongle), but newer versions use software authorization to activate the application. The software may be installed on any number of machines, with one active and authorized at any given time. De-activation and re-activation only takes a few seconds if you are connected to the Internet.

9. Portability of projects and media – Thanks to Avid’s solid media management with internal media databases, it’s easy to move drives between machines with no linking issues. Keep a common and updated project file on two machines and you can easily move a media drive back and forth between them. The software will instantly find all the correct media when Media Composer is launched. In addition, Avid has held one of the best track records for project interchange among older and newer versions.

10. Interoperability with lists – Feature film workflows are all about “playing well with others”. This means industry-standard list formats, like EDLs, AAFs and OMFs. I wish Media Composer would also natively read and write XMLs, but that’s a moving target and generally not as widely accepted in the facilities that do studio-level work. The other standards are all there and built into the tools. So sending lists to a colorist or audio editor/mixer requires no special third-party software.

11. Flexible media architecture – Avid has moved forward from the days when it only handled proprietary Avid media formats. Thanks to AMA, many native camera file formats and QuickTime codecs are supported. Through a licensing deal with Apple, even ProRes is natively supported, including writing ProRes MXF files on Apple workstations. This gives Media Composer wider support for professional codecs than nearly every other editing application. On top of that, you still have Avid’s own DNxHD, one of the best compression schemes currently in professional film and video use.

12. Robust – In most cases, Media Composer is a rock-solid application, with minimal hiccups and crashes. Avid editors have become very used to reliability and will definitely pipe up when that doesn’t happen. Generally Avid editors do not experience the sorts of RAM leaks that seem to plaque other editing software.

For the sake of full disclosure, I am a member of one of the advisory councils that are part of the Avid Customer Association. Obviously, you might feel that this taints what I’ve written above. It does not.

I’ve edited with Avid software since the early 90s, but I’ve edited for years with other applications, too. Most of the last decade leading up to Apple’s launch of Final Cut Pro X was spent on FCP “legacy”. The last couple of years have been spent trying to work the kinks out of FCP X. I’ve cut feature films on Media Composer, FCP 4-7, FCP X and even a Sony BVE-9100. I take a critical view towards all of them and go with what is best for the project.

Even though I don’t use many of the Avid-specific features mentioned above, like ScriptSync, I do see the strengths and why other film editors wouldn’t want to use anything else. My main goal here was to answer the question I hear so often, which is, “Why do they still use Avid?” I hope I’ve been able to offer a few answers.

For some more thoughts, take a look at these videos about DigitalFilm Tree’s transition from FCP to Media Composer and Alan Bell’s approach to using Avid products for cutting films like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Color Concepts and Terminology


It’s time to dive into some of the terms and concept that brought you modern color correction software. First of all – color grading versus color correction. Many use these terms to identify different processes, such as technical shot matching versus giving a shot a subjective “look”. I do this too, but the truth of the matter is that they are the same and are interchangeable. Grading tends to be a more European way of naming the process, but it is the same as color correction. (Click on any of the images in this article for an expanded and more descriptive view.)

All of our concepts stem from the film lab process known as color timing. Originally this described the person who knew how long to leave the negative in the chemical bath to achieve the desired result (the “timer”). Once the industry figured out to manipulate color in the negative-to-positive printing process, the “color timer” was the person who controlled the color analyzer and who dialed in degrees of density and red/blue/green coloration. The Dale Grahn Color iPad application will give you a good understanding of this process. Alexis Van Hurkman also covers it in his “Color Correction Handbook”.df_clrterms_09_sm

Electronic video color correction started with early color cameras and telecine (film-to-tape transfer or “film chain”) devices. These were based on red/blue/green color systems, where the video engineer (or “video shader”) would balance out the three components, along with exposure and black level (shadows). He or she would adjust the signal of the pick-up systems, including tubes, CCDs and photoelectric cells.

RCA added circuitry onto their cameras called a chroma proc, which divided the color spectrum according to the six divisions of the vectorscope – red, blue, green, cyan, magenta and yellow. The chroma proc let the operator shift the saturation and/or hue of each one of these six slices. For instance, you could desaturate the reds within the image. Early color correction modules for film-to-tape transfer systems adopted this same circuity. The “primary” controls manipulated the actual pick-up devices, while the “secondary” controls were downstream in the signal chain and let you further fine tune the color according to this simple, six-vector division.


Early color correction system were built to transfer color film to air or to videotape. They were part machine control and part color corrector. Modern color correction for post production came to be, because of these three key advances: memory storage, scene detection and signal decoding.

Memory storage. Once you could store and recall color correction settings, then it was easy to go back and forth between camera angles or shots and apply a different setting to each. Or you could create several looks and preview those for the client. The addition of this technology was the basis for a seminal patent lawsuit, known as the Rainbow patent suit, as the battle ranged over who first developed this technology.

Scene detection. Film transfer systems had to play in real-time to be recorded to videotape, which meant that shot changes had to trigger the change from one color correction setting to the next. Early systems did this via the operator manually marking an edit point (called “notching”), via an EDL (edit decision list) or through automatic scene detection circuitry. This was important for the real-time transfer of edited content, including film prints, cut negative and eventually videotape programs.

Signal decoding. The ability of color correction systems to decode a composite or component analog (and later digital) signal through added hardware, shifted color correction from camera shading and film transfer to being another general post production tool at a post facility. The addition of a signal decoder board in a DaVinci unit split the input signal into RGB parts and enabled the colorist to enhance the correction of an already-edited master using the “secondary” signal electronics of the system. This enabled “tape-to-tape” color correction of edited masters. Thanks to scene detection or an EDL, color correction could be shot-to-shot and frame-accurate, when played back in real-time for its re-encoded, corrected output back to a second videotape master.

Eventually the tools used in hardware-based, tape-to-tape color correction systems became standard. Quantel and Avid led the way by being first to incorporate these features into their nonlinear editing software.


Color correction software tends to break up its control into primary and secondary functions. As you can see from the earlier explanations, there’s really no reason to do that, since we are no longer controlling the pick-up devices within a camera or telecine. Nevertheless, it’s terminology we seem to be comfortable with. Often secondary controls enable masking and keys to isolate color – not because it has to be that way – but, because DaVinci added these features into their secondary control set. In modern correction tools, any function could happen on any layer, node, room, etc.df_clrterms_03_sm

The core language for color manipulation still boils down to the simple controls exemplified by the Dale Grahn app. A signal can be brighter, darker, more or less “dense” (contrast) and have its colorimetry shifted by added or subtracting red, blue or green for the overall image or in the highlight, midrange or shadow portions of the image. This basic approach can be controlled through sliders, knobs, color wheels and other user interfaces. Different software applications and plug-ins get to the same point through different means, so I’ll cover a few approaches here. Bear in mind, that since some of these actually represent somewhat different color science and math, examples that I present might not yield exactly the same results. Many controls are equivalent in their effect, though not necessarily identical in how they affect the image.

df_clrterms_01_smA common misconception is that shadow/mid/highlight controls on a 3-way color corrector will evenly divide the waveform into three discrete ranges. In fact, these are very large, overlapping ranges that interact with each other. If you shift a shadow luminance control up, it doesn’t typically just expand or compress the lower third of the waveform. Although some correctors act this way, most tend to shift the whole waveform up or down. If you change the color balance of the midrange, this color change will also affect shadows and highlights. The following is a quick explanation of some of the popular color control models.


df_clrterms_07_smContrast and temperature controls have recently become more popular and are considered a more photographic approach to correction. When you adjust contrast, the image levels expand or stretch as viewed on a waveform. Highlights get brighter and shadows deepen. This contrast expansion centers on a pivot point, which by default is at the center of the signal. If you change the pivot slider you are shifting the center point of this contrast expansion. In one direction, this means the contrast control will stretch the range below the pivot point more than above it. Shift the pivot slider in the other direction for the opposite effect.

df_clrterms_06_smColor temperature and tint (also called magenta) controls balance the red/blue/green signal channels in relationship to each other. If you slide a color temperature control while watching an RGB parade display on a waveform, you’ll note that adjustments shift the red and blue channels up or down in the opposite direction to each other, while leaving green unaffected. When you adjust the tint (or magenta) slider, you are adjusting the green channel. As you raise or lower the green, both the red and blue channels move together in a compensating direction.


df_clrterms_08_smThe SOP model is used for CDL (color decision list) values and breaks down the signal according to luma (master), red, green and blue and are expressed in the form of plus or minus values for slope, offset and power. Scratch Play’s color adjustments are a good example of the SOP model in action. Slope is equivalent to gain. Picture the waveform as a diagonal line from dark to light. As you rotate this imaginary line, the higher part becomes taller, which represents brightness values. Think of the slope concept as this rotating line. As such, its results are comparable to a contrast control.

The offset control shifts the entire signal up or down, similar to other shadow or lift controls. The power control alters gamma. As you adjust power, the gamma signal is curved in a positive or negative direction, effectively making the midrange tones lighter or darker.


df_clrterms_02_smThe LGG model is the common method used for most 3-way color wheel-style correctors. It effectively works in a similar manner to contrast and SOP, except that the placement of controls makes more sense to most casual users. Gain, as the name implies, increases the signal, effectively expanding the overall values and making highlights brighter. Lift shifts the entire signal higher or lower. Changing a lift control to darken shadows, will also have some effect on the overall image. Gamma bends the curve and effectively makes the midrange values lighter or darker.

Luma ranges

df_clrterms_04_smThe portions of the signal altered by highlight/shadow/midrange controls (like SOP, LGG or other) overlap. If you change the color balance for the midrange tones, you will also contaminate shadows and highlights with this color shift. The extent of the portion that is affected is controlled by a luma range control. Many color correction applications do not give you control over shifting the crossover points of these luma ranges. Some that do, include Avid Symphony, Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse and Adobe SpeedGrade. Each offers curves or sliders to reduce or expand the area controlled by each luma range and effectively tightens or widens the overlap or crossover between the ranges.

DaVinci Resolve includes a similar function within its log-style color wheels panel. It uses range adjustments that can limit the area affected by the balance and saturation controls. Similar results may be achieved by using HSL keyers or qualifiers that include softening controls.

Channels or printer lights

df_clrterms_05_smVideo signals are made up of red, blue and green channel information. It is not uncommon for properly-balanced digital cameras to still maintain a green color cast to the overall image, especially if log-profile recording was used. Here, it’s best to simply balance the overall channels first to neutralize the image, rather than attempt to do this through color wheel adjustments. Some software uses actual channel controls, so it’s easy to make a base-level adjustment to the output or mix of a channel. If your software uses printer lights, you can achieve the same results. Printer lights harken back to lab color timing, using point values that equate to color analysis values. Regardless, dialing in a plus or minus red/blue/green printer light value effectively gives you the same results as altering the output value of a specific color channel.

This is just a short post to go over some of the more confusing terminology found in modern color correction software. Many applications tend to blend the color science models, so as you apply the points mentioned to your favorite tool, you may see somewhat different results. Hopefully I’ve gotten you in the ballpark, in order to understand what happens when you twirl the knob the next time.

©2014 Oliver Peters