Color Grading in FCP

As an editor/colorist, I’m comfortable with grading inside a number of NLEs, ranging from Avid Media Composer and Symphony to Apple Final Cut Pro. I’ve written about Apple Color before and like the application. There are many projects for which it is one of the best grading options; however, I also find that for quite a few projects, it’s still better to work inside of FCP and not use the roundtrip between Final Cut and Color.


Working with Color requires some prep time inside FCP in order to correctly set up the timeline for a successful roundtrip. This pre-flight time is necessary with feature-length projects, multi-clip timelines, as well as sequences with speed effects and other issues. Many clients don’t budget the necessary pre-flight time nor the rendering at the back end, so for these reasons, I find myself still doing advanced color correction/grading inside FCP – even for feature length indie films.


I’ve developed a recipe of go-to plug-ins and a grading workflow that help me to create the ideal look. My first step is to go through the timeline and fix any problems. The typical one I encounter (if someone else edited the project) is that video clips are spread across a number of vertical video tracks. Before I start grading, I will move all clips down to V1. The exception would be multi-track composites, which require several tracks. When you do this, be careful to check the edit points to make sure you maintain the correct cuts. Be sure you move the clip only vertically and don’t accidentally slide the clip a few frames out of its intended position.


Open playhead sync – a “color correction mode”



Once I’ve consolidated the clips to V1, then I change the playhead sync mode (located in the canvas pulldown menu) to Open. This loads the timeline into the viewer, so when you click on the viewer’s filter tab you will see the filters applied to the timeline clip where your cursor/playhead is parked. No clip double-clicking required. Working in this mode allows you to move from one clip to another, up and down the timeline, and immediately apply new filters or see which have already been applied. This mode allows you to operate FCP in a manner similar to Avid’s dedicated color correction mode, except that in FCP you can also apply and tweak other effects filters with the same windows open. Of course, I open the video scopes tool and set the timeline’s RT settings to permit real-time scopes. I prefer external hardware scopes, but absent a dedicated waveform monitor and vectorscope, I have been able to use the built-in software scopes to get the job done without any issues.


Lift – Gamma – Gain



Okay, now we’re ready to start grading. There are three main plug-ins to use: the built-in Final Cut Pro color corrector, the built-in 3-way and/or Magic Bullet Colorista. The basic color corrector is for simple things and gives you the ability to shift hue, but for me I go straight to one of the 3-way correctors. Colorista is a bit cleaner in my opinion than the FCP 3-way, but for most clips, I find the built-in 3-way to be just fine and performs better in real-time (unrendered). For the majority of the timeline, I will use the FCP 3-way to create a primary grade. Remember that in FCP, you can stack filters, which means you can pile up various color correction filters to affect the full screen area of the image. Doing so means you are using the filters in a way that is similar to applying several Secondary tabs in Color. For example, you could apply the 3-way and set the contrast, brightness, saturation and a neutral color balance for a clip. On top of that, you can apply a second 3-way (or other filter) and further affect the full screen image. Let’s say your client is trying to decide between a warmer or cooler look, you can try to do this all within a single filter, or you could apply three filters: one for neutral plus a second to tint the neutral tones to more red or a third to tint them to more blue. Enable/disable the filters to select betweens the two looks that you are trying to establish.


Secondary correction / color isolation



The two Apple color correctors include a color limiting function. This is often referred to as secondary correction or selective color isolation, because it works like a keyer to separate one color range from all the others. One of my recent projects was a horror film and the client wanted the color of blood enhanced. In many of these clips, I would apply one 3-way filter to grade the overall shot. Then I’d apply a second 3-way filter and set it to limit for the color of the blood. Once isolated, I could further adjust the color of the blood within the shot.


Shapes, windows, vignettes



A hallmark of the top drawer grading solutions from daVinci Systems is power windows. This feature lets the colorist isolate portions of the screen and apply a separate layer of grading. Artistic application of power windows permits the colorist to literally relight a scene. Apple Color allows you to do this within the interface, but you can get similar results in FCP by applying additional filters. My favorites are Face Light and Colorista. Face Light is a freebie created by Australian Marcus Herrick that has the affect of brightening the image within an oval area isolated by the plug-in. You can control its size, aspect, softness and opacity (level of brightness). It will also blur the highlighted area (good for softening facial wrinkles) and you have control over that, as well. If simply brightening a shot doesn’t bring out faces enough without blasting the highlights in the image, then I’ll use Face Light over the person’s face to add a bit more snap. You can keyframe the filter parameters and add as many in the stack as you like. Two or three people in the shot? Simply add a Face Light filter for each person.



Colorista works as a full screen filter, but you can also use it to perform the same function as Face Light. Colorista permits circle/oval or square/rectangle highlight areas. Full color grading may be applied inside (or outside) of the highlight. So Colorista is great for grading portions of the image, like the sky or a bright window. Neither filter permits freeform matte shapes, like daVinci or Color, but you can use the built-in FCP matte effects (or other available plug-ins) to draw mattes and apply the effect to a copy of the clip placed onto to V2.


One more common filter in my recipe is Vignette, another free filter from Herrick. One of the things clients like about filmic images are the distortion effects introduced by lenses. One of these is a vignette, where the outer edges of the image darken. Sometimes this is a natural byproduct, but often is artificially introduced by the DP. In any case, subtle use of the Vignette filter tends to focus attention towards the center of the frame and sells the image as more artistic. The filter I use not only lets you change the quality of the vignette, but adjust its position. Sometimes a vignette effect looks best when it’s off-center.


Special effects / stylized control of the image



As I grade, I am combining various filters to achieve my artistic goals. As a general rule, I stay away from the many stylized filter packages when I’m doing standard grading. There are many I like, including those from Nattress, Pistolero, Magic Bullet and Noise Industries, but I reserve such preset image effects as Technicolor, bleach bypass and chromatic glows for special cases, like flashbacks. The exception is Magic Bullet Looks. This is my go-to for more advanced effects that mimic in-camera filtering. For example, graduated filters, selective focus and swing-and-tilt lens effects are all in the Looks palette. Its results appear very photographic and the feature set includes quite a few color correction tools, like curves, which is missing from the regular FCP correction effects.


Staying legal



Once I’ve applied an artistic look to the project, there may be two more filters that I apply across the entire timeline for technical reasons, especially if the master is for broadcast television. The first is FCP’s Desaturate Highlights (or Lows) filter. There are two versions of this in the effects folder, but each has the same adjustments, except that either highlights or lows are enabled as the default. As you lower blacks and raise whites, dark colors like reds and blues get shoved to the lower boundaries of the video signal and bright colors like yellow get shoved higher. Extreme color grading may result in illegal video levels, so it helps to reduce the level of color saturation in the light and dark areas. Be subtle. The same for the Broadcast Safe filter, where I create a custom setting that’s not too harsh. I also disable RGB Limiting.


Here’s the trick to applying any filter across the board. Add the filter to one clip and set the values. Now copy-and-paste that filter to the browser. Remove it from the clip. Highlight all video clips in the timeline and drag-and-drop the filter from the browser to the highlighted timeline. If you have several filters to apply this way, make sure you maintain the proper order, so that the correct filters end up on top. In the case of Desaturate Hi/Lo and Broadcast Safe, these should be the topmost filters on each clip.


So that’s the recipe. All you have to do is render. I’ve found that adding this many filters to a 90 minute HD feature film takes hours to render – typically overnight for half of the film, even on a fast machine. So plan on two to three days for an indie feature – IF you are fast. Work in sections and then render overnight. Make sure you budget additional time so that you can evaluate the overnight render first thing in the morning. You will often find that you may not like everything you did once you see the grading in the cold light of day. When this happens, you want to have the time to tweak and re-render.


Click here for my FCP Resources page with links to some of these filters.


©2008 Oliver Peters