DaVinci Resolve 8

Blackmagic Design’s acquisition of DaVinci has transformed this Ferrari into the preferred tool for desktop color grading, while still maintaining its stature. Resolve 8.1 comes in three Mac flavors – Resolve Lite (free), Resolve (paid, software-only) and the DaVinci Resolve Control Surface (software included). Blackmagic Design announced that a Windows version is in development for early 2012. All of these products use the same base software tools and features, except the Lite version is restricted to SD and HD sizes and doesn’t include the stereo 3D support or noise reduction of the paid versions.

The release of the 8.1.1 patch removed the limitation on the number of correction nodes possible in the Lite version. In short, the grading power is now the same between the free and the paid versions. Another welcomed change is that all versions now read AAF files and Avid MXF media, which had previously been a paid option.

Hardware configurations

I tested DaVinci Resolve 8.1 and 8.1.1 on my eight-core Mac Pro under Mac OS 10.6.8 and “Lion” 10.7.2. A change that came with 8.1 was relaxation of the minimum monitor resolution requirements, from the original spec of 1920 x 1080 down to 1680 x 1050 pixels (or higher). That works for my 20-inch Apple Cinemas and it also allows you to use Resolve on some of the MacBook Pro models.

One of the hallmarks of the Resolve software is that it can leverage the power of additional GPU cards. You can install one or more NVIDIA CUDA-enabled cards for accelerated performance and rendering, but this isn’t required for Resolve to work. When a second GPU card is present, Resolve offloads some of the image processing chores to the other card. Installation of additional GPU cards into a Mac Pro poses some issues. There are only four PCIe slots in the machine and only slot one permits a double-wide card. MacPros currently ship with either an ATI 5770 or an ATI 5870 display card. The only approved (and currently available) NVIDIA CUDA cards for the Mac are the Quadro 4000 and the Quadro FX4800. Not all Mac software – notably Apple Color – is compatible with multiple GPU cards installed into the tower.

DaVinci recommends several GPU configurations, but of these options, the most cost-effective combo is the ATI 5770 with the Quadro 4000. Both are single-wide cards, so this leaves you room for two more PCIe cards, such as a Red Rocket and a storage adapter. A Mac Pro can only run one card that requires auxiliary power, so you cannot use the upgraded 5870 together with the 4000, as each requires aux power connections to the motherboard. I tested Resolve in three GPU configurations: the ATI 5870 (my standard card) and the Quadro 4000 each by themselves, as well as the 4000 combined with my original NVIDIA GeForce GT120 display card. Resolve Lite only allows one extra GPU card, but the paid Mac and Linux versions let you run more. Since this poses slot limitations on the Mac Pro, DaVinci recommends the Cubix PCIe expansion chassis if you need to build a more powerful system.

Video I/O and control surfaces

DaVinci Resolve will only operate with certain Blackmagic Design capture cards. I installed the Decklink HD Extreme 3D card. At $995 it offers a wide range of HDMI, analog and digital connections and supports SD, HD, 2K and stereo 3D operation. It has built-in 3Gb/s SDI, 4:2:2 and 4:4:4 RGB.

The Decklink HD Extreme 3D card looks like a double-wide card, but actually half of the width is a bridge adapter for the HDMI connectors. If you don’t need HDMI, the adapter can be left off, so you only have one slot to worry about. Even if you need HDMI, but are tight on slots, you could still connect the HDMI cable to the back of the card and find a way to snake the cable out through some other opening in the Mac Pro chassis. Not ideal, but definitely functional.

Having a Decklink card is important for proper external monitoring, but the Resolve interface does include a full screen viewer. If the grading you do is only for the web, it could be viable to run Resolve without any video I/O card at all. On the other hand, if stereo 3D projects are in your future, then this is the card you’ll want.

DaVinci Resolve supports three third-party control surfaces in addition to Blackmagic Design’s own powerful, but expensive DaVinci Resolve Control Surface ($29,995). That’s an advanced three-panel unit designed with full-time, professional colorists in mind. If that’s a bit too rich for the blood, then you can chose from the Avid Artist Color, Tangent Devices Wave or the JL Cooper Eclipse CX panels. Control surfaces are nice, but Resolve is perfectly functional with only a mouse and keyboard.

Getting started

Installation went smoothly under both 10.6.8 and 10.7.2. The paid version uses a USB license key (dongle), which can be moved among several machines if you need to run Resolve on more than one Mac (not simultaneously).  The Resolve software (including an SQL database used to store projects) and various Blackmagic Design utilities, codecs and FCP 7 Easy Set-ups are installed. You’ll need to rebuild or restore your FCP preferences afterwards. The Decklink installation will do the same, in addition to running a firmware update for the card itself. One gotcha with the Quadro 4000 card is that you have to install two pieces of software: the retail driver for the card along with a separate CUDA enabler.

Resolve is a very deep application designed for professional colorists. If you launch it without even browsing the manual, you are going to be clueless. The tabbed interface opens up many layers to the software, which are too complex to spell out here. Unlike other color correction tools and plug-ins, Resolve is designed to be a self-contained finishing environment, complete with VTR or file-based ingest and output capabilities using the Decklink hardware.

Resolve offers input and output LUTs for various formats, notably the ARRI ALEXA Log-C profile, as well as updated RED camera raw settings. Aside from color correction, other tools include conforming media to EDL, XML and AAF files, resizing, tracking and more. Fortunately the manual includes a Quick Start section. Assuming that you have a basic understanding of color correction software, you can be up and running and get your first project out the door on day one.

Performance

Resolve’s color correction model uses a node structure. The first node is your primary correction and then subsequent serial nodes are for secondary color correction. You can also introduce parallel nodes. For example, maybe you’d like to derive a mask from an earlier stage of correction, but introduce it later into the signal path. That mask is a parallel node.

I ran through a series of 23.98 and 25fps HD projects. Each used different ProRes or DNxHD codecs. With the ATI 5870 card and a standard timeline (one or two nodes on each clip), I was consistently able to achieve real-time playback. In order to test the value of a second GPU card, I built up a taxing 1:15-long timeline with six nodes on each clip (one primary plus five secondaries). Some of these nodes included blur or sharpening. Both the 5870 and 4000 cards by themselves played the sequence back at 15-16fps.

Changing to a two-card configuration (GT120 plus the Quadro 4000) only picked up about 2fps – playing at approximately 18fps. In all three configurations, this timeline took under two minutes to render. This performance is on par with Apple Color for simple projects and faster when you get more complex. Since NVIDIA CUDA cards offer more benefit on PCs than Macs, I would expect Resolve running under Windows next year to significantly outperform these tests.

One caveat is that the noise reduction module in the paid version of Resolve only works with a CUDA-enabled GPU card, such as the Quadro 4000. Unfortunately, the quality wasn’t better than similar filters, like Neat Video or Magic Bullet Cosmo, so I wouldn’t let that be a deciding factor. For me, having a second GPU doesn’t justify the purchase of an extra card, especially when you consider the trade-offs. Unless you plan to build a dedicated color grading suite around Resolve instead of a general purpose editing workstation, you’re probably better off with one high-end ATI or NVIDIA card.

Impressions

 

New features added to Resolve include multi-layered timelines, FCP XML support for FCP X and a color wheels panel. In Resolve 7, timelines were a flattened, single-layer video track. If your FCP or Avid sequence consists of several video tracks, those will now show up as corresponding layers in the Resolve timeline. The new color wheels tab makes the interface more consistent with conventional color correction interface design.

A huge selling point for Resolve is the depth of roundtrip support. I was able to import and grade various edited sequences from Final Cut Pro 7, X and Avid Symphony 6. Since Resolve reads and writes the two formats of XML used by FCP X and FCP “classic”, you can actually send simple sequences from one NLE to the other. Edit in FCP X, grade in Resolve, render and send to FCP 7. Or the other way around. The enhanced Avid support makes Resolve an excellent tool to augment Media Composer’s built-in color correction mode. Not to mention that both applications can now also run on the same Blackmagic Design hardware.

I found Resolve relatively easy to learn and use. The controls and interaction are very responsive, with little delay between moving a slider, curve or wheel and seeing the update in the viewer, on the screen and/or on the scopes. The interface is optimized only for a single display, which I don’t prefer. You can send the scopes to the secondary display, but that’s it. This leaves you with a complex UI on the main screen. Your principal color correction tools appear in smaller, tabbed sections at the bottom. If you build a dedicated Resolve suite, consider one of the Apple 27-inch displays for your system. Although, Resolve is resolution independent, the Mac configurations are really designed for HD and possibly 2K projects. I think it’s unrealistic to try to push complex, native 4K projects through such a workstation.

Truthfully, I prefer the interface design of Apple Color, but DaVinci Resolve’s toolset is a much better fit for the post production landscape of 2012. Editors who aren’t ready to invest the time to learn the application are better served by the FCP X Color Board or plug-ins like Magic Bullet Colorista II or Sapphire Edge. If you do spend a little time learning Resolve, you’ll end up with one of the best values available in post today. Even the free Resolve Lite places the controls of a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar DI system at your fingertips.

Written for DV magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

©2011 Oliver Peters