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

New Plug-ins for 2012

Plug-in developers have had their hands full. Not only are they rolling out refreshed versions of their products, but they are having to adapt to a range of new hosts, including Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5 and updates of Avid Media Composer and the Adobe Creative Suite applications. Here’s a look at some of the newest options.

Boris FX – Boris Continuum Complete 8

Boris Continuum Complete is truly the Swiss Army Knife of filter packages. At NAB, Boris Yamnitsky (president of Boris FX) pointed out that the focus of the BCC8 upgrade was not simply to add more filters, but to improve the quality of all the filters, such as adding 3D depth to effects like lens flares. Filter categories have also been slightly regrouped into more logical combinations. The Boris Continuum Complete package includes categories that cover a wide variety totaling over 200 filters.

New features include improvements in the particle effects, lens flares, glows, lights and image restoration tools. There’s better integration with After Effects and support for 32-bit floating calculations. Best of all, BCC8 adds eight new filters including videoscopes, film glow, a 3D particle emitter, 3D lens flares, wild cards, organic strands, stage lights and flicker fixer.

Boris FX was one of the first companies to include particle effects inside an NLE and the performance and responsiveness of all of these filters have been greatly improved. Running BCC8 in After Effects on my Mac Pro with an ATI 5870 graphics card is a joy. The effects are easy to manipulate, particularly those that are more taxing, like distortions, particles, strands, extruded 3D text and glows. The Continuum filters use a set of custom on-screen controls that make it easy to tweak parameters either in the filter control panel or using the widget overlays.

The engineers have put effort into improving such basic effects as film glows and the 3D lens flares, giving these a very organic look and maximizing the level of control. Even though there are a lot of sliders to play with, each effect comes with a set of presets to quickly test out the looks – simply step through the presets from a pulldown menu. If you can only afford to purchase one set of third-party filters, then BCC is a great choice, because it’s so versatile.

RE:Vision Effects – Twixtor

Mention time-ramping effects, a la the movie 300, and RE:Vision Effects’ Twixtor immediately comes to mind. The most sophisticated version, Twixtor Pro, is available for Adobe After Effects, but for more casual users, RE:Vision released the standard Twixtor plug-in for Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro X.

Twixtor technology is particularly effective to slow a clip down, because it interpolates new frames in-between existing frames to eliminate visible stepping in the motion. It calculates the direction of motion within a clip and predicts where pixels should be. This data is used to create new frame information for the in-between frames. Naturally, these calculations aren’t always perfect, so the plug-in provides controls to fine-tune the parameters. Twixtor Pro (available in After Effects) gives you the ability to separate objects into layers to improve the accuracy of motion tracking.

Edge detection is a key part of how Twixtor does its magic. This means chroma and contrast play a role. If you try to apply Twixtor on a “log space” flat clip from an Alexa (Log-C), RED One (RedLogFilm) or Sony F3 (S-Log), you’ll often have some image artifacts, such as smearing or unnecessary blending. Instead, first bake in a LUT to color-corrected the clip and then apply Twixtor for significantly better results.

Twixtor tends to work best on clips when the object of your attention is reasonably isolated from the background. A skateboarder doing a jump against a blue sky will yield better results than if that background is the more complex architecture of a building. In the second example, the interpolation will tend to include the structure of the objects that intersect the skateboarder, causing them to warp and morph as you advance frames. This is where Twixtor Pro in After Effects gives you more control, but nevertheless, by being selective and doing some of your own masking, you can minimize these issues when using Twixtor in FCP X or Media Composer.

Irudis – Tonalizer|VFX

Final Cut Pro X has encouraged new plug-in developers to enter the NLE effects market. One such company is Irudis with their Tonalizer|VFX color-correction filter. It’s a slider-based filter designed for the FCP X interface and comes in a PRO (paid) and LITE (free) version. It’s billed as using photographic-style color correction and, in fact, Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture users will feel right at home.

Tonalizer|VFX LITE provides a number of basic controls for contrast, brightness, chroma, etc. You need to bump up to Tonalizer|VFX PRO for the full level of control. Some of the key features are color correction based on warmth (color temp) and tint, highlight rescue, detail enhancement and noise reduction. Its strongest feature is the ability to dig out detail from seemingly overexposed skies and blocked up shadows. It also includes adaptations, which is a localized contrast control that will add more “punch” to an image. Best of all, I found it to be one of the least taxing color correction plug-ins available for X.

Noise Industries – FxFactory

Noise Industries is another company throwing full support behind FCP X. Not only are their existing FxFactory partner developers becoming X-compatible, but Noise Industries has busily been adding partners to the mix. Some, like Nattress and Sheffield Softworks, created popular FxScript filters built for the original FCP effects API. These have been newly re-written for FxPlug and are now offered as part of the FxFactory installation. In most cases, these filters are also available to all the other supported hosts, including After Effects – a first for Nattress and Sheffield.

These new additions add a number of color correction tools to the kit. For instance, Nattress curves and levels, Sheffield Softworks filters and Yanobox Moods fill a huge gap in X’s built-in color grading capabilities. You also get the same on-screen overlays in After Effects, such as Moods’ color wheels and Nattress’ curve schematics. So if you are running FCP X, Motion 5 and After Effects, a single installation of FxFactory will enable the filters for each application.

One of the newest FxFactory associations is with Ripple Training for a series of FCP X title effects branded as Callouts. These are useful templates that are a godsend for anyone doing instructional video of any type. It’s a series of animated arrows, lines, circles, thought and speech bubbles and more. As FCP X templates (based on Motion projects under the hood), these come with easy on-screen widgets for size/position adjustment, text entry and animation direction.

Another new member to the family is UK edit boutique Tokyo, who has been developing a number of FCP X-specific plug-ins, since its launch. Their first outing with FxFactory is the Tokyo Split Animator. This is a series of split-screen animation templates, which can be easily customized for interesting on-screen image collages. Design variations include shapes, sizes and angles. The user can make modifications of animation entry points, size and screen position, borders and shadows and more. The Tokyo Split Animator is a very cool way to add screen dynamism using a very simple concept.

DigiEffects – Damage and Delirium v2.5

DigiEffects has been going through a refresh of the Damage and Delirium filter sets, which I’ve tested in a few hosts, including Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects. I wasn’t thrilled with the performance in FCP X, but they are more in their element inside After Effects, which I still regard as the best effects architecture of any of the common desktop tools. Between these two packages, you get several dozen filters in a range of categories encompassing particle effects, film and TV damage and overexposure.

These filters can be used to distress images or to add particle-based effects, like fog, fireworks, electrical arcs and more. They still don’t seem to be as responsive as other filters are in After Effects – though the 32-bit effects respond better than the 16-bit effects – but they do add some unique looks to the toolkit. For example, their skew effect is quite different from other grunge, TV interference or analog glitch effects – complete with controls for ghosting, distortion, noise, glow and vertical hold.

Digital Film Tools – Film Stocks

Digital Film Tools has developed a number of stylized image products, including Photo Copy, Tiffen Dfx and their newest – Film Stocks. All of these have just gone through a round of updates to be compatible with Final Cut Pro X and the Creative Suite 6 applications. With Film Stocks, DFT has combined the various film stock emulation and film processing categories from the other packages into a single “film looks” filter application. Like the others, it’s available for a wide range of film/video and photographic hosts.

When you apply the Film Stocks filter to a clip on the timeline in a host like Avid Media Composer or Adobe After Effects, you can access numerous sliders for direct adjustment inside the usual effects control panel. Or click the button to launch the external Film Stocks application, which uses its own custom interface. This is consistent with the other DFT products, as well. (The exception is the FCP X implementation of Photo Copy. There, you have a series of presets available with adjustable slider controls, but no link to the standalone application. )

Once you’ve launched Film Stocks, simply choose the category, like motion picture films – browse the presets within the category, such as various Fuji or Eastman stock emulations – and tweak the settings to customize the look. The film/video plug-in works on a single layer. Some parameters, like film grain, will be animated, which affects rendering performance. For example, enabling grain with animation values will take longer to render than without grain.

In Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Apple Aperture, the plug-in sends you directly to the external application. You have the ability to create and blend layers into a composite, much as you would with Photoshop layers. This is an especially useful tool for digital photographers. Want that touch of Kodachrome 25? Simply bounce out to Film Stocks, apply the preset and you’re done. If you are looking for a convincing mimic of film, then without a doubt, Digital Film Tools’ Film Stocks is the best film emulation product on the market.

 GenArts – Sapphire Edge V2

Sapphire Edge is a preset-based set of filters and transitions running the same effects engine as the traditional Sapphire filters. It uses a preset browser application to search and preview looks and styles. When you purchase Sapphire Edge, you also get a one-year subscription to FX Central, a subscription download service to expand to your preset collection on a monthly basis. Sapphire Edge V2 plug-ins have just been released, which include updates for Final Cut Pro (7 and X), After Effects/Premiere Pro CS6 and Sony Vegas. Nine new filters (rays, glare, glint, kaleido, soft focus, etc.) and four new transitions have been added. To date, there are over 575 presets based on 31 effects and transitions.

With V2 you can now save your own presets. Each implementation of these filters includes a set of slider adjustments in the host application’s effects interface. You can launch the Edge browser, pick an existing preset from a series of thumbnails that are previewed using your source clip, and then apply it. Back in the NLE, simply adjust the sliders until the look is right for your clip. At this point you have the option to save the adjusted version as a new preset.

As part of saving the modified preset, Sapphire Edge will let you tag it with category and name information to facilitate future searches in the browser. You can only save and recall new presets within similar products. For example, presets saved in the FxPlug version of Sapphire Edge V2 will not appear in the After Effects/Premiere Pro version; however, custom presets developed in Premiere also show up in the Edge preset browser if you apply that effect in After Effects.

Sapphire Edge V2 is GPU-accelerated with NVIDIA CUDA cards, although I found performance to be close to real-time in Premiere Pro CS6 running with my ATI card. Simply put, Premiere Pro CS6’s performance with these various filters is amazing. Sapphire Edge and the Digital Film Tools products run incredibly smoothly with timeline playback set to half-resolution. Unfortunately, comparable playback in FCP X is glacial. That’s pretty much true of all complex filters in the new Final Cut, especially those using an external application to build the effect, including GenArts Sapphire Edge, Magic Bullet Looks and the various Digital Film Tools products.

Red Giant Software Magic Bullet Looks 2 and Looks Suite 11

To keep up with the various NLE changes, Red Giant Software has recently refreshed Magic Bullet Looks and some of the other applications included as part of the Looks Suite. Looks is now compatible with all of the Avid, Adobe and Apple software. The Suite package includes a collection of software designed to solve a variety of post situations. Unlike other “suite” filter packs, these are actually different tools, not a set of categorized filter groups. These include Looks 2, Colorista II, Grinder, Mojo, PhotoLooks 2, Cosmo, Denoiser II, Frames and Instant HD. The Suite offers a great bang-for-the-buck. All of these tools – especially  Colorista II – have loyal fans, but the biggest “go to” application within this suite is Looks. If that’s your main focus of interest, then the Looks 2 software is probably the better purchase over the suite.

Magic Bullet Looks 2 runs as a plug-in that – when launched – opens into its own external application. The plug-in acts are a conduit and takes care of proper color management between the two. Magic Bullet Looks isn’t simply a group of presets or a set of photo-style filters. The Looks tools include a range of color correction tools, lens-style filters and more. These are grouped according to Subject, Matte, Lens, Camera and Post. The idea is to create a series of filters, whose combination mimics the chain of real-world processes from in front of the lens through to post. The interface includes tools, presets, scopes and a viewer for an all-inclusive image adjustment environment. The change from the original Magic Bullet Looks to Looks 2.0 involved streamlining the interface, as well as the addition of Cosmo – a skin softening filter.

The most recent change has been the introduction of Magic Bullet PhotoLooks 2, which is available separately or as part of the Looks Suite. This is a photographic plug-in that works with Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture. Even after the Looks 2 interface was released, the PhotoLooks version had retained the previous style. Now, PhotoLooks 2 uses the same consistent interface and new tools, such as Cosmo.

These filters are great for creating stylized images. As with the other suites, real-time performance in Premiere Pro CS6 is vastly better than in Final Cut Pro X. You’ll definitely need to render there. Otherwise, Magic Bullet Looks 2 is a great option. If  can only make one purchase of a comprehensive “looks” filter, then Magic Bullet Looks is the one to start with.

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

©2012 Oliver Peters