Demystifying Color Grading with FCP X

It’s time to dive in deeper and see how Final Cut Pro X can solve your color grading issues. A lot of FCP X fans like to say that Apple rolled Color into FCP X, but that’s pretty far from the truth. Some features from Color have counterparts in X, but the two applications are completely different and the number of tools at your disposal in Color greatly exceeds the toolset in X. Furthermore, X has no real color correction workflow as you’d find in any grading tool, FCP 7 or other NLE’s like Avid Symphony. That being said, rest assured that Apple definitely improved the color processing pipeline inside FCP X. The way grading affects the image is cleaner and the final results are an improvement over FCP 7. If you can live with the current limitations, you can definitely do quality work within the Final Cut Pro X interface.

The color correction tools center on the tabbed color board section of the inspector pane. The color board offers three tabs for exposure, saturation and color (tint). There’s a submenu accessed from the gear icon for various presets. These provide a quick starting point for the editor who isn’t experienced with color correction. You can also save your own presets from this menu. A number of useful color-oriented filters can also be found in the Looks and Stylize effects categories. If you wish to expand your color board preset options, check out the Lustre Grade Presets from Color Grading Central.

The color board tabs each have four pucks or sliders for global, shadow, midtone and highlight range controls. The exposure and saturation tabs only allow the pucks to go up or down to increase or decrease each value. The color (tint) tab has pucks that can be moved over the entire color swatch range. This tab uses a split-toning approach, rather than the customary hue offset/color wheel model. Move a puck up or down and over a specific color to add or subtract that color’s intensity from one of the four ranges.

The power of the color board comes into play when you start to use more than one instance of the correction. You can apply full screen corrections or have a selection restricted by an HSL key or a shape mask. Corrections may be applied to the inside or outside of a mask. As you’ll see in the examples that follow, you can stack several full screen corrections along with several masked corrections for elaborate grading of footage. Since color board settings are clip modifiers, they aren’t very taxing on real-time playback.

I’ve previously written about the FCP X color correction tools, as well as some of the filters and filter suites available for X. In addition, check FCP.co, Alex Gollner’s site and Ripple Training for more options. When I wrote “Demystifying Color Grading II,” I used the short film Convergence as an example. Director Martin Scanlan and DoP Steve Lawes shot it with a pre-release Sony F3 and posted the ungraded version at Vimeo, inviting users to download it and to play with. I’ve revisited Convergence in this post. As before, I downloaded the H.264 file, converted it to ProResLT and used that inside FCP X. Since that’s a lot of compression and recompression, you’ll have to excuse some of the images if there’s a bit of crunchiness to them.

Color correction – aka color grading – has two objectives – technical and aesthetic. For the technical, you want to make sure balance, exposure and contrast are right and that shots are consistent within a scene. Since these clips are ungraded images straight from the camera, the starting point for each shot will look a bit flat and somewhat green. A lot of my correction was simply to create a punchier image and to reduce the green cast. Or in some cases, push further in that direction as a choice. The second part of grading is to add a subjective look. Often this verges into “relighting” a shot by brightening some portions and darkening others – much like burning and dodging in photography. The point is to focus the viewer’s attention where you want it to be and to reduce or eliminate distractions.

I’ve posted grades on 21 shots. These are not meant to be consistent nor necessarily how I would actually grade this short film. These are merely an assortment of directions you can go in using the color board, plus a few other filters. Feel free to click on any of the images in this post and at the links within the steps to see a more detailed view.

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Shot 1

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Tokyo ShadowsHighlights filter for overall tonal adjustment   [Click to view]

c. Color board 1 – bright and more normal flesh tone   [Click to view]

d. Color board 2 – mask to create vignette – darken outside of mask   [Click to view]

e. Final after vignette is applied   [Click to view]

Objective – Brighten the shot and get a more natural skin tone. Emphasis lighting focus on the actor.

Shot 2

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Color board 1 – orange and teal tonal style   [Click to view]

c. Color board 2 – HSL key to isolate face and make it more normal   [Click to view]

e. Color board 3 – HSL key to isolate scarf and reduce intensity   [Click to view]

Objective – End up with an “orange & teal” tonality, without fluorescent reds in the scarf as a byproduct.

Shot 3

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Tokyo CrossProcess filter to alter tones and add glow   [Click to view]

c. Color board 1 – adjust tonal range – more golden   [Click to view]

d. Color board 2 – shape mask for gradient correction at the top   [Click to view]

Objective – A more striking shot with an obvious “over-the-top” tint to the sky.

Shot 4

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Color board 1 – more contrast and more blue   [Click to view]

c. Color board 2 – HSL key to isolate grass and reduce intensity   [Click to view]

d. Color board 3 – shape mask to add vignette and darken edges   [Click to view]

Objective – Bring the actor out of an otherwise murky shot.

Shot 5

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Color board 1 – more contrast and saturation   [Click to view]

c. Color board 2 – add mask for face   [Click to view]

d. Color board 2 – brighten area in mask   [Click to view]

e. Color board 3 – shape mask to add vignette and darken edges   [Click to view]

Objective – Add more snap to the image and brighten the actor’s face.

Shot 6

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Color board 1 – tonal change to make it more blue   [Click to view]

c. Color board 2 – HSL key to isolate face and make it more orange   [Click to view]

Objective – Another variation to the “orange & teal” look with definite blue casts to the dark areas.

Shot 7

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Color board 1 – more contrast, less saturation   [Click to view]

Objective – Add more snap to the image. Moving in the direction of a “bleach bypass” look without going that extreme.

Shot 8

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Tokyo Tilt-Shift filter (applied twice) to blur outer edge   [Click to view]

c. FCP X Teal & Orange filter for stylized look   [Click to view]

d. FCP X Vignette filter to darken outer edge   [Click to view]

e. Color board 1 – to adjust image tonality   [Click to view]

Objective – A dreamier look suitable for flashbacks, using selective focus.

Shot 9

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. FxFactory / DVShade EasyLooks for correction and glows   [Click to view]

Objective – A dreamier look suitable for flashbacks, using diffusion, glows and added warmth.

Shot 10

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Octo filter to mask right edge   [Click to view]

c. Set filter to blur for swing-tilt effect   [Click to view]

d. Octo filter 2 set to vignette to darken right edge   [Click to view]

e. Color board to change tonality towards browns   [Click to view]

Objective – Feature the actor better in the shot by using selective focus and changing the overall tonality of the shot.

Shot 11

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. FCP X Aged Film filter to add grain   [Click to view]

c. Color board 1 – more contrast, less saturation   [Click to view]

d. Color board 2 – shift tonality towards blue   [Click to view]

Objective – Create a distressed look by adding grain and more blue tones for a cooler look. Also added touches of the “bleach bypass” look (more contrast, lower saturation).

Shot 12

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Pomfort AlexaLook2Video LUT filter – misused for effect   [Click to view]

Objective – Adding more snap to the image. In this case, I’m pushing it to an extreme by using an ALEXA LUT filter not intended for this purpose.

Shot 13

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Tokyo ShadowsHighlights for tonality, glow and diffusion   [Click to view]

c. Color board 1 – more contrast and more orange skin tones   [Click to view]

d. Color board 2 – HSL key to isolate face – more orange tones   [Click to view]

Objective – Adding more snap to the image. In this case, I’m pushing it to an extreme by using highlight glows and a push to the orange with her skin tones.

Shot 14

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. FCP X Super 8mm filter for tonal style and grain   [Click to view]

c. Color board 1 – slightly darker and less saturated   [Click to view]

Objective – A more “filmic” look, with a touch of distress.

Shot 15

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Tokyo CrossProcess filter to tonal, glow and vignette effects   [Click to view]

Objective – This is a cross-process look. The idea stems from film processing where chemicals for one film stock are used to process a different stock, resulting in color contamination. In this case, a shift towards blues and greens.

Shot 16

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Color board 1 – tonal adjustments   [Click to view]

c. FCP X Colorize filter to make image warmer   [Click to view]

d. Alex4d Soft Focus filter to add diffusion   [Click to view]

Objective – A more romantic feel, using diffusion and warmth.

Shot 17

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Color board 1 – tonal adjustments   [Click to view]

c. Color board 2 – shape mask for vignette to darker right half   [Click to view]

d. Color board 3 – HSL key to isolate and change contrast on face   [Click to view]

Objective – Relight the shot to focus in on the actress.

Shot 18

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Color board 1 – tonal adjustment   [Click to view]

c. Color board 2 – shape mask to highlight woman   [Click to view]

d. Color board 2 – brighten inside of mask – woman’s face   [Click to view]

e. Color board 3 – shape mask to highlight and brighten man   [Click to view]

f. Color board 4 – HSL key to isolate and reduce intensity of lights in background   [Click to view]

g. Color board 5 – HSL key to isolate blues in sky and change the tonality   [Click to view]

Objective – Relight the shot to focus in on the two actors. Also darken the sky for a more brooding feel.

Shot 19

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. FxFactory / PHYX Techni2Color filter to shift tonality   [Click to view]

c. FxFactory / PHYX BleachBypass filter to brighten image   [Click to view]

d. FxFactory / PHYX GlowDark filter to diffuse image   [Click to view]

e. Color board adjustment to shift tonality for stylized effect   [Click to view]

Objective – Change the entire style of the shot. The pseudo “Technicolor” process adds a blue shift and the “bleach bypass” can be used for color correction with less obvious effect. The Glow Dark filter controls local contrast adding subtle diffusion.

Shot 20

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. FCP X Glow filter to brighten highlights   [Click to view]

c. Color board 1 – tonal adjustment   [Click to view]

d. Color board 2 – shape mask to isolate and darken bright light in background   [Click to view]

e. Color board 3 – shape mask to isolate area outside of face   [Click to view]

f. Color board 3 – darken area outside of mask for vignette   [Click to view]

Objective – Relight the shot to focus in on the actress. Also to de-emphasize the large light source in the background.

Shot 21

a. Ungraded original   [Click to view]

b. Color board 1 – tonal adjustment   [Click to view]

c. Color board 2 – shape mask to isolate person   [Click to view]

d. Color board 2 – brighten area inside of mask   [Click to view]

e. Color board 3 – HSL key to isolate background lights and make them more yellow   [Click to view]

f. Color board 4 – shape mask to darken edge for vignette   [Click to view]

Objective – Focus attention more on the actor. Change highlight tones in the background.

©2012 Oliver Peters