FCP X Grading Strategy

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I’ve expounded on ways to tackle color grading in numerous posts. Recently in “Understanding SpeedGrade” I explained a workflow combining color grading tools with LUTs to create custom looks. In this post, I’m going to follow a similar process for FCP X users. (Note: This post was written before the release of FCP X 10.2. However, the fundamental items I discuss herein haven’t changed with the update. The main differences are that the Color Board has become a standard color correction effect and that all effects filters now have built-in masking.)

The approach I’m taking is using a creative LUT to define the overall look and then color correct individual clips for consistency.  A creative LUT should only be considered as spice, not as the main course. You can’t rely solely on the creative LUT for your shot. There is no “easy” button when grading shots on a timeline. In this example, I’m using one of the SpeedLooks LUTs from LookLabs. They offer a variety of styles from clean to stylized. To use any third-party LUT with FCP X, you have to use some plug-in that reads and applies LUTs as an effects filter. I use Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. Any .cube formatted LUT copied into its folder (located in the Motion Templates folder) will show up as a pulldown option when LUT Utility is applied to a clip in FCP X. (Click images to enlarge.)

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_11_smSpeedLooks LUTs are based on log or Rec 709 color space. If you have log footage and it has already been corrected to Rec 709, then you could simply use one of the Rec 709 versions. However, if you want to get the most out of their looks, then it’s best to shoot log and use a log-based LUT. Since log values vary among camera manufacturers, LookLabs designed their LUTs around a universal log value used within their LUT curves. To properly use one of their looks requires two stages of LUTs. The first stage is a camera patch, which shifts the video (by camera type) into LookLabs’ intermediate log space. They even include a patch for generic Rec 709 video. Once the first LUT has been applied, you may add the second LUT for the desired look. df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_12_smIn our grading strategy, the grading filters and/or tools are sandwiched between the first LUT (camera patch) and the second LUT (creative look).

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_2Step 1. For this example, I’m using ARRI Alexa footage that was encoded with a log-C gamma profile. FCP X has built-in LUT processing to convert these clips into Rec 709 color space. Disable that in the inspector for all clips. df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_3Assuming you have installed the LUTs into the correct template folder, apply LUT Utility to the first clip. From the pulldown menu select a camera patch LUT appropriate for the camera (in this case, Alexa log-C). Now copy-and-paste-attributes for just this filter to all clips on the timeline (assuming all clips use the same camera and gamma profile).df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_10

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_4Step 2. Add your preferred color correction effect to the clip. It will be stacked after the LUT Utility filter. I’m using Color Grade from Lawn Road’s Color Precision group. I like it because the controls are fast and I’ve grown fond of using exposure/contrast/temperature/tint controls in this type of grading. I could just as easily use one of the color wheel, color correction filters (Color Finale, Moods, Hawaiki Color, Colorista III) or even the FCP X Color Board. If the camera clips are reasonably consistent, the creative LUT you select is going to define the tonality of shadows and highlights, so there’s no reason to get carried away with big color balance changes in this grade.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_9Note: At this stage, you can copy-and-paste the Color Grade filter to all other clips or wait until later when you’ve actually started to make adjustments. If all shots are different, you might at well copy-and-paste now to have the filter in place with default starting values. If it’s a situation where you want to match the same cameras cutting back and forth – like A and B cameras in an interview – then you might opt to grade the first few clips and then copy-and-paste for the rest.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_5Step 4. Next it’s time to apply the creative LUT. Since you want to apply a single LUT across all clips, you’ll want to apply a blank, adjustment layer title effect as a connected clip. You can produce your own using Motion or download one of the free ones from the internet. The length of the adjustment layer should span the length of your timeline. To this title clip, add LUT Utility and select the desired SpeedLooks LUT (or any other you’ve added) from the pulldown menu. In this example, I used one of their Clean Kodak looks.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_7_smStep 5. I generally apply a slight vignette to most of my graded clips. This  is used to subtly darken the edge of the frame. FCP X won’t let you do this using a shape mask within the Color Board setting of a blank title, like the adjustment layer. (Note: This was corrected in 10.2. It is now possible to add a mask and color correction adjustment within an adjustment layer.) You will need to add a specific Vignette effect as another connected title. I’m using the Ripple Training RT Vignette in this example. Adjust the vignette’s size, shape, and darkening to taste. The RT Vignette lets you also blur of the edges and mix in an overall sepia toning to the clip as added features. I wouldn’t use these features as part of a standard vignette effect, but in some cases they might be appropriate.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_8_smStep 6. Finally! You’ve arrived. Now it’s time to do the real grade. Simply go clip by clip and only adjust the values of the Color Grade filter until you get the right look. Depending on the original shot and the way the LUT is being applied, part of what you are doing in this pass is adjusting the grade so that it looks optimum through the curves of the LUT. Generally you are working with smaller adjustments than without the LUT, since the creative LUT is doing most of the work to set your look.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer Goes 4K

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Avid Technology entered 2015 with a bang. The company closed out 2014 with the release of its Media Composer version 8.3 software, the first to enable higher resolution editing, including 2K, UHD and 4K projects. On January 16th of this year, Avid celebrated its relisting on the NASDAQ exchange by ringing the opening bell. Finally – as in most years – the Academy Awards nominee field is dominated by films that used either Media Composer and/or Pro Tools during the post-production process.

In a software landscape quickly shifting to rental (subscription) business models, Avid now offers the most flexible price model. Media Composer | Software may be purchased, rented, or managed through a floating licensing. If you purchase a perpetual license (you own the software), then an annually-renewed support contract gives you phone support and continued software updates. Opt out of the contract and you’ll still own the software you bought – you just lose any updates to newer software.

You can purchase other optional add-ons, like Symphony for advanced color correction. Unfortunately there’s still no resolution to the impasse between Avid and Nexidia. If you purchased ScriptSync or PhraseFind in the past, which rely on IP from Nexidia, then you can’t upgrade to version 8 or higher software and use those options. On the other hand, if you own an older version, such as Media Composer 7, and need to edit a project that requires a higher version, you can simply pick up a software subscription for the few months. This would let you run the latest software version for the time that it will take to complete that project.

df0915_avidmc83_1_smThe jump from Media Composer | Software 8.2 to 8.3 might seem minor, but in fact this was a huge update for Avid editors. It ushered in new, high-resolution project settings and capabilities, but also added a resolution-independent Avid codec – DNxHR. Not merely just the ability to edit in 4K, Media Composer now addresses most of the different 4K options that cover the TV and cinema variations, as well as new color spaces and frame rates. Need to edit 4K DCI Flat (3996×2160) at 48fps in DCI-P3 color space? Version 8.3 makes it possible. Although Avid introduced high-resolution editing in its flagship software much later than its competitors, it comes to the table with a well-designed upgrade that attempts to address the nuances of modern post.

df0915_avidmc83_2_smAnother new feature is LUT support. Media Composer has allowed users to add LUTs to source media for awhile now, but 8.3 adds a new LUT filter. Apply this to a top video track on your timeline and you can then add a user-supplied, film emulation (or any other type) look to all of your footage. There’s a new Proxy setting designed for work with high-resolution media. For example, switch your project settings to 1/4 or 1/16 resolution for better performance while editing with large files. Switch Proxy off and you are ready to render and output at full quality. As Media Composer becomes more capable of functioning as a finishing system, it has gained DPX image sequence file export via the Avid Image Sequencer, as well as export to Apple ProRes 4444 (Mac only).

df0915_avidmc83_4_smThis new high resolution architecture requires that the software increasingly shed itself of any remaining 32-bit parts in order to be compatible with modern versions of the Mac and Windows operating systems. Avid’s Title Tool still exists for legacy SD and HD projects, but higher resolutions will use NewBlue Titler Pro, which is included with Media Composer. It can, of course, also be used for all other titling.

There are plenty of new, but smaller features for the editor, such as a “quick filter” in the bin. Use it to quickly filter items to match the bin view to correspond with your filter text entry. The Avid “helper” applications of EDL Manager and FilmScribe have now been integrated inside Media Composer as the List Tool. This may be used to generate EDLs, Cut Lists and Change Lists.

df0915_avidmc83_3_smAvid is also a maker of video i/o hardware – Mojo DX and Nitris DX. While these will work to monitor higher resolution projects as downscaled HD, they won’t be updated to display native 4K output, for instance. Avid has qualifying AJA and Blackmagic Design hardware for use as 4K i/o. It is currently also qualifying BlueFish 444. If you work with a 4K computer display connected to your workstation, then the Full Screen mode enables 4K preview monitoring.

Avid Media Composer | Software version 8.3 is just the beginning of Avid’s entry into the high-resolution post-production niche. Throughout 2015, updates will further refine and enhance these new capabilities and expand high-resolution to other Avid products and solutions. Initial user feedback is that 8.3 is reasonably stable and performs well, which is good news for the high-end film and television world that continues to rely on Avid for post-production tools and solutions.

(Full disclosure: I have participated in the Avid Customer Association and chaired the Video Subcommittee of the Products and Solutions Council. This council provides user feedback to Avid product management to aid in future product development.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Filmmaking is Team Art

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One of the sad byproducts of the circle of life is that relatives, friends and colleagues precede you to that great film production in the sky. As you get older, that sadly increases in frequency. In the recent past I’ve seen my parents go. They meant a lot to me and the way they faced life’s challenges has always been an inspiration to me. But that’s a post for another time. Each passing of a friend hits you just a little harder.

This past weekend Florida lost a true legend in the business – Ralph R. Clemente. He was the program director and professor for the Film Production Technology program at Valencia College – a unique film production program that he crafted together with the then Dean, Rick Rietveld. The program grew out of a grant program sponsored by the Walt Disney Company, followed by Universal Studios in the heady “Hollywood East” days of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Central Florida. This program eventually became a formal certificate program under Valencia’s wing.

Ralph was born in Germany at the end of World War II and made his way into acting and then later into filmmaking. His family emigrated to the United States and, after many years, he ended up in south Florida teaching film production at the University of Miami. Valencia recruited him to set up the program in Orlando and, as they say, the rest is history. Unlike many other college film programs that are geared towards turning out auteurs, Valencia’s program has always targeted developing the working stiffs of the film industry – DPs, gaffers, grips, editors, production managers, and so on.

df1815_ralph_2While other film programs produce student films as their bread-and-butter, Valencia’s program was structured from the beginning as a partnership with professional filmmakers. Under Ralph’s guidance over several decades, the program has produced 47 feature films in productions that paired key working crew members with student staffs. This mentorship structure usually breaks down into a student/pro split of about 60/40. In these productions, students worked alongside talented pros, but were also exposed to legendary actors and actresses – including Julie Harris, Mickey Rooney, Sally Kellerman, Ed Begley, Jr., Charles Nelson Reilly, and many others – and leading directors, like George Romero, Robert Wise and Reza Badiyi.

For many students the training they received in Ralph’s University of Miami and/or Valencia College programs paid off well. Alumni include many working professionals in Florida, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. This includes folks working at every crew position, as well as some who have made it up the ladder to become noted directors and production managers in their own right.

I’ve had the good fortune to edit four of the films produced through the program, including two directed by Ralph. The last of these is still in post production. I’ve also provided other post production services on numerous other films produced through the program. Even when Ralph wasn’t the director, they still benefitted from his guiding hand and assistance to the producers and directors of those projects.

As a filmmaker, Ralph always valued the collaborative side of the art and craft. He was fond of considering it a “team art” and not the dictatorial vision of only one person. He imbued this feeling to his students and practiced it as a director. In our editor/director relationship, I always found him to be open to ideas, but he was also the kind of director who’d often need to “sleep on it”. This frequently resulted in creative inspiration that tended to solve the challenges the next day.

df1815_ralph_3Several aspects get less attention in the various online memorial comments I’ve seen. Ralph – a Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran – had a soft spot in his heart for the plight of many of his fellow veterans and sometimes found ways to build those stories into his scripts as a way of honoring his comrades. When classes weren’t tied up with specific film projects, Ralph also involved them in the production of numerous pro bono videos for various charities, such as the Coalition for the Homeless. This was not only his way of giving back, but also teaching students that film production had the potential to do good in ways that were more important than box office success.

What most who knew him will remember is that Ralph was the consummate people-person. He was very gifted at navigating the triad of college politics, mentoring students, and professional filmmaking. He was an experienced “schmoozer” – in the best sense of the word. He could manage to get the necessary resources to get the job done. Students and friends called him “the humble Bavarian” – thanks to his heritage and southern-tinged, Schwarzenegger-like accent. Many were fond of mimicking his casual accented greeting of “Howya doin’, howya doin’?”. All meant only as a compliment and never received with offense. But funny remembrances aside, there was no more passionate avocate for Florida filmmaking than Ralph. He loved the stories of his adopted state and the quaint little towns that time passed by, which still made for great film locations. His efforts included tireless lobbying to legislators for the benefit of the film community, such as the state film incentive program.

df1815_ralph_4Ralph’s passing came too suddenly due to illness, but he died doing what he loved, with active projects still in production. His time on this Earth left its mark with countless students who are now working film and television pros. All consider him a friend and mentor that set them on the path of their career. For those of us who worked with him on many projects and regarded him as a friend, his passing leaves a big void in the community that will be hard to fill. If there’s a Director’s Guild in Heaven, his card is waiting.

Ralph, my friend, rest in peace.

(Photo credits: Christian Saab, Brian Osmon, Valencia College, Mike Acevedo)

©2015 Oliver Peters