Remote workflows didn’t start with COVID, but that certainly drove the need home for many. While editing collaboration at a distance can be a challenge, it’s a far simpler prospect than remote color grading. That’s often a very interactive process that happens on premises between a colorist and a client, director, or cinematographer. Established high-end post facilities, like Company3 with locations in the US, Canada, and England, have pioneered remote color grading sessions using advanced systems like Resolve and Baselight. This allows a director in Los Angeles and a colorist in London to conduct remote, real-time, interactive grading sessions. But the investment in workflow development, hardware, and grading environments to make this happen is not inconsequential.
High-end remote grading comes to Final Cut Pro X
The Color Finale team has been on a quest to bring advanced grading tools to the Final Cut Pro X ecosystem with last December’s release of Color Finale 2. Many editors are working from home these days, so the team decided to leverage the frameworks for macOS and FCPX to enable remote grading in a far simpler method than with other grading solutions.
The result is Color Finale Connect, which is a Final Cut Pro X workflow extension currently in free public beta. Connect enables two or more Final Cut Pro X users to collaborate in near-real-time in a color grading session, regardless of their location. This review is in the context of long distance sessions, but Connect can also be used within a single facility where the participants might be in other parts of the building or in different buildings.
Color Finale Connect requires each user in a session to be on macOS Catalina, running licensed copies of Final Cut Pro X (not trial) and Color Finale 2.2 Pro (or higher). Download and install Color Finale Connect, which shows up as a Final Cut workflow extension. You can work in a Connect session with or without local media on every participant’s system. In order to operate smoothly and keep the infrastructure lightweight, person-to-person communication is handled outside of Connect. For example, interact with your director via Skype or Zoom on an iPad while you separately control Final Cut on your iMac.
To start a session, each participant launches the Color Finale Connect extension within Final Cut. Whoever starts a session is the “broadcaster” and others that join this session are “followers.” The session leader (who has the local media) drags the Project icon to the Connect panel and “publishes” it. This generates a session code, which can be sent to the other participants to join the session from within their Connect extension panels.
Once a session is joined, the participants drag the Project icon from the Connect panel into an open FCPX Event. This generates a timeline of clips. If they have the matching local media, the timeline will be populated with the initial graded clips. If they don’t have media, then the timeline is populated with placeholder clips. Everyone needs to keep their Connect panel open to stay in the session (it can be minimized).
Data transfer is very small, since it consists mainly of Color Finale instructions; therefore, crazy-fast internet speeds aren’t required. It is peer-to-peer and doesn’t live anywhere “in the cloud.” If a participant doesn’t have local media installed, then as the session leader makes a color correction change in Color Finale 2 Pro, an “in-place” full-resolution frame is sent for that clip on the timeline. As more changes are made, the frames are updated in near-real-time.
The data communication is between Color Finale on one system and Color Finale on the others. All grading must happen within the Color Finale 2 Pro plug-in, not FCPX’s native color wheels or other plug-ins. The “in-place” frames support all native Final Cut media formats, such as H.264, ProRes, and ProRes RAW; however, formats that require a plug-in, like RED camera raw files, will not transmit “in-place” frames. In that case, the data applied to the placeholder frame is updated, but you won’t see a reference image.
This isn’t a one-way street. The session leader can enable any participant to also have control. Let’s say the session leader is the colorist and the director of photography is a participant. The colorist can enable remote control for the DP, which would permit them to make tweaks on their own system. This in turn would update back on the colorist’s system, as well as for all the other participants.
Color Finale Connect workflows
I’ve been testing a late-stage beta version of Connect and Color Finale 2.2 Pro and the system works well. The “in-place” concept is ingenious, but the workflow is best when each session member has local media. This has been improved with the enhanced proxy workflow updated in Final Cut Pro X 10.4.9. Let’s say the editor has the full-resolution, original media and generates smaller proxies – for example, 50% size H.264 files. These are small enough that you can easily send the Library and proxy media to all participants using services like WeTransfer, MASV, FileMail, or Frame.io.
One of the session members could be a favored colorist on the other side of the world. In this case, he or she would be working with the proxy media. If the editor and colorist are both able to control the session, then it becomes highly interactive. Formats like RED don’t pose a problem thanks to the proxy transcodes, as long as no local changes are made outside of the Color Finale plug-in. In other words, don’t change the RED raw source settings within this session. Once the colorist has completed the grade using proxy media, those grading settings would be updated through a Connect session on the editor’s system where the original media resides.
How do you know that your client sees the color in the same way as you do on a reference display? Remote color grading has always been hampered by color management and monitor calibration. It would, of course, be ideal for each participant in the session to have Blackmagic or AJA output hardware connected to a calibrated display. If there is an a/v output for FCPX, then the Connect session changes will also be seen on that screen. But that’s a luxury most clients don’t have.
This is where Apple hardware, macOS, and Final Cut Pro X’s color management come to the rescue and make Color Finale Connect a far simpler solution than other methods. If both you and your client are using Apple hardware (iMac, iMac Pro, Pro Display XDR) then color management is tightly controlled and accurate. First make sure that macOS display settings like True Tone and Night Shift are turned off on all systems. Then you are generally going to see the same image within the Final Cut viewer on your iMac screen as your client will see on theirs.
The one caveat is that users still have manual control of the screen brightness, which can affect the perception of the color correction. One tip is to include a grayscale or color chart that can be used to roughly calibrate the display’s brightness setting. Can everyone just barely see the darkest blocks on the chart? If not, brighten the display setting slightly. It’s not a perfect calibration, but it will definitely get you in the ballpark.
Color Finale 2 Pro turns Final Cut Pro X into an advanced finishing solution. Thanks to the ecosystem and extensions framework, Final Cut opens interesting approaches to collaboration, especially in the time of COVID. Tools like Frame.io and Postlab enable better long-distance collaboration in easier-to-use ways than previous technologies. Color Finale Connect brings that same ease-of-use and efficient remote collaboration to FCPX grading. Remember this is still a beta, albeit a stable one, so make sure you provide feedback should any issues crop up.
©2020 Oliver Peters