Simple Color Workflow in FCPX

Building on the heels of the previous post, I’d like to cover five simple steps to follow when performing basic color correction, aka “grading,” in Final Cut Pro X. Not every clip or project will use all of these, but apply the applicable steps when appropriate.

Step 1. LUTs (color look-up tables)

There are technical and creative LUTs. Here we are talking only about technical camera LUTs that are useful when your footage was recorded in a log color space. These LUTs convert the clip from log to a display color space (REC 709 or other) and turn the clip’s appearance from flat to colorful. Each manufacturer offers specific LUTs for the profile of their camera models.

Some technical LUTs are already included with the default FCPX installation and can be accessed through the settings menu in the inspector. Others must be downloaded from the manufacturer or other sources and stored elsewhere on your system. If you don’t see an appropriate option in the inspector, then apply the Custom LUT effect and navigate to a matching LUT stored on your system.

Step 2. Balance Color

Next, apply the Balance Color effect for each clip. This will slightly expand the contrast of the clip and create an averaged color balance. This is useful for many, but not all clips. For instance, a clip shot during “golden hour” will have a warm, yellow-ish glow. You don’t want that to be balanced neutral. You have no control over the settings of the Balance Color process, other than to pick between Automatic and White Balance. Test and see when and where this works to your advantage.

Note that this works best for standard footage without a LUT or when the LUT was applied through the inspector menu. If the LUT was applied as a Custom LUT effect, then Balance Color will be applied ahead of the Custom LUT and may yield undesirable results.

Step 3. Color correction – color board, curves, or color wheels

This is where you do most of the correction to alter the appearance of the clip. Any or all of FCPX’s color correction tools are fine and the tool choice often depends on your own preference. For most clips it’s mainly a matter of brightening, expanding contrast, increasing or decreasing saturation, and shifting the hue offsets of lows (shadow area), midrange, and highlights. What you do here is entirely subjective, unless you are aiming for shot-matching, like two cameras in an interview. For most projects, subtlety is the key.

Step 4. Luma vs Sat

It’s easy to get carried away in Step 3. This is your chance to reign it back in. Apply the Hue/Sat Curves tool and select the Luma vs Sat Curve. I described this process in the previous post. The objective is to roll off the saturation of the shadows and highlights, so that you retain pure blacks and whites at the extreme ends of the luminance range.

Step 5. Broadcast Safe

If you deliver for broadcast TV or a streaming channel, your video must be legal. Different outlets have differing standards – some looser or stricter than others. To be safe, limit your luminance and chrominance levels by applying a Broadcast Safe effect. This is best applied to an adjustment layer added as a connected clip at the topmost level above the entire sequence. Final Cut Pro X does not come with an adjustment layer Motion template title, but there are plenty available for download.

Apply the Broadcast Safe effect to that adjustment layer clip. Make sure it’s set to the color space that matches your project (sequence) setting (typically Rec 709 for HD and 4K SDR videos). At its default, video will be clipped at 0 and 100 on the scopes. Move the amount slider to the right for more clipping when you need to meet more restrictive specs.

These five steps are not the end-all/be-all of color correction/grading. They are merely a beginning guide to achieve quick and attractive grading using Final Cut Pro X. Test them out on your footage and see how to use them with your own workflows.

©2020 Oliver Peters