Firstlight extends the power of the iPhone camera system with extra controls and features. It also adds film-style looks, including grain, vignettes, and film stock simulations. My past Photo Phun blog posts have showcased post processes that could be applied to existing images. The examples in this article used no image manipulation in post (outside of size and crop adjustments). The “look” of all samples was done in-camera, using Firstlight’s built-in features. This is using a stock iPhone SE 2020 – no lens attachments, filters, or tripod.
I occasionally throw shade on the true quality of the best iPhone images. If image quality is the critical factor, then give me a high-end DSLR any day. But, the iPhone is “the camera you have with you” and as such is the modern digital equivalent of the Kodak Instamatic camera, albeit with a lot better image quality. We can pixel-peep all day long, but the bottom line is that iPhones and top-of-the-line Android phones create some stunning imagery in the right hands.
I’ve shot a fair amount of 35mm slide and print film over the years as an amateur photographer. I’ve also manipulated images in post for my share of motion film. Any film stock emulation LUT is suspect in my eyes. You can get close, but ultimately the look designed by a company can only be an approximation. FiLMiC positions its looks as film simulations inspired by 19th and 20th century photography. I think that’s the right approach, without claiming that a given simulation is the exact same as a specific photochemical stock from a film manufacturer or a development process at a lab.
Firstlight includes a wide range of film simulations to choose from. Bear in mind that a look will change the saturation or hue of certain colors. This will only be readily obvious if those colors are in the images that you shoot. For example, C41 Plus shifts blues towards cyan. If you have blue skies in your shot, the resulting skies will appear cyan. However, if your scene is devoid of blues, then you might not see as much effect from that simulation. Think about matching the look to the content. Shoot the right subject in B&W Noir and any shot will look like it came from a gothic tale!
Remember that your iPhone has no true viewfinder – just the screen. If you are outside in bright sunlight, you can barely see what you are shooting, let alone the color differences between film simulations. If you intend to use a film simulation, then plan the shot out ahead of time. Become familiar with what each setting is intended to do, because that look will be baked in. If you get back to the computer and realize you made a mistake, then it’s too late. Personally, I’m keen on post rather than in-camera manipulations. However, if you feel confident in the results – go for it.
The gallery below features examples using Firstlight’s simulated film looks. Each choice has been noted on most of the screens, although some will be very obvious. Other than the changes in the film simulation, the rest of the Firstlight settings are identical for all images. The camera was set to 3:2 aspect ratio, AE mode enabled, and HDR active. Both a fine grain and a vignette at the lowest setting were also applied to each during Firstlight’s image capture.
If you are an independent editor or the manager of a small to medium post facility, then you’ve likely wrestled with the WFH dilemma. Work-from-home, i.e. remote editing, has been on the minds of many. It’s been accelerated for sure by Covid-19, but that’s not the sole reason. There are numerous viable solutions and one size does not fit all. I take a closer look at various workflow options, along with a dive into the use of one popular and cost-effective solution – Jump Desktop. It’s all at Pro Video Coalition at the link below.
Apple’s innovative Final Cut Pro editing software has passed its tenth year and for many, the development pace has become far too slow. As a yardstick, users point to the intensity with which Blackmagic Design has advanced its flagship DaVinci Resolve application. Since acquiring DaVinci, Blackmagic has expanded the editing capabilities and melded in other acquisitions, such as EyeOn Fusion and Fairlight audio. They’ve even integrated a second, FCP-like editing model called the Cut page. This has some long-time Final Cut editors threatening to jump ship and switch to Resolve.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into some of the comparisons. While Resolve has a strong presence as a premier color correction tool, its actual adoption as the main editor within the post facility world hasn’t been very strong. On the other hand, if you look outside of the US to Europe and the rest of the world, you’ll find quite a few installations of Final Cut Pro within larger media operations and production companies. Clearly both products have found a home servicing professional workflows.
Editing versus finishing
When all production and post was done with film, the picture editor would make all of the creative editing decisions by cutting workprint and sound using a flatbed or upright editing machine. The edited workprint became the template for the optical house, negative cutter, film timer, and lab to produce the final film prints. There was a clear delineation between creative editing and the finishing stages of filmmaking.
Once post moved to videotape, the film workflow was translated into its offline (creative editing) and online (finishing) video counterparts. Offline editing rooms used low-res formats and were less expensive to equip and operate. Online rooms used high-res formats and often looked like the bridge of a starship. But it could also be the other way around, because the offline and online processes were defined by the outcome and not the technology. Offline = creative decisions. Online = finished masters. Of course, given proper preparation or a big budget, the offline edit stage could be skipped. Everything – creative edit and finishing – was all performed in the same online edit bay.
Early nonlinear editing supplemented videotape offline edit bays for a hybrid workflow. As computer technology advanced and NLE quality and capabilities improved, all post production shifted to workstation-based operations. But the offline/online – editing/finishing – workflows have persisted, in spite of the fact that most computers and editing applications are capable of meeting both needs. Why? It comes down to three things: personality, kit, and skillset.
Kit first. Although your software might do everything well, you may or may not have a capable computer, which is why proxy workflows exist today. Beyond that comes monitoring. Accurate color correction and sound mixing requires proper high-quality audio and video monitoring. A properly equipped finishing room should also have the right lighting environment and/or wall treatments for sound mixing. None of this is essential for basic editing tasks, even at the highest level. While having a tool like Resolve makes it possible to cover all of the technical aspects of editing and finishing, if you don’t have the proper room, high-quality finishing may still be a challenge.
Each of the finishing tasks requires its own specialized skillset. A topnotch re-recording mixer isn’t going to be a great colorist or an award-winning visual effects compositor. It’s not that they couldn’t, but for most of us, that’s not the way the mind works nor the opportunities presented to us. As we spend more time at a specialized skill – the “10,000 hour” rule – the better we are at it.
Finally, the issue of personality. Many creative editors don’t have a strong technical background and some aren’t all that precise in how they handle the software. As someone who works on both sides, I’ve encountered some of the most awful timelines on projects where I’ve handled the finishing tasks. The cut was great and very creative, but the timeline was a mess.
On the flipside, finishing editors (or online editors before them) tend to be very detail-oriented. They are often very creative in their own right, but they do tend to fit the “left-brained” description. Many prefer finishing tasks over the messy world of clients, directors, and so on. In short, a topnotch creative editor might not be a good finisher and vice versa.
The all-in-one application versus the product ecosystem
Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is an all-in-one solution, combining editing, color, visual effects, and sound mixing. As such, it follows in the footsteps of other all-in-ones, like Avid|DS (discontinued) and Autodesk Flame (integrated with Smoke and Lustre). Historically, neither of these or any other all-in-ones have been very successful in the wider editing market. Cost coupled with complex user interfaces have kept them in more rarified areas of post.
Apple took the opposite approach with the interaction of Final Cut Pro X. They opted for a simpler, more approachable interface without many features editors had grown used to in the previous FCP 7/FCP Studio versions. This stripped-down application was augmented by other Apple and third-party applications, extensions, and plug-ins to fill the void.
If you want the closest equivalent to Resolve’s toolkit in the Final Cut ecosystem, you’ll have to add Motion, Logic Pro, Xsend Motion, X2Pro Audio Convert, XtoCC, and SendToX at a very minimum. If you want to get close to the breadth of Adobe Creative Cloud offerings, also add Compressor, Pixelmator Pro (or Affinity, Photo, Publisher, and Designer), and a photo application. Resolve is built upon a world-class color correction engine, but Final Cut Pro does include high-quality grading tools, too. Want more? Then add Color Finale 2, Coremelt Chromatic, FilmConvert Nitrate, or one of several other color correction plug-ins.
Yes, the building block approach does seem messy, but it allows a user to tailor the software toolkit according to their own particular use case. The all-in-one approach might appear better, but that gets to personality and skillset. It’s highly unlikely that the vast majority of Resolve users will fully master its four core capabilities: edit, color, VFX (Fusion), and mixing (Fairlight). A good, full-time editor probably isn’t going to be as good at color correction as a full-time colorist. A great colorist won’t also be a good mixer.
In theory, if you have a team of specialists who have all centralized around Resolve, then the same tool and project files could bounce from edit to VFX, to color, and to the mix, without any need to roundtrip between disparate applications. In reality it’s likely that your go-to mograph/VFX artist/compositor is going to prefer After Effects or maybe Nuke. Your favorite audio post shop probably won’t abandon Pro Tools for Fairlight.
Even for the single editor who does it all, Resolve presents some issues with its predefined left-to-right, tabbed workflow. For example, grading performed in the Color tab can’t be tweaked in the Edit tab. The UI is based on modal tabs instead of fly-out panels within a single workspace.
If you boil it all down, Resolve is the very definition of a finishing application and appeals best to editors of that mindset and with the skills to effectively use the majority of its power. Final Cut Pro is geared to the creative approach with its innovative feature set, like metadata-based organization, skimming, and the magnetic timeline. It’s more approachable for less-experience editors, hiding the available technical complexity deeper down. However, just like offline and online editing suites, you can flip it around and do creative editing with Resolve and finishing with Final Cut Pro (plus the rest of the ecosystem).
The intangibles of editing
It’s easy to compare applications on paper and say that one product appears better and more feature-rich than another. That doesn’t account for how an application feels when you use it, which is something Apple has spent a lot of time thinking about. Sometimes small features can make all the difference in an editor’s preference. The average diner might opine that chef’s knives are the same, but don’t tell that to a real chef!
Avid Media Composer editors rave about the trim tool. Many Adobe Premiere Pro editors swear by Dynamic Link. Some Apple Final Cut Pro editors get frustrated when they have to return to a track-based, non-magnetic NLE. It’s puzzling to me that some FCP stalwarts are vocal about shifting to Resolve (a traditional track-based NLE) if Apple doesn’t add ‘xyz’ feature. That simply doesn’t make sense to me, unless a) you are equally comfortable in track-based versus trackless architectures, and/or b) you truly have the aptitude to make effective use out of an all-in-one application like Resolve. Of course, you can certainly use both side-by-side depending on the task at hand. Cost is no longer an impediment these days. Organize and cut in FCP, and then send an FCPXML of the final sequence to Resolve for the grade, visual effects, and the mix.
It’s horses for courses. I recently read where NFL Films edits in Media Composer, grades in DaVinci Resolve, and conforms/finishes projects in Premiere Pro. That might seem perplexing to some, but makes all the sense in the world to me, because of the different skillsets of the users at those three stages of post. In my day gig, Premiere Pro is also the best choice for our team of editors. Yet, when I have projects that are totally under my control, I’ll often use FCP.
Ultimately there is no single application that is great at each and every element in post production. While the majority of features might fit all of my needs, that may not be true for you or anyone else. The divide between creative editing and finishing is likely to continue – at least at the higher end of production. In that context, Final Cut Pro still makes more sense for a frictionless editing experience, but Resolve is hard to beat for finishing.
There is one final caveat to consider. The post world is changing and much is driven by the independent content creator, as well as the work-from-home transformation. That market segment is cost conscious and subscription business models are less appealing. So Resolve’s entry point at free is attractive. Coupling Resolve with Blackmagic’s low cost, high quality cameras is also a winning strategy for new users. While Resolve can be daunting in its breadth, a new user can start with just the tools needed to complete the project and then learn new aspects of the software over time. As I look down the road, it’s a toss up as to who will be dominant in another ten years.
Spend any time watching Resolve tutorials and you’ll see many different ways in which colorists approach the creation of the same looks. Some create a look with just a few simple nodes. Others build a seemingly convoluted node tree designed to achieve the same goal. Neither approach is right or wrong.
Often what can all be done in a single node is spread across several in order to easily trace back through your steps when changes are needed. It also makes it easy to compare the impact of a correction by enabling and disabling a node. A series of nodes applied to a clip can be saved as a PowerGrade, which is a node preset. PowerGrades can be set up for a certain look or can be populated with blank (unaltered) nodes that are organized for how you like to work. Individual nodes can also be labeled, so that it’s easy to remember what operation you will do in each node.
The following is a simple PowerGrade (node sequence) that can be used as a starting point for most color grading work. It’s based on using log footage, but can also be modified for camera RAW or recordings in non-log color spaces, like Rec 709. These nodes are designed as a simple operational sequence to follow and each step can be used in a manner that works best with your footage. The sample ARRI clip was recorded with an ALEXA camera using the Log-C color profile.
Node 2 (LUT) – This is the starting point, because the first thing I want to do is apply the proper camera LUT to transform the image out of log. You could also do this with manual grading (no LUT). In that case the first three nodes would be rolled into one. Alternately you may use a Color Space Transform effect or even a Dehaze effect in some cases. But for the projects I grade, which largely use ARRI, Panasonic, Canon, and Sony cameras, adding the proper LUT seems to be the best starting point.
Node 1 (Contrast/Saturation) – With the LUT added to Node 2, I will go back to Node 1 to adjust contrast, pivot, and saturation. This changes the image going into the LUT and is a bit like adjusting the volume gain stage prior to applying an effect or filter when mixing sound. Since LUTs affect how color is treated, I will rarely adjust color balance or hue offsets (color wheels) in Node 1, as it may skew what the LUT is doing to the image in Node 2. The objective is to make subtle adjustments in Node 1 that improve the natural result coming out of Node 2.
Node 3 (Primary Correction) – This node is where you’ll want to correct color temperature/tint and use the color wheels, RGB curves, and other controls to achieve a nice primary color correction. For example, you may need to shift color temperature warmer or cooler, lower black levels, apply a slight s-curve in the RGB curves, or adjust the overall level up or down.
Node 4 (Secondary Correction) – This node is for enhancement and the tools you’ll generally use are hue/sat curves. Let’s say you want to enhance skin tones, or the blue in the sky. Adjust the proper hue/sat curve in this node.
Node 5 (Windows) – You can add one or more “power windows” within the node (or use multiple nodes). Windows can be tracked to follow objects, but the main objective is a way to relight the scene. In most projects, I find that one window per shot is typically all I need, if any at all. Often this is to brighten up the lighting on the main talent in the shot. The use of windows is a way to direct the viewer’s attention. Often a simple soft-edged oval is all you’ll need to achieve a dramatic result.
Node 6 (Vignette) – The last node in this basic structure is to add a vignette, which I generally apply just to subtly darken the corners. This adds a bit of character to most shots. I’ll build the vignette manually with a circular window rather than apply a stock effect. The window is inverted so that the correction impacts the shot outside of the windowed area.
So there’s a simple node tree that works for many jobs. If you need to adjust parameters such as noise reduction, that’s best done in Node 1 or 2. Remember that Resolve grading works on two levels – clip and timeline. These are all clip-based nodes. If you want to apply a global effect, like adding film grain to the whole timeline, then you can change the grading mode from clip to timeline. In the timeline mode, any nodes you apply impact the whole timeline and are added on top of any clip-by-clip correction, so it works a bit like an adjustment layer.