Building a Free FCP X Color Correction Filter

df2315_opcolor_1One nice aspect of the symbiotic relationship between Final Cut Pro X and Motion is that Motion can be used to create effects, transitions, titles and generators for use in FCP X. These are Motion Templates and they form the basis for the creation of nearly all third-party effects filters, both paid and free. This means that if you learn a bit about Motion, you can create your own custom effects or make modifications to the existing ones supplied with FCP X. This has become very easy to do in the newest versions (FCP X 10.2.1 and Motion 5.2.1).

I decided to build a color correction filter that covered most of the standard adjustments you need with the usual types of footage. There are certainly a number of really good color correction/grading filters already on the market for FCP X. Apple’s own color board works well and with 10.2 has been broken out as a normal effects filter. However, a lot of folks don’t like its tab/puck/swatch interface and would still rather work with sliders or color wheels. So as an experiment, I built my own color correction filter for use with FCP X – and you may download here and use it for free as well.

df2315_opcolor_4_smLet me point out that I am no Motion power user. I have nowhere near the skills of Mark Spencer, Simon Ubsdell or Alex Gollner when it comes to using Motion to its fullest. So all I’ve done is combine existing Motion filters into a single combined filter with zero modifications. But that’s the whole point and why this function has so much potential. A couple of these individual filters already exist singly within FCP X, but Motion has a lot more to choose from. Once you launch Motion, the starting point is to open a new Final Cut Effects project from the Motion project browser. This will default to a blank composition ready to have things added to it. Since I was creating a color correction filter, all I needed to do was select the existing Motion filters to use from the Library browser and drag-and-drop the choices into the composition.

df2315_opcolor_5I decided to combine Brightness, Contrast, Color Balance, Hue/Saturation and Tint, which were also stacked in that exact order. The next step in the process was to determine the state of the filter when you apply it and which parameters and sliders to publish. Items that are published, such as a slider, will show up in the inspector in FCP X and can be adjusted by the editor. In my case, I decided to publish every parameter in the stack. To publish, simply click on the right side edge of each parameter line and you’ll find a pulldown selection that includes a publish/unpublish toggle. Note that the order in which you click the publish commands will determine the order of how these commands are stacked when they show up inside FCP X. To make the most sense, I followed a straight sequence order, top to bottom.

df2315_opcolor_3_smYou can also determine the starting state when you first apply or preview the effect.  For example, whether a button starts out enabled or disabled. In the case of this filter, I’ve enabled everything and left it at a neutral or default value, with the exception of Tint. This starts in the ‘off’ position, because I didn’t want a color cast to be applied when you first add the filter to a clip. Once everything is set-up, you simply save the effect to a desired location in the Motion Templates folder. You can subsequently open the Motion project from there to modify the effect. When it’s saved again, the changes are updated to the filter in FCP X.

If you’ve downloaded my effects filter, unzip the file and follow the Read Me document. I’ve created an “Oliver FX” category and this complete folder should be placed into the User/Movies/Motion Templates/Effects folder on your hard drive.df2315_opcolor_2

Applying the filter inside Final Cut Pro X is the same as any of the other effects options. It has the added benefit that all parameters can be keyframed. The Color Balance portion works like a 3-way color corrector, except that it uses the OS color picker wheels in lieu of a true 3-color-wheel interface. As a combination of native filters, performance is good without taxing the machine.

UPDATE (12 June 2015) : I have added one addition filter into the download file. The second filter is called “Oliver DVE” and designed to give you a full set of transform controls that include XYZ rotation. It comes from the transform control set included with Motion. This provides you with the equivalent of a 2.5D DVE, which is not available in the default control set of FCP X.

UPDATE 2 (15 June 2015) : These filters are not backward compatible. They will work in FCP X 10.1.2 and Motion 5.1.2 and forward (hopefully), but not in earlier versions. That’s due to technology changes between these versions. If you downloaded these prior to June 15, for FCP X 10.1.2 or 10.1.4 and they aren’t working, please download again. I have modified the files to work in FCP X 10.1.2 and later. Thank you.

Download the free “Oliver Color” and “Oliver DVE” filters here. My previously-created, free FCP X color board presets may be found here.

©2015 Oliver Peters

NLEs at NAB 2015

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NAB is the biggest toy store in our industry. As in years past, I’ve covered it for DV magazine, where you’ll find the expanded version. The following is the segment covering the four – soon to become five – most popular NLE vendors.

df2115_NAB2Editing options largely focused on the four “A” companies – Apple, Adobe, Avid and Autodesk. Apple wasn’t officially at the show, but held private press meetings at an area hotel. Consulting company FCPworks presented a series of workflow and case study sessions at the Renaissance Hotel next door to the South Hall. This coincided with Apple’s release of the updated versions of Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor. FCP X 10.2 includes a number of enhancements, but the most buzz went to the addition of a new 3D text engine for FCP X and Motion. Apple’s implementation is one of the easiest to use and best-looking in any application. The best part is that the performance is excellent. Two other big features fall more in line with user wish lists. These include built-in masking and changing the color correction tool into a standard effect filter. Compressor has now added a preset designed for iTunes submission. Although Apple still encourages users to go to iTunes though an approved third-party portal, this new preset makes it easier to create the proper file package necessary for delivery.

df2115_NAB1Adobe has the momentum as the next up-and-coming professional editing tool. At NAB Adobe was showing technology previews of the application features that will be released as part of a Creative Cloud subscription in the coming months. Premiere Pro CC now integrates more of SpeedGrade CC’s color correction capabilities through the addition of the Lumetri Color panel. This tabbed control integrates tools that are familiar from SpeedGrade, but also from Lightroom. Since Premiere already includes built-in masking and tracking, this means the editor is capable of doing very sophisticated color correction right inside of Premiere. Morph Cut is a new effect that everyone cutting interviews will love. The effect is designed to smoothly transition across jump cuts in a seamless manner. It uses advanced tracking and frame interpolation functions to build new “in-between” frames. After Effects adds an outstanding face tracker and improved previews. View design iterations, adjust composition properties, and even resize interface panels without halting composition playback. The face tracker locks onto specific points (pupils, mouth, nose), which enables accurate tracking when elements need to be composited onto an actor’s face.

Adobe is also good for out-of-the-box thinking on new technologies. Character Animator was demonstrated as a live animation tool. Using real-time facial tracking, such as from a laptop’s webcam, the animator could do live animation key framing of an on-screen cartoon character. Import a cartoon character as a layered Photoshop file as the starting point. When you move and talk, so does the character in real-time – all controlled by the tracking. Not only can you add the real-time animation, but certain animation functions are automatically applied, like a character’s breathing motion. Another interesting tool is Candy. This is a mobile app which analyses the tonal color scheme of photos stored on your mobile device. It creates a “look” file and stores it to your Creative Cloud library. This, in turn, can be synced with your copy of Premiere Pro CC and then applied as a color correction look to any video clip.

df2115_NAB3Avid ran the second annual Avid Connect event for members of their customer association in the weekend leading up to the NAB exhibition. Although this was the first show appearance of Media Composer 8.3.1 – Avid’s first move into true 4K editing – they did very little to promote it. That’s not to say there wasn’t any news. Several new products were announced, including the Avid Artist | DNxIO. Instead of developing their own 4K hardware, Avid opted to partner with Blackmagic Design. The DNxIO is essentially the same as the UltraStudio 4K Extreme, except with the addition of Avid’s DNxHR codec embedded into the unit. Only Avid will sell the Avid-branded version and will also provide any technical support. The DNxIO supports both PCIe or Thunderbolt host connections and can also be used for Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Apple FCP X and DaVinci Resolve running on the same workstation as Media Composer.

In an effort to attract new users to Media Composer, Avid also announced Media Composer | First. This is a free version with a reduced feature set. It’s intended as functional starter software from which users will hopefully transition to the full, paid application. However, it uses a “freemium” sales model, allowing users to extend functionality through add-on purchases. For example, Media Composer | First permits users to only store three active projects in the cloud. Additional storage for more projects can be purchased from Avid.

df2115_NAB5Autodesk’s NAB news was all about the 2016 versions of Flame, Maya and 3ds Max. Flame and Flame Premium customers gain new look development tools, including Lightbox – a GPU shader toolkit for 3D color correction – and Matchbox in the Action module. This applies fast Matchbox shaders to texture maps without leaving the 3D compositing scene. Maya 2016 received performance and ease-of-use enhancements. There are also new capabilities in Bifrost to help deliver realistic liquid simulations. 3ds Max 2016 gains a new, node-based creation graph, a new design workspace and template system, as well as other design enhancements. If you’ve been following Smoke, then this NAB was disappointing. Autodesk told me that an update is in the works, but development timing didn’t allow it to be ready in time for the show. I would presume we’ll hear something at IBC.

df2115_NAB4For editors, all eyes are on Blackmagic Design. DaVinci Resolve 12 was demonstrated, which is the first version that the company feels can compete as a full-fledged NLE. Last NAB, Resolve 11 was introduced as an online editor, but once it was out in the wild, most users found the real-time performance wasn’t up to par with other NLEs. Resolve 12 appears to have licked that issue, with a new audio engine and improved editing features. New in Resolve 12 is a multi-camera editing mode with the ability to sync angles by audio, timecode or in/out points. The new, high-performance audio engine was designed to greatly improve real-time playback, but also supports VST and AU audio plug-ins. Editors will also be able to export projects to ProTools using AAF.  Don’t forget that there are also updates to its color correction functions. Aside from interface and control enhancements, the most notable additions are a new keyer and a new perspective tracker. The latter will allow users to better track objects that move off-screen during the clip. Resolve 12 is scheduled to be released in July. Blackmagic acquired Fusion last year. It’s a node-based, compositing application, built on Windows. At the booth, Blackmagic previewed Fusion 8 on the Mac and announced that it will be available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Like Resolve, Fusion 8 will be offered in both a free and a paid version.

This post is an abbreviated overview written for CreativePlanetNetwork and Digital Video magazine. Click here for the full-length version to find out about more post news, as well as cameras, effects and other items presented at NAB.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Autodesk Smoke 2015

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After NAB last year, Autodesk released Smoke 2015 – their Mac-based editing application. This version also marked Autodesk’s shift from perpetual licenses to a subscription model for Smoke. Any new Smoke users must subscribe for an active license, with monthly, quarterly, and annual plans available. In order to attract new users, Autodesk also introduced a free student license, which is active for three years. This is part of a companywide initiative to make all Autodesk software available to students worldwide.

df1015_smoke_2_smI wrote an in-depth review of Smoke 2013 two years ago. This was the first major optimization (after the introduction of Smoke 2011 for the Mac) to convert Smoke from the look and feel of its Irix and Linux roots into a predominantly Mac-oriented application. Much of Smoke 2015’s interface and operational style remains unchanged from that previous version. In the intervening two years, Autodesk has decided that Smoke and Flame no longer need to remain 100% compatible or locked into the same development cycle. Each product has evolved from a core toolset, but more and more is being designed for a specific audience and user need. Smoke 2015 is targeted at editors who want a strong compositor, but are most comfortable with track-based NLEs that run on Macs. This new release is even more Mac-friendly with improved performance on Mac hardware, including the new Mac Pros, iMacs and Retina MacBook Pros.

df1015_smoke_3_smThe hallmark of working with visual effects inside Smoke is the integration of a node-base compositing tool. That can also be the most daunting part of the learning curve for new users. Building on the 2013 version, Smoke 2015 has increased the amount of effects control that you can perform in the timeline, without touching any nodes. It uses a “ribbon” of common effects that can be applied to a clip and adjusted without ever leaving the timeline display. These consist of 14 effects modules that include most of the text, transform/DVE, color correction, and speed change effects commonly used by editors. For instance, you can apply a color correction to a clip or an adjustment layer, and then alter the look by numerical entry (keypad or mouse slider). You get a lot of correction control right within this ribbon, including access to master/highlight/mids/shadows and RGB/red/green/blue parameters. If you want more control with color wheels, then simply enter the effect editor to switch to that layout for the selected clip.

Smoke had included a third-party effects API (Sparks), but other than GenArts, never had many takers among the development community interested in rewriting their Sparks Linux plug-ins (originally developed for Flame and Smoke on Linux) into Mac versions for Smoke on the Mac. Not many users bought the ones that were available. As a result, Autodesk has moved away from this API for Smoke, even though the effects tab is still there. Instead, Autodesk engineers filled in the gaps through additional effects that now come with Smoke. The bottom line is that although there’s a Sparks tab in the ribbon, it’s a legacy item with no functionality without third-party plug-ins.

df1015_smoke_5_smSmoke has undergone a big performance improvement since its original Mac introduction. In the past, you could usually only play a timeline clip in real-time, when the clip had no more than a single effect applied to it. Add more effects and rendering was needed. Now it’s possible to apply several effects to a clip and still play through it without rendering. This is based on my testing on a 2009 8-core Mac Pro with 28GB of RAM and an ATI 5870 GPU card. To enable new users to adapt more quickly to complex composites and to add effects not supplied by third parties, Smoke 2015 includes a number of presets. For example, if you add a lens flare, there’s a wide range of preset styles accessible from a pulldown menu. When you set up a chromakey, you can start with a preset selection of nodes, designed to be a good starting point. Autodesk also added 3D camera tracking into Smoke 2015, which had been previously developed for Flame.

In an effort to position Smoke as a finishing tool that works well with Apple Final Cut Pro X, Autodesk has improved the compatibility with FCPXML lists generated from that application. While this works reasonably well, I did have problems relinking to clips with frame rates that differed from the main sequence rate. For example, 60fps clips from a Canon 5D that were cut into a 23.98fps timeline and slowed, did not properly relink when I imported the sequence into Smoke.

df1015_smoke_6_smOverall, Smoke 2015 is a good upgrade. With a subscription you get updates as they come out. Unfortunately, this process is not as easy as it is with Apple, Adobe, or even Avid products. My software went from SP1 (service pack) to SP2. When I tried to download SP2, I could only find SP3. I tried this version, but it was incompatible, because that was designed for legacy perpetual license owners. I finally got SP2 installed, but only through the help of tech support. On the plus side, I’ve found Autodesk’s support personnel to be very helpful and knowledgeable, when I’ve needed them.

Smoke does not support dual-display systems in the same way as its competitors. You can run the broadcast monitoring signal to a second display, which gives you full-screen video or a duplicate of the node tree in some modes; but, the user interface is not configurable across two screens like other NLEs. Smoke also accesses media differently than other NLEs, which conflicts with some of the Mac’s internal networking functions. I typically run with my internal Mac OS X firewall set to block all connections. This works fine with all creative applications, except Smoke. Set that way, all of the media is unlinked. Rather than reconfigure my settings to run Smoke (since my main use is for demo purposes), I simply turn off the internal firewall before launching Smoke.

df1015_smoke_4_smThe long-term success of the subscription software business model among creative applications is still an unknown. Adobe and Autodesk are primarily on the vanguard – with Avid offering it only as one option. Among users, it’s still a love/hate thing. It will take a few years yet to see whether or not it’s the right move. Nevertheless, if you have the business to justify the cost and want to stay current with a top-notch editor/compositor, then a Smoke subscription might be right for you. If you are serious about Smoke 2015, then I would highly recommend Alexis Van Hurkman’s book, “Autodesk Smoke Essentials”, which may be purchased through the Autodesk website, as well as from Amazon.com. It’s the ideal quick start guide for users committed to learning Smoke.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

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

Understanding SpeedGrade

df1615_sg_1How you handle color correction depends on your temperament and level of expertise. Some editors want to stay within the NLE, so that editorial adjustments are easily made after grading. Others prefer the roundtrip to a powerful external application. When Adobe added the Direct Link conduit between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC, they gave Premiere Pro editors the best of both worlds.

Displays

df1615_sg_4SpeedGrade is a standalone grading application that was initially designed around an SDI feed from the GPU to a second monitor for your external video. After the Adobe acquisition, Mercury Transmit was eventually added, so you can run SpeedGrade with one display, two computer displays, or a computer display plus a broadcast monitor. With a single display, the video viewer is integrated into the interface. At home, I use two computer displays, so by enabling a dual display layout, I get the SpeedGrade interface on one screen and the full-screen video viewer on the other. To do this you have to correctly offset the pixel dimensions and position for the secondary display in order to see it. Otherwise the image is hidden behind the interface.

Using Mercury Transmit, the viewer image is sent to an external monitor, but you’ll need an appropriate capture/monitoring card or device. AJA products seem to work fine. Some Blackmagic devices work and others don’t. When this works, you will lose the viewer from the interface, so it’s best to have the external display close – as in next to your interface monitor.

Timeline

df1615_sg_3When you use Direct Link, you are actually sending the Premiere Pro timeline to SpeedGrade. This means that edits and timeline video layers are determined by Premiere Pro and those editing functions are disabled in SpeedGrade. It IS the Premiere Pro timeline. This means certain formats that might not be natively supported by a standalone SpeedGrade project will be supported via the Direct Link path – as long as Premiere Pro natively supports them.

There is a symbiotic relationship between Premiere Pro and SpeedGrade. For example, I worked on a music video that was edited natively using RED camera media. The editor had done a lot of reframing from the native 4K media in the 1080 timeline. All of this geometry was correctly interpreted by SpeedGrade. When I compared the same sequence in Resolve (using an XML roundtrip), the geometry was all wrong. SpeedGrade doesn’t give you access to the camera raw settings for the .r3d media, but Premiere Pro does. So in this case, I adjusted the camera raw values by using the source settings control in Premiere Pro, which then carried those adjustments over to SpeedGrade.

df1615_sg_2Since the Premiere Pro timeline is the SpeedGrade timeline when you use Direct Link, you can add elements into the sequence from Premiere, in order to make them available in SpeedGrade. Let’s say you want to add a common edge vignette across all the clips of your sequence. Simply add an adjustment layer to a top track while in Premiere. This appears in your SpeedGrade timeline, enabling you to add a mask and correction within the adjustment layer clip. In addition, any video effects filters that you’ve applied in Premiere will show up in SpeedGrade. You don’t have access to the controls, but you will see the results interactively as you make color correction adjustments.

df1615_sg_17All SpeedGrade color correction values are applied to the clip as a single Lumetri effect when you send the timeline back to Premiere Pro. All grading layers are collapsed into a single composite effect per clip, which appears in the clip’s effect stack (in Premiere Pro) along with all other filters. In this way you can easily trim edit points without regard to the color correction. Traditional roundtrips render new media with baked-in color correction values. There, you can only work within the boundaries of the handles that you’ve added to the file upon rendering. df1615_sg_16Not so with Direct Link, since color correction is like any other effect applied to the original media. Any editorial changes you’ve made in Premiere Pro are reflected in SpeedGrade should you go back for tweaks, as long as you continue to use Direct Link.

12-way and more

df1615_sg_5Most editors are familiar with 3-way color correctors that have level and balance controls for shadows, midrange and highlights. Many refer to SpeedGrade’s color correction model as a 12-way color corrector. The grading interface features a 3-way (lift/gamma/gain) control for four ranges of correction: overall, shadows, midrange, and highlights. Each tab also adds control of contrast, pivot, color temperature, magenta (tint), and saturation. Since shadow, midrange, and highlight ranges overlap, you also have sliders that adjust the overlap thresholds between shadow and midrange and between the midrange and highlight areas.

df1615_sg_7Color correction is layer based – similar to Photoshop or After Effects. SpeedGrade features primary (“P”) , secondary (“S”) and filter layers (the “+” symbol). When you add layers, they are stacked from bottom to top and each layer includes an opacity control. As such, layers work much the same as rooms in Apple Color or nodes in DaVinci Resolve. You can create a multi-layered adjustment by using a series of stacked primary layers. Shape masks, like that for a vignette, should be applied to a primary layer. df1615_sg_10The mask may be normal or inverted so that the correction is applied either to the inside or the outside of the mask. Secondaries should be reserved for HSL keys. For instance, highlighting the skin tones of a face to adjust its color separately from the rest of the image. The filter layer (“+”) is where you’ll find a number of useful tools, including Photoshop-style creative effect filters, LUTs, and curves.

Working with grades

df1615_sg_13The application of color correction can be applied to a clip as either a master clip correction or just a clip correction (or both). When you grade using the default clip tab, then that color correction is only being applied to that single clip. If you grade in the master clip tab, then any color correction that you apply to that clip will also be applied to every other instance of that same media file elsewhere on the timeline. Theoretically, in a multicam edit – made up of four cameras with a single media file per camera – you could grade the entire timeline by simply color correcting the first clip for each of the four cameras as a master clip correction. All other clips would automatically inherit the same settings. Of course, that almost never works out quite as perfectly, therefore, you can grade a clip using both the master clip and the regular clip tabs. Use the master for a general setting and still use the regular clip tab to tweak each shot as needed.

df1615_sg_9Grades can be saved and recalled as Lumetri Looks, but typically these aren’t as useful in actual grading as standard copy-and-paste functions – a recent addition to SpeedGrade CC. Simply highlight one or more layers of a graded clip and press copy (cmd+c on a Mac). Then paste (cmd+v on a Mac) those to the target clip. These will be pasted in a stack on top of the default, blank primary correction that’s there on every clip. You can choose to use, ignore, or delete this extra primary layer.

SpeedGrade features a cool trick to facilitate shot matching. The timeline playhead can be broken out into multiple playheads, which will enable you to compare two or more shots in real-time on the viewer. This quick comparison lets you make adjustments to each to get a closer match in context with the surrounding shots.

A grading workflow

df1615_sg_14Everyone has their own approach to grading and these days there’s a lot of focus on camera and creative LUTs. My suggestions for prepping a Premiere Pro CC sequence for SpeedGrade CC go something like this.

df1615_sg_6Once, you are largely done with the editing, collapse all multicam clips and flatten the timeline as much as possible down to the bottom video layer. Add one or two video tracks with adjustment layers, depending on what you want to do in the grade. These should be above the last video layer. All graphics – like lower thirds – should be on tracks above the adjustment layer tracks. This is assuming that you don’t want to include these in the color correction. Now duplicate the sequence and delete the tracks with the graphics from the dupe. Send the dupe to SpeedGrade CC via Direct Link.

In SpeedGrade, ignore the first primary layer and add a filter layer (“+”) above it. Select a camera patch LUT. For example, an ARRI Log-C-to-Rec-709 LUT for Log-C gamma-encoded Alexa footage. Repeat this for every clip from the same camera type. If you intend to use a creative LUT, like one of the SpeedLooks from LookLabs, you’ll need one of their camera patches. This shifts the camera video into a unified gamma profile optimized for their creative LUTs. If all of the footage used in the timeline came from the same camera and used the same gamma profile, then in the case of SpeedLooks, you could apply the creative LUT to one the adjustment layer clips. This will apply that LUT to everything in the sequence.

df1615_sg_8Once you’ve applied input and output LUTs you can grade each clip as you’d like, using primary and secondary layers. Use filter layers for curves. Any order and any number of layers per clip is fine. Using this methodology all grading is happening between the camera patch LUT and the creative LUT added to the adjustment layer track. Finally, if you want a soft edge vignette on all clips, apply an edge mask to the default primary layer of the topmost adjustment layer clip. Adjust the size, shape, and softness of the mask. Darken the outside of the mask area. Done.df1615_sg_11

(Note that not every camera uses logarithmic gamma encoding, nor do you want to use LUTs on every project. These are the “icing on the cake”, NOT the “meat and potatoes” of grading. If your sequence is a standard correction without any stylized creative looks, then ignore the LUT procedures I described above.)

df1615_sg_15Now simply send your timeline back to Premiere Pro (the “Pr” button). Back in Premiere Pro CC, duplicate that sequence. Copy-and-paste the graphics tracks from the original sequence to the available blank tracks of the copy. When done, you’ll have three sequences: 1) non-color corrected with graphics, 2) color corrected without graphics, and 3) final with color correction and graphics. The beauty of the Direct Link path between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC is that you can easily go back and forth for changes without ever being locked in at any point in the process.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Sorenson Squeeze 10

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Video formats don’t hold still for long and neither do video codecs used for file encoding. As the industry looks at 4K delivery over the web and internet-based television streaming services, we now get more codecs to consider, too. Target delivery had seemed to settle on H.264 and MPEG-2 for awhile, but now there’s growing interest in HEVC/H.265 and VP9, thanks to their improved encoding efficiency. Greater efficiency means that you can maintain image quality in 4K files without creating inordinately large file sizes. Sorenson Media’s Squeeze application has been an industrial strength encoding utility that many pros rely on. With the release of Sorenson Squeeze 10, pros have a new tool designed to accommodate the new, beyond-HD resolutions that are in our future.

df0415_sqz10_5_smSorenson Squeeze comes in server and desktop versions. Squeeze Desktop 10 includes three variations: Lite, Standard and Pro. Squeeze Lite covers a wide range of input formats, but video output is limited to FLV, M4V, MP4 and WebM formats. Essentially, Lite is designed for users who primarily need to encode files for use on the web. Desktop Standard adds VP9 and Multi-Rate Bundle Encoding. The latter creates a package with multiple files of different bitrates, which is a configuration used by many web streaming services. Standard also includes 4K presets (H.264 only) and a wide range of output codecs. The Pro version adds support for HEVC, professional decoding and encoding of Avid DNxHD and Apple ProRes (Mac only), and closed caption insertion.df0415_sqz10_1_sm

All three models have added what Sorenson calls Simple Format Conversion. This is a preset available in some of the format folders. The source size, frame rate, and quality are maintained, but the file is converted into the target media format. It’s available for MP4/WebM with Lite, and MP4/MOV/MKV with Standard and Pro. Squeeze is supposed to take advantage of CUDA acceleration when you have certain NVIDIA cards installed, which accelerates MainConcept H.264/AVC encoding. I have a Quadro 4000 with the latest CUDA drivers installed in my Mac Pro running Yosemite (10.10.1). Unfortunately Squeeze Pro 10 doesn’t recognize the driver as a valid CUDA driver. When I asked Sorenson about this, they explained that MainConcept has dropped CUDA support for the MainConcept H.264 codec. “It will not support the latest cards and drivers. If you do use the CUDA feature you will likely see little-to-no speedup, maybe even a speed decrease, and your output video will have decreased quality compared to H.264 encoded with the CPU.”

df0415_sqz10_2_smAs a test, I took a short (:06) 4096×2160 clip that was shot on a Canon EOS 1DC camera. It was recorded using the QuickTime Photo-JPEG codec and is 402MB large. I’m running a 2009 8-core Mac Pro (2.26GHz), 28 GB RAM and the Quadro 4000 card. To encode, I picked the default Squeeze HEVC 4K preset. It encodes using a 1-pass variable bitrate at a target rate of 18,000Kbps. It also resizes to a UHD size of 3840×2160; however, it is set to maintain the same aspect ratio, so the resulting file was actually 3840×2024. Of course, the preset’s values can be edited to suit your requirements.

It took 3:32 (min/sec) to encode the file with the HEVC/H.265 codec and the resulting size was 13MB. I compared this to an encode using the H.264 preset, which uses the same values. It encoded in 1:43 and resulted in a 14.2MB file. Both files are wrapped as .MP4 files, but I honestly couldn’t tell much difference in quality between the two codecs. They both looked good. Unfortunately there aren’t many players that will decode and play the HEVC codec yet – at least not on the Mac. To play the HEVC file, I used an updated version of VLC, which includes an HEVC component. Of course, most machines aren’t yet optimized for this new codec.

df0415_sqz10_3_smOther features of Squeeze aren’t new, but are still worth mentioning. For example, the presets are grouped in two ways – by format and workflow. Favorites can be assigned for quick access to the few presets that you might use most often. Squeeze enables direct capture from a camera input or batch encoding of files in a monitored watch folder. In addition to video, various audio formats can also be exported.

Encoding presets can include a number of built-in filters, as well as any VST audio plug-in installed on your computer. Finally, you can add publishing destinations, including YouTube, Akamai, Limelight and Amazon S3 locations. Another publishing location is Squeeze Stream, the free account included with a purchase of Squeeze (Standard or Pro versions only). Thanks to all of these capabilities, Sorenson Media’s Squeeze Desktop 10 will continue to be the tool many editors choose for professional encoding.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters