What’s up with Final Cut’s Color Wheels?

Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.4 introduced new, advanced color correction tools to this editing application, including color wheels, curves, and hue vs. saturation curves. These are tools that users of other NLEs have enjoyed for some time – and, which were part of Final Cut Studio (FCP 7, Color). Like others, my first reaction was, “Super! They’ve added some nice advanced tools, which will improve the use of FCPX for higher-end users.” But, as I started to primarily use the Color Wheels with real correction work, I quickly realized that something wasn’t quite right in how they operated. Or at least, they didn’t work in a way that we’ve come to understand.

In trying to figure it out, I reached out to other industry pros and developers for their thoughts. Naturally this led to some spirited discussions at forums like those at Creative COW. However, other editors have noticed the same problems, so you can also find threads in the Facebook FCPX group and at FCP.co. It is certainly easy to characterize this as just another internet kerfuffle, surrounding Apple’s “think different” approaches to FCPX. But those arguments fall flat when you actually try to use the tools as intended.

The FCPX Color Wheels panel includes four wheels – Master, Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights. The puck in the center of each wheel is a hue offset control to push hues in the direction that you move the puck. The slider to the right of the wheel controls the brightness of that range. The left slider controls the saturation. One of the main issues is that when you adjust luminance using one of these controls, the affected range is too broad. Specifically, in the case of the Midtones control, as you adjust the luminance slider up or down, you are affecting most of the image and not just the midrange levels. This is not the way this type of control normally works in other tools, and in fact, it’s not how FCPX’s Color Board controls work either.

“What’s the big deal?” you might ask. Fair enough. I see two operational issues. The first is that to properly grade the image using the Color Wheels, you end up having to go back-and-forth a lot between wheels, to counteract the changes made by one control with another. The second is that using the Midtones slider tends to drive highlights above 100 IRE, where they will be clipped if any broadcast limiting is used. This doesn’t happen with other color tools, notably Apple’s own Color Board.

A lot of the discussion focuses on luma levels and specifically the Midtones slider, since it’s easy to see the issue there. However, other controls are also affected, but that’s too much to dissect in a single post. Throughout this post, be sure to click on the images to see the full view. I have presented various samples against each other and you will only get the full understanding if you open the thumbnail (which is small but also cropped) to the full image. I have compared the effect using five different tools – the Color Board, the Color Wheels, a color corrector plug-in that I built as a Motion template using Motion effects, Rubber Monkey Software FilmConvert (the wheels portion only), and finally, the Adobe Lumetri controls in Premiere Pro.

I am using three different test images – a black-to-white ramp, a test pattern, and a demo video image. The ramp without correction will appear as a diagonal line (0-100 IRE) on the scope, which makes it easy to analyze what’s happening. The video image has definite shadow and highlight areas, which lets us see how these controls work in the real world. For example, if you want to brighten the area of the shot where the man is in the shadows, but don’t want to make the highlights any brighter, this would normally be done using a Midtones control. Be aware that these various tools certainly aren’t calibrated the same way and some have a greater range of control than others. The weakest of these is FilmConvert’s wheels, since this plug-in has additional level controls in other parts of its interface.

Color science models

In the various forum threads, the argument is made that Apple is simply using a different color science method or a different weighing of some existing models. That’s certainly possible, since not all color correctors are built the same way. The most common approaches are Lift/Gamma/Gain and Shadows/Mids/Highlights. Be careful with naming. Just because something uses the terminology of Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights, does not mean that it also uses the SMH color science model. Many tools use the Lift/Gamma/Gain model, but in fact, call the controls shadows (Lift), mids (Gamma), and highlights (Gain). Another term you may run across is Set-up in some correction tools. This is typically used for control of shadows (equal to Lift), but can also function is an offset control that raises the level of the entire image. Avid Symphony employs this solution. Finally, both Symphony and Adobe SpeedGrade use what has been dubbed a 12-way color corrector. Each range is further subdivided into its own subset of shadows, mids, and highlights controls.

An LGG model provides broad control of shadows and highlights, with the midtones control working like a curve that covers the whole range, but with the largest effect in the middle. An SMH model normally divides the levels into three distinct, precisely overlapping ranges. This is much like a three-band audio equalizing filter. A number of the color correctors add a luma range control, which gives the user the ability to change how much of the image a specific range will affect. In other words, how broad is the control of the shadows, mids, or highlights control? This is like a Q control in an audio equalizer, where you change the shape of the envelope at a certain frequency.

Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks offers both color correction models with two different tools – the 4-way color corrector (SMH) and the Colorista color corrector (LGG). When you adjust the midrange control of their 4-way, the result is a graceful S-shaped curve to the levels on the waveform.

To study the effect of an LGG-based corrector, test the ramp. The shadows control (Lift) will raise or lower the dark areas of the image without changing the absolute highlights. The diagonal line of the ramp on the waveform essentially pivots, hinged at the 100 IRE point. Conversely, change the highlights control (Gain) pivots the line pinned to 0 IRE (at black). When you adjust the midtones control (Gamma), you create a curve to the line, which stays pinned at 0 and 100 IRE at either end. In this way you are effectively “expanding” or “compressing” the levels in the middle portion of your image without changing the position of your black or white points.

How the various color correction tools react

Looking at the luma control for the Midtones, two things are clear. First, all of these tools are using the LGG color science model. It’s not clear what the Color Wheels are using, but it isn’t SMH, as there is no bulge or S-curve visible in the scope. Second, the Color Wheels quickly drive the image levels into clipping, while the other tools generally keep black and while levels in place. In essence, the Midtones control affects the image more like a master or offset control would, than a typical mids or Gamma control. Yet, clearly Apple’s Color Board controls adhere to the standard LGG model. The concern, of course, is clipping. In the test image of the man walking on the village street, the sunlit building walls on the opposite side of the street will become overexposed and risk being clipped when the Color Wheels are used.

What about color? As a simple test, I next shifted the Midtones puck to the yellow. Bear in mind that the range of each of these controls is different, so you will see varying degrees of yellow intensity. Nevertheless, the way the control should work is that some pure black and white should be preserved at the top and bottom of the video levels. All of these tools maintain that, except for the Color Wheels. There, the entire image is yellow, effectively making the hue offset puck function more like a tint control.

One other issue to note, is that the Color Wheels offer an extraordinarily control range. The hue offset control RGB intensity values go from 0 (center of the wheel) to 1023. However, the puck icon can only go to the rim of the wheel, which it hits at about 200. With a mouse (or numerical entry), you can keep going well past the stop of the wheel icon – five times farther, in fact. The image not only becomes very yellow in this case, but you can easily lose the location of your control, since the GUI position in no longer relevant.

The working theory

The big question is why don’t the Color Wheels conform to established principles, when in fact, the Color Board controls do? Until there is some further clarification from Apple, one possible explanation is with HDR. FCPX 10.4 introduced High Dynamic Range (HDR) features. One of the various HDR standards is Rec. 2020 PQ. In that color space, the 0-100 IRE limitations of Rec. 709 are expanded to 0-10,000 nits. 0-100 nits is roughly the same brightness as we are used to with Rec. 709.

Looking at this image of the man walking along the street – where I’ve attempted to get a pleasing look with all of the tools – you’ll see that the Color Wheels in Rec. 709 don’t react correctly and will drive the highlights into a range to be clipped. However, in the bottom pane, which is the same image in Rec. 2020 PQ color space, the grade looks pretty normal. And, in practice, the Color Wheels controls work more or less the way I would have expected them to work. Yes, the same controls work differently in the different color spaces – properly in 2020 PQ and not in 709.

But why is that the case? I have no answer, but I do have a wild guess. Maybe, just maybe, the Color Wheels were designed for – or intended to only be used for – HDR work. Or maybe there’s conversion or recalibration of the controls that hasn’t taken place yet in this version. If the tool is only calibrated for HDR, then its range and weighing will be completely wrong for Rec. 709 video. If you increase the Midtones luma of the ramp in both Rec. 709 and Rec. 2020 PQ, you’ll see a similar curve. In fact, if you overlay a screen shot of each waveform, placing the full Rec. 709 scope image over the bottom portion of the Rec. 2020 PQ scale, you’ll notice that these sort of align up to about 100 IRE and nits. It’s as if one is simply a slice out of the other.

Regardless of why, this is something where I would hope Apple will provide a white paper or other demonstration of what the best practices will be for using this tool effectively. If it isn’t intentional, and actually is a mistake, then I presume a fix will be forthcoming. In either case, put in your feedback comments to Apple.

A word about HDR

Over the course of testing this tool and this theory, I’ve done a bit of testing with the HDR color spaces in FCPX. If you want to know more about HDR, I would encourage you to check out these contrary blog posts by Stu Maschwitz and Alexis Van Hurkman. I tend to side with Stu’s point-of-view and am not a big fan of HDR.

The way Apple has implemented these features in Final Cut Pro X 10.4 is to allow the user to set and override color spaces. If you set up your project to be Rec. 2020 PQ (and set preferences to “show HDR as raw values”), then the viewer and a/v output (direct from the Mac, not through a hardware i/o device) are effectively dimmed through the Mac’s color profile system. When you grade the image based on the 0-10,000 nits scale, you’ll end up seeing an image that looks pleasing and essentially the same as if you were working in Rec. 709. However – and I cannot over-emphasize this – you are not going to be able to produce an image that’s truly compatible with Dolby Vision and actually look correct as HDR, unless you have the correct AJA i/o hardware and a proper display. And by display, I mean a top-end Dolby, Canon, or Sony unit, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

As I understand the PQ specs, the bulk of the higher range is for the highlights that are normally constrained or clipped in our current video systems. However, that 10,000 nits scale is weighed, so that about 50% of the image value is in the first 100 nits, making it of comparable brightness to the current 100 IRE. The rest of that range is for brighter information, like specular highlights. You don’t necessarily get more brightness in the shadow detail. Therefore, if you are grading a shot in FCPX in a 2020 PQ color space and you only have the computer display to go by, you’ll grade by eye as much as by scope. This means that to get a pleasing image, you will end up making the average appearance of the image brighter than it really should be. When this is viewed on a real HDR monitor, it will be painfully bright. Having a higher-nits computer display, like on the iMac Pro (up to 500 nits), won’t make much difference, unless maybe, you crank the display brightness to its maximum (ouch!).  “Mine goes the 11!”

Right now, HDR is the wild, wild west. If you are smart, you’ll realize that you don’t know what you don’t know. While it’s nice to have these new features in FCPX, they can be very dangerous in the wrong hands.

But that’s another matter. Right now, I just hope Apple (or one of the usual suspects, like Ripple Training, LumaForge, or Larry Jordan) will come out with more elaboration on the Color Wheels.

©2018 Oliver Peters

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Chromatic

Since its introduction six years ago, Apple Final Cut Pro X has only offered the Color Board as its color correction/grading tool. That’s in addition to some automatic correction features and stylized “look” effects. The Color Board interface is based on color swatches and puck sliders, instead of traditional color wheels, leaving many users pining for something else. To answer this need, several third-party, plug-in developers have created color corrector effects modules to fill the void. The newest of these is Chromatic from Coremelt – a veteran Final Cut plug-in developer.

The toolset

Chromatic is the most feature-rich color correction module currently available for FCPX. It offers four levels of color grading, including inside and/or outside of a mask, overall frame, and also a final output correction. When you first apply the Chromatic Grade effect to a clip, you’ll see controls appear within the FCPX inspector window. These are the final output adjustments. To access the full toolset, you need to click on the Grade icon, which launches a custom UI. Like other grading tools that require custom interfaces, Chromatic’s grading toolset opens as a floating window. This is necessitated by the FCPX architecture, which doesn’t give developers the ability to integrate custom interface panels, like you’ll find in Adobe applications. To work around this limitation, developers have come up with various ingenious solutions, including floating UI windows, HUDs (heads up displays), and viewer overlays. Chromatic uses all of these approaches.

The Chromatic toolset includes nine correction effects, which can be stacked in any order onto a clip. These include lift/gamma/gain sliders, lows/mids/highs color wheels, auto white balance, replace color, color balance/temperature/exposure/saturation, three types of curves (RGB, HSL, and Lab), and finally, color LUTs. As you use more tools on a clip, these will stack into the floating window like layers. Click on any of these tools within the window to access those specific controls. Drag tools up or down in this window to rearrange the order of operation of Chromatic’s color correction processes. The specific controls work and look a lot like similar functions within DaVinci Resolve. This is especially true of HSL Curves, where you can control Hue vs. Sat or Hue vs. Luma.

Masking with the power of Mocha

Corrections can be masked, in order to effect only specific regions of the image. If you select “overall”, then your correction will affect the entire image. But is you select “inside” or “outside” of the mask, then you can grade regions of the image independent of each other. Take, for example, a common, on-camera interview situation with a darkened face in front of a brightly exposed exterior window. Once you mask around the face, you can then apply different correction tools and values to the face, as opposed to the background window. Plus, you can still apply an overall grade to the image, as well as final output adjustment tweaks with the sliders in the inspector window. That’s a total of four processes, with a number of correction tools used in each process.

To provide masking, Coremelt has leveraged its other products, SliceX and TrackX. Chromatic uses the same licensed Mocha planar tracker for fast, excellent mask tracking. In our face example, should the talent move around within the frame, then simply use the tracker controls in the masking HUD to track the talent’s movement within the shot. Once tracked, the mask is locked onto the face.

Color look-up tables (LUTs)

When you purchase Chromatic, you’ll also get a LUT (color look-up table) browser and a default collection of looks. (More looks may be purchased from Coremelt.) The LUT browser is accessible within the grading window. I’m not a huge fan of LUTs, as these are most often a very subjective approach to a scene that simply doesn’t work with all footage equally well. All “bleach bypass” looks are not equal. Chromatic’s LUT browser also enables access to any other LUTs you might have installed on your system, regardless of where they came from, as long as they are in the .cube format.

LUTs get even more confusing with camera profiles, which are designed to expand flat-looking, log-encoded camera files into colorful Rec709 video. Under the best of circumstances these are mathematically correct LUTs developed by the camera manufacturer. These work as an inverse of the color transforms applied as the image is recorded. But in many cases, commonly available camera profile LUTs don’t come from the manufacturers themselves, but are actually reverse-engineered to function closely to the manufacturer’s own LUT. They will look good, but might not yield identical results to a true camera LUT.

In the case of FCPX, Apple has built in a number of licensed camera manufacturer LUTs for specific brands. These are usually auto-detected and applied to the footage without appearing as an effect in the inspector. So, for instance, with ARRI Alexa footage that was recorded as Log-C, FCPX automatically adds a LogC-to-Rec709 LUT. However, if you disable that and then subsequently add Chromatic’s LogC-to-Rec709 LUT, you’ll see quite a bit of difference in gamma levels. Apple actually uses two of these LUTs – a 2D and a 3D cube LUT. Current Alexa footage defaults to the 3D LUT, but if you change the inspector pulldown to the regular LogC LUT, you’ll see similar gamma levels to what Chromatic’s LUT shows. I’m not sure if the differences are because the LUT isn’t correct, or whether it’s an issue of where, within the color pipeline, the LUT is being inserted. My recommendation is to stick with the FCPX default camera profile LUTs and then use the Chromatic LUTs for creative looks.

In use

Chromatic is a 1.0 product and it’s not without some birthing issues. One that manifested itself is a clamping issue with 2013 Mac Pros. Apparently this depends on which model of AMD D-series GPU your machine has. On some machines with the D-500 chips, video will clamp at 0 and 100, regardless of whether or not clamping has been enabled in the plug-in. Coremelt is working on a fix, so contact them for support if you have this or other issues.

Overall, Chromatic is well-behaved as custom plug-ins go. Performance is good and rendering is fast. Remember that each tool you use on a clip is like adding an additional effects filters. Using all nine tools on a clip is like applying nine effects filters. Performance will depend on a lot of circumstances. For example, if you are working with 4K footage playing back from a fast NAS storage system, then it will take only a few applied tools before you start impacting performance. However, 1080p local media on a fast machine is much more forgiving, with very little performance impact during standard grading using a number of applied tools.

Coremelt has put a lot of work into Chromatic. To date, it’s the most comprehensive grading toolset available within Final Cut Pro X. It is like having a complete grading suite right inside of the Final Cut timeline. If you are serious about grading within the application and avoiding a roundtrip through DaVinci Resolve, then Chromatic is an essential plug-in tool to have.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve Panels

I started my editing career in the era of linear editing suites, where dedicated control panels ruled. CMX keyboards, Grass Valley switchers, ADOs – you name it. These enabled operational speed and experienced editors could drive these rooms like a virtuoso pianist. Much of that dexterity has been lost, thanks to the ubiquity of software-based user interfaces for applications running on general purpose computers and controlled by a mouse. But Grant Petty and Blackmagic Design have set out to change that. At the beginning of March, he introduced two new color correction control panels as companion tools to the company’s DaVinci Resolve editing and grading solution. According to Petty more people are using Resolve to edit than to color correct. By introducing these new panels, he hopes to get more of these users involved in the color correction side of Resolve.

Blackmagic Design now offers three DaVinci Resolve panels: Advanced ($29,995), Mini ($2,995) and Micro ($995). Obviously, the Advanced panel is for serious, dedicated color correction facilities with the traffic to support that investment. It’s a large, three-module console with four trackball/ring controls in the center section. The Mini and Micro panels are designed to be more portable than the Advanced panel. The Mini is essentially a three-trackball subset of the center section of the larger panel. The Micro is the trackball section of the Mini, without the Mini’s tilted backplane. If you are an editor who uses Resolve for color correction, but that’s less than 50% of your workload, then the Micro is probably the right panel for you. If you color correct more than 50%, then the Mini is the better bet. However, these panels are designed for more than just editors. If you work as a DIT (digital imaging technician) in the field or on-set, you most likely use Resolve, making these panels the perfect addition to your toolkit.

Taking the Mini for a spin

Blackmagic Design loaned me a Resolve Mini panel for about two weeks for this review. I have to say, it was love at first sight. These panels continue with Blackmagic’s modern industrial design style. This has earned them an international Design Team of the Year award from the Red Dot Awards last year. The Mini panel is a well-constructed metal console with precision trackballs, rings, knobs and buttons. (The panel also uses some high-impact plastic in its construction.) With packaging, it weighs 24 pounds, thus it’s more “transportable” than portable. If you want something to toss into a gig bag, then the Micro would be the panel to buy. The Mini is better for facility use; however, it’s easy enough to move between rooms as needed.

The smaller Micro is bus-powered over USB, but the Mini includes several connection and power options. Communications can be over ethernet or USB/USB-C. Power options include standard AC wall power, 12 volt 4-pin, or ethernet PoE. Like other Blackmagic Design products, you have to supply your own power chord, but the Mini does include a USB-to-USB-C adapter chord. To run the panel, you need to install Resolve Studio (paid) or Resolve (free), version 12.5.5 or later. And yes, these panels only work with Resolve. Connection is drop-dead easy. Just power it up and plug in the USB cable to any available USB port on your computer (or looped off of a connected device, like a monitor). Then select the panel in Resolve’s preferences. This ease of installation is refreshing, without any of the finickiness of other protocols, like EUCON. The one downside for editors is that this panel only controls the color mode of Resolve. There are no dedicated controls for editing, importing or exporting. So you won’t be able to shed the keyboard and mouse completely.

Everything at your fingertips

The main section of the panel includes three trackballs for hue control and rings for luminance control. Generally these correspond to shadow, mids and highlight ranges of the image. Across the top of this flat section are twelve knobs for additional color controls. Push in the knobs to reset their adjusted values. On the right are buttons to move through nodes, clips and stills, along with play/stop buttons. The slanted backplane of the Mini panel features two five-inch, high-resolution LCD menu/control displays, fifteen buttons on either side, eight soft keys across the top, and eight knobs under the displays. The buttons on the left select the portion of the interface that you need to deal with, like primary correction, tracking, sizing, blurs, etc. The buttons on the right are to add nodes, copy and paste, move through stills and keyframes, and toggle the computer display to a full screen viewer.

Resolve’s primary color correction window is pretty deep, requiring paging through different sections of the control window, such as primary bars, primary wheels, log, raw and more. There’s actually a fourth control wheel for offset in addition to lows, mids and highs. Much of this is exposed to the panel. For example, you can use the knobs to adjust the primary bars, while also moving the trackballs, which would normally adjust the primary wheels. Across the bottom of Resolve’s primary window are additional controls for contrast, saturation and more, which spread across two pages of that interface window. These controls are all active on the Mini by using the twelve knobs located above the trackballs. In some cases, you’ll need to change the part of the interface that appears on the two LCDs. This is enabled by the two arrow keys in the upper left corner of the panel. However, switching pages on the panel is required less often than when you only use the mouse with the interface.

The offset function (the fourth primary wheel and fourth trackball on the Advanced panel) can be accessed by selecting the offset key located above the middle trackball. In that mode, the left ring controls temperature, middle ring controls tint and right ring controls level. The right trackball controls color balance.

Resolve is built around controls that may or may not be present in other applications. For example, it is designed as a YRGB system, meaning you can gang level and color controls, but can also correct Y (luminance) lift/gamma/gain levels independent of color (RGB). In addition to standard three-wheel color corrections, you also have contrast/pivot control, as well as some photographic-style enhancements. These include color boost (like a vibrance control), mid detail (softens or sharpens the image), plus blurs. In you are using Resolve Studio, then temporal noise reduction is active. From what I can tell, this is the only control not active when using the panel with the free version of Resolve.

Resolve uses an elaborate curves system, which you would think would be difficult to implement with knobs and buttons. However, Blackmagic has done a wonderful job. The normal curve levels (ganged or independent channels) can be adjusted by six of the knobs under the LCD displays. These work at preset intervals of 0, 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100% along the curve path from dark to light. If you use hue curves, you start with one of six preset colors selected from the panel. Then an “input hue” knob lets you change the selected color left or right within its hue range, based on the last color knob selected. Custom curves also offer a YSFX tool. This is an adjustment to shrink and even invert the curve range. The extreme opposite setting results in a negative image.

There are plenty of other tools. Resolve has a powerful point-cloud tracker, which can also be accessed from the Mini. One handy feature is the ability to automatically add a node with a preset box or circle window. Once applied, then you adjust the window. Although you can step through keyframes, it still requires the mouse to add or delete keyframes. You also have to delete nodes via mouse and not from the panel. Some keys, like FX and User are available for future expansion.

In practice

I spent about a week with the panel, working on and off with some test projects. Needless to say, I enjoyed the process, but there are a few things I wish were different.  The Mini panel is really designed for full-time color grading. If you have a desk layout for editing, then there probably isn’t enough extra space to situate the Mini is an optimal location. For instance, if you wanted to place the panel between your keyboard and display, then the Micro would be a better option. There is no power switch, so the panel is always on. Fortunately, it’s fan-less and quiet, even when on. There are no illumination controls for the displays or the backlit keys. That’s fine in a normally lit room, but might be too bright for some, if you keep the light level very low in the suite.

I’d like to see more versatile transport control. Resolve supports faster-than-real-time playback and scrubbing, but the control panel only gives you 1X play in the forward or reverse directions. It would be nice to have better transport control from the panel. Resolve functions, like adding LUTs, can’t be handled from the panel. The controls to select HSL qualifiers for secondary color correction include eyedroppers, but you still need to use the mouse to graphically pick the right area of the screen. It would be nice if you could do this with the trackball. These are minor points and by no means deal breakers.

A dedicated color correction panel will not only make you a faster colorist – it will also make you a better one. More controls are front and center, which means you are likely to discover and use processes that you would otherwise miss if you simply relied on the mouse or a pen and tablet. You have two hands to control the panel. As with any other tactile task, such as audio mixing with a mixing board, your hands will soon know instinctively what to adjust without having to look at the panel. You can stay more focused on your video display and the scopes. Grading is not only faster, but it’s more intuitive.

Some are going to baulk at the price, no matter how reasonable these portable panels are. To place that into context, at $2,995, the Mini is still less expensive than a decked out Mac Pro or MacBook Pro, which might be your main editing/grading workstation. Plus they work with the free version of Resolve. So if color correction is part of your business model and Resolve is your color correction tool of choice, then either of these two DaVinci Resolve panels is easily justified. The more I’ve been using the Resolve Mini, the more I like it. It’s the Porsche of small grading control panels – solid, stylish and powerful.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

More LUTs from IWLTBAP

df1316_iwltbap_1

With more cameras shooting in some form of a log or flat color profile and more editing software being able to integrate color look-up tables (LUTs), numerous developers have designed their own LUT packages. Some, like Koji, strive to duplicate the colorimetry of certain film stocks, while others, such as SpeedLooks from LookLabs, create stylized “look” files that give you a range of creative color correction choices.

One new developer offering a package of easy to use LUTs is French filmmaker IWLTBAP. Through the website, you can pick up a comprehensive package of LUTs in the 32x32x32 .cube format, which are compatible with most modern editing and compositing software applications. If you edit in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, the Lumetri Color panel lets you browse and add any .cube LUTs you’ve saved on your hard drives. If you cut in Apple Final Cut Pro X, then the addition of a LUT plug-in, like Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility, enables you to add third-party LUTs to any clip on the timeline.df1316_iwltbap_4

I took these LUTs for a spin and like most LUT packages, they come in a groups. First you have Utility LUTs, which are designed to convert color spaces from log to Rec709 (the standard video color space) or in the opposite direction. These are organized by camera type, since not all manufacturers use the same logarithmic values. Then the color correction or “look” LUTs are grouped into Standard and Log versions.

The Standard LUTs are to be applied to images that are already in Rec709 color space, while the Log versions can be used as a one-step LUT to be applied to generic log images. For example, you could apply both a Log-to-Rec709 Utility LUT and a second LUT from the Standard group to achieve your result. Or simply apply the single Log version to that same clip and end up with similar results. The dual-LUT approach gives you more incremental control over the Log conversion based on camera models, whereas the single-step solution is designed for generic log images. However, both can yield the desired grade, depending on the clip. In addition to the paid LUT package, IWLTBAP offers two Bonus LUTs, which are available as a free download from the website.

df1316_iwltbap_2There are over 80 LUTs in each group and these are organized by color style and number. The numbers don’t really mean anything. In other words, they aren’t an attempt to mimic a film stock number. As you ascend in numbers, the next step is a more aggressive or somewhat different version of the previous. The key is the prefix and suffix for each. These LUT files carry a STD or LOG suffix so you know whether these are from the Log or Standard group. Then there’s a prefix: C for cold, H for hot, W for warm, F for film, and X for creative. Each style has several variations within that general look. For example, the LUT file labelled “F-9490-STD.cube” is a LUT with a filmic curve designed for a Rec709 image.

df1316_iwltbap_7When working with LUTs, it’s often hard to know what result you get until you try it. Then if you don’t like the look, you have to continue to slowly browse through your LUT files – applying each, one at a time – until you get the right look. Often that can lead to a lot of trial and error. The IWLTBAP package ships with lightweight Windows and Mac preview applications, however, the developer warns of some occasional instability on some machines. The easiest solution is to use their web-based LUT previewer. Simply upload a reference JPEG from your clip and then toggle through the LUTs to preview how those will affect the shot.

df1316_iwltbap_6I ran some tests on Blackmagic Design camera footage in both FCPX and Premiere Pro CC and got some really pleasing results. In the case of FCPX, if you use LUT Utility, you have to copy the .cube files into LUT Utility’s Motion Templates folder. This is found under Effects/CGC. Files stored there become visible in the LUT Utility pulldown menu. Note that only the first 50 or so files in that folder can be accessed, so be selective. If you apply two instances of the LUT Utility to a clip, then you can apply a Log-to-Rec709 conversion in the first and then the creative look LUT in the second. This plug-in has a mix slider, so you can adjust the intensity of the LUT to taste. As an effects plug-in, you can also place other effects, such as color correction in-between the two LUT Utility effects as part of that stack of effects. Doing this gives you nice control over color within FCPX with very little overhead on the application’s performance.

df1316_iwltbap_3If you are an FCPX user that has adopted Color Grading Central’s ColorFinale grading tool as your go-to color correction plug-in, then all of this LUT management within the application can be simply handled from the ColorFinale interface itself. Stack layers of LUTs and other color tools all inside the ColorFinale panel. LUT choices can be added or removed using the integrated LUT Manager and then relaunching FCPX to activate them as part of ColorFinale.

If you are a Premiere Pro CC editor, then the latest version was enhanced with the Lumetri Color panel. This control is organized as a stack of color modules, which include two entry points to add a LUT – in the Basic and the Creative tabs. In my testing of the new URSA footage, I applied a Log-to-Rec709 LUT for the URSA in Basic and then one the “look” LUTs, like the free Aspen standard version, in Creative. You still have all the other color control in the Lumetri panel to fine-tune these, including the intensity level of the LUT.

df1316_iwltbap_5LUTs are a creative tool that should be thought of as a stylistic choice. They aren’t an instant fix and shouldn’t be the only tool you use to color correct a clip. However, the LUTs from IWLTBAP provide a good selection of looks and moods that work well with a wide range of shots. Plus the package is very affordable and even more so if you get it after reading this blog! Readers who are interested can get 25% off of the retail price using the discount code DIGITALFILMS. Or by using this direct link.

Last but not least, check out the free, downloadable 4K film grain clip. It’s a ten second ProRes file that can be overlaid or blended to add grain to your shot.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Carol

df0116_carol_smFilms tend to push social boundaries and one such film this season is Carol, starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler. It’s a love story between two women, but more importantly it’s a love story between two people.  The story is based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, who also penned The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train. Todd Haynes (Six by Sondheim, Mildred Pierce) directed the film adaptation. Carol was originally produced in 2014 and finished in early 2015, but The Weinstein Company opted to time the release around the start of the 2015 awards season.

Affonso Gonçalves (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone), the editor on Carol, explains, “Carol is a love story about two women coming to terms with the dissatisfaction of their lives. The Carol character (Cate Blanchett) is unhappily married, but loves her child. Carol has had other lesbian affairs before, but is intrigued by this new person, Therese (Rooney Mara), whom she encounters in a department store. Therese doesn’t know what she wants, but through the course of the film, learns who she is.”

Gonçalves and Haynes worked together on the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce. Gonçalves says, “We got along well and when he got involved with the production, he passed along the script to me and I loved it.” Carol was shot entirely on Super 16mm film negative, primarily as a single-camera production. Only about five percent of the production included A and B cameras. Ed Lachman (Dark Blood, Stryker, Selena) served as the cinematographer. The film negative was scanned in log color space and then a simple log-to-linear LUT (color look-up table) was applied to the Avid DNxHD36 editorial files for nice-looking working files.

Creating a timeless New York story

Cincinnati served as the principal location designed to double for New York City in the early 1950s. The surrounding area also doubled for Iowa and Pennsylvania during a traveling portion of the film. Gonçalves discussed how Haynes and he worked during this period. “The production shot in Cincinnati, but I was based at Goldcrest Films in New York. The negative was shipped to New York each day, where it was processed and scanned. Then I would get Avid editorial files. The cutting room was set up with Avid Media Composer and ISIS systems and my first assistant Perri [Pivovar] had the added responsibilities on this project to check for film defects. Ed would also review footage each day; however, Todd doesn’t like to watch dailies during a production. He would rely on me instead to be his eyes and ears to make sure that the coverage that he needed was there.”

He continues, “After the production wrapped, I completed my editor’s cut, while Todd took a break. Then he spent two weeks reviewing all the dailies and making his own detailed notes. Then, when he was ready, he joined me in the cutting room and we built the film according to his cut. Once we had these two versions – his and mine – we compared the two. They were actually very similar, because we both have a similar taste. I had started in May and by September the cut was largely locked. Most of the experimenting came with structure and music.”

The main editorial challenges were getting the right structure for the story and tone for the performances. According to Gonçalves, “Cate’s and Rooney’s performances are very detailed and I felt the need to slow the cutting pace down to let you appreciate that performance. Rooney’s is so delicate. Plus, it’s a love story and we needed to keep the audience engaged. We weren’t as concerned with trimming, but rather, to get the story right. The first cut was two-and-a-half hours and the finished length ended up at 118 minutes. Some scenes were cut out that involved additional characters in the story. Todd isn’t too precious about losing scenes and this allowed us to keep the story focused on our central characters.”

“The main challenge was the party scene at the end. The story structure is similar to Brief Encounters (a 1946 David Lean classic with the beginning and ending set in the same location). Initially we had two levels of flashbacks, but there was too much of a shift back and forth. We had a number of ‘friends and family’ screenings and it was during these that we discovered the issues with the flashbacks. Ultimately we decided to rework the ending and simplify the temporal order of the last scene. The film was largely locked by the sixth or seventh cut.”

As a period piece, music is very integral to Carol. Gonçalves explains, “We started with about 300 to 400 songs that Todd liked, plus old soundtracks. These included a lot of singers of the time, like Billie Holiday. I also added ambiences for restaurants and bars. Carter (Burwell, composer) saw our cut at around the second or third screening with our temp score. After that he started sending preliminary themes to for us to work into the cut. These really elevated the tone of the film. He’d come in every couple of weeks to see how his score was working out with the cut, so it became a very collaborative process.”

The editing application that an editor uses is an extension of how he works. Some have very elaborate routines for preparing bins and sequences and others take a simpler approach. Gonçalves fits into the latter group. He says, “Avid is like sitting down and driving a car for me. It’s all so smooth and so fast. It’s easy to find things and I like the color correction and audio tools. I started working more sound in the Avid on True Detective and its tools really help me to dress things up. I don’t use any special organizing routines in the bins. I simply highlight the director’s preferred takes; however, I do use locators and take a lot of handwritten notes.”

Film sensibilities in the modern digital era

Carol was literally the last film to be processed at Deluxe New York before the lab was shut down. In addition to a digital release, Technicolor also did a laser “film-out” to 35mm for a few release prints. All digital post-production was handled by Goldcrest Films, who scanned the Super 16mm negative on an ARRI laser scanner at 3K resolution for a 2K digital master. Goldcrest’s Boon Shin Ng handled the scanning and conforming of the film. Creating the evocative look of Carol fell to New York colorist John J. Dowdell III. Trained in photography before becoming a colorist in 1980, Dowdell has credits on over 200 theatrical and television films.

Unlike other films, Dowdell was involved earlier in the overall process. He explains, “Early on, I had a long meeting with Todd and Ed about the look of the film. Todd had put together a book of photographs and tear sheets that helped with the colors and fashions from the 1950s. While doing the color grading job, we’d often refer back to that book to establish the color palette for the film.” Carol has approximately 100 visual effects shots to help make Cincinnati look like New York, circa 1952-53. Dowdell continues, “Boon coordinated effects with Chris Haney, the visual effects producer. The ARRI scanner is pin-registered, which is essential for the work of the visual effects artists. We’d send them both log and color corrected files. They’d use the color corrected files to create a reference, preview LUT for their own use, but then send us back finished effects in log color space. These were integrated back into the film.”

Dowdell’s tool of choice is the Quantel Pablo Rio system, which incorporates color grading tools that match his photographic sensibilities. He says, “I tend not to rely as much on the standard lift/gamma/gain color wheels. That’s a video approach. Quantel includes a film curve, which I use a lot. It’s like an s-curve tool, but with a pivot point. I also use master density and RGB printer light controls. These are numeric and let you control the color very precisely, but also repeatably. That’s important as I was going through options with Todd and Ed. You could get back to an earlier setting. That’s much harder to do precisely with color wheels and trackball controls.”

The Quantel Pablo Rio is a complete editing and effects system as well, integrating the full power of Quantel’s legendary Paintbox. This permitted John Dowdell and Boon Schin Ng to handle some effects work within the grading suite. Dowdell continues, “With the paint and tracking functions, I could do a lot of retouching. For example, some modern elements, like newer style parking meters, were tracked, darkened and blurred, so that they didn’t draw attention. We removed some modern signs and also did digital clean-up, like painting out negative dirt that made it through the scan. Quantel does beautiful blow-ups, which was perfect for the minor reframing that we did on this film.”

The color grading toolset is often a Swiss Army Knife for the filmmaker, but in the end, it’s about the color. Dowdell concludes, “Todd and Ed worked a lot to evoke moods. In the opening department store scene, there’s a definite green cast that was added to let the audience feel that this is an unhappy time. As the story progresses, colors become more intense and alive toward the end of the film. We worked very intuitively to achieve the result and care was applied to each and every shot. We are all very proud of it. Of all the films I’ve color corrected, I feel that this is really my masterpiece.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Red Giant Magic Bullet Suite 12

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Red Giant released Magic Bullet Suite 12 in February. Popular tools have been streamlined along with the addition of a brand new film emulation tool. The suite now includes Magic Bullet Looks 3.0, Magic Bullet Colorista III, Magic Bullet Film 1.0, Magic Bullet Mojo 2.0, Magic Bullet Cosmo 2.0, Denoiser II, and LUT Buddy. The new update adds OpenFX compatibility.

Along with feature and interface changes, Red Giant has also focused on performance improvements across the board, as well as bringing more of the tools into new hosts like Apple Final Cut Pro X. A single installation of the suite will install the plug-ins into as many application hosts as you have on your system. However, check the compatibility list for your particular NLE. For example, everything installs into Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC, but Final Cut Pro X only gets Colorista, Looks, Cosmo, Film, and Mojo. Avid Media Composer is only compatible with Looks and Resolve gets Mojo, Film, Looks, and Cosmo. Depending on your toolkit, you might opt for one or two of the individual plug-ins rather than the entire suite. If you already installed version 12.0, you’ll need to download and reinstall 12.1 in order to add the plug-ins into new hosts, like Resolve 12.

Magic Bullet Looks (v3.1)

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Magic Bullet Looks is a popular go-to plug-in for sophisticated stylization of an image. It includes tool modules for color correction, lens effects, relighting, and a lot more. The interface design has been flattened and streamlined. As before, it runs as a separate application that opens whenever you launch the interface from the clip on the timeline. The frame that you are parked on becomes the reference frame to which you apply your looks. In 3.0 and 3.1, you can now hover the mouse over the various preset looks and the larger Looks viewer will be updated to preview that look on your frame. In addition, this will also preview the various tool modules used to create the look. Red Giant has created many new preset looks based on popular film and TV show treatments. All are customizable. The 3.1 update added a Trackpad Mode, enabling you to use a laptop or standalone trackpad like a control surface.

New tool modules have been added, such as a LUT tool and a 4-way color corrector. The latter adds a very intuitive luma range graph to easily change the crossover points between lo/mid and mid/hi. Importing LUTs into Looks doesn’t seem to work perfectly. It’s pretty solid in the Adobe applications, but color management with FCP X is quirky. When I imported LUTs into Looks with FCP X, the result was a lot more extreme than in the Adobe applications. This is likely an issue with FCP X’s color pipeline when an external program is involved.

Magic Bullet Colorista III (v1.1)

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The earlier version of Colorista was a feature-packed plug-in that functioned like a mini-grading application. It had master, primary, and secondary grading, plus curves, a power mask, and keyer. With Colorista III, Red Giant decided to simplify the plug-in by including one level of primary grading, curves, a keyer, and HSL secondary adjustments. The power mask is gone, because the developers decided to rely on the new built-in masking that’s part of Premiere Pro CC and Final Cut Pro X. Adobe added bezier masks with built-in tracking to all effects, so if you are using Colorista III in Premiere Pro CC, you now have a better masking capability than in the past. Apple added shape masks to all effects with the introduction of FCP X 10.2.

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With FCP X, the developers were able to integrate the color grading wheels into the inspector pane, but in a vertical configuration. The response of the wheels is weighted, so that you move the mouse farther in relationship to the puck’s travel on-screen. This results in better granularity to the adjustment, but might require a bit of time for new users to get accustomed to the feel. Although it includes curves, these are not true multi-point curves, as you are limited to five control points along the line. Typically these work best when you want an s-curve correction.

A big addition to Colorista III are Lightroom-style shadow and highlight controls. Adjusting the shadows slider acts like you are adding or removing fill light from an image. There’s also a new vignette slider, so you can quickly dial in the size and darkness of an edge vignette. Most of the Magic Bullet products include a strength slider, while enables you to dial back on the amount of the color treatment. This lets you make a more extreme correction and then tone it down for the final look. One welcomed addition is an overall white balance control with a color picker to select what you determine as white in the image. This is very good news for FCP X editors in particular.

New 1.1 features, which are applicable to Adobe hosts, include support for OpenCL and Cuda. This allows for real time color correction during video playback via Adobe Premiere Pro’s Mercury Playback Engine. The Skin Overlay is back and there’s a keyer “cut out” mode to create transparency for layered color corrections.

Magic Bullet Film

df1315_mbs12_6_smFilm style LUTs (color look-up tables) are all the rage and this one is particularly well thought-out. Red Giant has reverse-engineering the LUTs from actual film and includes 22 negative stocks and four print stocks. These include the typical Kodak and Fuji variations as well as settings for some imaginary custom stocks designed by Red Giant. The key to this plug-in is that it is intended to pair a film negative LUT with a film print LUT, in order to more accurately mimic a real-world film pipeline.

df1315_mbs12_7_smIn addition to the LUTs, you have a number of control sliders for tint, exposure, contrast, saturation, and skin tone. There’s a slider for the amount of built-in grain to be added, as well as an instant vignette and a strength slider. A particularly interesting control is the vintage/modern slider. Shift it all the way to modern and you get a very strong orange/teal effect, whereas going fully in the vintage direction leaves the image more reddish and faded.

Magic Bullet Mojo 2.0

df1315_mbs12_8_smMojo is for the folks who want the extreme orange/teal coloration that many blockbuster films use. This is my least favorite filter in the suite, because few films that I see actually look like the results you get here – blockbuster or not. It’s a color treatment whose purpose is to cool off the background independent of skin tones. Depending on the shot and the art direction used in production, sometimes you get great results and other times not so much. df1315_mbs12_9_smFortunately there are plenty of adjustments to derive a decent, albeit stylized, color correction. As part of the Looks refresh, there is now a set of Mojo tools built into Looks, as well. Mojo has also been GPU-accelerated. Red Giant claims it’s 20% faster in Adobe products and 80% faster in FCP X. In the testing that I’ve done, the results have been in line with these numbers.

Magic Bullet Cosmo 2.0

Cosmo is a skin smoothing filter. It’s effectively the “vaseline on the lens” trick. If you have an actress with more textured skin and you need to soften it, then Cosmo does one of the better jobs I’ve seen. It isolates skin from the background, so that you end up softening only skin without hurting background detail.

df1315_mbs12_3_smThe new version has good performance, so you can keep on working with the filter applied without having to render to continue. Cosmo is GPU-accelerated with a 20% bump in Adobe products. In addition to FCP X, it is also available in Sony Vegas Pro.

Denoiser II and LUT Buddy

Denoiser II is general solution for reducing video noise and works well with most footage. LUT Buddy is a tool included with a number of Red Giant products. It is designed to import and export LUTs, although in my testing behavior was inconsistent. I could get it to generate a LUT, but not import all LUTs that should have been compatible.

LUT Buddy is very useful for turning the grade you create in one application into a LUT that can be used in another. For example, you can use a number of different color correction filters in After Effects to grade a shot and then use LUT Buddy to turn that grade into a LUT. Then in Premiere Pro, apply the LUT that you created, without the need for using the same filters as were used in After Effects. Here’s where LUT Buddy should have worked to read its own grade, but it didn’t. When I applied the grade and played the clip, the color correction would flicker on and off. However, I was still able to import that LUT using Premiere Pro’s Lumetri filter, so the process is still functional. My initial testing was done with Adobe CC2014, but in retesting in Adobe CC2015, unfortunately I could no longer get LUT Buddy to export a LUT.

df1315_mbs12_10_smOverall, this a solid update. Better performance and new tools. In most hosts you can stack several instances of these filters and still get real-time playback, which is a significant step forward. Magic Bullet Suite 12 is the perfect package for editors that want to have plenty of control over the look of their image, yet stay inside the editing application.

To usher in Magic Bullet Suite 12, Red Giant produced another of its innovative short films, called “Old/New”. It’s directed by Seth Worley and narrated by Patton Oswalt. Along with a clever storyline, the film was produced using a wide range of Red Giant products. Make sure that you check out the behind-the-scenes video to see how they did it.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Rocket Rooster

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Film emulation LUTs (color look-up tables) are always a popular discussion point and I’ve covered a number of the products on the market. Some of these are plug-in effects that include 3D LUT files as part of the package, like Koji, Color Finale, FilmConvert, etc. Others are toolkits with different types of files that are designed to be mixed and matched, like SpeedLooks, Osiris, ImpluZ, and others. One of this latter group is Rocket Rooster. I’ve mentioned them before, but in this post I’d like to go a bit deeper.

Rocket Rooster offers a range of “look” products that together become a toolkit for any type of film emulation, whether we are talking about motion film (3D LUTs) or still photography (Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw presets). For video, these include log-to-Rec709 correction, negative stocks, print stocks, combined negative/print LUTs, and various subjective “movie looks”. As with many other film emulation products, they should be viewed as a starting point and not the only process that you would apply to get your final look. The Rocket Rooster packages include LUTs in .cube, .3dl, .icc, and .mga versions to be compatible with just about any editing, grading, or compositing application. The method of importing and adding external LUT files varies with each software. For example, in Final Cut Pro X you’d need Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. In After Effects, you’d need Red Giant’s LUT Buddy. Premiere Pro CC, Resolve, and Media Composer all enable direct access to an external file.

There are different ways you can work with these LUTs. For example, if you shoot with log profiles, then Rocket Rooster offers both log-to-Rec709 camera patch profiles, as well as LUTs that combine the log conversion with a negative film stock setting into a single file. Since many of these looks work best when you combine a negative and a print stock (as you would in real film production), the next step is to pair the negative stock LUT with a matching print stock LUT. The Rocket Rooster film stock choices include several Kodak and Fuji emulations, along with a series of in-house creative presets designed to be reminiscent of certain popular styles.

Within your application, you have to bookend both LUT filters around a color correction filter, so that the grading adjustments occur between the two LUTs. For example, in FCP X, you would apply LUT Utility and select a log-to-negative LUT. Place a color correction filter next, followed by a second instance of LUT Utility. For the second LUT, pick a print stock LUT that you like. Premiere Pro CC makes this easier with the new Lumetri Color panel. In the basic correction tab, select the log-to-negative LUT and in the creative tab, pick the print stock LUT. In both NLEs, you’d use the color correction tools to hone the desired look. Rocket Rooster also offers a set of integrated files with both negative and print stock emulations in a single LUT file. With these, you’d select the file based on the negative stock you want to use, but the built-in print emulation is standardized on Kodak 2383.

Unlike other developers, these stock emulations tend to be a bit more aggressive in matching the coloration of the stock, but are more subdued in terms of final output contrast and saturation levels. That’s to allow enough margin in the resulting color for further grading. There are variants with different contrast balances for use with higher dynamic range cameras or that are readier for final output. All of this is spelled out in their user guide.

As with most LUT packages, you have to play around to get the right combo for your desired style. A little trial-and-error is part of the fun and experimentation. Of course, this process has to be interactive with your color correction tweaks to get the right look. Below are a series of stills demonstrating some of the results that are possible. Each of these uses one or two of the Rocket Rooster LUTs along with a varying amount of Lumetri Color grading. (Click on any image for the slideshow.)

©2015 Oliver Peters