5 Easy FCPX Color Tricks

Color correction plug-ins are certainly fun to use, but Final Cut Pro X has plenty of horsepower on its own. There are also a number of features and techniques that often get overlooked. Here are five simple tricks you can use to enhance the look of your videos. (Click any image to see an enlarged view.)

Balance Color / Match Color

Final Cut has offered the ability to auto balance the color of a shot and to match two shots to each other since the early days. Balance color analyzes a shot and corrects it to a neutral tonality. This is typically a “best guess,” based on either an automatic overall adjustment or one focusing on white balance.

You can select all of the clips in your timeline and balance them in a single command. Most of the time, automatic will result in a pleasing enhancement of the image. The exception is when there’s no clear white reference in the shot, like a close-up on fire. In that case, you’d want to retain the orange/yellow qualities of the shot. The balance color results are not adjustable (other than to select between automatic or white balance), so consider it a first step to be further enhanced by the other color correction tools.

Match color is different in that it corrects the tonality of a selected clip to match another clip in the timeline. Park on the clip, select match color, skim to the clip used for the match, click on that frame for a preview, and then click Apply Match if you like the preview results. A common application might be to match A and B cameras to each other.

Match color can be used creatively, as well. For example, let’s say you want your clips to match the tonality of shots from a particular movie. A great resource for film reference frames is the Shotdeck website (free if you register as a beta user). Find and download a reference frame. Import the image file and edit it to the end of your timeline. Now use match color for a selected clip and skim to that reference film image on your timeline.

Obviously it won’t make a sunny daytime shot look exactly like a moody night shot from Bladerunner, but it will adopt the overall tonality as closely as possible. Once you’ve completed the match, delete the reference image from your timeline.

Blend modes

Timeline clips include blend mode attributes. The default is the normal mode, which can easily be changed to screen, overlay, soft light, and so on. Blend modes (also called composite and transfer modes) are commonly used by graphic artists and designers, but they are also useful in creating special looks for video.

To start, option-drag a clip above itself to create a duplicate as a connected clip. You now have two versions of that clip in perfect sync with each other. Adjust the blend mode of the connected clip. Let’s say you have a low-contrast clip. When you drag it above itself and change the top clip’s mode to soft light, it will instantly result in more contrast and saturation.

This same trick can be used to create stylish effects. For example, when you add a gaussian blur to the lower clip, the results are a dreamy image. Add a sharpening filter to the top clip and now you’ve added some localized contrast. Push it far enough and the results are almost cartoon-like.

You can use this trick on single clips or the entire sequence. Simply compound the sequence and then option-drag the compound up to create a duplicate, connected clip. Select the desired blend mode of the connected clip and tweak for your look.

Hue/Saturation Curves – Luma vs Sat

When you push color correction to an extreme, the black and white detail in the image becomes contaminated by the color shift introduced by your correction. You no longer have anything that’s true black or white in the frame. When a colorist is creatively adjusting a shot, they still want to end up with nearly pure black at the darkest part of the image and pure white at the brightest.

One way to achieve this is with the Luma vs Sat curve in the Hue/Saturation Curves tool. From left to right, the base line represents the brightness range from black to white. Pulling the curve up or down increases or decreases saturation at the brightness value corresponding to that point along the line. To reduce color saturation for black and white, add a control point inwards from each end of the line. Now drag the outer points down to decrease saturation. Drag the inner points more or less towards the center to adjust the roll-off from full saturation to zero saturation. The more gentle the slope of the curve, the smoother the roll-off with fewer potential artifacts. However, the trade-off is that you may lose too much saturation overall. So adjust to taste.

Orange and Teal

Filmmakers are enamored with the “orange-and-teal” look – skin tones tend to be warm (orange), while middle-range portions of the image take on a teal color cast. This is aided by proper lighting, costuming, and set design that is conducive to such a grade. For example, walls and furnishings that are neutral, black, gray, or dark in some way tend to be easier to swing towards the teal than a background of bright red walls.

Final Cut Pro X does include a color preset (Spring Sun) that mimics this look. You can also achieve it with any of Final Cut’s grading tools, such as the color wheels. First, use any color tool to establish a normal grade. Then apply color wheels for the look. The objective is to isolate skin tones from the rest of the image. Add an image mask for the wheels and use the HSL keyer. Use the color picker to select a skin tone. View the mask in black-and-white and adjust the HSL settings for a smooth key. It’s OK if the mask includes more than only the skin tones. The smoothness of the key is important.

Once you are happy with the key, go back to the image and grade inside of the mask. Push the midrange color wheel to the orange as needed. Or keep the skin tones neutral if you want to preserve a natural appearance. Change the mask toggle to outside and shift the midrange, shadows, and master towards teal. Finally, add the Luma vs Sat adjustment as described above to restore natural blacks and whites to the shadow and highlight areas.

LUTs

Color look-up tables – LUTs – are used to apply the proper color profile for cameras. Custom LUTs can also be used creatively to create and preserve preset looks such as stylized grades, film stock emulation, and more. Final Cut cannot export LUTs, however, it can import any LUT in the standard .cube format. The internet offers plenty of options to purchase custom, creative LUTs.

Let’s take a more DIY approach. Several third-party color correction plug-ins, including FilmConvert Nitrate and Color Finale 2 Pro, allow the user to export the grade done within that plug-in as a self-contained LUT. Maybe you want to preserve the grade for future use that doesn’t depend on having the plug-in. Or maybe you don’t own that plug-in, but can collaborate with an editor/colorist who does. In that example, send your selected shots or sequence to them for a grade. Then, instead of returning the files to you with the baked-in look, simply export the grades for these clips as LUTs.

Back on your system, apply the Custom LUT effect to each clip and import the corresponding LUT. Make sure the settings match your color space (Rec 709 across the board for Rec 709 libraries and projects). In the case of Color Finale 2 Pro and FilmConvert Nitrate, most aspects of the grade done within their panels will be reproduced. Certain non-grading features, such as film grain emulation will not be included in the LUT. Overall, if I’m looking for a perfect match (same shot to same shot), then I’ve had more accurate results using Color Finale 2 Pro. This method is a great way of creating and transferring custom looks in a non-destructive manner.

I hope these simple tips will give you some ideas on how you can get more out of Final Cut Pro X to create and apply your own special touches.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Drive – Postlab’s Virtual Storage Volume

Postlab is the only service designed for multi-editor, remote collaboration with Final Cut Pro X. It works whether you have a team collaborating on-premises within a facility or spread out at various locations around the globe. Since the initial launch, Hedge has also extended Postlab’s collaboration to Premiere Pro.

When using Postlab, projects containing Final Cut Pro X libraries or Premiere Pro project files are hosted on Hedge’s servers. But, the media lives on local drives or shared storage and not “in the cloud.” When editors work remotely, media needs to be transferred to them by way of “sneakernet,” High Tail, WeTransfer, or other methods.

Hedge has now solved that media issue with the introduction of Drive, a virtual storage volume for media, documents, and other files. Postlab users can utilize the original workflow and continue with local media – or they can expand remote capabilities with the addition of Drive storage. Since it functions much like DropBox, Drive can also be used by team members who aren’t actively engaged in editing. As a media volume, files on Drive are also accessible to Avid Media Composer and DaVinci Resolve editors.

Drive promises significantly better performance than a general business cloud service, because it has been fine-tuned for media. The ability to use Drive is included with each Postlab plan; but, storage costs are based on a flat rate per month for the amount of storage you need. Unlike other cloud services, there are no hidden egress charges for downloads. If you only want to use Drive as a single user, then Hedge’s Postlab Solo or Pro plan would be the place to start.

How Drive works

Once Drive storage has been added to an account, each team member simply needs to connect to Drive from the Postlab interface. This mounts a Drive volume on the desktop just like any local hard drive. In addition, a cache file is stored at a designated location. Hedge recommends using a fast SSD or RAID for this cache file. NAS or SAN network volumes cannot be used.

After the initial set up, the operation is similar to DropBox’s SmartSync function. When an editor adds media to the local Drive volume, that media is uploaded to Hedge’s cloud storage. It will then sync to all other editors’ Drive volumes. Initially those copies of the media are only virtual. The first time a file is played by a remote team member, it is streamed from the cloud server. As it streams, it is also being added the local Drive cache. Every file that has been fully played is now stored locally within the cache for faster access in the future.

Hedge feels that latency is as or more important than outright connection speed for a fluid editing experience. They recommend wired, rather than wi-fi, internet connections. However, I tested the system using wi-fi with office speeds of around 575Mbps down / 38Mbps up. This is a business connection and was fast enough to stream 720p MP4 and 1080p ProRes Proxy files with minimal hiccups on the initial streamed playback. Naturally, after it was locally cached, access was instantaneous.

From the editor’s point of view, virtual files still appear in the FCPX event browser as if local and the timeline is populated with clips. Files can also be imported or dragged in from Drive as if they are local. As you play the individual clips or the timeline from within FCPX or Premiere, the files become locally cached. All in all, the editing experience is very fluid.

In actual practice

The process works best with lightweight, low-res files and not large camera originals. That is possible, too, of course, but not very efficient. Drive and the Hedge servers support most common media files, but not a format like REDCODE raw. As before, each editor will need to have the same effects, LUTs, Motion templates, and fonts installed for proper collaboration.

I did run into a few issues, which may be related to the recent 10.4.9 Final Cut update. For example, the built-in proxy workflow is not very stable. I did get it to work. Original files were on a NAS volume (not Drive) and the generated proxies (H.264 or ProRes Proxy) were stored on the Drive volume of the main system. The remote editing system would only get the proxies, synced through Drive. In theory that should work, but it was hit or miss. When it worked, some LUTs, like the standard ARRI Log-C LUTs, were not applied on the remote system in proxy mode. Also the “used” range indicator lines for the event browser clips were present on the original system, but not the remote system. Other than these few quirks, everything was largely seamless.

My suggested workflow would be to generate editing proxies outside of the NLE and copy those to Drive. H.264 or ProRes Proxy with matching audio configurations to the original camera files work well. Treat these low-res files as original media and import them into Final Cut Pro X or Premiere Pro for editing. Once the edit is locked, go to the main system and transfer the final sequence to a local FCPX Library or Premiere Pro project for finishing. Relink that sequence to the original camera files for grading and delivery. Alternatively, you could export an FCPXML or XML file for a Resolve roundtrip.

One very important point to know is that the entire Postlab workflow is designed around team members staying logged into the account. This maintains the local caches. It’s OK to quit the Postlab application, plus eject and reconnect the Drive volume. However, if you log out, those local caches for editing files and Drive media will be flushed. The next time you log back in, connection to Drive will need to be re-established, Drive information must be synced again, and clips within FCPX or Premiere Pro will have to be relinked. So stay logged in for the best experience.

Additional features

Thanks to the Postlab interface, Drive offers features not available for regular hard drives. For example, any folder within Drive can be bookmarked in Postlab. Simply click on a Bookmark to directly open that folder. The Drop Off feature lets you generate a URL with an expiration date for any Bookmarked folder. Send that link to any non-team member, such as an outside contributor or client, and they will be able to upload additional media or other files to Drive. Once uploaded to Hedge’s servers, those files show up in Drive within the folder and will be synced to all team members.

Hedge offers even more features, including Mail Drop, designed for projects with too much media to efficiently upload. Ship Hedge a drive to copy dailies straight into their servers. Pick Up is another feature still in development. When updated, you will be able to select files on Drive, generate a Pick Up link, and send that to your client for download.

Editing with Drive and Postlab makes remote collaboration nearly like working on-site. The Hedge team is dedicated to expanding these capabilities with more services and broader NLE support. Given the state of post this year, these products are at the right time and place.

Check out this Soho Editors masterclass in collaboration using Postlab and Drive.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Color Finale Connect – Remote Grading for FCPX

Remote workflows didn’t start with COVID, but that certainly drove the need home for many. While editing collaboration at a distance can be a challenge, it’s a far simpler prospect than remote color grading. That’s often a very interactive process that happens on premises between a colorist and a client, director, or cinematographer. Established high-end post facilities, like Company3 with locations in the US, Canada, and England, have pioneered remote color grading sessions using advanced systems like Resolve and Baselight. This allows a director in Los Angeles and a colorist in London to conduct remote, real-time, interactive grading sessions. But the investment in workflow development, hardware, and grading environments to make this happen is not inconsequential.

High-end remote grading comes to Final Cut Pro X

The Color Finale team has been on a quest to bring advanced grading tools to the Final Cut Pro X ecosystem with last December’s release of Color Finale 2. Many editors are working from home these days, so the team decided to leverage the frameworks for macOS and FCPX to enable remote grading in a far simpler method than with other grading solutions.

The result is Color Finale Connect, which is a Final Cut Pro X workflow extension currently in free public beta. Connect enables two or more Final Cut Pro X users to collaborate in near-real-time in a color grading session, regardless of their location. This review is in the context of long distance sessions, but Connect can also be used within a single facility where the participants might be in other parts of the building or in different buildings.

Color Finale Connect requires each user in a session to be on macOS Catalina, running licensed copies of Final Cut Pro X (not trial) and Color Finale 2.2 Pro (or higher). Download and install Color Finale Connect, which shows up as a Final Cut workflow extension. You can work in a Connect session with or without local media on every participant’s system. In order to operate smoothly and keep the infrastructure lightweight, person-to-person communication is handled outside of Connect. For example, interact with your director via Skype or Zoom on an iPad while you separately control Final Cut on your iMac.

Getting started

To start a session, each participant launches the Color Finale Connect extension within Final Cut. Whoever starts a session is the “broadcaster” and others that join this session are “followers.” The session leader (who has the local media) drags the Project icon to the Connect panel and “publishes” it. This generates a session code, which can be sent to the other participants to join the session from within their Connect extension panels.

Once a session is joined, the participants drag the Project icon from the Connect panel into an open FCPX Event. This generates a timeline of clips. If they have the matching local media, the timeline will be populated with the initial graded clips. If they don’t have media, then the timeline is populated with placeholder clips. Everyone needs to keep their Connect panel open to stay in the session (it can be minimized).

Data transfer is very small, since it consists mainly of Color Finale instructions; therefore, crazy-fast internet speeds aren’t required. It is peer-to-peer and doesn’t live anywhere “in the cloud.” If a participant doesn’t have local media installed, then as the session leader makes a color correction change in Color Finale 2 Pro, an “in-place” full-resolution frame is sent for that clip on the timeline. As more changes are made, the frames are updated in near-real-time.

The data communication is between Color Finale on one system and Color Finale on the others. All grading must happen within the Color Finale 2 Pro plug-in, not FCPX’s native color wheels or other plug-ins. The “in-place” frames support all native Final Cut media formats, such as H.264, ProRes, and ProRes RAW; however, formats that require a plug-in, like RED camera raw files, will not transmit “in-place” frames. In that case, the data applied to the placeholder frame is updated, but you won’t see a reference image.

This isn’t a one-way street. The session leader can enable any participant to also have control. Let’s say the session leader is the colorist and the director of photography is a participant. The colorist can enable remote control for the DP, which would permit them to make tweaks on their own system. This in turn would update back on the colorist’s system, as well as for all the other participants.

Color Finale Connect workflows

I’ve been testing a late-stage beta version of Connect and Color Finale 2.2 Pro and the system works well. The “in-place” concept is ingenious, but the workflow is best when each session member has local media. This has been improved with the enhanced proxy workflow updated in Final Cut Pro X 10.4.9. Let’s say the editor has the full-resolution, original media and generates smaller proxies – for example, 50% size H.264 files. These are small enough that you can easily send the Library and proxy media to all participants using services like WeTransfer, MASV, FileMail, or Frame.io.

One of the session members could be a favored colorist on the other side of the world. In this case, he or she would be working with the proxy media. If the editor and colorist are both able to control the session, then it becomes highly interactive. Formats like RED don’t pose a problem thanks to the proxy transcodes, as long as no local changes are made outside of the Color Finale plug-in. In other words, don’t change the RED raw source settings within this session. Once the colorist has completed the grade using proxy media, those grading settings would be updated through a Connect session on the editor’s system where the original media resides.

Color management

How do you know that your client sees the color in the same way as you do on a reference display? Remote color grading has always been hampered by color management and monitor calibration. It would, of course, be ideal for each participant in the session to have Blackmagic or AJA output hardware connected to a calibrated display. If there is an a/v output for FCPX, then the Connect session changes will also be seen on that screen. But that’s a luxury most clients don’t have.

This is where Apple hardware, macOS, and Final Cut Pro X’s color management come to the rescue and make Color Finale Connect a far simpler solution than other methods. If both you and your client are using Apple hardware (iMac, iMac Pro, Pro Display XDR) then color management is tightly controlled and accurate. First make sure that macOS display settings like True Tone and Night Shift are turned off on all systems. Then you are generally going to see the same image within the Final Cut viewer on your iMac screen as your client will see on theirs.

The one caveat is that users still have manual control of the screen brightness, which can affect the perception of the color correction. One tip is to include a grayscale or color chart that can be used to roughly calibrate the display’s brightness setting. Can everyone just barely see the darkest blocks on the chart? If not, brighten the display setting slightly. It’s not a perfect calibration, but it will definitely get you in the ballpark.

Color Finale 2 Pro turns Final Cut Pro X into an advanced finishing solution. Thanks to the ecosystem and extensions framework, Final Cut opens interesting approaches to collaboration, especially in the time of COVID. Tools like Frame.io and Postlab enable better long-distance collaboration in easier-to-use ways than previous technologies. Color Finale Connect brings that same ease-of-use and efficient remote collaboration to FCPX grading. Remember this is still a beta, albeit a stable one, so make sure you provide feedback should any issues crop up.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Larry Jordan’s Techniques of Visual Persuasion

You may know him as a speaker, trainer, or web presenter. Or from the long-running Digital Production Buzz podcast series. Or his 2 Reel Guys series with the late Norman Hollyn. Regardless of how, Larry Jordan is well-known by most working and aspiring video professionals. But Jordan is also an accomplished author, with several books to his credit. The latest is Techniques of Visual Persuasion + Create powerful images that motivate.

Commercials, corporate videos, or entertainment – the art of persuasion is at the heart of what every editor does. Persuasion is about convincing someone to want to do whatever action you want to have happen or to share a feeling you are trying to convey. In addition to creating persuasive messages, we ourselves are also consumers and recipients of these same communications. Therefore, knowledge and understanding is key. It is Jordan’s premise that with modern life’s faster pace, proper communication today is more like haiku than a lengthy report. Every professional needs to know how to make their presentation – whether spoken, still, or motion – succinct and impactful. This book is perfectly laid out to get that point across.

Techniques of Visual Persuasion is arranged into three sections. The first covers the fundamentals of persuasion. The second is about developing persuasive still images and the last section is about persuasive motion images. This book is arranged like a text book, which is a good thing. It’s well-researched and detailed. Each chapter starts with the goals to be covered and ends with a recap. Each is also capped off with an anecdote (like Larry starting a fire in a TV studio) or a guest contributor’s point-of-view. The pages are illustrated nicely with sidebars, images, and charts that help make the point of how and why one example is more inviting or persuasive than another.

Jordan covers a wide range of theoretical and practice advice, such as the 180-degree rule, the rule of thirds, three-point lighting, sans serif vs. serif fonts, and much more. But it’s not all just concepts. Jordan has a lengthy background in software training, including several books around Final Cut Pro and Adobe products, as well as his PowerUp series of videos.

Section two includes two chapters on the basics of Photoshop with practical examples of how to use its tools to enhance and repair still images and create layered composites. Section three goes even deeper into real-world experience. Jordan covers topics, such as suggested camera and audio equipment, interviewing techniques, how to properly record audio, and how to properly plan and produce a video shoot. This section also goes deepest into software basics, including a detailed look at Adobe Audition, Apple Final Cut Pro X, and Apple Motion.

Techniques of Visual Persuasion is a like a college film program condensed into under 400 informative pages. All of it written in a very engaging manner. I found that it’s not only a good first read, but useful to have around for a quick reference, whether you are just entering the field or have been in the business for years. Larry Jordan is a gifted presenter who can express complex topics in an easy-to-digest manner and this latest book is no exception.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Building that Zoom Look

COVID-19 has altered our lives in many ways, but it has also changed our visual language. Video conference calls didn’t start with this pandemic, but by now Skype, Zoom, WebEx, Blue Jeans, and other services have become part of our daily lives – both as participants and as viewers. We use these for communicating with friends, distance learning, entertainment, and remote corporate meetings. Not only has video conferencing become an accepted production and broadcast method, but the “video conference look” is now a familiar entertainment style for all of us.

Many of these productions are actually live. Through elaborate and clever production techniques they can indeed achieve a quality level that’s better than the average Zoom call. However, in many cases, the video conference appearance with multiple participants on screen, was actually created in post, precisely because that aesthetic is now instantly recognizable to all of us. The actual interaction might have happened over Zoom, but full-frame video was simultaneously captured. This enables an editor to polish the overall production and rebuild the multi-screen images where appropriate without being tied to the highly-compressed, composite Zoom feed.

Building multi-screen composites in post can be time-consuming, which is where templates come in handy. Apple Final Cut Pro X offers a perfect solution for editing this style of project. There are a number of paid and/or free video conference-style Motion templates on the market. Enterprising editors can also build their own templates using Apple Motion. A nice free offering is idustrial revolution’s XEffects Video Conference – a toolkit of effects templates to easily build 4-up, 9-up, and 16-up displays.

If you need something more involved, then check out Video Walls 2 from developer Luca Visual FX, which can be purchased and installed through the FxFactory platform. This Motion template includes a series of 15 FCPX generators that cover a range of video wall and video conference styles.

The templates use image drop wells for videos and stills, which are arranged into a grid or row with adjustable borders and drop shadows. Some of the generators permit circles as well as rectangles with adjustable rounded corners. Positioning may be controlled to re-arrange the grid pattern and even overlap the panes. These generators include build-in animation effects along with keyframeable parameters.

If you want to mimic a video conference call, there’s also a dedicated generator for a Zoom-style menu bar that appears at the bottom of the screen. Border highlights around an image well may be changed as you edit to maintain the illusion that the highlight color syncs to whichever speaker in the group is talking at any given time..

Overall I found these temples easy to use and adjust. The one thing to be mindful of is that if you build up a video wall of 20+ video clips, this is like 20+ layers of video. Therefore, large video walls will require some horsepower. However, it was possible to do this on my mid-2014 MacBook Pro, albeit a bit more slowly. The good news is that all of this happens within the generator, so there’s only one clip on the timeline. You may also stack multiple instances of these templates if you need to have more images on-screen at once. Or if you want to add the menu bar template on top of a video conference template.

There’s no telling how long the pseudo-Zoom look will be in vogue. However, Video Walls 2 gives you enough variety that it should have legs beyond our current “work from home” mode.

©2020 Oliver Peters