COW Library : Creative Community Conversations (was FCPX Debates) : Dennis Kutchera : Colorgrading Round-Up
Hello, my name is Dennis. I'm an Avidaholic. I've been running with Media Composer since 1993.
I arrived in Las Vegas for NAB with a full schedule, overflowing with one prime directive--to find the best solutions for the color grading and finishing work for Egg Studios, a full service commercial production house in Halifax Canada, which I joined in January as Chief Technology Officer. My COW published prediction that color grading was going to be a major highlight at NAB 2012 was proven from the moment I landed in Las Vegas, starting with the announcement party for the Autodesk's New Smoke for Mac. While not strictly a color grading solution, Smoke does have probably the most advanced color correction of any non-linear editor available today and offers a lot of value with a very complete finishing toolset that, while supporting plug-ins, doesn't lack much for finishing, with what is already built into the software.
Once Autodesk wowed us with Smoke, we moved on to the RED Users party for the rest of the evening. But that wasn't about post and color grading, so what happened in Vegas Sunday night, will stay in Vegas.
On Monday, I spent the entire day at Post World taking a series of color grading classes taught by color gurus Patrick Inhofer, Alexis Van Hurkman and Robbie Carman. I arrived 45 minutes early because I wanted a good seat. By the time the first class started, there were many more attendees than available seats. Clearly the interest in color grading was very high. Many endured the day standing or sitting on the floor. Google these guys, they know their stuff and they have found a niche in training and sharing their knowledge. Alexis has a book out that is the definitive text on color grading entitled "The Color Correction Handbook."
A Little History Lesson
When non-linear editing entered the post world in the early to mid-nineties with Media 100 and the Avid Media Composer 1000, both were capable of online finishing with dubious quality and standards. We took a step backwards when it came to quality control. Picture color adjustments were initially non-existent and later minimal. You basically had to get the picture levels where you wanted them on ingest. Waveform monitors and vectorscopes nowhere to be found in the application software. It seems like a generation started editing without knowing video tech fundamentals. Even today, many non-linear edit rooms lack external scopes and have either a really poor excuse for a broadcast video monitor or none at all. The lack of a broadcast display is in evidence almost every time I watch TV news, where some international story will roll with severe field issues that just don't show up if you are only editing on a progressive computer display.
With the lack of quality control available in early non-linear editors, many TV networks insisted that deliverables be posted tape to tape and not non-linear. But the tide began to reverse when Avid introduced the Symphony in 1998 with a revolutionary, very detailed color correction module. If you needed to go beyond what Symphony was capable of doing, you had to book time in a very expensive DaVinci room and work from tape to tape.
File based workflows for color grading with round-tripping from your editing app to the color grading software and back started to become more common when Apple bought Final Touch and rebranded it as Color, bundling it into Final Cut Studio. The round trip was a bumpy ride and required some manual labor, but this introduced affordable advanced color grading to the masses. I first witnessed a similar workflow for Avid at IBC in 2008 with a demo of FilmLight's Baselight. I loved everything about Baselight except the price. It was in the Big Iron league. My market couldn't support Big Iron at that time. Post shops that tried to set up Big Iron facilities in years past have since shuttered their doors.
In September 2009, the revolutionary Blackmagic Design changed everything when they acquired the assets of DaVinci Systems, a Big Iron pioneer in advanced color grading. BMD subsequently release a software version called Resolve on Mac and PC for $1000. A free, light version of Resolve was also made available with some restricted functionality. It was limited to a single node of correction, which essentially made this a demo version because this is where the real power of Resolve lays. Then BMD released a new light version of DaVinci Resolve that has unlimited nodes, but is missing some GPU magic and a few other features that many users will never miss if they never had it. With the unlimited nodes, now you can do some very serious color correction. Resolve 8 is now to color correction what Final Pro 1 was to editing -- the great democratizer. For free or very little cash, you can wade into the sea of color correction and learn to swim.
NAB 2012 -- Color Grading Round Up
So what did I walk away with from NAB about color grading? A decision? Not yet. Confusion? A little. Information? Lots!
The choices were many, but I did not look at everything available. I tried to narrow my options to products that are affordable, well known, widely used and well supported by both the manufacturer and a user community. I am a strong believer in the user community because peer-to peer sharing of tips and techniques is far more valuable than well-tuned vendor tutorials. I veered off this path a little, but I pretty much walked by most Big Iron booths because I think the days of 'sky's the limit' priced post gear may be numbered. Yes, they are great products, but I think there is better value to be had. I also like a product where I can call on peers in a user group or even hire someone freelance when needed. That's been the strength of Final Cut Pro, Avid and Adobe products through Creative COW and other online user communities. Peer exchange is important to me.
So let me get this out of the way -- if money were no object, I would go for the FilmLight's Baselight with the amazing Blackboard 2 control surface. Every key is a miniature LED video screen and the whole thing is made of wood. The grading tools are fast and powerful at your fingertips. The Blackboard 2 even has a pen tablet built into it. Powerful indeed, but of all the systems I looked at, it was the priciest at $85k, yet had the weakest tracker. All Baselight has is a simple point tracker. If someone turns their head, welcome to Roto World. This proves the point that not every system is for everyone. You have to find the right fit in which you can work with creative comfort and speed and the system that is right for your workflow. Baselight works incredibly well with Avid. The round trip is pretty painless. However, Other products are now using the same technique as Baselight, including Assimilate Scratch and DaVinci Resolve. Essentially you import the Avid media or link back to source files such as R3D, grade the shots and export MXF media that you then place in your Avid MediaFiles folder and relink your Avid sequence to the graded shots.
Advanced Plug-in Color Grading
If you don't have $85k and you want to use Baselight, you still may be in luck. Before NAB they released a Final Cut Pro edition as a plug-in for Final Cut Pro 7 with all the software tools, but its not going to be as fast without the Blackboard control surface and GPU acceleration. An Avid AVX version was being shown at NAB as well. At $995, it offers really good value and more advanced grading than you would get if you upgraded your Media Composer to Symphony for the same money. However, depending on the kind of work you do, Symphony might be a better fit for you. I want to take a closer look at Baselight. But I suspect that as good as the tools may be, it may be a slow and fragmented workflow by the fact that it is a plug-in, so you are going to have to continually drop in and out of the Baselight interface and back to Avid as you move from grading one clip to the next in your sequence.
Ideally, you want to be quickly and seamlessly moving from shot to shot and comparing A against B within the same interface. Just snapping back and forth from a grey FCP or Avid GUI to the black Baselight GUI could throw your visual perception of color out of whack. I hope to play with the Final Cut Pro version and see how useable it is in practice. It should be indicative of what the Avid release will be like later this year.
If you are using Final Cut Pro, Premiere or perhaps Vegas, there have been plug-ins you can use for color grading like Colorista and Color Finesse available for some time, but quality of experience is not going to match working in a serious color grading tool like DaVinci Resolve. I did not take the time to seek out plug-in color correction beyond Baselight because I feel their time has past and there are better tools.
All In One and One For All
So SpeedGrade, no matter how good you may be, we are not likely going to play together unless I can convince our editors that we should abandon Avid for Premiere. What Avid lacks in effects, it makes up in the tools for cutting story and has no problem with massive amounts of data. It is fast and responsive to editing and takes care of things like autosaving versions when your mind is deep in the story and ignoring the computer. No such thing as working all day, forgetting to hit command S and then a crash at 4 pm takes you down. Avid solved this more than 20 years ago: it saves every autosave in an attic folder. If you accidentally delete your sequence and hit save, you've lost nothing. Could I convince our editors to switch? It could be a battle. So Adobe Premiere editing is probably not for us in spite of After Effects, Illustrator and Photoshop being huge components of our Graphics and Animation department.
The New Smoke for Mac
A big showstopper in post at NAB had to be the new Smoke for Mac 2013. Smoke is an editor, a compositor and a color grading tool, making for a very compelling one stop shop for post-production. The old Smoke for Mac was 4.5 times pricier and looked like it was written in DOS Basic. It was missing just enough of the Smoke premium features to peeve you off and it was a dog as far as just being an editor goes. But this changes with the new Smoke for Mac 2013. It is immediately familiar and intuitive as an editor, compositor and color grader. I found the Color Warper module to be fast and intuitive. However, it did appear to require rendering with not a lot of effects placed on a clip. It's not unlike an Avid, but I was expecting more. To be fair though, Smoke for Mac 2013 is still in Alpha, so I can't pass judgment just yet. Interestingly, many colorists I spoke with at NAB turned up their noses at Smoke's Color Warper, stating that it was not as good as a dedicated color grading package. We can all find out in June when Autodesk releases a public beta for all to try. Gold release is anticipated for September, in time for IBC.
Did I mention the price? How about $3,500! The only thing that I can think of that is feature competitive is Avid DS, but it rings in at $10,000. From a bystander point of view, I think Smoke is far more powerful and it runs on Mac. DS is Windows only. There was a real big downside to Smoke for Mac for me though. I am not really sure if it even autosaves, but there appears to be no equivalent of the Avid Attic Folder or Final Cut Pro Autosave Vault. When you hit save, it overwrites your last save. This is according to one of the demo Artists at the Autodesk booth. If this information is right, Autodesk needs to put some R&D into an autosave vault feature. I'd hate to be working late one night, hit a wrong key, accidently deleting something and then hit save. This has happened to me once with other software and a client who insisted we push on in spite of us both being tired. I had to spend a day reconstructing days of work from memory at my expense. Unfortunately, a lot of software still works this way with the save overwriting the previous save.
I know for certain that two of the graders I looked at have an autosave feature. Assimilate Scratch 6 and DaVinci Resolve 8 do incremental backups as you work, but once you hit save, it overwrites the previous save. Actually, Scratch will save the last 4 versions. So you might want to learn a habit of using 'save as' instead of 'save'.
Autodesk Smoke 2013 Connect FX Interface. Click image to zoom.
So let's talk Avid DS next. It is a venerable all-in-one finishing tool, but the color grading tools are pretty much the same as Symphony (which are right up to date for 1998) with a few enhancements. Come on Avid, you've got some catching up to do! DS does have better keying and paint ability, so there are more possibilities for color grading and people actually do great color grading with DS. But according to my observation, the techniques required to achieve what is very simple in a DaVinci Resolve, appear to occur through a series of workarounds in DS. A technology demo of the next version of DS was being shown, but it was more evolution than revolution, with support for the Avid Artist Color control surface and the addition of blending modes on the timeline being some of what I recall. But the dang thing does not support AMA and is still dependent on Media Composer to properly process codecs so that video clips can be used in DS. I'm not too interested in workaround to achieve what should be a simple process.
If you're a Media Composer user, you might consider a step up to Avid Symphony with the current $999 crossgrade special Avid is offering. The tools will be familiar, but expanded with for example, HSL controls with not only master settings, but the same adjustments also available in low, mid and high ranges. You can blend RGB, adjust RGB and do secondary corrections. The secondary was once a huge selling feature of Symphony, but by today's standards, it is weak. If you have to use Animatte effects for garbage mattes, you are going to drive yourself crazy, if you are used to something like DaVinci Resolve. All the color adjustments tend to be just as course and imprecise as they are in Media Composer.
This is somewhat improved if you use an Avid Artist Color control surface. But it's still choppy compared to using the same panel with dedicated grading software like DaVinci Resolve, but far more precise and a lot faster than using a mouse. The real strength in the Symphony color correction tool is the relational color grading where you can decide, based on tape name, file name, etc., to globally correct all the clips in a sequence that share a specified source attribute. So a repeated shot of say a host of a talk show does not need a color correction manually applied every time it appears. You can choose to grade according to clip name, tape name, etc. and once you grade one shot, any instance in your sequence and all the other instances of say tape 1A will be automatically corrected.
Instead of a color correction effect icon on the clip in the sequence, you will see a dotted colored line on the bottom or top of the clip, depending on the mode you selected to use. Once you balance all your shots, you can then apply a correction to an entire track at once. The relational grades can be merged from one sequence to another base on parameters like prefer source sequence or apply newest grade. This is powerful stuff when you understand it and know how to use it effectively. It is a big time saver for reality shows that contain a lot of repetition from act to act and episode to episode.
Relational color grading is possible in the dedicated grading systems, but takes a bit of work to achieve. In Scratch and Baselight, it requires you to sort a text database by whatever relationship you want to group clips by, such as tape name or scene/take, highlight them and copy the grade. I seem to recall it was Resolve that had a similar ability to Symphony for relational color grading, if not as sophisticated, it was certainly more visual than scrolling through a database of text to link shots. I need to verify this information, so don't take it as gospel for now.
Now the good stuff - here are the two dedicated color graders that got my attention:
Assimilate Scratch 6 is an incredibly unique product that is hard to categorize because it does so much, so differently and all in real time. I thought it was competitive with DaVinci Resolve, and it is; but it does more than grading. As DI data management system on set, it is the best tool available for handling production dailies. It is also a very powerful real time color grader and it also has aspirations of being a conform and finishing tool with features like vector paint and keyers. It also supports OFX plug-ins such as Genarts Sapphire. So this bad boy is also taking on the likes of Smoke and Avid DS in many ways, but it still lacks some of features of those systems that Assimilate is adding in, bit by bit. As a color grader, it still lacks noise reduction and grain management unless you add third party plug-ins. From talking with users, it also lacks an easy way to save color grades and effects in a favourites bin. I believe this is addressed in the upcoming release.
As a super DI data management system, Scratch will read files from virtually any camera (They already support Red 48fps), apply a color grade and generate dailies automatically in multiple formats. It can generate time code for cameras that don't have it. I'm not a DIT, but I don't think there is anything Scratch can't handle for digital dailies. It was also the first to fully support Red cameras. In fact, I believe Assimilate was on the development team for the original Red Cine software. Assimilate also sells a lite version called Scratch Lab that will handle this end of your workflow and one light color grades.
Assimilate Scratch is built on customer support. Their goal is to keep you up and running 7/24 to quickly turn around your work at the highest quality. They will assist you with training, set-up, tutorials, etc.; pretty much whatever it takes to make you productive and keep your post schedule on track. The first year of support is part of the package when you buy Scratch. There is a strong user community as well, but they tend to stay out of the public eye with a private Yahoo group. It would probably help Assimilate sell more Scratch if they made themselves more visible. I for one make a lot of decisions based on what I read in user groups. There is a Scratch Forum here on the COW.
ASSIMILATE SCRATCH Dailies. Versioning. Conform. Finish. Same power and price for Mac and Windows: $17,995. Image from Leandro Marini's Heroes of RAW Workflow article at the COW.
Scratch has very seamless integration with Avid and FCP 7 editing systems with full AAF and XML support and it is Avid Interplay and Isis aware. You can do a round trip workflow from Avid via AAF, link to raw camera files to grade in real time and continue on to a complete finish and output to multiple formats or round trip back to Avid.
I found the Scratch interface to be intimidating because it is so different. I asked a few colorists at NAB how they found it and they concurred that it was hard to wrap their headspace around it at first, but powerful once you got the concept. I had a scheduled demo at NAB that left me more confused than satisfied, but I later ran into Michael Forrest at the Manhattan Edit Workshop booth and he sat down with me in front of Scratch and explained it very clearly. I'm glad I made the effort because I knew in my heart of hearts, there was a lot of power here, but I just couldn't grasp a foreign (to me) language. Michael clearly showed me how the Assimilate Construct is kind of like an Avid bin where you can storyboard shots or stack the same shot with alternative grades and effects attached. Scaffolds are kind of like nesting effects in Avid or Power Windows in DaVinci Resolve.
If you have the bandwidth on your drives and two Red Rocket cards in your computer, Red 4k in real time with multiple effects applied is achievable. Scratch is very real time with all grading and effects handled by the GPU on the GUI graphics card specified by Assimilate. No second and third GPU card required. It uses less CPU than other systems, so you can in fact be transcoding your dailies in the background, handled by the CPU while you work on grading, handled by the GPU. Very nice! With out depending on multiple GPUs and subsequent CPU cycles, there is no latency in this system. Combine Scratch with a control surface and a Wacom pad and you have a powerhouse that will run circles around many Big Iron color grading systems. Scratch definitely has my attention.
When Blackmagic Design bought the near bankrupt Big Iron color correction hardware company DaVinci, and released DaVinci Resolve for Windows and Mac for under a thousand bucks, it was one of those pivotal moments in post-production, like when Apple released Final Cut Pro 1.0. Resolve gives anyone and everyone the opportunity to put their hand to the wheel of advanced color correction. You can download a light version that is as full featured than many Big Iron systems. There are two paid versions at $995 for software only and $29,995 for a full up Resolve with a beautiful and powerful control surface.
The nice part of DaVinci Resolve is that it can grow with you and you can graduate to the next level as needs and budgets increase. If you can't afford the $30k control surface, there are third party panels ranging from $1495 for the Avid Artist Color to $3500 for the gorgeous new Tangent Element. Because Resolve is so accessible to the masses, there is a grassroots network that shares tips and techniques here at Creative COW as well as on YouTube and other net communities. There are loads of free and paid tutorials as well as full-blown training classes available both online and in classroom settings. Because of this, Resolve is unequivocally the best place to start if you want to learn the art of color grading. This is no entry-level software, even in the light version, so once you begin; you may well stay with Resolve. It is very powerful.
When I see the Resolve interface in action, it just makes sense. That's version 8. At NAB, Blackmagic Design announced the June release of DaVinci Resolve 9 and the GIU has been refined further.
I love the familiar looking timeline in Resolve and the node based processing it uses. Each node can contain color correction and other effects. It is easy to organize your picture processing. The node tree is similar to what you will see in many compositing applications or what you might see when building a DVD in Apple's now defunct DVD Studio Pro. It is much cleaner than the way I am used to working in Symphony where I can stack effects in a timeline nest. Resolve's visually rich node based processing makes it so easy to apply and complex grades and effects. You can get interesting looks by changing the order in which the nodes are applied by dragging them into a different order.
Resolve is well known for its powerful primary color controls and precise secondaries. The tracker in Resolve is one of the best I have seen. Tracking an object with a mask and a grade inside that mask is fast and intuitive. This includes tracking a 3D object, something an $85k FilmLight Baselight cannot do. When I say this, I am not comparing some little desktop app to Big Iron. While Resolve is value priced, keep in mind that it used to be priced in the FilmLight and Autodesk range before Blackmagic Design bought DaVinci a couple of years ago. Resolve is a very mature product. DaVinci has been making high-end color correction systems that would cost your Dad's lottery winnings since 1984, pretty much inventing the category.
At NAB 2012, Blackmagic Design announced DaVinci Resolve 9. Version 9 appears to address some of the workflow issues that were present in version 8. Avid round tripping was a little fussy. Mixed media types did not always work. According to version 9 promotional materials, Resolve 9 will support a wider range of native camera and file formats and can be used for on set dailies processing. I am keen to see if this feature is as mature as it is in Assimilate Scratch, which is an amazing tool for on set DI processing.
Resolve will import Avid AAF and Final Cut XML. I would think that it would also support XML from Adobe Premiere by default. A cool bonus for Final Cut Pro X users is that your FCPX color grades translate into DaVinci, so you can start in your editor and refine and finesse further in Resolve!
Another cool feature is remote grading. Two identical Resolve systems can communicate with each other over the internet, so what I do in Halifax, can be seen by a producer in Helsinki. How cool is that! Imagine hiring a big gun colourist for a session without having to fly him in!
DaVinci has won an Emmy® for the quality of it's image processing. Everything processed at 32 bit and their correction algorithms do not feel like typical video processing.
When you push a grade, whites for example are treated with care and do not take on that blown out clipped look. You can achieve looks that are simply not possible in a non-linear editor, no matter how many plug-ins you have. The Hue Curves is a really cool tool that lands somewhere between primary and secondary and allows you to make isolated hue changes within a shot. The RGB mixer is like the channel mixer in Photoshop where you can mix proportions of red, green and blue in any of the colours. So if your red channel is clipped, you can recover some detail from maybe the green channel and mix it into the red. This is just scratching the surface of the capability. You could also use this tool for some interesting black and white looks that go way beyond mere de-saturation.
Resizing in Resolve is sub pixel processed and always real time for the highest quality reframing of a shot. Real time noise reduction is achieved by the GPU without the need for third party plug-ins. It is a simple slider control, a quality slider and a blending slider. It can be applied pre or post grade in real time. This is huge, and a feature that is sorely missing in Assimilate Scratch. However Scratch does support the best noise reduction plug-in I have ever used, Neat Video. I have saved completely unusable footage with this plug-in in Final Cut Pro.
Not surprisingly, I found that pretty much every grading system I checked out was amazing at some things and mediocre at others, even the Big Iron. Selecting a color grading system is going to be a tough decision. I like DaVinci Resolve a lot. It was designed for the way I think, regardless of price. Resolve's price is incredible, but that is not my biggest determining factor because the cost of ownership is more than just the initial price tag. If you can work faster at a higher room rate and give your client better results sooner with a lower bill at the end, then paying the big bucks makes sense, maybe even all the way up to the Big Iron systems. Paid support also tends to be better than free support when you have a deadline and find yourself in need of help.
Next to Resolve, I am smitten by Assimilate Scratch. The interface was not immediately in my head space, but worth learning. People who own Scratch find that it become the hub through which they process all their work because of its powerful camera support and dailies processing in addition to advanced grading and conforming capabilities. You could do your finish in Scratch and output from there. For me, I think with either Scratch or Resolve, I would tend to round trip back to Avid Symphony for the final mastering.
Color grading can be a lot of fun or a lot of frustration. I know people who do a great job color grading in After Effects with Color Finesse, but the process is not at all real time and it is cumbersome to compare shots and apply grades across a series of shots. The same goes for using plug-ins within your non-linear editing application. If you have the time and are working alone, this might work for you. For those of us on a deadline, real time performance and speed are a must. For many jobs, the relational color correction in Avid Symphony is the way to go. Because you only have to apply a grade once to a clip or shot used throughout a program and even from one episode to another, it is so fast. Now if only Avid would update the color correction in Symphony to give us 21st century tools.
The best way to put the joy and speed into your grading sessions is to install a color grading control surface with trackballs, wheels and lots of knobs. This is an absolute must for color grading, even in Avid Symphony. The speed and accuracy gains are phenomenally exponential. And there are a number of great choices out there if you can't afford the big $30K DaVinci control surface. They range from $1500 to $3500. The Tangent Element has the most control and customization, but the real bang for the buck is the Avid Artist Color. It works with pretty much all the software color graders and it also works with Avid Media Composer, Symphony and DS (soon) for both color work and editing.
It is a far bigger challenge to fake your way through complex color grading than it is to pose as an editor. This is not just art, it is also science, so you need a deep understanding of video processing and calibration. You also need a very high-end monitor and external scopes in a room that is color neutral. And of course you need the magic eyes for color grading. Neither creating a beautiful look that exceeds legal colours nor merely balancing and matching shots that are technically legal but lack any character are desirable results. A good colorist has the right balance of alchemy and art, excelling at both the technical and creative.
There's more to come. I welcome your comments and suggestions because education comes through dialogue. No one person can have all the answers. As an old colleague of mine has said many times, "I reserve the right to be wrong." Creative COW is about creative professionals sharing and pooling knowledge and information that will help each other as content creators, as well as provide real world feedback to developers who can take our experiences, like and dislikes and use that information to create better tools for us to use.
The Emmy name and the Emmy statuette are the trademarked property of The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (“Television Academy”) and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (“National Academy”)