Good Grades: Looks Management with Technicolor CineStyle Color Assist
Technicolor CineStyle Color Assist enters a market already crowded with color grading and looks applications and plug-ins, but since it is a color application from color technology pioneer Technicolor, it merits a look.
|Technicolor CineStyle Color Assist welcome screen|
Color Assist, a $99 download from technicolorcinestyle.com, consists of a standalone PC or Mac application and plug-ins for Apple Final Cut Pro 7 (Mac) and Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5/CS6 (both Mac and PC). It is bundled with 25 CineStyle looks. Additional looks may be purchased on the Technicolor site (bundles are $19 each) and you can save your own looks as well.
Installation is not entirely straightforward. The PC or Mac installer sets up only the application and looks—users need to physically copy the plug-ins to the appropriate folders. The documentation clearly shows the destinations, but it is a bit of a pain to copy something manually that could easily be scripted into the installer.
Color Assist works with resolutions from DV to 2K and accepts most popular file formats (.mov, .avi, .flv and .mp4) and codecs (ProRes, H.264, DV, WMV). It is somewhat disappointing that it lacks support for 4K, ProRes 4444 or MXF.
|Color control interface|
While system requirements are relatively modest (minimum processor, both PC and Mac, is Intel i3 and it will run with as little as 4 GB of RAM), it does require a GPU with a minimum of 1 GB VRAM.
Technicolor describes Color Assist as an optimal way to work with log footage, whether shot with the CineStyle profile for Canon DSLRs or with other cameras. It is positioned for all users, although I think professionals might wish to grade with more complete tools.
Don’t get me wrong, the toolset is extensive and the color grading properties are powerful, but it is far from a complete color grading system.
The best way to work with CineStyle is through the NLE.
I tested it on the Mac using both Final Cut Pro 7 and Premiere Pro CS6. All tests were conducted under Mac OS X 10.8.2. Usage is similar in the two applications but the results were quite different.
The workflow is simple: import a clip, place it in the NLE’s timeline, apply the Color Assist filter, send to the Color Assist app, grade, save and return to the NLE, where the graded clip appears in the timeline. It is possible to create up to nine different grades, which are then selectable within the effects control window of your NLE. It is a great way to audition multiple looks.
|Color Assist interface from FCP 7|
But again, the implementation is somewhat less than complete. One would expect that clicking the button Send to Color Assist would launch the application. This isn’t the case. You need to open Color Assist before launching FCP or Premiere. Not a big deal, except that it’s an extra, unnecessary step.
Technicolor recommends using log footage, so I worked with clips I shot on my Canon DSLR using the CineStyle profile (H.264 clips) as well as Sony PMW-F3 S-Log clips in .mov (DNxHD codec) from a Sound Devices PIX 240.
Of course, FCP 7 had to transcode the DSLR footage to ProRes first, but once that was accomplished, I put a clip in the timeline and applied the filter. FCP 7 requires two steps to send to Color Assist: clicking Link to MetaColor and then Send to Color Assist. (Color Assist saves compositions non-destructively by associating an .xcsl (MetaColor) file with each graded video clip.) One great feature here is that multiple clip selections can be sent to Color Assist.
A recommended workflow is to first apply the log look from the preset looks. The log look actually “delogs” the footage and places it in a Rec. 709 color space.
The software user interface offers a choice of regular or advanced mode. I recommend the advanced mode because it allows the user to toggle between lift/gamma/gain or offset/power/slope in the color wheels window. These do make subtle differences in grading.
The curves selection is powerful, allowing for linear curve, inverse S-Log curve, 2.2 gamma to log or 2.4 gamma to log. Eyedroppers allow setting the white, gray and black points in the image.
The key selection is a great concept but a little less useful owing to the lack of masks. Thus, a key selection will be applied to the entire image, not just a masked area. It is here that I found a tremendous inconsistency. Just to test the key, I turned part of a red building a rather nasty green. The look did not round-trip to FCP 7, though it did round-trip properly to Premiere Pro.
To complete the UI, the right side of the screen has a histogram, RGB parade, vectorscope, history window and metadata window. Looks can be embedded in the metadata.
Once you have finished grading by any combination of applying looks, curves, color wheels or keys, it is possible to save a .jpeg of the frame to save that look, or more uniquely to create either a 1D or 3D LUT. Thus, this app could be used to create LUTs for monitor viewing or for more complex and complete grading applications like Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve.
Creating a grade, saving and then continuing to work can optionally create a second grade, up to a total of nine looks. After saving in Color Assist, toggling back to the NLE will allow selection of any of those grades.
Color Assist is worth the $99 for LUT creation alone if you need to create LUTs for editors or for on-set viewing. Color Assist can be a very simple way for those working with the free CineStyle profile to grade.
Its use to advanced colorists is a bit more limited considering the other tools out there. First, there is no preview through capture cards to external devices. Thus, to see how my image would look on my reference monitor, I needed to toggle back to the NLE more frequently. Secondly, its lack of masking and advanced features like tracking limits its value to users at the higher end. These features are available even in the free version of Resolve. FCP 7 users have Color, and Premiere Pro users have SpeedGrade, albeit not fully implemented in this initial CS6 iteration. (SpeedGrade has no preview monitoring either.)
Color Assist can be likened to such plug-ins as Red Giant Magic Bullet Looks, as well as to a number of looks plug-ins available as Noise Industries FxFactory add-ons. But Magic Bullet Looks is $399 and is so extensive that it is very easy to get lost in it. Color Assist is powerful, fast and to the point. It makes log footage look very good in one simple delogging operation.
While it lacks monitoring capability through capture cards, Color Assist nonetheless can display on a second monitor using Technicolor’s DP Lights System. Technicolor says this configuration ensures a faithfully reproduced image. I am old-school, I confess, and I want to see things on a calibrated reference monitor, but I acknowledge that DSLR shooters going to the web might be served adequately by computer screen monitoring.
In short, Color Assist has so many features and such power on the one hand and such limitations on the other. RED and 4K support would make it more useful to the higher end, and even the rest of us are headed toward 4K ubiquity. The absence of masks is another significant omission. So what do you want for $99?, someone might ask. Well, I’ve got great masking and tracking in Resolve Lite and I didn’t pay a thing for it. Yet the learning curve is much steeper for Resolve than it is for Color Assist. The less advanced user can basically look at the Color Assist quick start guide and get right to work. That says a lot for it. Support for Apple FCP X and for Avid Media Composer and Symphony will be necessary for wide adoption.
If you work with DSLR log footage or need power beyond the native color applications of your NLE, Color Assist is a worthy and inexpensive acquisition. There is room for it in this crowded field.
Product: Technicolor CineStyle Color Assist
Pros: Twenty-five built-in looks, more available for purchase. Quick delogging of footage, great looks to use as starting points. Excellent scopes. Metadata support. Up to nine looks show up in your NLE. Saves looks as well as 1D/3D LUTs. Stable. Fast. Easy to learn. Inexpensive.
Cons: Limited code support. No 4K resolution. No masks. No external monitoring. Less than elegant installation. Does not launch automatically from NLE effects window. Inconsistent results with FCP 7. Lack of FCP X and Avid support.
Bottom Line: Good for many users who don’t wish to learn Apple Color, Adobe SpeedGrade or Blackmagic DaVinci resolve. A great way to get the CineStyle DSLR profile right every time. Useful on all footage, not just log. Omissions are frustrating for more advanced users.
MSRP: $99 application, additional looks packages $19 each