Restoring Three-Way Color Correction to FCP X

How Color Grading Central's Plug-In Enhances Your Edit
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When Apple launched Final Cut Pro X, one of the items that users missed from previous versions was the popular three-way color corrector. Most built-in color correction modules and plug-ins use the common color wheel method for changing color balance. It's based on the principle that to reduce a certain color cast, you push the wheel in the opposite direction of that color. This decreases the color you want to reduce by shifting the balance toward the colors that are on the opposite side of the wheel.

Apple replaced the color wheel model in FCP X with the color board: a set of tabs for exposure, saturation and color (tint or hue). In the color tab, which controls balance, you see a color swatch field divided into positive and negative halves. To decrease one color, you simply move the puck into the negative range for that color. Although this may be intuitive to users who don't know anything about color theory, it's contrary to how most color tools work.

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Color Finale adds color wheels to the FCP X editor's grading toolkit.

As a result, many FCP X editors have been on the lookout for good color correction plug-ins that use the more common three-way color wheel method. The complication is that the FCP X user interface is very restrictive for software developers, which limits the sort of custom controls they can use. The usual workaround—if they don't utilize the space of the Inspector panel—is a HUD (heads-up display) or an overlay on top of the viewer image. To date, plug-ins that offer color wheels have included Yanobox Moods, Red Giant Magic Bullet Colorista III, FilmConvert and Hawaiki Color. Some, like Ripple Tools RT Color Balance and Lawn Road Color Precision, use the Mac OS color picker in a way that functions as a color balance control.

Layer-Based Correction
The newest color correction plug-in for Final Cut Pro X is Color Finale from Color Grading Central. This layer-based color corrector combines four tools into a single filter. These include color wheels, curves, LUTs and vectors. To solve the interface issue, Color Finale uses a floating panel that lives on top of the regular FCP X interface. When you apply the Color Finale filter to a clip and click "open" in the Inspector window, the floating control panel is launched. You can move it around in case it obscures part of the regular FCP X interface. Within this panel you can select any of its four tools for as many layers as you like and rearrange them into any layer order. Each layer has a separate opacity control and the filter has an overall "mix" slider in the Inspector window, which lets you adjust the intensity of the complete filter or of individual layers.

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The vector tool enables hue, saturation and luminance adjustment along six main color vectors.

These four tools combine most of the functions offered by other individual filters into a single plug-in. The three-way color corrector works as expected, with balance and level controls for shadow, midrange and highlight sections, plus a global saturation slider. The LUT control is like Color Grading Central's LUT Utility. Color Finale ships with several basic camera patch and creative look LUTs (same as with LUT Utility). These are installed into a standard Motion Templates directory for FCP X. You can add any .cube format LUT file to this folder and it will show up inside FCP X as one of Color Finale's LUT options.

The curves are unique among FCP X plug-ins because these are true multi-point curves. Other curve tools are based on an S-curve, but not here. You can add numerous control points along any of the RGB or master curves and make precise adjustments. The vector tool is based on the six color vectors: red, green, blue, cyan, magenta and yellow. You can adjust the luminance and saturation, as well as shift the hue, for each of these vectors.

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Color Finale integrates four basic tools: LUT Utility, Color Wheels, Curves, and Vectors.

In a very, very loose sense, Color Finale is a bit like having Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve inside FCP X and is most similar to FilmLight's Baselight Editions color correction plug-in. You can easily mix and match tools as layers within the plug-in control panel. If you apply the Color Finale filter to multiple clips on the timeline, once you've opened the panel, you can move from clip to clip and add or adjust correction layers within this panel, as long as it stays open. If you've closed it, clicking "open" in the Inspector will relaunch the control panel. Using "copy" and "paste attributes" enables you to copy-and-paste Color Finale effects from one clip to another. Unfortunately, there is no way within the filter to split-screen the uncorrected and corrected image, or to store grades as presets. But you can toggle individual layers on and off.

Impressions
As with any tool, how the controls work for you is a very subjective thing. Most of the tools feel very good to me, though I have a few minor issues. For me, the range of the color wheels is too extreme. Once you get about one-quarter of the way out from the color wheel's center, you've made a pretty large balance change. At the edges, the change is huge and unusable for anything other than a special effect. I'd rather see finer granularity with less extreme change at the edges of the wheel—or the ability to exceed the limits of the wheel for a more extreme change.

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Color Finale is a layer-based grading plug-in. Tools can be combined in any layer order for an unlimited number of layers.

I find the vectors very limiting for secondary adjustments because you cannot select how wide the envelope is around that vector color. For instance, the red vector will affect a red coat but not flesh tones that tend to fall into the orange range—and orange is not a true color vector. The developers feel that adhering to true vectors results in a cleaner image, as opposed to an HSL model; however, HSL secondary correction (as in Colorista III or Avid Symphony) enables you to be more selective about the colors you are grabbing for adjustment. I've also become used to having contrast, pivot, color temperature and tint controls. These are a key feature of Adobe SpeedGrade and included with many other filters. I hope these will also be added to Color Finale at some point.

A few key features that would be nice to have are tracking, masking and keying. These aren't built into the current version but might be added natively into later versions. However, with the introduction of FCP X 10.2, filters gain a built-in shape mask function courtesy of the host application. This means that Color Finale gets a shape mask that can be used as a form of "power windows." Additionally, if you've purchased CoreMelt's SliceX/TrackX package, its masking and mocha-powered tracking function can be combined with Color Finale grading.

Most importantly, the developers have done a fine job of balancing correction quality with real-time performance. Stacking seven or eight layers of various tools inside Color Finale still leaves you with real-time playback of a sequence with unrendered clips. You would not get this performance if you stacked the same number of individual color correction filters onto a single FCP X clip. Render speed, when you do choose to render, is fast.

For many, Color Finale will be the color corrector that Apple should have made. It works well and combines a fine set of tools into a single package. Since it works as any standard filter does, you can use it in conjunction with any other effect and with Final Cut's built-in tools. For example, you can use FCP X's log processing to correct Log C gamma-encoded clips upstream of the filter. You can still add a vignette or key mask on top by using the regular FCP X color board tool. As an added bonus, Color Finale also installs and works with Motion 5. If you're an editor who prefers to do your grading inside the NLE and skip troublesome round-trips, then Color Finale is a good addition to your Final Cut Pro X toolkit.

Disclosure: I was involved in the Color Finale beta team and participated in providing testing and feedback during the development phase.

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