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Full Spectrum: Experiments with Final Cut Color 1.0

The biggest shock with the release of Apple’s Final Cut Studio 2 has been that Apple included Color in the bundle at a standard upgrade price. Color is a motion-picture-quality color-correction and grading application based on the FinalTouch technology acquired from Silicon Color. Up until IBC 2006 (prior to this acquisition), Silicon Color had marketed FinalTouch as a tiered product for SD, HD and 2K grading, topping out at a price in the thousands of dollars for the 2K version. By bundling Color with Final Cut Studio, Apple introduced many folks to this powerful application—potential users who might never have given it a second look under the FinalTouch banner.

The last official versions of FinalTouch were pretty buggy, so how much were Apple engineers able to do in a few short months? The answer is, Quite a lot. Color 1.0 is very stable if you stay within Apple’s recommended guidelines. Some of these issues, such as drop-frame sequence compatibility, have been fixed in the latest update (1.0.1), but others remain, so new users should consult Apple’s latest release notes for any potential gotchas in their particular workflows. Not all issues will apply, but some users in online forums still report problems with 720p at PAL frame rates and length limitations. For optimum performance, work in segments that are ten minutes or less in length and include fewer than 200 edits.

The Interface

The biggest complaint I hear in online forums is how daunting the Color interface is. This puzzles me, as it’s a rather simple and well-designed application. Granted, it isn’t very FCP-like, but it sports an interface similar to many Unix/Irix/Linux applications. If you have ever worked with Shake or a color-grading application like da Vinci or Autodesk Lustre, then you’ll feel right at home with Apple Color.

The interface color scheme uses a neutral grey background so as not to detract from the task at hand. It’s best to run Color with two screens, although the entire interface can fit on a single screen if your display card handles 1680×1050 pixels or greater. This means that you can run Color on a single-screen desktop system, a 17-inch MacBook Pro or even one of the higher-end 15-inch MacBook Pros with an external monitor. In a two-screen configuration, one screen displays the working interface and the other shows video and a variety of scopes. The video image can be toggled between full-screen or quarter-screen, though only HD clips will actually be quarter-screen on a 23-inch display.

The working interface is arranged in a series of tabs. The left-to-right order of these tabs (called “rooms”) follows the same order as the video processing through Color. The first is Setup, which is where you define application preferences, render locations and so on. You also go here to see your shots as a list and to locate saved color grades.

The rooms continue to the right, organized in the order of Primary In, Secondaries, Color FX, Primary Out and Geometry. As you grade a clip, you will work through these rooms in that same order. The last two rooms are Still Store and Render Queue. Saved reference images from the Still Store can be split-screened and compared with active clips for shot matching.

Making the Grade

Working with Color is as much an art as a science. Most of your work is going to be done in either the Primary In room or in one of the eight available Secondaries. One trick I picked up from Bob Sliga (colorist and former FinalTouch demo artist, now on the Apple staff) is that you shouldn’t try to do all the correction in a single room. For example, use the color wheels and curves in the Primary In room to establish a pleasing overall look, and then go into the Secondaries to customize that image. Both areas offer the typical color wheels and curves, but the effect is cumulative. You might improve the basic shot through the Primary In, but leave it neutral. Then in Secondary 1 make it warmer (more yellow/red) and in Secondary 2 make it cooler (more blue). Since each Secondary can be enabled or disabled, this becomes a quick way to toggle through alternative “looks” for a director without having to start over each time.

There are eight Secondaries. Grading in a Secondary room can be applied to the whole image, a keyed color, or a circular, rectangular or custom vignette. Vignettes permit grading both inside and outside the vignette area within a room, so eight rooms could actually equate to 16 layers of color grading.

You can also use trackers to lock vignettes to objects or people in the shot. You don’t have to always start with Secondary 1. For instance, if you use a vignette to highlight a person in Secondary 1 by darkening the area outside the vignette, and then you highlight another person in Secondary 2, the vignette in Secondary 2 is trying to counteract the darkened video created in Secondary 1, and the two highlights won’t match. Instead, darken the overall shot in Secondary 3 and then use a vignette in Secondary 1 and Secondary 2 to brighten the two different people equally.

Next is the Color FX room, a node-based compositor whose effects are added on top of the grading done in the Primary In and Secondaries rooms. Color employs the GPU and CPU differently than do Apple’s FxPlug filters, so a different set of plug-ins is required. A number come with the system, but a powerful package of effects is also available from developer Graeme Nattress. The Color FX room includes a bin loaded with process tree presets. These are ready-to-use effects than can be tweaked and will give you an idea of how to structure your own trees for custom looks.

The last grading room is Primary Out. It’s the best place to go when the client says, “I love everything, but make it all darker.”

Finally, there’s a Geometry room for pan-and-scan work. These Geometry effects look far cleaner than similar effects from most DVEs I’ve used, but these moves are rendered only when you aren’t using the FCP roundtrip path. When FCP is used, the Geometry information is sent back to FCP as size and position parameters that have to be rendered in Final Cut.

Round-Tripping

Clearly, the optimal use of Color is in conjunction with Final Cut Pro. Most editors will use Color only in that context, so I’ll skip Color’s DI-oriented features. Start by using the Final Cut Pro 6 “Send to Color” command. Color works with the raw media files, so FCP effects generally won’t show up in Color. Motion tab values and basic FCP three-way color correction (since the 1.0.1 patch) will be translated, but only individual shots and not composites will be displayed. You’ll need to “bake in” any effects that are to be graded in Color after the effect is applied. To do this, export a rendered, self-contained file of that composite and drop it back on the FCP timeline before sending it to Color. This workflow also applies to SmoothCam and slo-mo shots. Color will properly interpret the effect, but when it comes time to render, the entire media file will be rendered—not just the portion that appears in the edited sequence. When you’ve finished your grading, render the clips and send the sequence back to Final Cut Pro. There you’ll find a new sequence, labeled “From Color.” It will match the original, except that the shots are now linked to the rendered Color media and not the original captured QuickTime files.

So, How Was It?

I’ve got to say that Color is a pleasure, but it isn’t the only Final Cut grading solution you’ll ever use. There are still plenty of reasons to use the three-way corrector or plug-ins like Magic Bullet Colorista to correct or enhance a handful of shots inside FCP. To get the most out of Apple Color, it’s worth it to plan a color-grading pass into your routine. Just about all of the grades and effects can be keyframed—a big improvement over other systems. Although an expensive colorist-style panel with trackballs would be nice, it is optional. I actually felt quite comfortable with the Apple Mighty Mouse. With Color, it felt far less fatiguing on long sessions than using a mouse with other grading software. Using the middle click of the mouse also allows you to scroll through the timeline. The sheer quality of the correction and how well Color processes the image is impressive. On a fast machine, Color generally plays clips in near real time, even when numerous layers (rooms) are applied.

I tested rendering times with various media formats, such as DV, DVCPRO HD, XDCAM HD and uncompressed HD. I also tested various target render formats, including 10-bit uncompressed and Apple’s ProRes 422. A two-minute 1080i clip—with several layers of grading and an added Color FX Film Grain filter—took between 14 and 17 minutes to render on a Mac Pro (two dual-core Xeons) with 8GB RAM and the ATI X1900 XT graphics card. A similar DV clip took about 11 minutes, so render times don’t correlate to frame size, format or the amount of grading.

I think Apple did an amazing job in a few short months, but there’s definitely room for improvement. For instance, you can’t slave audio with the picture. Final Cut’s three-way color settings translate but don’t really match in Color. Overall, the quality is superb, but I was disappointed with the blur effects. You can’t add a soft-focus effect from the vignettes in the Secondaries. Doing so requires a Color FX filter, and I thought these looked crunchy on highly compressed media such as XDCAM HD and DVCPRO HD. At least one handy feature—adding notes to shots in the list view—doesn’t work yet. And, finally, there is only one undo.

Apple has definitely brought a world-class feature-film toolset to the desktop. A few days of working with Color should be all it takes for most users to get comfortable with the interface. Remember that color grading is an art. If you are new to it, check out one of the many books on color-correction techniques and theory before stepping behind the controls with a client. That being said, editors who have the eye for giving their project that special touch will find Color a delightful experience.

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