The addition of color-correction tools has been a big feature touted by many edit system manufacturers in recent years. What had once been the domain of hardware companies like da Vinci and Pandora-names that dominated film-to-tape transfer suites and postproduction color-correction suites-become a tool available to editors and designers as well. The interest in cost-effective digital intermediate processes for features has fueled the development of a new breed of desktop solutions.
Many Adobe After Effects users are familiar with Synthetic Aperture’s color-correction tools, since Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse plug-in has been bundled with After Effects for several years. Synthetic Aperture also offers Windows and Mac plug-in tools for Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid systems and Autodesk Combustion.
Synthetic Aperture has recently expanded its scope. While the company still develops color-correction plug-ins for effects and edit systems, Synthetic Aperture has developed a complete standalone solution for grading video, film and still images. Color Finesse 2 is actually a collection of software products that encompasses the resolution-independent plug-in (called Color Finesse 2.1 PI), as well as SD, HD and film-resolution standalone versions. Color Finesse 2.1 HD+ handles footage of all sizes, from SD to HD to film. Color Finesse 2.1 SD works only with SD footage. The Mac/Win plug-in is $595. The v2.1 SD standalone application is $995, while the v2.1 HD+ standalone app (which includes the v2.1 plug-in) is $1,995. The standalone Color Finesse SD and HD+ offerings are currently shipping only for the Mac platform; the PC versions are forthcoming.
Comprehensive Color-Correction Toolset
The Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse 2 integrated tools are familiar to all who use Vegas, Avid, Final Cut, Premiere Pro or other popular NLEs. Adobe Photoshop users will also find controls common to their workflow. When you use the plug-in version in an application such as Final Cut, effects load like any other filter and can hold any position in the effects stack applied to a clip. Various slider, graphical and numerical adjustments can be performed inside the FCP interface or, alternately, within the Color Finesse interface. Choosing the latter temporarily places your clip in the Color Finesse GUI, and you get quick access to all control tabs.
A key difference is that inside the Color Finesse GUI, no other added effects are visible. If you add a sepia effect “upstream” or a glow “downstream” within the FCP effect hierarchy, you will see the result in context within the Final Cut interface but not while you are in Color Finesse’s own interface. Using the plug-in restricts you to resolutions and color spaces available within the host application, and that host does all rendering.
The interface is divided in half: the top half for images, scopes and transport controls and the bottom half for color controls. Down the left side of these controls are several tabs that represent different working models for color manipulation: HSL, RGB, CMY and YCbCr. The first two-HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) and RGB (an additive color model of red, green and blue)-are present in many NLE color filters and are where you’ll find the color wheel graphic controls for hue offsets, just like Apple’s three-way color corrector. Next are CMY (a subtractive color model of cyan, magenta and yellow) and YCbCr (luminance + color difference), which allows you to work in a color model similar to film (CMY) or component video (YCbCr). Synthetic Aperture recommends CMY when working with film transfers where the dyes have faded.
Next are curves and levels, which function in a fashion similar to controls in Photoshop. Curves functionality tends to be overlooked in the color correctors of many NLEs, yet it is extremely useful because of the control it offers. Prime candidates for curve (tonality) adjustment are images that feature a dark-skinned person against a bright background or window. The curves function permits you to add multiple correction points across an image’s tonal range (also individual color channels) and achieve a degree of control impossible with a basic three-way corrector. Custom LUTs (lookup tables), like presets for film stocks, are created by manipulating curves. Finally, there are adjustments for luma range, secondary color correction and limiting.
Synthetic Aperture has included a full range of waveform monitors and vectorscopes, the ability to store and recall reference files and a selection of filters, gels and film stock presets. A little less obvious (until you read the manual) is QuickGrade, which lets you store and recall up to eight correction settings on the F1 through F8 keys-an invaluable asset for a multi-camera show. You can copy a clip and “paste forward” or group clips and apply a correction to that group, making it faster to correct a series of similar clips at one time-or an entire timeline at once.
Single Tool Versus Stacking Effects
When you work inside an NLE like Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro, you will find many of these tools as individual filter effects that can be stacked to provide some of the same functionality. Unfortunately, adding effects in this way means you’re traveling through that NLE’s effects pipeline. All effects work suffers from mathematical rounding errors when you go from the raw media file back to a rendered file with the added effects. When you apply multiple effects, you introduce cumulative rounding errors that don’t occur when using a single effect with multiple integrated tools. Several passes through a color-correction filter will cause subtle hue shifts within the image that become more severe as you stack and render more filters.
These types of errors are minimized in Color Finesse because you don’t need to stack up several versions of an effect. As an example, I often raise gamma and increase contrast and saturation. In Apple Final Cut Pro, I’d use the three-way color corrector for this task; however, making such changes generally results in dark colors becoming too saturated and bright colors, like yellow, becoming illegal in value. My next step is to apply a desaturate highs filter, enable both highs and lows and make my adjustments to reduce chroma at both the high and low ends of the image. If the sky is blown out, I may add a second three-way color-correction filter, use the limiting values to perform secondary color correction and isolate the sky to make it more blue. Finally, I may add a broadcast safe filter to keep me legal. Four filters in all. Four points of possible rounding errors. When the same correction is performed in Color Finesse, the changes can be made simultaneously within a single effects path simply by using the appropriate tabs.
The XML Roundtrip
The standalone version of Color Finesse imports and exports projects from Apple Final Cut Pro via XML, managing color-correction projects on its own, with its own timeline, rather than relying on Final Cut. Once the color correction is complete, the project, now with corrected footage, can be exported to a new XML file and re-imported into FCP for any final rendering.
I ran a few projects through Color Finesse using the FCP XML project path. When you import an XML file into Color Finesse, all clips are organized horizontally on a timeline displayed between the top and bottom windows of the GUI. If the Final Cut project has four clips in a picture-in-picture effect, these will be displayed in sequential order as full-frame images on the timeline. In addition to the single image and normal (with scopes) views of the plug-in version, you also get a triplet view in the top window, which displays the previous, current and next clips in the timeline sequence. Click on a clip in the timeline and it becomes the current view. You can scrub through the clip or play it in real time by caching a RAM preview (similar to After Effects). Aided by the wealth of monitoring scopes, color correction was versatile and easy. Synthetic Aperture supports hardware cards from AJA and Blackmagic Design, so if you have one, you’ll be able to preview on a video monitor.
When you’re done correcting, Color Finesse will render new media files with the applied corrections. Be sure to designate a new target media folder for your render files, otherwise the original files will be overwritten. Import the new XML project back into Final Cut and your sequence is rebuilt, complete with Color Finesse grading. These corrections appear only in the original sections edited to the Final Cut timeline (plus handles), so if the clip came from a longer media file, only the portions used will have color correction rendered to them. Since this grading has been applied to the raw media file, it will be “upstream” of any other FCP effects filters. I experienced some problems with keyframed color correction; these changes did not appear in the rendered files imported back to FCP.
As good as Synthetic Aperture has made this application, there is still room for improvement. I did my testing on a PowerBook G4, and the Color Finesse interface was relatively slow. Clips took longer to load and sliders took longer to react within the Color Finesse standalone application than when using the plug-in with Final Cut Pro.
I also missed several popular tools, such as auto-balance and auto-contrast. I’d love to see an overall “program track” correction (as in Avid Symphony), which provides an overall sequence correction on top of individual clip corrections. Finally, not all controls are active in all views, which is a bug that Synthetic Aperture engineers are working on. (For example, secondary color correction works only in the normal and not the triplet view. When I tried to use the eyedropper to match colors, I wasn’t able to sample a previous or next clip. I could match only within a clip or to a reference clip.) Finally, I would love to see true real-time playback.
Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse 2 is a powerful tool that every editor will want to investigate. It is designed in an intuitive manner that editors will find easy to use. Whether you’re just trying to fix that DV footage or doing DI on the desktop, Color Finesse is one of the tools that will make your job not only affordable but also quite enjoyable.