Reviews, Video

Look Converter and LUT Utility for 3D LUT colour grading in Final Cut Pro X

A 3D Look Up Table (LUT) strictly spoken is a colour management tool originally meant to bridge the differences between a digital workstation’s colour representation and movie film emulsions. Today, a 3D LUT is a full-scale colour grading component. The only problem is that not that many video editors support 3D LUTs while there aren’t that many 3D LUT management applications either. Look Converter therefore is a godsend for everyone who wants to create creative 3D LUTs, while LUT Utility is needed for using LUTs in Final Cut Pro X “natively”.

The use of 3D LUTs for calibration purposes has existed for a long time. A great explanation of how 3D LUTs can be used, can be found here. In this review, I’ll be focusing on the creation of 3D LUTs for creative purposes — to create “looks” or “moods”. Not too long ago, Red Giant Software’s LUT Converter was one of the very few 3D LUT utilities that would work with Final Cut Pro, but it never got updated or upgraded for use with Final Cut Pro X.

A short while ago, Red Giant added the LUT capability to their Magic Bullet Looks 2.5 plug-in, but the implementation only allows for applying a LUT, not to create a look and export it to a 3D LUT. However, German developer Picture Elements stepped in and released Look Converter to convert presets and looks into 3D LUTs. Look Converter is a stand-alone app that uses a simple workflow to convert image or video adjustments into a 3D LUT. It exports to the two formats that are currently mainstream: .cube and .3dl.

Look Converter

Look Converter’s 3D LUTs can be used with Photoshop CS6 and later, Premiere Pro and After Effects, and with a little help from Denver Riddle’s LUT Utility, with Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5 too. I tested and will further discuss both Look Converter and LUT Utility as used with Final Cut Pro X and Motion.

Look Converter

Look Converter uses a JPEG — which it generates itself — called “Neutral Filter”. The Neutral Filter is a neatly organised image of colour patches that Look Converter uses to build its 3D LUT. You will have to use the Neutral Filter as an intermediary file. For example, if you want to save a particular look you created from adjusting overall contrast, saturation, brightness, etc in DxO Optics Pro and use it in Photoshop CS6, you can do the following:
– In DxO Optics Pro, open an image and apply your adjustments
– Save the adjustments to a new preset
– Open the Neutral Filter in DxO Optics Pro and apply the new preset
– Save the Neutral Filter to (for example) new-filter.jpg
– Load the new-filter.jpg file in Look Converter and click the 3D LUT button

And now all you need to do is load the 3D LUT in Photoshop by creating a LUT adjustment layer and loading the 3D LUT you have just created.

The reason why you will want to use 3D LUTs is because you can now use this “look” or preset across applications — provided they support 3D LUTs. And that is the case with the newer versions of After Effects and Premiere Pro, as well as Da Vinci Resolve, Magic Bullet Looks and Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5 with the LUT Utility plug-in. It can’t be much more efficient than this.

You can use photos and footage to create your LUTs, as long as you can load the Neutral Filter JPEG into the program where you want to grab your settings from. For example, in Photoshop you can load the Neutral Filter on a layer that you turn off as long as you’re trying to find the right look for a still of your video clip. When you’re satisfied, you turn off the layer with the still and turn on the layer with the Neutral Filter and the adjustment layers will do the rest while you’re exporting the Filter.

Look Converter is as simple as it comes, yet it does offer you the two 3D LUT formats commonly used. It also uses a 17×17×17 cube size to generate the 3D LUTs, as the maximum size would be too large to be efficient. The maximum sized 256x256x256 3D LUTs are used as calibration tool for converting digital to film.

One thing that I would have liked Picture Instruments to give a bit more attention to than they have, is the app’s interface design. But that doesn’t affect the app’s capabilities any bit of course, because not only can you create one 3D LUT at a time, you can also batch create them. I tried this with seven presets from DxO FilmPack and the process took less than two minutes to finish.

LUT Utility

What happens when you have created your 3D LUTs and want to work with them in Final Cut Pro X or Motion 5? Unless you have Red Giant Magic Bullet Looks, not much — and if you do, you can only work with them within Magic Bullet Looks. The latest versions of Adobe’s applications all natively support 3D LUTs, as do Da Vinci Resolve, Avid Media Composer and EditShare.

Final Cut Pro X requires a plug-in. The best and most simple way to use a 3D LUT is to use Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. This is a very simple plug-in for Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5. LUT Utility comes with a whole bunch of 3D LUTs already available, so you can start working with it immediately. For example, if you have ARRI Alexa LogC footage that needs to be converted to Rec709, LUT Utility has a 3D LUT for this purpose out-of-the-box. If you think the conversion is overdoing it a bit, you can drag the Mix slider so there’s more of the ungraded footage showing through.

LUT Utility

However, the real power of LUT Utility comes from the “Load external LUT” option in its drop-down menu. Inside Final Cut Pro X that option is a dead duck, but in Motion and your System Preferences, it exposes the power of this plug-in.

As 3D LUTs are really just special text files, they live somewhere on your file system. In the case of LUT Utility, they live in a folder inside your Library. But you needn’t open that folder to give LUT Utility access to all the grading looks you generate yourself with for example Look Converter.

You can grab those 3D LUT files and drag them to the LUT Utility panel inside your System Preferences panel, or use LUT Utility in Motion where you can load custom LUTs with the drop-down option of the plug-in itself. The System Preferences panel also allows you to load LUTs for permanent usage and to remove them when you don’t want them anymore.

Now, why should you want to install a plug-in that only loads LUTs? If you have Magic Bullet Looks, for example, you can colour grade your footage including applying your own LUTs. So why? The answer is cost, simplicity and speed. Magic Bullet Looks is a great plug-in, but you still need to load an extra interface and it has a whole bunch of features of which LUT support is only one component. In other words, even if you have Looks, you’ll find yourself sometimes (if not often) wanting a quicker fix for your colour grading needs.

Applying a 3D LUT with LUT Utility is a one-click operation and if you have multiple clips that need the same treatment, it is much faster to load LUT Utility and select a LUT than it is to load a plug-in, open its interface and then apply the preset you want.

Pricing shouldn’t be an issue with either of the two plug-ins. LUT Utility costs about €22.00 while Look Converter will set you back €29.00. Magic Bullet Looks costs about €295.00.

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J.D. – Copywriter – Tech. Writer – Editor at Visuals Producer – Contributor at Photoshop User, Studio Daily – Sub-editor at RedShark News