Do you colour grade footage by looking at your monitor? That is one way of doing it, but it’s not the most accurate or surefire way to ensure the viewers of your video will see the same colours. For colour grading to work across platforms and individual computers even, you need to start from a correct colour rendition. A professional’s video grading workflow therefore starts with colour correction. After this important first step you can start grading, which essentially means you’re creating a mood.
First step: Ensure correct white and colour balance
As with any colour correction process, you will need a properly calibrated and profiled computer monitor. It’s odd, but you almost never see this requirement mentioned in articles on colour grading of movies.
Colour calibrating a monitor involves the use of a colorimeter such as the X-Rite i1Display and resetting the monitor to a known colour setting, tone curve, etc. Calibration is one thing, making the settings known to apps another — it’s what we use colour profiles for. On a Mac we know the Colorsync colour profiles, an industry standard. Here is some important advice: when profiling your computer monitor, don’t use version 4 profiles nor profiles based on lookup tables (LUT), as some Final Cut Pro X plugins may not work if you use these. LUTs are fine for other purposes, but not for monitor profiling.
Second step: Use vectorscopes and histograms
Even with a properly calibrated and profiled monitor screen, it’s not a good idea to rely on your eyes and monitor alone. Luckily, every non-linear editor (NLE) worthy of that name, as well as every colour grading software on the market has a range of instruments that support the colour correction and colour grading process.
These include vectorscopes (for a good explanation of how to read a vectorscope, scroll a couple of paragraphs down the page), histograms (link to an excellent explanation of histograms in photography. The same principals apply to video), waveforms and RGB parades.
If you learn how to use these, you can correct colours and grade as if you would be “flying on instruments”, i.e. you won’t depend on seeing the colours on a monitor anymore.
Colour grading plug-ins
Final Cut Pro X has its own built-in colour grading effect, but it is rather limited and uses a non-standard interface. Luckily, there are plenty of third party plug-ins for colour scientists.
The best of the best undoubtedly is Color Finale. This plug-in works with Telecine tools, which is a standard in the colour grading industry. It’s a standard for a reason: the interface is built in such a way that it gives much feedback on what you’re doing and what you’ll end up with. Color Finale supports 3D LUTs that even allows you to set up a workflow that closely resembles an analogue film workflow. It has primary colour tools (the wheels), tone curves and secondary colour tools (that you use to change a specific colour range).
The second best — but many people will find this one the best — colour plug-in is Colorista III by Red Giant Software. Colorista III also works with telecine tools, but is less straightforward to use. For example, to use Colorista III for secondary grading, you’ll need to use a second effect, which slows down Final Cut Pro X considerably.
Coremelt has developed a tracker for both the Color Finale and Colorista III effects so that you can grade a specific part of your clip — much like what you can also do with Da Vinci Resolve. With the SliceX plug-in you can have primary, secondary and tracked colour grading right in Final Cut Pro X.
The Hawaiki Analysis plug-in offers and alternative or complement to the vectorscope, waveform and RGB parade in Final Cut Pro X. Its interface is more intuitive and with difficult colour correction jobs, it may make things easier, especially if you’re not colour grading as a job.
FilmConvert is a plug-in and a stand-alone application. It uses analogue film as a starting point and offers a quick way to grade footage. It’s very good, with the focus on convenience, rather than control. You select your camera, the film you want to convert to and the optional grain. You can change the Lift, Gamma and Gain with sliders and colour wheels, but the interface is not as generous as Color Finale’s or Colorista’s. Still, if you want to grade your footage quickly and end up with a professionally looking result, FilmConvert does the job.
So does the new Koji Advanced plug-in, which is a colour grading plug-in that sits in-between tools like Color Finale and FilmConvert. It builds on the work of a famous colour scientist (Dale Grahn), uses film conversion LUTs as its foundation, but gives you a bit more control over the end-result than FilmConvert. Both FilmConvert and the Koji Advanced plug-in are not really suited to correct your colours; they’re true mood creators. Koji Advanced makes full and exclusive use of the Final Cut Pro X Inspector. You control the effect with sliders and check boxes.
Finally, Red Giant Software has Magic Bullet Looks, a plug-in that is specifically targeted at creating a look. This plug-in comes with its own interface that starts up from within Final Cut Pro X. It has presets and great controls, including its own colour correction wheels — several of them, in fact. However, it has one weakness: the working window doesn’t allow you to play your footage. You’ll get a snapshot of the frame under your playhead in Final Cut Pro X instead. Success with Magic Bullet Looks therefore depends on your choice of the right frame for the colour grading.