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Cut Lines: Color Correcting for Shot-to-Shot Consistency
Posted Nov 1, 2010 Print Version     Page 1of 1

This month we’ll look at three tools in Apple Color that help you get a consistent look across all your shots in a scene. It seems I am getting asked about this more and more from students and consulting clients. The current trend I’m seeing is that there are so many different cameras on the market that few of us are editing material that all comes from the same camera make and model. Even if you ingest everything as ProRes 422 or ProRes (LT), the general look and fidelity of each source can vary quite a bit.

But this need not stop anyone from pursuing a project. Those varied looks can be brought into alignment. The consistency of the look of the end product depends on the source footage and how much time the colorist has to spend on it. So this month I’m going to look at some features of Color that make this process much easier and much faster, allowing the colorist more creative time and less technical time.

Preliminary Setup
To begin, let’s assume we have a Final Cut Pro (FCP) project we’re working on. Remember that a film is made up of scenes, and each scene is made up of shots. We’ll make one FCP Sequence for each scene in the film. Some clips are created from the same master clip, meaning those will all be consistent to start with. Others will be made from one or more additional shots. Those other shots may be from different cameras, or from the same camera with different lighting and/or white balance. First, we’ll need to optimize each shot to look its best (contrast balance) and to share a stylized look (a grade), which will give the film visual consistency.

Final Cut Studio 3 (which included Final Cut Pro 7) introduced Color 1.5, which can read clips on multiple video tracks and uses place holders for transitions, generators, and photos/graphics. If you’re using Final Cut Studio 2, FCP 6, and Color 1.0, you’ll have to first put all your shots on video Track 1 only. Color 1.0 can’t read multiple video tracks. So when you’re ready to lock down your final edit in your FCP 7 Sequence, you’ll need to have it opened in your Timeline window, then go to File > Send To > Color. Or right-click on that Sequence in the Browser window and, from the pop-up menu, choose Send To > Color. (By the way, if anyone out there is still using a one-button mouse, it’s time to upgrade; a three-button mouse—or a control surface such as Euphonix MC Color—is required for accessing several of Color’s key features.)

The very first thing you always want to do in a new Color project is to turn off the global Broadcast Safe filter, which is on by default. Note the tabs across the top of the Color workspace, which are called rooms, and select the Setup room. Then, go to the Project Settings tab at the bottom of the Setup room workspace) and deselect the Broadcast Safe check box at the top of the window (Figure 1, below). Since this filter artificially clips the highlights in your video footage, it can make the footage look flat and dull. Turn this on only after you’ve used Color’s tools to achieve your broadcast-safe stylistic look. It should be used only as a safety net, not as the primary tool to achieve broadcast-safe video.

Apple Color
Figure 1. Make sure the Broadcast Safe checkbox is deselected (it's selected by default).

This tutorial is not about how to do the grading itself but how to use Color’s built-in tools to achieve consistency. But I will share this: Using the Command (Cmd) key with the plus or minus keys (immediately left of the delete/backspace key) will zoom you in and out of the Timeline. Middle-click and drag on the Timeline to move it left and right. Dragging in the timecode ruler along the top of the Timeline will move the playhead. The spacebar starts and stops playback.

Applying Grades
Once you begin to grade your first clip in the Primary In room, Color creates Grade 1. When this is done, look along the bottom of that clip, and you’ll see the grade 1 line. You can create up to four independent grades for each clip using the Ctrl+ (1, 2, 3, or 4) keyboard shortcut. You’ll see each grade represented below the clip you’re working on. Click a grade to switch the Primary In room to the settings for that grade. This gives you up to four separate grades to work with on each clip, and it allows you to compare different looks, to experiment, and to refine the stylized look or correction you’re trying to achieve.

It’s nice to have this sort of flexibility, but it can be confusing having up to four different grades on each clip in your Timeline (i.e., each shot in your scene). It can be difficult to remember which grade on which clip is the one you’ve chosen as your favorite for the final render. That’s where the Beauty Grade comes in. When you’ve worked on a clip and have applied a grade that turns out to be your final, locked-down look, click it in the Timeline to make it active. Then, go to the Grade menu and select Make Beauty Grade, or use the Ctrl+Shift+B keyboard shortcut (Figure 2, below). This will turn that grade a shade of brown so that you can easily see which one is the final grade. There’s no need to delete the other grades, as you may want to show them to your client or come back to them to experiment further. There’s another handy use for Beauty Grades I’ll tell you about when we’re done with our Color session.

Apple Color
Figure 2. Grade 2 is the Beauty Grade, identified by its brownish hue.

Creating and Working with Grade Presets
Once you have your Beauty Grade picked out, or you’ve simply done a single grade that you’re happy with, move back to the Setup room and to the Grades tab, where you can store grades as presets. Place the playhead on a clip with the grade you want as a preset active. In the File: field, type a name you’ll recognize later. Then click Save. Presto, preset Grade settings!

Next, use Cmd+click to highlight all of the clips that come from that same Master Clip in FCP. Drag the preset you created onto those highlighted clips (Figure 3, below). Now all your highlighted clips have the exact same Grade. Simple, quick, easy. If you save more than one of your original clip’s grades as presets, you can simply drag and drop each one, with the playhead on your target clip, and see the changes instantly to compare which preset looks best.

Apple Color
Figure 3. Dropping a preset grade onto a clip in the Timeline

Loading a Clip into the Still Store
Now that we have a stylized look selected in our first clip, we have to make the rest of the clips look the same. Otherwise our audience will be jolted mentally from seeing the same location looking drastically different, back and forth—it’s not good, not at all. So here’s how we’ll handle this.

Place the playhead on a frame in an already-graded clip that not only represents the look you’re going for but that also has some similar characteristics of the new clip you are about to grade. Go to the Still Store room. In the Still Store menu, choose Enable, or use the Ctrl+U keyboard shortcut. You can also select the Display Loaded Still check box at the top right of the window. Just like storing Grade presets, type in a name you’ll recognize in the File: field, and click Save. You can also go to the Still Store menu and choose Store, or use the Ctrl+I keyboard shortcut.

Once your clip is loaded into the Still Store room, with Display Loaded Still checked, double-click the clip. It will show up in the Canvas as a split screen, along with the frame your playhead is parked on.

Control how this split is displayed with the controls at the top right of the Still Store workspace (Figure 4, below). Transition controls where the split appears (left and right). Angle controls the angle of the split. Both of these can be easily controlled by middle-clicking on the numerical field and dragging left and right. Otherwise, you’ll have to type in numbers manually. As I mentioned earlier, you really do need a mouse with a middle-click button (usually the scroll wheel) or a compatible control surface.

Apple Color
Figure 4. Customizing the split-screen display in the Still Store workspace

Grading in the Primary In Room
Now you can move back to the Primary In room and begin grading. You could drag your original clip’s preset onto this new clip as a starting point too. You’ll move the split from the Still Store function around as you work, to make sure white balances match, shadows match, highlights match, and your blues, reds, and so on all match up. The really cool thing is that your scopes will reflect the split too. This way, you can match scope readouts during your grading session (Figure 5, below).

Apple Color
Figure 5. Matching scope readouts in the Primary In room

You’ll use the ability to create up to four grades for each clip, create a Grade preset, and mark a Beauty Grade as discussed before, along with the Still Store, to finish moving through your scene, creating a wonderful and consistent stylized look throughout.

Rendering the Grades
Once you’ve finished your grades in the Primary In room, you should have a Beauty Grade assigned to each clip. It’s important to assign a Beauty Grade as you move along your grading session. Not only does it help you keep track of which Grade on each clip is the one you have chosen to use, it helps with rendering too. When you’re finished and ready to render out and move forward with other work back in FCP, go to the Render Queue room. Right off the bat, you’ll be looking for a button with the word “Beauty” on it. You won’t see one. But if you take a look at the Render Queue menu, you’ll see an Add All Beauty Grades option. With one mouse click, Color will render your Beauty Grades and your Beauty Grades only. Very easy, very quick. Just remember that if you use this function, any clip that has no Beauty Grade assigned will not be rendered at all. Click the Start Render button at the lower left of the Render Queue room workspace. When the render is complete, go to File > Send To > Final Cut Pro. If you didn’t apply a Beauty Grade to all your clips (either accidentally or on purpose), you’ll get a warning that not all clips are rendered. If all the clips you want rendered have been rendered, click Yes to continue placing your work into your Final Cut Pro project. Otherwise, click No to return to Color without moving your work into FCP.

I hope these tips help those of you who are new to Color, as well as those who’ve used Color and didn’t know about these tools. Matching shots to be consistent really doesn’t need to be such a time-consuming pain. It can be fun, and it will move along faster with this workflow. As always, until next month, rock those edits!

Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Master Trainer and Support Professional based in Louisiana. He produces media, consults for studios, and teaches media production nationally.

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