Color 1.0, a new program introduced in Final Cut Studio 2, brings professional color correcting and finishing to the suite. Far more powerful than the basic color-correction tools found in the previous version of Final Cut Pro, Color introduces Bezier-based masking and color-selection tools, single and multipoint optical tracking, advanced effects, and creative color-correction capabilities.
Originally developed for the frame-based DPX (Digital Picture Exchange) format commonly used for postproduction workflows in commercial and feature filmmaking, Color offers powerful and logically ordered tools that let everyone from beginners to pros work at their own skill level.
Color steps you through the grading process, which makes possible everything from a simple gamma correction of dark video to the manipulated, desaturated, grainy hues popular in sci-fi and horror movies.
Color is a highly specialized professional application that requires time and effort to understand. The printed Color Setup Guide and the included tutorial files are a good place to start familiarizing yourself with the program.
Of all the components in the Final Cut Studio suite, Color has the most stringent hardware requirements. Apple recommends at least a 2.5GHz Power Mac G5 Quad with a 1680 by 1050-pixel dual-display setup, and specific graphic cards for real-time rendering and playback of the larger frame sizes in uncompressed High Definition (HD) and 2K format (35mm film scanned for use in the DPX format at a resolution of 2048 by 1556 pixels). Color users working in standard definition (SD) or compressed HD can get by with less hardware, but certain graphics cards limit on-screen previews to an 8-bit color depth, and do not accelerate rendering as much as the recommended ATI X1900XT card does. This card is noticeably faster than the stock Nvidia Geforce7300 GT graphics cards that ship in the Mac Pro. And note that there is no preview playback in Desktop Cinema mode or over a FireWire connection.
Color lacks the friendly, Apple-style look and feel of the rest of Final Cut Studio. But the interface’s neutral gray color minimizes the viewer’s color bias, reduces eyestrain during long periods of work, and allows for cleaner, more consistent corrections.
Color even handles native HDV and MPEG-based video formats directly via the Send to Color command. These files open with your project’s attributes in Color’s timeline. Still images, elements from Live Type or Motion, and titles, freeze frames, and generators created in Final Cut Pro are not accessible within Color. And while Final Cut Pro’s Open Format Timeline allows for a mix of frame sizes and rates, Color doesn’t handle mixed frame rates well—it works only with a consistent timebase in its timelines.
Used as a stand-alone application, Color allows you to import industry-standard EDLs (edit decision lists) from other applications and XML data files derived from older versions of Final Cut Pro, thereby increasing Color’s ability to work with programs outside of the Final Cut Studio 2 suite.
Color is very complex, but as you get used to the software, its complexity starts to make sense. The program has eight context-sensitive points of entry called rooms, which are organized as tabs at the top of the screen. Each room allows you to complete discrete color operations. Setup is the first of these, followed by Primary In, Secondaries, Color FX, Primary Out, Geometry, Still Store, and Render Queue.
The Primary In tab shows your project in the timeline just as it was in Final Cut Pro. The HSL (hue, saturation, and luminance) slider controls for adjusting the shadows, midtones, and highlights grace the top of the room, while red, green, blue, and luminance curves controls below allow users to selectively adjust the overall image. The Auto Balance button gives you superb starting image correction for a wide variety of file types.
Due to its legacy in the film world, Color often employs telecine terminology like lift, gamma, and gain instead of familiar computer-based color-correction terms such as shadows, midtones, and highlights; also, you can use sliders or numeric inputs to make adjustments.
After you’re satisfied with the basic correction, you can fine-tune it in the Secondaries room using either selections derived from the Bezier tools or user-selectable color ranges.
The Color FX room lets users apply special effects and transformations, and facilitates the use of third-party filters (currently, only the Nattress Advanced plug-ins are available). Color ships with 20 adjustable preset effects, accessible via the Color FX Bin. These effects are just starting points for specialty looks. If you need to separate the foreground subject from the background due to unlimited depth of field from DV camcorder output, you can customize the Defocus presets in this bin to fit your shot with only minor adjustments. In the Geometry room, you can create Bezier masks and generate tracking points to allow the mask to travel over time. You can also zoom in, reposition, and rotate the frame, as well as scale and resize images throughout the project so that you can work at one resolution and then output to another resolution as part of the final render process.
Performing that final render is where you can get sidetracked when you’re not using the Return to FCP export function. By default, projects using the Send to Color command are returned to Final Cut Pro the same way as they were sent. With compressed material you have the ability to render as high-quality uncompressed, ProRes, or Aja Video’s 10bit RGB, the only third-party codec available. However, that content maintains its original aspect ratio regardless of the output codec you choose—an issue to consider when you’re using applications that are not part of the suite.
Apple’s online documentation lists a number of known issues with this release of Color, including speed changes or mixed frame rates from Final Cut Pro, a recommended limit of 200 edit points for sequences, default Broadcast Safe limits that need to be set manually for proper output, lack of support for anamorphic standard definition content, and a number of performance guidelines. (See the Color 1.0 release notes for the complete list).
Macworld’s buying advice
Color 1.0 is a solid, best-in-class addition to the Final Cut Studio 2 suite, offering one of the most powerful color-correction tools available in video production. It has remarkably fast, extremely efficient, and powerful capabilities for handling a variety of tasks, from making the simplest correction to creating custom effects or complicated looks. It provides a vastly superior and far simpler process than XML- or EDL-based workflows. It lets you control your vision from start to finish. However, its complex, less-than-familiar interface will take some getting used to. And its lack of support for third-party codecs will likely deter some video pros.
[Gary Adcock is a Chicago-based HD and film production consultant, and the technical chairman for HD Postproduction for the National Association of Broadcasters.]