Color Grading Doesn't Have to be a Chore, Just Ask the Creator of Color Finale
"It’s like the saying goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ and we just felt like Final Cut was a tool that really needed this and that’s why we created it.” - Denver Riddle
Denver Riddle’s contribution to the color grading community could have ended after the creation of Color Grading Central, the website and Facebook user group that made learning, discussing, and troubleshooting color grading easier than ever. He didn’t stop there, though, because four years later he would release Color Finale, a plugin for FCPX that brought lost color grading options and added features to Final Cut. His highly regarded software is coming to DaVinci Resolve soon as well. In a world of macro post-production behemoths like Final Cut, DaVinci Resolve, and Adobe Premiere, Denver excels in making the micro details much easier to achieve.
To Denver, color grading is an extension of good cinematography, which makes sense given that he started as a DP. At this time, color grading software was difficult to learn and very expensive to acquire (this was pre-DaVinci Resolve), and his transition to color grading had a profound impact on his mentality as an eventual teacher and software developer. Denver notes:
“I started out as a Director of Photography and, because I really wanted to continue to shape the final look, I felt like color grading was a natural extension of good cinematography... At the time, there was hardly any information about color grading out there. DaVinci Resolve hadn’t come out yet and been disruptive in the color grading space specifically. Besides a couple handful of books, there were no tutorials online, so it was difficult for me to learn, to get good at the craft. It was a lot of trial by error. I did take some formal training at the International Colorist Academy at Burbank… Besides that there was a real dearth of information that was out there, so this is what inspired the creation of Color Grading Central… There simply wasn’t information out there. Now there’s tons of tutorials on YouTube, but at the time there wasn’t really anything at all.”
The video above is one of Denver’s first color grading tutorials. His slow, measured, no-nonsense delivery has been a staple of videos since the beginning. If you’ve ever been in nasty a post-production pickle, you might have noticed that an ugly, confusing, or misleading YouTube tutorial can sour your mood like nothing else (totally never happened to me). Denver’s videos are super dry until you need them, then they’re a lifesaver. His content eventually spawned a community of color enthusiasts and professionals whose conversations and problem-solving exposed a lot of inefficiencies with current color grading platforms.
“I was running Color Grading Central and was just producing different training videos for people wanting to learn more about color grading. If you’re familiar with the history of Final Cut X, you’ll know that in 2011, when it was released, it wasn’t the most well-received. Professional users felt that there were some features that were missing, and if you remember the history prior to Final Cut X, Final Cut Studio contained a dedicated color grading system called “Apple Color” that they acquired from another company called “Final Touch.” The color port was a kind of revolutionary way of producing color correction, but at the same time it was still limited with what it could do. A couple of years went by and the first software plugin that we released specifically for Final Cut was LUT Utility and that allowed users to apply 3D Look Up Tables. There was starting to be a market for these lookup tables because there were all of these Log cameras.”
LUTs, or “Look Up Tables,” are typically applied after footage is matched and graded to help give the clip or project and overall “look.” These can range from simple contrast shifts to film stock emulation. There’s an easy misconception that LUTs can do most of the color grading work for you (again, totally never happened to me). Denver, though, does a nice job of explaining their use in relation to the color grading process as a whole.
“There’s a variety of ways you can grade Log [footage]. You can do it manually, you can adjust the lift, gamma, and gain controls, and you’re adjusting the contrast. It takes a little bit more work but you can craft and shape that gamma curve to the way you like. You can apply a Look Up Table. … There’s a plethora of LUT’s out there. You can buy a bunch of LUT packs all day long and slap them on there and get the look that you want. Or you can break the look of a film down into a language. What are the colors? What is the color palette? Is there a strong dominant color? What is the saturation like? Are some colors more saturated than others? What is the contrast? Is it a high-key look? Is there detail in the shadows, is there detail in the highlights? Once you can break it down into language, then you can actually grade for a particular look. It’s like reverse-engineering.”
LUT Utility will enrich your color grading process, but it won’t help you actually break down the look of your film. For that, Denver created Color Finale.
“The same developer that we had developed LUT Utility with, we ticked around the idea of creating a more full color correction tool for Final Cut. We had the opportunity to participate in a survey, maybe around 2014… We found that half of users were doing all of their color correction from inside of Final Cut and the other half was sending it out to something like DaVinci Resolve… What we sought to do was bridge that gap between Final Cut - being a very fast and modern editorial platform that I really feel like has really been disruptive in the editorial space in terms of magnetic timeline and all of the other great things about Final Cut - then adding professional color tools that are normally found in dedicated grading systems like DaVinci Resolve. So we added the Telecine color wheel. This was something that was already found in Final Cut 7, but it was missing in Final Cut X. Curves was another really big popular one, a lot of photoshop artists love to grade with the curves. We incorporated LUT Utility, which we had already written, and introduced the Six Vectors tool, which allows you to do some really fast and accurate secondary color corrections. It’s like the saying goes, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ and we just felt like Final Cut was a tool that really needed this and that’s why we created it.”
All of this was easier said than done. Even though Denver knew what the people wanted and had Final Cut’s power at his fingertips, he soon discovered the pitfalls of software development.
“What I’ve learned is that software development is really difficult. I mean, I’m more of a vision guy, where I’m kind of looking at the end result. I also do a lot of marketing, so I try to anticipate where the market is going and try to create a product that meets a need. I think I underestimated how difficult it would be for software development because you have so many bugs that you encounter and whereas Color Finale is a plugin that runs on a host application being Final Cut, there’s a certain framework that we have to work in, so we’re sort of sandboxed in… It’s a miracle at all that it even works. It does require a lot of beta testing to make sure that it works, so many different users out there, so many different system configurations, that it’s really difficult to try and nail down every possible scenario, so you’re just kind of chasing a lot of bugs during the initial beta period, during the initial launch, and a little while after it’s released.”
Despite early bug issues, the overall response to the Color Finale launch was very positive. For Denver, the highlight came during his first phone call from Apple.
“We were pleasantly surprised with its reception and how it’s gained in popularity. I can tell you that Apple loves us, I still remember when they called us to ask us if they could get some licenses so they could use it as a demo at one of their trade shows. I feel like I can constantly say that it’s the number one grading platform for Final Cut. That’s the preference, that’s the sentiment that you see on social media. We’re really proud of that.”
Color Finale was just the beginning, though. As the software gained steam, so did Denver’s ambitions. 18 months later, Color Finale Pro was launched, turning the streamlined, elegant, features of Color Finale into a truly efficient, dynamic, system.
“In October, we released the Pro version, which includes color managing through ACES, that stands for Academy Color Encoding System. There’s all of these different cameras and color spaces, so if you have an edit with different cameras, if we support of have that camera in there then you can make those cameras match and get them into the same color space, which is ACES, a really wide color space… We also incorporated support for any of the Tangent devices, the control surfaces, it supports those. We added Grade Management, so if you have two clips where you want to apply the same correction to, you can actually group them together and create a simultaneous correction. We also added the ability to save and apply presets, so if you want to save a correction for a future clip, then you can do that.”
Perhaps the biggest addition with the launch of Color Finale Pro is the one that has brought Color Finale outside of the confines of Final Cut. The LUT Gallery feature, which allows users to preview and compare LUT effects before they’re applied (saving tons of time), isn’t only useful for Final Cut users.
“We’re planning to release our first plugin for DaVinci Resolve, which is called ‘LUT Gallery.’ LUT management can be a challenge inside of DaVinci Resolve. They’ve [LUTs] been given a bad reputation from a small group of people that they’re black boxes. Which is true, you can’t tell what effect a LUT has until after it’s applied, so if you’re drilling down through a bunch of lists and sub-menus, they can be really difficult to find the right lookup table or right look you’re going for. LUT Gallery allows you to preview what effect lookup tables have in real time, so you can choose the one that looks best.”
Denver is also developing a standalone version of LUT Gallery for Final Cut users who may not want all of the Color Finale features. Excuse my corniness, but Denver truly sees color grading in shades of gray. There are an infinite number of ways at every skill level that color grading can improve an image. For Denver, color grading has never been about professional exclusivity, it’s about finding solutions for every project and every budget.
“It all depends on the individual and their circumstances. It depends on how much time and how much they want to pursue color grading. I think everybody appreciates color grading as a value and investment, but not everyone wants to spend the necessary time to learn that language and become knowledgeable in breaking down and describing a look. They might opt for applying a LUT as a quick fix. It all just depends on their circumstances. If they’re just a small shop and they’re editing and color grading in-house, it might not be advisable to become an expert at color grading.”
That inclusive mentality is what kept the Color Grading Central community growing, it’s what makes Denver an effective teacher, and it’s what largely sets his software apart from the rest of the field. Denver Riddle doesn’t think color grading is a chore, and he doesn’t want you to either.
“Color grading is the last final step and it’s really a lot of fun. It’s amazing how one little Look Up Table or one little correction can have a profound effect on production value… A lot of people really enjoy color grading because you can get a really big return on investment with it.”
Happy grading, filmmakers.
Here’s some extra comment fodder from my conversation with Denver Riddle, because I love you.
On the orange/teal debate:
“Orange/teal is a really popular color scheme, we saw that a lot, and I think the pendulum is just swinging really hard the other way, where everything is just becoming desaturated. I think it’s just kind of like any other trend. It just kind of comes and goes… There’s a small but really vocal group of people that are against orange/teal, I advocate for it because I feel it’s the most effective use of color contrast because it emphasizes the talent… I think that some people were so tired of it, and fed up with it, that some directors picked up on it, which led to more desaturated looks. I don’t think that orange/teal will honestly ever go away, I think that the colors help to tell a story… It just depends on the mood of the story.”
What Denver notices when he goes to the movies:
“I do notice when Color Grading isn’t done right. I’ll notice a shape mask when it’s kind of apparent that it’s there. In ‘Masterminds’ I noticed that there was a scene match issue. I tend to catch the mistakes more than anything else. If a colorist does a great job, they’re an unsung hero. Hopefully they’ve been able to grade in such a way that the grading doesn’t call attention to itself, but supports the story itself.”
Denver’s favorite footage to grade:
“I would probably say the RED Epic. If you’re able to record in RAW, it just gives you so much flexibility to work with.”