Color correction plug-ins are certainly fun to use, but Final Cut Pro X has plenty of horsepower on its own. There are also a number of features and techniques that often get overlooked. Here are five simple tricks you can use to enhance the look of your videos.
Balance Color / Match Color
Final Cut has offered the ability to auto balance the color of a shot and to match two shots to each other since the early days. Balance color analyzes a shot and corrects it to a neutral tonality. This is typically a “best guess,” based on either an automatic overall adjustment or one focusing on white balance.
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You can select all of the clips in your timeline and balance them in a single command. Most of the time, automatic will result in a pleasing enhancement of the image. The exception is when there’s no clear white reference in the shot, like a close-up on fire. In that case, you’d want to retain the orange/yellow qualities of the shot. The balance color results are not adjustable (other than to select between automatic or white balance), so consider it a first step to be further enhanced by the other color correction tools.
Match color is different in that it corrects the tonality of a selected clip to match another clip in the timeline. Park on the clip, select match color, skim to the clip used for the match, click on that frame for a preview, and then click Apply Match if you like the preview results. A common application might be to match A and B cameras to each other.
Match color can be used creatively, as well. For example, let’s say you want your clips to match the tonality of shots from a particular movie. A great resource for film reference frames is the Shotdeck website (free if you register as a beta user).
Find and download a reference frame. Import the image file and edit it to the end of your timeline. Now use match color for a selected clip and skim to that reference film image on your timeline. Obviously it won’t make a sunny daytime shot look exactly like a moody night shot from Bladerunner, but it will adopt the overall tonality as closely as possible. Once you’ve completed the match, delete the reference image from your timeline.
Timeline clips include blend mode attributes. The default is the normal mode, which can easily be changed to screen, overlay, soft light, and so on. Blend modes (also called composite and transfer modes) are commonly used by graphic artists and designers, but they are also useful in creating special looks for video.
To start, option-drag a clip above itself to create a duplicate as a connected clip. You now have two versions of that clip in perfect sync with each other. Adjust the blend mode of the connected clip. Let’s say you have a low-contrast clip. When you drag it above itself and change the top clip’s mode to soft light, it will instantly result in more contrast and saturation.
This same trick can be used to create stylish effects. For example, when you add a gaussian blur to the lower clip, the results are a dreamy image. Add a sharpening filter to the top clip and now you’ve added some localized contrast. Push it far enough and the results are almost cartoon-like.
You can use this trick on single clips or the entire sequence. Simply compound the sequence and then option-drag the compound up to create a duplicate, connected clip. Select the desired blend mode of the connected clip and tweak for your look.
Hue/Saturation Curves - Luma vs Sat
When you push color correction to an extreme, the black and white detail in the image becomes contaminated by the color shift introduced by your correction. You no longer have anything that’s true black or white in the frame. When a colorist is creatively adjusting a shot, they still want to end up with nearly pure black at the darkest part of the image and pure white at the brightest.
One way to achieve this is with the Luma vs Sat curve in the Hue/Saturation Curves tool. From left to right, the base line represents the brightness range from black to white. Pulling the curve up or down increases or decreases saturation at the brightness value corresponding to that point along the line. To reduce color saturation for black and white, add a control point inwards from each end of the line. Now drag the outer points down to decrease saturation. Drag the inner points more or less towards the center to adjust the roll-off from full saturation to zero saturation. The more gentle the slope of the curve, the smoother the roll-off with fewer potential artifacts. However, the trade-off is that you may lose too much saturation overall. So adjust to taste.
Orange and Teal
Filmmakers are enamored with the “orange-and-teal” look - skin tones tend to be warm (orange), while middle-range portions of the image take on a teal color cast. This is aided by proper lighting, costuming, and set design that is conducive to such a grade. For example, walls and furnishings that are neutral, black, gray, or dark in some way tend to be easier to swing towards the teal than a background of bright red walls.
Final Cut Pro X does include a color preset (Spring Sun) that mimics this look. You can also achieve it with any of Final Cut's grading tools, such as the color wheels. First, use any color tool to establish a normal grade. Then apply color wheels for the look. The objective is to isolate skin tones from the rest of the image. Add an image mask for the wheels and use the HSL keyer. Use the color picker to select a skin tone. View the mask in black-and-white and adjust the HSL settings for a smooth key. It's OK if the mask includes more than only the skin tones. The smoothness of the key is important.
Once you are happy with the key, go back to the image and grade inside of the mask. Push the midrange color wheel to the orange as needed. Or keep the skin tones neutral if you want to preserve a natural appearance. Change the mask toggle to outside and shift the midrange, shadows, and master towards teal. Finally, add the Luma vs Sat adjustment as described above to restore natural blacks and whites to the shadow and highlight areas.
Color look-up tables - LUTs - are used to apply the proper color profile for cameras. Custom LUTs can also be used creatively to create and preserve preset looks such as stylized grades, film stock emulation, and more. Final Cut cannot export LUTs, however, it can import any LUT in the standard .cube format. The internet offers plenty of options to purchase custom, creative LUTs.
Let’s take a more DIY approach. Several third-party color correction plug-ins, including FilmConvert Nitrate and Color Finale 2 Pro, allow the user to export the grade done within that plug-in as a self-contained LUT. Maybe you want to preserve the grade for future use that doesn't depend on having the plug-in. Or maybe you don't own that plug-in, but can collaborate with an editor/colorist who does. In that example, send your selected shots or sequence to them for a grade. Then, instead of returning the files to you with the baked-in look, simply export the grades for these clips as LUTs.
Back on your system, apply the Custom LUT effect to each clip and import the corresponding LUT. Make sure the settings match your color space (Rec 709 across the board for Rec 709 libraries and projects). In the case of Color Finale 2 Pro and FilmConvert Nitrate, most aspects of the grade done within their panels will be reproduced. Certain non-grading features, such as film grain emulation will not be included in the LUT. Overall, if I'm looking for a perfect match (same shot to same shot), then I've had more accurate results using Color Finale 2 Pro. This method is a great way of creating and transferring custom looks in a non-destructive manner.
I hope these simple tips will give you some ideas on how you can get more out of Final Cut Pro X to create and apply your own special touches.
Oliver Peters is an experienced film and commercial editor/colorist. In addition, his tech writings appear in numerous industry magazines and websites. He may be contacted through his website at oliverpeters.com