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A Guide to FCP X, Part 4: Primary and Secondary Grading

Check out our Final Cut Pro: Color Correction Techniques course!

This is a 6 part series on using FCP X:

Part 1: Import & Organize

Part 2: Rough Cut Techniques

Part 3: Fine Cut Techniques

Part 4: Primary & Secondary Grading

Part 5: Transitions, Titles & Effects

Part 6: Export & Archive


Even if the edit looks good, the shots themselves probably need a little work. Lighting changes from shot to shot, cameras left on auto white balance change their minds, and different cameras often interpret the world slightly differently. Your first job should be to make the shots match in exposure, and then color. A grey background in one shot should not turn into a greenish background in the next. Once that’s sorted, you’ll want to look at skin tone and lighting issues as well as looks.

Step 1 - Comparing two shots

Without a viewer and a canvas window, how do you compare two shots? Well, you could:

  • press up and down arrows to skip from shot to shot
  • press Control-; and Control-’ to skip between previous and next markers
  • click to set the normal playhead in one clip, then move the skimming playhead up and down, in and out of the timeline area, to flick between the two

One of the most important tools for matching color shot to shot isn’t accessible in the stock install. Visit Final Cut Pro > Commands > Customize and search in the top right corner for “color”. Apply Color Correction from Previous Edit, from Two Edits Prior, and from Three Edits Prior are handy commands in search of keys — assign some. As you correct, work forwards through your edit, and copy previous corrections forward to give you a good starting point.

Search for Color in the top right corner, then assign some keys — why not Control-Shift-1/2/3 in reverse order?

Search for Color in the top right corner, then assign some keys — why not Control-Shift-1/2/3 in reverse order?


Step 2 - Understand the waveform

Even if you have a good screen (and if you’re on a laptop, you don’t) you should refer to scopes while you correct color. Press Command-7, or choose Window > Show Video Scopes. The Histogram is somewhat similar to the histogram from Photoshop or your camera: shadows on the left, highlights on the right, midtones in the middle, and spikes where the data sits. While the Overlay is good for seeing how your image spans the tonal range, two other scopes can be useful too, and you can choose them from the Settings menu in the top right corner of the Video Scopes pane.

The Histogram (RGB Overlay mode) with an uncorrected flat image — no deep shadows or bright highlights

The Histogram (RGB Overlay mode) with an uncorrected flat image — no deep shadows or bright highlights.


The Vectorscope is most useful for skin tone; there’s a pink line at 11 o’clock which should roughly correspond with a spike of data when the viewer shows a close-up of a face. Good to keep open when tweaking white balance or midtone balance.

Here’s a shot of me with not quite perfect color balance — just off the skin tone line

Here’s a shot of me with not quite perfect color balance — just off the skin tone line.


Most traditional of all is the Waveform. This is similar to a rotated Histogram, showing highlights high and shadows low, but instead of showing the amount of a color or shade in the image, it corresponds to the image horizontally. A spike on the left means there’s a bright spot on the left of the image, and so on.

Waveform (RGB Overlay mode) with its matching image — bright areas on the left, but overall quite flat

Waveform (RGB Overlay mode) with its matching image — bright areas on the left, but overall quite flat.


After choosing Waveform, choose RGB Parade in the Channels submenu of the Settings menu to see three graphs for each of Red, Green and Blue — good for balancing.

If this wall is grey, the trace lines should be at the same height in each graph

If this wall is grey, the trace lines should be at the same height in each graph.


Now that you know what you’re looking at, you’ll want to keep one of these scopes open (try the Waveform for starters) while you perform the next steps for each shot in your edit.


Step 3 - The Auto Options

Two auto-fix techniques here could save you a bit of time, or could prove completely unhelpful. There’s a Balance option you can enable from the Enhancements menu or by pressing Command-Option-B. It can sometimes provide a useful starting point, especially if your shot was a long way from a “normal” white balance. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tweak these fixes; it’s all or nothing. For this reason, I usually end up working by hand anyway — either completely manually or on top of an initial Balance.

This shot was saved by Balance (Before/After)

This shot was saved by Balance (Before/After).


Occasionally, you may be able to get away with the built-in Color Match feature. Select the shot you want to correct, then choose Match Color from the Enhancements (magic wand) menu, or press Command-Option-M. The Viewer splits to show you a before/after view. Click on a frame in the clip you want to match, make sure it’s what you’re looking for, then press Apply Match. If you’re lucky, this worked well, but there’s a good chance — especially if the content differed between the two shots — that it’s just not right.

This shot was ruined by Color Match (Before/After)

This shot was ruined by Color Match (Before/After).


Either way, turn both these options off for now — we’ll do it all manually instead.


Step 4 - Fix the tonal range and contrast

Using the full Tonal Range available is normally a good idea: deep blacks and bright highlights are a good place to start. For best results, shoot with a flat (or flattish) profile on a DSLR, and you’ll have plenty of room to move.

Here’s the original “flat” shot, for comparison

Here’s the original “flat” shot, for comparison.


Press the rightward-pointing arrow next to Correction 1 to access the Color Board. 

The right-pointing arrow lets you access the color board for each correction you add

The right-pointing arrow lets you access the color board for each correction you add.


In the Color Board, head to Exposure and push the global puck (on the left) up a little, until the main area viewers should be looking at (your subject) is correctly exposed. With luck, your highlights shouldn’t be overexposed at this stage, though everything might seem a little washed out. To compensate, push the blacks puck down until the image data heads near to, but not over, the 0% line.

Here’s what the exposure controls might look like

Here’s what the exposure controls might look like.


If the whole image still seems a little over or underexposed, you could try pushing the midtones control slightly. Similarly, you might need to push the highlights slightly up, but not past the 100% line. Contrast should be pretty good, but don’t overdo it yet — go for a balanced look for now.

And here’s the resulting shot after a little midtones/highlights tweaking

And here’s the resulting shot after a little midtones/highlights tweaking.


Step 5 - Match the color from shot to shot

If you’ve closed the Color Board, press Command-7 to bring it back, and select the Color section. Four circular pucks control color balance for the whole image, the shadows, the midtones, and the highlights. Ignore the left-to-right starting positions of these pucks, and move the highlights puck away (up or down) from the centre line to make a change.

For example: Highlights slightly more warm, shadows slightly cooler, midtones slightly less yellow, globally slightly less orange

For example: Highlights slightly more warm, shadows slightly cooler, midtones slightly less yellow, globally slightly less orange.


If you move it up, you’re moving towards a color, and if you move it down, you’re moving away from that color. Use either, as you wish — dragging up towards cyan is exactly the same as dragging down towards red. If you have something grey in shot, great — that bit of data should be at the same height in each graph in the RGB Parade. You’ll also need to play with the Saturation area of the color board to make it work. The same four pucks as the Exposure area are used.


Step 6 - Fix the skin tones

Assuming you’ve already fixed the white balance, hopefully there’s not too much more to tweak here. However, if skin tones look out (flick to the Vectorscope to check) then you’ll want the Color section of the Color Board, and to drag the midtones puck slightly up or down and potentially some distance to the left or right. Also tweak the Saturation midtones if needed.

A skin tone line

A skin tone line.


If the scopes aren’t easy to read, you can temporarily crop and/or scale the image to only show skin, fix the color, then reset the crop and/or Transform sections. You can also just judge this by eye, to some extent. The main thing is to make sure each shot matches the next — we humans quickly adjust to a “new normal”, but notice abrupt changes.

A shot cropped to just skintone

A shot cropped to just skintone.


Step 7 - Add missing lights

Didn’t have a lighting assistant to hold a reflector? No lighting at all? You can shine a light wherever you need, though it’s easiest on static shots. Head back to the top level of the Inspector by pressing the arrow in the top left of the Inspector, or by pressing Command-4 twice. In the Color section, at the top, you’ll see a colorful Plus button. Press it to add a secondary correction to the currently selected clip.

Press the Add Shape Mask button to the right of the “Correction 2” that was just added. On the mask that appears in the middle of the Viewer, move the green controls to adjust width and height, the central rotation control to rotate, the small white control on the inner line to move between circular and rectangular, and the outer line to control how the shape falls off to nothing. Move, resize and reposition the shape to where you want to shine a light. Now, press the right-pointing arrow to the right of Correction 2, and push the Exposure midtones puck up. Not enough? Try pushing the global puck up as well, or push shadows down to add contrast. Deselect the clip and play it through; it should look natural.

Shining a light on the shot

Shining a light on the shot.


If that’s not quite fancy enough, you could add a vignette. Add yet another correction, covering almost the entire viewer area with a huge falloff. In the matching color board, press the Outside Mask switch at the bottom of the pane, then drag Exposure’s global puck down — done.

And there’s that vignette

And there’s that vignette.


Step 8 - Add adjustment layers for looks for entire scenes

Finally, you’ve finished correcting every shot in the edit, with liberal use of the Paste Effects and Copy Color Correction from Previous Clip commands. Right? Well, now you’re ready to change the mood of the piece (if you want to) by adding subtle or heavy-handed looks. But don’t add them to individual clips — there’s a much better way. In Motion, create a new Title, then delete the “Type Text Here” element and save the project as “Adjustment Layer”, in a category of your choosing. Find that Title in FCP X, then add it to your timeline above all other tracks.

Here’s an awesomely helpful, time-saving adjustment layer

Here’s an awesomely helpful, time-saving adjustment layer.


Anything you do to this title (effects, looks, color correction) will apply to every clip underneath it. That’s hugely powerful. No compound clips needed, no copying and pasting effects through every clip in your timeline. Just put one of these titles above each scene that needs a certain look, then tweak the color board or add one of the Looks from the Effects tab until you like what you see. Even better: right-click on your Adjustment Layer in the timeline, choose Duplicate as Audition, then give yourself a second option. Magic.

This might not be magic, but it is a heavily saturated shot with added Sharpen filter and the Teal and Orange look on the Adjustment Layer

This might not be magic, but it is a heavily saturated shot with added Sharpen filter and the Teal and Orange look on the Adjustment Layer.


Next time: adding titles, transitions, effects and more to make your work pop even louder.

A Guide to FCP X, Part 5: Transitions, Titles, Effects

Check out our Final Cut Pro: Color Correction Techniques course!

Iain Anderson

Iain Anderson | Articles by this author

Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.

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