A Look at SpeedGrade: Professional Color Grading within Adobe Creative Suite 6

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–This review is the first of a two-part series on Adobe SpeedGrade. 

The release of the Production Premium version of Adobe Creative Suite 6 (CS6) last year contained a wealth of important new features in its various apps. I’ve already written an in-depth review of Premiere Pro that, in CS6, delivered on its promise of becoming a truly professional NLE. After Effects, a standard part of the toolkit for motion graphic artists and compositors everywhere, also had its fair share of important improvements, including a 3D motion tracker, ray tracing and enhanced caching. However, there is an important and entirely new addition to the Creative Suite that I haven’t reviewed: Adobe’s pro color-grading solution SpeedGrade. It’s something I have been meaning to do for some time now, so let’s dive in.

Filling in the Gaps

The Production Premium version of Adobe’s Creative Suite remains unique in the world of motion media app collections. This remarkably full featured and widely used creative environment for production and postproduction has advanced tools for visual effects, editing, painting, retouching, graphics, pre-production, and audio production. But even with all of its capabilities, previous versions of Creative Suite lacked a truly professional color correction and grading application. That changed in CS6 after Adobe rolled in SpeedGrade, a professional and highly regarded color-grading program originally developed by Munich, Germany-based IRIDAS.

Now, Creative Suite has just about everything you would need to put together and finish a complete production, with the possible exception of a high-end 3D animation package, although Maxon’s CINEMA 4D works so well with the suite, it is practically a member of the club. But let’s not pretend though that color correction wasn’t possible within CS before SpeedGrade. After Effects and Premiere Pro have delivered color correction for years via capable plug-ins such as Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite and Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse. Indeed, some are satisfied with Premiere’s own built-in three-way color corrector. However, none of these are a replacement for the real thing. The addition of SpeedGrade to Creative Suite not only provides a production proven, industrial-strength color grading environment, but will change the way artists and filmmakers work.

Accessing Media

When you first start up SpeedGrade’s slick new interface, you enter the Desktop display. Here’s where you target the media you want to work on. Powered by the 32-bit floating point Lumetri Deep Color Engine (SpeedGrade’s underlying GPU accelerated technology), the new app supports a wide range of RAW file formats from cameras such as ARRI and RED, as well as common interchange formats such as QuickTime, DPX and OpenEXR.

The media window window displays clips on your drive as thumbnails

On the upper left of the interface, you access the drives and directories on your system, including the clips, EDLs and SpeedGrade projects (.icrp files) you want to work on. By clicking on a folder that contains media, its clips are represented inside the center window as a grid of thumbnails. If the size of the thumbnails are too small, you can scale them up with a slider. Meanwhile at the top of each thumbnail a mini timeline allows you to scrub through the clip and tells you which frame you’re on as well as the total number of frames in the clip. You can also view the media in list view, which provides a columnar layout of the clips. Clips can be sorted by name, timecode range, resolution, or date.

To make searching easier, you can filter the window to display exactly the media you want to view. For example, suppose you navigate to a folder that contains media in many different formats. You can tell SpeedGrade to only display the QuickTime movies, RAW sequences or EDLs, for example. This feature is a timesaver. Once you’ve located the media you want to work with, you’ll need to get it into the timeline in order to start color correcting. Besides using the playback head in the timeline to scrub through the shot, there are standard playback controls located at the bottom of the monitor. You can also use the spacebar to play and pause the footage (or you can use the industry standard J, K and L keys). Left and right arrow keys allow you to step through the frames.

After importing your clips, switch to monitor view to start the process of color grading.

Coming from Premiere

You have two basic ways to work with your footage. Some might like to grade their clips before they edit. In this case, you can simply import clips and scenes into SpeedGrade, color grade them and then export for use in Premiere or another NLE. Others may prefer to export an EDL (edit decision list) from their NLE’s timeline which contains detailed information about the edit and import it into SpeedGrade for color grading where it links back to its original media sources.

Another, and perhaps the best approach, is to use the Send To Adobe SpeedGrade command inside of Premiere’s File menu. By invoking this command, Premiere will render a 10-bit uncompressed sequence in the DPX format of the edited frames as well as a SpeedGrade .ircp project file, which SpeedGrade CS6 opens automatically. This is best done when the final edit is finished and the picture is locked.

While Premiere Pro is widely lauded for allowing native editing of many different file formats including AVCHD and other prosumer camera formats, SpeedGrade doesn’t support quite as many just yet. Thus you may have media that lives in your Premiere timeline that SpeedGrade won’t link to if you export an EDL. This will likely change in the next release, however. For now, you may wish to stick with the Send To SpeedGrade command. Note that the final purchase of SpeedGrade from IRIDAS came late in the release cycle for CS6. This meant that the IRIDAS developers (who now work for Adobe) didn’t have all that much time to fully integrate it with Premiere Pro. You can be pretty sure, that the coming version of SpeedGrade will support all the codecs that Premiere does (probably some time around NAB). In addition, I would expect to see tighter integration with Premiere’s workflow, perhaps even a fluid Dynamic Linking system between Premiere and SpeedGrade, similar to what’s now offered between Premiere and After Effects.

Making the Grade

So far we’ve talked about getting things into and out of SpeedGrade. Now let’s get down to what we’re really interested in, color grading. Color adjustments are done in the Look panel on the lower section of the interface (accessible by clicking the Look tab). Here, you’ll find color wheels that control offset, gamma and gain. By right clicking on these wheels, you can enter a virtual trackball mode where the scroll bar adjusts the luminance and the mouse position adjusts chrominance.

SpeedGrade’s color wheels and adjustment sliders.

Meanwhile, sliders control saturation, pivot, contrast, temperature (warm to cool), magenta to green balance and final saturation. These controls can be adjusted for allover effect or restricted to shadows, mid-tones or highlights.

Building Up Layers

I really enjoy SpeedGrade’s ability to build up your grades in non-destructive layers. That means you can stack up primary and secondary corrections, filters, LUTs and effects and, if you like, rearrange them for different results, since different ordering of these elements yields different results . Working with layers is done in the Layer area on the left of the Looks tab.

SpeedGrade’s versatile Layers panel

Aside from the ability to stack them up, a great feature of layers is that you can control the opacity level of each one. Similar to Photoshop, each layer has an opacity slider can be dialed in and out to increase or decrease its effect. Note that you can quickly toggle the layer on and off by clicking a small icon of an eye next to the layer, in an Adobe-like manner. There are different kinds of layers you can make. Let’s start with the basics: primary and secondary color corrections. Primary color corrections affect all of the colors in your scene. Secondary color corrections, meanwhile, are applied to specific color ranges, allowing you to selectively accent, modify or tone down individual colors in your image. You can include as many secondary color corrections as you like — allowing you to affect different color ranges separately.

During my time with SpeedGrade, I appreciated how I could isolate the specific colors I wanted to affect during secondary color corrections. Through a combination of the eyedropper tool and a series of HSL controls in the Look panel, it was easy to select the exact color range I wanted. You can also gray-out all the colors in the image except for the color range you have defined. This is very useful in making sure that you are selecting and affecting the precise colors you desire.

Graying out all the other colors except for the color range you are working with

By clicking a button at the bottom of the layer pane you can choose from a variety of effects such as Gaussian blur, fxBloom, dithering, tinting and many more. Each one of these effects can be a layer. As is the case with any layer, effect layers can be dialed in and out with the opacity slider. Another type of effects layer are LUTs (look up tables). These allow you to emulate different film stocks and stylized looks as well as various camera profiles. Another useful feature in SpeedGrade’s timeline is the grading track. It functions in a similar way to adjustment layers in After Effects. Use it by first applying your layers to a grading track, then do things like stretch out the grading track over a range of clips in your timeline. This saves you the hassle of applying the same grade over and over again, if you just want to give the same look to all the shots in one scene.

Have a Look

Under the color controls is the Look pane, which allows you to access collections of predefined Looks , which you can apply to your clips. These looks are designed to affect the colors and tones of your footage in different ways such as that of the latest blockbuster movie, a retro sixties film look or a bleach bypass style. Like any plug-in, you can also use Looks developed by others.

Some of the predefined Looks that SpeedGrade provides

Looks may give you exactly what you need from the get-go, or they can be customized to create your own personal grades. Of course, you can save your own looks as well, whether you build one from scratch or use a predefined one as a starting point. Look files can always be edited later. You can even export them as LUTs for use with other applications.

Scoping Things Out

As you would expect in a pro color grading app, SpeedGrade contains a waveform display, vectorscope and histogram, standard tools used for precise and informed adjustments when color balancing. For example, with the help of the waveform display you can accurately balance blacks and whites, or fine-tune the values of the separate RGB color channels.

The vectorscope, waveform display and histogram

Masks and Vignettes

SpeedGrade contains masking tools that you can use to limit grades to a certain area or create soft vignettes. Working with masks is handled in the Mask panel. Upon making a mask or a vignette in SpeedGrade, the mask widget appears in the center of the mask. The widget is a useful graphical control that lets you modify the shape of the mask as well as its falloff, scale, rotation and so on.

The mask widget comes in handy when modifying masks

You can add and remove points to a mask and edit them to make virtually any shape you like. SpeedGrade also has the ability to automatically track a mask to moving footage.

Other features

We’ve touched on many of the important features of SpeedGrade, but there is much more to know about it. For example, using a mouse and keyboard can be slow and tiring, so SpeedGrade supports the Tangent CP200 and Tangent Wave control surfaces, which are in common use by full-time colorists. Aside from providing knobs and sliders that you can manipulate without looking at, you have to admit that control surfaces just make your setup look cool. SpeedGrade also contains advanced stereoscopic capabilities that, for example, let you adjust the viewing depth for objects within stereo 3D space.

The app is fast too, living up to the “Speed” in its name (you might be startled on how quickly the program loads compared to most apps). SpeedGrade is fast since it mostly runs via NVIDIA CUDA GPU acceleration (non-CUDA capable cards will be disappointing to use!). If you rock on an NVIDIA Quadro series 4000, 5000 or 6000 card, expect to see the sort of quick response and real time performance that will impress a client sitting by your side.

Concluding Thoughts

SpeedGrade is a full featured and mature color correction system that’s a great addition to Adobe’s Creative Suite. I think it occupies an important space that needed to be filled in the Production Premium suite, namely pro-level color grading. Adobe made a smart choice in its purchase of IRIDAS, the team that built SpeedGrade and you can be sure that the app will continue to improve. As mentioned, I expect the next version to include tighter integration with Premiere Pro and support for all the same codecs. In addition, SpeedGrade training resources will proliferate in the future.

According to my vision, the future looks bright for SpeedGrade. If you are already a professional colorist working on spots or features, or if you’re a video editor or effects artist that is thinking of getting into color grading, SpeedGrade is a package worth well worth learning. Current users of the Creative Suite will find it a natural choice for color work.

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About the author

Joe Herman is a filmmaker, artist and post production specialist and writes often about the industry. You can reach him at joe[at]nycppnews[dot]com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeHermanTweets.

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