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Adventures with a colour grading panel and grading "manually"


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There has been a revolution in colour grading over the last 15 or so years with the invention of colour managed workflows.  These enable the automatic conversion of footage between various colour spaces, and enable things like colour matching between cameras.  

Prior to this, all colour grading was based on either manufacturer-provided LUTs (or other LUTs like print film emulation LUTs), or manually grading the camera files to create the desired output (typically grading log into rec709).  However, colour management doesn't negate the need for manually adjusting the image to get a desired look.

I've been working with colour management and colour grading for years now, but decided to up my game by getting a control surface and learning to do things manually, no colour management or LUTs - just full manual ruthlessness.  

Enter the BlackMagic Micro Panel!


which isn't actually that micro in real life....


After shipping delays (8 weeks!!!) it has arrived and I've put in maybe 6 hours over two sessions.  As anticipated, my skill level is "disappointing", but my plan is simply to put on some music and put in the hours, like building any other skill.

My first grading session was actually a bit of a revelation.

I started off grading C-Log footage from the XC10, and using on the Lift/Gamma/Gain controls.  My second session was grading HLG footage from the GH5, and including Contrast/Saturation/Offset as well as a bit of Lift/Gamma/Gain.

The three trackballs adjust the hue offset, and the three rings/wheels adjust the luminance.  At first I thought that the wheels were very insensitive, large rotations seemed to make small changes in the image - especially the Gamma wheel.  However, the more I used them a funny thing happened.  I found that there were all these little "niches" where suddenly a particular thing emerged.  Go a little bit one way or the other and you adjust the feel, but go a bit too far and the look dissolves.  These are so fragile that the whole niche might only be 1-2mm of adjustment on one of these wheels.  So when you find one of these all of a sudden the control feels like it's very sensitive, not too sensitive but you definitely don't want it to be faster.

These things are "looks" related to a colour balance, but can also be "textures" related to shadow levels and shadow contrast, or to do with highlight rolloffs.  They can be broader too, like "warm sunset glow" where the balance of the colour matches the contrast, or when I was grading some Thai temples there's a way to make the gold-gilding on the buildings and statues really glow.  These looks really seem to be based on combinations of various things in the image.

Here are my initial take-aways:

  • These controls are enormously powerful
    There are dozens / hundreds / more? of looks that you can do with only the LGG controls - throw in the Contrast/Pivot/Saturation/Offset controls and it's almost limitless.
  • Just using a surface is a revelation
    I've used all the individual controls (LGG, Contrast/Pivot/Offset/Saturation, etc) literally thousands of times over the years, but I'm learning new things by the hour that I never noticed or never understood.  I genuinely have no idea why having a control surface has made this difference, but it really has.  Maybe it's being forced to concentrate on only one or two controls at once.  Maybe it's the tactile nature of it.
  • Moving multiple controls at the same time is game-changing
    Moving two controls at the same time and in opposite directions is game-changing and simply isn't possible without a control surface.  This is where the plethora of looks comes from, as you adjust multiple controls against each other the overall image doesn't change much (assuming you're balancing the adjustments) but the ratio between the two does and you can gradually dial in different looks by navigating up and down this balance point.  There's no way you can do this with a mouse because by the time you adjust one control (which throws off the whole look of the image) and then adjust the second control (to almost completely eliminate the impacts of the first control) you've forgotten what it looked like before, so you can't possibly dial in the subtle changes required to find these tiny niches in any reliable way.
  • Muscle memory developed really early
    This surprised me, but it was really fast to really develop.  The surface feels familiar even after a few hours.  I'm told that pros grade without looking down, maybe at all, and that's part of their efficiency.
  • You can grade full-screen
    This is perhaps a Resolve-specific thing (I don't know how panels work in other NLEs) but if you're adjusting things with the mouse then you can't do that with a full-screen image because the controls are hidden from the cursor.  I have an external reference monitor, but it means that I can put scopes on my UI monitor to cover the controls and I can still adjust things even though those controls are under the scopes.  Very useful.
  • It's teaching me to see
    I've spotted a few things happening in the footage (which I had seen previously) but because I was adjusting something at the time they emerged, I was able to play with the controls and see what caused them.  Now, I recognise that thing and know what is causing it.  I've learned what causes things I've been seeing for years.  Once you've found a look it's interesting to adjust each control individually to see how that control impacts the look.  That can help to dial-in the look too - you adjust each control to optimise the look and after a few 'rounds' of tweaking each control you'll have nailed it.  You'll also learn very quickly which controls matter to the look, and also which ones that look is more sensitive to.

Would I recommend this?  

Yes and no.

Yes, but only if you're willing to put the time in.  If not then you're probably going to have a very bad time.  I tried grading some iPhone footage, with its auto-WB and highly processed 709 image, and I was half-way to rage-quitting within about 15 minutes.  I still had that sour taste in my mouth the next day, and it took me a few days to get over!  I've now realised that all practice is good practice and so I may as well grade more forgiving footage and leave the iPhone until my skills are significantly more developed.

I don't know what my long-term plans will be, maybe I will learn to grade well enough that I don't need to use a panel but will be able to use the knowledge I've gathered.  Maybe I'll always want one.  I will definitely grade real projects using colour management and LUTs, but having these skills will complement that.

At the moment, it's a learning tool, and damn - I'm learning a lot.

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