Back in October, Apple bought Silicon Color, a small company with a line of products branded FinalTouch. Ranging from a $1000 standard-def solution all the way up to a $25,000 2K system, FinalTouch was a color grading solution composed of software written for the latest breed of Apple’s tower workstations. FinalTouch on a sweet Mac with some add-ons was intended to be competitive with grading stations costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But reports from users were that the systems were anything but real-time, and had some reliability issues that ranged from inconvenient to catastrophic. Still, FinalTouch had (and still has) a devoted and active user base, and earned a reputation of aggressively supporting its customers through these technical glitches.
I, like most people, was excited to see Apple buy FinalTouch. Firstly, I expected the product to become vastly cheaper as a result, enough so that I could get me some without needing to base a business around it. I also expected Apple to bolster the feature-rich product with some much-needed quality assurance engineering.
But as Shake users know better than anyone (expect maybe Rayz users), Apple buying your bread-and-butter can be a mixed blessing. When you buy expensive software from small companies, you effectively become best friends with the development team. You know them by first names and you send them holiday cards. You have a folder full of emails from and to them. Apple, however, mistakenly applies the same strategy of black-box secrecy that works so well for iPods and iPhones to its Pro Apps division as well, cutting off developers from users and vise versa. I have struggled with this enough that my company, The Orphanage, no longer has any special relationship with Apple. It’s just too much of a one-way street. I can’t buy my bread-and-butter tools from someone who can’t conduct an open conversation with me (under NDA of course) about the future of the product.
Nevertheless, I remained excited that Apple was taking over FinalTouch and was hoping that NAB would see the announcement of it’s new incarnation. I was not disappointed. Not only was Color saved for the grace note of Apple’s Sunday launch event, but it was given proper respect as representing an aspect of film production as important as music and sound. And then Rob Schoeben announced the price: free. It ships in the box with Final Cut Studio 2.
Strangely, this pissed some people off. To understand why, you need to look back to the release of Final Cut Pro, and in fact, to the Mac itself. The Mac, as you will recall, turned everyone into a designer. We endured some truly hideous church event flyers, and print professionals had to remind their customers that it was their skill and taste that made them worth hiring, not their unique access to proportional fonts. Apple’s Final Cut did the same, lending the world the momentary notion that anyone could be an editor. And again, with time, people realized that it wasn’t the $100,000 investment in an Avid that made you an editor, it was skill, training, and experience.
Colorists have transitionally been a lot like Flame artists — they drive a powerful, expensive, and rare beast, and drive it with skill, speed and unique good taste. I’ve been known to spend more than a grand (of other peoples’ money) for an hour of time with an A-list colorist. Sure, I expect his Da Vinci to run fast and intuitively and grade my shots in HD in real time without a hiccup, but mostly I expect him to live up to his personal reputation for making my footage more than the sum of its parts. When you see these top colorists do their thing it gives you a palpable respect for the power of color. My opportunities to work with these artists have been a huge inspiration to my designs for Colorista and Magic Bullet Looks.
To get to that point, or near it, colorists needed access to the pricey and rare color stations like the Da Vinci. As expensive as it is to own one, it’s twice as expensive to let someone putz around on one when you could be booking a client in that room. So today’s colorists wield skills that are hard-earned and fought-for. They got where they are by unglamorously running tape decks and sneaking in time on the trackballs whenever they could. Or, as entrepreneurs, they got where they are with considerable financial investment in a system of their own.
So like Avid editors of only a handful of years ago, colorists are now staring down the barrel of a world full of Final Cut Studio users who may suddenly fancy themselves colorists in their own right. And to them I say, don’t worry. Here’s why.
First, the obvious. They aren’t going to be any good. Color work is hard. The accessibility of violins has not tarnished the reputations of the Paganinis of the world.
Color correcting one shot is fun. Color correcting a dozen shots to look both lovely and consistent is hard work. Even people willing to commit to that work will run up against a phenomenon called metamerism. Without going into too much detail, I’ll suffice it to say that the more color work you do on a shot, the harder it is to stay good at it. Like Riggs in Lethal Weapon, you get too close to the case and loose all objectivity.
Even with Apple’s best efforts at integrating Color into FCP, there’s still a big speed bump between one’s editorial process and Color’s daunting interface. Editors who have trained themselves in enough color work to get by within FCP (possibly using Colorista!) may be perfectly happy with their workflow.
Did I mention that Color’s interface is daunting? Color isn’t Mac-like. When you click over to the Secondaries tab and start working on a secondary correction, nothing happens. You have to manually enable that secondary. Similarly, when you create a mask or vignette for that secondary, it defaults to having no effect. You must manually “attach” it to the secondary. Little gotchas and usability failures lurk behind every corner of this odd app that at a distance looks sexy as hell with its three-dimensional vectorscope, but up close lacks even the common courtesy of an anti-aliased font.
Maybe the single most important thing for people to understand is that color grading is not onlining. Look at the feature set of Smoke. Onlining is color correction plus a million other things, things you can do very effectively in either Final Cut Pro or After Effects or some combination thereof. For some, a fluid environment in which to meticulously hone only the color aspects of a project will be well worth the workflow hurdles. For many it will not. Some of Colorista’s biggest fans are also paid-in-full Final Touch customers. It’s hard for some editors to give up the easy and pervasive access to all their titling, effects, edits, sound and their color that they’ve been enjoying live in Final Cut. A good analogy is dedicated audio mixing software. I know a hundred FCP users who have never opened Soundtrack Pro.
A couple more safety tips: Color likes the latest Mac hardware with dual displays, won’t run on a laptop (at least not my 15” MacBook Pro), and really isn’t any fun without some expensive external hardware from JL Cooper or Tangent Devices.
And lastly, Color has a dirty little secret. To reveal it, one simply needed to walk up to one of the (presumably fully-pimped) Color demonstration stations at NAB and do something that you didn’t see in any of the on-stage demos: Press play. Color, when doing the kind of stuff that makes it worth using, is not real-time. Which, of course, is totally OK — but what’s not OK is that Color doesn’t render any sort of interactive preview that you can view in the context of a session. To see your work play back smoothly, you must batch render and view the results in Final Cut! There’s no concept of rendering an interactive preview to Color’s own timeline. Color should work just like Final Cut itself, with a bar above the timeline that shows what parts are rendered and available for real-time playback, and which parts have been edited and are therefore in need of a render. Rather than force me to hit render, Color should speculatively render recently edited shots in the background during periods of user inactivity.
I patiently explained all this to the nice former Silicon Color employee at the Apple booth and he actually told me that colorists don’t want this feature. I think maybe his newly-issued black mock turtleneck was cutting off his air supply a little. Trust me dude, they may not know they want it, but they want it. But as much as they latently want it, FCP editors, the new predominant user base of Color, will expect it. And clients will of course demand it.
Am I dissing Color? Quite the opposite. It’s a powerhouse, and an important development for video professionals and DV Rebel filmmakers. Apple has put a (slow) Da Vinci in your living room. Are you going to use it? I think for most folks the answer will be a definite “maybe.” But with a few more features, and a more dynamic link-up between FCP and Motion, Color could become the single most exciting thing for filmmakers since Final Cut itself. If only Apple can find a way to stay connected with the people using it.