For a variety of reasons, I couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to give Filmlight’s new Baselight plugin for Final Cut Pro 7 a whirl. Baselight has long been one of the industry’s premiere grading applications, used on projects both large and small, and among professional colorists I’ve always heard it spoken of glowingly.
When announced at last year’s NAB conference, everyone’s amazement that a high-end company like Filmlight would bring their technology to the Mac as, of all things, a plug-in was overshadowed by Apple’s announcement of Final Cut Pro X, which rendered all FCP7 news somewhat obsolete.
However, as there are many, many shops still using Final Cut Studio 3 regularly, and there are likely to be many who use it into the coming year, I can understand Filmlight’s interest in finishing the project and bringing their plug-in to market, especially given the unique workflow that it enables, of grading from within Final Cut Pro in such a way as to be able to export the corrections directly, with perfect fidelity, via XML to a full-blown Baselight workstation for a dedicated grading session.
What really drew me to work with the plug-in, however, was the desire to get my hands on Baselight’s well-regarded user interface. Having been exposed to Baselight while writing my Color Correction Handbook, I learned to appreciate the numerous tools and modes it provides, as well as some of their more unique takes on common color correction tools.
What is perhaps most impressive is that FilmLight has truly managed to squeeze nearly the entire Baselight UI into this plug-in, which makes this a great way to see what the Baselight interface offers.
So let’s have a look.
After running the installer and opening Final Cut Pro, the FilmLight plugin appears, innocuously, in your Video Filters bin in the Effects tab.
When you drop this plugin onto a clip, the Baselight loading screen appears.
This tells you right away that the Baselight plug-in is no small affair. It’s effectively an application within an application, similar to the approach of other color correction plug-in user interfaces such as Colorista II and Magic Bullet Looks.
For the best previewing performance while using Baselight, you’re recommended to use the Unlimited RT mode (resulting in orange render bars). Otherwise every clip you add this plugin to appears with the red render bars that force a complete render before previewing.
The plugin’s performance was good with the primary corrections I was making. Keeping in mind that you are able to stack many layers of correction one upon another, I was able to stack several layers of primary operations one on top of another and maintain good performance. However, after adding a few secondaries, I needed to select dynamic for both Playback Video Quality and Playback Frame Rate in order to maintain performance.
Incidentally, the accompanying documentation recommends legalizing out-of-bounds (over 100%) signals with a Color Corrector 3-Way filter prior to the FilmLight plugin, to make sure no part of the signal gets clipped when being fed to Baselight.
When you open your clip’s Filters tab, you’ll see the Baselight plugin collapsed vertically, with instructions to expand the Viewer window in order to see the UI within the Filters tab, or double-click the Baselight box to open a dedicated UI in its own window.
If you expand the size of the Viewer and the width of the Parameters column, most of the Baselight controls appear, which is an amazing sight to see inside of Final Cut Pro.
While the Baselight controls are visible in the Viewer, you can view your changes in the Canvas and via video-out on your video interface. However, if you instead double-click to open Baselight into its own window (or click the “pop out” button at the upper right corner), you get all of these controls, plus a viewer that’s useful for other Baselight functions (like drawing curves), as well as LUT and Viewer controls, and Baselight’s own take on the Histogram overlay scope.
This self-contained window can be enlarged to be full-screen, and the divider separating the controls from the image preview and histogram can be resized, giving either half of the interface priority.
Now is probably a good time to point out that the Baselight plug-in is compatible with the Avid Artist Color control panel, allowing you to control much of the UI using that panel’s trackballs, rings, knobs, and buttons.
The general idea behind Baselight is that you can build up a grade using layers. Each layer can use controls from a variety of toolsets that are available, either individually or in combination, to make adjustments of various kinds. These toolsets are the Film Grade, the Video Grade, the Curve Grade, the Hue Shift, and the Six Vector tools.
Each of these tools can be qualified using either keying or shapes, and each tool has parameters for making adjustments both inside and outside of a secondary qualification, simply by clicking the tools button in the appropriate column.
These different toolsets are a unique way in which Baselight organizes what you can do. In particular, the separated “Film Grade” and “Video Grade” tools are an interesting way of exposing two very different kinds of functionality to colorists of different backgrounds.
Examining the Film Grade first, two tabs with three main controls each are exposed.
The left-most tab, ExpContSat, contains an exposure section which provides you with a global exposure slider (raising or lowering the entire signal equally), as well as a global color control that allows for offset adjustments of color (letting you re-balance color by raising or lowering each color channel in its entirety).
The Contrast sliders let you expand or contract contrast with a single adjustment, about a pivot point that’s defined via the middle dotted cyan lines intersecting the diagonal graph found underneath. The R G and B contrast sliders are ganged by default, but an individual slider can be unganged by turning off its button, directly underneath.
Finally, the Saturation sliders provide global control over saturation, but interestingly you can selectively disable ganging on individual color channels, with the result being a sort of color rebalance that works quite differently.
Exposing the ShadsMidsHighs tab reveals another set of film-oriented controls.
Although this may appear to be a standard three-way color balancing system, it’s not. The names of the three color balance controls may be deceiving if you’re used to other grading applications that use the labels of Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights incorrectly, because these color balance controls influence a completely different set of tonal ranges then do the Lift, Gamma, and Gain controls found in the Video Grade toolset. The Shadows/Midtones/Highlights ranges are more restrictive, allowing far more specificity regarding which parts of the picture are excluded from each color balance control’s effect (I’ll be doing a separate blog entry on film-style grading tools later). Furthermore, in this mode the exposure sliders provide curved control of the knee and toe of the signal.
Colorists coming from more video-oriented toolsets may find these tools strange, but these controls were designed specifically for film colorists who come from a completely different tradition, and the truth is once you get used to this style of working, you’ll discover a range of situations for which they provide fast solutions.
However, the beauty of Baselight is that they don’t just give you some of the tools. They give you all of the tools, hence the Video Grade toolset that’s next in the list.
This set of controls provides the familiar Lift/Gamma/Gain toolset that many of you may be more familiar with, with Shadow and Highlight contrast controls that allow for controlled compression and expansion of the Luma, and color balance controls with broadly overlapping tonal regions of influence, allowing extremely soft and subtle interactions between adjustments made to the darkest and lightest regions of the image.
Incidentally, if you set the FilmLight pop-up menu to Default, you can then open the Region Graph tab, within which you can redefine the tonal ranges of influence exercised by the lift/gamma/gain controls.
Once you’ve created new curves, you can save the result as a graph that you can recall later.
You may also notice in the image above that an RGB Correction graph shows you the effect your adjustments are having on each of the three color channels of the signal. What you can’t see is the Region Graph tab, which exposes controls for customizing the default tonal overlap of the color balance controls.
Similarly to the Film Grade toolset, the Video Grade has two tabs, RGB and Y’CrCb.
These tabs put the lift/gamma/gain controls into either color space’s mode of operation. In RGB mode, contrast expansion increases saturation. In Y’CrCb mode, contrast expansion decreases saturation. As I mentioned, Baselight gives you all the tools, with every variation you might like.
Baselight also includes a powerful Curve Grade toolset.
Two tabs worth of curves are available. HueSaturationLightness provides a complete set of hue curves, while RedGreenBlue provides dedicated luma and color channel curves as a separate set. One of the really neat things about the Baselight curve UI is the automatic “zoomed” view provided to the right of each curve. You can manipulate control points either in the zoomed out view at left, or you can manipulate the selected control point more finely using the zoomed in view at right.
This provides a terrific degree of control for those super-fine detail adjustments that sometimes come up when adjusting skin tone or shadow detail. One thing that takes a bit of getting used to, by the way, is the default behavior of a locked X position for control points. This prevents you from shifting the hue or tonal area affected by a control point while you make adjustments to its intensity, but can be vexing until you discover how to disable the “Lock X Positions by Default” option in the Customize pop-up menu.
So, film controls, video controls, and curve controls, all within a plugin. But wait, there’s more… In a nod to tools available in other software and hardware based color correctors, Baselight provides two other toolsets that, while specific, allow quick adjustments of various kinds.
The first of these, the Hue Shift toolset, provides a slider-driven interface for making changes to hue, saturation, or lightness, with each individual slider governing a specific slice of hue.
While at first this might seem a bit primitive, like a “graphic eq” from 1987, the truth is this can be a really fast way to make a specific adjustment, sort of like a slider-driven hue curve. I imagine this is the type of control that’s much nicer to use from a control surface, where a set of knobs provide logical and quick access to these parameters, but the sliders can be handy, too.
Next up, the Six Vector controls expose a series of tabs that default to pie slices of the color wheel. In essence, this is a qualifier with default settings that, while completely customizable, are designed to be used to quickly target and adjust the primary and secondary ranges of color in the additive RGB model–RGBCMY.
This is a pretty standard HSL qualifier, but with a nice UI and a fast set of limited controls for making adjustments to the hue, saturation, and lightness of the isolated region, as opposed to creating a key with which to limit adjustments made using other toolsets. Again, this is a dedicated tool designed to do specific things very quickly. But don’t worry, there are other tools for doing proper secondary work.
So those are the main tools for adjustment within the Baselight interface. When it comes to secondaries, those are found in the Matte menu, which exposes the many methods that are available for creating a matte with which to limit one’s adjustments, creating a shape, using the DKey keyed, MatteRGB, or HueAngle.
MatteRGB and HueAngle are fairly standard methods of RGB and HSL qualification, so I’ll focus on the Shape and DKey controls, which are unique.
Baselight has a fantastic shapes interface, with two pop-up menus providing different shape drawing options. The first presents some standard freehand/rectangle/ellipse choices, along with the terrific addition of “edge.”
The Edge option exposes a single-line UI for creating gradients, as opposed to customizing a rectangle to do the same thing. This alone saves many mouse clicks.
It’s worth mentioning that the stand-alone window UI is the only place you can adjust shapes and draw freehand curves. Curves have a typical bezier handle interface, but it’s notable that there’s now a shape drawing interface available right within Final Cut Pro 7.
However, as nice as all of this is, what really got my attention was the Quickshape menu, which provides an array of frequently used shapes that you can invoke for isolating specific regions of the image without a lot of customization. Very, very cool.
Moving on, the DKey interface is a three-dimensional keyed, designed for “carving out” a region of RGB space in order to create a custom matte for secondary work.
Dragging a bounding box over the thumbnail to sample produces a targeted “blob” within the 3D Color Space View, and various sliders let you expand and contract the offset, radius, and softness of this blob in order to isolate the most useful range of color for your targeted operation. You can turn on one of three kinds of overlays to see the matte you’re creating as you work (the traditional black and white matte is shown above).
Once you’ve created a matte using any of these tools, making an adjustment is as easy as clicking the “color” Mona Lisa tab to switch back to your grading tools, and making any adjustment you like using any of the available tools, either singly or in combination.
Since we’re talking about secondary corrections, these are added via additional layers, added using the layers pop-up menu, within which you can add, remove, and reorganize layers in order to control the sequence of operations.
Opening this menu and clicking the green plus icon, I got up to 20 layers before I gave up. It seems clear that there’s no artificial limit on how many layers you can stack up.
The other nice thing about having so many layers available is that you can divide multiple primary adjustments among multiple layers if you so choose. Baselight’s layers mechanism is a nicely flexible tool for managing your corrections.
Incidentally, when creating a matte for a secondary operation, you can click the Reference button while in Matte mode and choose which state of the image, or which layer, you want to use as the source for keying. A very nice bit of flexibility that can be invoked in a hurry.
As this “quick” look is running a bit long, I’m going to jump to a couple of other important features that are worth mentioning. One is support for LUTs.
The Baselight plug-in comes with a few LUTs (look up tables) built-in, or you have the option to import one of your own. The pop-up menu for this is available in the stand-alone window, above the histogram.
There’s also support for keyframing.
Each parameter in Baselight has its own keyframe button (shown turned on, in blue), from which key framing can be enabled or disabled for the current set of parameters. All keyframes then appear, when created, upon a single keyframe track running along the bottom of the Baselight UI. Individually keyframed parameters can be isolated using the Show All pop-up menu. While keyframing, you need to move the playhead in either the Timeline or Canvas, and while keyframing is enabled, new keyframes are automatically created when a keyframe-enabled parameter is adjusted.
So, that was my quick tour of the Baselight plug-in for Final Cut Pro. I’ve only just scratched the surface, there are many more features for refining one’s adjustments and customizing the UI. On the plus side, it provides terrific tools for grading. On the other hand, being a plug-in, it relies on Final Cut Pro 7 for all grade management and image comparison functions, and while that’s not the worst thing in the world, the experience still doesn’t come close to using a dedicated grading application (such as the full Baselight). Finally, the performance is fine so long as you’re willing to work at the proxy resolutions that Unlimited RT with Dynamic Video Quality and Frame Rates enables, but if you’re looking for an environment in which to create complex grades while monitoring at full quality, this isn’t necessarily going to be your best choice.
Bottom line, if you’re interested in learning more about Baselight, or you’re a post facility with a Baselight suite or two already, this is a great plugin to have. If you’re looking for a plugin-based environment for grading work inside of Final Cut Pro 7 because you don’t want to have to learn a whole other application for grading, download the trial version and give it a whirl to see how well it integrates into your FCP workflow.