Color has been on my machine since I got my hands on FCS2 but it's so different to other Mac apps that I never got far with it, as I was soon so lost all I could do was close it down in confusion and frustration. Now that has all changed.

Using Apple Color - first impressions

May 2008

I'm primarily an editor but I started my broadcasting career working in Telecine, correcting and grading film as it was transmitted, using a device called TARIF (Technical Apparatus for the Rectification of Inferior Film). For that reason I've always felt at home colour correcting as part of an edit. Since I've been working with FCP I have used the in built colour corrector. When Final Cut Studio 2 came along I felt that I should try Color as a high quality alternative. I ran up the application many times but the strange interface made it feel very un-natural so I didn't get very far with it. I have just completed a three day training course and I've been very impressed with how easy it is for a colourist to correct and grade material using Color. However, like much of the feedback in user groups, the software still has a number of basic problems that spoil the user experience.

I found it fairly stable but it did crash at least once every day and at one time when trying to save a simple grade both machines crashed repeatedly. Apple knows it's not good and have come up with a whole series of ludicrous work a rounds to stop it crashing. They say you should limit your workflow to 200 edits or 20 minutes, so if you are working on a longer programme you need to divide it into sections. Also at the moment it won't work with titles and shots that have speed changes, so these have to be rendered out as clips and re-imported before sending to Color.

The main problem with Color is the dreadful IO interface. When ever you want to open or save anything you are presented with a very non Apple pop up window. The programme was written by Silicon Color to run on Unix/Linux systems. Unfortunately, is shows much of this early history to the user. The directory structure is pure Unix, showing all the parts of the tree that Apple so carefully hide from its users. The user is soon thinking in terms of the "Root" directory and locating drives in Volumes folders. Users without a good knowledge of other filing structures and trees will struggle to understand where the files are, and won't always be able to locate them again when using other FCS applications. All this is made ten times worse by the fact that Color doesn't ever seem to remember which folder it was in last, meaning that every time the user goes to open a file Color has defaulted back to some arbitrary location.

The dark grey interface is the perfect for something as colour critical as this programme. It's very useful that the Scopes can be turned to monochrome as the coloured version is so bright that it would upset any colourists colour perception. It would be nice to see the colours limited to slight casts shown in the FCP scopes.

The screen it quite hard to read and puts a lot of strain on your eyes as some of the text is truly tiny. The software demands a high resolution monitor and I wouldn't recommend anyone tried to use anything smaller than a 23 inch screen and a resolution of 1920x1200 (1680x1050 is the minimum.)

Color is a VERY mouse intensive program. I finished the tree days with RSI pains in my hand. It also makes use of THREE mouse buttons plus the scroll wheel so an Apple Mighty Mouse is almost essential. Professional colourists will probably all use one of the external triple track ball devices available from JL Cooper and Tangent but these are out of the range of most editors as they cost between £1200 and £5000 each. A pen and tablet would be useless but perhaps a large track ball may be a cheap solution.

The simplest way to get material into Color is directly from FCP. Right click on a sequence in the FCP browser window and select "Send to Color". It asks you to name the sequence but accepting the current name should be fine. Color will open and you see the material in the timeline. It will all be mute as Color just doesn't do audio!

Color works shot by shot and the selected shot loops in the viewer when ever it's played. The viewer is rather small and not adjustable so just adds to the eye strain by the end of day, if you don't have a large dual screen system. If you have extra hardware such as an AJA Kona card or Matrox MXO then you can view the output full screen on a broadcast monitor.

The colouring part if the software is divided into a number of tabs that will be familiar to FCP users. These tabs are known as rooms. The main job of fixing errors is done in the "Primary In" room where the user sees three colour wheels, a set of advanced hue and saturation controls and a very sophisticated RGB and Luma curve editor. For many programmes this will be the only area the colourist needs to use.

Next comes "Secondary In" room or that should be rooms as each shot can have up to eight secondary's. Unlike the "Primary In" where the corrections are applied to the entire picture the secondary's effect only part of the picture. The selection can be done by keying or masking. A colour (Hue, Sat and Luma.) can be selected within the picture, using an eyedropper, to create a key signal. The colour effects are then added to one side of the key or the other. The other way to limit an effect is to use a vignette or mask shape. So something simple like a graduated sky can be produced with a large square where the edge is softened so much it fills the entire screen before adjusting the colour of the inside or outside of the shape. If you need a complicated shape you can build a mask as a "user shape".

The next tab is the "Color Effects" room. Here effects are available as a set of presets that can be combined in any order to create a "Look" for a programme. Individual grades you produce can be saved and recalled here so that when you are happy with your "Holby Blue" or "CSI Miami" Look it can be recalled and adjusted in seconds.

Whatever room you are in grades can be copied from shot to shot and to groups of shots. If you're someone who changes their mind a lot or you are working for a client who does, then each shot can have four grades, each with a primary and eight secondary and colour effects grades if you want. I found it easy to grade a shot then copy the result to another grade on the same shot before tweaking one of them just a bit to try to get it better. That way I could then switch between grades to see which I liked best. It's useful to keep one of the grades empty at all times as that's a good way to switch between the before and after processing.

The Geometry room was created to set pan and scan zones for shots. However this area allows you to reframe shots. This room is also where custom masks are drawn and where motion trackers are applied. Color has a reasonable automatic tracker but if it's not good enough then a frame by frame manual tracker is available.

By this stage the colouring process should be complete but it's possible to create out of gamut, illegal colours within Color. The "Primary Out" room where final adjustments and limits are applied down stream of all your corrections.

There is a tab named "Still Store" where it's possible to store a still frame of any grade. These stills can be compared with the shot you are working on using a split screen mode. The process has its limitations but it does provide a simple way of matching shots to what you have already produced.

The final tab is the "Render Queue". Here the grades you have chosen to use for each shot can be selected and rendered. If you are using anything other than a very fast machine this is a good time to do something else - from make a cup of tea to take a short vacation - depending on the machine and the amount of processing you are doing to each shot.

When finished the final result can be sent back to FCP using "Send to FCP" from the menu. FCP will open and you will see a bit of XML jiggery-pokery before a copy of the sequence you sent to Color in the first place should in the browser with the words "from Color" appended to the end. This version will have the sound reunited with the pictures. So that's it - the round trip from FCP to Color and back again is complete.

It's a good program, a very good program but at times it feels like its still a Beta release. If Apple manages to make it feel more like an Apple product while keeping a lot of the look and functionality just the same I think it could be a great program. I think I'll still use the good old fashioned FCP 3-way colour correct if I just want to tweak a shot or two but I can't imagine wanting to do a whole programme like that any more. From now on that work will all be done in Color.