Colorful Language for Video Editors

A proclamation was issued in my house, consisting of four words no dutiful husband ever really cares to hear: It’s time to paint!

Among my wife’s many talents is an especially keen eye for color; and when, after wading through many dozens of paint chips and sample jars, she determined that only one custom paint formulation would suffice, I knew it had to be true.

Louisiana interior decorator Ellen Kennon, it seems, had perfected a “full spectrum” palette which used combinations of up to seven different pigments, instead of the usual two or three; the result was a full, rich color which reacted differently to every different light source which played upon it. One coat of primer and two of Ellen’s multicolor mix later, I could confirm the claim: This was “magic” paint, with a luminous glow which was hard to describe.

(click thumbnail)This was a job color for correction.This reminded me of a shoot (doesn’t everything?) some years ago featuring a new disposable razor in an alluring, brand-specific purple color. There was, however, a problem: when placed in front of the camera, the razor appeared to be some shade of royal blue, not its trademark purple. Stymied, we filled the tabletop with apples, oranges, colorful children’s toys, and the chameleon-like razor. On camera, we saw a red apple, an orange orange, yellow and green toys, but no purple razor—only blue. We swapped monitors. We changed from tungsten to daylight… rebalanced and painted the camera a dozen or more times. No change. We eventually learned that the injection molding team had added some oddball phosphors to the pigments to produce the characteristic purple, and there was no way for imaging hardware to capture the color the eye saw. This was a job for color correction.


The last several years have seen a revolution in color-correction techniques, one in which the electron team—us video folks—have merged paths with the photon team—the film guys. The opto-chemical maneuvers employed by a “color timer” and the racks full of proprietary circuitry piloted by a “video colorist” appear to have been obviated by the emergence of software-based color-correction applications, although each ancestor has left its indelible mark upon the new process.

While the proliferation of software-implemented “digital intermediate” and “color grading” systems has shifted the workflow for the film community, the latest—and perhaps most significant—color correction development for the mass-market desktop editing community has undoubtedly been Apple’s inclusion of “Color” in Version 2 of Final Cut Studio. By acquiring the brightest star in this field—Silicon Color and its “Final Touch” application—Apple once again hit the ground running, introducing a mature, much-beloved technology instead of a home-grown, beta-release startup.

But what are the implications for us DIYers down here at the bottom of the food chain? Can a “mere” video editor become a sharp-eyed colorist with the mere purchase of a software upgrade? Apple’s Color is not for the faint of heart; laid out like a big real-time system, it requires a stepwise approach to ingest, primary and secondary corrections… what does that even mean?

I finally asked an old friend, veteran colorist Bill Willig, to either encourage me to take on color correction, or shoot me and put me out of my misery. (Figuratively, thanks.) Bill has worked in several of New York’s most respected color suites, and understands the real mission: not merely fixing problems, but assessing a scene to selectively adjust key elements and achieve an overall look and feel.

Bill told me that it’s not accurate to compare software-only systems, which generally require scenes to be rendered, with expensive, real-time hardware like the venerable da Vinci line, arguably the gold standard for color correction.

“Even though the systems are hyped as ‘do it all’, they are in fact limited,” Willig said, “compared even to a base model da Vinci.”

Predictably, though, the real downfall of do-it-yourself isn’t the hardware, but the wetware—in Willig’s words, “…who’ll be doing the work, and what type of background they have as far as interpreting the images and making necessary adjustments.”

Bill knows that there are editors out there who can do this work; but he’s seen far too many who “…just make adjustments until they think the picture ‘looks good’ on their computer displays, and never look to see if the pictures are legal, or how they look on a monitor that even approaches broadcast standards.”

To make the leap, your garden-variety video editor would need to transition from simple, TBC-style hue, saturation and value sliders to a color correction system which requires more sophisticated manipulation.

Willig said that by simply adding color correction software as a “feature upgrade,” jack-of-all-trades video editors have skipped the conventional learning path for colorists. “They have the tools at their disposal, but what experience and training do they have?” Willig asked. “A ‘beginning’ colorist, running film dailies to video, is taught from day one how to read a waveform and vectorscope, set contrast levels and color-balance a picture.”

Still, whether Bill admits it or not, I suspect he believes in the power of editors to add new skills, much as they’ve already done with audio, paint and motion graphics. That may explain why he’s been known to tutor and train editors as they try to make that colorist connection.

My conversation with Bill left me more encouraged than discouraged. I frankly expected a seasoned pro to lash out at a tenderfoot colorist: “Young whippersnappers, with their toy computers and Mickey Mouse color correction software…” But when pressed, he made an astonishing admission about software-based applications. “Replace a da Vinci?” Willig said. “As much as I would like to say ‘no,’ I think the truth is, yes it can, and it does every day.”

So I’ve got a copy of Walter Biscardi Jr.’s Creative Cow training video, “Stop Staring and Start Grading with Apple’s Color.” (How did you know, Walter?) I’ve got a ton of old footage ranging from mediocre to embarrassing; and I’m going to lock myself in the edit room until it starts to sink in. I’m going to make that razor purple, but more importantly, I’m going to place it in the best-colored, most natural bathroom you’ve ever seen.

And in the end, I’ve got a backup plan.

“I’ve been called by editors who knew enough to cry uncle,” Bill said. “They realize that they’re in over their heads when it comes to balancing a picture and matching levels, and while they thought they were creating ‘art,’ they wound up making mud.”

Stay close to the phone, Bill.