A Few Weeks with Colorista II

The original Magic Bullet Colorista brought the 3-way color corrector to After Effects and improved upon the one built into Final Cut Pro. With the recent release of Colorista II and the addition of secondary color correction, more flexible masking, and UI refinements the plugin has solidified its place as our go-to favorite for grading within those desktop applications.

Three levels of color correction

Working in commercial post, I used flame as my primary tool with a seat of After Effects at its side to do tasks I felt were easier to accomplish in the desktop app. On almost every shot I finished, easy access to 3-way color correction in the Flame Colour Corrector was critical for getting the job done. Autodesk’s Colour Warper took this a step further with familiar track-ball like grading controls and built-in secondary color correction. It’s this secondary color correction that really helps takes grading to the next level. It’s the type of control that is familiar to professional colorists and is quite integral to the grading process.

With the premiere of fxguidetv several years ago, as well as the creation of our online training site fxphd.com, we’ve been finishing a ton of material for web distribution in Final Cut Pro and After Effects. For grading, plugins have been incredibly useful extensions to the built in functionality and we’ve utilized Magic Bullet’s Colorista and Looks as well as The Grading Sweet.

The original Colorista was a single three-way color corrector with built-in simple masking features which helped make grading in After Effects and Final Cut much easier. Enter Colorista II. This release builds upon the original offering in a big way by bringing secondary color correction to the plug-in as well as additional sets of 3-way adjustments. In the new plug-in there are now effectively three layers of color correction: Primary, Secondary, and Master. Each of these layers contains a 3-way color corrector.

The benefit to having effectively three old-school Colorista adjustments within a single effect is that you can set up a look and then adjust each individual scene to balance scene to scene. This type of workflow can be especially useful when grading a spot or section of a film, where you have a look you wish to end up with but the individual shots within the sequence vary in brightness, saturation, or in other ways.

Stu Maschwitz, Red Giant Software Creative Director, recommends the following approach when grading:

  • Primary: Balance and compensate for differences between individual shots
  • Master: Set up your overall look for a scene
  • Secondary: Adjust a specific color, range of colors, or region in the scene

The benefits of Secondary

It’s this last area, Secondary, where Colorista II has seen major additions. For years, profesional colorists using high end machines have relied on secondary color corrections to bring scenes to life. At the most basic level, this is a second layer of color correction applied to a scene, either using masking or isolating a certain color or range of colors and then adjusting only this area. Whether or not the colorist knew it, they were effectively doing a key to isolate a range of colors and then adjusting this isolated part of the scene accordingly.

In the past, if you wanted to do some type of secondary color correction using Colorista you would have to add footage as another layer, create a key using a different plugin, and then grade the layer appropriately to get the color you want. Red Giant has developed a new keyer as part of Colorista II that makes this selection process quite straightforward. Clicking on the Key Edit button takes you into a floating window that shows the result, source, matte, and interactive UI elements for creating the key.

The Colorista II Keyer

The first step is to select a base key color in the image. You can then easily modify the key by pressing the [ ] or [-] buttons and then clicking on pixels in the image to either add or subtract to the key. Working directly on the image is a great way to quickly get a decent key in progress.

There is also a graphical cube, vector scope, and luminance/saturation indicators which allow one to gesturally drag to refine the key. A major reason I’ve found to use these UI elements is for adding softness to the key. I should say what I like to call softness, not what Colorista calls “Softness” (see later). By clicking and moving the dashed lines, you can expand the transparent areas (varying levels of gray in the matte) to the key, helping blend from one color to another and get smoother edges.

There is also a key lift and gain adjustment (a levels adjustment of sorts for the key) as well as what Colorista calls “Softness”. Personally, I feel this Softness should more accurately be called “Blur”, since it applies a blur to the mask and is not a softness based upon key color range and tolerance. This adjustment happens post-lift/gain.

All in all, this keyer is quite effective when working on grading. It’s not the be-all or end all keyers of keyers, but it does make for fast and efficient grading tweaks. It’s a tool built for its job and to that end it performs admirably. When doing most grading, secondary selections can be quite forgiving when adjusting color correction. Consider the case of a red box in a scene. If you wish to have the red box a bit more saturated, the key can be forgiving. However, if you’re wishing to swing the color from red to blue, you’ll probably need more robust keying and masking tools that are available in After Effects.

A well-thought out and easy to use workflow is something that Red Giant tried to pay attention to in the development of Colorista II. “One thing that I’ve come to realize is that color correction is repetitive work. Any little snag that slows you down gets multiplied over hundreds of shots and becomes a big bummer,” says Maschwitz. “So when we designed the keyer for Colorista II, we set out to make it so easy that you’d never think twice about using it. Many keying tasks can be performed in a handful of mouse clicks. That’s been the design philosophy of Colorista II from day one: It’s one thing to have the color correction power, but its another thing entirely for it to be so easy to use that you don’t have time *not* to use it.”

The secondary section also has masking controls that Colorista users will be familiar with. This provides an adjustable rectangular or elliptical mask with size and feathering controls. The Power Mask on on the secondary layer has several modes, the default being Key And Power Mask which uses the key, but restricts it using the mask shape. There is also Key Only (similar to having a Key with no Power Mask active), Power Mask Only (similar to having a Power Mask without a Key), and Key Minus Power Mask, Power Mask Minus Key, and Power Mask Plus Key. The mask positions can also be tracked using the AE tracker.

The good news with this release is that there is also a Master Power mask which can, if desired, be combined with the Secondary one. In fact, you have the option of using the Master Power Mask to restrict the entire effect, restrict the Master effect, restrict the Secondary Effect (similar to intersecting two standard masks), Add to Secondary (adds the mask to the secondary selection), and Join Secondary (which acts as an additional mask on the secondary layer). Between the two masks and the various modes you can apply them, there are a multitude of ways in which you can mask your imagery.

For most purposes, these shapes provide a flexible way of isolating the secondary mask for grading. While obviously it would be ideal to have full roto-spline support within Colorista II, the decision to concentrate on the grading tools is a good one. Building a complete masking/roto system seems overkill, especially with the complexities involved when doing so. Simple shapes can been used effectively to make great looking images. And if you’re working in After Effects, you still have the capability to add additional layers in if you wish to use the more advanced masking techniques built into the app.

Other Improvements

The impact of Highlight Recovery, shown using a black and white simple image

Within the Primary area of Colorista II, there is a new Highlight Recovery feature. What this feature does is find flat (blown-out) highlights and does iterative image processing on them to build “pyramids” on the plateaus. This processing helps ease transitions into the blown out areas, giving a bit more range when grading. This new highlight info is true HDR, so it only shows up if subsequent color grading tints or darkens the image. It also explains the features placement in the Master area of the plugin, because it is done as a first step so it is available later in the processing pipeline.

In order to more easily show how this works, we created a black and white image in Photoshop where the white is at 1.0. This can be seen in the bottom half of the image to the right. We then applied a highlight recovery value of 50 to the image using Colorista II. This actually creates the plateaus with values greater than 1.0. In order to see the effect, we then reduced Secondary Exposure to -.66 to bring back the highlight details. Once this is done, you can see the steps which ease transition to the highlights. With actual footage, this transition helps areas which are blown out. This is no magic bullet (no pun intended), and as you can see from this testing will work best in smaller areas of blown out data — it won’t magically bring back a fully blown out sky.

The Secondary area also has a feature called “Pop”, which is effectively a local contrast adjustment that is similar to Lightroom’s Clarity slider. “Where a standard contrast control makes bright things brighter and dark things darker, Pop works with a soft radius — so a color near a bright area will get darker, and a color near a dark area will get brighter,” says Maschwitz. “This is basically the inverse of a diffusion filter effect, so the result is that any kind of haze or diffusion can be mildly corrected away.”

UI Enhancements in the release

As far as other minor improvements, the color wheels have added functionality for adjusting hue, saturation, and brightness for each of the three way controls. In addition, numerical access is easily available by clicking on a calculator icon.

The new Master HSL controls in each section allow adjustment of individual colors. This enables you to tweak the saturation, brightness, or hue (limited) of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue, Purple, and Magenta. This might be useful if you wanted to bring up the saturation of grass in a scene or pop the blue in a sky. Think of it as localized color color correction based upon a color’s hue.

There is also a new option to utilize GPU processing for the effect, which helps tremendously with interactivity when using Colorista.

All in all, this is a very solid update of the After Effects/FCP workhorse. The software is available for $299 (upgrade for $99) at the Red Giant Software web site. I’ve spoken with a few artists and they’ve somewhat balked at the price. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s well worth the money. While it’s true that apps such as Apple’s Color and the upcoming Resolve from BlackMagic can be had for around $1000, there is a huge benefit of integrated grading within a single application. I find this workflow much more efficient than exporting a sequence to an external application and baking in a grade at the finish. Of course, there are times when using an external app makes sense, but lot of the work can be easily handled within Final Cut or After Effects and there is a tremendous benefit for working within the same UI as opposed to switching between apps.

Current fxphd members can get 30% off the plugin and fxphd members taking the RGT201 course can purchase it at 50% off list.