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SpeedGrade OnSet 2006

Oct 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Geoff Boyle, Cinematography Mailing List


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This screenshot shows the interface of SpeedGrade OnSet 2006. The wipe feature allows the user to compare a before and after of the image with the look applied. The grading panel is below that. The Look Browser, along the bottom, shows a series of look thumbnails. Clicking on any of these would apply that look to the image currently open. Each look can be copied, moved, or modified at any time.

When I began shooting commercials 20 years ago, as a DP I had considerable influence over the post process. Initially I was working with a color timer to get a film print, which was then telecined to maintain its look as closely as possible. We later switched to transferring directly from the negative.

With the print process there were relatively few variables, but even so, I had communication difficulties. One time I cut the tail off my faded denim shirt and clipped it to the negative report to illustrate the exact tint I wanted. I tried shooting Polaroids with special matte boxes so that I could use the same filters on the Polaroid as I did on the film camera. This worked to an extent, but it didn't take into account the possibilities available through the telecine process.

Then I tried scanning the Polaroids and adjusting them in Photoshop, sending a JPEG to the post house. This was an improvement. I also tried capturing the video assist image and processing that. Again, better. After that, I shot with a digital still camera in RAW mode and processed that. This worked better still. The problem with this approach was that interpreting the adjustments I had done in Photoshop in telecine grading terms led to occasional misunderstandings.

As look management systems became available, I tried all of them. One was great if I was going out to a conventional print process, but who does that any more? Another one would have been great if I lived and worked in Los Angeles, but like most DPs in the world, I don't.

I found SpeedGrade OnSet, a pared-down version of Iridas' full-on grading system, SpeedGrade DI. By a “pared-down version,” I mean it deals only with still images, and it does not have windows (masks). Apart from that, it's the real thing.

As you grade a picture, SpeedGrade OnSet generates a LOOK file, which can be loaded into the full version and applied to the moving images. It can also be loaded into FrameCycler, Iridas' 2K software-based file player, which seems to be in every post house. In addition to the LOOK file, SpeedGrade OnSet generates a JPEG of the graded image as a reference.

Even if the post house doesn't use SpeedGrade DI, I can now send still images that have been created with the same types of controls as telecine operators use. Another option with SpeedGrade OnSet is to export look-up tables (LUTs) such as those used for S.two digital film recorders or Grass Valley LUTher color space converters. If I'm lucky and the post house has SpeedGrade, then my intentions are very clear to the colorist. He or she can then start his or her work from a position of knowledge and take the image further in the direction I have established.

SpeedGrade OnSet is a non-destructive system: At no point am I throwing data away. I just adjust what I have already done and keep alternate versions as I go. And SpeedGrade OnSet is fast: Large images change in realtime.

How hard is it to use OnSet? Well, I started with the beta version, and it was a long time before I got the manual from Iridas, but I really didn't need one. You don't need to be a computer geek to use it, nor do you need a massively powerful system to be able to run it. And it doesn't create 12MB files for you to email to your colorist!

Another convenience: Even if the colorist isn't working on SpeedGrade DI (yet), a copy of SpeedGrade OnSet is a very manageable investment (less than $500). This would allow him or her to load your LOOK file and see how you went about getting the look reflected in your JPEG reference file.

Especially considering the proliferation of HD cameras that produce log files of odd colors, a tool like SpeedGrade OnSet is just the ticket. For example, I already have quite a few pre-stored LOOK files that correct Thomson Viper pictures so that they appear “normal.” I anticipate adding many other log files in the near future.

Not all look management systems take into account that my job is not to make the image accurate; my job is to make it look good. I want an accurate top and an accurate bottom, but I want to be able to adjust the middle according to aesthetic judgments.

I use SpeedGrade OnSet on a little Sony Vaio laptop running Windows XP. It has a 1.1GHz ultra-low-voltage processor, 512MB of RAM, and a 40GB hard drive. Not much power there, but SpeedGrade OnSet runs just fine. I use a lot of USB memory sticks, which makes it easy to save and reuse looks for new projects, or to show them to directors during preproduction on a new shoot.

When I open an image, the first thing I usually do is to balance the blacks. I do this by checking the histogram to see where I'm clipping and where I'm crushing the blacks. Once I have adjusted the blacks, I play with the midtones until I like what I see. This will usually clip the highlights a bit, so the next step is to adjust the highs. When all of that is in order, I move on to color adjustments. I find that I can make 90 percent of the adjustments in the main grading panel (called “Overall” in SpeedGrade jargon), but if I want to do any further fine-tuning, I just drill down a bit.

In practice this application can really simplify a job. I recently did a shoot for a candy commercial. First, we did the wide shots on location and then put them into SpeedGrade OnSet. After that, the director and I agreed on the look we wanted, and we did the close-ups in the studio. I used the look as a reference and adjusted the lighting until the shots looked the same with that look applied. Everyone was happy with the results.

I would like SpeedGrade OnSet to run onscreen in 10-bit color. This unfortunately is a limitation of the current state of display technology, but 10-bit would show greater color detail and make better use of SpeedGrade's 32-bit floating point processing. In addition, this would also make the histogram, an important tool in my work, more accurate.

I actually use Speedgrade OnSet right on set; it really is that fast. When I meet with producers and directors to discuss new projects, I take it along. We'll establish a look before we even go into preproduction. Everyone is a skeptic at first. They tell me it will take too long, and then, whoops, I'm already done. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn't like it once they see what we can do with it.

I've just finished principal photography on Mutant Chronicles, a sci-fi project with more than 1,000 effects shots that I'm shooting on Viper. I met the director, Simon Hunter, during preproduction, and we played with images and looks for the various sections of the film. After several days, we had established three main looks that we would use.

We're using Men from Mars (London) for all of the post. They recreated our SpeedGrade looks as FilmLight Truelight 3D LUT files. These three looks are being used on set to control the monitoring, in the post house to make sure the dailies look the way we want, in the edit suite (again to keep the look), and also in the visual effects work. They will form the basis of the final grade of the movie. This saves drastically on time, since 90 percent of the work has already been done.

Of course, if we'd had the latest version of SpeedGrade OnSet when we started the film, we could have generated our own Truelight files right in the application.

I've just started the model unit for Mutant Chronicles, and we're using the same SpeedGrade-generated looks to make sure that all our models match the live action against greenscreen. The second unit will also use exactly the same looks. After 10 weeks of filming with another four to go, and a schedule that averages 32 slates per 10-hour day, I don't know how I would have managed to match everything without the looks generated in SpeedGrade OnSet.


Geoff Boyle, FBKS, is a well-known director of photography based in the U.K. He runs the Cinematography Mailing List (www.cinematography.net) and has published numerous articles. You can visit Geoff's website at www.cinematography.net/GEOFF/index.htm.

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