Creating Personality for Digital Film Cameras with SpeedGrade Workflows

by Jérôme Sabourin, CSC

When I started working as a cinematographer, I had no intention of becoming a colorist as well. Doing one job as best as possible always sounds like the right idea, especially when it’s as demanding as working as a DP. How did I end up becoming a DP and colorist then?

It all started some 8 years ago when I was first introduced to the concept of using LUTs to simulate film stock for the digital intermediate processing. I immediately realised that this is just a very isolated use of the technology. Why not create such a LUT to simulate the look of Film for Digital Cinematography Cameras? That wouldn’t eliminate all the things you dislike with video if you’re used to shooting film. It wouldn’t, for instance, get you a softer roll-off to white. Most certainly you wouldn’t get the latitude of film. But I was rather sure it should be possible to create what I call personality — something film always has, which digital is lacking. A unique look and feel.

The rest is history. SpeedGrade DI became available in 2003. SpeedGrade OnSet, its DP-oriented sister product to create creative looks, followed shortly after. What was different with SpeedGrade from day one is the use of LUTs to create the personality — it didn’t just offer LUTs for color management and nice tools to do the grade, but allowed you to use them as a creative tool to express the personality. I could design the look for my scene, based on the transformation LUT running in the background.

All my photography decisions started to become influenced by the look created in prep using SpeedGrade. As these looks became more and more complex, I started to become frustrated by the fact it had to be manually reproduced in post-production — very often with results that weren’t close enough to my original intention.

I decided to take a risk and convinced my producer on a major TV series to take the color grading to the only house in Montreal that had a full blown SpeedGrade DI suite in 2004.

We designed eight basic looks which covered all of the show. I was worried we might waste time while we’re shooting if we tried to create the looks as we go, so I insisted we do the look design as part of prepping the show. It worked like a charm. The Sony F900r cameras we used recorded clean, but we saw the looks on a Cine-Tal Cine¬mage exactly the way we intended them to look for the final product. These looks were used for Dailies, and used again as base for the final grading sessions in the SpeedGrade DI Suite.

I realised the power of non-destructive correction with shots that needed serious touch-ups: Since all the color decisions are stored as metadata, even complex setups that go well beyond gamma, gain, offset and saturation are reproduced in amazing quality. Not to talk about the huge savings in time for the color grading process — the most difficult part, the creative approach, was figured out well before the first EDL was sent to the grading room. The production was so happy with the final product that three other projects we had lined up following this show were done with the same pipeline.

Throughout the years, it became even easier: SpeedGrade OnSet 2006 could send the look directly into the Cine-Tal system, no more manual work was involved in getting the look applied to the HD-SDI inputs. The Sony F23 we used on following shows opened up the realm for a lot more creativity in designing looks. Most of the technical limitations were gone, the workflow principle of adding personality stayed the same.

As the IRIDAS grading packages became more mature, they also started to support the first RAW cameras available on the market. That caught my attention immediately.

With the first version of RAW technology in SpeedGrade DI, the quality of the RAW interpretation became very usable — and to my surprise, it was real time. Even on the 3K images that we shot with the ARRI D20 we considered for an upcoming feature film. The results were absolutely amazing. We ended up shooting ARRI M-Scope instead, though, which was the best fit at the time for our offline workflows. Even with this rather exotic format, I could rely on SpeedGrade as my primary tool: M-Scope was supported in SpeedGrade the same month ARRI went public with it.

The look workflow with using a creative LUT as a base worked for this camera as well and the preview on the set left no room for error. Everyone was extremely pleased with the results. As a side effect, I started lighting for the very look of the scene. This gave us additional headroom for slight adjustments in grading, as shot matching is almost no longer required .

Since then I am trying to bring color grading as close to the set as possible. Today, I even bring a full SpeedGrade DI — it turned out to be the perfect tool for the task. I eventually started to grade my own shows, as this really is the last step in lighting the scene, so why shouldn’t it be done by a DP? The user interface for SpeedGrade DI is simple enough and looks very familiar after working with SpeedGrade OnSet.

Looking at things from the other end of the production chain, it is important to acknowledge that the colorist plays a crucial role in today’s cinematography. Color grading should be attached to the department from the beginning and prepare the look of the movie with the DP.