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  • Writer's pictureCraig Van Horne

SpeedLooks by LookLabs – Making the Grade

Color is so important, yet so few place the emphasis it deserves on it, much in the same way that sound is often neglected or an afterthought in many productions. And it’s not that color grading or color correction are things that should be thought of as another line item on the clients bill, it should be thought of from the beginning, in pre-production and just be part of the overall production period. And I am firmly of the belief that everything needs some level of color enhancement or correction, whether it’s a $5000 corporate video or a $100,000 commercial or anything else above or below those price points. Whether dramatic or cinema verite, feature or documentary, color is critical to not only delivering a higher quality finish for our clients but also so color doesn’t detract from the imagery and doesn’t distract from the message.

This isn’t a tutorial for how to color correct, or how to create or apply a grade but rather a look (yeah I know) at another way to start creating your look for any project. Some people use software like Magic Bullet Looks to start to achieve a particular look and while Magic Bullet Looks (MB Looks) is a really powerful plugin and I’ve used it extensively over the years, not the least of which for the ease of adding things like a vignette and some diffusion or simply relighting a shot quickly, it isn’t nearly as capable as what can be accomplished inside a proper grading application. And honestly I don’t know what is going on under the hood in MB Looks however I think that to hit the ground running on a grade and be able to do the same process inside the likes of SpeedGrade, which now that it’s an Adobe application everyone who works in the Adobe ecosystem has access to this app, or DaVinci resolve or any other application that supports 3D LUTs you can get a look that is technically very precise and which really makes your footage sing without causing undue damage in the process, SpeedLooks is an excellent way to get the grade ball rolling.

Developed by my industry friends over at Look Labs; Full disclosure, I am contracted by Jump Studios the creators of LookLabs as a Studio Systems Administrator. I build out and maintain their post-production infrastructure and am also occasionally contracted to shoot and do some post production work as well. That being said, I am not being paid to endorse SpeedLooks, my opinion on this matter is strictly my own and I played no role in the development (other than keeping the machines running), it just so happens that how SpeedLooks works falls right in line with my personal views on how color grading should be done correctly (no pun intended).

SpeedLooks Promo Video:

SpeedLooks does some interesting things; first of all I’m not a fan of curves because they are extremely destructive to images. Using curves is like using a sledge hammer to tack a poster to a wall, its way too easy to knock a hole in the wall when all you wanted to do was hang your Justin Bieber poster… and that’s not just my opinion, many of the world’s best and most highly regarded colorists are of the same opinion. My introduction to real color grading was with Digital Vision and their Nucoda Film Master, I was fortunate enough to be hired on to do color grading demonstrations on that system here in Canada and trained on the system in Los Angeles and London England. I worked at NAB and IBC with the company and must say that the most important thing I took away from the entire experience is that I was able to interact with some extraordinary color grading artists from around the world and learn from them as well. I won’t get into the details of those lessons in this post either but suffice it to say that not only did I learn a lot, I also learned that I have a lot to learn. If ever anyone has an opportunity to sit in with a high-level professional colorist, and I mean the real guys, loads of people myself included do color correction and image enhancement but we are not on the same level as truly professional full time colorists. Or attend a seminar by one of these guys… do it! Don’t even think about it, just do it.

The experience will be invaluable. And it was through my experiences that I came to the conclusion that curves really are a clunky tool, however easy to use.

There are much more graceful and elegant ways to color grade images, but they are harder to understand, usually require more specialized tools (though that is changing rapidly) and take a lot longer to the uninitiated. SpeedLooks achieves their looks without using curves adjustments at all, which means they get you closer to the image you want without potentially introducing unwanted artifacts or having the image fall apart entirely. This is particularly important when using highly compressed images that sometimes also have limited chroma information such as in a 4:2:0 sub-sampling implementation from cameras like the Canon 5D, C100, and Sony FS100 and FS700.(Click below for the rest of the post)

SpeedLooks gets you started by using custom camera patches:

Simplistically, the custom patches are custom created for each camera to do a linear to log conversion and move each camera into a similar tonal range to that of the Arri Alexa; as the baseline camera to match, so that all grades applied to a color session will respond to the look, in way that is consistent. Of course not all camera’s are capable of either recording (or even have the same sensitivity to light) or have the same dynamic range so what wasn’t there in the first place won’t be there in the image after the camera patch. But what it will do is react to the look across the color session regardless of what mix of camera’s you have in the piece you are working on. So for example if your production was shot almost entirely on the Alexa in log-C and some pickup shots were done on a Canon 5D markII then after applying the camera patch to the Canon footage it will react to the color grade in the same way the Alexa footage does. That can save an enormous amount of time, with consistent, repeatable results.

There is one area that SpeedLooks uses curves and that is for shadow detail and highlight roll off, because…well… that is the only way to do a graceful roll off. But like anything else, while a look can be achieved with curves, they are very finicky in that a little too much causes a lot of damage. SpeedLooks does a lot of work to get you close to your desired final look without doing any serious damage to the image and that is critical in a world of ever increasing expectations and ever decreasing budgets, in fact I’ve read from many posts elsewhere on the web that SpeedLooks does such a good job they don’t even feel the need to do any further adjusting. So back to one of my earlier statements, everything needs color correction, enhancement or whatever you want to call it, and SpeedLooks allows me to get a really high quality look, that doesn’t make my image fall apart really fast, which means I can deliver much higher production value on screen for those same $5000.00 corporate projects that just a short time ago would have been unthinkable for the budget level because it would take too long and require too much specialized equipment.

Without getting into workflow in this post, color balancing your shots, applying LookLabs camera patches, and then applying a preset look… that $5000 corporate video can look a lot more like a $100,000 video assuming it’s shots were composed well and edited well… the difference in on-screen production value with a great color grade is incredible.

I would recommend for anyone who is looking to improve their color correction and grading that SpeedLooks does two things for you, first it gives you an excellent starting point for all kinds of looks that can then be customized but it also gets you working in a proper color grading application, with the right tools, something that working inside the NLE or in After Effects just doesn’t come close to in so many respects.

Check out some before and after comparison of frames:

In the last example, I sent a clip from Premiere CS6 to SpeedGrade CS6 as DPX, I did a really fast color balance with virtually a single adjustment with the color temperature slider (it isn’t perfect but the RGB values are much more closely aligned than they were in the original image) then I added a LUT layer for the SpeedLooks Camera Patch and then another LUT layer for the ‘look’ which in this case is the SpeedLooks Clean F.cube look. All in all not much work and very easy to get to this point, if I spent more than fifteen seconds working on that shot I could have tuned it to my hearts content. As it stands by using SpeedLooks in SpeedGrade you can apply the camera patches globally to the timeline or groups of shots if different camera’s were used and then your time spent will be on the shot to shot color balancing or tweaking and get immediate response in the context of your finished grade with excellent consistency. Really in my opinion, time well spent.

You can find LookLabs Website here.

From what I understand SpeedLooks, at the time of this post, nine months after being introduced to market, has users in 22 countries who consist of DP’s, Colorists, Editors, Shooters and others in the business of creating moving pictures. SpeedLooks also works in DaVinci Resolve and any other application that supports LUTs.

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