Color Grading Made Eas(ier) with FilmConvert

Color Grading Made Eas(ier) with FilmConvert

Film emulation software has some pretty well-established players in the video and photography worlds. On the photography side, there’s the Nik Collection software, VSCO’s Film Series of plugins, and others. On the video side things are…somewhat more complex (as all things video generally are).

There isn’t just one way to get your footage looking like film. LUTs, or Lookup Tables, are an easy way to add film-like color and gamma settings to footage. Scanned blank negatives of 35mm film are converted to digital files and are available from many vendors to overlay on  footage (here’s a particularly nice selection of free grain scans from various companies).

LUTs, or LookUp Tables, are looks that can be applied to your footage.

LUTs, or LookUp Tables, are looks that can be applied to your footage.

Other software packages like Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite and FilmConvert can act as plugins for applications like Premiere, After Effects, and Davinci Resolve. We’ll be looking at FilmConvert in particular. It has become one of my favorite color grading tools.

Why FilmConvert?

When I first started shooting video, I was surprised by the limitations of codec, bit rate, depth, and resolution. I was used to massive RAW files. In RAW, white balance and exposure (among other things) can be adjusted to a pretty wide degree. Having to deal with what was somewhat like a JPEG file in its flexibility was a bit jarring.

After all, I came from the world of Lightroom, Capture One, and Photoshop, which made image manipulation almost ridiculously easy. Imagine my surprise when I ran smack-dab into color wheels, vectorscopes, and RGB parades!

I began looking around on YouTube and Vimeo to see what fellow filmmakers were using. I saw a trend emerging: a lot of folks were using FilmConvert.

FilmConvert is on the pricey side, but worth it.

FilmConvert is on the pricey side but worth it.

Price

I balked slightly at the price. At $299*, this isn’t a piece of software meant for beginners.

Still, it came highly recommended – even Vincent Laforet had recommended it – so I found a coupon for a few bucks off and bought the software.

Turns out, it was one of the best dang video-related purchases I’ve made so far.

*As of this writing.

Using the Software

The FilmConvert Interface in Premiere Pro CC

The FilmConvert Interface in Premiere Pro CC

The nicest part about FilmConvert is that it can be really simple or it can be complex. It provides powerful color grading tools with a few clicks on disclosure triangles.

A few clicks reveal more advanced tools in FilmConvert.

A few clicks reveal more advanced tools in FilmConvert.

3-way color wheels and exposure histograms are available from right inside the Premiere plugin’s interface. As you make changes to the various controls, the results are reflected live in the Program window, making it really easy to dial in the perfect adjustment.

Moreover, the plugin includes the ability to draw ellipse, polygon, or free-form Bezier curves to isolate the film effect to parts of your frame, complete with opacity, feather, and mask edge refinement. This is pretty powerful and takes the plugin a step beyond what your average LUT can do.

There are some really nice masking tools in FilmConvert.

There are some really nice masking tools in FilmConvert.

FilmConvert also customizes the way it applies color adjustments based on the sensor in the camera capturing the footage. I use Sony’s a7 series of cameras often but my old 5D Mark II with the Technicolor CineStyle profile is one of my go-tos as well. FilmConvert offers what they call a “Camera Pack” that adds a custom profile for not just my make and model, but for the specific picture profile you use.

FilmConvert uses custom color science based on the camera you use.

FilmConvert uses custom color science based on the camera you use.

At the time of this writing, there are camera packs available for everything from the humble Canon Rebel up to the professional ARRI. The folks behind FilmConvert are pretty quick to release new camera packs as new cameras hit the market.

Speed, Speed, and More Speed

Not too long ago, you had to render FilmConvert’s effects every time you applied them. This could be somewhat exasperating if you had to change the look slightly, then re-render, or if you had to apply the look across multiple clips, then wait a while for it to render.

Recent updates, however, have added the ability to take advantage of Adobe’s GPU-accelerated Mercury Engine, which means that applying, changing, editing, and replicating effects happens instantaneously, with rendering happening in the background. Any Mac or PC with a fast enough graphics card can take advantage of this. I can absolutely vouch for the fact that this changes a lot. Now, grading with FilmConvert has become part of my editing workflow in a way I’d never thought.

The latest version of FIlmConvert uses the Mercury Engine for increased speed.

The latest version of FIlmConvert uses the Mercury Engine for increased speed.

For example, when I start to put a video together, I have no compunctions about applying a FilmConvert effect to a bunch of clips together so I can better visualize what the finished product will look like. In the past, I’d have waited till I was done cutting before applying any color grades. Seeing something closer to the finished product helps me by allowing me to rearrange a sequence so that clips with more shadow areas aren’t all clumped together. Or, conversely, that I don’t break up two extremely high-key shots with an inadvertent low-key shot. These things can be somewhat harder to spot when everything has been shot in Log or flat picture profiles, where everything looks like it has a bit of haze overlaying it.

Results (and an Unexpected Bonus)

FilmConvert have a lot of examples on their website but here are a couple that I’ve personally shot.

The first is part of a test I was doing with the Sony a7S II in S-Log3 mode. In this video, I used the S-Log3 color space, with S-Gamut3.Cine gamma. White Balance was set to Daylight.

The second is a piece I shot for my personal portfolio and was graded entirely in FilmConvert.

Now, this second video is particularly important because I took advantage of one of FilmConvert’s little-known features: its ability to generate LUTs based on your current settings. I used it to generate a LUT for Kodak T-Max 100 black and white film and installed that in an Atomos Shogun and was able to preview my footage and adjust it for exposure while in the field.

This was pretty handy, as I was instantly able to see which areas would be blown out once I used the T-Max film effect (and where my blacks would be crushed). Pre-visualization for the win, folks!

Conclusion

FilmConvert is a blockbuster of a software package. It’s easy enough to use for beginners, yet offers enough tools to keep demanding pros happy. You’ll likely do a bit of touch-up with custom curves after you lay this effect down if you fall into the latter category. But I’ve walked away without adjusting anything at all and been happy with the results.

FilmConvert seem passionate about their software and their customer service is top-notch, too. As an example, I worked with someone over email to isolate a problem with using the OFX version with DaVinci Resolve and actually found an issue with the version of DaVinci Resolve that was distributed from the Mac App Store as a result (thanks, Sandboxing).

Bottom line: is it worth the $299?

Oh yeah. Definitely.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter or find him at anymedium.com.

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