ColorSynth turns FCPX into full-blown colour grading environment

Currently available for Final Cut Pro X, ColorSynth is an elaborate pre-wired network of colour processing nodes. The colour grading tool which is based on Final Cut Pro X’s Effect and Title Generator paradigm has more than 60 items arranged in an 8-layer stack with several sublayers. ColorSynth is touted as having all the features and the power of Da Vinci Resolve and FilmLight’s Baselight while the interface should be simpler than the one that comes with those tools.

Regardless of the complexity of the grade, ColorSynth renders the results in floating point precision. Its rendering speed is instant — even on my lowly mid-2011 iMac — and its interface seems to be made to appeal to photographers as well as film colour grading pros. There’s a learning curve, but if you have a good grasp of colour management where it applies to video and film, you’ll be flying through the job in no time. There’s a keyboard-alike control surface in the making too. Appropriately called “Keys”, it wasn’t available yet when I wrote this review, but it will be coming soon. ColorSynth will also be rolled out for other NLE platforms, with Adobe’s a number one priority for the developer team.

ColorSynth used as a “title generator” serves to colour grade only parts of a clip, stack grades onto each other or grade multiple clips with the same settings at once. The Title generator option allows grading on a large scale in a way that is usually only done with Baselight, although this option also comes with Color Finale.

Internally, ColorSynth uses a layered approach. This means that the plug-in takes up quite a lot of space in the Inspector, so to find the other Effects you’ll need to scroll down quite a bit. However, this doesn’t affect processing speed in any way. In fact, ColorSynth rendered quicker than Color Finale and Chromatic.

In my early test version, two layers were still ghosted – “Shapes” and “Look”. These are special add-on modules that are planned to come later this fall. The company didn’t go into much detail, but the “Shapes” module should allow you to draw very high-quality spline shapes to isolate grades but also to constrain garbage mattes. The Look module should be very sophisticated. Codex says it’s the fruit of a lot of R&D. As Codex wanted to release ColorSynth as the complete pure colour grading toolset it is already, it currently also lacks CDL, HDR and Auto-Clip Matching, but these specific tools are well underway to be released in the near term – according to Philippe Panzini, VP User Experience.

Testing ColorSynth

ColorSynth has a 29-page user guide and that’s really all you need to start grading. The plug-in is divided into sections with tabs, and buttons that serve as On/Off switches. The user guide explains the basic concepts and divisions.

The interface is a success in terms of user-friendliness. You’ll start with applying corrections – Input Grade – and then move on to change the look of the photography in ways I have not seen in any other colour grading system.

The colour grading tools don’t use the traditional wheels but rely on curves and colour cubes. Colour eyedroppers are found in almost every modifier tool, making it easy to select the colour you’re targeting. If you want to see how your footage looks before and after, there’s an incredibly easy to use A/B feature that will also accept a reference frame. You can then either use a slider to see the effects or put the reference and the active frame next to each other. Changes made to any of the parameters immediately show up in the Viewer panel, even on my iMac.

In Input Grade mode, you can work with colour temperature, linear adjustments (Lift, Gamma, Gain and Offset), exposure (to change RGB balance, actual exposure, saturation, and contrast) and a tone curve. Most of these controls are easily understood if you’re familiar with colour management. For example, the RGB controls follow the Printer Lights model (the way film labs would control exposure and white balance) and allow adjustment of the relative densities of red, green, and blue for the Layer.

The tone curve allows you to tune contrast and colours in the traditional way, but also with more granular control over shoulder and toe.

By the way, I noticed throughout my tests that most of ColorSynth’s controls only work on the parameter you are changing and nothing else. If, for example, you’re using the Luma curve to increase contrast, you will not be changing saturation in any way – as you usually are with other systems. This is a characteristic of a good colour adjustment system. It’s easier to add saturation, though, because it is simpler to implement and indeed fools the eye into seeing more contrast – the downside being that it may severely limit your grading choices downstream.

In Output Grade, the modifiers you have access to are Color Tone and “Special Tools” in addition to the ones above.

The colour tone panel allows you to define separate RGB curves with a default mode that adjusts the colours without affecting brightness and an option to change the relative intensities of RGB channels — thus affecting both colours and brightness.

The Special Tools panel offers controls for vibrance and clarity – the latter controlling local contrast.

The third layer is the Selections layer. The qualifier of this layer is a high-quality chroma-keyer, used for colour isolation. Six colour vectors are pre-defined and can be modified. Each of the six separations has its own set of modifiers. The chroma-keyer is very detailed and allows you to affect only the specific colour you want to change. You can pull a primary key and two auxiliary ones, which in my experiments was more than enough to isolate a particular shade of blue on a blue T-shirt.

In fact, I used only the primary key to get rid of some noise – in a GoPro HERO6 clip shot at dusk – by modifying the two modifiers (linear functions and exposure). That was a first; I could never do that with the other colour grading plug-ins I have reviewed nor with Final Cut Pro X’s own colour tools.

A unique layer is “Color EQ”. That one allows the adjustment of Hue, Saturation and Luminance relative to each other or themselves. Three sub-panels allow different types of adjustment: Main EQ, Color Mixer, and Shading EQ. The remapping capability isn’t unique by itself but the interface and accuracy of the selections are. Contrary to Hue vs. Hue remapping in Resolve, for example, I found using the ColorSynth layer easier and more intuitive.

The sub-panel called Color Mixer does more or less the same as the mixer in Photoshop. Finally, the Shading EQ sub-panel allows you to target a very specific colour for the modification of Hue, Saturation, Luminance, or RGB tinting. This panel allows you to narrow down the range of colours affected by the change to a much smaller area than is possible with the Main EQ panel.

Conclusion

My test version of ColorSynth 1, although still lacking some of the functionality that will be in the actual release version, did really turn Final Cut Pro X into a full-blown colour grading environment. The interface is novel and allows people from outside the video or film industry to colour grade footage. The quality of the feature set, the rendering speed and the results you can obtain with ColorSynth can easily compete with Resolve. In some areas, in my opinion, it’s even better.

While I don’t know how much easier yet it will be working in ColorSynth with the Keys control surface, I do know that a generous set of keyboard shortcuts makes working with this plug-in a pleasure. The omnipresence of eyedropper tools allows for a fully colour-managed environment, provided you use a colour reference card.

I don’t feel the absence of a scanning feature for such cards to be a disadvantage. Quite on the contrary, I think the eyedropper functionality actually gives you the freedom to use cards that aren’t supported by other grading tools, such as my DSC Labs ChromaMatch card.

In short, ColorSynth is a serious player on the market.

Customers are now able to download and register for a free 30 day trial of ColorSynth at https://colorsynth.codex.online/.

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