Cinema Grade, a dramatically new way of colour grading footage or a huge marketing bubble?

Denver Riddle and Dmitry Lavrov are a colour grading expert and software developer who first developed Color Finale for Final Cut Pro X. His company now comes forward with a next-generation colour grading app and plug-in for Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, and Da Vinci Resolve via the OFX plug-in, Cinema Grade. The new plug-in is a radical step away from traditional colour grading where the artist either needs to control the adjustments via on-screen wheels and sliders or through an expensive control surface. With Cinema Grade, on the other hand, you just mouse-drag colour adjustments in the frame, although you can still control everything by numbers if you want to.

Cinema Grade is actually not a plug-in in the sense that all colour editing happens within the host. It’s an application with a plug-in that loads the clip(s) grabbed from within the host and then spits them back into the host when you’re done editing. Upon launch, the Cinema Grade interface has three tabs at the top, a few tray handles left, bottom and right of the main panel and a seemingly randomly chosen frame of your clip in the working window.

The basic promise of Cinema Grade is that you can do all your colour work by selecting an icon on the toolbar (or hitting the corresponding shortcut key), clicking in the working window on an area that you want to change and drag up or down to change the colour/light characteristics of the entire frame or part of it – e.g. shadows and bright spots. Some adjustment icons hide fine-tuning options. For example, the luminance adjustment hides another icon for adjusting luminance in shadow, midtone and highlight areas.

It’s a great model, but as with everything, there are caveats. One disadvantage I originally saw to this approach was that the app lacked scopes, so you totally depended on a calibrated display and your eyes. That has since been changed by the developers who certainly seem to listen to their users. Scope capabilities have now been built-in in two places – the basic grading tab and the shot matching tab. The last update also brought False Colour to Cinema Grade, so you can now evaluate your footage even better.

The second caveat might be that your clips are loaded in the Cinema Grade app, which wasn’t very fast on my system – an iMac 5K Retina 3.4GHz mid-2017 with 40GB RAM. Scrubbing through the clip sometimes resulted in the spinning ball taking a minute or more to disappear again. In a few rare cases, this operation resulted in the frame changing into a green screen instead of the desired frame.

Basic colour adjustments

I tested Cinema Grade with Final Cut Pro X. You start the grading workflow – which is guided if you want it to – by loading an input LUT if you have one, then select your camera from a list of SLog variants, a Panasonic cam, a bunch of Canons or a generic camera. The next step lets you decide whether you’re grading with a computer screen or one of the professional monitors that support Rec.709, Rec.2020, DCI-P3, DCDM, etc.

Finally, you can – it’s not obligatory – select to either match the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport or the ColorChecker Video (which is the large version). The interface provides a grid with colour pastilles that change hue when you cover the right colour chip of the reference card. This works well with a card that’s been uniformly lit.

Adjustments are entirely done with the mouse-drag concept or by dialling in the numbers in the right sidebar. The idea of making everything as simple and quick to perform has been taken to the limit. For example, while you can set the white balance yourself using the mouse, you can also quickly and quite accurately set white balance automatically. I found it pays off to keep doing this manually as there was a slight bias to a cooler image than when using a grey card and adjusting yourself.

All in all, though, the basic adjustment settings are all fast to work with, accurate and easy to do, even for someone who is grading for the first time in their life. Even vector colours can be set by dragging on a colour in the frame. Some very, very faint colours, however, will make the app – literally – see red.

In terms of basic colour adjustments, I personally believe the Hue vs Hue, Hue vs Luma, etc, curves should be added. But these probably are not that simple to convert elegantly into a simple interface model.

Multiple clips simultaneously

You can apply the Cinema Grade effect on multiple clips simultaneously in Final Cut Pro X by selecting the clips in the Timeline and double-clicking the icon in the Effects Inspector.

Inside Cinema Grade you’ll now see all of the selected clips listed beneath the one you’re working on. Once you’ve adjusted everything to taste, you can move on to the second tab – Shot Matching – and set up groups and a hero clip for each group.

Groups are made by clicking a colour disc at left and then clicking each clip you want to make a member of that group. The first clip you select with a colour will be the hero clip, unless you command-click on a different one – in which case that one will be set as the hero clip instead. Moving on to the step of actually matching clips opens a comparison window with the hero on the left and the clip to match on the right.

You can now click the Copy Correction button at the top left, which makes the list of your adjustments to the hero clip drop down. Now, either click on the Apply or Apply to Group button to accept everything or deselect the grading options you want to change later. You can also additionally and manually grade the clip after copying the hero settings.

In the area of shot matching, I found Cinema Grade to be far ahead of the competition. Shot matching with competing plug-ins usually means fiddling with titles that add a layer to the Timeline.

Cinema Grade shot matching

Good looks

Creating looks is as easy to do as the previous workflow steps. It’s available in the Final Grading tab and involves selecting Looks, LUTs or Look Transfer from the left sidebar, then selecting the look or LUT from the browser and applying it.

With regards to LUTs, there are a large number of them available by default, but – at least for the time being – when you buy a licence, you also get the chance to download a huge number of them for free.

It’s also here that you’ll see ACES, the colour management of the Academy, mentioned.

Look Transfer is a separate beast in that it allows you to load a still image and get the look of that image transferred to all of the clips inside the same group at once.

In the latest update of Cinema Grade, there’s also talk of a Film Grain feature that becomes available if you refer ‘friends’ to the developers. That feature lives in the right sidebar which, as in the Base Correction tab, holds the sliders and number boxes for adjustments.

That, by the way, means you can do a full output grade in this tab as well, instead of only applying preset looks or LUTs.

A new business model?

The Film Grain feature is locked until you refer friends to the developers. Clicking on the Lock reveals a form that has instructions and an entry box for an email address. Going along with this has a number of consequences:

  • The invited people will get an email to try Cinema Grade.
  • You are free to submit the form as many times as you want to increase your chances of unlocking the feature.
  • The invited friend who buys a copy will receive a 20% discount.

But here’s the catch: only when a friend successfully installs a free trial or purchased copy of Cinema Grade using the same address as the one you invited them with, will you receive an email with instructions on how to unlock the Film Grain functionality.

I’m underwhelmed by this “business model” and seriously doubt if professional graders will find this a fitting way of updating the app.

Conclusion

Cinema Grade has a novel interface that makes the app/plug-in combo a very enticing one – amateurs will like it because it takes the pain out of colour grading, while pros who want to speed up their workflow will at least want to try it out.

It does lack the Hue/Luma/Saturation vs Hue/Luma/Saturation curve functionality and there’s no masking capability from within Cinema Grade.

Where Cinema Grade shines is in shot matching, which is really well done and very easy and simple to implement, and I was also enthusiastic about the final grading functionality with the library of available LUT presets, the Looks and, of course, the ability to take a stills image and have the looks of it applied to your footage.

But I personally don’t like the updating business model in which you are in essence arm-twisted into emailing ‘friends’ to – maybe – unlock more functionality.

You can download Cinema Grade and use all of its features for free for a period of seven (7) days. $99 will buy you all of the functionality except ACES, X-Rite ColorChecker matching, Shot Matching and guided workflow. For $149 you’ll get everything, but updates may include features that are subject to friend referrals.

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