A Colorist’s Perspective: Practical Comparisons of DaVinci Resolve and Apple Color

This article was originally published on film industry resource No Film School here.

With the release of Apple Color several years ago, the once-niche field of high-end color grading trickled down to the average user. When Blackmagic released DaVinci Resolve on Mac it became more obvious that color grading was the next big wave. Having already been grading professionally with Color shortly after it was released, I quickly decided to invest in a traveling DaVinci Resolve Mac Pro tower. The client demand for color grading in particular, and a traveling station specifically, has grown my business at a rate I never thought possible. Now, with Resolve 9 nearing its official, non-beta release, Blackmagic has separated itself even more from Apple’s killed product.

One of my biggest challenges outside of sessions is explaining the value of this system to new or potential clients. Most of these clients are still holding onto the Color program in a similar manner as some editors are to Final Cut 7, with an attitude of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Though one should be able to achieve the same grading results from both platforms, I do attest that my work is better in Resolve, but this can’t be easily measured. What can be assessed is the speed at which those results coalesce. As a working colorist frequently in a time crunch (let’s face it, every job), the features that allow me to shave a few seconds from a certain action add up in a big way even in a session that runs just a few hours. I want to highlight some of the biggest features that save me a lot of time in most sessions.

The tracker. When I demo Resolve, even seasoned graphics guys are stunned at just how well Resolve can track. This completely changes the way I grade, as I can key more aggressively and know that the keys can be constrained with a tracked matte. Resolve picks points automatically, which means that I rarely need to redo the track. The tracker in Resolve 9 has been improved even more, where you can select part of the track that messed up and retrack just that section, or manually modify it. I hardly used the tracker in Color, partly because it was a manual tracker and also because it was painfully slow. We’re talking 1 frame per second. I used it as a last-ditch effort, usually opting for keyframing instead in the interest of speed.

Resolve’s tracker automatically picks points for you after you stick a vignette on what you want to track.

Color uses a manual tracker which is often extremely slow.

The still store. With just a few clicks I can store and recall a still extremely quickly on my control surface, then wipe and reposition it to compare with the current shot I’m working on. This is a great way for clients to evaluate, say, a medium and wide shot to check for matching skintones. Color handles this with extreme clunkiness. The stills are located in a completely different room, and the transition wipe is frequently extremely slow, making it nearly impossible to use in a serious client session.

It’s incredibly easy to save stills and call them up immediately, and pan, tilt or zoom the images as needed so you can focus on matching specific parts of the scene.

Color stores its stills in a separate room, away from the coloring, forcing the user to toggle back and forth to call them up. Panning the shot you’re on requires heading to a different room as well. The “transition” slider here is what controls the wipe. For some reason, it tends to lag when using a control surface.

Nodes. Resolve’s corrections work as a set of nodes which can be arranged in serial or parallel. You can also easily adjust the mix on the nodes when the client asks you to “split the difference.” You’d be surprised how often that one comes up.

One of the big limitations of Color is that it limits you to 8 secondaries. For some jobs, this would be more than enough. But for a typical commercial job with a tweaker client, it’s simply not. Depending on the shot, some images frequently need a lot of keys pulled and vignettes added, but I also add nodes based on the manner in which a client makes requests. Let’s say they’re firing a bunch of commands at you. I sometimes opt to execute each small change in its own separate node, and then enable and disable those nodes to show them each small change. In this way they can evaluate the image in small increments, and if they don’t like the change, you simply delete the node. If the client likes the change, sometimes they’ll ask you to apply it to the sequence as a whole. Since you’re making small changes throughout, it’s easy to grab just the last node and apply it to the end of the node tree.

Compare that to doing a ton of things within a single node and then having to show the client by hitting undo and redo several times. It’s just less immediate for the client. The point is that you’re not conservatively worried about running out of nodes. Apple Color also only has one level of undo, whereas Resolve has multiple levels of undo for each shot, not just for the overall timeline, so I can tweak a medium shot, adjust a closeup, and then go back and undo the changes I made to the medium shot.

Recalling some shots from a previous job, the center shows my personal record for number of nodes for a single shot, (21!), as well as a “simpler” shot involving 15 nodes. I averaged 13 nodes per shot on this job.

Color can hold a maximum of eight secondaries per shot in addition to two primary overall corrections, usually not enough for a typical commercial job. You can also only store 4 different versions per shot.

The HSL key. Color, like all grading platforms, contains a hue-saturation-luminance qualifier. I actually really liked how it pulled keys as it softened out the edges nicely, as opposed to Resolve which starts with a harder edge. The thing with Color’s qualifiers was, I would always adjust the keys by control-clicking on each side of the parameter, in effect only changing one side, giving me control at both ends. Since Resolve works in a nodal way, a preliminary balance of the shot before pulling a key ends up with better keying results. In Color, the keys are always pulled from the unbalanced source image, so if you had a shot with a nasty DSLR orange color cast that you wanted to get rid of, it would be much harder to extract a good skintone key from it, even if you had performed a preliminary balance on it first.

A basic skintone key. If I didn’t want to alter the left side of the frame I could use a window to matte them out.

Outputting. Color necessarily must output to a filename that reads like “1_g1.mov,” corresponding to the shot and grade number. This created problems in the past when working with graphic artists who liked to receive Quicktimes that reference the original filename they’ve been working on. It is also nearly impossible to work with Flame or Smoke artists who prefer DPX image sequences. Roundtripping back to Final Cut was also frequently buggy, with inaccurate frames and speed changes misinterpreted. Forget about modifying your XML and getting it back to Final Cut without issues. Color also cannot work with the Scarlet and Epic cameras. Resolve outputs to more formats than Color does, including Avid codecs, and can organize outputting to folders. I have experienced less issues with roundtripping back to Final Cut and Avid, even when dealing with speed ramp effects.

Resolve allows you to render to a large variety of formats, including Avid’s Dnxhd codecs, shown here.

Not many render options are supported, and files are rendered as “1_g2″, where “1″ is the numbered shot in the timeline, and “2″ is the grade number. This workflow is difficult to work with when working with graphic artists.

Those are just some of the huge differences between the widening gap of features that are present in Resolve and absent from Color. Using Resolve is less about imposing what I’m comfortable and faster with, and more about having the right tools for the right job. I’ve been in situations before where the job was underestimated and Color was forced on me, only to have the client demands go beyond what the program was capable of, but what would have been simple in more expensive DI rooms. The whole point is that smaller shops want to compete with the big boys, but need to realize that you’re not going to stand a chance with a program that is, let’s face it, considered an abortion.

I actually think Color would have been a really great program if Apple chose to develop it further. DaVinci definitely has had a head start as an industry standard, and many of the above features have taken time to develop. The Blackmagic team is insanely fast with updates, from quickly implementing a 3-way color corrector for those working without a control surface to lifting the $500 Avid tax to work natively with DNxHD footage. Apple is much more ambiguous as to where it stands with its pro market.

Helping clients understand the value of a Resolve system is a task that I don’t mind falling onto my shoulders as someone who carries specific knowledge about this niche in the industry. In fact, so many of them have been burned by Color’s inadequacies that I believe they are already predisposed to wanting something better. The number of rooms running Color are slowly disappearing, opening the market to much more robust color grading systems to forge ahead.

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