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What is the Future of the Big Color Grading Systems?

September 12, 2011 | By

With the introduction this past year of Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve software-only version at 699 Euros, it seems reasonable to ask what the future of big color correction systems will be.

Here at IBC, I asked a few experts for their take on this – Steve Bannerman of Assimilate, Dado Valentic, colorist and stereo expert and Steve Brett, technical director at Pandora and inventor of the Pandora color correction system.

Steve Brett – It’s about the Hardware

According to Brett, “there is no such thing as a software color corrector, because they are all actually doing color correction in some kind of hardware. That’s really the trick with a Resolve, or a Baselight or a Nucoda: how many GPUs can you line up?”

In a nutshell, “the bigger the system you’ve got, the faster it goes,” and neither creative, nor their clients, want to be limited by speed. “They want to see changes applied immediately, regardless of how many layers or effects you’ve got, and all of that takes up a lot of processing power. CPUs do one thing at a time. Ok, they do it very quickly, but the reason people use GPUs is because they are parallel processors. If you look inside any one of those color correctors, all the horsepower is in the GPUs.”

Brett explained that Pandora uses an FPGA (Field-Programmable Gate Array) in their hardware – a programmable logic device that lets you use all of the millions of end gates, but all at the same time.

The market for high-end hardware systems is still there because this is what the high-end artists need. Adam Cole, director of technology at Big Pic Media was sitting in on my chat with Steve and he pointed out that the value of cheaper color correction software was that it would enable a new generation of artists to learn how to do color, but in the end, once the artists reach a certain level, both Brett and Cole believe that they will need the more powerful hardware of dedicated color-correction systems.

Dado Valentic

Dado Valentic – Not Much Growth in the High End

I talked to Valentic because I knew he is enthusiastic about cheaper software solutions, but still thoroughly at home in fully outfitted grading suites.

“The only reason I would need to buy an expensive system is for a very demanding project with demanding clients,” said Valentic, who runs a boutique post house in London, called MyTherapy. “And a ‘big system’ is not necessarily physically big. One of the things that makes it big is the support they provide. It’s like if you’re a Formula One driver – you need all your equipment to be top spec and you pay for it.”

Valentic does not think there will be much growth at the high end anymore. Most of the new sales of big color correctors, he feels, will come from servicing and upgrading existing suites. “But I do think there will still be new installations of big systems in developing film markets, like Eastern Europe, Brazil and China, where they are building infrastructures similar to what we have here.”

But Valentic thinks the big area for growth will be “beside the set.” “Post is going to move to production!” he told me. I’ve heard that kind of idea before, but here is his rationale: “After salaries, the most expensive thing for most companies is the rent, or the mortgage, on their facility.” Dado thinks that common sense and economics will dictate that more and more of “postproduction work will be done nearby the shooting location in parallel with the production and in the weeks immediately following. He told me he thought a typical feature could be edited within about four weeks of wrapping up a shoot.

Think of the overhead this approach saves! Valentic might be right on the money with this one.

Steve Bannerman

Steve Bannerman, Assimilate

I was given a very impressive demo yesterday, by Jody Neckles, feature film and commercials DIT who showed me how he uses Scratch Lab on set, both to manage data and to apply looks to footage. The software was responsive and, as Jody put it, “so simple to use.” So I thought it would be interesting to hear what Steve Bannerman had to say about the future of big color correction systems.

Bannerman’s first point was that even if you buy a software package, if you are going to do serious grading, you’re going to end up spending a fair amount of money on suitable hardware, anyway, so that the cost differentials aren’t necessarily a great as they appear.

He’s right, of course, but there will certainly be some artists who already have the hardware to run other applications.

In fact, as I look around here at IBC, there seems to be a lot of blurring of roles happening, so that skilled editors are starting to do more and more color work, for example, or colorists are serving as DITs, compositors are doing some of their own animations, (or 3D work inside their existing packages). It may become more and more common for a range of high-end film and post artists to have much of the same hardware setups. But, I digress…

“The product that you chose depends, above all, on what you need to do,” Bannerman continued. “If someone just needs a color corrector, then they have a range from software-only apps that can run on your Mac right up to the big dedicated systems.” They all, essentially provide the same types of capabilities, which is, above all, color correction.”

“The empowerment of the digital workflows is changing the culture of how stories are told and films are produced. The conventional wisdom used to be that if you wanted the high-end directors, you needed a big name, high-end grading system in your suite, or they weren’t going to do business with you. That’s completely changed now.”

Bannerman feels that the rise of digital cinema camera, like the RED, the ARRI Alexa and the Sony F65, has democratized workflows to the point where the boutique finishing houses are winning a lot of that work. Steve cited an Assimilate client, Local Hero Post, as an example of this new wave. “They started out as two kids in a garage. Now they have seven Scratch systems and they’re working on their third feature film for Lion’s Gate. Or another example: Off Hollywood in New York, who have worked on two Academy Award-nominated films. This didn’t happen in the old days. You had to have the big suite with the big hardware in order to have the credibility to get those jobs.”

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