Andy Stout gets the lowdown from users on why Iridas new SpeedGrade DI offers the future direction of how we will do this business.
As toolsets homogenize and stabilize across the vfx industry, one of the most fertile areas of experiment and growth for both facilities and manufacturers over the past couple of years has been in Digital Intermediate (DI). In the space of a handful of years, its progressed from European art house experiment to the point where major studios are now confidently predicting that the majority of their releases will tread the DI path this year. In those same years DI has rapidly become a very crowded market too. As demand grows, a rash of new DI facilities are opening in the worlds movie production centers, and this years NAB will undoubtedly see more companies than ever before trying to pile into the DI space. Think non-linear editing in the early 1990s. DI in 2005 will see a similar rate of frenzied activity.
All this means that anyone trying to bring something new to the market is going to have its work cut out to be heard above the sheer level of background noise. And while there is no shortage of contenders, Munichs Iridas thinks its new SpeedGrade DI software might just have the feature set and price point to metaphorically turn up its Marshall stack to 11.
Certainly those that have used it so far reckon it to be something special. Price Pethel, chief color scientist at Lowry Digital (The Star Wars and Indiana Jones DVD collections) and former creative director at Digital Domain, says: In short, succinct words, its the future direction of how we will do this business.
The Technical Argument
There are a couple of components to what makes SpeedGrade special, but well start with the way it actually does DI.
First thing to point out is that its software only. Iridas has decided to let SpeedGrade piggyback on the usual developments in CPU and graphics card power. And while this means that its perhaps underpowered compared to some of the competition (most of which are significantly more expensive), Iridas has made it platform agnostic. Mac, PC or Linux, itll deploy on what you wish.
Its USP, though, is undoubtedly the way it operates on those platforms. SpeedGrade offer users a completely non-destructive way of working. The software saves all color, conform and compositing information as XML-based metadata alongside the unaltered source material. This means that users can save as many versions of each shot as they want at any stage in the production process without requiring any additional storage, before baking in the changes during one final session.
Pethel refers to it as off-line grading. It allows you to make a lot of decisions on the grade throughout the post-production process, even from the original production level, he adds. You can involve the DP early on, which is great. Theyre really frustrated at being left out of the process now. Its all deferred to the end and usually by the time post is wrapping up, the DP is on to their next project, and in a lot of cases theyre not even invited back to see the finals of their work. This allows them to have a participation. They can encode their impressions and their feelings about their images very early on and thats passed on as metadata. Its a much more holistic view of how to do it all.
Youre only baking the image in at the very last moment after its editorially assembled. Thats how weve always done movies: you dont accurately time a movie until youre done putting the reel together.
SpeedGrade also boasts an extremely open architecture, which lets users quickly get right down into the heart of it. We can design our own tools, which is attractive... very attractive, comments Jerome Sabourin, a DP and colorist at Montreals Post In Extenso. We customize SpeedGrade a lot: like changing the interface, I customize it for my colorists so that they can all do their tasks in the same sequence to make the global process simple and efficient. We have also written our own java to communicate with our JL Cooper panels.
Sabourin has used SpeedGrade to color correct more than 14 hours of Quebecois television so far, so is in a good position to comment on its toolset. I can adjust the mask and make modification to it on an other application without closing or exiting the session, he says. Seeing the result of a comp even if the render is not finished or re-rendering frames in a SpeedGrade session without exiting it for me its magic. Also, I like that I can import the alpha channel as a layer into SpeedGrade from our compositing application and use it as a specific layer. Or I can use it as a mask and work around it to color correct the foreground object and then invert the mask to color correct the background separately. That works really well, especially for Ultimatte.
Pethel boasts that the SpeedGrade toolset is equal to or even superior to da Vincis or Lustres. And given that Lowry is doing final assembly of projects inside the software, including scene dissolves and fade-outs, he has a good point. Its got the potential to do nine layers of effects, he adds, so conceivably titling, pan and scan etcetera could be done in there too.
It moves the grading process to higher levels, offering abilities that other systems dont have, adds Lowry Digitals Joe Parisella, who has been working on remastering some of the early James Bond movies from the 60s and early 70s in HD using the software. As an example, most systems have a primary black, gamma and luminance control. SpeedGrade offers you the flexibility in addressing low, mid and high in whites, and low, mid and high in blacks, where in each individual segment, levels and RGB values can be altered. This is a very powerful feature. Theres also a thumbnail image reference, where you can store and recall grades, like a still/store. Weve done 3D stereo projects, with SpeedGrade you can have several applications up and running allowing you to grade the left and right image at the same time.
The Business Clincher
Finally, its looking like SpeedGrade is ticking all the boxes where it really matters: on the bottom line.
On the monetary side, this [SpeedGrade] is the biggest bang for the buck, no doubt, adds Parisella.
This is a hugely important factor in SpeedGrades favor when it comes to assessing how it will stand up against the competition, as the DI market is starting to change and stratify. At the high end, you have what Pethel refers to pithily as the Taj Mahal suites, the all-singing, all-dancing, walnut-finished, leather sofa mini-palaces that are a direct descendent of the flame suites so beloved by the worlds commercials producers. At the low end, though, youre starting to get a less glamorous, and to be honest more movie-like model emerging. This is the workaday suite, the grading suite where you do the majority of your work, only stepping up to the Taj Mahal level for the final online.
Pethel estimates that SpeedGrade has dropped the cost of building a new suite by an order of magnitude, from $1 million to under $80,000. And that means that as people wander round the booths at the Las Vegas Convention Center this April, theres going to be an awful lot of noise coming from the SpeedGrade direction.
Its not perfect yet. Pethel says that it could do with more work on its list management functions and all interviewees would like it to have a bit more polish. But its overall functionality is superb and the whole idea of non-destructive grading looks like a winner.
Its like shooting a project with reversal film vs. shooting with negative, offers Parisella. In reversal, you get what you get, locked in. On the other hand, with negative, you get a whole latitude of dynamic range with unlimited possibilities.
Andy Stout is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who has spent more than a decade writing about 3D and vfx for numerous magazines in the U.K. and elsewhere.