PEV01 – An Introduction to Performance Enhancing Visual Effects

PEVs 01

The term “Performance Enhancing Visual Effects” (PEVs) or “Performance Based Visual Effects” was coined by Alan E. Bell, the editor of (500) Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-Man”, and most recently The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and two parts of Mockingjay. It encompasses all manipulations of the source material aimed at making an actor’s performance better. Usually the alteration takes part only in part of the frame, as opposed to typical cutting and juxtaposition of whole frames. In my opinion the availability and recent popularisation of these techniques constitute a significant shift in the history and process of editing.

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Long Journey To Subtlety

Metaphors have never been my strong suit. In high school I took two terms of classes dedicated to general film knowledge, which culminated with the analysis of Volker Schlondoff’s “The Voyager“, based on Max Frisch’s novel “Homo Faber”, and then Peter Weir’s “Witness“. I did a decent job at it, but more nuanced aspects eluded me. I still remember my surprise when I learnt that the black sunglasses in “The Voyager” were a very clear analogy of Oedipus’ ripped out eyes.
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SpeedGrade developers DO get it

Quite recently I commented on what kind of features are important in my opinion for the popularity of SpeedGrade to rise. This interview with the creators and developers of SG is the proof that they do understand what is the key feature to fix:

There are three things in this interview that I wanted to take a closer look at.

One, it’s excellent that sending frames from the GPU will not require a major rewrite of FrameCycler. This was the basic hurdle, and it looks like it’s going to be amended pretty soon.

Two, it’s great to see that Photoshop does allow for LUTs to be applied to an image. In fact, it’s a very cool technique. Create and adjustment layer “Color lookup”, and in the properties panel for the layer you can select or load any .look, CUBE or 3DL LUT. For some reason I seems to have a problem with SpeedGrade’s .look files, but it’s a great tool nevertheless. One that is similar to Apply Color LUT that can be found in After Effects, and I hope is coming to Premiere as well.

Three, and most important, it is clear that they understand the next logical step for color grading – democratization.

Up until recently – and most of the colorists will most likely argue that even now – color grading has been serious business, that required proper hardware, proper monitoring, and proper place. Grading suites are still one of the most expensive facilities for post, even though the cost of components has dropped dramatically during recent years. And the prevailing opinion is that if you attempt to do it on a lesser equipment, you might as well not do it at all, because you’ll never going to get good results.

But you know what? The same argument was being made some time ago with regard to pre-press, and photo correction. You need a calibrated, expensive monitor to see all the nuances of color, you need profiles and color management, you need properly lighted room, Pantone color guides, proofs, etc. And at certain level you want and need all of that.  But for most publications that see the light of day, you don’t. The reality is that even on a $299 24″ IPS monitor one can get a decent match in color, that will allow you to output great material. Heck, Dan Margulis, an acclaimed Photoshop expert, claims that you can color correct the pictures if you’re a color-blind or using a monochromatic monitor. And if you know what you are doing, most people will not see the difference.

Granted, video signal is a bit special, and you do need some kind of hardware to output it to your monitor to see the possible artifacts. And DI, projection or film is another league altogether. But at the same time, unless you are heading for a theatrical projection (and in some cases even then) you have no control on how your movie is going to be watched, and what the improperly setup TV or laptop screen will do to it. Even broadcast these days with higher and higher compression ratios, is not what it used to be. The question then becomes, what the real entry level is, and what kind of deviation from your reference point you are willing to accept.

And SpeedGrade creators seem to understand this simple fact, that in order to pick up color grading tools, you don’t need the million-dollar equipment and software any longer. You can try it at home, similarly as you can try your best using Photoshop or Lightroom to correct your photos, Premiere to edit your videos, or a word processor to write your novels. Does it mean that just because you have an access to a tool, you automatically become a great colorist? Or that the fruits of your attempts will be as great as those of the master colorists? No more than each of us is a successful, popular, and talented writer.

But somewhere in the realms of high-end entertainment industry the message of having fun is being lost. Creativity is the ultimate freedom of exploration. It does not respect borders or limitations. And playing with ideas is its integral part. To experiment, to play, you don’t necessarily need high-end tools. You need toys and imagination. And toys for aspiring colorists is what we need. Now. Especially when your home PC can handle HD footage with color correction in real time without a problem.

The sad part is that Adobe is not a hardware company, so I guess I won’t expect them to make an affordable color grading surface to play with anytime soon. We still have to wait for BlackMagic Design or some other party, even less invested in the grading market, to fill this niche, and earn millions of dollars. And I do believe that it will happen sooner or later.

The craft of color grading is expanding. More and more people know about it, more and more people like to do it, find it interesting and fun. Of course, the professional colorist is not going to disappear, like professional editors did not disappear when NLE became something one could run at his home computer. But I’m going to agree with Lawrence Lessig, Philip Hodgetts and Terence Curren – video is the new literacy. And color grading is its important part.

In the end, such democratization will only benefit the craft, even though it might make some craftsmen seem more like human beings, and less like gods and magicians. The change is inevitable. And it’s exciting to see some players embracing it.