The Grading Panel
When walking into a colour correction suite for the first time and watching a colourist working the controls, it can be somewhat of an interesting experience. In the darkness it seems a bizarre language is being played before your very eyes. I have always joked that grading suites are like the bridge on the Star Trek Enterprise and from an outsider's point of view, I can only assume it very much looks like that. It certainly is presumed to be a black art, as a colourist expertly manoeuvres around the desk or controlling interface, while the images on the screen or projector gradually change and take shape.
Compared to a normal computer interface it certainly looks alien and the fact many do not even have keyboards or recognisable interfaces, you would assume they indeed are difficult to control but once an understanding has been achieved jumping between interfaces and different correctors is not extremely difficult.
Think about the differences between internet browsers, they do the same job just in a slightly different way. The interface has a slightly different look, there may be a few different tools between Internet Explorer and Firefox but you do not find them entirely alien jumping between IE and Firefox. Many operators will be a champion of a particular panel or piece of equipment though because they are used to the interface and shortcuts.
Many software oriented colour correctors use percentages or sliders to control colour within the image. For example to removing red you select the red slider and effectively reduce red, in effect you are adding cyan, sound familiar?
However hardware solutions remove the technical protocols from the correction process, they allow it to be far more tactile and intuitive, allowing a number of corrections to be undertaken fluidly and together.
The panel usually consists of three balls separating the low lights (shadows), mid tones and highlights. The ball is pushed physically to add or remove colour while the image updates on screen. Different equipment will allow the colour of the balls oriented in different directions. (The colour wheel below is the standard configuration)
Basically if you push the ball north (0°) the image will change red, south east (120°) will change the image blue and south west, green (240°). Therefore the opposites, south will be cyan (180°); north east, magenta (60°) and north west, yellow (300°).
A fourth ball was familiar on many control interfaces, which effectively is used as the mouse - think of it as a roller ball controlling the selector or pointer of the mouse. It was a simple way of removing the mouse from the setup, as it still is a computer controlling everything behind the panel.
In essence if your image is slightly blue when you are removing the blue you are in effect adding yellow, thus when removing red, adding cyan and ultimately removing green adding magenta. If you look at the full RGB colour wheel below - you will notice the figure below the colour is the orientation in degrees and the third figure is the RGB values mixed. These values alone may help to explain the sliders and toggles you may be familiar with in many colour correction tools in many different packages. Obviously the tactile nature of the way in which the colourist controls the colour with balls is a lot easier but looks on the whole a lot more complex because such subtle control can create such vast imagery changes. N.B. a 360° orientation will return you to the original colour you started from.
There are a plethora of solutions and manufacturers that are working in the realm of the Digital Intermediate. Two of the biggest and possibly most accomplished players in the colour correction realm are Black Magic (formerly Da Vinci) and Pandora. They have been using their specialist skills to colour correct film using telecine suite's for many years. Many different solutions and ways of working are favoured by individual colourists because it is the way they entered the industry and these two remain two of the favourites but new systems are edging in on their popularity.
As Quantel started offering its colour correction toolset, I was part of the team who helped develop it and I found a deep mistrust from colourists who did not like the idea of using a pen and tablet - they had used a fourth ball, as I have mentioned this was an older ideal but change is sometimes contested. However as things have progressed with more complex tools, it is unfortunate that you need slightly more control than a singular ball will allow, so many panels are now coming equipped with pen and tablet.
Quantels latest panel takes a massive step towards combining the separate interfaces and you can see how the development progressed from the original qColor panel, to Pablo, culminating in the beautifully realised Neo Panel.
Current Quantel Panels - Neo & Neo Nano
Its interesting to see how the manufactures have refined and changed their correction panels over their life span. Some have even employed key logging software to log the colour correction sessions, so they know which keys are used more often than others, they can be brought closer or made bigger depending on usage. Others may be hidden within sub menus because they are only used once or twice, so it does not make sense to have a dedicated key, knob or button taking up space. You can see how they have gradually changed, Quantels panels are a great indication of the commitment to colour as these transformations have been made over a relatively short product life span.
They can also be rearranged so that either left or right handed operators can use them. They are modular in construction so each individual panel can be unplugged and swapped. Usually the balls are directly in front but I have seen colourists sit with them on their lap or slightly to one side, ultimately it is about making the colourist comfortable for what can be a very long session during the day or night.