VistaLUT is the latest 3D Look Up Table aka 3D LUT by Swiss moviemaker and software architect John Hope of Cineplus, and it introduces a lightness and a brightness into the unseasonal gloom of our current southern hemisphere summer. I am trying VistaLUT out for a documentary project I am shooting outdoors and like what it does for my dull-lit footage.
Climate change has brought almost constant cloud cover and flat grey light to Sydney. Dull grey days dominated this year’s spring and winter though we had a glorious run of warm, sunny days during an unusual Indian summer in May.
Reconsidering my usual grading solutions
But Sydney doesn’t seem like Sydney any more. My usual color grading palette, developed over years of living under Australia’s once iconic bright yellow sunlight and hard-edged, blue-tinged shadows, no longer works in the muddy light under which I am shooting most days now.
I began shooting outdoor scenes for an unfunded health and human rights documentary back in May and then winter descended minus its usual day-long low amber sun. Spring leapt into full bloom for just one day then it was back to dark winter days again. The project needs to be completed soon and I can’t put off shooting outdoors any longer. No more waiting for sunlight.
My footage from the last two weeks looks nothing like what I shot earlier this year and the puzzle has been how to grade it to fit in with that earlier footage. If I can’t match the the warm sunlight and deep shadows of May, how do I grade these recent gloomy outdoors scenes so they have a positive character all of their own?
For this project, film emulation alone is not enough
I have tried the obvious solution of applying film simulation LUTs and the results are uninspiring. Yes, they have some of the richness of tone and color of analog film stocks or print stocks. But emulating some of the great films of the past is not enough. The gloom lingers on.
Adding warmth by boosting the color temperature looks fake. I tried a method I saw in action years at the hands of Australian and New Zealand landscape shooters working in the United Kingdom and applied a tobacco-colored graduated filter over a heavy amber tinge. It looked as unconvincing in my footage as it did in their otherwise beautifully-designed large format photographs.
Then John Hope’s VistaLUT came to mind. I remembered a vacation in Switzerland when some similarly gloomy days were threaded through a gloriously sunny winter and hoped that a LUT designed by a Swiss resident might be just the thing.
At the VistaLUT web page another user, Mitchell, is quoted as saying that it “doesn’t steal lightness, but it generously turns on the lights”. I knew that a virtual dose of heavy yellow sunlight would be out of the question but could VistaLUT brighten up my gloomy Sydney scenes?
Some blue and cyan so long as there is light
I’d be happy with some blue or cyan in Sydney’s grey-paved streets and the shadows so long as our people’s skin tones gained some warmth and luminosity. I didn’t want Sydney to look like a Technicolor wonderland – leave that look for if and when our usual summer sun returns – but whatever I did to my footage had to have character yet recede into the background when used with text overlays and voiceover narration.
The results speak for themselves. I haven’t got the grading finalized at all yet but it is heading in the right direction. There is no escaping the neutral tones of many of Sydney’s buildings and pavements and people’s clothes seem to have reverted to a winter palette of black and white and grey. But my recent footage seems like it will hold up against the stuff I shot earlier this year so long as I am careful with keeping it separate in the editing.
The three examples here show some of what is possible with VistaLUT. I will be taking one of my interview subjects into Sydney next week for a little run, gun, sit and chat under the same gloomy light. That will be a great opportunity to see what VistaLUT does for skin tones up close and distant while flitting though the alleyways and open vistas of the city.
VistaLUT may not be the LUT for all seasons but it is certainly lightening up our unseasonal summer. I look forward to seeing what it can do for the rest of the footage in this project, applied to a wider variety of subjects, lighting conditions and backgrounds.
(cover photo credit: snap from Karin Gottschalk)