With 3D LUTs – Look Up Tables – becoming so established in the cinematography, movie editing and color grading landscape in recent years, the facts about the origins and nature of LUTs themselves run the risk of being forgotten or misunderstood.
Cinematographer Matt Allard of ‘News Shooter’ recently wrote about LUTs, looks, picture profiles and shooting log, and shared some of the 3D LUTs that he uses in his work. It is a great article and worth reading and re-reading.
Meanwhile I recently had a conversation with Jeff August, partner and creative director at the Calgary, Alberta, post-production studio that makes one of my favourite 3D LUTs product range, SpeedLooks.
SpeedLooks, released by Jump Studios’ software arm LookLabs, is a collection of very distinctive analog film-based LUTs divided into two different products – SpeedLooks Studio Log and SpeedLooks Studio Linear – each comprising six sets of LUTs with very distinctive but related looks that can be used together in the same production if desired.
LUT vendors like LookLabs are not included in production credits but perhaps they should be. I watch TV shows and movies that I am sure base their key looks on SpeedLooks 3D LUTs. Adobe’s inclusion of a SpeedLooks subset in Creative Cloud is eloquent testimony to their quality and expressiveness.
My conversation with Jeff August began with exploring the origins of the SpeedLooks range. Did he and the rest of the LookLabs team create SpeedLooks from scratch or did it stem from their post-production work at Jump Studios?
Jeff: Jerome Sabourin and myself had both been working independently on this style of LUT-based workflow for years. It wasn’t until we met, when he trained me on SpeedGrade, that we realized we were heading in the same direction. We wanted to achieve the look and personality of film and make it consistent throughout all cameras. Hence, the beginning of SpeedLooks.
Karin: Jeff, I watch at least one TV show that is renowned for being shot in Alberta – ‘Hell on Wheels’. The locations are spectacular and the production has a distinct look and feel.
Jeff: Many Canadian, American and international movies and commercials have been shot in Alberta because of our stunning locations and talented crew.
Karin: Where you live and work has surely got to be an influence, then. What else inspires you?
Jeff: Our influences are from movies, television shows, music videos… just about anything and everything. When we first started SpeedLooks we began with classic Fuji and Kodak film looks – SpeedLooks Clean – but we wanted to expand our palettes to include different narrative feelings. For example, SpeedLooks Big is modelled after the type of look you would see in a summer blockbuster, and inspired by the movie ‘The Island.'
Karin: While researching the use of look-up tables in post-production, I encountered 1D and 3D LUTs. Are both types used in color grading? If so, what are their differences and similarities?
Jeff: 1D LUTs contain basic color transform information – brightness, saturation, gain, luminance and so on. A 3D LUT allows us to re-map the entire color space. As an end result, 3D LUTs allow us to create looks that, when applied to footage, will not create artefacts or break up when you start to adjust the color.
Karin: You produce what are essentially two different types of LUTs – camera profiles aka patches and looks LUTs. Is this two-part process unique to LookLabs or is it a common industry practice?
Jeff: This is unique to SpeedLooks. LookLabs is the only company that has created its own virtual log color space – VS-Log. This enables us to match all camera manufacturers’ log outputs to our standard. So when you apply a look on top of a patch, you will get the same result regardless of the camera used.
Karin: How do you create camera profiles or patches?
Jeff: When we do a round of camera patches we bring in every camera that we support, so those cameras are shooting the exact same scene. This way when we adjust their log signals to VS-Log we know everything is consistent.
Karin: How does using camera patches as stage one of your grading work out in practice? Is it about evening out the variations in a range of camera originals?
Jeff: Yes, that is it exactly. You can have six cameras on the timeline and quickly grade them so the viewer will never know the difference. This includes Rec.709 cameras when they use our Universal Camera Patch – Rec.709 to VS-Log.
Karin: How do you actually create looks LUTs? Are they based on analog films – I note your FAQ ‘About LookLabs Color Science’ – then changed in some way in some sort of software to produce looks that you have imagined? Is it a more experimental, more random process? Or is it directly based on analog color timing and other analog film processes in some way?
Jeff: Whoa! That is a big question! At the base of our secret sauce is all the data that we’ve extracted from more than 15 different film stocks. That’s in every look. Our look creation is very complex and always purposely designed. We bounce between 5 and 6 pieces of software to achieve what we are going for. It takes several weeks for us to dial in a look that will meet our standards.
Karin: SpeedLooks 4 contains six distinct sets of looks with some clearly influenced by movies like ‘The Matrix’ – SpeedLooks Matrix. And you mentioned the connection between also SpeedLooks Big and ‘The Island’. Have other LUTs in SpeedLooks been inspired by particular movies or genres? Or are their prime inspirations certain emotions, moods or feelings?
Jeff: We are inspired by movies but we also create narrative palattes that allow our users to find the specific mood they are going for. So yes, we are inspired by both.
Karin: Do you envisage new looks that stem from some other influence altogether? Or will we continue to grade films with reference to analog long after making movies with film vanishes, do you think?
Jeff: What analog brings is a beautiful deep color look, which we find is always the best place to start. It is nearly impossible for a user to get there on their own. SpeedLooks starts at this place and allows the user to adjust the image – contrast, brightness and so on – with the amount of effect they deem necessary. When you have a secret sauce that is as good as ours, why change the recipe? But that doesn’t mean the chefs in the kitchen must stop playing.
Karin: Jeff, do you know the British TV show ‘Utopia’? David Fincher is making his own version in the United States. The story referred throughout to a graphic novel created by one of the characters. The grading was very saturated, intense, with high color like a graphic novel or comic book. Might LUTs be created that would make great starting points for that sort of look? Could LUTs be inspired by certain styles of painting, say?
Jeff: We love ‘Utopia’! In fact, we are in the kitchen with it right now. So yes, we can create a great starting place for the ‘Utopia’ look, although the user will need to do a lot of image shaping through masks to enhance the mood. LUTs could absolutely be inspired by paintings. What we would be looking to extract is the color palette and making it work in the world of video.
Karin: Panasonic tells us it will be releasing its DVX200 camera in October with V-Log L on it, and V-Log L should be appearing for the Panasonic GH4 at about the same time. Will you be working on SpeedLooks camera patches for them?
Jeff: Absolutely! We are looking forward to getting our hands on them.
On July 30, Deadline Hollywood reported that David Fincher’s pilot for the US version of ‘Utopia’ had struck trouble due to budget disputes between HBO and the director. I hope that Jeff August and his team at LookLabs keep working away in their LUT kitchen so we might benefit from a ‘Utopia’-inspired LUT set some day soon.
Last year ‘Wired UK' published an article about how ‘Utopia'’s post-production team created its 1950s Technicolor-inspired visual style, ‘How TV series Utopia got its comic book look’. A US sci-fi and ‘Doctor Who' fan has written some articles about ‘Utopia' at his ‘An American View of British Science Fiction’ with the first being ‘Utopia Episode 1 (2013)’. It is a shame that Mr Fincher may not be making a US version of ‘Utopia' after all but the original UK version is remarkable enough in its own right.LookLabs reveals the cinematic inspirations for its amazing SpeedLooks 3D LUTs. Click To Tweet
(cover photo credit: snap from source)