Tonalizer – a scalpel, not a bullet

Now we’re all shooting flat, how do we get our rushes looking their best? By grading. From the giddy high end of DaVinci down to the humble color board in FCPX, grading is the price we pay for creamy highlights, rich shadows and that ‘expensive’ cinematic look. And I’m in love with a new tool.

We shoot flat because the ‘video’ tonality of traditional video is far less than modern CMOS sensors can handle – by modifying the mapping of brightness to the camera’s curve, we can squeeze in a couple of extra exposure stops if we’re careful.

Of course that makes the pictures look a little different. Highlights are pushed down a bit, shadows are pulled up a bit, and we get ‘flat’ looking pictures. They need to be graded in post to ‘roll off’ the last stop or two of highlights, so brightening the highlights again, but without the awful cut-off of a ‘blown’ highlight – the ‘tip-ex’ effect on foreheards, for example. Similarly, the shadows can be tamped down, but because the shadows started life in a brighter realm, as they’re pushed down to more shadowy levels, we retain the details without the boiling mass of noise we used to associate with it.

Of course, because EVERY shot you’ve taken has this flat profile, EVERY shot needs work in post before mortal humans can enjoy them. You can apply a ‘Look Up Table’ (a long list of ‘if it’s this level of brightness, that should be that level of brightness’ if somebody has been kind or commercial enough to make one for your Non Linear Edit system (e.g. Technicolor profiles), but if you’re hand-rolling, you’re on your own.

I’ve traditionally used Magic Bullet Looks and Colorista to do my conversion from flat to full, but with the transition to FCPX, we had to wait until fairly recently to get back this functionality. The Color Boards did not provide the kind of delicacy in manipulation of curves, and other plug-in manufacturers have stepped in.

Personally, I preferred Magic Bullet Looks because of familiarity and the general ‘one filter to control them all’ approach, but it feels heavy going for FCPX – and for some reason it feels slower and heavier than it did in FCP7.

Then along comes Tonalizer.

If you’re used to the interface glitz of MBLII, Tonalizer’s dour set of sliders seems a little limiting. No faux colour balls, no pretty graphs, some curt labels, and that’s it.

But what it actually does is wonderful – it’s as if there’s thousands of subtle adjustments it can make, but they’ve all been tamed down to a few sliders. FCPX may have a brightness slider, and you can watch the whole Waveform get shifted up and down the IRE scale, ensuring your image is only correct at one minute point in the slider’s travel. Watch the brightness control in Tonalizer affect your waveform, and see how it’s nipping and tucking things at the top and bottom end of the scale, subtly redistributing the tonality over a very pleasant curve, which you can then change the shape of with another slider. Then there’s the ‘highlight rescue’ and ‘shadow boost’ that file down the sharp edges in highlights and shadows, with a form of contrast that subtly increases around areas of brightness transition that gives the merest hint of ‘phwoar’ (a UK idiom that I hope travels well). Of course, if you wind everything up to 11, your footage ends up like a dog’s dinner, but Tonalizer can handle subtlety.

It’s all very neat and handleable, it’s all very focused on footage that’s been shot on flat profiles, and tellingly, it’s got all the little things we need day to day:

  • Adaption will pull flat ‘log’ style rushes in to shape
  • Tint is good at removing the green pollution in Fluorescent lighting
  • Warmth simply nudges the colour temperature (won’t correct the WRONG colour temp, but handy in mixed conditions)
  • Protect Skin Tones will ring fence that little collection of tones so your lit interview is fine, but the green pool of background is improved

And then there’s the Detail Sharpener.

Sharpening is anathema to Narrative shooters, but in Corporates, sharp colourful pictures sell. Period. Not oversharpened ‘black ring around white objects’ horrible ‘in camera’ sharpening. Tonalizer just wafts some magic over the image and helps the camera’s inherent sharpness. You have turned the sharpening circuits off, haven’t you? Cameras don’t sharpen well as they have to do it in real time and it sharpens all the noise and crud. If you do it in post, the computer spends a little more time and care (with the appropriate software).

So Tonalizer lifts and separates, adds a bit of definition, respects skin tone, and even has little niceties like an ‘assist’ mode that flags clipped detail, plus a ‘safe range’ that gracefully protects your picture from harm when winding up the controls to higher values.

For FCPX users, there are two versions – one specifically set for Technicolor CineStyle favoured by many DSLR shooters. This shoots incredibly flat, and takes the DSLR brightness range to the very edge, producing clay-like skin tones and such milky images that it takes time and skill to bring back (but the results are worth it if you do have the time).

Shooting ultra flat does have some disadvantages – more noise in the shadows, but Tonalizer has a Noise Reduction function to help mitigate that. Another issue is that you are spreading a lot of info over an 8 bit image, and aggressive manipulation will degrade the image as your carefully spaced data gets pulled and pushed and bits fall between the ‘8-bit gaps’ and disappear for ever. Start yanking the sliders of any grading plug-in, and watch the waveform monitor, looking for the fine horizontal lines (gaps in the info) appear.

So there’s a ‘Comfy Camp’ of Picture Profile users who want enough brightness range in highlights to do the roll off thing, and enough tonality in the shadows, to create an ‘expensive’ if not completely ‘cinematic’ final image, and this is where Tonalizer is a great tool for getting the look you want. It certainly floats my boat for corporate/commercial work, and has already supplanted MBL2 for my ‘jobbing’ work – quicker to get right, quicker to render, and I have to say I rather like its singleminded approach.

Am I giving up on Magic Bullet? Absolutely not. It goes further, does more… but it’s slower and easy to ‘overbake’ (I habitually dial back my MBL grades to 66%). For well exposed stuff that just needs to be clean, clear and smartened up, MBL is overkill and, used indiscriminately, can do more damage than good. Tonalizer is perfect for just a little bit of zip and starch.

It’s been out a while, but I didn’t really bother much because i) I had Magic Bullet Looks, and was happy with it, and ii) I thought it was quite expensive for what it was offering. I then saw Tonalizer demonstrated at the February MacVideo Live event (where 10 lucky attendees walked away with a copy – not me, alas) and managed to have a quick play with it. You will have to try it out on your own footage to realise its worth. I do note, however, that there have been a number of promotions, and currently has a 35% discount going.

This is a blog, not a review, and I’m not particularly keen to get involved with promoting anything, but have been much enthused by Tonalizer, and for FCPX users, it’s well worth checking out, even if you do already have a plethora of level/curve based plug-ins.