A Brief History of Grading

31 July 2017 18:28 | Kevin Shaw (Administrator)

by Dick Hobbs

The very first IBC – then called the International Broadcasting Convention – was held in 1967. I have been doing some research for a 50th anniversary commemorative book.

Although I have tried, I have failed to find a catalogue of IBC '67, so I cannot give you a list of who was exhibiting and what. But I can be absolutely certain that there was a display of telecines. Indeed, I even have a picture of them.

The idea of IBC came from three sales directors. Two came from companies now largely forgotten: Tom Mayer of Marconi and John Tucker of EMI, both then big players in studio cameras.

The third was John Etheridge, general manager of the broadcast products division of The Rank Organisation, which later became Rank Cintel and Rank Brimar. He clearly ensured that his company got a good stand position, and a nice picture of the products.

Pride of place on the stand was a photo-conductive telecine, with the then relatively new 16mm twin-lens telecine also on show. A lot of space was given over to a slide scanner, too!

It was “broadcast products” because back then telecines were all about live broadcasting. VTRs were still relatively rare – around that time the BBC Television Centre in London (nine studios plus news plus the Television Theatre down the road plus editing) had a total of 16 VTRs. A lot of playout of programmes, as well as news inserts, was from telecine. Operation was by engineers, not grading specialists.

In 1978 Rank Cintel launched the digital version of its Mk III telecine, making the 3:2 pulldown possible and allowing it to be used in the USA and other 60Hz countries. At the same time it launched Topsy, its first separate programmer, which was succeeded in 1983 by the Amigo, which really ushered in the age of the colorist.

The shift was away from technical grading.

The shift was from technical grading (making the waveform monitor look right) to creative control (making the pictures look good). Film always had a lot more dynamic range than could be transmitted, so colorists developed techniques for digging into the colours, using secondary vectors as well as primaries (and ultimately the ability to isolate colours and operate in multiple windows).

Film scanning improved. HD came along. Peak telecine came with the contrasting images and operation of the CCD Spirit telecine (sometimes with a BTS badge, sometimes Philips, possibly even Thomson) and the Ursa family from Cintel. Third party colour correctors and controllers by now were normal. The Copernicus introduced digital colour correction, but the real contenders were Pandora and da Vinci, two great companies with innovative engineers and a positive attitude to having fun.

In 1993 Kodak introduced its Cineon DI system

The big industry shift started in 1993, when first Kodak introduced its Cineon digital intermediate (DI) system, followed very shortly by Quantel Domino. Both systems included a film recorder as well as a scanner: post was a digital intermediate stage between (analogue) film acquisition and delivery. And it allowed colorists to bring their creative skills into the movie industry. Movies like Amélie (2001) introduced the idea of subtle grading to add another layer to the story-telling.

Texas Instruments developed the DLP chip 20 years ago, and today we have high power, high dynamic range, high frame rate digital projection which allows directors (and colorists) unfettered image control. Companies like Red, Arri and Sony developed digital cinematography cameras, largely eliminating film acquisition (although there is the odd outlier: this summer’s hot movie Dunkirk was shot by Hoyte van Hoytema for Christopher Nolan on 65mm and Imax celluloid. Walter Volpatto CSI is the colorist).

Digital origination eliminated the routine need for big, expensive film scanning hardware, and grading could be performed in software. A new generation of companies came into the grading business and, as standard computers became more powerful, prices plummeted.

Companies like Colorfront with Colossus (which became Discreet Lustre) led the way. Software grading became part of consumer-priced packages like Final Cut Studio and Adobe Creative Cloud. Blackmagic bought the intellectual property of da Vinci and offered a basic version free. They have also kept the Cintel tradition alive and 50 years on we can expect to see the Blackmagic Cintel Film Scanner at IBC 2017

Blackmagic Cintel Film ScannerBlackmagic Cintel Film Scanner

The result was a better awareness of color.

The result of software grading was a better awareness of color. While the initial reaction might have been that low cost grading meant the end of the colorist’s trade, like most such “end of the world” pronouncements it turned out that grading is a whole lot harder than some might think. It takes skilled eyes and a lot of experience, whether you are driving a dedicated, hardware accelerated platform or software on a laptop.

Ready access to the tools meant that television made time for grading where it had not been before. Producers came to expect their programmes to feature distinctive looks, whether it was tobacco skies on Top Gear or highly saturated colours on CSI Miami. Movies saw an even greater shift in workflows, with colorists part of the digital intermediate pipeline, not just an unavoidable and time-consuming matching process at the end.

Colorists have always been on the cutting edge.

Colorists have always been on the cutting edge of technology, from the days of live playout. Telecine was a rich source of HD in the early days. Colorists seized the potential that the replacement of chemical labs by the digital intermediate meant for the movie industry. Today we look to colorists to make the most from new advances like higher resolutions and frame rates, and particularly the extended colour gamut that HDR offers.

50 years on from the first IBC, the media world is very different. But there will still be much for the colorist to see and enjoy.  

Dick Hobbs has been a leading commentator and consultant on media technology for more than 30 years. He is well known for his writing and appearances at conferences and on panels, where his lively good humour adds to the detailed subject knowledge.

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