How to Decide If A Colorist Control Surface Is In Your Future


Convergence 200 Edit Controller, ~1988

From my earliest days in the late-1980’s, I was weaned on control surfaces. Back then they were called switchers (or vision mixers), audio boards, ADOs, K-Scopes, Kadenza (if anyone knows what a Kadenza was, bonus points… if you actually worked it, we need to meet and have drinks).

GVG Kadenza from jcburns Flickr Feed

Most of these devices (or their descendants) still live on in live television production. But for most post-production professionals, Non-Linear Editing killed these beasts.

Instead we’ve gone to (big dramatic whooshing sound…) this:

Single Pixel Selection Device

The Tip Of A Finger-Nail (Lame-O)

The problem with a mouse cursor – it takes five fingers and an entire hand to control the single tip of a tiny pointer. Of course, keyboard shortcuts help speed up our interaction with our apps. But still, in your editing app, try to Undo while also selecting your next shot… no go. If both commands are applied at the same instant, they both fail.

Apple’s Motion is a good example of the great lengths engineers need to go to overcome the design flaws of the mouse pointer…

Motion's 3D Interface

But it’s still waaaay better than Final Cut Pro’s interface for 3D objects:

aaarrrggggghhhhh . . .

One. Parameter. At. A. Time. Booooo! (can you hear your client impatiently tapping her foot?)

The funny thing is, Motion, Final Cut, After Effects – all their interface issues were solved 15 years ago by the folks at Ampex with the ADO. A joystick that moves the image around on the X- Y- axis, but also rotates around it’s center for either Z- axis or Scaling. It was fast, intuitive, fun and allowed the manipulation of multiple parameters simultaneously.

Ampex ADO-3000 DVE

Avid or FCP still don’t have the 3D DVE control surface which they’ll interface. But there does exist. . .

The Colorist Control Surface

This is a golden age for moving images… more people than ever before have access to the tools to create compelling stories. And compelling images. In 2007 when Apple ‘democratized’ the craft of color grading by acquiring a $20,000US software package and bundling it with a $1,200US non-linear editing package (for no additional fee) and called it Color – everyone with a license of FCP starting asking themselves: You mean color grading isn’t just a filter with eyedroppers? It’s a workflow? It’s a discipline?

Some of those people started digging further and discovered the colorist control surface:

The three most affordable are the Euphonix MC Color, the JL Cooper Eclipse, and the Tangent Wave (left to right). With price tags ranging from $1,500US (Tangent, Euphonix) to $7,000US (JL Cooper), a new question emerges:

Say Wha- ??

Yes, it’s true – this gear costs more than the entire Final Cut Studio package.

So if you’re going to invest that kind of cash, you’ve got to know if the gear is a good fit for you. Here are the five questions I think are most important to answer, when considering a colorist control surface.

5 Questions to decide if a Colorist Control Surface is for you

  1. How much time (do you) / (will you) spend in Apple’s Color, DaVinci Resolve, or other dedicated color grading app?
    • The full benefit of a control surface is achieved by acquiring ‘muscle-memory’. You should strive to train yourself to know where every control exists without looking at the control surface. The good news: It doesn’t take long to achieve this level of mastery if you force yourself off the mouse. One or two multi-day sessions a month and you’ll be fine. More than that, and you’re the perfect demographic for these impressive, fun, and useful devices.
    • Once you’ve achieve muscle memory mastery – you get faster and faster at your corrections and enhancements. Then, taking 15 minutes inside Color’s ColorFX doesn’t seem like such a time-sink. You can experiment and still get all your work done.
  2. What do your source timelines look like? One or two layers or mostly 6 layer compositing beasts?
    • The more toward the ‘compositing’ end of the spectrum of your typical timeline, the tougher it is to ’roundtrip’ into your color grading app. It’s also tougher (if not impossible) to see your grades ‘in context’ if they’re interacting with other layers.
  3. How fast are your turn-arounds?
    • The shorter your deadline and the more complex your timeline (see Question #2), the less opportunity you’ll have to get into your color grading app (and put that control surface to work). By short turn-around, I mean – finish editing at 4pm and output at 6pm.
    • If I only have a half-day for a color grade and can prep the timeline in 20-30 minutes, then it’s off to my grading app. I can do far more in less time in a dedicated app with a control surface than with a mouse in my NLE. Less time than that? I’ll stay in the NLE.
  4. Do you work in client-supervised sessions?
    • Control surfaces are built for speed and efficiency (and hopefully sport an impressive design). Many clients pay extra for speed and efficiency. All clients appreciate efficiency.
      • But re-read Question #1, clients don’t much appreciate seeing their editors / colorists flailing around on equipment they don’t know – so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by not being prepared with your shiny new ‘toy’. (On the other hand, a short conversation informing the client that the gear is new to you may buy you the space you need to get up to speed in the next few hours).
  5. Are you looking to advance your career or expand your client base?
    • Don’t fall into the “build it and they will come” mentality. That’s not what I’m talking about. But in a land of generalists, the specialist is a stand-out. Maybe grading won’t be the only service you offer (some clients don’t value specialists but greatly value generalists with a specialty that adds production value), but there are people who will pay extra for someone with a specialized skill. Color grading is one such skill. A grader who can fly on a control surface… that’s even harder to find. A post-house with one or two such people, that’s a new service to entice new clients and grow existing clients.

Once you ask and answer the above five questions, I think you’ll be in a great position to decide if the investment in a control surface is for you (or your company).

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FTC Disclosure: I’ve been working with control surface manufacturers for several years. I have received discounts and / or demo units from and I frequently beta test pre-release versions of their software drivers. I currently give a free live seminar that features the Euphonix MC Color control surface. I am about to launch a series of training videos for control surfaces here on the