Adobe Speedgrade CC Crash Course for Beginners (Part One): Setting Up

The idea behind this crash course came from my own frustrations in understanding Adobe Speedgrade. I’m sorry to say the Speedgrade manual is okay, but uninspiring and tough for a beginner (compare it to the Resolve manual and you’ll see).

It wrongly assumes you know quite a bit about color grading, workflows, etc. To a newcomer, this strange way of presenting topics, not necessarily in the most conducive order for learning, is a turn off.

Speedgrade Screenshot

This crash course assumes you haven’t seen or heard about Speedgrade, but have bought into Adobe Creative Cloud. You’ll want answers to the following questions:

  • What can it do?
  • How can it help improve my current workflow?
  • How do I set it up?
  • How do I import footage or ‘locked’ edits?
  • How do I create dailies or proxies?
  • How do I export a master?

Before I begin, let me make something clear. You’ll need to read (and reread) the manual at some point. To access the manual, you need to access the Adobe Help Manager and download the manual, called Speedgrade Reference.

It does provide many tools you will need to learn and master Speedgrade, just not in the right order. Unfortunately, some explanations are totally missing in the manual. After reading this crash course, fiddle around with Speedgrade a bit, and then dive into the manual.

If, after all this work, Speedgrade still proves elusive and frustrating, dump it.

What can Adobe Speedgrade do?

Adobe Speedgrade is a very powerful and capable application for:

The worst part of Speedgrade is that it is misunderstood.

Its usage was limited to cinema and RAW workflows, but since Adobe has added it to its suite of tools (Creative Cloud), it has become ‘exposed’ to the world of video. The point is, Speedgrade cannot be what it is not (well, at least not yet). It has no support for MXF (Canon C300), Prores, DNxHD, or XDCAM codecs, among others. Strangely though, it supports CineForm.

What? What use is it then? Unless your goal is cinema, Speedgrade is counter-productive, and totally unnecessary. The future will (my hope, not based on fact) bring changes, but don’t hold your breath.

All said and done, when it comes to cinema workflows, Speedgrade can hold its own against any other app on the planet. It is really that powerful and feature rich.

The basic Speedgrade Workflow

There are two ways in which you can go about your workflow:

  • Load footage -> Grade it -> Export it
  • Load EDL -> Load Reels (footage) -> Grade it -> Accept Edit changes -> Export it

If you look closely, the first workflow is perfect for creating dailies and proxies. You dump what you have shot into Speedgrade, render out dailies, proxies or whatever else you want.

The second workflow is designed to accept EDLs and locked edits for grading. It has the ability to handle small changes in editing, a habit you might want to learn well, because changes to a locked edit are as common as changes to an ‘normal’ edit.

Finally, you can create your master from Speedgrade, unless you want to add titles and other motion graphics.

Adobe Speedgrade prefers one file format over any other, and that format is DPX. This by itself should tell you that Speedgrade is designed primarily for cinema work. The solution to any import/conform/export/incompatibility problem in Speedgrade is: Render it to DPX.

Basic Setup

Once you fire up Speedgrade, you’ll see a totally dull and lifeless GUI. Color grading apps tend to have boring grey backgrounds to help you see color better.

Before you get into what goes where, you’ll want to know how to set up a project like you do with an NLE. In this respect, Speedgrade is more like Nuke than an NLE. Here are things you’ll want to do before you start playing with Speedgrade:

Choose your resolution and frame rate

Speedgrade can take multiple resolution images/video in the same timeline. You don’t have to be restricted to one resolution, which is great for cinema (imagine mixing IMAX and S35 footage for a blockbuster), but totally horrifying for video (which does not support multiple frame resolutions in any format).

What Speedgrade doesn’t like, though, is multiple playback rates and interlaced video (now you know why ‘video’ codecs aren’t supported). You need to set a fixed time-base (project frame rate) and stick to it. To do this, you:

  • Go to Settings (top right-hand corner)
  • Choose Playback under Options (extreme left – don’t ask me why it is designed this way)
  • Set your time-base frame rate – You can select a whole number (like 24), or a fraction (like 23.976). Don’t type in the wrong number, it can take it!

Choose your monitoring options

I don’t advise you to use Speedgrade without a two monitor setup:

  • One for your GUI
  • The other, calibrated, for critical color grading

Why? The interface is really cumbersome to move around in, and getting the app to fill a 27″ screen is painful (hit ‘f’ – you owe me one for this). You can manage, once you learn the shortcuts and what not. But remember, this app was not meant for single monitor work.

You can connect an external monitor via SDI, DisplayPort or DVI. SDI is only supported with a certain class of cards, and I wouldn’t recommend it anyway. Why? It’s not a television-video-HD-friendly app, remember? As mentioned in the article on display adapter formats, sticking to Displayport seems the best bet. However, some high-end display systems only support SDI.

You set your display options in:

  • Click Settings
  • Select Display, under Options
  • Enable Dual Display (Check the box)
  • Select your window size (only works if you hit ‘f’)

Speedgrade Airplane

Choose your playback resolution and color settings

Like most NLEs, Speedgrade allows you to choose your playback resolution, in this way:

  • Settings again (the third time you have to fly your mouse to the right and back – just kidding – do your set up in one go and you’ll be okay)
  • Select Dynamic Quality, under Options
  • Choose Playing frame rate (1:1 is full quality, 1:8 is the lowest setting)
  • Choose Paused resolution (1:2 is the default, but I think this has to be 1:1)
  • If the source format does not support 1:8 playback resolution, you can check the Downsample box
  • Under Color depth, choose playing color bit depth (8-bit is default, the only other option is ‘up to 16-bit’)
  • Do the same for Paused color bit depth

Finally, the AutoSave option is active by default, and I suggest you let it be.

If you have taken these steps, you are ‘somewhat’ ready. You didn’t think the other options under Settings were there by accident, did you? But it’s still early days to look into all that. For now, what you know is all you need to get started.

In Part Two we’ll look at the workspace (the worst part of Speedgrade), and the simplest way to understand and navigate it.