I’m primarily a freelance Cinematographer and I color my own work most of the time out of necessity, but also because I enjoy it. It’s been a great side-skill to have over the past year and honestly if you’re a DP, understanding these tools is crucial as your image is now decided in post and you want to make sure your name is attached to the images you intended to make, right? For those of you who don’t know, these panels are relatively simple interfaces that allow you to manipulate the color tools within DaVinci Resolve more easily, and faster than using your keyboard and mouse. There are three wheels/balls (traditionally representing Lift/Gamma/Gain with the balls handling the hue/sat of each and the wheels manipulating luminance), a handful of knobs and twice as many buttons. At least on the Mini. They’re all labeled, so just have a look at the photo and you’ll see what they do. To get to the meat of the matter, after a few days using both panels I immediately bought the Mini Panel and I never want to grade without one again. A keyboard and mouse is horrible in comparison. Physically annoying. There’s the “review” in a nutshell.
You can absolutely color in Resolve with a mouse and a keyboard. Nothing is wrong with that and you’re not losing out on any functionality, really, by doing it. What’s more important is a properly calibrated, accurate monitor and color pipeline. However, I have found that KB/M coloring takes considerably longer and is less intuitive. I didn’t realize how slow until I got hands-on with these grading panels, and speed is crucial. You also don’t get a “feel” for what you’re doing, which I’ll get to in a minute.
I started educating myself on color grading maybe 5 years ago, so obviously I’m not an expert, but I’ve gotten better over that length of time and each project was a learning experience. I knew “real” colorists used panels, but since I wasn’t a real colorist I was content doing the work with clicks and keystrokes. And to be fair, that worked for me. Honestly what got me into Resolve initially was just wanting Power Windows to help me “relight” footage when necessary, which even now I believe are easier to place and manipulate with the mouse, and for grading I was largely using curves which can be relatively mouse-centric anyway. The main issue that I’ve since realized is that this style of working had me constantly looking at the GUI instead of my image, and a secondary issue was that I was allowing myself to get too granular with my adjustments, potentially leading to unnatural looking results. Curves are powerful, but with great power comes an impulse to over-work the hell out of your footage early on.
Modern Cinematography is an art with one foot in Production and the other in Post. The look of your work is heavily defined by what happens in the grade. If you’re not working with your colorist on a project closely there’s no longer a guarantee that it’ll look the way you intended, so at least knowing the tools is crucial. This comparison of shots from the “original” Justice League and Zack Synder’s version is a great example of how your vision can be adjusted after the fact even in the big leagues (poor Fabian Wagner). In any case, by coloring my own stuff I’ve gotten more gigs coloring other people’s projects, and that lead to me needing to work faster.
You see, Coloring is kind of an outlier when it comes to computer-based… stuff. When I’m doing traditional editing I’m glued to the GUI. The preview window doesn’t need to be that big, it’s there for a quick check before going back to timelines and layers and waveforms and keyframes. While you’re editing, you’re kind of watching the preview and then digging in but not working as you watch simultaneously and honestly you’re more often listening while you manipulate the GUI, so that works out just fine. Coloring, by contrast, is all about the image. It’s not about using the same set of data from the previous shot, it’s about making it look like the previous shot. So in this sense you really have to trust your eyes, and then check your scopes to make sure you’re hitting your intended technical requirements as opposed to grading to the scopes necessarily. Theoretically you could do an entire grade without looking at your GUI at all.
All this is to say, you can use the mouse and keyboard to grade, but you almost always end up staring at the numbers and less at the image, if for no other reason than you have to actually look to make sure you’re clicking on the correct thing to manipulate every time: “alright so, white balance… where’s that? Okay draaaaag that, check the image, okay wiggle that around a bit while looking at the monitor, alright that’s good now let’s find contrast… click that, oh whoops… alright contrast, there we go, wiggle that around…”
Not very streamlined.
What makes the panel so essential is it allows you to build muscle memory when grading, and keep focused on your monitor and not on your cursor. The monitor is where the money is. With the panel you can get through hundreds of clips a day vs dozens, in some cases, and being able to work without looking down is very much like hunt-and-peck typing instead of memorizing the layout of your keyboard. Imagine if you had to look down every time you used your gear shift in your car, or changed the radio, or used the turn signal. Chaos, right? So with all that in mind I can say definitively that, while you can absolutely learn Resolve with a mouse and keyboard, you should only use it with a panel. It’s beyond night and day, it’s black and white. It’s 1 or 0. There’s absolutely no reason to keep using the mouse if you’re coloring anything as your job. If you’re just noodling around, hey, do whatever you want.
So what made me choose to buy the Mini panel over the Micro?
To start, the Micro panel is just the bottom half of the Mini panel, so you’ve got the same three balls and wheels, 12 knobs controlling stuff like hue/sat, contrast, luma levels, and some buttons for playback and moving between clips and nodes, and even that is a huge leap forward over using the KB/M. The issue I immediately ran into was… how do I make a new node? I’m not a billion-node colorist, but I’m at minimum using 4 or 5, so where’s the New Node button? Well, it’s on my Keyboard; Alt+S. While I don’t necessarily use the top half of the Mini panel all the time, I certainly need those new node buttons and being able to swap between pages is a big help too. It’s even got Copy and Paste buttons up there!
The thing is, I don’t want to have to move to a different input device to do anything if I can help it but also I’ve got a tiny desk and actually have to push my keyboard back essentially behind my monitor where I can’t get to it when using the panel, so immediately the Micro panel was a non-starter for me. There are certainly plenty of instances where a one-node grade might be all someone needs, or maybe you’re just doing a really quick first pass or you’re on a remote gig or something, and obviously the Micro panel doesn’t mean you’re only able to make one node, it just means you also need a keyboard for most functions beyond the actual coloring. I’d wager with the Micro panel you’re probably 70% Keyboard and Mouse, 30% Panel. With the Mini, I found I essentially never used the keyboard, still using the mouse, but flipping the ratio to 30% Mouse, 70% Panel. I was working way, way faster with the Mini, so it was a no-brainer. You can still get a ton done with the Micro panel, as the majority of your adjustments are done with that toolset, it’s just really expecting you to have a keyboard as well.
The panels also kind of force you to work “correctly”, or at least in a more disciplined fashion. When you’re following a certain order of operations consistently, the work becomes easier and more consistent. Instead of clicking around and getting distracted I was finishing a clip, moving to the next one, finishing that, moving on… it felt good. I was getting in to a flow state instead of getting distracted and goofing off testing out new looks or ideas. Speaking of feel, the build quality of these panels is superb. They’re hefty, made out of metal (aluminum?) with buttons and knobs that feel secure and substantial. Nothing on these panels feels cheap, and the screens on the Mini are really sharp, they look fantastic. The wheels and balls are also weighty, giving them some momentum.
The way I found I worked the fastest, at least when doing my initial grade, is by having the wheels set to “Offset” mode (controlling WB, Tint, and Offset per-wheel), the screens/knobs set to “Log” to do some more targeted adjustments when necessary, and then using the Y-Knobs to affect Lift/Gamma/Gain instead of toggling the Offset button for the wheels to get me back to the primaries wheels. This way I could do my first-pass grade relatively quickly without ever taking my hands off the panel, barring the few times I’d need the mouse (explained below). Every so often I’d need a qualifier or a window or what have you, but overall the Contrast/Saturation knobs, Y-Knobs, Offset Wheels, and Log Page do the majority of the heavy lifting for me. That could be totally goofy, but I found that’s what works for me in general and I move very quickly from clip to clip even when I need to do additional or more targeted adjustments. The screens/pages on the Mini panel let you work with just about every tool in Resolve, with some exceptions, so that’s another benefit.
I should also mention that the new “HDR Grading” tool in Resolve 17 is fantastic and has quickly become my go-to method of manipulating my images as it’s far more targeted and you can be really granular with what section of your image each range affects. Contrary to what the name suggests, it’s not really “for” HDR grading specifically, so you can use it on your SDR content just fine. The other thing that I was pleasantly surprised to find is that it’s color space aware, so if you’re adjusting (let’s say) exposure, it acts more like an exposure adjustment and less like it’s just brightening or darkening the image on the whole. In other words it seems to act similarly to an aperture change. I’ve really been enjoying that new tool, along with the Color Warper, although that does require use of the mouse, and I suggest you give it a try.
Now, there were a few things that stood out to me as friction points for the way I color with these panels. For instance there’s plenty of node buttons on the Mini, but the ONE node I use all the time, the “Outside” node, is absent from the panel, making up the majority of my mouse use. There’s also no “copy grade from last clip” button, or its partner “copy from second-to-last clip” which could slow you down if you’re doing an interview or dialogue type scene, but at least you can just click the middle mouse button. Again, 70/30. Another odd thing I noticed was that you can adjust VS-Curves with the Mini, but only on the pre-set color zones. If you target a custom color range there’s no knob to adjust it’s value, you’ll have to use the mouse. That being said, more often than not broad adjustments are better than narrow ones. There’s also a Tracker button, which is nice, but there’s no way to get to the Stabilizer tool with it, which I use all the time. Why not just add that under Tracker, where it is in the GUI? To that end, the thing I’m very much looking forward to is the addition of the “User” page on the Mini. Right now there’s a button for it but it basically doesn’t do anything. Blackmagic has reserved it for a firmware update, where at some point you’ll be able to customize it and I think that’d potentially remove the majority of instances that I’m using the mouse, which would be fantastic. Having a couple pages where you can map buttons to your most-used features outside of the hardware-provided buttons would be huge. I’m a big proponent of letting the customer customize their tool kit, and I’m looking forward to the potential future when the GUI in Resolve can be moved around and designed to personal taste like in other NLEs.
Back to the hardware itself, one thing that I think can’t be overstated is the feel of the panels. Adjusting parameters with your mouse feels so aggressive compared to the knobs and wheels. You really get a sense for how much of a difference a few points on any value can make when you’re spinning the wheels like a DJ just to see that your White Balance has only changed by 50 where a flick of the mouse has you in the 1000 range. The panels give you more granular, precise control over your adjustments as opposed to the mouse’s tendency for more “gross/broad” strokes. The wheels also seem to be velocity sensitive, which obviously your mouse isn’t, which means if you make a fast move with them, the resulting adjustment will be more drastic than a slow move. In other words if I put my finger at the top of the wheel and spin it 180-degrees to the bottom of the circle, the speed at which I do that will determine how much of an adjustment is made, it won’t be consistent. This further hammers home the “feel” element of grading as opposed to, perhaps, a more “objectively correct” type of data manipulation. The thing is, you’re generally not trying to replicate the exact same adjustment with your movements, you’re feeling out your image; “Massaging” it, as many have described it. The films I colored, Beyond the Peak, Feel So Good, and AriZona’s 99 Projects, were only delivered on-time and looking natural because I had the Mini panel. I actually started Beyond the Peak before I got the panel, and not only did it take far longer than I was hoping at first but my adjustments were less consistent from clip to clip. There’s a bunch of reasons why but at the end of the day it’s just about speed, muscle memory, and being able to stay focused on your display vs your GUI. It’s as simple as that.
If you’d like to learn how to use these tools, you can do so before getting a panel, like I said, and for resources I do have some suggestions. Firstly, ignore almost every YouTube “colorist”. Most of them are self-taught, which is fine, but we don’t want the blind leading the blind. Instead, start by getting Alexis Van Hurkman’s Color Correction Handbook. He’s the expert, flat-out. That will teach you nearly all you need to know. There’s also online resources like MixingLight.com and Lowe Post, which come highly recommended by professionals, as well as the Lift Gamma Gain Forums. From there you should be well on your way to making beautiful images. Also, as I said at the top, you need to get an accurate monitor and something like a DeckLink so that you’re sending a proper, unadulterated signal to said monitor from your computer. You’ll likely need to calibrate your monitor, and for that I suggest the i1 Display Pro. I’ve used competitors to the i1 and they didn’t seem to do the job properly.
The only thing I can suggest, in regards to your grading technique, is to (at least at the start) think about your image as if you were making those adjustments on-set in camera or with lights. For instance, you can adjust your White Balance, Tint, and Exposure in-camera, so start there in the grade instead of trying to push colors in to shadows, mids, or highs. You can’t manipulate skin tones on set, so make sure that looks perfect first before moving on. Then, if you’re going to use power windows, treat them as if they were flags on-set instead of, say, tracking the subject’s face and just brightening it. What’s more realistic, just someone’s face being brighter, or a flag that darkens the appropriate side, including their body or nearby set dressing? That’s another thing, think of color grading as you would EQing audio; subtraction is generally better than addition. That obviously isn’t always going to be the case but, like in Cinematography, turning off a light is usually better than adding one. Also, avoid the qualifier if you can. Instead, the Versus Curves are the way to go. You want to make broad adjustments for the most part, as narrow-band corrections are more likely to look unnatural because, again, how would you have made such a targeted adjustment on-set? If you could, then go for it! If not, be sure to take it slow.
Color grading is more art than science, although there’s a ton of science you have to understand before you can get to the art part. Once you do, a color grading panel is an absolute necessity in my opinion.