Panel shootout

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“These panels are perfect for the colourist on the move, such as those who grade on location where space is sometimes limited, and editors who grade their own projects.”

Since acquiring Da Vinci Systems in 2009, Blackmagic Design has revolutionised the post-production industry by drastically reducing the price of its DaVinci Resolve software, making it easily affordable for production companies, smaller post-production facilities and independent colourists alike. However, the one thing that remained out of reach for many of these new users was the Resolve Control Surface, priced at a hefty $29 995.

As a former telecine colourist, control surfaces or grading panels are indispensable. Designed to limit the use of a mouse and keyboard to administrative functions (like setting up a new grading session), using these surfaces will quickly become like second nature – allowing the colourist to perform a variety of tasks and image adjustments simultaneously, with speed and precision.

Fortunately for those who couldn’t afford the Resolve Advanced Control Surface, there have been a number of cheaper third party panels to choose from – and some of them are pretty good. I’ve been using the Tangent Elements panels for a while now and most of the functionality that I use most of the time is there – making functions like power windows, HSL keys and so on easily accessible, even if some of these require scrolling through a few menus.

Blackmagic Design recently caught everyone by surprise when they announced two new control surfaces – the Resolve Mini and Micro control surfaces, at a fraction of the cost of the full control surface. Introducing these smaller panels was a stroke of genius – not only are BMD reclaiming the control surface market back from their competitors, but the move seems to be in line with their strategy to grow Resolve’s functionality beyond just colour grading – but more about that later. I recently had the opportunity to put these panels to the test.

The DaVinci Resolve Micro control surface

Having used several other third party panels, my first impression is that these feel really solid by comparison. The controls feel weighty and tactile, so despite its small size, colourists can grade with a great deal of precision. The keys are backlit for good visibility in a darkened grading environment, which was lacking in other third party options. The control surface connects to the computer via a single USB-C cable (no power cable), keeping the workspace neat and tidy, while the Tangent Elements, for example, require a number of USB cables – depending on the configuration.

Its small size does mean that it has limited grading functionality, which is limited to primary grading and transport controls, as well as a few other controls like grabbing and playing back still frames (probably one of my most used grading operations). There are no controls for power windows, HSL, RGB or luminance keys, keyframing or sizing functions, so if you’re doing anything more than basic grading, you’ll have to use a mouse and keyboard. I’ve always maintained that the ability to use the track balls and rings is paramount – the rest can be done using a mouse and keyboard.

That said, it’s worth remembering that these panels only cost $1000, and the functions that they’ve included have been well thought out. These panels are perfect for the colourist on the move, such as those who grade on location where space is sometimes limited, and editors who grade their own projects.

The DaVinci Resolve Mini control surface

Without a doubt, these are the panels that I’m most excited about. Most of the functionality of the Resolve Advanced Control Surface (the original Resolve panels) have been packed into a much smaller space. The rings, trackballs and buttons are slightly smaller than the large Resolve panels, but it’s something that a user will soon become accustomed to.

They feature two LCD display panels at the top with four soft knobs and buttons per display – knobs and buttons whose functions change according to the operation selected. Once the colourist becomes accustomed to using these panels, most grading operations can be easily performed on the panels without having to reach for a mouse or keyboard.

Grading adjustments like primary colour controls, custom curves, power windows, key qualifiers, noise reduction, sizing adjustments and many others are all easily accessible, while the LCD panels provide visual feedback about the adjustments being made. Just about any of the functions that a colourist is required to use during the most complex grading session are all there and easily accessible, with a few exceptions.

I should point out that there are a few functions that I would have included if it were up to me:

  • I would definitely have included ‘1st frame’ and ‘last frame’ buttons – the ability to jump to the head and tail of a clip is very useful.
  • There are buttons to jump to previous and next keyframes, but no buttons to create keyframes, another function that I often use.
  • There are ‘grab still’ and ‘play still’ buttons which are great, but it would have been perfect if there was a knob to change the wipe position between the still frame and live picture.
  • An ‘add outside node’ would have been great too.

All of that aside, this panel is perfect for any colour grading and online suite. They take up far less space than the Resolve Advanced Panels, and cost $3000 – a good deal less than a new set of Tangent Elements.

What might be worth doing is adding a small programmable keypad (such as the Logitech G13), to which the user could assign any extra macros (such as 1st/last frame) to complete the setup – something that I’ll be doing.

Personally, the question I always ask myself is: could I justify spending my own money on any piece of post-production kit, considering that I don’t have the benefit of a company chequebook? In the case of the full Resolve Control Surface (at $30k), the answer has always been no, but when it comes to either the Mini or Micro panels, the answer is definitely yes!

But there’s another thing to consider – when I first started using DaVinci Resolve, it was strictly a colour grading tool, and so using the full set of panels was nice as it freed me from having to use a mouse and keyboard. This is no longer the case. You see, Resolve isn’t just a grading tool any more – it’s also a really fantastic online and finishing suite these days, and with version 14, it’s a full audio suite too! As Resolve has evolved, my job has evolved along with it, and so using a mouse and keyboard is unavoidable when performing things like detailed editing tasks, which the control surface was never designed to do. So, if you’re using Resolve as an edit and finishing suite, a large control surface can be cumbersome and get in the way quite easily.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that in a few years the full Resolve panels might become obsolete as colourists and editors opt for the Mini or Micro panels, not only because they’re cheaper, but because they’re ergonomically better.

So, would anybody like to purchase a used set of Tangent Elements?

By Donovan Bush, Colourist

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