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Review: Tangent Element color panels

These compact surfaces can help editors gain control of their color work

By Brady Betzel

More and more these days offline editors are also color correcting or grading footage in some way. For those who are new to this and unsure of the differences between color correction and color grading, let me help…

Color correction is the process of balancing different cameras color properties, exposure and contrast to create a visibly and technically pleasing image — helped by an external waveform monitor, such as Tektronix products with the Double Diamond display. This can mean hours, days or weeks of work depending on factors such as white balancing or poor lighting.

Color grading, on the other hand, typically happens after the colorist balances the footage. This is where they will add “creative” looks to the content, such as the ubiquitous orange and teal look. While some software packages (Magic Bullet Looks, for example) are great, they are designed to be only color grading packages — for the most part tools such as Blackmagic’ DaVinci Resolve, Digital Vision’s Nucoda Film Master, FilmLight’s Baselight, Adobe SpeedGrade and others are built to correct as well as grade.

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There are a lot of conversations and arguments to be had about correcting and grading, but there is one thing that all colorists I’ve met agree on: color correcting and grading are more efficient and creative with hardware panels.

If you’ve never seen a colorist work, I highly suggest you find a way. At the beginning of my career, I had the opportunity to tag along with a friend to watch the colorist for a Barry Sonnenfeld show, called Pushing Daisies, at work. I was blown away.

To be honest, I don’t remember what panel or software was used (or even his name), but, like most “creative” people who work in any medium will tell you, it’s not the tool that should define you. In the end, I remember the colorist balancing and grading a day-for-night shot. It was incredible. I had seen what amateur colorists could do, but holy cow! A dedicated colorist really is a pro for a reason. It was magical.

element-tk_lg

Some vendors who produce color software also make color correction and grading panels — for example, the Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve Control Surface and the Digital Vision Nucoda Precision Panels. These surfaces target dedicated and high-end colorists and are often $20,000 to $30,000. Plus, there is the additional cost of equipment needed to run the software, like an HP z840 or Mac Pro, and a local storage server. It can set you back a lot of cash. This is where Tangent Element panels can help.

Affordable Control
In my opinion, the Tangent Element panels are great for someone who loves to learn everything about post production, including color correcting and grading… so me, for instance, (an editor/VFX artist who wants to color but doesn’t want to commit $30K to purchase a full panel) or a wedding videographer who really wants to dial in their color without that hefty price tag.

Tangent makes different panels and iOS apps that work well with a variety of software apps, including Resolve 12, Digital Vision Nucoda, Baselight and many more. If you’ve ever tried to color correct on your MacBook Pro or HP z800 with your mouse, a tablet, a keyboard, or a combination of all three, you probably understand how constrained your creativity becomes.

A color panel set typically contains different banks of buttons, knobs, scroll wheels, maybe a built-in tablet, roller balls and rings. Tangent sells a set of panels — that can be purchased separately or as a package — for way under the price tag of the Blackmagic control surface, the FilmLight Blackboard 2 or others in that price range.

Element Mf

Element Mf

The Tangent Element package costs in the neighborhood of $3,300, and the pieces are sold individually as well. For example, a place like B&H sells them individually: Element Mf costs $1,040; Element Bt costs $660; Element Kb costs $850; and Element Tk costs $1,135. Add that all up and it’s $3,686, but if you purchase the entire package all at once, you can save over $300. Oh, what do those letters after the panel’s name mean? They stand for each product’s function. Tk = Trackball, Mf = Multifunction, Kb = Knobs and Bt = Buttons. For an in-depth description of each, check out Tangent’s site.

Digging In!
When I opened the Tangent Element boxes and felt their weight for the first time, I was blown away at the build quality. I have been around some high-end color bays over the last few years, as an editor and online editor, and have been lucky enough to spin the track balls a few times. The expensive and luxurious panels are awesome, smooth and easy to navigate, but did I mention they are also expensive? So when I picked up the Tangent Element panels I was expecting plastic, or a lightweight set — like the difference between a Hyundai and a Mercedes. While they both do the same basic function, the feeling and weight are incomparable. This was not the case with the Tangent panels. The knobs were smooth, the rings rotated graciously and the balls rolled like butter. Considering the price, I was shocked at the quality.

What you will notice with a color panel is that every action has a button or a knob. Tangent requires that you download and use its software, Tangent Hub, including Mapper for certain applications. This helps in assigning functions to buttons in different programs. In some programs you are locked to what functions the manufacturer sets for the Tangent Element panels, such as Resolve, SpeedGrade and Baselight. This includes the Avid plug-ins for Baselight as well. Nucoda, however, allows for mapping using Tangent Mapper, which is a pretty big deal for such a powerful color application.

element-bt_lg

Element Bt

I tested the panels using Adobe SpeedGrade. As an editor, even if you just do a color balance pass, just one panel like the Tk can improve your color correcting tremendously. Keep in mind that when buying panels for Resolve, Tangent’s Application Compatibility list states that you must buy the Bt panel if you are buying the Kb panel. While it’s pretty awesome to have the full Elements set, if you wanted to go bare bones, you would likely want the Tk and the Kb panels, so it would kind of stink to have to shell out the extra $660 to get the knobs to work.

While I’m not digging too deep into the particulars of color correcting — and I’m looking at it from an editor’s perspective — the Tangent Element panels are a night and day difference when compared to color correcting with a mouse, tablet and/or keyboard. If you want some down and dirty talk about how Tangent Panels compare to others or whether functions like the soft clip are properly mapped to the panels in Resolve 12, you should sign up for the Lift Gamma Gain forums. They are one of my favorite resources next to Denver Riddle’s, where you can find some great tutorials to get you up to speed. (On a side note, I have Alexis Van Hurkman’s paperback book “Color Correction Handbook,” and it’s a phenomenal resource for color correction rules and techniques.)

For the price, the feel of these panels is great. The trackballs are great, the rings are smooth and even removable. The rings are attached by magnets and can be removed for easy cleaning, although I would leave that to a professional. You definitely don’t want to clean the trackballs on your own if you are unsure. You will most likely damage your panels and trackballs permanently.

Summing Up
I love these panels! The trackballs are at a great height and the button placement is great. I chose not to magnetically connect my panels edge to edge because I like to have them angled a little… just a personal preference. My line-up, from left to right was Mf, Tk, Bt and Kb.

One thing you should keep in mind when blindly purchasing color correction surfaces is button and trackball placement. Will you be comfortable with knobs and buttons above your trackballs? Personally, I find myself touching the trackballs and adjusting grades by accident when using compact color panels with the knobs and buttons placed on top, but the Tangent Elements panels have few buttons above the trackballs exactly for this reason.

The one thing I wish was different? I would love it if each panel had a separate USB plug with no hub to connect them all together (you need to purchase your own hub separately). It might be nice if one of Element panels had a built-in hub to help clean up the cable mess, but it’s definitely not a deal breaker.

If you are an editor who finds yourself editing, onlining, coloring and mixing your work (which hopefully you can do at least at a basic level), then you want the right tools to do the job. The full Tangent Element panel set is definitely a luxury item for the editor who dabbles in color, but it will increase your efficiency ten fold, if not more. Like any tool with keyboard shortcuts, the more you practice the faster you become. Next to my Wacom Intuos tablet, I really feel that these Tangent Panels are worth every penny. Check them out for yourself; I’m sure you will be impressed.

Brady Betzel is an online editor at Margarita Mix in Hollywood. Previously, he was editing The Real World at Bunim Murray Productions. You can email Brady at bradybetzel@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter, @allbetzroff.

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