What is a LUT and why should every filmmaker use one

What is a LUT, where does it come from, why is it so important and what does the future hold for it? Learn the answers to all these questions and more in my ultimate guide below

These days, any film or series worth mentioning is going to involve the development of a SHOW LUT — or sometimes just called a LUT or a 3D look-up table. Using one instantly transforms a boring digital camera look into something much more cinematic. Whether you’re a Hollywood director or a hobbyist making shorts you instantly benefit from it as it lends to your production some form of personality, a unique feel that will separate your footage from a sea of options out there allowing users to create more personal connection with your story. It’s your story’s unique DNA.

But what exactly IS a LUT, and how can you use one effectively?

If you’re not entirely sure, you’re not alone. I’ve been creating lookup tables for major Hollywood films since Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in 2011 — and I’ve seen first-hand how many misconceptions there are around this term.

That’s why I’ve decided to detail everything I know about LUTs into this guide below, with five main sections:

1. What is a LUT?

3. Where Do LUTs Come From? A Brief History

4. How to Create and Apply LUTs Effectively

5. The Future of the Lookup Table

Let’s dive into each:

What is a LUT?

A LUT stands for lookup table. As the name suggests, a LUT is simply a table of numbers. If you open a LUT file on your computer in text edit, that’s exactly what you’ll see.

Each number in this table represents a specific color value that your footage will change to when the LUT is applied. In other words, applying a LUT to footage will give it a specific “filter”.

Because of their small file sizes, LUTs can easily be loaded onto on-set monitors or cameras, as well as applied to a huge number of shots in post, all without slowing down your system.

This makes LUTs an immensely popular tool for giving your footage a creative aesthetic. LUTs can also be more technical — acting as a “filter” for ensuring optimum image accuracy.

For example, you can use LUTs to quickly calibrate footage for a specific display, change the gamma curve from LogC to linear, push saturation, exaggerate a specific hue, or any combination of the above.

What Are the Benefits of Using LUTs?

· When loaded into a camera or monitor on set, a well-designed LUT will ensure cinematographers can preview and capture shots that are more in line with the director’s creative vision.

· LUTs will make the editorial process far more efficient, as all material is instantly made suitable for display and viewing ahead of the edit.

· Finally, LUTs will provide colorists a great place to start working from as footage will already have a uniform color and palette.

Where Do LUTs Come From? A Brief History

Not that long ago, LUTs were a secretive tool. Only a small handful of people knew how a LUT worked: these were the first people pioneering DI — or Digital Intermediate — mainly based in Los Angeles.

Then, came the advent of digital. The first people to deploy LUTs in a creative way were doing it to emulate photochemical processing for digital film cameras.

This is because footage from a digital camera could often appear sterile, with little character. LUTs could easily bake a film stock aesthetic into in-camera footage, giving digital cameras more of a filmic feel.

Of course, today, emulating film stock with LUTs has become commonplace. LUTs are also no longer an industry secret. Instead, they are being continuously improved and developed and fine-tuned for perfection. The amount of effort that goes into the development of a LUT on high-end projects goes beyond anything we have seen ever before. A team of cinematographers, colorists and color scientists work together to shape a LUT and some of them are truly responsible for the world’s most iconic film looks.

Every great look starts with a great LUT and here are just some of the people that have shaped some of the best LUTs in the world. Technicolor’s Joshua Pines who created LUTs for Roma and The Revenant and hundreds of other movies, certainly tops the list; Company 3’s Jill Bogdanowicz and her dad who created the iconic film look of The Joker, probably one of the most authentic film emulation looks in the history of cinema; and Matthew Tomlison who trained under LUT genius Bill Feightner and has gone on to develop the show LUTs on Tarantino’s Once upon a time in Hollywood.

How to Create and Apply LUTs

Anyone today can buy and download LUTs from the internet — sometimes completely free. But simply downloading a LUT and applying it is never going to give you great results: that’s a common misconception.

The reason why is because a LUT is fixed and doesn’t always react in the same way when applied from one type of footage to another. So for example, I could use the same LUT Thomlison used on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, but it would look nothing like Tarantino’s film because I don’t have the same camera material.

Thomlison’s LUT was designed and adapted specifically for the lighting scenario and cameras used on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Simply downloading his LUT is not a great solution.

The real solution is to make your own LUT from scratch, to perfectly adapt for your particular project, camera and display. When you have full control of your LUT creation, that’s when the image truly starts getting the look you desire.

The problem is that LUT design and development is very archaic. When I developed LUTs for shows like Game of Thrones, Marco Polo and Crazy Rich Asians, I found that building them was very tedious and slow.

I felt the reason why many people weren’t able to develop LUTs for themselves is that the right tools didn’t really exist to make your own from scratch as a color scientist would.

That’s why I made the choice to throw myself into the development of the ultimate look design tool for the motion picture industry called Look Designer.

I built Look Designer as the first app that could truly democratize professional show LUT development. We now see filmmakers and cinematographers for clients including Warner Brothers, HBO, Netflix, NBC Universal, and CBS taking this tool into their own hands and developing LUTs for themselves.

The Future of the Lookup Table

I believe two major advances are going to revolutionize lookup tables for the future: both of which will involve AI.

The first thing that is going to change is that instead of being a fixed file with static properties, LUTs are going to be able to adapt to particular shots, locations and situations: allowing a much finer granularity in image adjustment than what we have today.

The second advance I predict for LUTs is that they aren’t just going to make color changes to cinematography like they do today. Instead, future LUTs will take advantage of neural networks (that are more powerful than those we now see used in deep fakes) in order to change the texture of the shot, and even enhance images with optical effects like light refractions.

This adaptable on-set image processing will allow cinematographers to go beyond simple color transforms, to truly reach the next level with their LUTs. Whatever they capture will be fed into a neural engine that will output exactly what the cinematographer and director designed for the shot, in real-time.

As for me and my team at Colourlab: we’re working hard to build this type of processing pipeline, and bring products to market that will let anyone do just that.

Colorist and Color Scientist from Los Angeles. Founder of colourlab.ai