Oscar nominations

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It’s awards season again. I was checking out the nominations for the 81st Academy Awards – The Oscars – and happy to see a few names jump out at me. One of the fun things I get to do is interview some of the leading editors around the world for many of the articles I write. Of course, as a working editor, I am particularly keen on the Oscar category for best Film Editing and happy to see that 3 out of 5 of the nominees are folks that I have spent some time with doing these interviews.

 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall) and The Dark Knight (Lee Smith) seemed like obvious choices to me at the time and I invite you to visit my posts for these films. Slumdog Millionaire is more of a surprise. Not because of the film, but because Chris Dickens’ name jumped out at me in an “oh wow!” moment. Chris was the editor on Hot Fuzz, a truly funny, buddy-cop-film parody.

 

I have cut my share of documentaries and really enjoyed seeing Encounters at the End of the World. It’s a good choice in the Documentary Feature Film category, but for me the nomination holds extra excitement. It was posted in the shop of some industry friends, Alphadogs in Burbank. Furthermore, this also offered a chance for a good story with Brian Hutchings, the film’s colorist.

 

Milestones

 

Aside from my own personal good wishes for the nominees, these films provide some other interesting ingredients. If certain of these films win in their categories, a number of milestones will have been reached. For instance, Avid editing and Pro Tools audio products are well-represented again (as in past years), but a win in the editing category for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button means a milestone for Apple. It will have been the first Oscar winner for editing in which Final Cut Pro was used. This will be as big an event for FCP users as when Walter Murch won for The English Patient in 1996 – the first editing Oscar for a film cut on an NLE – an Avid Media Composer. Another important editing milestone was Thelma Schoonmaker’s 2004 win for The Aviator, which she cut on a Lightworks system.

 

While we are on the subject of milestones, it’s noteworthy that both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire picked up Oscar nominations for Cinematography. If either wins, this will be the first such Oscar going to a film that was primarily shot using a digital camera. Benjamin Button relied on the Grass Valley Viper while Slumdog represents the most visible use to date of the Silicon Imaging SI2K digital camera. Furthermore, the latter would also be the first use of digital camera raw technology in an Oscar winner, thus beating RED to those bragging rights! Even without a win, Slumdog Millionaire is still the first Cinematography nominee to claim this distinction.

 

Although Encounters at the End of the World wasn’t nominated in one of these craft categories, it, too, represents some interesting technological firsts. If it wins, this will be a significant notch in Sony’s belt for the use of XDCAM-HD acquisition. I believe it will also be the first winner that used Apple Color (or its predecessor, Final Touch) as the primary color grading tool.

 

Until awards night, this is all just fun speculation. We’ll know in a month when the 81st Annual Academy Awards hits the air. Not all can win, but just to be nominated is to be in a very select crowd. In the meantime, I offer each and every nominee a heartfelt congratulations and GOOD LUCK!

 

EDIT: The Oscars have just been awarded as I write this. “Slumdog Millionaire” held the lead it started at the Golden Globes and the British awards to take 8 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The Film Editing award went to Chris Dickens, continuing the long string of editing statuettes going to Avid jockeys. This is a well-deserved honor for a very talented editor. In addition, “Slumdog Millionaire” broke new ground by earning the Cinematography honor for a film largely shot with the SI2K digital camera – the first digital cinema camera that can now make this claim. On the documentary front, “Encounters at the End of the World” was beaten by “Man On Wire”, the story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit. In his early career Petit astounded and captivated the world with his daring walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center high above Manhattan right at the time of the towers’ completion.

 

©2009 Oliver Peters

Improving FCP and Media Composer

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I work a lot with both Apple Final Cut Pro and Avid Media Composer. They are great applications in their own right and have about 20-30 features each that I really love. Yet nothing’s perfect and they both need some serious improvement. My guess is that Final Cut Pro 7 or Final Cut Studio 3 won’t make an appearance until after Mac OS 10.6 (“Snow Leopard”) is ready for the public. I’m figuring later this year. It doesn’t look like Avid will have a booth at NAB, so I suspect improvements in Media Composer will be added in modules parsed out over the course of the coming year, rather than announced in a big April splash. [EDIT: A few days ago Avid and NAB have both announced Avid's renewed participation in NAB 2009, though no further details have been provided.]

 

If that’s indeed the case, then everyone’s going to play the guessing game for months to come. Like every other editor/blogger, I have a list of features that I’d like to suggest to each company. So here goes…

 

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Apple Final Cut Pro

 

Trim tool – How about doing a better job of copying Avid? FCP needs better JKL trimming, a 4-pane trim view and the proper display of A and B sides when trimming edits that occur on a higher track over a lower track.

 

3D DVE (or 2.5D DVE) – Using the FCP motion tab for DVE moves is pretty lame. The scaling quality is awful and DVE-style moves are a joke. Having to bounce a clip out to Motion just to make proper XYZ rotational moves is silly. Come on Apple! Let’s properly integrate Motion’s DVE into FCP.

 

GUI – For a company that prides itself on creativity and design, why won’t Apple give you tools to customize the FCP GUI? Even a simple brightness slider like Adobe uses in most of its apps would be better than what’s there now.

 

Color space and gamma – After almost a decade, this still isn’t right. Why are there gamma shifts moving between the FCS apps? Why do I get video level pops when I add built-in transitions to some clips, just because the codec is Animation instead of 8-bit or DV25?

 

Better media management – This is the pet peeve of every knowledgeable editor. FCP’s poor media database handling affects things like relinking media, losing render files and countless other problems. It’s high time to fix it.

 

Project / user preference management – Again, simply copy Avid for how to do this. And while we’re at it, how about better I/O support for things like AAF and OMF? How about better compatibility just between various FCP projects created under different software versions?

 

Color correction – Getting Color “free” as part of FCS2 was nice, but the app was broken when Apple picked it up and it hasn’t really been fixed yet. Most users shy away from it, so how about simply taking the best parts and integrating those into Final Cut Pro? This would give FCP a real color-correction mode that editors would love.

 

VTR control – The capture tool, batch capture and edit-to-tape functions are crude at best. These are frequently unreliable, non-intuitive and often not frame-accurate. Just look at what FCP does when capturing across a timecode break. In spite of the move to tapeless media, tapes and VTRs won’t go away tomorrow, so it would be nice if Apple could do a much better job here.

 

General performance improvements – Apple has some nice features in RT Extreme and the ability to mix frame rates. Too bad you actually do have to render a whole timeline before going to a master. Too bad mixed frame rates are actually done incorrectly, such as the use of 2:2:2:4 cadence when editing 24fps content into a 30fps sequence. Time to take a second pass at this work and make it better.

 

Better graphics tools – I’d love to be able to create a title and actually see the video that it will go over at the same time. How about some advanced masking tools, like Avid’s Animatte? And no, going to Motion or Shake is NOT the answer!

 

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Avid Media Composer

 

Effects – It’s time to rethink the effects module. Nesting is very long-in-the-tooth. Why can’t you stack and rearrange effects filters easily?

 

Shapes and vignettes in color correction – Symphony used to be the gold standard for color correction in an NLE. No more. It’s time for Avid to use the Apple playbook and steal some features from Color. How about shapes and vignettes in the secondaries? How about multiple instances of grading on a single clip?

 

Titling – Just like in FCP, no one is thrilled with the titlers in Media Composer. You actually have three: Title Tool, Marquee and AvidFX. None of them work as well as tools like the titler in Adobe Premiere Pro.

 

Project I/O support – Just like with FCP, Media Composer is very insular in the files it can read and write. Why can’t Media Composer open an After Effects or FCP project? Others can.

 

Resolution independence – I realize asking for video to be resolution independent inside Media Composer is probably asking too much from Avid; but why not just be able to deal with large stills or animations? It would be great to drop these into the timeline and manipulate them without a plug-in or the need to first scale them to the project size.

 

Direct timeline editing – Avid has made some baby steps in this direction, but is nowhere near as fluid as FCP or even Quantel in direct manipulations of clips and edit points within the timeline. That should be at least an option available to younger editors more comfortable with this working style.

 

Native QuickTime support – QuickTime has its problems, but it would be great if Avid could find a way to integrate native support of QuickTime media files without the need to rewrap, fast import or transcode.

 

Direct track interaction with Pro Tools and After Effects – Wouldn’t it be great if you could simply highlight some clips on the audio or video tracks and “send to” a Pro Tools project or an After Effects project? As far as AE, look at how Sony Xpri or Media 100 have handled this.

 

Openness – Avid likes to tout their openness. I suppose that’s up for interpretation, but here are some thoughts for future improvement. How about third party hardware support – not just for AJA and Blackmagic Design boards – but, also for audio control surfaces and color correction panels? It would be nice to have some more effects choices, so what about support for VST audio plug-ins, as well as the After Effects API for video filters? I think a lot more editors would get jazzed about this than whether you can move DNxHD media to some broadcast server.

 

These lists are by no means complete, but these are just a few of the items that would make each NLE a far better product. Let’s see if any of this makes it into the next round. I’m not looking for “kill the competition” functionality. That’s a stupid attitude anyway. Instead, solid improvements make each a better product and we all win as a result.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters