Automatic Duck Media Copy

Automatic Duck has had a knack for developing tools that simply work and do the necessity “glue tasks” that NLE designers consistently ignore. They are clearly known as the standard for robust timeline translation, but in the course of that development, the company created a valuable offshoot in its Media Copy program. Originally just a “side” product, Automatic Duck decided to develop it further in its own right and has recently released Media Copy 3.0. It’s a great tool to get all the media for a project into one place for the purpose of back-up – or a useful way to move media onto an external drive for remote cutting on another system.

This post is going to be pretty short and sweet, because Media Copy is a simple, but straightforward tool. It is designed to locate and copy files from either Avid Media Composer or Apple Final Cut Pro projects. FCP is pretty simple, because Media Copy 3.0 reads an exported FCP XML file and copies the associated media to a target location. It’s just designed to copy the files and doesn’t trim or consolidate the media in the way that FCP’s Media Manager would.

The editor has two options – leave all files in the same relative folders and paths as in the original or copy the files into a single media folder. Either option is a viable choice, depending on how you want to keep the media organized. Automatic Duck Media Copy doesn’t alter the FCP project or XML info. Since new paths have been created, FCP will have to relink the next time you open the project.

It gets a bit more involved with Avid Media Composer projects, which historically treat the Avid MediaFiles folder as a bit of a “black hole”, thanks to the MXF media architecture. Media files aren’t isolated into individual project-related folders like those in FCP’s Capture Scratch folder. Automatic Duck Media Copy can pull out files using an Avid AAF export in much the same manner as using an XML file with FCP media.

A new enhancement is the ability to read directly into Avid projects and bins. If you want to aggregate all the Avid media used in a complete Media Composer project, simply point Media Copy to the folder containing the .avb files (Avid bin files) and Automatic Duck does all the rest. This includes not only copying the media, but (optionally) also the bins and sequences within bins. That way you have the option of complete or partial copies of an entire project.

©2011 Oliver Peters

The software suite

The power of modern desktop editing solutions is often in the aggregate of the parts and not just the core editing application. Apple Final Cut Studio and Adobe CS5 Production Premium (or Master Collection) are certainly recognized as software suites, but this is also true of Avid Media Composer, especially when you add the Production Studio bundle of third party software. Dedicated, all-in-one editing/compositing tools are primarily the domain of more expensive tools, like Avid DS, Autodesk Smoke and Quantel eQ/iQ/Pablo.

When you dissect the three main desktop bundles, you find tools for editing, color grading, visual effects, motion graphics, encoding, DVD authoring and sound mixing. These break out in this fashion:

Avid – Media Composer (editing, color grading, sound mixing with RTAS plug-ins)

Avid FX and Boris BCC plug-ins (effects and compositing)

Marquee (motion graphics)

Sorenson Squeeze (encoding)

Avid DVD (Blu-ray, NTSC and PAL DVD authoring)

Extra: Avid “helper” applications, like EDL Manager, Film Scribe, MetaSync, etc.

Optional: ScriptSync and PhraseFind

Apple – Final Cut Pro (editing)

Color (color correction and grading)

Motion (effects and compositing/motion graphics)

Compressor (encoding and blu-ray authoring)

DVD Studio Pro (NTSC and PAL DVD authoring / HD-DVD authoring)

Soundtrack Pro (sound design, audio editing and mixing)

Extra: Cinema Tools, media content

Adobe – Premiere Pro (editing)

Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse (color correction and grading)

After Effects (effects and compositing/motion graphics)

Adobe Media Encoder (encoding)

Encore (Blu-ray, NTSC and PAL DVD authoring)

Soundbooth (sound design, audio editing and mixing)

Extra: Bridge, Dynamic Link, Device Central, Mocha tracker for AE, media content

I’m not going to argue the relative merits of one tool versus another. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of ways to complete a given job with great results using any of these toolkits. What’s more important is how well the collection works. How are the tools integrated and why does a manufacturer go down this route in the first place?

Marketing “the suite” versus “the brand”

If you look at the first issue, Adobe and Apple clearly market their packages as a studio suite, while Avid tends to position Media Composer as the main brand. This is a bit of a mistake, because it encourages a tendency to compare just the Media Composer editing application against the entire software collections of its competitors. As such, Media Composer – even at its current, vastly reduced price – is perceived as a lot more expensive than Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. Customers forget about the other software you get with the Avid solution, but clearly know they get a lot of bang-for-the-buck with Apple and Adobe. In reality the comparison and cost differential is a lot closer than many believe. It’s a double-edged sword. Media Composer is clearly Avid’s marquee brand, so how does Avid best market the fact there’s more to it?

Host control versus “the roundtrip”

In addition to focusing on Media Composer as the core, there is also a more technical issue. Media Composer actually does run as the host application. Tools like the BCC filters, Avid FX, the RTAS audio plug-ins and Marquee primarily work from inside Media Composer. Although you can create templates, the applications themselves won’t work with other editing solutions. They are not inherently standalone applications in their own right, like Motion or After Effects. The plus side of this is that all project metadata is stored in the central Media Composer project. You don’t have to worry about saving all the component project files for Avid FX or Marquee in order for them to stay editable. As such, they function more as plug-in than anything else.

In the case of Adobe and Apple, they have tied together individual applications, which operate in tandem with the host NLE, as well as separate standalone applications. Although Apple’s “roundtripping” and Adobe’s Dynamic Link are ways to integrate projects files into the host editor, this isn’t a perfect solution. For example, Motion projects (as opposed to rendered exports) in an FCP timeline frequently crash Final Cut. Neither company has a good audio roundtrip approach. You can “send to” the audio application, but you can only return a mixed and exported, “flattened” soundtrack. Clearly all of these solutions are evolving.

Pros and cons of studio software development

The biggest reason a manufacturer uses the software collection is for reasons of marketing and development cost. Look at Color. Apple acquired the technology of Final Touch and reintroduced it as Color within Final Cut Studio. All of a sudden, FCP editors gained a $25,000 color grading solution “for free”. Even if users never opened the interface, the addition of Color clearly sold more seats of Final Cut Pro.

Using this approach, product managers can often shield lower-performing applications from the ax. It’s widely accepted that including the less-popular Premiere Pro with the more-popular After Effects and Photoshop has helped justify further Premiere Pro development. This has been paying off for Adobe in better customer reception of Premiere Pro as a viable editing alternative. It’s hard to break out the revenue from an individual application within a collection of software. But the opposite situation is also true. Apple felt that LiveType and Motion offered redundant motion graphics capabilities. Why develop two apps? So, Apple dropped LiveType in order to focus R&D on Motion.

By keeping components of a software suite separate, it’s easier to develop each application. There is less chance of inducing new problems that might cascade throughout a larger all-in-one application. Large, integrated solutions are subject to feature creep and often become “bloatware”, necessitating a periodic ground-up rewrite of the application. It’s also easier to add or remove components based on customer requests and market research when the individual applications stay separate within the collection.

Adobe’s Audition provides another example. Audition is a full-featured DAW geared towards audio pros and it used to be part of the Creative Suite with Premiere Pro. Adobe felt that the limited focus of Soundbooth better suited the needs of video and web professionals and so swapped Audition out for Soundbooth as the audio application in its suite collections. Audition continues as a Windows-based, standalone digital audio workstation application competing with Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools. This year will see its return to the Mac platform (currently in public beta).

For all of these various reasons, most observers feel that it’s unlikely we’d ever see an all-inclusive “extreme” version of Final Cut Pro. Would we really want that? After all, finding a qualified Avid DS, Autodesk Smoke or Quantel iQ “artist” (editor) is pretty hard in most markets. Wishing for some massive end-all-be-all editing solution might sound good in principle, but be careful of what you wish for. It’s not necessarily the best idea in the real world. Not for the user and not for the developer.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Color grading choices

If buzz equals sales, then Blackmagic Design has a hit on its hands with DaVinci Resolve for the Mac. They have successfully cashed in on DaVinci’s mystique with the desktop crowd. Blackmagic Design even seems to be getting the interest of Apple Color users, in spite of the fact that Resolve really doesn’t have anything significantly better to offer, aside from the brand name. Ironically, a number of big DaVinci users have told me off the record that they are moving on to Quantel, Autodesk and other advanced systems. For these customers, “big iron” support is something they’ve grown to rely on and that clearly isn’t Blackmagic Design’s plan for DaVinci.

My experience is primarily as a desktop software user, so I’d like to compare and contrast some of the options at this level. If you are looking for a dedicated desktop color grading tool, there are four viable options – Avid Media Composer, Apple Color, Adobe CS5 (using Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse within After Effects) and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. I’m going to skip over Avid DS and Autodesk Smoke simply because I’d like to concentrate on the under-$5,000 solutions. Likewise, I’ll exclude Avid Symphony – partially out of cost and partially because most of the toolset matches that of Media Composer. As a past Symphony user, I know that it has a few really nice bells-and-whistles that improve grading efficiency, but the inherent toolset – what you can do with an image – is largely the same.

When you look at those four solutions, you find that they all offer a similar toolset – curves, lift/gamma/gain color balance adjustments, trackers and secondary color correction. When it gets to this last point, Media Composer comes out pretty weak. There’s no integrated secondary correction (note: Symphony does have limited secondary control), but you can get to a similar result using the animatte/intraframe editing/paint tools, plug-ins and nesting techniques.

When you use Color Finesse within After Effects, you do have color-isolation-based secondary correction, which is much like the same feature that’s in Symphony (but not included in Media Composer). The downside of After Effects is the lack of a true shot-to-shot color grading workflow. (There is a standalone version of Color Finesse, which uses a similar roundtrip approach to that of Apple Color, but it has never caught on and is not included with the CS5 bundle.)

Unless you are a masochist, it’s a really only a choice between an integrated tool, such as Avid’s, and a dedicated grading application like Resolve or Color. Although I’ve done really nice grading work with Avid Symphony and Media Composer, I really consider them to be mediocre grading tools given the competition. For dedicated grading, it really does boil down to a Color versus Resolve choice. Let me interject that I’m mainly talking about grading for commercials and long form projects that need grading for a “look”. If grading is an integral part of a complex composite for a visual effects shot, then none of these solutions is good enough. In those instances, advanced applications like Avid DS or Autodesk Smoke really do have an edge. Some of those results can be achieved with Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Studio and Adobe CS5, but often require a healthy set of special-purpose plug-ins to augment the built-in tools. I’ll skip that for now and concentrate on standard grading.

One of the things that struck me as I worked with Resolve for the review was just how good Color actually is. Resolve has some very limiting hardware requirements, while Color will run on most newer Mac Pros and Macbook Pros and use just about any monitor. People tend to forget about the fact the Apple has done a good job of enabling Final Cut Studio to work across a wide spectrum of OS versions and hardware combinations.

Not so with Resolve. What this tends to mean is that Color functions quite nicely in a multipurpose suite for editing, graphics, audio, effects and grading. Resolve, on the other hand, dictates a machine and room that is built around the needs of Resolve. On the plus side, DaVinci leverages the CUDA power of certain NVIDIA cards for greater real-time performance. Unfortunately this chews up your slot space and limits you to one brand of graphics card. I personally would never build a “DaVinci room” unless I knew it would primarily serve as a color grading suite.

Both toolsets feature primary and secondary grading (vignettes and HSL keyer), but only Color integrates with Final Cut Pro using an XML roundtrip. Color also includes the Color FX room with a plug-in architecture and available third party plug-ins. Both apps work well, however, for me the only reason to pick Resolve over Color comes down to three reasons: 1) you haven’t invested in the FCP/Studio suite, 2) you feel the DaVinci name will bring you clients, or 3) you have a talented colorist available to you who performs better with Resolve. Given these points, it would seem to me that Resolve has a greater appeal to Avid editors than to owners of Final Cut Studio.

As I mentioned before, you might need to deal with color grading as an integrated feature within the editing interface itself. If this means desktop solutions like Premiere Pro/After Effects, Final Cut Pro/Motion or Media Composer, then you’ll want to add some filters specifically geared around color. The most recognized solutions are Magic Bullet Looks, Mojo and Colorista II, but don’t forget the others. Each of the popular packages from Boris, GenArts, CoreMelt and Noise Industries includes filters for color manipulation. The stand-outs include DV Shade, PHYXSapphire and Luca Visual FX.

© 2011 Oliver Peters

Horses for courses

Frequent forum discussions among editors involve those arguing the relative merits of one favorite editing tool versus another. The reality is that no one tool is ideal for every task. It’s all about picking the right tool for the job – or as the British call it – “horses for courses”. Whether you cut news, films, shows or spots -  handle your own finishing or farm it out – or just want to deal with the least technical tool available – you’ll want to pick the right editing application for you. Often the choice is purely subjective, such as a preference for one operating system or hardware platform over another. Or it’s the system you first used and liked in school.

In this post, I’ve set out to offer some choices based on these needs. I’ll stick to desktop, software-based solutions, which make Autodesk Smoke for Mac OSX and Avid Symphony the top end in our group, based on price. Very capable options, like Quantel or Autodesk on Linux are clearly excluded, simply because of price. On the other hand, if it’s your job to determine solutions for a news operation or DI house, then be sure to check these out. Lastly, I’ve also excluded the wild card NLEs, like Lightworks (open source) or The Foundry’s Storm. These are still in beta and it’s too early to tell what sort of impact they’ll have on the industry at large. Let’s dive in.

Finishing / Online Editing

Avid DS

Autodesk Smoke for Mac OSX

“Finishing” covers the whole range of creating a final master that meets broadcast or digital cinema specs. The ideal system not only produces the highest quality image, but also includes advanced color correction and compositing tools. An increasingly important feature is the ability to be resolution-independent and work in raster sizes that are larger than HD. Both of these systems fulfill that criteria.

One glaring omission might be Avid Symphony. It fills the niche of conforming and delivering shows for television quite well, but it really doesn’t offer many advanced features beyond that of Avid Media Composer. When you look at the needs of DI, high-end spot work or visual effects, Symphony simply hasn’t been sufficiently developed by Avid since its early days.

Creative cutting / offline editing

Avid Media Composer

Apple Final Cut Pro

The focus of these systems is to provide an editor with tools that make storytelling fast and easy. It also must be robust with good metadata-handling, for when projects drag on for months and years. Lastly, it needs to generate advanced edit lists that can be used by finishing systems when advanced mastering and output is required.

Although I feel that Avid has done the best job here, I also don’t think Final Cut merits the smack most of its detractors talk. Both are credible tools with successful track records for cutting all sorts of content. Each has its proponents that include some of the best – and most award-winning – editors in the world. Avid Media Composer sports integrated features like strong metadata tracking and ScriptSync. What FCP lacks can be easily supplemented by its large developer community.

All-in-one solutions

Avid Media Composer / Symphony

Apple Final Cut Pro / Final Cut Studio

Adobe Premiere Pro / Production Premium Collection

These three companies build the so-called “A” NLE solutions. Their studio software bundles cover most of the needs of shops that have to do it all – creative cutting, color grading, mixing and finishing/mastering. If you are the editor that has to do a bit of everything, then one of these packages is the right one for you. The tools are advanced, though not as strong is in the true finishing systems, yet they are adequate for 80-90% of the work done in professional film and video post.

As software bundles, other applications augment the core capabilities of the NLE itself. Need better compositing? Bounce over to Avid FX (actually Boris Red), Apple Motion or Adobe After Effects. Need to author a DVD? That’s what Avid DVD (by Sonic) or Apple DVD Studio Pro or Adobe Encore are for. In short, any of these collections gets the job done, but better yet, they are cheap enough that you can own more than one!

Adobe and Apple NLEs can be used with a good selection of third party hardware for i/o, but until recently, Avid systems required Avid hardware. Media Composer has opened slightly to include support for the Matrox MXO2 Mini, but Symphony is limited to the Avid Nitris DX chassis. That makes Symphony the most expensive solution in this compilation.

Event and news production

Grass Valley EDIUS

Avid Media Composer / NewsCutter

Adobe Premiere Pro

The hallmark of this group is the need for fast, easy-to-use software and the ability to ingest various codecs with the shortest turnaround time. These systems do service for news editing, wedding videos and on-site editing for news, sports and conventions. Each of these can support most of the various broadcast and prosumer acquisition formats without the need to transcode or rewrap files. As such, it’s an easy matter to drop a mix of media on the timeline, edit and output with little loss of time. The editing toolsets are rich, with included software tools for export and encoding. So, if you need to cut something on location and feed a finished product to the web, you won’t go wrong with any of these three.

© 2011 Oliver Peters