Tiffen Dfx Digital Filter Suite

Over the past few years, plug-in software developers have continued to evolve their packages of filters into comprehensive effects suites, complete with ready-made presets to preview just how your images will appear. One of the newest of these is the Tiffen Dfx suite (version 3), which has been developed through the ongoing collaboration of The Tiffen Company and Digital Film Tools. Tiffen Dfx traces its heritage back to the 55mm and Digital Film Lab software products developed by Digital Film Tools.

The custom interface used by the Dfx application is very reminiscent of another new product from Digital Film Tools – PhotoCopy, which I reviewed a few months ago. DFT PhotoCopy worked off of the analysis of representative feature film, painting and photographic looks. The Tiffen Dfx package uses a more traditional combination of textures, color correction, image enhancements and filters. Thanks to the relationship with Tiffen, the Dfx package is able to include the digital equivalents of many of Tiffen’s trademarked Hollywood F/X glass filters, such as the various diffusion, grad, pro-mist and warming filters that are offered. Instead of a simulated version, you get a look that has actually been approved by Tiffen.

Tiffen Dfx version 3 adds a number of new effects to stylize the image. These include high contrast color shadow effects, artifact removal (DeBand, DeBlock, DeNoise), lighting/smoothing effects (KeyLight, Glow Darks), Texture, image color/tone/grain matching (Match) and realistic light ray effects (Rays). Plus a wide range of Film Stock filters than simulate 113 different color and black-and-white photographic stocks.

Click image to see an enlarged view

The Tiffen Dfx digital filter suite is sold in three versions: a standalone application, a plug-in set for photo applications and a separate plug-in set for video applications. In the standalone version, users can process the standard still photo formats, like TIFF, RAW and JPEG, but in addition, can also deal with DPX images. Since batch processing can be set up, it is possible to use the standalone version to affect motion footage by batch processing TIFF or DPX image sequences.

The plug-in version for photo applications installs into Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and Apple Aperture and is similar to the standalone version, minus the import/export and batch controls. Both the still photo and standalone versions of Dfx include drawing tools for custom masking and the ability to stack layers of different filters, complete with blending modes. Applying the Dfx filter in Photoshop sends you to the same custom interface used in the standalone version and both can be used in single and dual-monitor configurations.

The Dfx interface is divided into a layer stack, parameters to adjust filters, a browser of presets and the active canvas that previews the effect applied to your image. The preset browser will also create thumbnails using your image with each of the various filters and effects applied. Across the bottom of the interface is a selection strip with the various major filter and effect categories: Film Lab, HFX Diffusion, HFX Grads/Tints, Image, Lens, Light, Special Effects and Favorites. Within each category is a series of subcategories. For instance, Film Lab would include Film Stocks and Bleach Bypass filters among others. Each of these groups includes a series of presets that can be applied, as well as flagged as a Favorite for quick recall. These tools make it quick to preview a wide range of looks and filter options on your photo.

The image in the preview canvas can be resized and displayed in various split-screen and two-up views in order to compare your look against the original starting image. The Dfx suite is so deep – with so many color correction and filter options – that a photographer or designer would never really have the need to do any of these adjustments in Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom if they didn’t want to.

Click image to see an enlarged view

The video version of the Tiffen Dfx suite installs into Adobe After Effects, Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro 7 and Avid Media Composer/Symphony. In these hosts, the individual filter categories show up within the standard effects selection palette, so you have to apply one of the individual filters, like Film Stocks from the Film Lab category, in order to get started. Depending on the host, some or all of the adjustment sliders are available within the effects control panel. If you want greater control, click on the Dfx Interface button to launch the custom interface.

In the video version, you can only work with a single filter at a time and cannot stack a series of filters within the Dfx interface. As in the other versions, the Dfx interface displays the frame you were parked on when you launched the custom interface and uses that image to generate the preset thumbnails of the various settings. The video plug-in can also be used in both a single and dual-screen mode. The center canvas has several comparison and split-screen views, while the right panel includes the adjustment parameters.

One handy feature in all versions is a Variations window. Click one of the slider control names in the Parameters window and the Variations window is quickly populated with a series of iterations based on possible changes to that control. There’s a slider in the Variations windows to control how many thumbnails you’d like to preview.

The big selling point for the Tiffen Dfx package is that many of the effects are based on specific Tiffen Hollywood F/X glass filters and gels. These are called out by name and number in the preset panes, so someone familiar with the physical product will know right away what result each of these will have. In additional, the film stock presets are also based on specific known Agfa, Fuji, Kodak and Polaroid products.

Click image to see an enlarged view

I did most of my testing in After Effects and I really loved the versatility of this filter package. Not to mention the sheer range it has to offer. Unlike the standalone version or the photo plug-in, you couldn’t apply multiple effects while staying inside the custom Dfx interface. To apply multiple Tiffen effects in After Effects, you simply apply several filters, the same as any other package. The difference is that if you want to make the tweaks inside the custom GUI, then that means bouncing between the After Effects (or Final Cut or Avid) interface and the custom Dfx interface for each filter adjustment. However, the parameters are available in the host application controls, so you can make adjustments there if you prefer. As a set, the Dfx package is very stable in the applications I tested. It’s particularly well-suited for Avid systems, making it a “must have” tool for Media Composer editors who want to stylize their projects.

Overall, this is an impressive combination of tools. I don’t think any of the other digital filter suites on the market offers as much variety in the number and type of included effects. If you can only go with one effects suite and want the maximum toolset, then look no farther than the Tiffen Dfx Digital Filters Suite.

Written for DV magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2011 Oliver Peters

Higher Ground

Timing is often everything when it comes to indie filmmaking. That’s certainly the case with Higher Ground, the directorial debut by Academy Award-nominated actress, Vera Farmiga (Up In The Air, Source Code, Nothing But The Truth). The film about the struggle and coexistence between faith and doubt is inspired by Carolyn S. Biggs’ memoir, This Dark World. It features Farmiga in the lead role of Corrine Walker and follows her through three phases of her life. The film has appeared at the 2011 Sundance, Tribeca and Los Angeles Film Festivals and is currently in distribution through Sony Pictures Classics.

Successfully pulling off a highly-regarded, low budget feature is a challenge for anyone, but even more so, if you are the director, the lead actress and pregnant on top of that. Living in upstate New York, Farmiga happened to be ten minutes away from BCDF Pictures, a production company and facility built with the intent of facilitating indie feature film production. She decided to check them out as a possible production resource and quickly discovered a synergy that was ideal for Higher Ground. Although BCDF was prepping another film at the time, the decision was made to fast-track Higher Ground, in part to be able to film before Farmiga was too far along in her pregnancy. Within a couple of weeks, the film was in full production for a 28-day filming schedule during June 2010.

BCDF Pictures, situated in the upper Hudson River valley, is a mash-up between summer camp and the old Hollywood studio system. The founders also created a film fund, Strategic Motion Ventures, to finance the pictures produced by BCDF. They own RED One MX camera packages and the farmhouse-style facility is home to several edit suites and screening theaters, which makes it ideal for a filmmaking home base. For Higher Ground, BCDF supplied two RED packages to director of photography Michael McDonough. They also worked out various tests prior to the production that let the DoP establish a number of in-camera looks for the three time periods in the story.

Hitting the ground running

Higher Ground editor Colleen Sharp wasn’t hired until three weeks after the start of production. So, BCDF proceeded down a post production workflow path based on the assumption that the film would be edited using Apple Final Cut Pro, their primary in-house NLE platform. Head of post production Jeremy Newmark handled the one-light color correction for the RED camera dailies, transcoding them into ProRes QuickTime movies. By the time Sharp was on board, BCDF had already accumulated two-and-a-half weeks of dailies in the ProRes format.

According to Sharp, “I’ve cut one other film using Final Cut, but I feel more comfortable with [Avid] Media Composer. I suggested, if possible, it would be better if I could cut Higher Ground on an Avid, because I had to hit the ground running. Since I was starting three weeks after filming had begun, I needed to be as efficient as possible and that would be on a system that I was most comfortable with.” Of course, this added the dilemma of whether or not to re-transcode the RED files into a format native to Avid.

Good timing once again played a role. Avid had just released Media Composer version 5.0, which enabled the direct use of ProRes files through AMA (Avid Media Access), as well as limited third-party hardware support for monitoring. In addition to Final Cut systems, BCDF also owned an older Media Composer license. They were able to cost-effectively set up the Avid suite for Sharp by upgrading their older Avid software license and adding the Matrox MXO2 Mini for video output to the large screen in the edit suite.

Newmark explained, “I was concerned about whether I’d need to take the existing dailies and convert them again to DNxHD media for Colleen. I talked it over with a friend at PostWorks in New York and it seemed like using AMA would be viable. We proceeded down the road of using the ProRes files in the Avid and Colleen was able to cut the film entirely using linked AMA files. We never transcoded them into DNxHD and it worked well. Of course, at the beginning I still had the Plan B of converting everything again if the AMA idea didn’t work; but, I wanted to avoid this as it would have cost us extra time. Even though we own a Red Rocket card for fast transcoding, the crew was using two cameras the entire time and often recording very long performance takes. So, in two-and-a-half weeks, they’d already accumulated quite a large amount of footage.”

In the end, it worked better than expected for what was at that time a new software release. Higher Ground is likely the first feature film edited using strictly AMA-linked ProRes files. Thanks in part to the weak economy, the film company was able to secure off-hours packages for DI finishing in Los Angeles and sound editing and mixing at Sound One in New York. Newmark continued, “I was able to send the colorist [Adam Hawkey] an EDL and the trimmed .r3d RED camera files, as well as the looks that I’d established with the DoP. These were imported into a Nucoda system, which read the files perfectly, including the looks presets. Adam told us this worked seamlessly and gave him a great starting point to work from in grading the film. Michael [McDonough] supervised the grading over a five-day stretch.”

Anticipating the big challenges

I asked Colleen Sharp about editing challenges on the film. She replied, “The biggest challenge I’d anticipated turned out not to be an issue at all. That was working with a first-time director, who was also the lead actor. Vera was great to work with. She was new to the entire editing process and very intrigued by the possibilities. She was hands-on during the edit and very helpful. I normally work on a film during the shooting and complete an editor’s cut before I start working with the director. In this case, I wasn’t completely done with my cut before the production wrapped, so the last portion of this first cut was worked out with Vera’s involvement. They finished shooting just after the 4th of July weekend, but I didn’t have my first cut together until the third week in July. It was just under three hours long! We continued working at it until mid-October and ended up at the final length of 107 minutes. Naturally, with that much trimming, you have to lose some scenes that are painful to cut, but that’s all part of the process.”

“I’m glad to say that none of Vera’s decisions were ever based on vanity. Only about the best performance and with this cast, the performances were always good. One editing challenge was dealing with the number of children in the scenes. For instance, Vera’s sister Taissa plays Corrine in the younger scenes. She’s never acted before. So, you had Vera directing her sister and she got a great performance out of her. Of course, as the editor, it’s my job to help get that performance on screen in a way that best represents the story.”

Naturally, whenever you have a lot of footage, the biggest challenge for the editor is wrestling just the sheer volume of material. Higher Ground shot about 14TB of RED footage, which translates into nearly 100 hours of raw material. Fortunately the story progressed in a linear fashion through the three periods of Corinne’s life. No parallel storylines or intercutting between different eras. To help manage the content, assistant editor Peter Saguto organized the ProRes files at the Finder level into folders based on scenes. This made sense for a Final Cut edit, but when it came time to move to Media Composer, most of this structure could be carried into Avid via AMA. As a result, Saguto didn’t have to completely start his logging from scratch after the change of platforms.

In the end, the post production workflow proved to be very viable. Newmark said, “When we started this, a lot of the advice we received ended with ‘good luck – no one has ever done this before.’ I was impressed with the stability of the Avid system, compared with the Final Cut system that was being used at the same time on the other film going through BCDF.” In the future, BCDF intends to handle more films on the Avid system. Newmark continued, “We always want to let the decision be made by the cinematographers and editors whenever possible. We own RED camera packages, but we’ve also shot films with ARRI ALEXA and 35mm film depending on what’s the right approach for that film. I really think Avid is the best tool for feature film editing and I’m glad this experience worked so well. Of course, now when we have a RED show that we know will be cut on Media Composer, we transcode the RED media to DNxHD.  Nevertheless, going ProRes on Higher Ground proved to be far more seamless than I would have expected.”

In its first year, BCDF Pictures produced four films: Higher Ground; Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding; The Last Keepers (formerly known as The Art of Love) and Rhymes with Bananas. They are currently in post production on Predisposed and Liberal Arts and in production on Bachlorette.

Written for DV Magazine (NewBay Media LLC)

©2011 Oliver Peters

Users talk about Smoke on the Mac

Low cost creative software tools are driving the so-called democratization of the post industry and many new players are offering video editing and visual effects services as a result. Yet, savvy entrepreneurs have realized there’s more that affects the bottom line than price alone. Rather than solely building a business on Apple’s Final Cut Studio or the Adobe Creative Suite, a number of new producers have found that Autodesk’s Smoke for Mac OS X has struck the right balance between cost and performance. For these companies, Smoke has provided the right tool to attract and keep clients.

Boogie Studio

Boogie Studio was founded five years ago by Andres Norambuena, Denis-Eric Pednault and Benoit Martel. These partners developed Boogie into Montreal’s leading audio studio for radio and television commercials. When it came time to expand, Boogie brought in Sebastian Dostie last fall as a partner to design and shape up the company’s visual effects and image post production services. According to Dostie, “Boogie thought about establishing a satellite audio facility in another city, but that would have meant one of the founders would have to move away from Montreal. No one was interested in that, so we chose to expand Boogie’s local services beyond audio. I had experience in visual effects and we already had a great relationship with Montreal’s advertising agencies, so the logical next move for us was to offer video finishing services.”

Unlike post houses whose business connections are with the directors or production companies, audio studios generally deal directly with the agencies. Montreal agencies cover a mix of national and international clients, which gave Boogie a nice opportunity to attract some interesting, high-profile projects. Dostie explained why they decided on Smoke as the central tool for this new division. “We could have simply added Final Cut Studio, since the cost of entry is so cheap. But, we knew how agencies really liked the Flame experience in client-supervised sessions. Smoke for the Mac had been out about a year. We had the talent on board who knew how to work with it in a supervised client session, so after a month’s evaluation, we decided to build the division around that as the central tool for client sessions.”

The choice proved to be a good mix for the eclectic Boogie facility. Dostie continued, “Clients have really responded well to our offering of finishing services. It’s great to have the audio mix on Pro Tools and video finishing on Smoke under one roof, because everything can get done in the same day at the same facility, including any last minute changes. We love that Smoke is on the Mac platform, because it makes it easy to bring in the offline editor’s FCP edit list or to use Photoshop on the same computer as Smoke. Performance and reliability has been great and clients feel very comfortable when they hear that you are using Smoke. It’s not just the name, but [Autodesk’s] existing software development that brings proven tools to the Mac platform.”

One example where the investment in Smoke paid off was a set of spots for Canac, a Quebec City hardware store. Working through agency LG2 and production company 401, Boogie had to complete the spots with the visual effect of a dog singing the commercial’s jingle. 401 shot the footage with Canon 7D cameras and delivered the footage and FCP offline edit lists to Boogie. The lists and footage were imported into Smoke. For the dog visual effect, Boogie first had to retime the dog’s movements to match a guide track. Then they animated the dog’s mouth against a reference background of the retimed live action dog, using Matchmover and Maya for the animation. Since the dog and the actors in the scene where filmed separately, Smoke provided an ideal compositing tool, to combine the various plates, rotospline and retouch around the CGI animation, plus all color-correction needed to match and polish the final color and lighting to complete the effect.

Glyph Corporation

Glyph is a Louisville-based, boutique post facility that specializes in custom, large format projects, including visual presentations at the U. S. Capitol Visitor Center, the American Museum of Natural History and the California Science Center. Glyph owner, David Crites, is an established visual effects artist who has made Smoke for Mac OS X his tool of choice.  Crites described his decision this way. “I was looking for a way to streamline and redefine the pipeline. I had used Maya for five years and was familiar with the Flame toolset, which I’d used out-of-house. I would typically build my projects by offlining in Final Cut and then conforming in After Effects with a mixture of Sapphire plug-ins. Smoke became a great replacement for both. I now find that I’m doing my offlines as well in Smoke, which keeps me from having to import an XML from FCP. The integration of Maya and Smoke is great for what I do. I design a lot of visual effects based on natural phenomena in Maya and then composite and relight them in Smoke.”

Crites often works unsupervised on these large projects, although about 10% of his projects are commercials. Crites continued, “Smoke is great when I do have clients in a session, because I can stay within one integrated interface, without jumping in and out of different applications. Unification of the interface is a big deal, because you only have to get familiar with one GUI. I appreciate Smoke’s clean design. Agency clients are very impressed with how things work, but it’s especially suited for the large format projects I do. These have huge amounts of data, such as 10K-wide images as master plates. Artists not familiar with a node-based interface will find the learning curve a little steeper than those who are familiar with programs like Nuke or Maya, but things are extremely well thought out, making it fairly easy to get up to speed.”

One example of a Glyph project is the Advance Organizer at the California Science Center. It’s a three-screen, eight-projector film installation in Los Angeles. Two matching 13’x48′ screens line either wall of a long rectangular gallery, with a 10’x10′ screen at the far end. The three-minute film seamlessly combines organic visual effects with beautiful images representing the diverse ecosystems on earth. The film loops continuously all day, every day.

Crites explained the benefits of using Smoke on this job. “Compared to my previous workflow, Smoke streamlined the assembly of some fairly complicated composites. Having color correction, tracking, sophisticated masking, and a true 3D compositing environment all in one application has done away with my need to switch gears in the midst of the creative flow. I found myself with more time for creative decision-making during the project – and burning less time rendering or translating media for additional work in other applications. Through Smoke’s tight integration with Maya, I have unprecedented flexibility and control compositing my 3D assets. Past projects, where I had to use four applications to accomplish them, can now be created exclusively in Smoke.”

VODA Studios

As the largest photographic studio outside of Los Angeles, Seattle’s VODA Studios is no stranger to imaging workflows. When it came time to add video to the roster of services, Autodesk Smoke for the Mac was a no-brainer. Josh Courtney, VODA Chairman, pointed out that, “For us, workflow is key. We really appreciate the fact that Smoke is geared toward fast turnaround. Its integrated tools mean you don’t have to bounce between applications. The fact that clients don’t have to wait for lengthy renders, means that clients can see tangible savings in time and budget over the course of a week on some large projects. When we compared that to the typical FCP experience, it didn’t seem to us that lower-cost alternatives really provided an efficient pipeline or a quick workflow. Clients have responded very favorably to that. We are seeing more collaboration where clients are bringing us rough cuts with a Smoke finish in mind.”

Take, for example, a recent set of commercials for Brooks Running produced by kontent partners and posted on Smoke at VODA Studios. Director Craig Brooks discussed the experience.  “The scope for our three Brooks Running spots had grown exponentially, while the budget hadn’t moved. I remembered having been briefly walked through VODA’s new Smoke system a few weeks prior for a peek at what was under the hood. So I chatted with Josh Courtney about how we could pull this off. Charged with finding a way to make it still work under the same parameters, the use of VODA and their Smoke system was the only choice for us to pull this off.”

“The concept called for technical callouts and graphical animations highlighting specific Brooks apparel to track, along with the runner filmed in the environment where they would actually run with the gear. Straightforward in theory, but given our timeline and budget parameters it posed a huge problem. Not having the time nor the budget for the usual methods, Smoke made all the difference in the successful implementation and completion of the pieces. We were able to get a workflow that fit into our time frame and budget.  Having known and worked with Josh and VODA for years on a variety of other projects we already had the foundation for a successful working relationship. With Smoke now added to our mix, it creates a whole new creative platform for us to collaborate.”

Autodesk’s Smoke for Mac OS X is a relatively new product, but it brings a level of finishing to the Mac platform that has been out-of-reach in the past. Thanks to a heritage of years of Irix and Linux development, the product starts as a seasoned offering, complete with a very high brand appeal among clients. These ingredients have given the early adopters a definite creative and business edge.

Written for DV and Videography magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2011 Oliver Peters