Three choices

We now know where the four “A”s are headed. With the dust settling just a little, picking your favored approach to post is shaping up into three choices: the software suite, the all-in-one and the toolkit. That’s not to say you can’t mix these options up a bit, but let me outline each approach.  Before I start, let me clarify that these choices are designed for the needs of small shops that post the average types of projects, including corporate videos, commercials, reality TV shows and low budget indie films. If you only cut studio films or are a high-end VFX specialist, then your world view is likely to be quite a bit different. So, let’s start.

A. The Software Suite

If you wanted to build your facility around a complementary suite of applications as I outlined in this previous post, then Apple Final Cut Studio had been the dominant option. With Apple’s changes, Adobe becomes the logical successor. The new Creative Suite 6 offerings provide many of the advances that Final Cut users had expected in a hypothetical Final Cut Pro 8 or Final Cut Studio 4. If you are looking for a package that can cover all the bases – including logging/ingest, editing, audio mixing, color grading and encoding/authoring – then Adobe CS6 Production Premium is the place to go.

Most Adobe applications may be purchased as standalone applications, as part of a suite or through a Creative Cloud subscription. If you are buying a site license as a multi-seat user, then you’ll likely go with perpetual licenses (the software has no time limit) rather than the Creative Cloud. (Adobe does plan to offer “Team” subscriptions later in the year.) Understand that if you are purchasing Adobe software with the intent of running different applications on different workstations, you will still have to purchase the appropriate suite (or a Cloud subscription) for each workstation. You cannot buy one software bundle license and then pick and choose specific applications to install and authorize on numerous computers for simultaneous operation. For that, you’d need a volume, or multi-seat license. It allows you to deploy bundles like Production Premium onto multiple workstations, using a common license number.

Granted, any FCP/Color editor moving to Premiere Pro or SpeedGrade is probably going to miss a few of their favorite features, but once comfortable with the differences, will find a very comprehensive package. One that lets you do everything you need for creative cutting and finishing – all within the Adobe family. There are links between Premiere Pro and Audition or After Effects or SpeedGrade, so it’s pretty easy to start in Premiere Pro (or even Prelude for ingest/transcode/logging) and then move to After Effects for vfx/motion graphics, Audition for the mix and SpeedGrade for the final grading pass.

Right now, the least-integrated application is SpeedGrade, which was acquired by Adobe only last September. Only the “send to” half of the roundtrip with Premiere Pro is in place. You can’t monitor broadcast output on any card except an NVIDIA with SDI, which most video editors don’t own and which doesn’t work on the Mac. You can, however, view a full screen signal on a second display that’s connected via DVI or DisplayPort. This is likely to change pretty quickly under Adobe control, but if you can work within the current constraints, SpeedGrade is a powerful color correction tool on par with Color or Resolve.

The intent of this post is not to go into depth about the pros and cons of any individual software application, so I’ll leave a discussion of Premiere Pro’s strengths or weaknesses as an editor for another time. Suffice it to say that if you want a powerful and comprehensive set of tools from a single vendor, who has made interoperability a priority, then Adobe is the best option today.

B. The All-In-One Editor

The editor who prefers to have everything at his or her fingertips inside of a single application is going to have to stick with Avid. The best bang-for-the-buck until mid-June is the Avid Symphony cross-grade promotion for FCP “legacy” owners. For $999 you get Symphony, AvidFX (Boris RED integrated into Symphony), the Boris Continuum Complete filter set, Sorenson Squeeze and Avid DVD (PC only). The advantage of Symphony over Media Composer includes advanced color correction tools and the bundling of the BCC filters. Both are cross-platform and work with the full range of third-party i/o hardware.

Naturally Autodesk Smoke and Avid DS editors might consider their favored NLE as more deserving of the all-in-one label, but I see the strengths of these systems in finishing and not offline or creative editing tasks. DS does offer many of those tools (though is typically not considered the first choice for such tasks), but Smoke doesn’t. In other words, if you want a system that can tackle any task from film editing to finishing, Symphony and Media Composer definitely fit the bill. The weaknesses are that you are limited to a maximum of HD-sized frames, the effects modules need a lot of improvement and the color correction tools are also long-in-the-tooth. Nevertheless, in the hands of an experienced editor, 80-90% of all editing and finishing challenges can be tackled inside of Symphony. This includes creative cutting, mixing, finishing and color grading – all accomplished without ever leaving the Avid editing interface.

For folks interested in understanding the differences between Media Composer and Symphony, check out this video at Avid. Furthermore, you can search for “avid fx tutorial” at Google or YouTube to find numerous tutorials on how to use Avid FX within the Media Composer or Symphony interface.

C. The Toolkit

This is where I see Apple Final Cut X fitting. FCP X by itself is not a complete NLE for advanced work and needs to be augmented with many other tools. When I say this, I’m focusing on the small shop, multi-suite user, not the individual videographer or editor who needs to bang out spots and corporate videos on his home or portable system. The work that many editors do requires collaboration with other editors, mixers and colorists. FCP X lacks those tools internally and instead leans on third-party utilities. The mix that seems to work best is some combination of FCP X (creative editing), DaVinci Resolve (advanced color grading) and Autodesk Smoke (visual effects and finishing).

As I watch the rapid expansion of the FCP X-based ecosystem, it’s becoming clear that what appears to be a lack of features is, in fact, spawning innovation to complement FCP X. As a result, the application is becoming more of a platform than the previous version or other editing software. Final Cut Pro X becomes the editing hub that is augmented by other applications and utilities based on your individual workflow needs.

Naturally any purchase of FCP X would be incomplete without Motion 5 and Compressor 4, not to mention that essential media management and interchange tools include Event Manager X, Xto7 for Final Cut Pro, 7toX for Final Cut Pro and X2Pro Audio Convert. I also find that it’s very hard to get through most complex productions without some fallback to the “legacy” Final Cut Studio suite. For example, if you need to generate EDLs or OMF files or prefer Color to other grading tools, then FC Studio (assuming you already own a copy anyway) is the best choice. In fact, you can still buy a Final Cut Pro Studio license from Apple’s 800-number business sales operation. Adobe CS6 Production Premium can also fulfill many of these same functions and there’s no reason not to own both CS6 and FCP X. For the sake of this post, I’m presenting Choice C as a non-Avid, non-Adobe alternative.

Advanced post functions in the toolkit include grading, audio mixing and advanced finishing. There are plenty of options for audio, including Apple’s own Logic and Soundtrack Pro. There’s no clear path from FCP X to either of these, yet. You can export audio streams as Roles, but those are “flattened” tracks without handles. Best to bounce over to FCP 7 and then to STP or Logic. Other solutions include ProTools, Audition and Nuendo. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro is designed to send FCP X audio tracks to Pro Tools in the AAF format, but not OMF, so it’s not compatible with some of the other DAW software options, like Logic.

Blackmagic Design has done a good job of integrating FCP X’s XML into DaVinci Resolve, so even the free LITE version works well as a grading companion to FCP X. Resolve can easily be installed on any workstation in the facility and if you want a dedicated grading room, then it’s worth the investment in a proper monitor, scopes and a control surface. Likewise, if you invest in Autodesk Smoke, it is probably with the intent to make this a client-supervised “hero” room. Yes, all of these applications can reside on a single workstation, but that doesn’t make the best business sense.

Another thing to consider is i/o hardware. Final Cut Pro X works with most of the PCIe and Thunderbolt capture/output cards and devices, but Resolve only works with Blackmagic Design’s own hardware. Conversely, Smoke requires an AJA KONA 3G or IoXT. For a facility owner, having dedicated Smoke and Resolve suites makes sense and, therefore, it’s OK to have different cards in different workstations. This does mean you will have to do a bit of planning to best manage your configuration.

This also brings to mind shared storage. FCP X is still evolving in that regard and currently works with Xsan. You can use it with volume-level SANs, but the “Add SAN Location” feature may or may not work at your site. For instance, it doesn’t work with Command Soft FibreJet. You’ll be fine with shared media, as long as your Final Cut Events and Final Cut Projects folders are on locally-controlled volumes, where the FCP X workstation has write permission to that volume or drive.

Last but not least is Adobe Photoshop, which I find essential for all sessions. Other editors disagree and prefer to avoid Photoshop – either for reasons of need or cost. So, alternatives to Photoshop include Corel Painter, Photoshop Elements or Pixelmator.

In closing, remember this is just a simple way to present the options. There’s nothing that says you can’t mix and match After Effects and/or Pro Tools with EDIUS, Media Composer, Vegas, Media 100 or any other variation. My world is headed primarily to an Apple/Adobe witches brew of applications. I hope my little overview makes some sense out of the confusing NLE landscape. It’s still very fluid and will likely continue to change over the coming year. The key is to pick a direction and stick to it. You don’t have to know everything, but pick the right tools for your clients and workload. Learn to use them well and dive in!

© 2012 Oliver Peters