The NLE that wouldn’t die

It’s been 18 months since Apple launched Final Cut Pro X and the debate over it continues to rage without let-up. Apple likely has good sales numbers to deem it a success, but if you look around the professional world, with a few exceptions, there has been little or no adoption. Yes, some editors are dabbling with it to see where Apple is headed with it – and yes, some independent editors are using it for demanding projects, including commercials, corporate videos and TV shows. By comparison, though, look at what facilities and broadcasters are using – or what skills are required for job openings – and you’ll see a general scarceness of FCP X.

Let’s compare this to the launch of the original Final Cut Pro (or “legacy”) over 12 years ago. In a similar fashion, FCP was the stealth tool that attracted individual users. The obvious benefit was price. At that time a fully decked out Avid Media Composer was a turnkey system costing over $100K. FCP was available as software for only $999. Of course, what gets lost in that measure, is the Avid price included computer, monitors, wiring, broadcast i/o hardware and storage. All of this would have to be added to the FCP side and in some cases, wasn’t even possible with FCP. In the beginning it was limited to DV and FireWire only. But there were some key advantages it introduced at the start, over Avid systems. These included blend modes, easy in-timeline editing, After Effects-style effects and a media architecture built upon the open, extensible and ubiquitous QuickTime foundation. Over the years, a lot was added to make FCP a powerful system, but at its core, all the building blocks were in place from the beginning.

When uncompressed SD and next HD became the must-have items, Avid was slow to respond. Apple’s partners were able to take advantage of the hardware abstraction layer to add codecs and drivers, which expanded FCP’s capabilities. Vendors like Digital Voodoo, Aurora Video Systems and Pinnacle made it possible to edit something other than DV. Users have them to thank – more so than Apple – for growing FCP into a professional tool. When FCP 5 and 6 rolled around, the Final Cut world was pretty set, with major markets set to shift to FCP as the dominant NLE. HD, color correction and XML interchange had all been added and the package was expanded with an ecosystem of surrounding applications. By the time of the launch of the last Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) in 2009, Apple’s NLE seemed unstoppable. Unfortunately FCP 7 wasn’t as feature-packed as many had expected. Along with reticence to chuck recently purchased PowerMac G5 computers, a number of owners simply stayed with FCP 5 and/or FCP 6.

When Apple discusses the number of licensees, you have to parse how they define the actual purchases. While there are undoubtedly plenty of FCP X owners, the interpretation of sales is that more seats of FCP X have been sold than of FCP 7. Unfortunately it’s hard to know what that really means. Since it’s a comparison to FCP 7 – and not every FCP 1-6 owner upgraded to 7 – it could very well be that the X number isn’t all that large. Even though Apple EOL’ed (end of life) Final Cut Studio with the launch of FCP X, it continued to sell new seats of the software through its direct sales and reseller channels. In fact, Apple seems to still have it available if you call the correct 800 line. When Apple says it has sold more of X than of 7, is it counting the total sales (including those made after the launch) or only before? An interesting statistic would be the number of seats of Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) sold since the launch of FCP X as compared to before. We’ll never know, but it might actually be a larger number. All I know is that the system integrators I personally know, who have a long history of selling and servicing FCP-based editing suites, continue to install NEW FCP 7 rooms!

Like most drastic product changes, once you get over the shock of the new version, you quickly realize that your old version didn’t instantly stop working the day the new version launched. In the case of FCP 7, it continues to be a workhorse, albeit the 32-bit architecture is pretty creaky. Toss a lot of ProRes 4444 at it and you are in for a painful experience. There has been a lot of dissatisfaction with FCP X among facility owners, because it simply changes much of the existing workflows. There are additional apps and utilities to fill the gap, but many of these constitute workarounds compared to what could be done inside FCP 7.

Many owners have looked at alternatives. These include Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer/Symphony, Media 100 and Autodesk Smoke 2013. If they are so irritated at Apple as to move over to Windows hardware, then the possibilities expand to include Avid DS, Grass Valley Edius and Sony Vegas. Several of these manufacturers have introduced cross-grade promotional deals to entice FCP “legacy” owners to make the switch. Avid and Adobe have benefited the most in this transition. Editors who were happy with Avid in the past – or work in a market where Avid dominates – have migrated back to Media Composer. Editors who were hoping for the hypothetical FCP 8 are often making Adobe Premiere (and the Production Premium bundle) their next NLE of choice. But ironically, many owners and users are simply doing nothing and continuing with FCP 7 or even upgrading from FCP 6 to FCP 7.

Why is it that FCP 7 isn’t already long gone or on the way out by now? Obviously the fact that change comes slowly is one answer, but I believe it’s more than that. When FCP 1.0 came on the scene, its interface and operational methodology fit into the existing NLE designs. It was like a “baby Avid” with parts of Media 100 and After Effects dropped in. If you cut on a Media Composer, the transition to FCP was pretty simple. Working with QuickTime made it easy to run on most personal machines without extra hardware.  Because of its relatively open nature and reliance in industry-standard interchange formats (many of which were added over time), FCP could easily swap data with other applications using EDLs, OMFs, text-based log files and XML. Facilities built workflows around these capabilities.

FCP X, on the other hand, introduced a completely new editing paradigm that not only changed how you work, but even the accepted nomenclature of editing. Furthermore, the UI design even did things like reverse the behavior of some keystrokes from how similar functions had been triggered in FCP 7. In short, forget everything you know about editing or using other editing software if you want to become proficient with FCP X. That’s a viable concept for students who may be the professional editors of the future. Or, for non-fulltime editors who occasionally have to edit and finish professional-level productions as one small part of their job. Unfortunately, it’s not a good approach if you want to make FCP X the ubiquitous NLE in established professional video environments, like post houses, broadcasters and large enterprise users.

After all, if I’m a facility manager and you can’t show me a compelling reason why this is better and why it won’t require a complete internal upheaval, then why should I change? In most shops, overall workflow is far more important than the specific features of any individual application. Gone are the differences in cost, so it’s difficult to make a compelling argument based on ROI. You can no longer make the (false) argument of 1999 that FCP will only cost you 1% of the cost of an Avid. Or use the bogus $50K edit suite ad that followed a few years later.

Which brings us to the present. I started on Avid systems as the first NLE where I was in the driver’s seat. I’ve literally cut on dozens of edit systems, but for me, Final Cut Pro “legacy” fit my style and preferences best. I would have loved a 64-bit version with a cleaned-up user interface, but that’s not what FCP X delivers. It’s also not exactly where Premiere Pro CS6 is today. I deal with projects from the outside – either sent to me or at shops where I freelance. Apple FCP 7 and Avid Media Composer continue to be what I run into and what is requested.

Over the past few months I’ve done quite a few complex jobs on FCP X, when I’ve had the ability to control the decision. Yet, I cannot get through any complex workflow without touching parts of Final Cut Studio (“legacy”) to get the job done. FCP X seems to excel at small projects where speed trumps precision and interoperability. It’s also great for individual owner-operators who intend to do everything inside FCP X. But for complex projects with integrated workflows, FCP 7 is still decidedly better.

As was the case with early FCP, where most of the editing design was there at the start, I now feel that with the FCP X 10.0.6 update, most of its editing design is also in place. It may never become the tool that marches on to dominate the market. FCP “legacy” had that chance and Apple walked away from it. It’s dubious that lightning will strike twice, but 18 months is simply too short of a timeframe in which to say anything that definitive. All I know is that for now, FCP 7 continues as the preferred NLE for many, with Media Composer a close second. Most editors, like old dogs, aren’t too eager to learn new tricks. At least that’s what I conclude, based on my own ear-to-the-ground analysis. Check back this time next year to see if that’s still the case. For now, I see the industry continuing to live in a very fractured, multi-NLE environment.

©2012 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers for 2012

The holidays are here and it’s time to look at some ideas for that virtual stocking hung by the visual effects fireplace. Here are a few suggestions to spruce up the ole editor’s toolkit.

EDL-X. As more people take the plunge with Apple Final Cut Pro X, they find that a number of add-ons and plug-ins are needed to round out their favorite workflows. One example is edit decision lists (EDLs) – omitted from FCP X, because the ProApps engineers felt that this “ancient”, 40-year-old standard was best handled by third party developers. The interchange of EDL data continues to be one of the most common methods of working with advanced color correction and DI systems. It’s a staple of the visual effects community, precisely because the format is generic and universal. Want to send a sequence with linked clips from FCP X to Baselight or SpeedGrade? Then you’ll need an EDL. To provide a solution, software developer XMiL created EDL-X, which translates FCP X XML files into industry-standard EDLs. You get a number of options for reel identification and character formatting, which lets you configure and review your EDL prior to output. And, this “one-ups” FCP X, too. For example, if you have embedded QuickTime reel IDs, then EDL-X will read these, even though FCP X won’t.

Pro Player. Why do we need another media player? Well, in case you haven’t noticed, Apple has continually “consumerized” QuickTime Player to the point that it’s pretty useless for professional users. Digital Heaven decided that pro users need a player that was better suited to review media clips. Besides being a good media player, the Pro Player application displays QuickTime file metadata, like timecode, reel ID, codecs and data rates. It includes NLE-style transport controls, a jump-back command (the clip backs up five seconds), looped playback, full screen viewing and more. It even sports a gestural jog and shuttle control by mousing over the top or bottom portion of the viewer window. Recently viewed files may be accessed through a filmstrip-style selection window.

MXF4mac Player. Speaking of new media players, let’s not forget Hamburg Pro Media’s free MXF player. If you’ve ever tried to view P2, Avid or XDCAM files in the Finder, without a compatible editing application, you know it’s a no-go. But now, the MXF4mac Player provides a way to open and play most MXF-wrapped media files, just like QuickTime. It includes JKL playback control, reads timecode, up to eight channels of audio and can also be used to play other media files, including QuickTime movies and various audio formats.

LoudnessChange. Editors and mixers on both sides of the Atlantic have been challenged to adhere to new legislation that attempts to tackle broadcast loudness issues. In the US, that falls under the guidelines of the CALM Act. The specifications are more complex than simply watching your levels or adding brick wall limiters. Many of the solutions involve custom hardware or software metering and plug-ins, ranging in cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars. A lower cost approach is being offered by VideoToolshed with their LoudnessChange application. Mix as you normally would and then export a WAVE file of the mix. Open that in LoudnessChange to analyze the file. The analysis report will log timing info where peaks exceed the specs. For a consistent, but compressed/limited file, it will tell you when the file is too hot overall. You can then remix the track by adjusting the problem areas, or have it render its own normalization pass.

SliceX.  Wish you had the ability to draw freeform masks in FCP X? Well, now you do with SliceX from CoreMelt. SliceX is a set of six filters for cloning, blurring, shape-based color correction, vignettes and masking. Draw the mask area with Coremelt’s on-screen drawing tool and then each version of the filter offers additional controls based on its purpose. For example, the depth-of-field shape mask would have blurring controls, whereas the object remover includes offsets for the clone source within the image. Expect a more in-depth post from me about SliceX in the new year.

FxFactory 4. If you are a fan of Noise Industries’ popular plug-in manager FxFactory, then the update to 4.0 is welcomed news. It’s a free update to existing users that has integrated native functionality for Adobe Premiere Pro CS6. This includes all of the FxFactory Pro filters and transitions, as well as many of the filters from partner companies, like Nattress, Sheffield and others. Some of these partner plug-ins will need to be re-downloaded and re-installed to add Premiere Pro compatibility. A few, like the plug-ins from LucaVFX require OS 10.8.2 (except for their Light Kit effects).

XEffects 3D. As the ecosystem around FCP X has been growing, so has the wide range of effects, transitions and generators. A new set of transitions is now available from idustrial revolution through FxFactory. XEffects 3D transitions are a set of dual-pane DVE-style transition effects, including box turns, zooms, splits, folds and more. There’s adjustable depth-of-field, reflections and other tweaks to customize the 100 preset transitions.

Slide Pop. A new Noise Industries partner is Stupid Raisins. Their first offering is a set of transitions. These are a bit hard to describe, but loosely give the appearance of shifting from one image to another in a slide projector. The outgoing and incoming images are distressed, masked and frozen during the transition duration. These are all optional and adjustable settings and are common to each variation of the plug-in. There are ten transitions in the set. Each differs in the direction of the move of the clips off and onto the screen. For example, horizontally in one version or to the corners in another.

Modern Transitions. Not all effects and transitions are tied to specific NLEs. LucaVFX also makes effects sets like light leaks and grunge elements that can be used with any NLE. A new package from them is Modern Transitions, which is a set of stylish transitions intended as a departure from their past emphasis on distress/grunge elements. The effects come as a set of keyable Apple ProRes4444 QuickTime movies, which can be used in any NLE that supports alpha channels and ProRes. These transitions are designed with a midpoint that largely covers the frame. Place this on a higher track (or as a connected clip in FCP X) and align the center at the cut of the two clips. This creates a transition from clip A to clip B by hiding the cut underneath it.

Rampant Design Tools. Another option for royalty-free effects elements is Rampant Design Tools. They offer a nice selection of elements like film effects, smoke, dust, frost, etc. These can be used in a variety of ways to spruce up your project, regardless of the editing or compositing application that you are using. The clips are all high-quality, HD-sized, Photo-JPEG QuickTime movies. That means these are compatible with most software, even on Windows systems. One cool package is their set of Bokeh animated backgrounds. These are full-screen, defocused light effects intended as moving backgrounds for any type of project.

©2012 Oliver Peters

Blackmagic Cinema Camera post workflows

Digital camera development has been running in high gear for several years outpacing any other portion of our industry. Thanks to a revolution started by RED, Nikon and Canon, videographers are now blessed with a wide range of small, affordable, high-performance imaging systems that have broken us free from the confines of the mundane 2/3” video camera. The newest entrant is the Blackmagic Cinema Camera introduced by the industry’s favorite disrupter, Blackmagic Design. Marked by a small form factor, QuickTime or camera raw recording and a $3K price tag, Blackmagic has been able to bring to market a product that seems to have eluded many other seasoned camera manufacturers.

The basic engineering design of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera is a “sandwich” of an EF or MFT (Micro Four Thirds) lens mount, a recording device based on the HyperDeck Shuttle and a touch screen/viewfinder. It records either 1920×1080 ProResHQ QuickTime movie files or 2400×1350 CinemaDNG camera raw image sequences. (Version 1.1 software was recently released, which adds Avid DNxHD support.) The high-def QuickTime files are downsampled from the 2.5K sensor. With CinemaDNG selected, each clip is treated as a folder of individual frames, plus a broadcast wave file. Each time “record” is pressed, a new folder is created for that clip. The camera raw files maintain the full sensor resolution, allowing for high-quality reframing and digital zooms in post.

This isn’t a camera review, so I’ll leave the discussion of the merits of the camera in the field to others. Since the BMCC offers new options to filmmakers, it’s important to understand how to handle these files in post. (Click any of these images for an expanded view.)

Understanding camera raw

Camera raw is not an acronym. The term refers to a file that has not gone through full processing to produce a final RGB image. The full dynamic range of the sensor’s ability to capture light is maintained in raw images. Different manufacturers use different camera raw methods and profiles for individual models. When you get frequent software updates to Apple Aperture or Adobe Photoshop, it’s often to add new camera profiles to keep current with the latest Canon or Nikon offerings. In most camera raw images, ISO/exposure and color temperature/tint values are represented as metadata recorded by the camera at the time the image was captured. As metadata, it can be altered in post and isn’t “baked in” as a permanent part of the image – as it would with a TIFF or JPEG still. If a camera raw image appears to be slightly overexposed, post processing software allows you to recover the highlight detail by changing the ISO or exposure values.

Adobe launched an initiative to create a common camera raw format as a type of “digital negative” file, which became the DNG standard. This was released as open source software and is available for manufacturers to use in their products as DNG (stills) and CinemaDNG (motion), thus eliminating the need to create their own new, proprietary camera raw file format. Blackmagic uses this CinemaDNG file format for its raw image sequences, which means that a wide range of applications can read, open and import these files natively. Those that include camera raw importer modules also enable you to alter the recorded settings within that application.

Correctly importing camera raw images is important. For instance, Apple Final Cut Pro X will natively read the BMCC’s CinemaDNG files, but it currently has no raw importer settings. If the “as shot” metadata makes the image appear overexposed with clipped highlights, you cannot recover that detail from within FCP X. Likewise, not all camera raw importers use the same values. An image opened at the default or the “as shot” value in DaVinci Resolve will look different than in an Adobe application. The beauty of raw, though, is that the image is within an adjustable range and any of these importers will give you good results with a few tweaks.

Image sequence workflows

Blackmagic Design includes a full copy of DaVinci Resolve 9 with the purchase of the camera and that’s obviously their recommended tool for producing editing “dailies” and final color correction. Since DNG is a still photo format, grading and conversion can be handled in other applications, too, including Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, After Effects and Apple Aperture. Each of these applications includes camera raw controls to get the most out of the image. Currently, you cannot import the camera raw files directly into Avid Media Composer, Apple Color or Adobe Premiere Pro. SpeedGrade (with the latest updates) will read the files, but offers no specific camera raw adjustments. There the default import of CinemaDNG files renders a flat, log-style image as a starting point.

The following is a simple workflow using a photography application, such as Lightroom or Aperture. Import each folder of CinemaDNG files into the application. Now select a representative frame within that group and apply your adjustments. Since these are full-featured color correction tools, go as extreme as you like, if you intend to create the final look at this time. Once you get the appearance you want, copy-and-paste those settings to the other images in that folder. These are non-destructive changes within Lightroom and Aperture and may be altered at any time in the future. Next, export the adjusted versions as a new set of TIFFs to a separate folder on your hard drive. These TIFFs will contain the “baked in” look you have just created.

The process is a bit different in Photoshop, but there you have the option of using one of the many special tools and filters to create unique looks. For example, you can apply an oil paint or dark strokes effect for an artistic, painted style. Open a representative frame from a shot and apply the settings you want to use. As you do this, record the steps as a Photoshop Action. When you are happy with the look, use Photoshop’s Batch function to apply this saved Action to all the frames in a folder for each shot.

The CinemaDNG files are 5MB/frame in size, while the exported TIFFs are 9.8MB each. It is possible to open a TIFF image sequence in QuickTime 7 and save it as a QuickTime reference movie. That, in turn, can be used as an editing source in Final Cut Pro 7 and X. As a reference movie, if you update the files later by re-exporting TIFFs with a new look, the reference movie will also be updated to reflect these new files. FCP X offers a performance edge by being able to play these 2.5K sequences natively in real-time within a 2K or HD timeline. QuickTime reference movies are 8-bit, but I saw no visual difference when comparing these files to 10-bit uncompressed and ProRes4444 exports. I would recommend that you transcode these to proxy editing files in FCP X if you opt for the QuickTime reference method.

After Effects offers another solution. You can open CinemaDNG image sequences, make adjustments with its camera raw importer, and then render out final, graded movie files. Naturally, plug-ins like Magic Bullet Looks add more options for custom styles. If you opt to first convert the DNG sequences to TIFFs using Lightroom or Aperture, then Avid Media Composer and Symphony will auto-detect the files as an image sequence and import them as a single media file.

DaVinci Resolve 9

DaVinci Resolve 9 is an advanced grading tool, but may also be used simply to turn the image sequences into a set of flat-looking QuickTime movie files, suitable for color correction later. Resolve 9 now includes a camera raw settings tab. Tweak the settings and then export each clip as a separate movie file. Blackmagic Design has implemented BMD Film with this camera. It’s a log-encoded color space and gamma profile that resembles ARRI’s Log-C. This profile may be selected in-camera for the QuickTime files, but may also be used as a preset in the Resolve 9 raw module (also available in the free Lite version).

So far, my testing has been limited to the handful of clips by Australian DP John Brawley. These are sample shots from the short film Afterglow, which was produced to showcase the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Brawley has posted several shots online in both CinemaDNG and ProResHQ formats. The QuickTime files from the camera were encoded with the BMD Film profile, which matches the same setting when applied to camera raw files converted through Resolve 9.

BMD Film

The option of using After Effects, Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture gives users an interesting new toolset for creating stunning images; but, for most, there’s a comfort factor in using your favorite NLE or grading software. I believe the majority of users will probably stick to shooting ProResHQ files using the BMD Film log profile, because it’s a proven workflow. It preserves the dynamic range and gives you most of the latitude available from the CinemaDNG files. Camera raw files exported from Resolve 9 as ProResHQ using the BMD Film preset (without other correction) are identical to the appearance of the QuickTimes recorded in-camera. The ARRI ALEXA also shoots raw and Log-C, which makes the BMCC are interesting option as a sort of “baby ALEXA”. I haven’t intercut clips from a project that was shot with both an ALEXA and the Blackmagic camera yet, but I suspect the BMCC would work well as a good B or C camera in this type of production.

When I take the BMD Film-encoded clips into Final Cut Pro 7 or X, the values are close enough to Log-C that I can use many of the same LUTs and filters. For example, the Pomfort Alexa Look2Video filter that I use to correct Log-C into Rec 709 works equally well with BMD Film. I’ve done grading tests using a range of NLEs and color correction software and have been very impressed with the results from these Afterglow test clips. Working with the CinemaDNG or ProResHQ BMCC clips will fit into established workflows, without the need to learn new, proprietary tools. No matter what your preference – Avid, FCP X, Premiere, After Effects, Color, Resolve, Photoshop, etc. – this is one new camera that was designed with post in mind first.

Click here to see a variety of grading examples.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine.

© 2012 Oliver Peters

Grading through digital bipacks

When you hear someone use the term bipack, you think they are making the word up or just BS’ing you. In fact, bipack refers to an old technique used to create in-camera film effects. Film timers also used the technique to create certain color effects. In modern times, we are really referring to ways that involve blending or superimposing images and this has a direct relationship on tricks you can use in color correction.

The concept of blending two images with different values is a lot like working with layers and blend modes in Photoshop. Some color correction applications, like SpeedGrade, also use a Photoshop-style system of layers. You aren’t limited to color correction applications, though, because these exact same tricks can be used in any NLE. For example, editors have frequently built a look referred to as “instant sex”, which is a technique for adding highlight glows by compositing copies of the same clip on two video layers. The process is easiest with NLEs and compositors like Motion or After Effects that offer composite modes. I find Apple Final Cut Pro X to be a good NLE for these tricks, because the interface design makes it easy to blend and adjust two stacked clips.

I’ll cover several quick examples of how you might use this technique. (Click any of these images for an expanded view.) For clips, I’ve grabbed shots from Afterglow, a short film photographed by John Brawley to promote the release of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. The source clips are QuickTime ProRes files was a BMD Film (flat, log) gamma profile. To these I’ve added a Pomfort LUT filter normally used for ARRI Alexa Log-C. This corrects the clips back to their intended REC 709 appearance and becomes my starting point.

To stack clips in FCP X, simply edit the clip to the primary storyline and the option-drag it up to duplicate a version as an in-sync, connected clip. Since composite modes often create illegal video levels, I place an adjustment layer clip (a modified Motion title) on top, with a broadcast safe filter added to it.

In this first example, the bottom clip is changed to black-and-white by reducing the saturation in the FCP X color board. The top clip’s composite mode is set to Soft Light. Grading for the right tonal qualities becomes a dance between the settings on the two layers and the opacity value of the top clip’s compositing mode.

If I add a Gaussian blur to the lower clip, change the compositing mode of the top clip to Overlay and tweak the color board settings of the two clips, the look changes from harsh to glamour.

In this billiards shot I’m using the Soft Light mode again, but this time I have tinted the lower clip to a slight teal cast. The top clip is a vibrant orange, but the combination of the two ends up with the more normal-looking and popular orange-and-teal grade.

In this balcony shot I’m using the Overlay mode and have added a slight directional blur to the top layer. The bottom layer is desaturated with a slight tint while the top layer is more vibrant. Combined they have a high-contrast, bleached look.

In this final example, I’ve reversed some items. The top layer is set to the Multiply mode at 80% opacity and I’ve made it black-and-white. The color correction is again a matter of compensating between the two layers to get the right feel.

When I add a Gaussian blur to the top clip the look changes from harsh to a nice, diffused appearance.

© 2012 Oliver Peters