NAB 2014 Thoughts

Whodathunkit? More NLEs, new cameras from new vendors and even a new film scanner! I’ve been back from NAB for a little over a week and needed to get caught up on work while decompressing. Look for a more detailed analysis of the 2014 NAB show in my upcoming article for Digital Video magazine. For now, here are some thoughts in broad strokes.

Avid Connect. My trip started early with the Avid Connect costumer event. This was a corporate gathering with over 1,000 paid attendees. Avid execs and managers outlined the corporate vision of Avid Everywhere in presentations that were head-and-shoulders better than any executive presentations Avid has given in years. For many who attended, it was to see if there was still life in Avid. I think the general response was receptive and positive. Avid Everywhere is basically a realignment of existing and future products around a platform concept. That has more impact if you own Avid storage or asset management software. Less so, if you only own a seat of Media Composer or ProTools. No new software features were announced, but new pricing models were announced with options to purchase or rent individual seats of the software – or to rent floating licenses in larger quantities.

4K. As predicted, 4K was all over the show. However, when you talked to vendors and users, there was little clear direction about actual mastering in 4K. It is starting to be a requirement in some circles, like delivering to Netflix, for example; but for most users 4K stops at acquisition. There is interest for archival reasons, as well as for reframing shots when the master is HD or 2K.

Cameras. New cameras from Blackmagic Design. Not much of a surprise there. One is the bigger, ENG-style URSA, which is Blackmagic’s solution to all of the add-ons people use with smaller HDSLR-sized cameras. The biggest feature is a 10” flip-out LCD monitor. AJA was the real surprise with its own 4K Cion camera. Think KiPro Quad with a camera built around it. Several DPs I spoke with weren’t that thrilled about either camera, because of size or balance. A camera that did get everyone jazzed was Sony’s A7s, one of their new Alpha series HDSLRs. It’s 4K-capable when recorded via HDMI to an external device. The images were outstanding. Of course, 4K wasn’t everywhere. Notably not at ARRI. The news there is the Amiraa sibling to the Alexa. Both share the same sensor design, with the Amira designed as a documentary camera. I’m sure it will be a hit, in spite of being a 2K camera.

Mac Pro. The new Mac Pro was all over the show in numerous booths. Various companies showed housings and add-ons to mount the Mac Pro for various applications. Lots of Thunderbolt products on display to address expandability for this unit, as well as Apple laptops and eventually PCs that will use Thunderbolt technology. The folks at FCPworks showed a nice DIT table/cart designed to hold a Mac Pro, keyboard, monitoring and other on-set essentials.

FCP X. Speaking of FCP X, the best place to check it out was at the off-site demo suite that FCPworks was running during the show. The suite demonstrated a number of FCP X-based workflows using third-party utilities, shared storage from Quantum and more. FCP X was in various booths on the NAB show floor, but to me it seemed limited to partner companies, like AJA. I thought the occurrences of FCP X in other booths was overshadowed by Premiere Pro CC sightings. No new FCP X feature announcements or even hints were made by Apple in any private meetings.

NLEs. The state of nonlinear editing is in more flux than ever. FCP X seems to be picking up a little steam, as is Premiere Pro. Yet, still no clear market leader across all sectors. Autodesk announced Smoke 2015, which will be the last version you can buy. Following Adobe’s lead, this year they shift to a rental model for their products. Smoke 2015 diverges more from the Flame UI model with more timeline-based effects than Smoke 2013. Lightworks for the Mac was demoed at the EditShare booth, which will make it another new option for Mac editors. Nothing new yet out of Avid, except some rebranding – Media Composer is now Media Composer | Software and Sphere is now Media Composer | Cloud. Expect new features to be rolled in by the end of this year. The biggest new player is Blackmagic Design, who has expanded the DaVinci Resolve software into a full-fledged NLE. With a cosmetic resemblance to FCP X, it caused many to dub it “the NLE that Final Cut Pro 8 should have been”. Whether that’s on the mark or just irrational exuberance has yet to be determined. Suffice it to say that Blackmagic is serious about making it a powerful editor, which for now is targeted at finishing.

Death of i/o cards. I’ve seen little mention of this, but it seems to me that dedicated PCIe video capture cards are a thing of the past. KONA and Decklink cards are really just there to support legacy products. They have less relevance in the file-based world. Most of the focus these days is on monitoring, which can be easily (and more cheaply) handled by HDMI or small Thunderbolt devices. If you looked at AJA and Matrox, for example, most of the target for PCIe cards is now to supply the OEM market. AJA supplies Quantel with their 4K i/o cards. The emphasis for direct customers is on smaller output-only products, mini-converters or self-contained format converters.

Film. If you were making a custom, 35mm film scanner – get out of the business, because you are now competing against Blackmagic Design! Their new film scanner is based on technology acquired through the purchase of Cintel a few months ago. Now Blackmagic introduced a sleek 35mm scanner capable of up to 30fps with UltraHD images. It’s $30K and connects to a Mac Pro via Thunderbolt2. Simple operation and easy software (plus Resolve) will likely rekindle the interest at a number of facilities for the film transfer business. That will be especially true at sites with a large archive of film.

Social. Naturally NAB wouldn’t be the fun it is without the opportunity to meet up with friends from all over the world. That’s part of what I get out of it. For others it’s the extra training through classes at Post Production World. The SuperMeet is a must for many editors. The Avid Connect gala featured entertainment by the legendary Nile Rodgers and his band Chic. Nearly two hours of non-stop funk/dance/disco. Quite enjoyable regardless of your musical taste. So, another year in Vegas – and not quite the ho-hum event that many had thought it would be!

©2014 Oliver Peters

 

Digital Anarchy

df_diganarch_3_smOne of the plug-in developers I’ve touched on from time to time is Digital Anarchy. They’ve developed a diverse repertoire of image enhancement plug-ins for photo and video hosts, as well as iOS devices. In the past, they’ve developed such interesting tools as ToonIt (now a Red Giant product), but current video offerings focus on Flicker Free, Knoll Sparks (Autodesk-only) and Beauty Box.

Flicker Free

Flicker Free is the newest plug-in and is designed specifically for flickering video – most notably time-lapse clips. It currently works in Final Cut Pro, After Effects and Premiere Pro. According to their website, versions for Avid, DaVinci Resolve, Assimilate Scratch and Sony Vegas will be coming soon. When you shoot time-lapse image sequences with a modern DSLR camera using electronic lenses, there is a minor luminance difference from one frame to the next. That’s because each time a new frame is exposed, the lens must return back to the identical iris setting as the previous frame. This does not happen with the precision needed for total seamlessness, when a series of images is played as a video clip. Flicker Free is a way to deflicker this varying exposure, but can also be successfully applied to high-frame-rate slow motion, rolling flicker caused by LED lighting and other issues. The controls are simple – just apply the filter and tweak the few sliders to taste.

Beauty Box

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Beauty Box Video 3.0 is a skin smoothing filter that runs in After Effects, Assimilate Scratch, Avid, DaVinci Resolve, Final Cut Pro 7 and X, Premiere Pro, Nuke and Sony Vegas. If you are primarily a desktop software user (Apple, Adobe, Avid), then you’ll probably get the best results in After Effects. Selecting the range is like an HSL keyer, with dark and light color selections used to define the mask. The idea is to isolate skin color in an actor’s or actress’s face. Once the mask area is properly qualified, you have the ability to adjust contrast, saturation, hue and skin smoothing amounts. There are controls for additional sharpening and color correction, as well as shine removal. The newest 3.0 version is enhanced for GPU acceleration and is very responsive on a modern machine. Lastly, the mask area can be inverted, so that the smoothing operation is applied to everything outside of the face, for example.

Ugly Box

df_diganarch_2_smAround Halloween, Digital Anarchy also released a free variant of Beauty Box called Ugly Box. This was a special version that went the opposite direction of smoothing, by enhancing localized contrast. The effect of doing this is to intensify any texture in the skin. Then you can alter the hue, saturation and brightness. Although it’s a Halloween novelty, since you can make the “witch’s” face green, it could also be a useful tool in some productions like a zombie movie to enhance the effect of horror makeup.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Why film editors love Avid Media Composer

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The editing of feature films is a small niche of the overall market for editing software, yet companies continue to highlight features edited with their software as a form of aspirational marketing to attract new users. Avid Technology has had plenty of competition since the start of the company, but the majority of mainstream feature films are still edited using Avid Media Composer software. Lightworks and Final Cut Pro “legacy” have their champions (soon to be joined by FCP X and Premiere Pro CC), but Media Composer has held the lead – at least in North America – as the preferred software for feature film editors.

Detractors of Avid like to characterize these film editors as luddites who are resistant to change. They like to suggest that the interface is stodgy and rigid and just not modern enough. I would suggest that change for change’s sake is not always a good thing. Originally Final Cut Pro got a foothold, because it did well with file-based workflows and was very cheap compared to turnkey workstations running Media Composer or Film Composer. Those days are long gone, so trying to make the argument based on cost alone doesn’t go very far.

Editing speed is gained through familiarity and muscle memory. When you hire a top-notch feature editor, you aren’t hiring them for their software prowess. Instead, you are hiring them for their mind, ideas and creativity. As such, there is no benefit to one of these editors in changing to another piece of software, just because it’s the cool kid on the block. Most know how they need to manipulate the software tools so well, that thinking about what to do in the interface just disappears.

Change is attractive to new users, with no preconceived preferences. FCP X acolytes like to say how much easier it is to teach new users FCP X than a track-based system, like FCP 7, Premiere Pro or Media Composer. As someone who’s taught film student editing workshops, my opinion is that it simply isn’t true. It’s all in what you teach, how you teach it and what you expect them to accomplish. In fact, I’ve had many who are eager to learn Media Composer, precisely because they know that it continues to be the “gold standard” for feature film editing software.

There are some concrete reasons why film editors prefer Media Composer. For many, it’s because Avid was their first NLE and it felt logical to them. For others, it’s because Avid has historically incorporated a lot of user input into the product. Here are a dozen factors that I believe keep the equation in favor of Avid Media Composer.

1. Film metadata - At the start of the NLE area, Avid was an offline editing system, designed to do the creative cut electronically. The actual final cut for release was done by physically conforming (cutting) camera negative to match the rough cut. Avid built in tools to cut at 24fps and to track the metadata back to film for frame-accurate lists that went to the lab and the negative cutter. Although negative cutting is all but dead today, this core tracking of metadata benefits modern versions of Media Composer and is still applicable to file-based workflows.

2. Trimming - Avid editors rave about the trim mode in Media Composer. It continues to be the best there is and has been augmented by Smart Tools for FCP-style contextual timeline editing. Many editors spend a lot of time trimming and nothing matches Media Composer.

3. Logical layout - When Avid started out, they sought the direct input from many working editors and this helped the interface evolve into something totally logical. For example, the keyboard position of JKL (transport controls) or mark/clear/go-to in/out is based on hand positions when placed on the keyboard and not an arbitrary choice by a software designer. If you look at the default keyboard map in Media Composer, there are fewer layers than the other apps. I would argue that Media Composer’s inherent design makes more layers unnecessary. In fact, more layers become more confusing.

 4. Script integration – Early on, Avid’s designers looked at how an actual written script might be used within the software. This is completely different than simply attaching copied-and-pasted text to a clip. With Media Composer, you can set up the bin with the actual script pages and link clips to the text of the dialogue. This is included with the base software as a manual process, but if you want to automate the linking, then the optional ScriptSync add-on will lighten the load. A second dialogue-driven option, PhraseFind, is great for documentary filmmakers. Some editors never use these features, but those that do, wouldn’t want to work any other way.

5. Built-in effect tools - The editorial team on most features gets involved in creating temporary visual effects. These are placeholders and style ideas meant to help the director and others visualize the effects. Sometimes these are editorial tricks, like an invisible split screen to combine different takes. The actual, final effect is done by the visual effects compositors. Avid’s internal tools, however, allow a talented film editor or assistant editor, to temp in an effect at a very high quality level. While Media Composer is certainly not a finishing tool equal to Avid DS (now EOL’ed) or Autodesk Smoke, the internal tools surpass all other desktop offline editors. FCP X requires third-party plug-ins or Motion 5 and Premiere Pro CC requires After Effects. With Media Composer, you have built-in rotosplining, tracking, one of the better keyers, stabilization and more. All without leaving the primary editing interface.

6. Surround mixing – Often film editors will build their rough cut with LCR (left-center-right) or full 5.1 surround panning. This helps to give a better idea of the theatrical mix and preps a sequence for early screenings with a preview or focus group audience. Other systems let you work in surround, too, but none as easily as with Media Composer, assuming you have the right i/o hardware.

7. Project sharing – You simply cannot share the EXACT SAME project file among simultaneous, collaborative users with any other editing application in the same way as you can with Media Composer and Avid’s Unity or Isis shared storage networks. Not every user needs that and there are certainly functional alternatives for FCP and Premiere Pro, as well as Media Composer. For film editors, the beauty of the Avid approach, is that everyone on the team can be looking at the exact same project. When changes are made to a sequence for a scene and the associated bin is saved, that updated info ripples to everyone else’s view. Large films may have as many as 15 to 20 connected users, once you tally editors, assistants and visual effects editors. This function is hard to duplicate with any alternative software.

8. Cross-platform and easy authorization – Media Composer runs under both Mac OS X and Windows on a wide range of machines. This makes it easy for editors on location to shift between a desktop workstation and a laptop, which may be of differing OS platforms. In the past, software licensing was via a USB license key (dongle), but newer versions use software authorization to activate the application. The software may be installed on any number of machines, with one active and authorized at any given time. De-activation and re-activation only takes a few seconds if you are connected to the Internet.

9. Portability of projects and media – Thanks to Avid’s solid media management with internal media databases, it’s easy to move drives between machines with no linking issues. Keep a common and updated project file on two machines and you can easily move a media drive back and forth between them. The software will instantly find all the correct media when Media Composer is launched. In addition, Avid has held one of the best track records for project interchange among older and newer versions.

10. Interoperability with lists – Feature film workflows are all about “playing well with others”. This means industry-standard list formats, like EDLs, AAFs and OMFs. I wish Media Composer would also natively read and write XMLs, but that’s a moving target and generally not as widely accepted in the facilities that do studio-level work. The other standards are all there and built into the tools. So sending lists to a colorist or audio editor/mixer requires no special third-party software.

11. Flexible media architecture – Avid has moved forward from the days when it only handled proprietary Avid media formats. Thanks to AMA, many native camera file formats and QuickTime codecs are supported. Through a licensing deal with Apple, even ProRes is natively supported, including writing ProRes MXF files on Apple workstations. This gives Media Composer wider support for professional codecs than nearly every other editing application. On top of that, you still have Avid’s own DNxHD, one of the best compression schemes currently in professional film and video use.

12. Robust – In most cases, Media Composer is a rock-solid application, with minimal hiccups and crashes. Avid editors have become very used to reliability and will definitely pipe up when that doesn’t happen. Generally Avid editors do not experience the sorts of RAM leaks that seem to plaque other editing software.

For the sake of full disclosure, I am a member of one of the advisory councils that are part of the Avid Customer Association. Obviously, you might feel that this taints what I’ve written above. It does not.

I’ve edited with Avid software since the early 90s, but I’ve edited for years with other applications, too. Most of the last decade leading up to Apple’s launch of Final Cut Pro X was spent on FCP “legacy”. The last couple of years have been spent trying to work the kinks out of FCP X. I’ve cut feature films on Media Composer, FCP 4-7, FCP X and even a Sony BVE-9100. I take a critical view towards all of them and go with what is best for the project.

Even though I don’t use many of the Avid-specific features mentioned above, like ScriptSync, I do see the strengths and why other film editors wouldn’t want to use anything else. My main goal here was to answer the question I hear so often, which is, “Why do they still use Avid?” I hope I’ve been able to offer a few answers.

For some more thoughts, take a look at these videos about DigitalFilm Tree’s transition from FCP to Media Composer and Alan Bell’s approach to using Avid products for cutting films like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”.

©2014 Oliver Peters

DaVinci Resolve 10

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Last NAB, Blackmagic Design caused everyone to perk up when it touted Resolve 10 as an online editor. Once it was released, it became a bit more obvious that Resolve was still primarily a color corrector, but one that also added editing features. This latest update has been out for a number of months (including a lengthy public beta period) and gone through several updates. Resolve 10 was a free update for owners of previous versions. No short review can do this program justice, due to the depth of its toolset, but let’s take a quick dive into what it has to offer. (Click any image to enlarge.)

df_r10_10_smDaVinci Resolve 10 comes in several versions for Mac and Windows, including Resolve Lite (free), Resolve Software ($995) and Resolve ($29,995), which includes the custom Resolve control surface. There are also Linux configurations. All versions will only work with Blackmagic video devices for I/O and monitoring, but these are not required for operation. In addition to mouse, trackpad and tablet control, Tangent Devices (Wave, Elements), JL Cooper (Eclipse) and Avid Artist control panels may be used as lower cost alternatives to the Resolve control surface. The free Lite version is most likely the biggest software bang-for-the-buck in the industry, but you’ll need the paid version for blur and noise reduction, 3D stereoscopic work, support for more than two GPUs and output at sizes bigger that UltraHD.

New in Resolve 10

df_r10_2_smSince Resolve 10 was a pretty thorough overhaul of the Resolve 9 interface, there’s a lot new in terms of minor changes throughout the application. Many functions are more streamlined and logical and will make more sense to the new user. Editing is the biggest new addition and most of the typical functions are there, including various edit modes, tracks, effects, titles, speed changes, transitions and audio. Although I really can’t envision starting any edit from scratch in Resolve 10, it’s easier than ever to make editorial changes when the client has last minute adjustments in mind. The point is that this can now be achieved in the grading session, without having to go back into an edit bay.

df_r10_9_smA big addition is the integration of an effects architecture, using the OpenFX plug-in format. Various developers are tweaking their OpenFX filters for compatibility with Resolve 10, but already I’ve been able to test the FilmConvert film emulation plug-in. Filters are applied to clips or a complete track as a node, so there are no third-party transition effects. However, since Resolve can render the timeline as a single file or as individual source clips, this means that the rendered clips will also have the applied effects baked into the rendered media. The application of an OpenFX filter to a node will slow down render speeds.

Resolve 10 also gained the ability to create DCPs straight from the timeline for cinema masters. However this only preps the project settings and does not cover the licensing fees that you need for an actual DCP export.

Nodes

df_r10_6_smEvery color corrector takes a different approach for how to build up a series of color correction adjustments. Resolve uses nodes, which have become fairly sophisticated. Although, it’s not a true compositor’s node tree, it does start to approach that. Node types include serial, parallel, splitters, combiners and layer mixers. These let a colorist not only string together a series of adjustments (serial nodes), but also split and recombine a signal, and create parallel node paths that are combined for a final output. The layer mixer node includes composite modes, similar to those used in Photoshop. While a lot of Resolve demos got very deep into node trees that dissect every aspect of a shot, I tend to take a simpler approach, sticking to curves and lift/gamma/gain controls. Nevertheless, if you need that power, it’s there in Resolve 10.

Strengths

df_r10_4_smDaVinci Resolve 10 – even the free Lite version – represents an amazing level of versatility. For example, many editors and DITs use it to prep media for an edit. It’s super simple to apply LUTs to log-profile camera files and spit out edit-ready, adjusted source files. Resolve is one of the fastest renderers I’ve encountered and it handles cross-format conversions quite well. For example, it can render Avid-compliant MXF media, which is relatively uncommon. The scaling function is second to none. After Effects used to be my preferred tool for upscaling images, but I’ve found that Resolve is even better. Not only is the quality great, but you have control over the smoothness or crispness of the scaled image.

df_r10_5_smYou can’t talk about Resolve without mentioning the tracker. If you apply a “power window” to a portion of a shot (like a person’s face), you need to track the movement. The tracker in Resolve is a very fast, point-cloud style tracker. These tracks are almost always dead-on, so you never think twice about using the tracker. One the things I especially like about Resolve is the image quality and processing. It uses 32-bit floating math. Essentially this means that you can crank up video in one node – even past the point of clipping – and then pull it back down (recovering detail without a clip) in the next node.

Weaknesses

User interfaces are a very subjective issue in color correction tools, just like they are for editing software. I find this to be a weakness, because I work with a dual-display system. With Resolve you can’t place the viewer on the secondary monitor, like you can with Adobe SpeedGrade CC or Apple Color. You can place the video scopes and the new audio mixer there, but the viewer is locked to the primary screen. If you use the enhanced viewer mode, it hides the node tree. This tends to make operation awkward if you don’t have a control surface nor an external broadcast monitor.

df_r10_3_smThe depth of Resolve’s color correction toolkit is amazing, but it’s almost too much. For example, you have both wheels and sliders for primary control. That makes it very adaptive to different working styles, but it also makes it easy to lose track of which tool you used to make adjustments. Some things don’t make sense to me. For instance, the maximum saturation level isn’t all that large and if you really want a shot dripping with chroma, it takes several serial nodes to do that.

A personal peeve, since I use dual 20” screens, is that something broke between Resolve 9 and Resolve 10. The earliest version of Resolve on the Mac was optimized for 1920×1080 screens (or larger), but then this was subsequently corrected for smaller resolutions, like laptops and the 20” Apple Cinemas. Apparently this has reverted a little with the latest version. With Resolve 9, the interface opened and was correctly scaled for the 20” display. With Resolve 10, the interface opens with the right edge running off the screen. You have to click the green “plus” button (one of the top three buttons in every Mac OS X window) to resize the window to fit the display.

Roundtrips with your editor

df_r10_8_smDaVinci Resolve 10 has the broadest support for roundtrips of any color correction tool, translating XML (Final Cut Pro 7 and Premiere Pro), FCPXML (Final Cut Pro X), EDL and AAF (Avid) list formats. This is a bi-directional roundtrip, so you can import sequences from your NLE into Resolve 10, but then also export NLE-compatible lists that properly relink to the rendered media. When Final Cut Pro X version 10.1 was released, compatibility was broken, but that’s recently been fixed with the latest updates from each company. However, it’s still not quite perfect. I tried two very simple sequences of a few shots each. One sequence used 1920×1080 ProRes HQ files from a Blackmagic Cinema Camera. The other used native, camera raw files from a RED EPIC (various sizes and frame rates). Both sequences were cut in FCP X and the FCPXML from each imported without issue into Resolve 10.

df_r10_7_smGoing the other way, back into FCP X, did present some issues. Both of the new FCPXMLs that were imported into FCP X reported error messages, although the clips and sequences imported correctly. The 1920×1080 files from the BMCC were fine. The EPIC files, which had been resized in the original FCP X timeline, were all interpreted by FCP X as 1280×720, even though Resolve 10 had correctly rendered the media as 1920×1080. These same timelines imported fine into Premiere Pro using standard XMLs.

Final thoughts

DaVinci Resolve 10 is currently the most popular color correction tool, largely because of the free version. It is powerful, though at times I feel that the correction tends to be a little harsher than with other grading applications. The interface could stand to be even more streamlined. Nevertheless, I’ve done grades that required extensive correction, which would have been impossible to achieve in any other color correction application.

It’s an essential tool that functions like a “Swiss Army knife” and as such, you owe it to yourself to spend some time learning it. The manual, written by noted colorist and author Alexis Van Hurkman, is easy to follow. Training resources include online tutorials at Color Grading Central, Ripple Training, Tao of Color and Mixing Light.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative PlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters