NLE Tips – Week 1

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Avid Media Composer Pointers

Getting better results out of your editing experience means learning a few useful tricks. For the next few posts, I’ll offer some suggestions intended to improve your efficiency on several popular editing applications. This first post covers three quick tips with Avid Media Composer. (Click images for an expanded view.)

Film strips

df_nle1_3_smOne of the features of Apple’s FCP X that I really like is the way the selected clip is displayed when the “event” browser (bin) is set to the list view. The selected clip is shown at the top of the browser window as a film strip covering the length of that clip. This makes it very easy to look at the strip and identify at a glance that the shot starts as a wide and zooms to a close-up. The Avid frame view won’t give you such information without scrubbing. But did you know there’s a similar film strip solution in Media Composer?

Most editors are used to double-clicking a clip in a bin to load it into the source viewer. For many, it’s a habit that ignores another approach. When selecting a clip in a bin, simply hit the enter key to load it into the viewer. No need to click or double-click. That’s the first step in this tip.

df_nle1_2_smThe Avid timeline window always loads two timelines – the edited sequence and the source. You can toggle between source and edit timelines with a keystroke. The timeline window can also be set to display a “film” video track. When doing so, you get a film strip view of the entire timeline. When you view the source side of the timeline window, the result is a film strip display of the entire source clip. By leaving the timeline window toggled to the source view with the film track enabled, you can quickly go through your bin selections using the enter key and checking out the clip in this film strip display. This will give you a fast way to review your footage with minimal scrubbing and clicking.

The Find menu

df_nle1_4_smWhen you call up the Media Composer Find menu (cmd-F on a Mac), you get several search options, including Phrase Find, if you’ve purchased that option and have indexed the audio files. Find works with more than Phrase Find, though. It can search for clips across all bins, but it also allows you to search for any text in locators (markers). If you’ve placed locators in your sequence and labelled these with text info, simply type the text into the Find menu search field, click the Find button and your play head will jump to that locator in the timeline.

Master bus

df_nle1_5_smWith Media Composer 7, Avid has added a master bus to the audio mixer panel. Aside from controlling overall levels, this bus will also accept real-time audio plug-ins from Media Composer’s standard set (RTAS) or from compatible third-party audio filters. I often will add a basic compressor/limiter to my mixes and with the new master bus, Avid has given me an ideal place for it.

Some additional Media Composer tips here and here.

If you are serious about your Media Composer chops, here are three great books that will help you up your game.

Avid Uncut: Workflows, Tips, and Techniques from Hollywood Pros (Steve Hullfish)

Avid Agility: Working Faster and More Intuitively with Avid Media Composer, Third Edition (Steven Cohen)

Avid Media Composer 6.x Cookbook  (Ben Hershleder)

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©2014 Oliver Peters

Comparing Final Cut Pro X, Media Composer and Premiere Pro CC

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The editing world includes a number of software options, such as Autodesk Smoke, Grass Valley EDIUS, Lightworks, Media 100, Sony Vegas and Quantel. The lion’s share of editing is done on three platforms: Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere Pro. For the last two years many users have been holding onto legacy systems, wondering when the dust would settle and which editing tool would become dominant again. By the end of 2013, these three companies released significant updates that give users a good idea of their future direction and has many zeroing in on a selection.

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Differing business models

Adobe, Apple and Avid have three distinctly different approaches. Adobe and Avid offer cross-platform solutions, while Final Cut Pro X only works on Apple hardware. Adobe offers most of its content creation software only through a Creative Cloud subscription. Individual users have access to all creative applications for $49.99 a month (not including promotional deals), but when they quit subscribing, the applications cease to function after a grace period. Users may install the software on as many computers as they like (Mac or PC), but only two can be activated at any time.

Apple’s software sells through the Mac App Store. Final Cut Pro X is $299.99 with another $49.99 each for Motion and Compressor. Individual users may install and use these applications on any Mac computers they own, but enterprise users are supposed to purchase volume licenses to cover one installation per computer. With the release of FCP X 10.1, it appears that Apple is offering updates at no charge, meaning that once you buy Final Cut, you never pay for updates. Whether that continues as the official Apple policy from here on is unknown. FCP X uses a special version of XML for timeline interchange with other applications, so if you need to send material via EDL, OMF or AAF – or even interchange with previous versions of Final Cut Pro – you will need to augment FCP X with a variety of third-party utilities.

Avid Media Composer remains the only one of the three that follows a traditional software ownership model. You purchase, download and install the software and activate the license. You may install it on numerous Macs and PCs, but only one at a time can be activated. The software bundle runs $999 and includes Media Composer, several Avid utilities, Sorenson Squeeze, Avid FX from BorisFX and AvidDVD by Sonic. You can expand your system with three extra software options: Symphony (advanced color correction), ScriptSync (automated audio-to-script alignment) and PhraseFind (a dialogue search tool). The Symphony option also includes the Boris Continuum Complete filters.

Thanks to Avid’s installation and activation process, Media Composer is the most transportable of the three. Simply carry Mac and Windows installers on a USB key along with your activation codes. It’s as simple as installing the software and activating the license, as long as any other installations have been de-activated prior to that. While technically the FCP X application could be moved between machines, it requires that the new machine be authorized as part of a valid Apple ID account. This is often frowned upon in corporate environments. Similarly, you can activate a new machine as one of yours on a Creative Cloud account (as long as you’ve signed out on the other machines), but the software must be downloaded again to this local machine. No USB key installers here.

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Dealing with formats

All three applications are good at handling a variety of source media codecs, frame rates and sizes. In some cases, like RED camera files, plug-ins need to be installed and kept current. Both Apple and Avid will directly handle some camera formats without conversion, but each uses a preferred codec – ProRes for Final Cut Pro X and DNxHD for Media Composer. If you want the most fluid editing experience, then transcode to an optimized codec within the application.

Adobe hasn’t developed its own mezzanine codec. In fact, Premiere Pro CC has no built-in transcoding tools, leaving that instead to Adobe Prelude or Adobe Media Encoder. By design, the editor imports files in their native format without transcoding or rewrapping and works with those directly in the sequence. A mix of various formats, frame rates, codecs and sizes doesn’t always play as smoothly on a single timeline as would optimized media, like DNxHD or ProRes; but, my experience is that of these three, Premiere Pro CC handles such a mix the best.

Most of us work with HD (or even SD) deliverables, but higher resolutions (2K, UHD, 4K) are around the corner. All three NLEs handle bigger-than-HD formats as source media without much difficulty. I’ve tested the latest RED EPIC Dragon 6K camera files in all three applications and they handle the format well. Both Adobe and Apple can output bigger sequence sizes, too, such as 2K and 4K. For now, Avid Media Composer is still limited to HD (1920 x 1080 maximum) sequences and output sizes. Here are some key features of the most recent updates.

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Adobe Premiere Pro CC (version 7.2.1)

The current build of Premiere Pro CC was released towards the end of 2013. Adobe has been enhancing editing features with each new update, but two big selling points of this version are Adobe Anywhere integration and Direct Link between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC. Anywhere requires a shared server for collaborative workflows and isn’t applicable to most users who don’t have an Anywhere infrastructure in place. Nevertheless, this adds the client-side application integration, so those who do, can connect, sign in and work.

df_nle_7_smOf more interest is Direct Link, which sends the complete Premiere Pro CC timeline into SpeedGrade CC for color correction. Since you are working directly with the Premiere Pro timeline, SpeedGrade functions with a subset of its usual controls. Operations, like conforming media to an EDL, are inactive. Direct Link facilitates the use of various compressed codecs that SpeedGrade wouldn’t normally handle by itself, since this is being taken care of by Premiere Pro’s media engine. When you’ve completed color correction, the saved timeline is sent back to Premiere Pro. Each clip has an applied Lumetri filter that contains grading information from SpeedGrade. The roundtrip is achieved without any intermediate rendering.

df_nle_6_smThis solution is a good first effort, but I find that the response of SpeedGrade’s controls via Direct Link are noticeably slower than working directly in a SpeedGrade project. That must be a result of Premiere Pro working in the background. Clips in Premiere Pro with applied Lumetri effects also require more resources to play well and rendering definitely helps. The color roundtrip results were good in my tests, with the exception of any clips that used a filter layer with a LUT. These displayed with bizarre colors back in Premiere Pro.

You can’t talk about Premiere Pro without addressing Creative Cloud. I still view this as a “work in progress”. For instance, you are supposed to be able to sync files between your local drive and the Cloud, much like DropBox. Even though everything is current on my Mac Pro, that tab in the Creative Cloud application still says “coming soon”. Others report that it’s working for them.

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Apple Final Cut Pro X (version 10.1)

This update is the tipping point for many FCP 7 users. Enough updates have been released in over two years to address many of the concerns professional editors have expressed. 10.1 requires an operating system update to Mavericks (10.9 or later) and has three marquee items – a revised media structure, optimization for 4K and overall better performance. It is clear that Apple is not about to change the inherent design of FCP X. This means no tracks and no changes to the magnetic timeline. As with any update, there are plenty of small tweaks, including enhanced retiming, audio fades on individual channels, improved split edits and a new InertiaCam stabilization algorithm.

df_nle_9_smThe most obvious change is the move from separate Events and Projects folders to unified Libraries, similar to Aperture. Think of a Library as the equivalent to a Final Cut Pro 7 or Premiere Pro CC project file, containing all data for clips and sequences associated with a production. An FCP X Library as viewed in the Finder is a bundled file, which can be opened using the “show package contents” Finder command. This reveals internal folders and files for Events, Projects and aliases linked to external media files. Imported files that are optionally copied into a Library are also contained there, as are rendered and transcoded files. The Libraries no longer need to live at the root of a hard drive and can be created for individual productions. Editors may open and close any or all of the Libraries needed for an edit session.

df_nle_8_smFCP X’s performance was optimized for Mavericks, the new Mac Pro and dual GPU processing. By design, this means improved 4K throughput, including native 4K support for ProRes, Sony XAVC and REDCODE camera raw media files. This performance boost has also filtered down to older machines. 10.1 brought better performance with 1080p ProRes and even 5K RED files to my 2009 Mac Pro. Clearly Apple wants FCP X to be a showcase for the power of the new Mac Pro, but you’ll get benefits from this update, even if you aren’t ready to leap to new hardware.

Along with Final Cut Pro X 10.1, Apple also released updates to Motion and Compressor. The Motion update was necessary to integrate the new FxPlug3 architecture, which enables developers to add custom interface controls. Compressor was the biggest change, with a complete overhaul of the interface in line with the look of FCP X.

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Avid Media Composer (version 7.0.3)

The biggest feature of Media Composer 7.0.3 is optimization for new operating systems. It is qualified for Windows 8.1 and Mac OS X 10.8.5, 10.9 and 10.9.1. There are a number of interface changes, including separate audio and video effects palette tabs and changing the appearance of background processing indicator icons. 24fps sound timecode is now supported, the responsiveness with the Avid Artist Color Controller has been improved and the ability to export a simplified AAF file has been  added.

df_nle_10_smTranscode choices gain a set of H.264 proxy file codecs. These had been used in other Avid news and broadcast tools, but are now extended into Media Composer. Support for RED was updated to handle the RED Dragon format. With the earlier introduction of 7.0, Avid added background transcoding services and FrameFlex – Avid’s solution for bigger-than-HD files. FrameFlex enables resizing and pan/scan/zoom control within that file’s native resolution. Media Composer also accepts mixed frame rates within a single timeline, by applying Motion Adapters to any clip that doesn’t match the frame rate of the project. 7.0.3 improves control over the frame blending method to give the editor a better choice between temporal or spatial smoothness.

There is no clear winner among these three. If you are on Windows, then the choice is between Adobe and Avid. If you need 4K output today, Apple or Adobe are your best option. All three handle a wide range of popular camera formats well – especially RED. If you like tracks – go Avid or Adobe. If you want the best application for the new Mac Pro, that will clearly be Apple Final cut Pro X. These are all great tools, capable of any level of post production – be it commercial, corporate, web, broadcast entertainment or feature films. If you’ve been on the fence for two years, now is the time to switch, because there are no bad tools – only preferences.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Lone Survivor

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The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have already spawned a number of outstanding films, but one that is bound to set the bar higher is the recently-released Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg as US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. In early screenings, a number of critics have already compared the film favorably with Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down.

df_ls_06Skip ahead a paragraph if you are concerned about spoilers. The story is based on Luttrell’s best-selling memoir by the same name. It focuses on the failed 2005 Operation Red Wings in which a four-man SEAL team that included Luttrell was sent to retrieve an Al Queda-aligned Taliban leader. Their position was discovered by local shepherds and the SEALs had to decide whether to let them go or kill them. After a unit discussion, the locals were released, which presumably compromised the SEAL unit’s position. Finding themselves surrounded and outnumbered, a firefight ensued. A helicopter sent to extract the team was shot down resulting in the deaths of sixteen, including SEAL and Army special operations units. In the fight, Luttrell’s three teammates were also killed. The story continues with the unusual circumstances that led to his survival through the help of local tribesmen and subsequent rescue. The team leader, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on that day.

Making this film was entrusted to writer/director Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock, The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights). For the edit, Berg tapped Colby Parker, Jr., who has cut seven films with Berg. Parker works on a mix of films, music videos and commercials. In fact, he first met Berg doing a Limp Bizkit music video. For commercials, Parker works out of LA’s Rock Paper Scissors editorial company, also home to Academy Award-winning editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network).

df_ls_07I recently spoke with Parker about his experiences on Lone Survivor. Parker explained, “While we were working on Hancock, Peter brought in Marcus and introduced him. We were going to go full speed into Lone Survivor, but then Battleship came up first, so that had to be put on the back burner. After Battleship, it was back to Lone Survivor, but Peter had to find independent financing for it. He had to work really hard to make it happen. Peter has a great affection for three things – his son, football and the military. His father was a Navy historian, so this was a passion project for him.”

Marcus Luttrell was instrumental in the film staying technically accurate. Parker continues, “Marcus was involved in approving the locations, as well as the edit. In a typical war movie, you see a lot of yelling in a battle as commands are issued back and forth. That’s completely different from how the SEALs operate. They are very disciplined units and each member knows what each person’s role is and where there should be. Communication is often silent through signals and there’s a lot of flanking. The SEALs call it ‘water through trees’. The SEALs tend to shoot sparsely and then wait for a response, so the enemy will reveal their position. I had to recut some scenes, to minimize the yelling that wasn’t correctly portrayed.”

df_ls_05Lone Survivor involved a 44-day shoot in New Mexico, where the mountains were a sufficient substitute for Afghanistan. Tobias Schliessler (The Fifth Estate, Hancock) was the director of photography, working with RED cameras. According to Parker, they watched a lot of other war films for the right frame of mind. He explained, “As a reference for how the environment should look, the guideline was the documentary Restrepo about the Afghanistan war. This was his basis for sky, lighting and terrain.”

Editing took about six months. Parker said, “Peter likes to shoot with three cameras all the time, so there’s a lot of coverage. I edit while they are shooting, but I wasn’t on location. I like to blast through the footage to keep up with the camera. This way I can let Peter know if any extra coverage is needed. Often I’ll get word to the 1st AD and he’ll sneak in extra shots if the schedule permits. Although I will have a first assembly when the production wraps, Peter will never sit though a complete viewing of that. He works in a very linear manner, so as we start to view a scene, if there’s something that bothers him, we’ll stop and address it. My first cut was about two-and-a-half hours and the final length came in at two hours.”

df_ls_03Parker continued, “There were a number of scenes that paced well when we intercut them, rather than let them play as written in a linear fashion. For instance, we wanted to let the mission briefing scene play normally. This is where the SEAL team is briefed on their target.  That scene was followed by a scene of the target beheading a local. However, we realized that an actual briefing is very technical and rote – so intercutting these scenes helped keep the audience engaged.” In a film that is intended to accurately portray the frenetic events and chaos of a battle, continuity becomes a challenge for the editor. Parker explained, “In some of the key scenes, the cameras would be on the stars for their takes and then would be turned around to cover the side of the scene showing the Taliban. It was always an issue of matching the energy.”

df_ls_04“I purposefully wanted to make the battlefield clear for the audience. I didn’t want it to be a messy confusing battle. I wanted the audience to experience exactly what the SEALs felt, which was the Taliban closing in on them. I slowed down the pacing so the audience could really track the scene. I’ve had people tell me after screenings that they appreciated the way the first battle is presented, because they’re never lost or confused. In the key scene, where the seal team is debating about what to do with the goat herders, there was a lot of improvisation and a lot of coverage. There was so much strong footage that it was overwhelming. I ended up transcribing every line of dialogue to index cards, then I would lay them on the floor and edit the scene together with these cards.”

Another struggle was how much violence to show. Parker continued, “During the battle, there are scenes with long falls and jumps down the mountainside as the SEALS are looking for cover. These were very brutal visually and I had to be conscious of whether I was getting desensitized to the brutality and needed to dial it back some. One scene that I fought hard to keep in the way I’d cut it, was when Marcus breaks his leg. There’s a bone sticking out through the skin and he has to push it back in. Some folks thought that showing this was just too much, because it was too gruesome. That’s obviously extremely painful, but it’s accurate to what happened and tells a lot about what sort of people become SEALs. I’m glad it stayed in.”

df_ls_02Visual effects played a large role in making Lone Survivor. Image Engine Design (Elysium, Zero Dark Thirty, District 9) in Vancouver handled the majority of effects. The Chinook helicopter crash sequence was completed by ILM. Parker said, “There were a lot of practical visual effects done on location, but these were augmented by Image Engine. The crew did trek up into the upper mountains in New Mexico into some difficult places, so that created a realistic starting point. Muzzle flashes were added or enhanced and mountains were added to some backgrounds. The sets of the villages were only one or two huts and then Image Engine built everything around those. Same for the SEAL base. There were only a few real buildings and from that, they built out a larger base.”

Sound was also a key part of the experience. Parker explained, “Wylie Stateman (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds) was the supervising sound editor and working with him was very inspiring. He uses a lot of foley, rather than canned effects, and was able to build up a whole sound design ‘language’ for the environment of each scene. It was very collaborative. Wylie and I would discuss our ideas and massage edits to make the sound design more effective.”

The editorial department was set up with four Avid Media Composer systems connected via Unity shared storage. Parker is a big proponent of Avid. He said, “I strictly cut on Avid, but I like some of the improvements they made, thanks for the pressure put on them by Final Cut Pro. This includes some of the timeline-based editing changes, like the ability to copy and paste within the timeline.” The final DI and color grading was handled by Company 3 in Los Angeles.

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

 

American Hustle

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Hot off of his success with Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell is back with the year-end release of American Hustle. The film (co-written with Eric Singer) was inspired by the true life FBI ABSCAM sting operation of the late 1970s. It tells the story of how FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) recruits con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to pull the sting off. While the film builds on many of the facts of the actual events, Russell chose to make this a work of fiction to allow himself to infuse the characters with his usual unconstrained depth and richness. It’s not as much about politicians who take bribes, but rather about the personalities who develop the con that’s at the heart of the sting operation.

I interviewed Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten, American Hustle’s editing trio, at the beginning of November – just a few days after the cut was locked. Jay Cassidy pointed out the compressed time frame they were under. He explained, “American Hustle had a longer shoot and shorter post schedule than David’s usual films. This project was always intended as coming straight on the heels of Silver Linings Playbook, which Crispin and I had both worked on. In fact, we read through the first draft of the script while still cutting Silver Linings. Thanks to the awards season and the success of that film, the transition into this film became more compressed with less prep. However, the actors that David wanted for American Hustle were scheduled, so if the film was to be made this year with this cast, then the production company had to move forward. They started shooting in mid-March and wrapped in mid-May after a 42-day shoot schedule. We’ve been in post since then. I started at the beginning of principal photography, Crispin came on board four weeks later and Alan six weeks later.”

df_ah_06This accelerated schedule with a December release target was facilitated by the post production sound team getting an early jump on things.  Headed up by sound editor/re-recording mixer John Ross, dialogue clean-up, sound design and music editing had already been happening throughout the period from May until November. Therefore, it wasn’t a matter of starting final sound editing and mixing from scratch, once the cut was finally locked in November.

 Bucking the digital trend, Russell shot American Hustle on film. Cassidy explained, “David likes to shoot 2-perf 35mm. Film was the right look for this drama and 2-perf gives him 22-minute runs on the camera. This means he can keep rolling with fewer stops, so he gets longer production time before the magazine needs to be reloaded. Although, film’s days are definitely numbered. We used Fuji stock and during the filming were informed by Fuji that they were discontinuing film manufacturing. Of course, they did reassure us that there would be enough negative stock available for us to complete the film without any worries!” Deluxe Labs in New York handled film processing. Company 3 in New York transferred the film for dailies and then delivered digital files to the editing team on hard drives for editing.

df_ah_02Struthers continued, “David likes to dive right into post after production. We don’t watch a first assembly of the full movie as with many other directors. We tend to cut individual scenes and then David reviews those and works with us to build the scenes moment by moment. David is very confident about the editing process, so he’s covered himself in order to have options. He likes to shoot the performances with different ‘calibrations’ to the actors’ emotions to give himself choices in the cutting room.”

Cassidy added, “With David, we’ve all learned that you can’t presume to know which is the best version of an actor’s performance, because of the context around it. It’s usually better to take a scene with three variations to the performance and cut three versions of the scene. This gives David a good starting point with the dialogue and lets him see how the options work.”

df_ah_05Editors often face creative challenges from a film’s length or structure and American Hustle was no exception. Baumgarten explained, “We used a pattern of parallel and overlapping action to condense the film. Rather than drop whole scenes, we found that many of the important story points from those scenes could be preserved by inserting pieces of them into other scenes. This let us tell a more succinct and better story, plus frame the information into a context that makes sense for the audience. Once we did that on a few scenes and saw that it worked well for this film, we decided to find other sections where we could use the same pattern.”

df_ah_03Visual effects were handled in a unique fashion. Cassidy said, “This film has a surprising number of effects, including green screen composites and period fixes. Also the characters wear sunglasses. Many of those shots ended up needing some touch-up to remove unwanted reflections. The production company set up an in-house team and hired the compositors to do most of the effects. They were divided up into two groups, running [Adobe] After Effects and [The Foundry’s] Nuke software. This proved to be very cost-effective, because they handled both temp effects for screenings, as well as final effects. Towards the end, some of the more time-consuming or complex shots were sent to outside vendors, but the bulk of the work was done in-house. We had quicker turnaround for effects, because the compositors were right next door. It was a very interactive process. You could ask for an effect in the morning and have it by the end of the day.”

df_ah_04American Hustle was edited using Avid Media Composer systems connected to an Avid ISIS shared storage network. There were seven Avid systems in the cutting rooms for editors and assistants, one for visual effects, and one in the mix stage. John Ross also used Avid Pro Tools connected with the video satellite system. Cassidy offered his take on the technology side, “It was great working with the ISIS system. It’s Ethernet-based, so this makes it easy to add on more machines, as needed – like my laptop for editing. We were cutting with version 6.5.3 of the Media Composer software and I really like the improvements Avid made. For example, the ability to copy-and-paste audio keyframes and the new ‘select-to-the-right’ function without also grabbing timeline filler media.”

Jay Cassidy concluded, “I’m a big proponent of [Avid] Script Sync. Our first assistant, Mike Azevedo did a great job getting this all loaded and organized. Script Sync was a real time-saver on this film. Sometimes the media was organized by the script and sometimes we had to use transcriptions. There was a lot of coverage on the film mags and this was often not in scene order, but rather, all over the reel. Using Script Sync made it possible to have all of the performances grouped together by the dialogue lines of the scene. In the past, David had been used to the little bit of time it might take to find some of the coverage when he’d ask for alternates. With Script Sync it was all right there, so David could be assured that he had truly seen all of the available coverage for a scene.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer 7

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Avid continues to be the dominant force in television and film editing in spite of being challenged by strong offerings from Apple, Adobe, Grass Valley and others. While it’s not always the flashiest product, Avid’s flagship Media Composer editing application delivers the toolset that professional editors rely on to be productive. Version 7.0 is no exception. Along with new features, it has been reduced in price to $999 and the big brother Symphony is now available as a $1499 add-on. Other options include Script Sync and PhraseFind.

Media Composer has traditionally ingested media and converted it into a native Avid format, but media handling has been undergoing big improvements. This started to change with the introduction of Avid Media Access a few versions ago. AMA is an architecture to directly link to native camera formats without conversion. With Media Composer 7, AMA takes a big leap forward, with linked files becoming Avid-managed media, just like Avid’s internal MXF files. When files are imported using AMA, a folder is created on the user’s hard drive with database information and small AAF files that point to the location of the actual media. Media Composer will track the AMA files, just like it does with its own MXF folders. This makes direct editing with AMA-linked files more solid than in earlier versions.

df_avidmc7_3Depending on the installed AMA plug-ins, Media Composer 7 supports a wide variety of native camera formats, including media from RED, ARRI, Canon, Sony and Panasonic cameras. Media that already matches native codecs, including DNxHD, XDCAM, ProRes, AVC-Intra and others, will “fast import”. That means files are only copied and rewrapped without alteration. Files that don’t match are transcoded on import, thus changing the video “essence”, such as the codec type. In short, there are three ways to bring in files: traditional import, AMA-linking (direct access to the files) or transcoding AMA files into MXF media.

New Features: background services and high-resolution formats

df_avidmc7_4One big new feature is the ability to transcode in the background, with the introduction of Background Services. When you opt to transcode AMA files, you can choose to run that in the background and set a priority level for these background services. This enables the editor to continue working without this operation holding up the system. Naturally, the speed of transcoding will depend on what else the computer is tasked with at any given time and the priority level assigned. When the computer is only engaged in the transcode function, the conversion occurs in less than the total running time of the footage (as tested on my 8-core Mac Pro). Foreground transcoding is even faster, but you can’t do any other work. Media Composer 7 gives you that option depending on your workflow needs.

Another background service is Dynamic Media Folders. This is a watch folder system that allows you to copy, transcode or consolidate media in the background. Depending on the rules you set up, the DMF Service can run whether or not Media Composer is running. It can be set to perform several functions, once you copy files into a designated folder. This can be as small of an action as setting up files for AMA linking or can include transcoding to a predetermined codec.

df_avidmc7_6Until now, Media Composer was locked to SD and HD video frame sizes and didn’t offer any source-side editing capabilities. Media Composer 7 is the first version to change that. The FrameFlex feature enables the use of video sources that are larger than HD is size without loss of resolution. These files are automatically resized when edited into an SD or HD sequence. Each clip can be opened as an effect with the ability to control frame size and position within the SD or HD raster. These positions can be keyframed and animated, allowing new creative options, like zooming from a wide to a close-up within a 4K RED frame. Along with reformatting options, this new source capability includes added color management within Media Composer. This enables the application of LUTs (look-up tables) for camera sources using log-style gamma encoding.df_avidmc7_5

User enhancements, new filters and more

There are a number of user enhancements throughout, including spanned markers (markers that have duration values), a master fader on the mixer and mini-faders that pop-up to adjust clip levels directly on the timeline. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned in many of the reviews, is that Avid has added a “starter pack” of filters from NewBlueFX, as well as their titler (in addition to the venerable Title Tool and Marquee). NewBlueFX’s Titler Pro v1 is a more modern titler than anything Avid has offered in the past, but it’s curious that Avid didn’t include one of its own graphics products, like Deko.

df_avidmc7_9The Media Composer package still includes AvidFX 6.3 (an OEM’ed version of  Boris RED), Sorenson Squeeze 8.5 and Avid DVD. All are cross-platform, except Avid DVD, which is Windows-only. The Boris Continuum Complete filter set is included with the Symphony option, but many of these filters, as well as the Final Effects Complete filters, are installed with AvidFX and can be applied through its interface within Media Composer.

The Symphony option adds a few more color correction controls, along with relational grading (correction by source, tape or clip) and program-level grading (adding a second level of correction to all or part of a timeline). Although Symphony is still powerful for most TV show finishing needs, it does not offer the level of grading power of DaVinci Resolve Lite (free), nor of FilmLight’s Baselight Editions plug-in ($1000). Its main selling point is an integrated workflow and the fact that the BCC filter set is included.

Media Composer in actual use

df_avidmc7_7Boxed editions are gone in favor of software downloads, but a single purchase authorizes you for both PC and Mac versions. With the flak Adobe has been receiving over its Creative Cloud subscription model, software ownership of Media Composer may be a big point of interest for many. Installation of Media Composer 7 is easy and straightforward. The license is activated and de-activated over the Internet, so for users who need to move back-and-forth among different machines can do so with a single license (only one running at any time). Without activation, the software runs in a fully-functioning 30-day trial mode. Avid has historically been good about backwards compatibility of projects and bins, but Media Composer 7 is only backwards-compatible to several earlier versions, due to changes in the data structure of the bins. These include Media Composer maintenance release versions 5.5.3.7, 6.0.4 and 6.5.3.

A few persistent issues are still there. A minority of users (including several of the systems I operate) have an unknown conflict with networking (usually for Internet access). In my case, the launch hangs for a long time on the “Initializing Avid Media Access Volume Manager” splash screen. Sometimes it takes several minutes for the application to respond and complete the launch. When done, there is no other problem with any editing operation. This issue also affects the new background transcoding on my Mac Pro, causing a clip that is a few seconds long to require several minutes to transcode. If this applies to you, one suggested workaround is to momentarily unplug your network Ethernet cable or turn off the wireless during launch or background transcoding.

df_avidmc7_8Avid is compatible with third-party I/O cards from AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, Bluefish and MOTU. General performance with these is fine, with the exception of the trim mode. If you have one of these cards, trimming clips in the trim mode is slow. Turn off your card and the response improves, but still not as good as when you run in a software-only configuration. Likewise, when you work in the color correction mode, any parameter changes are relatively slow to update on screen. I have also had a few conflicts with third-party plug-ins, like Digital Film Tools’ Film Stocks.

With the introduction of Media Composer 7, Avid has taken an evolutionary, but not revolutionary step. In the year when 4K is the buzz – and all of their competitors can edit with native 4K sequences – Avid has only taken the first step in dealing with bigger-than-HD sizes. In their defense, Avid is trying to solve the issues of today for its users and not the potential issues of tomorrow. The vast majority of Media Composer editors aren’t – and probably won’t – use this tool to finish 4K masters. Media Composer is designed for the broadcast and/or film editor who needs a workhorse editing application or a great offline editor for feature films. In high-pressure, collaborative environments, no other single NLE is as proven as Media Composer. If you need an NLE that you can count on to deliver, then Avid Media Composer 7 still fits the bill. As those infamous car analogies go, it might not be a sports car, but it’s a heck of a fine truck.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

The East

df_east_1Director Zal Batmanglij’s The East caught the buzz at Sundance and SXSW. It was produced by Scott Free Productions with Fox Searchlight Pictures. Not bad for the young director’s sophomore outing. The film takes its name from The East, a group of eco-terrorists and anarchists led by Benji, who is played by Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood). The group engages in “jams” – their term for activist attacks on corporations, which they tape and put out on the web. Sarah, played by Brit Marling (Arbitrage), is a corporate espionage specialist who is hired to infiltrate the group. In that process, she comes to sympathize with the group’s ideals, if not its violent tactics. She finds herself both questioning her allegiances and is falling in love with Benji. Marling also co-wrote the screenplay with Batmanglij.

In addition to a thriller plot, the film’s production also had some interesting twists along the way to completion. First, it was shot with an ARRI ALEXA, but unlike most films that use the ALEXA, the recording was done as ProRes4444 to the onboard SxS cards, instead of ARRIRAW to an external recorder. That will make it one of the few films to date in mainstream release to do so. ProRes dailies were converted into color-adjusted Avid DNxHD media for editing.

Second, the film went through a change of editors due to prior commitments. After the production wrapped and a first assembly of the film was completed, Andrew Weisblum (Moonrise Kingdom, Black Swan) joined the team to cut the film. Weisblum’s availability was limited to four months, though, since he was already committed to editing Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. At that stage, Bill Pankow (The Black Dahlia, Carlito’s Way) picked up for Weisblum and carried the film through to completion.

df_east_2Andrew Weisblum explained, “When I saw the assembly of The East, I really felt like there was a good story, but I had already committed to cut Noah. I wasn’t quite sure how much could be done in the four months that I had, but left the film at what we all thought was a cut that was close to completion. It was about 80% done and we’d had an initial preview. Bill [Pankow] was a friend, so I asked if he would pick it up for me there, assuming that the rest would be mainly just a matter of tightening up the film. But it turned out to be more involved than that.”

Bill Pankow continued, “I came on board June of last year and took the picture through to the locked cut and the mix in November. After that first screening, everyone felt that the ending needed some work. The final scene between the main characters wasn’t working in the way Zal and Brit had originally expected. They decided to change some things to serve the drama better and to resolve the relationship of the main characters. This required shooting additional footage, as well as reworking some of the other scenes. At that point we took a short hiatus while Zal and Brit  rewrote and reshot the last scene. Then another preview and we were able to lock the cut.”

df_east_3Like nearly all films, The East took on a life of its own in the cutting room. According to Weisblum, “The film changed in the edit from the script. Some of what I did in the cut was to bring in more tension and mystery in the beginning to get us to the group [The East] more quickly. We also simplified a number of story points. Nothing really radical – although it might have felt like that at the time – but just removing tangents that distracted from the main story.” Pankow added, “We didn’t have any length constraints from Fox, so we were able to optimize each scene. Towards the end of the film, there were places that needed extra ‘moments’ to accentuate some of the emotion of what the Sarah character was feeling. In a few cases, this meant re-using shots that might have appeared earlier. In addition to changing the last scene, a few other areas were adjusted. One or two scenes were extended, which in some cases replaced other scenes.”

Since the activists document their activities with video cameras, The East incorporates a number of point-of-view shots taken with low-res cameras. Rather than create these as visual effects shots, low-res cameras were used for the actual photography of that footage. Some video effects were added in the edit and some through the visual effects company. Weisblum has worked as a VFX editor (The Fountain, Chicago), so creating temporary visual effects is second nature. He said, “I usually do a number of things either in the Avid or using [Adobe] After Effects. These are the typical ‘split screen’ effects where takes are mixed to offset the timing of the performances. In this film, there was one scene where two characters [Tim and Sarah] are having a conversation on the bed. I wanted to use a take where Tim is sitting up, but of course, he’s partially covered by Sarah. This took a bit more effort, because I had to rotoscope part of one shot into the other, since the actors were overlapping each other. I’ll do these things whenever I can, so that the film plays in as finished a manner as possible during screening. It also gives the visual effects team a really good roadmap to follow.”

df_east_4Bill Pankow has worked as an editor or assistant on over forty features and brings some perspective to modern editing. He said, “I started editing digitally on Lightworks, but then moved to Avid. At the time, Lightworks didn’t keep up and Avid gave you more effects and titling tools, which let editors produce a more polished cut. On this film the set-up included two Avid Media Composer systems connected to shared storage. I typically like to work with two assistants when I can. My first assistant will add temporary sound effects and clean up the dialogue, while the second assistant handles the daily business and paperwork of the cutting room. Because assistants tend to have their own specialties these days, it’s harder for assistants to learn how to edit. I try to make a point of involving my assistants in watching the dailies, reviewing a scene when it’s cut and so on. This way they have a chance to learn and can someday move into the editor’s chair themselves.”

Both editors agree that working on The East was a very positive experience. Weisblum said, “Before starting, I had a little concern for how it would be working with Zal and Brit, especially since Brit was the lead actress, but also co-writer and producer. However, it was very helpful to have her involved, as she really helped me to understand the intentions of the character. It turned out to be a great collaboration.” Pankow concluded, “I enjoyed the team, but more so, I liked the fact that this film resonates emotionally, as well as politically, with the current times. I was very happy to be able to work on it.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer Power Tips

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Avid Media Composer might seem daunting to new users, but here are several “power user” tips to improve your editing experience.

1. Managing Bin Data

df_avidpwrtips_2_smCustom Sift – Creating filtering values for columns in the Custom Sift window lets the editor control the view and reduce clutter of a bin. For example, to see only your selected takes, create a Selects column in the bin and place an “x” in that column next to each selected clip. Now apply the custom sift filtered for those values and only these clips will be shown. Return to the unsifted view to see all clips in the bin.

df_avidpwrtips_11_smFind – The Find command (cmd-F on a Mac) opens the Find window. This can be used for text, script and phonetic dialogue searches (if the optional PhraseFind software was installed). For text searches, enter the text string, adjust the search parameters and go. Any matching clips will be displayed in this window. It’s a powerful tool that can be set to search all bins in the projects – not just the current, open bin. If you had a Selects column with an “x” marked for the best takes, you could use the Find window to show all selects for your entire production simply by setting the filter parameters accordingly. That works even when all the bins are closed.

2. Timeline Editing Tricks

df_avidpwrtips_3_smCollapse – Reduce your timeline’s video track complexity with the Collapse command. Collapsed clips enable you to add transitions in and out of complex, multi-layered effects. Highlight the clips and enable the tracks to be combined, click “collapse” and all the selected clips will be nested into a single container clip on the lowermost video track. Double-click the clip icon and the component pieces will be expanded vertically to reveal the contents for additional editing.

df_avidpwrtips_15_smReplace edit – One of the most useful editorial tools is the Replace Edit function. This is great when you need to eye-match shots to overcut one clip with another, or when syncing a sound effect to a visual cue. Mark the in/out points on the timeline clip and park the playhead over the frame that you want to sync to.  For instance, this might be someone jumping into the water. Next, load a new source clip, leave it unmarked and park the source at its sync point. In this case, it might be an audio clip with a sound effect of water splashing. Click the Replace Edit command to edit the new clip into place onto the audio tracks. The sound effect of the splash will coincide with the visual of the person hitting the water.

df_avidpwrtips_8_smTitle preview – The Avid Title Tool is a simple WYSIWYG titler that overlays text onto a reference image from the parked position on the timeline. The default is an aliased display for faster operation, but selecting Preview in the Title Tool’s top menu will display an anti-aliased version that better represents the final quality of the rendered text.

3. Audio Control

df_avidpwrtips_6_smAudio effects – Media Composer offers two plug-in types for audio filters. Audiosuite filters are clip-based plug-ins. These can be previewed in real-time, but must be rendered to be applied to the clip. RTAS plug-ins are real-time, track-based audio effects. Up to five filters can be applied to each track. Real-time performance is subject to processor and RAM demands, of course. Media Composer ships with a set of Digirack and AIR audio plug-ins. Many third-party native RTAS filters for Pro Tools will also work in Media Composer.

df_avidpwrtips_7_smAudio mixing – Avid enables three ways to mix audio within Media Composer: clip volume level settings, rubberbanding keyframes within the track and automation mixing. The mixer panel defaults to clip for an overall setting of volume/pan for the clips under the playhead. Toggle the mixer mode button to access automation mixing. This lets the editor write a real-time volume pass by adjusting the fader levels with the mouse (or an external control surface) on-the-fly. In addition, keyframes can be inserted onto the timeline track and then adjusted for proper level.

4. Video Effects

df_avidpwrtips_12_smAdjustment layers – Avid does not define tracks or effects as adjustment layers like in Adobe Photoshop or After Effects. Nevertheless, effects may be added to empty, higher tracks and these affect all the clips below. For example, if you want to change the color correction for the entire range of clips on V1, simply apply a color correction setting to the empty filler on V2. One example where this is useful is when you have cameras that record an image with a flat, log profile. Simply apply a curves setting on V2 to function as a viewing LUT for all of the images below it on the timeline.

df_avidpwrtips_4_smCopy/paste effects – To copy an effect with adjusted settings, simply drag the effect icon from the effects editor window to an open bin. To apply that effect to another clip on the timeline, drag the effect from the bin to the clip. Alternatively, you can highlight one or more clips and double-click the effect icon in the bin. It will then apply this effect with its settings to all of the highlighted clips.

df_avidpwrtips_13_smFluidmotion and Timewarp – Media Composer’s motion tools are some of the best to be found in any NLE. Timewarp is used for advanced retiming or timeline-based speed effects. Fluidmotion is an optical flow-style process that creates in-between frames. Together they provide similar results to that of the RE:Vision Twixtor plug-in. Apply a Timewarp effect to a clip and adjust the motion effects editor for the desired result. There you can also adjust the quality settings by changing the interpolation mode from the Type pulldown menu. Fluidmotion will provide the smoothest results, but there are other options when you prefer faster processing over quality.

df_avidpwrtips_14_smStabilization – A lesser-known feature is Avid’s cloud-point stabilizer. Apply the Stabilize effect to a timeline clip, select FluidStabilizer from the tracking window and start the track. Media Composer will automatically track the image without any user-defined tracking points. It will then apply real-time scale and position adjustments, which can be altered by the editor.

 5. Media Management

df_avidpwrtips_5_smIntermediate renders – Media Composer effects can be rendered at any level, not just the topmost video track. If you apply effects to clips on V1 and render that layer, clips and effects added above it on V2 will not unlink the V1 render files. This is also true if you subsequently remove the clips on V2. This architecture makes it possible to render complex effects at various “in-progress” stages for easy effects creation, better real-time response and with less processing time needed for the final render.

df_avidpwrtips_9_smMXF imports – A number of applications can render Avid-compliant MXF media files. There are several ways to import these into your Media Composer projects. First, the MXF media files should be placed into a new numbered subfolder inside the Avid MediaFiles/MXF folder on one of your hard drives. When you launch Media Composer, the software will scan the drives and index the new media. If a corresponding AAF file was created for this media by the other application, simply import the AAF file and the media clips will be relinked in the bin. If no AAF file was created, you can drag the Avid database file (labeled “msmMMOB.mdb”) from the numbered MediaFiles folder into an empty bin. Lastly, you can also use the Avid Media Tool from the top menu to access the clips and drag them into an empty bin.

df_avidpwrtips_10_smSAS QT reference movies – Avid supports the ability to export sequences in the QuickTime reference movie format. To maintain video quality, these should be exported using the Avid codec “same as source” setting. This is a fast export and the resulting QuickTime reference file is wrapped in a .MOV container, but uses one of the Avid codecs. When these files are converted to another format, like H.264 or Apple ProRes in an encoder, such as Apple Compressor, the transcoded file will have proper video levels.

df_avidpwrtips_16_smAutomatic Duck Media Copy – While not an Avid product, Automatic Duck’s Media Copy program (still available for free at automaticduck.com) is ideal for archiving media tied to a specific project or sequence. It has the ability to read into Avid bin files to identify sequences and the associated media. From there, it will copy only the media used in the cut to a designated folder. This may be moved or archived for later use.

Click here for “Avid Media Composer Tips for the FCP Switcher”.

For two great books to improve your Avid abilities, check out Ben Hershleder’s Avid Media Composer 6.x Cookbook and Steve Cohen’s Avid Agility.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2013 Oliver Peters