SpeedGrade Looks

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In a previous post, I discussed how to use Final Cut Pro X Color Board presets. For that post, I created a set of presets and made them available as a free download. That remains one of the most viewed blog posts I’ve written and literally thousands of readers have downloaded the presets. In this post, I’m doing much the same with Adobe SpeedGrade CC Looks.

Adobe SpeedGrade CC uses the Lumetri deep color engine and presets may be shared between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC via the Direct Link protocol. Grades, LUTs and  presets applied in SpeedGrade are combined into a single Lumetri filter effect that gets applied to the clip in Premiere Pro. When SpeedGrade CC is installed, it includes a number of preset Look examples developed by Adobe and Looks Labs. These include stylized grades, film emulations and camera log conversions among others. When you work in SpeedGrade, it is possible to save user-created Looks, as well. These are a combination of any set of layers and grades that you have applied to a single clip. These may include color correction adjustments, but also LUTs and special visual effects filters. User files are saved as .look files with a corresponding .jpg thumbnail of the shot that the grade was originally applied to. These .look files are saved by SpeedGrade in a number of possible folder locations, so you have to be careful, as to which folder is open and selected when you save a file.

df_sglooks_2_smI have created a variety of custom Looks covering color treatments, effects, film styles and more. These Looks were built around an image I’ve used for many of my color correction blog posts, because it has a nice spectrum of colors. For example, it’s hard to set up a characteristic “orange & teal” look, when the image has no blues, greens or skin tones. To start, download the file from the link below and unzip the archive file. Inside, you’ll find a folder called “op_sgrades”. Let me point out that my testing and instructions are based on a Mac. I have not tested this on a Windows PC, so I am not sure where the proper default installation folder lives.

On a Mac, the supplied Looks styles (Lumetri and SpeedLooks) are inside the closed application bundle. To install this new folder, you need to open the SpeedGrade CC package contents (right-click the application icon and choose “show package contents”). This will expose the application’s Contents folder. From there, navigate to the MacOS subfolder and then the Look Examples subfolder. Drag the “op_sgrades” folder into the Look Examples folder. When you next open SpeedGrade CC, you will be able to access this new set of Looks in the Looks Management pane. On a PC, right-click the application program icon and select “open file location”. This will expose a set of files, including the Look Examples folder.

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Another caveat to this procedure. What happens with the next Adobe update to SpeedGrade CC? I’m not sure what happens to any folders inside the application contents package during an update. It may be that you would have to install this custom folder into the Look Examples folder again after a SpeedGrade CC version update. We’ll see when the next SpeedGrade CC update happens.

Since each of these presets was built on the same log-encoded (flat) image, you will need to adjust the grade according to the image you apply it to. In all of these, the first Primary layer (bottom of the stack) will be the same and is used to neutralize the image. The sliders I adjusted include input saturation, pivot, contrast, temperature and magenta. Only the global settings were adjusted in this layer. You can tweak it, hide/disable it or replace it with a LUT adjustment instead. I have stayed away from camera LUTs, as a way of neutralizing the image, because these will drastically affect the other corrections in the stack – often in unpredictable ways.

If you look back at my FCP X Color Board Presets article, you may notice that those looks were more extreme. In this set, I stayed more subtle, but the presets will be more complex, since SpeedGrade CC permits built-in effects. Some of these may be slow to display and update. This is especially true of any that include blurs.

Click here to download a .zip archive file of the Looks presets.

Click on any image below for a slideshow of the various Looks.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Using FCP X with Adobe CC

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While the “battle” rages on between the proponents of using either Apple Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere Pro CC as the main edit axe, there is less disagreement about the other Adobe applications. Certainly many users like Motion, Aperture and Logic, but it’s pretty clear that most editors favor Adobe solutions over others. I have encountered very few power users of Motion, as compared with After Effects wizards – nor graphic designers who can get by without touching Illustrator or Photoshop. This post isn’t intended to change anyone’s opinion, but rather to offer a few pointers on how to productively use some of the Adobe Creative Cloud (or CS6) applications to complement your FCP X workflows. (Click images below for an expanded view.)

Photoshop

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For many editors, Adobe Photoshop is the title tool of choice. FCP X has some nice text tools, but Photoshop is significantly better – especially for logo creation. When you import a layered Photoshop file into FCP X, it comes in as a special layered graphics file. Layers can be adjusted, animated or disabled when you “open in timeline”. Photoshop layer effects, like a drop shadow, glow or emboss, do not show up correctly inside FCP X. If you drop the imported Photoshop file onto the timeline, it becomes a self-contained title clip. Although you cannot “open in editor” to modify the file, there is a workaround.

To re-edit the Photoshop file in Adobe Photoshop, select the clip in FCP X and “reveal in Finder”. From the Finder window open the file in Photoshop. Now you can make any changes you like. Once saved, the changes are updated in FCP X. There is one caveat that I’ve noticed. All changes that you make have to be made within the existing layers. New, additional layers do not update back inside FCP X. However, if you created layer effects and then merge that layer to bake in the effects, the update is successful in FCP X and the effects become visible.

This process is very imperfect because of FCP X’s interpretation of the Photoshop files. For example, layer alignment that matches in Photoshop may be misaligned in FCP X. All layers must have some content. You cannot create blank layers and later add content into them. When you do this, the updates will not be recognized in FCP X.

Audition

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Sound mixing is still a weak link in Final Cut Pro X. All mixing is clip-based without a proper mixing pane, like most other NLEs have. There are methods (X2Pro Audio Convert) to send the timeline audio to Pro Tools, but many editors don’t use Pro Tools. Likewise sending an FCPXML to Logic X works better than before, but why buy an extra application if you already own Adobe Audition? I tested a few options, like using X2Pro to get an AAF into Premiere Pro and then into Audition, but none of this worked. What does work is using XML.

First, duplicate the sequence and work from the copy for safety. Review your edited sequence in FCP X and detach/delete any unused audio elements, such as muted audio associated with connected clips that are used as video-only B-roll. Next, break apart any compound clips. I recommend detaching the desired audio, but that’s optional. Now export an FCPXML for that sequence. Open the FCPXML in the Xto7 application and save the audio tracks as a new XML file.

Launch Audition and import the new XML file. This will populate your multitrack mixing window with the sequence and clips. At this stage, all clips that were inside FCP X Libraries will be offline. Select these clips and use the “link media” command. The good news is that the dialogue window will allow you to see inside the Library file and let you navigate to the correct file. Unfortunately, the correct name match will not be bolded. Since these files are typically date/time-stamped, make sure to read the names carefully when you select the first clip. The rest will relink automatically. Note that level changes and fades that were made in FCP X do not come across into Audition.

Now you can mix the session. When done, export a stereo (or other) mixed master file. Import that into FCP X and attach as a connected clip to the head of your sequence. Make sure to delete, disable (make “invisible”) or mute all previous audio.

After Effects

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For many editors, Adobe After Effects is the finishing tool of choice – not just for graphics and effects, but also color correction and other embellishments. Thanks to the free ClipExporter application, it’s easy to go from FCP X to After Effects.

Similar to the Audition step, I recommend detaching/deleting all audio. Some folks like to have audio inside After Effects, but most of the time it’s in the way for me. Break part all compound clips. You might as well remove any FCP X titles and effects filters/transitions, since these don’t translate into After Effects. Lastly, I recommend selecting all connected clips and using the “overwrite to storyline” command. This will place everything onto the primary storyline and result in a straightforward cascade of layers once inside After Effects.

Export an FCPXML file for the sequence. Open ClipExporter and select the AE conversion tab. Import the FCPXML file. An important feature is that ClipExporter supports FCP X’s retiming function, but only for AE exports. Now run ClipExporter and save the resultant After Effects script file.

Launch Adobe After Effects and from the File/Script pulldown menu, select the saved script file created by ClipExporter. The script will run and load the clips and a your sequence as a new composition. Each individual shot is stashed into its own mini-composition and these are then placed into a stack of layers for the timeline of the main AE composition. Should you need to trim/slip the media for a shot, all available media can be accessed and adjusted within the shot’s individual mini-comp. If a shot has been retimed in FCP X, those adjustments also appear in the mini-comp and not in the main composition.

Build your effects and render a flattened file with everything baked in. Import that file into FCP X and add it as a connected clip to the top of your sequence. Disable all other video clips.

©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

NLE Tips – Week 4

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Apple FCP X and Lined Scripts

Feature film editing is facilitated by the information coming from the script supervisor’s notes and adjusted script. This is frequently called a “lined script” because the supervisor will draw vertical lines with notations that indicate which angles and takes cover specific sections of every scene. In addition, editors developed another notation of horizontal lines that separate the dialogue. This was the basis of the original Ediflex Script Mimic process that eventually found its way into Avid as Script Integration and Script Sync. (Click on any image for an expanded view.)df_nle4_4_sm

There are a couple of simple ways to adapt this concept to Apple Final Cut Pro X. A few methods have been proposed, but the easiest and fastest method for me is to use markers. The first step is to take the printed script with the script supervisor’s notations and add the horizontal line notation that splits up the dialogue.

df_nle4_2_smStart at line 1 on page one and you’ll eventually end up with 1,000 or more at the end of the last page. Other numbering conventions are fine. Ideally this could be added to the script by the supervisor before the start of the production. If not, you or the assistant editor (if you are lucky enough to have one) will need to do this. You can add as many lines as you want to, depending on how granular you want the division of the dialogue to be. This could be with every carriage return of the printed script or it could be just between every paragraph.

When the camera files are imported and logged into the FCP X event, you’ll need to add scene and take information. This can be done by renaming the clip name or (which I prefer) by entering it into the scene/take columns (or both). As each clip is reviewed, add markers at every point within the clip that matches the position of the horizontal divisions made to the script dialogue. Rename these markers to match the numbers assigned on the written script.

df_nle4_3_smWhen you’ve gone through this process for each file that covers the scene, you will have scene/take information that matches the supervisor’s vertical lines and markers that align with the horizontal separation. Under each clip, there’s now a list of markers, which you’ve labelled to match the script lines. By clicking on one of these, you can instantly jump to that point in the dialogue within any given clip.

In a lengthy scene, if you want to see all the coverage options that are available for a particular line of dialogue somewhere in the middle of the scene, all you have to do is go to the corresponding numbered marker closest to that line of dialogue. If that number is “201″ for example, simply click on the marker labelled “201″ within each clip and you can successively review each angle and take at that point.

Naturally you can leverage FCP X’s capabilities by creating favorites and smart collections based on these choices, but script lining and using markers is a good and easy starting point.

©2014 Oliver Peters

NLE Tips – Week 3

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The Avid  – Resolve Roundtrip Workflow

Avid Media Composer has always been regarded as the best offline editing tool and its heritage was built upon a strong offline-to-online workflow. The file-based world has complicated things and various camera formats have made life even more complex for editors. Many have become quite fond of using Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve as a great companion to Media Composer. It’s cross-platform and even the free version will do most of what you need. Here’s a step-by-step example of how you might use the combo. Relinking varies a bit, based on file metadata and might need to be modified for your particular circumstances. This workflow is great with ARRI ALEXA files and will most likely work well with other similar camera formats. (Click images for an expanded view.)

df_nle3_4_smCreating edit proxies files with Resolve – ALEXA files are usually Apple ProRes 4444 or ProRes HQ QuickTime files that have been recorded with a Log-C gamma profile. So, they are big files with a flat appearance. To start, launch Resolve, load the ProRes camera clips into the Media Pool (Media or Edit tab) and select/edit all of the full clips to a new timeline. In the Color tab, select “track” instead of “clip” and apply a single node. In that node, apply an ARRI Log-C-to-Rec709 LUT. Go to the Deliver tab and pick the Avid roundtrip Easy Set-up. Make sure “Individual Source Clips” is selected (not a single file), define a render location and df_nle3_3_smdecide whether or not to add a file name prefix or suffix (not required). Render using the DNxHD 36 codec choice.

Moving to Media Composer for the creative cut – When the render process has been completed, you’ll have a folder containing Avid MXF media and a corresponding AAF file. This media has the LUT “baked in” and has been rendered with the very lightweight df_nle3_5_smDNxHD 36 codec. Drag the AAF file out of this folder to another location. Now drag this complete folder into any of your Avid MediaFiles/MXF subfolders. Unless you’ve already added extra folders there, you will typically find one existing folder (with Avid’s default label of “1”) that contains MXF media. Change the label of the new folder (the one that you’ve just dragged in) to another number, such as “2″.df_nle3_2_sm

Launch Media Composer, create a new project, open the first bin and import the AAF file that was created by Resolve. This bin will become populated by the color corrected, DNxHD 36 files created by Resolve. Voila, you are ready to edit your Oscar-winner! Cut until the project is locked. When you are done and are ready to move to the online or finishing phase of the edit, export an AAF file from Media Composer. Select “AAF Edit Protocol” and “Link to” media in the AAF options.df_nle3_10_sm

df_nle3_7_smReturning to Resolve for the final grade – Launch Resolve and start a new project. Import the AAF file that you exported from Media Composer. You’ll end up with a timeline that matches your Avid cut and it will be linked to the DNxHD 36 media. You will want to relink the files back to the original camera media – the ProRes HQ or ProRes 4444 files. To do this, delete all the media in the Resolve Media Pool (Edit tab), which will make the timeline clips appear offline. df_nle3_12_smNow, navigate to the folder with the original camera files and bring those into the Media Pool. Your timeline clips will now be relinked to this original camera media. You’ll recognize this because the clips on the timeline will be back to their original, flat, Log-C appearance. In some instances, Resolve may see some files as duplicate and might possibly relink to the wrong file. In that case, you’ll see an error icon on the timeline clip. Click on it and Resolve will present a dialogue window with the possible alternate media options. Pick the correct one and the clip should then be linked to the right shot. Color correct your timeline with the desired grade and any reframing.

df_nle3_6_smReturning to Media Composer to complete the edit – When you’ve completed the color grading, go to the Deliver tab and pick the Avid roundtrip Easy Set-up again, but this time pick a higher-quality codec (like DNxHD 175x). Make sure to set handle lengths (usually 2-5 sec.) and render (as “Individual Source Clips” again). The result will be a new folder of rendered MXF media with the “baked in” grade, plus a new corresponding AAF file. As before, drag out this AAF file and drag the folder of rendered media into the Avid MediaFiles/MXF subfolder. Relabel the folder of this new Resolve media with a different number (such as “3″).

df_nle3_11_smLaunch Media Composer, open your existing project and create a new bin. Import the new AAF file, which will now populate this bin with the high-quality media. This bin will also include the sequence that you sent over to Resolve, but now linked to the high-resolution media files. In many cases, you would simply use this sequence for any final effects, titles and other adjustments.

df_nle3_8_smRelinking the sequence in Media Composer – If for some reason the sequence that was “round-tripped” does not correctly reflect the edited cut as built in the offline stage, then you will need to relink a copy of that sequence to the new media. To do so, duplicate the sequence from your DNxHD 36 edit and move that copy into the bin with the 175x media. Close all other bins, except the 175x bin. Right-click the sequence and select “Relink” from the menu. Set your options to “Select Items In All Open Bins” and relink by “Timecode – Start” and “Source Name – Tape Name or Source File ID”. This will cause the sequence to be relinked to the new 175x final-quality media.df_nle3_9_sm

If everything worked correctly, you will have done a complete offline (creative cut) and online (finishing) workflow between Media Composer and Resolve, without the need for Avid’s traditional import or newer AMA processes!

©2014 Oliver Peters