The FCP X – RED – Resolve Dance

df_fcpx-red-resolve_5

I recently worked on a short 10 minute teaser video for a potential longer film project. It was shot with a RED One camera, so it was a great test for the RED workflow and roundtrips using Apple Final Cut Pro 10.1.2/10.1.3 and DaVinci Resolve 11.

Starting the edit

As with any production, the first step is to properly back up and verify the data from the camera and sound cards. These files should go to redundant drives that are parked on the shelf for safe keeping. After this has been done, now you can copy the media to the editorial drives. In this case, I was using a LaCie RAID-5 array. Each day’s media was placed in a folder and divided into subfolders for RED, audio and other cameras, like a few 5D shots.

df_fcpx-red-resolve_4Since I was using FCP X and its RED and proxy workflows, I opted not to use REDCINE-X Pro as part of this process. In fact, the Mac Pro also didn’t have any RED Rocket accelerator card installed either, as I’ve seen conflicts with FCP X and RED transcodes when the RED Rocket card was installed. After the files were copied to the editorial drives, they were imported into an FCP X event, with media left in its original location. In the import setting, the option to transcode proxy media was enabled, which continues in the background while you start to work with the RED files directly. The camera files are 4K 16×9 .r3d files, so FCP X transcodes these to half-sized ProRes Proxy media.

df_fcpx-red-resolve_1Audio was recorded as double-system sound using a Sound Devices recorder. The audio files were 2-channel broadcast WAV files using slates for syncing. There was no in-camera audio and no common timecode. I was working with a couple of assistant editors, so I had them sync each clip manually. Instead of using FCP X’s synchronized clips, I had them alter each master clip using the “open in timeline” command. This lets you edit the audio directly to the video as a connected clip within the master clip. Once done, your master clip contains synced audio and video.  It functions just like a master clip with in-camera audio – almost (more on that later).df_fcpx-red-resolve_9

All synced clips were relabeled with a camera, scene and take designation, as well as adding this info to the camera, scene and take columns. Lastly, script notes were added to the notes column based on the script supervisor’s reports.

Transcodes

df_fcpx-red-resolve_6Since the post schedule wasn’t super-tight, I was able to let the transcodes finish overnight, as needed. Once this is done, you can switch FCP X to working with proxies and all the media will be there. The toggle between proxy and/or optimized-original media is seamless and FCP X takes care of properly changing all sizing information. For example, the project is 4K media in a 1080p timeline. FCP X’s spatial conform downscales the 4K media, but then when you toggle to proxy, it has to make the corresponding adjustments to media that is now half-sized. Likewise any blow-ups or reframing that you do also have to match in both modes.

df_fcpx-red-resolve_2The built-in proxy/optimized-original workflow provides you with offline/online editing phases right within the same system. Proxies for fast and efficient editing. Original or high-resolution transcodes for finishing. To keep the process fast and initially true to color decisions made on set, no adjustments were made to the RED files. FCP X does let you alter the camera raw color metadata from inside the application, but there’s no real reason to do this for offline editing files. That can be deferred until it’s time to do color correction. So during the edit, you see what the DoP shot as you view the RED files or the transcoded proxies.

df_fcpx-red-resolve_3We did hit one bad camera load. This might have been due to either a bad RED drive or possibly excessive humidity at that location. No matter what the reason, the result was a set of corrupt RED clips. We didn’t initially realize this in FCP X, and so, hit clips that caused frequent crashes. Once I narrowed it down to the load from that one location, I decided to delete these clips. For that group of shots, I used REDCINE-X Pro to transcode the files. I adjusted the color for a flatter, neutral profile (for later color correction) and transcoded full-resolution debayered 1080p ProRes 4444 files. We considered these as the new camera masters for those clips. Even there, REDCINE-X Pro crashed on a few of the clips, but I still had enough to make a scene out of it.

Editing

The first editing step is culling down the footage in FCP X. I do a first pass rejecting all bogus shots, like short clips of the floor, a bad slate, etc. Set the event browser to “hide rejected”. Next I review the footage based on script notes, looking at the “circle takes” first, plus picking a few alternates if I have a different opinion. I will mark these as Favorites. As I do this, I’ll select the whole take and not just a portion, since I want to see the whole take.

Once I start editing, I switch the event browser to “show favorites”. In the list view, I’ll sort the event by the scene column, which now gives me a quick roadmap of all possible good clips in the order of the script. During editing, I cut mainly using the primary storyline to build up the piece. This includes all overlapping audio, composites, titles and so on. Cutting proceeds until the picture is locked. Once I’m ready to move on to color correction, I export a project XML in the FCPXML format.

Resolve

df_fcpx-red-resolve_7I used the first release version (not beta) of DaVinci Resolve 11 Lite to do this grade. My intention was to roundtrip it back to FCP X and not to use Resolve as a finishing tool, since I had a number of keys and composites that were easier done in FCP X than Resolve. Furthermore, when I brought the project into Resolve, the picture was right, but all of the audio was bogus – wrong takes, wrong syncing, etc. I traced this down to my initial “open in timeline” syncing, which I’ll explaining in a bit. Anyway, my focus in Resolve was only grading and so audio wasn’t important for what I was doing. I simply disabled it.

Importing the FCPXML file into a fresh Resolve 11 project couldn’t have been easier. It instantly linked the RED, 5D and transcoded ProRes 4444 files and established an accurate timeline for my picture cut. All resizing was accurately translated. This means that in my FCP X timeline, when I blew up a shot to 120% (which is a blow-up of the 1080p image that was downscaled from the 4K source), Resolve knew to take the corresponding crop from the full 4K image to equal this framing of the shot without losing resolution.

The one video gotcha I hit was with the FCP X timeline layout. FCP X is one of the only NLEs that lets you place video BELOW what any other software would consider to be the V1 track – that’s the primary storyline. Some of my green screen composite shots were of a simulated newscast inserted on a TV set hanging on a wall in the primary scene. I decided to place the 5 or 6 layers that made up this composite underneath the primary storyline. All fine inside FCP X, however, in Resolve, it has to interpret the lowest video element as V1, thus shifting everything else up accordingly. As a result the, bulk of the video was on V6 or V7 and audio was equally shifted in the other direction. This results in a lot of vertical timeline scrolling, since Resolve’s smallest track height is still larger than most.

df_fcpx-red-resolve_8Resolve, of course, is a killer grading tool that handles RED media well. My grading approach is to balance out the RED shots in the first node. Resolve lets you adjust the camera raw metadata settings for each individual clip, if you need to. Then in node 2, I’ll do most of my primary grading. After that, I’ll add nodes for selective color adjustments, masks, vignettes and so on. Resolve’s playback settings can be adjusted to throttle back the debayer resolution on playback for closer-to-real-time performance with RED media. This is especially important, when you aren’t running the fastest drives, fastest GPU cards nor using a RED Rocket card.

To output the result, I switched over to Resolve’s Deliver tab and selected the FCP X easy set-up. Select handle length, browse for a target folder and run. Resolve is a very fast renderer, even with GPU-based RED debayering, so output wasn’t long for the 130 clips that made up this short. The resulting media was 1080p ProResHQ with an additional 3 seconds per clip on either side of the timeline cut – all with baked in color correction. The target folder also contains a new FCPXML that corresponds to the Resolve timeline with proper links to the new media files.

Roundtrip back into FCP X

Back in FCP X, I make sure I’ve turned off the import preference to transcode proxy media and that my toggle is set back to original/optimized media. Find the new FCPXML file from Resolve and import it. This will create a new event containing a new FCP X project (edited sequence), but with media linked to the Resolve render files. Audio is still an issue, for now.

There is one interesting picture glitch, which I believe is a bug in the FCPXML metadata. In the offline edit, using RED or proxy media, spatial conform is enabled and set to “fit”. That scales the 4K file to a 1080p timeline. In the sequence back from Resolve, I noticed the timeline still had yellow render bars. When I switched the spatial conform setting on a clip to “none”, the render bar over it went away, but the clip blew up much larger, as if it was trying to show a native 4K image at 1:1. Except, that this was now 1080 media and NOT 4K. Apparently this resizing metadata is incorrectly held in the FCPXML file and there doesn’t appear to be any way to correct this. The workaround is to simply let it render, which didn’t seem to hurt the image quality as far as I could tell.

Audio

Now to an explanation of the audio issue. FCP X master clips are NOT like any other master clips in other NLEs, including FCP 7. X’s master clips are simply containers for audio and video essence and, in that way, are not unlike compound clips. Therefore, you can edit, add and/or alter – even destructively – any material inside a master clip when you use the “open in timeline” function. You have to be careful. That appears to be the root of the XML translation issue and the audio. Of course, it all works fine WITHIN the closed FCP X environment!

Here’s the workaround. Start in FCP X. In the offline edited sequence (locked rough cut) and the sequence from Resolve, detach all audio. Delete audio from the Resolve sequence. Copy and paste the audio from the rough cut to the Resolve sequence. If you’ve done this correctly it will all be properly synced. Next, you have to get around the container issue in order to access the correct WAV files. This is done simply by highlighting the connected audio clip(s) and using the “break apart clip items” command. That’s the same command used to break apart compound clips into their component source clips. Now you’ll have the original WAV file audio and not the master clip from the camera.

df_fcpx-red-resolve_11At this stage I still encountered export issues. If your audio mixing engineer wants an OMF for an older Pro Tools unit, then you have to go through FCP 7 (via an Xto7 translation) to create the OMF file. I’ve done this tons of time before, but for whatever reason on this project, the result was not useable. An alternative approach is to use Resolve to convert the FCPXML into XML, which can then be imported into FCP 7. This worked for an accurate translation, except that the Resolve export altered all stereo and multi-channel audio tracks into a single mono track. Therefore, a Resolve translation was also a fail. At this point in time, I have to say that a proper OMF export from FCP X-edited material is no longer an option or at least unreliable at best.

df_fcpx-red-resolve_10This leaves you with two options. If your mixing engineer uses Apple Logic Pro X, then that appears to correctly import and convert the native FCPXML file. If your mixer uses Pro Tools (a more likely scenario) then newer versions will read AAF files. That’s the approach I took. To create an AAF, you have to export an FCPXML from the project file. Then using the X2Pro Audio Convert application, generate an AAF file with embedded and trimmed audio content. This goes to the mixer who in turn can ingest the file into Pro Tools.

Once the mix has been completed, the exported AIF or WAV file of the mix is imported into FCP X. Strip off all audio from the final version of the FCP X project and connect the clip of the final mix to the beginning of the timeline. Now you are done and ready to export deliverables.

For more on RED and FCP X workflows, check out this series of posts by Sam Mestman at MovieMaker.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

©2014 Oliver Peters

24p HD Restoration

df_24psdhd_6

There’s a lot of good film content that only lives on 4×3 SD 29.97 interlaced videotape masters. Certainly in many cases you can go back and retransfer the film to give it new life, but for many small filmmakers, the associated costs put that out of reach. In general, I’m referring to projects with $0 budgets. Is there a way to get an acceptable HD product from an old Digibeta master without breaking the bank? A recent project of mine would say, yes.

How we got here

I had a rather storied history with this film. It was originally shot on 35mm negative, framed for 1.85:1, with the intent to end up with a cut negative and release prints for theatrical distribution. It was being posted around 2001 at a facility where I worked and I was involved with some of the post production, although not the original edit. At the time, synced dailies were transferred to Beta-SP with burn-in data on the top and bottom of the frame for offline editing purposes. As was common practice back then, the 24fps film negative was transferred to the interlaced video standard of 29.97fps with added 2:3 pulldown – a process that duplicates additional fields from the film frames, such that 24 film frames evenly add up to 60 video fields in the NTSC world. This is loaded into an Avid, where – depending on the system – the redundant fields are removed, or the list that goes to the negative cutter compensates for the adjustments back to a frame-accurate 24fps film cut.

df_24psdhd_5For the purpose of festival screenings, the project file was loaded into our Avid Symphony and I conformed the film at uncompressed SD resolution from the Beta-SP dailies and handled color correction. I applied a mask to hide the burn-in and ended up with a letter-boxed sequence, which was then output to Digibeta for previews and sales pitches to potential distributors. The negative went off to the negative cutter, but for a variety of reasons, that cut was never fully completed. In the two years before a distribution deal was secured, additional minor video changes were made throughout the film to end up with a revised cut, which no longer matched the negative cut.

Ultimately the distribution deal that was struck was only for international video release and nothing theatrical, which meant that rather than finishing/revising the negative cut, the most cost-effective process was to deliver a clean video master. Except, that all video source material had burn-in and the distributor required a full-height 4×3 master. Therefore, letter-boxing was out. To meet the delivery requirements, the filmmaker would have to go back to the original negative and retransfer it in a 4×3 SD format and master that to Digital Betacam. Since the negative was only partially cut and additional shots were added or changed, I went through a process of supervising the color-corrected transfer of all required 35mm film footage. Then I rebuilt the new edit timeline largely by eye-matching the new, clean footage to the old sequence. Once done and synced with the mix, a Digibeta master was created and off it went for distribution.

What goes around comes around

After a few years in distribution, the filmmaker retrieved his master and rights to the film, with the hope of breathing a little life into it through self-distribution – DVDs, Blu-rays, Internet, etc. With the masters back in-hand, it was now a question of how best to create a new product. One thought was simply to letter-box the film (to be in the director’s desired aspect) and call it a day. Of course, that still wouldn’t be in HD, which is where I stepped back in to create a restored master that would work for HD distribution.

Obviously, if there was any budget to retransfer the film negative to HD and repeat the same conforming operation that I’d done a few years ago – except now in HD – that would have been preferable. Naturally, if you have some budget, that path will give you better results, so shop around. Unfortunately, while desktop tools for editors and color correction have become dirt-cheap in the intervening years, film-to-tape transfer and film scanning services have not – and these retain a high price tag. So if I was to create a new HD master, it had to be from the existing 4×3 NTSC interlaced Digibeta master as the starting point.

In my experience, I know that if you are going to blow-up SD to HD frame sizes, it’s best to start with a progressive and not interlaced source. That’s even more true when working with software, rather than hardware up-convertors, like Teranex. Step one was to reconstruct a correct 23.98p SD master from the 29.97i source. To do this, I captured the Digibeta master as a ProResHQ file.

Avid Media Composer to the rescue

df_24psdhd_2_sm

When you talk about software tools that are commonly available to most producers, then there are a number of applications that can correctly apply a “reverse telecine” process. There are, of course, hardware solutions from Snell and Teranex (Blackmagic Design) that do an excellent job, but I’m focusing on a DIY solution in this post. That involves deconstructing the 2:3 pulldown (also called “3:2 pulldown”) cadence of whole and split-field frames back into only whole frames, without any interlaced tearing (split-field frames). After Effects and Cinema Tools offer this feature, but they really only work well when the entire source clip is of a consistent and unbroken cadence. This film had been completed in NTSC 29.97 TV-land, so frequently at cuts, the cadence would change. In addition, there had been some digital noise reduction applied to the final master after the Avid output to tape, which further altered the cadence at some cuts. Therefore, to reconstruct the proper cadence, changes had to be made at every few cuts and, in some scenes, at every shot change. This meant slicing the master file at every required point and applying a different setting to each clip. The only software that I know of to effectively do this with is Avid Media Composer.

Start in Media Composer by creating a 29.97 NTSC 4×3 project for the original source. Import the film file there. Next, create a second 23.98 NTSC 4×3 project. Open the bin from the 29.97 project into the 23.98 project and edit the 29.97 film clip to a new 23.98 sequence. Media Composer will apply a default motion adapter to the clip (which is the entire film) in order to reconcile the 29.97 interlaced frame rate into a 23.98 progressive timeline.

Now comes the hard part. Open the Motion Effect Editor window and “promote” the effect to gain access to the advanced controls. Set the Type to “Both Fields”, Source to “Film with 2:3 Pulldown” and Output to “Progressive”. Although you can hit “Detect” and let Media Composer try to decide the right cadence, it will likely guess incorrectly on a complex file like this. Instead, under the 2:3 Pulldown tab, toggle through the cadence options until you only see whole frames when you step through the shot frame-by-frame. Move forward to the next shot(s) until you see the cadence change and you see split-field frames again. Split the video track (place an “add edit”) at that cut and step through the cadence choices again to find the right combination. Rinse and repeat for the whole film.

Due to the nature of the process, you might have a cut that itself occurs within a split-field frame. That’s usually because this was a cut in the negative and was transferred as a split-field video frame. In that situation, you will have to remove the entire frame across both audio and video. These tiny 1-frame adjustments throughout the film will slightly shorten the duration, but usually it’s not a big deal. However, the audio edit may or may not be noticeable. If it can’t simply be fixed by a short 2-frame dissolve, then usually it’s possible to shift the audio edit a little into a pause between words, where it will sound fine.

Once the entire film is done, export a new self-contained master file. Depending on codecs and options, this might require a mixdown within Avid, especially if AMA linking was used. That was the case for this project, because I started out in ProResHQ. After export, you’ll have a clean, reconstructed 23.98p 4×3 NTSC-sized (720×486) master file. Now for the blow-up to HD.

DaVinci Resolve

df_24psdhd_1_smThere are many applications and filters that can blow-up SD to HD footage, but often the results end up soft. I’ve found DaVinci Resolve to offer some of the cleanest resizing, along with very fast rendering for the final output. Resolve offers three scaling algorithms, with “Sharper” providing the crispest blow-up. The second issue is that since I wanted to restore the wider aspect, which is inherent in going from 4×3 to 16×9, this meant blowing up more than normal – enough to fit the image width and crop the top and bottom of the frame. Since Resolve has the editing tools to split clips at cuts, you have the option to change the vertical position of a frame using the tilt control. Plus, you can do this creatively on a shot-by-shot basis if you want to. This way you can optimize the shot to best fit into the 16×9 frame, rather than arbitrarily lopping off a preset amount from the top and bottom.

df_24psdhd_3_smYou actually have two options. The first is to blow up the film to a large 4×3 frame out of Resolve and then do the slicing and vertical reframing in yet another application, like FCP 7. That’s what I did originally with this project, because back then, the available version of Resolve did not offer what I felt were solid editing tools. Today, I would use the second option, which would be to do all of the reframing strictly within Resolve 11.

As always, there are some uncontrollable issues in this process. The original transfer of the film to Digibeta was done on a Rank Cintel Mark III, which is a telecine unit that used a CRT (literally an oscilloscope tube) as a light source. The images from these tubes get softer as they age and, therefore, they require periodic scheduled replacement. During the course of the transfer of the film, the lab replaced the tube, which resulted in a noticeable difference in crispness between shots done before and after the replacement. In the SD world, this didn’t appear to be a huge deal. Once I started blowing up that footage, however, it really made a difference. The crisper footage (after the tube replacement) held up to more of a blow-up than the earlier footage. In the end, I opted to only take the film to 720p (1280×720) rather than a full 1080p (1920×1080), just because I didn’t feel that the majority of the film held up well enough at 1080. Not just for the softness, but also in the level of film grain. Not ideal, but the best that can be expected under the circumstances. At 720p, it’s still quite good on Blu-ray, standard DVD or for HD over the web.

df_24psdhd_4_smTo finish the process, I dust-busted the film to fix places with obvious negative dirt (white specs in the frame) caused by the initial handling of the film negative. I used FCP X and CoreMelt’s SliceX to hide and cover negative dirt, but other options to do this include built in functions within Avid Media Composer. While 35mm film still holds a certain intangible visual charm – even in such a “manipulated” state – the process certainly makes you appreciate modern digital cameras like the ARRI ALEXA!

As an aside, I’ve done two other complete films this way, but in those cases, I was fortunate to work from 1080i masters, so no blow-up was required. One was a film transferred in its entirety from a low-contrast print, broken into reels. The second was assembled digitally and output to intermediate HDCAM-SR 23.98 masters for each reel. These were then assembled to a 1080i composite master. Aside from being in HD to start with, cadence changes only occurred at the edits between reels. This meant that it only required 5 or 6 cadence corrections to fix the entire film.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Into the fire with FCP X

As most of you know in following this blog, I’ve challenged the wisdom of what Apple has done with Final Cut Pro X. You may have also sensed, however, that I have warmed a bit to the application over the months. I’ve been working with FCP X since its launch nearly a year ago, mostly on smaller, unsupervised commercials and web videos that I could do on my home system. A couple of my freelance clients have been looking at a possible move to Final Cut Pro X, so I could see it as an option in  my future.

Working on a small scale has been a good way to test the system and get my sea legs, but at some point you have to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. Time to see how it really handled itself on a bigger job – with a client in the room – on a project that required working beyond the simple confines of the FCP X environment. The ideal project came along at a facility where I often hang out and edit. It’s a four-suite SAN-connected facility. I was confident enough with the software and its ability to get the job done that we deployed FCP X on a few of the workstations for this inaugural project.

Creative concept and production

This project was a series of employee-oriented TV commercials for a Midwest grocery retailer. In the commercials, real employees deliver variations on the company slogan. On-camera delivery included the full line and portions of the phrase, so that in edit, I would mix and match different employees saying all or part of the line. The style is based on the cadence created by juxtaposing different speakers. Of course, each spot needed the right blend of departments, ages, gender, etc. representing the client’s diverse workforce. It’s precisely because this concept would mesh with FCP X’s organizational abilities and the magnetic timeline that I felt X was the ideal editorial tool for these spots.

Past productions for this client have included 35mm film, ARRI ALEXA and Canon 5D. This time the primary camera was the new Canon C300, with a little bit of slomo B-roll footage recorded on the Canon 5D Mark III. An extra element in the mix was a Sound Devices PIX240 to be used as the prime recorder, taking the SDI feed (audio, video and timecode) out of the C300 camera. Footage was recorded to the on-board CF cards as a back-up, but the point of using the PIX240 was the ability to record a high-quality signal as ProResHQ in the PIX. Since the camera triggered the PIX240’s recording function, there would be matching clip numbers and timecode on each.

One issue in this configuration was the preferred format of 24p (1920×1080 @ 23.976fps progressive). The C300 adds 3:2 pulldown to the SDI stream to output 29.97. Fortunately, the PIX240 has built-in conversion capabilities, which includes pulldown removal. After some brief testing, I was comfortable enough with how the PIX240 handled this and in its ability to record an artifact-free 24p signal to its hard drive.

Pre-edit preparation

I’m a big believer in first preparing your footage in a proper manner before editing. I’m not a big fan of mixing a lot of native formats. This is especially true when it’s footage I know I will need to get back to and decipher in the future. Plus this footage had to go out-of-house for additional post work. In this case, the end product would be color graded on a Baselight system, so I wanted to make sure the post house would have all the media in the ProRes format, with EDL-compatible reel IDs and timecode.

The PIX240 recorded ProResHQ clips with a matching number scheme to the native Canon XF recordings, but the PIX assigned an arbitrary reel number of 001 as the default for recordings made on that hard drive. I prefer to have reel numbers correlate in some fashion to the date and location of the production. The reason is that this is metadata embedded into the file. If I simply read the file again a few years down the road, the reel number by itself will give me some idea what that file belongs to. The beauty of QuickTime files is that they can be modified in various valuable ways if you have the right software. In the case of the PIX240 recordings, I decided to alter the names and the reel ID information.

Changing the file name is relatively easy. I use Better Renamer, a batch renaming utility, to strip off the part of the name I don’t want and to add character strings that I do. The production took place in four cities and the C300 onboard recordings took several cards (which we referred to as rolls). Using Better Renamer, I would strip off PIX_ from a default name like PIX_355 and add back the prefix of KC_R4_ to change the name to KC_R4_355. This would designate Kansas City, roll 4, clip 355.

Changing the reel ID is trickier and technically a “destructive” process, because you are altering native file information. The easiest place to make such batch changes is Final Cut Pro 7. Yes, it’s hard at this point to get through a complex project like these spots and do it all within FCP X.

In FCP 7 you can batch-rename reel IDs in the browser, which alters the embedded information of the media file itself. Highlight the selected clips, make the change in the correct column and ignore the warning. I altered the default 001 to an 8-digit alphanumeric name (all caps) that matches EDL specs. I also wanted something that would make sense in the future for identification purposes. So clips shot on May 31 by the A-camera would become HV0531A1. Client – date – A camera – roll 1.

To convert the 5D files, I followed my standard method (outlined numerous times in this blog):

a) MPEG Streamclip to convert the files to ProRes

b) Cinema Tools to conform the speed to 23.98

c) QtChange to add/alter reel ID names and timecode

d) Better Renamer to change the file names.

Some of you will read this and wonder why I didn’t use Final Cut Pro X’s “Import from Camera” (like FCP 7’s Log & Transfer) or to simply edit natively. Part of the answer is that I first wanted to alter the media files themselves. This is important if you intend to hand off portions of the project to another system. FCP X changes internal database information, but not the media file. If you choose to import and copy the media into your event, then the new media file is named with a date/time UID stamp that’s pretty meaningless to someone just reading the file name.

FCP X also works with optimized media. One of the formats it considers optimized is the Canon XF codec, so you can’t have it convert this to ProRes even if you have that option selected. For this project, it made more sense to prep the files prior to entering into the FCP X world. That might not be the case on a different production.

Organizing your media for the edit

My biggest rationale for Final Cut Pro X were the internal organization features. The production included 720 Canon C300 clips (6 ½ hours) and 15 5D slomo clips (about 15 minutes). A total of 660GB of media (ProResHQ and ProRes). My current approach – and what I used on this session – is to import all the files into a single Event and leave the media linked to its original location on the hard drive – a folder on the SAN volume. If you do this, DO NOT move or alter the media files once you start editing in FCP X or you’ll run the risk of losing connection to the media files.

If you work with a lot of different FCP X jobs, you quickly learn that there is no internal way to manage different clients’ work. You either have to move these files manually from the Final Cut Events and Final Cut Projects folders to an “inactive” folder(s) – or you have to use a utility like Event Manager X. Doing this often and manually can add some confusion, so I recommend the following solution. Assign all productions a job number and add Media and Edits to the naming convention.

As an example, an Event might be labeled 2040_clientname_title_Media. You can create folders in the Project Library. At the top level create a new folder that will contains all of the Projects (sequences) for that production. It would be called 2040_clientname_title_Edits. Now when you have to manually move folders, there is only one top-level folder for each and it’s clear which one goes back into an Events or Projects folder.

Since I had placed all media clips into a single Event, Keyword Collections became the primary method of organizing the clips. Think of these as bins. There were 132 employees, 4 cities and 12 categories (pharmacy, managers, deli, etc.). I used keywords for each employee’s name and their category. Next, I created a folder for Keyword Collections to group people according to their city. Keywords can be assigned to hotkeys and you can apply keywords to a group of clips at once. Multiple keywords may be added to any clip.

The beauty is that anything you do in one area is applied to all. For example, applying the keyword Joe Smith to a clip sends that clip to the Keyword Collection for Joe Smith. Now, if you are in the Joe Smith Collection (think of it as a bin) and apply another keyword for Manager, the clip will also be added to the Manager Collection. All of the keywords (and ratings – like Favorite or Reject) that you have assigned to this clip, will appear in all instances for the clip. In this example, that would be in three places: the Event, the Joe Smith and the Manager Collections.

The next handy feature is ratings for Favorites and Rejects. With modern file-based cameras, you typically end up with a lot of short clips. In addition to false starts and bogus clips, these may also include short bursts for the slates preceding the actual clips. Using the Reject rating on any of these clips – and then setting the Event browser to “Hide Rejected” – will remove these clips from view. They are still there if you change the setting to “All Clips”. Obviously, you could use this for any completely bad takes, as well. After I culled the clips down to those with actual content using this method, the 720 employee clips was filtered down to 408 clips (6 hrs. 12 min. of content).

I set my Event browser to a  list (not thumbnail) view, which displays the selected clip as a filmstrip at the top of this pane of the UI. Since it shows video and audio in this filmstrip view, you can quite easily identify the spikes in the audio waveform every time the person delivers their line. It’s a simple matter to skim through each clip and add a marker for every successful line delivery. When it comes time to review the footage with the client, simply skip ahead to each marker to review that section.

The actual session

Working with the client in the room is a charm with Final Cut Pro X if you’ve done this level of organization. When clips from a certain person are requested, finding the right choice only takes a few moments. The best way to note client selects for the possible takes is to use FCP X’s system of range-based Favorites. Simply mark in-out points and hit “F” for favorite. A subclip is created for that portion of the longer clip. FCP X allows multiple, overlapping range-based selections within a clip.

Another trick is to use Smart Collections. For example, in this session, I created a Smart Collection for Favorites from each city. Once the proper filtering was defined, if I chose a range-based Favorite (subclip) for Joe Smith in Kansas City, then that section would appear in the Kansas City Smart Collection. Going forward, if the client or I wanted to review only the best options from those that had already been selected, I only needed to review the clips populated into these various Smart Collections.

The magnetic timeline design of Final Cut Pro X has been hotly debated, but it was the ideal approach for this set of spots, because we frequently re-arranged the order of the people in the spots. I did use Auditions once, but that didn’t prove too useful, due to the general slowness of setting up Audition clips. I used most of the editing tools X has to offer, excluding the various “automatics”, which aren’t too useful for this type of production. Since I varied the speed of some of the slomo shots, as well as slowed some of the standard shots, I was happy to have X’s Optical Flow for cleaner slomos.

Although I didn’t do the final color grading, I did have to use the built-in tools for review copies. The footage shot with the C300 used the Canon Log profile, resulting in a flatter, darker image. I was able to edit just fine this way, as the client understood, but then I quickly graded the completed rough cuts using the Color Board tool for a close-to-final look. This was needed in order to show execs for approval of the rough cuts.

Sending out

The final mix and color correction was done out-of-house, which required timeline translation with Xto7 for Final Cut Pro. Export an FCP X XML, import that into Xto7, which in turn opens it as an FCP 7 project and sequence.

Now for some glitches. Audio was all recorded with two mics, so FCP X defaults to stereo. I had changed these to dual mono in the Project and disabled (unchecked) the mic channel I wasn’t using on a clip-by-clip basis. The corresponding XML resulted in having no audio on the FCP 7 timeline. The fix seemed to be to restore my FCP X Project clips back to stereo, remove all level changes and then send to FCP 7 again. Now all the audio was there, except for one or two clips. These seem to have been affected by the slomo clips in the timeline, which also didn’t show up. In both cases, it was easy to manually add these clips back to the FCP 7 timeline and fix the issue.

From there, I exported an OMF  file with embedded audio for our Pro Tools mixer. Next, I needed to send full QuickTimes and a matching EDL to the colorist who was working on a Baselight system. I like to consolidate the media first and my favorite application is Automatic Duck Media Copy. It takes the FCP 7 XML and copies all the media used in that sequence. There is no conversion done in that process, so I feel it’s a safer approach than FCP 7’s Media Manager. Once copied, I take the new XML and open it back into FCP 7 and make sure that all media is reconnected to the copied files. This sequence is used to generate an EDL needed by the Baselight system. 94 clips were used in the string of six :30 commercials, requiring only 134GB of media instead of the full 660GB.

The roundtrip back

Now to conform the final commercials. Audio was no problem. Simply line up the AIFF files containing the mix and the stems (separate dialogue, sound effects and music) at the head and you have all you need for mixed and a split-track masters. Due to the “rubbery-ness” of the magnetic timeline, it did appear that removing transitions at the beginning and end of spots and removing the slomo clips caused some shifting of the spots within this string of six spots on a single Project timeline. No sync issues, but definitely not as locked into position as with an FCP 7 timeline. I did use the Audio Roles functions to export a multi-channel QuickTime file as a split-track submaster, which worked well.

Replacing the “dailies” footage with the rendered files from the Baselight system proved to be a bit trickier. Most color correction systems that render individual clips with handles will append unique IDs to the end of the file names for the rendered files. That’s because you might have used several clips from a single, longer camera file. Unfortunately, this complicates reconnecting the new media files. It’s completely impossible with FCP X, because everything about the file is seen by the software as different.

FCP 7 and Premiere Pro can relink, but require you to do this one clip at a time, as they can’t match the file names. Not ideal for 94 clips. I have done this in the past with Color, but for some reason, this time Color simply wouldn’t do it. In the future I will get a new XML from the transfer house that matches their baked files, which should eliminate these issues.

The workaround was to use Better Renamer and strip off the added suffix from the file name. Only a couple of clips were from a common source, so the application adds its own suffix (a, b, c, etc.) to these clips with the same name. Back in FCP 7, reconnect this media, manually reconnect the few clips with modified names and voila – you have the correct timeline linked to the new, graded shots. The last step was to export a new XML and use 7toX for Final Cut Pro to bring that sequence back into Final Cut Pro X. Marry it to the audio, make sure everything still lines up, add final graphics and Bob’s your uncle!

The final masters are HD, but broadcast distribution is still largely standard definition, 4×3 letterboxed files. After Effects continues to be my favored conversion method due to its clean scaling and correct 29.97fps interlaced files with the proper 3:2 pulldown cadence. All files were distributed electronically rather than on videotape. The finished spots may be viewed here.

Impressions

By and large this first big project went reasonably well. Editing in Final Cut Pro X is an acquired taste. If you stick with it and learn it, there’s a lot to like. I found that learning a few simple keystrokes and short cuts made things go faster and muscle memory kicked in for the new commands pretty quickly. I can’t say it was faster than with FCP 7. We got more done in the allotted schedule than was anticipated, but I believe (based on what I’ve done before with the same client) that the same would have been true with FCP 7, Media Composer or Premiere Pro.

There were some hiccups. The first was the SAN. This is a volume-level SAN, where each room has its own write volume plus read access to all the others. This doesn’t seem to work with FCP X’s “Add SAN Location” function, which was probably designed for a file-level SAN, like Apple Xsan. That doesn’t seem very important though, since multiple editors can still share the same media on the SAN drives.

I started with the Final Cut Events and Projects folders on the SAN volume, but experienced a lot of beachballs with nearly every second or third task. Sometimes a fraction of a second long and at other times, a couple of seconds. I experienced a couple of crashes and/or force quits a day. To FCP X’s credit, nothing was ever lost. Towards the end of the production, I moved the Events and Projects folder to the local drive (media still linked on the SAN volume) and all of these issues went away. So maybe network traffic creates some conflicts. The moral of the story is to keep your Events and Projects (renders, too, unfortunately) on a fast local drive and performance should be OK.

There are a lot of editing enhancements and software optimization that I hope will come soon. Editing/mixing audio is pretty weak in my opinion. (In fact, I found it refreshing to do some quick audio fixes on an existing commercial using FCP 7 again, after working in X for a while.) Simple titles are all Motion templates, so performance is VERY challenged. Stack two basic text lines over each other (no animation) and even a fast machine drops frames quickly unless you render.

After final delivery, I had to make a few quick changes, which required swapping clips on one spot and some color correction tweaks on three others. I had to match both the out-of-house color correction and the mix for these new clips. I could come close on the color correction using the Color Board, but needed the Broadcast Safe filter to clip white levels. This only works when you apply it to a compound clip, so you can’t see how your corrections are affected by the filter as you adjust the colors. Plus, it does more of a soft clip, thus changing the levels close to the ends rather than simply clipping. This filter has almost no adjustment control, making it of limited value. The same is true for audio, where compression and limiting does not work correctly when you try to apply it at the end of the audio chain. It is very hard to adjust your audio levels interactively between the compressor and the volume slider and get the correct limit.

Lastly, some of these fixes required that I use a few of the free plug-ins that various users have developed. You get what you pay for, as I found one that had a huge mistake in it. Applying the filter arbitrarily scaled the image up 150%. Fortunately these are all Motion templates, so it was a relatively easy matter to edit the filter in Motion and correct the mistake.

In the end, none of my concerns or complaints were deal-breakers. Editing was fast and generally fun, though you have to be very, very, very careful in what you do, when precision is important. Given the experience, I’ve moved onto another large corporate video project and will use Final Cut Pro X again on this one. Hey – I’m in the fire now!

©2012 Oliver Peters

RED post for My Fair Lidy

I’ve work on various RED projects, but a recent interesting example is My Fair Lidy, an independent film produced through the Valencia College Film Production Technology program. This was a full-blown feature shot entirely with RED One cameras. In this program, professional filmmakers with real projects in hand partner with a class of eager students seeking to learn the craft of film production. I’ve edited two of these films produced through the program and assisted in various aspects of post on many others. My Fair Lidy – a quirky comedy directed by program director Ralph Clemente – was shot in 17 days this summer at various central Florida locations. Two RED Ones were used – one handled by director of photography Ricardo Galé and the second by student cinematographers. My Fair Lidy was produced by SandWoman Films and stars Christopher Backus and Leigh Shannon.

There are many ways to handle the post production of native RED media and I’ve covered a number of them in these earlier posts. There is no single “best way” to handle these files, because each production is often best-served by a custom solution. Originally, I felt the way to tackle the dailies was to convert the .r3d camera files into ProRes 4444 files using the RedLogFilm profile. This gives you a very flat look, and a starting point very similar to ARRI ALEXA files shot with the Log-C profile. My intension would have been to finish and grade straight from the QuickTimes and never return to the .r3d files, unless I needed to fix some problems. Neutral images with a RedLogFilm gamma setting are very easy to grade and they let the colorist swing the image for different looks with ease. However, after my initial discussions with Ricardo, it was decided to do the final grade from the native camera raw files, so that we had the most control over the image, plus the ability to zoom in and reframe using the native 4K files as a source.

The dailies and editorial flow

My Fair Lidy was lensed with a 16 x 9 aspect ratio, with the REDs set to record 4096 x 2304 (at 23.98fps). In addition to a RED One and a healthy complement of grip, lighting and electrical gear, Valencia College owns several Final Cut Pro post systems and a Red Rocket accelerator card. With two REDs rolling most of the time, the latter was a godsend on this production.  We had two workstations set up – one as the editor’s station with a large Maxx Digital storage array and the other as the assistant’s station. That system housed the Red Rocket card. My two assistants (Kyle Prince and Frank Gould) handled all data back-up and conversion of 4K RED files to 1920 x 1080 ProResHQ for editorial media. Using ProResHQ was probably overkill for cutting the film (any of the lower ProRes codecs would have been fine for editorial decisions) but this gave us the best possible image for an potential screenings, trailers, etc.

Redcine-X was our tool for .r3d media organization and conversion. All in-camera settings were left alone, except the gamma adjustment. The Red Rocket card handles the full-resolution debayering of the raw files, so conversion time is close to real time. The two stations were networked via AFP (Apple’s file-sharing protocol), which permitted the assistant to handle his tasks without slowing down the editor. In addition, the assistant would sync and merge audio from the double-system sound, multi-track audio recordings and enter basic scene/take descriptions. Each shoot day had its own FCP project, so when done, project files and media (.r3d, ProRes and audio) were copied over to the editor’s Maxx array. Master clips from these daily FCP projects were then copied-and-pasted (and media relinked) into a single “master edit” FCP project.

For reasons of schedule and availability, I split the editing responsibilities with a second film editor, Patrick Tyler. My initial role was to bring the film to its first cut and then Patrick handled revisions with the producer and director. Once the picture was locked, I rejoined the project to cover final finishing and color grading. My Fair Lidy was on a very accelerated schedule, with sound design and music scoring running on a parallel track. In total, post took about 15 weeks from start to finish.

Finishing and grading

Since we didn’t use FCP’s Log and Transfer function nor the in-camera QuickTime reference files as edit proxies, there was no easy way to get Apple Color to automatically relink clips to the original .r3d files. You can manually redirect Color to link to RED files, but this must be done one shot at a time – not exactly desirable for the 1300 or so shots in the film.

The recommended workflow is to export an XML from FCP 7, which is then opened in Redcine-X. It will correctly reconnect to the .r3d files in place of the QuickTime movies. From there you export a new XML, which can be imported into Color. Voila! A Color timeline that matches the edit using the native camera files. Unfortunately for us, this is where reality came crashing in – literally. No matter what we did, using both  XMLs and EDLs, everything that we attempted to import into Color crashed the application. We also tried ClipFinder, another free application designed for RED media. It didn’t crash Color, but a significant number of shots were incorrectly linked. I suspect some internal confusion because of the A and B camera situation.

On to Plan B. Since Redcine-X correctly links to the media and includes not only controls for the raw settings, but also a healthy toolset for primary color correction, then why not use it for part of the grading process? Follow that up with a pass through Color to establish the stylistic “look”. This ended up working extremely well for us. Here are the basic steps I followed.

Step 1. We broke the film into ten reels and exported an XML file for each reel from FCP 7.

Step 2. Each reel’s XML was imported into Redcine-X as a timeline. I changed all the camera color metadata for each shot to create a neutral look and to match shots to each other. I used RedColor (slightly more saturated than RedColor2) and RedGamma2 (not quite as flat as RedLogFilm), plus adjusted the color temp, tint and ISO values to get a neutral white balance and match the A and B camera angles. The intent was to bring the image “within the goalposts” of the histogram. Occasionally I would make minor exposure and contrast adjustments, but for the most part, I didn’t touch any of the other color controls.

My objective was to end up with a timeline that looked consistent but preserved dynamic range. Essentially that’s the same thing I would do as the first step using the primary tab within Color. The nice part about this is that once I matched the settings of the shots, the A and B cameras looked very consistent.

Step 3. Each timeline was exported from Redcine-X as a single ProResHQ file with these new settings baked in. We had moved the Red Rocket card into the primary workstation, so these 1920 x 1080 clips were rendered with full resolution debayering. As with the dailies, rendering time was largely real-time or somewhat slower. In this case, approximately 10-20 minutes per reel.

Step 4. I imported each rendered clip back into FCP and placed it onto video track two over the corresponding clips for that reel to check the conforming accuracy and sync. Using the “next edit” keystroke, I quickly stepped through the timeline and “razored” each edit point on the clip from Redcine-X. This may sound cumbersome, but only took a couple of minutes for each reel. Now I had an FCP sequence from a single media clip, but with each cut split as an edit point. Doing this creates “notches” that are used by the color correction software for cuts between corrections. That’s been the basis for all “tape-to-tape” color correction since DaVinci started doing it and the new Resolve software still includes a similar automatic scene detection function today.

Step 5. I sent my newly “notched” timeline to Color and graded as I normally would. By using the Redcine-X step as a “pre-grade”, I had done the same thing to the image as I would have done using the RED tab within Color, thus keeping with the plan to grade from the native camera raw files. I do believe the approach I took was faster and better than trying to do it all inside Color, because of the inefficiency of bouncing in and out of the RED tab in Color for each clip. Not to mention that Color really bogs down when working with 4K files, even with a Red Rocket card in place.

Step 6. The exception to this process was any shot that required a blow-up or repositioning. For these, I sent the ProRes file from dailies in place of the rendered shot from Redcine-X. In Color, I would then manually reconnect to the .r3d file and resize the shot in Color’s geometry room, thus using the file’s full 4K size to preserve resolution at 1080 for the blow-up.

Step 7. The last step was to render in Color and then “Send to FCP” to complete the roundtrip. In FCP, the reel were assembled for the full movie and then married to the mixed soundtrack for a finished film.

© 2011 Oliver Peters

ARRI ALEXA post, part 5

A commercial case study

Upon my return from NAB, I dove straight into post on a set of regional commercials for Hy-Vee, a Midwest grocer. I’ve worked with this client, agency and director for a number of years and all previous projects had been photographed on 35mm, transferred to Digital Betacam and followed a common, standard definition post workflow. The new spots featured celebrity chef Curtis Stone and instead of film, Director/DP Toby Phillips opted to produce the spots using the ARRI ALEXA. This gave us the opportunity to cut and finish in HD. Although we mastered in 1080p/23.98, delivery formats included 720p versions for the web and cinema, along with reformatted spots in 14×9 SD for broadcast.

The beauty of ALEXA is that you can take the Apple ProRes QuickTime camera files straight into edit without any transcoding delays. I was cutting these at TinMen, a local production company, on a fast 12-core Mac Pro connected to a Fibre Channel SAN, so there was no slowdown working with the ProRes 4444 files. Phillips shot with two ALEXAs and a Canon 5D, plus double-system sound. The only conversion involved was to get the 5D files into ProRes, using my standard workflow. The double-system sound was mainly as a back-up, since the audio was also tethered to the ALEXA, which records two tracks of high-quality sound.

On location, the data wrangler used the Pomfort Silverstack ARRI Set application to offload, back-up and organize files from the SxS cards to hard drive. Silverstack lets you review and organize the footage and write a new XML file based on this organization. Since the week-long production covered several different spots, the hope was to organize files according to commercial and scene. In general, this concept worked, but I ran into problems with how Final Cut Pro reconnects media files. Copying the backed-up camera files to the SAN changes the file path. FCP wouldn’t automatically relink the imported XML master clips to the corresponding media. Normally, in this case, once you reconnect the first file, the rest in a similar path will also relink. Unfortunately by using the Silverstack XML, it meant I had to start the reconnect routine every few clips, since this new XML would bridge information across various cards. Instead of using the Silverstack-generated XML, I decided to use the camera-generated XML files, which meant only going through the reconnect dialogue once per card.

It’s worth noting that the QuickTime files written by the ARRI ALEXA somehow differ from what FCP expects to see. When you import these files into FCP, you frequently run into two error prompts: the “media isn’t optimized” message and the “file attributes don’t match” message. Both of these are bogus and the QuickTime files work perfectly well in FCP, so when you encounter such messages, simply click “continue” and proceed.

Click for an enlarged view

Dealing with Log-C in the rough cut

As I’ve discussed in numerous posts, one of the mixed blessings of the camera is the Log-C profile. It’s ARRI’s unique way of squeezing a huge dynamic range into the ALEXA’s recorded signal, but it means editors need to understand how to deal with it. Since these spots wouldn’t go through the standard offline-online workflow, it was up to me as the editor to create the “dailies”. I’ve mentioned various approaches to LUTs (color look-up tables), but on this project I used the standard FCP color correction filter to change the image from its flat Log-C appearance to a more pleasing Rec 709 look. On this 12-core Mac Pro, ProRes 4444 clips (with an unrendered color correction filter applied) played smoothly and with full video quality on a ProRes HQ timeline. Since the client was aware of how much better the image would look after grading – and because in the past they had participated in film transfer and color correction sessions – seeing the flat Log-C image didn’t pose a problem.

From my standpoint, it was simply a matter of creating a basic setting and then quickly pasting that filter to clips as I edited them to the timeline. One advantage to using the color correction filter instead of a proper LUT, is that this allowed me to subjectively tweak a shot for the client, without adding another filter. If the shot looked a little dark (compared with a “standard” setting), I would quickly brighten it as I went along. Like most commercial sessions, I would usually have several versions roughed in before the client really started to review anything. In reality, their exposure to the uncorrected images was less frequent than you might think. As such, the “apply filter as you go” method works well in the spot editorial world.

Moving to finishing

New Hat colorist Bob Festa handled the final grading of these spots on a Filmlight Baselight system. There are a couple of ways to send media to a Baselight, but the decision was made to send DPX files, which corresponded to the cut sequence. Since I was sending a string of over ten commercials to be graded, I had a concern about the volume of raw footage to ship. There is a bug in the ALEXA/FCP process and that has to do with FCP’s Media Manager. When you media manage and trim the camera clips, many are not correctly written and result in partial clips with a “-v” suffix. If you media manage, but take the entire length of a clip, then FCP’s Media Manager seems to work correctly. To avoid sending too much footage, I only sent an assembled sequence with the entire series of spots strung out end-to-end. I extended all shots to add built-in handles and removed any of my filters, leaving the uncorrected shots with pad.

Final Cut Pro doesn’t export DPX files, but Premiere Pro does. So…  a) I exported an XML from FCP, b) imported that into Premiere Pro, and c) exported the Premiere Pro timeline as DPX media. In addition, I also generated an EDL to serve as a “notch list”, which lined up with all the cuts and divided the long image sequence into a series of shots with edit points – ready to be color corrected.

After a supervised color correction session at New Hat, the graded shots were rendered as a single uncompressed QuickTime movie. I imported that file and realigned the shots with my cuts (removing handles) to now have a set of spots with the final graded clips in place of the Log-C camera footage.

Of course, spot work always involves a few final revisions, and this project was no exception. After a round of agency and client reviews, we edited for a couple of days to revise a few spots and eliminate alternate versions before sending the spots to the audio mixing session. Most of these changes were simple trims that could be done within the amount of handle length I had on the graded footage. However, a few alternate takes were selected and in some cases, I had to extend a shot longer than my handles. This combination meant that about a dozen shots (out of more than ten commercials) had to be newly graded, meaning a second round at New Hat. We skipped the DPX pass and instead sent an EDL and the raw footage as QuickTime ProRes 4444 camera files for only the revised clips. Festa was able to match his previous grades, render new QuickTimes of the revised shots and ship a hard drive back to us.

Click to view “brand introduction” commercial

Reformatting

Our finished masters were ProRes HQ 1920×1080 23.98fps files, but think of these only as intermediates. The actual spots that run in broadcast are 4×3 NTSC. Phillips had framed his shots protecting for 4×3, but in order to preserve some of the wider visual aspect ratio, we decided to finish with a 14×9 framing. This means that the 4×3 frame has a slight letterbox with smaller top and bottom black bars. Unlike the usual 4×3 center-crop, a smaller portion of the left and right edge of the 16×9 HD frame is cropped off. I don’t like how FCP handles the addition of pulldown (to turn 23.98 into 29.97 fps) and I’m not happy with its scaling quality to downconvert HD to SD. My “go to” solution is to use After Effects as the conversion utility for the best results.

From Final Cut, I exported a self-contained, textless QuickTime movie (HD 23.98). This was placed into an After Effects 720 x 486 D1 composition and scaled to match a 14×9 framing within that comp. I rendered an uncompressed QuickTime file out of After Effects (29.97 fps, field-rendered with added 3:2 pulldown). The last step was to bring this 720 x 486 file back into FCP, place it on an NTSC 525i timeline, add and reposition all graphics for proper position and finish the masters.

Most of these steps are not unusual if you do a lot of high-end spot work. In the past, 35mm spots would be rough cut from one-light “dailies”. Transfer facilities would then retransfer selects in supervised color correction sessions and an online shop would conform this new film transfer to the rough cut. Although many of the traditional offline-online approaches are changing, they aren’t going away completely. The tricks learned over the past 40 years of this workflow still have merit in the digital world and can provide for rich post solutions.

Sample images – click to see enlarged view

Log-C profile from camera

Nick Shaw Log-C to Rec 709 LUT (interface)

Nick Shaw Log-C to Rec 709 LUT (result)

Final image after Baselight grading

© 2011 Oliver Peters

ARRI ALEXA post, part 4

Local producers have started real productions with the ARRI ALEXA, so my work has moved from the theoretical to the practical. As an editor, working with footage from ALEXA is fun. The ProRes files are easily brought into FCP, Premiere Pro or Media Composer via import or AMA with little extra effort. The Rec 709 color profile looks great, but if the DP opts for the Log-C profile, grading is a snap. Log-C, as I wrote before, results in an image akin to a film scan of uncorrected 35mm negative. It’s easy to grade and you end up with gorgeous natural colors. There’s plenty of range to swing the image in different ways for many different looks.

Working with the Log-C profile in front of a client takes a bit of strategy, depending on the NLE you are using. Under the best of circumstances, you’d probably want to process the images first and work with offline-resolution editing clips (like Avid DNxHD36 or Apple ProRes Proxy) with a color correction LUT “baked” into the image. Much like one-light “dailies” for film-originated projects.

Many projects don’t permit this amount of advanced time, though, so editors often must deal with it as part of the edit session. This primarily applies to commercial and corporate work. Workflows for feature film and TV projects should follow a more traditional course, with prep time built into the front end, but that’s another blog post.

Strategies

There are LUT (color look-up table) filters for FCP, but unfortunately real-time performance is challenged by many. The best performance, is when you can use the native filters, even though that might not technically be the correct curve. That’s OK, because most of the time you simply want a good looking image for the client to see while you are doing the creative cut. Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro both require that you apply a filter to each clip on the timeline. This has an impact on your workflow, because you have to add filters as you go.

One good approach, which balances FCP performance with an accurate LUT, is the Log-C to Rec 709 plug-in developed by Nick Shaw at Antler Post. It not only corrects the profile, but adds other features, like “burn-in” displays. If you leave your FCP timeline’s RT setting in dynamic/dynamic, the unrendered clips with this filter applied will drop frames. Changing the setting to Full frame rate and/or High/Full will yield real-time playback at full video quality on a current Mac.

ARRI has enabled its web-based LUT Generator, which is accessible for free if you register at the ARRIDIGITAL site. You can create LUTs in various formats, but the one that has worked best for me is the Apple Color .mga version. This can be properly imported and applied in Apple Color. There it may be used simply for viewing or optionally baked into the rendered files as part of the color correction.

You can also use Red Giant’s free Magic Bullet LUT Buddy. This filter can be used to create and/or read LUTs. Apply it to a clip in Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or After Effects, read in the .mga file and render. Lastly, the Adobe apps also include a Cineon conversion filter. Apply this in Premiere Pro or After Effects and tweak as needed. On a fast machine, Premiere Pro CS 5.5 plays clips with the Cineon converter applied, in real-time without rendering.

Avid Media Composer and Adobe After Effects currently have the best routines, because you can add color correction to an upper layer and everything underneath is adjusted.

After Effects actually treats this as an “adjustment layer”, like in Photoshop, while Media Composer simply lets you add filters to a blank track – effectively doing the same thing as an adjustment layer. You still won’t see the source clip as a corrected image, but once it is placed on the timeline, the correction is applied and the image appears richer.

In the case of Avid Media Composer, this can also include some filters other than its own color correction mode filters. For example, GenArts Sapphire or Magic Bullet Looks. Media Composer is able to play these files at full quality, even though they are unrendered, giving it a performance edge over FCP.

Cutting spots in Log-C

I recently cut a set of national spots for Florida Film & Tape (a local production company) on a late-model Apple dual-processor PowerMac G5, running FCP 6.0.6. It was equipped with a fast SCSI RAID and an AJA Kona card. That’s a perfectly good set-up for most SD and HD post. In fact, I’ve previously edited spots photographed on 35mm film and the RED One camera for the same client and same production company on this system. G5s were manufactured and sold before ProRes was ever released; but, in spite of that, I was able to work with the 1920×1080 23.98fps ProRes4444 files that were shot. I placed my selected clips on an uncompressed timeline and started cutting. The client had already seen a Rec 709 preview out of the camera, so he understood that the image would look fine after grading. Therefore, there was no need to cut with a corrected image. That was good, because adding any sort of color correction filter to a large amount of footage would have really impacted performance on this computer.

In order to make the edit as straightforward and efficient as possible, I first assembled a timeline of all the “circle takes” so the director (Brad Fuller) and the client could zero in on the best performances. Then I assembled these into spots and applied a basic color correction filter to establish an image closer to the final. At this point, I rendered the spots and started to fine-tune the edit, re-rendering the adjustments as I went along. This may sound more cumbersome than it was, since I was editing at online quality the entire time (uncompressed HD). Given the short turnaround time, this was actually the fastest way to work. The shoot and post (edit, grade, mix) were completed in three consecutive days!

Once the picture was locked, I proceeded to the last steps – color grading the spots and formatting versions for various air masters. I decided to grade these spots using the Magic Bullet Colorista (version 1) plug-in. There was no need to use Apple Color and Colorista works fine on the G5. I removed the basic filter I had applied to the clips for the edit and went to work with Colorista. It does a good job with the Log-C images, including adding several layers for custom color-correction masks. As flat as the starting images are, it’s amazing how far you can stretch contrast and increase saturation without objectionable noise or banding.

I’ll have more to write about ALEXA post in the coming weeks as I work on more of these projects. This camera has garnered buzz, thanks to a very filmic image and its ease in post. It’s an easy process to deal with if your editing strategy is planned out.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Video sweetening

Color grading for mood, style and story

Video “sweetening” is both a science and an art. To my way of thinking, Color correction is objective – evening out shot-to-shot consistency and adjusting for improper levels or color balance. Color grading is subjective – giving a movie, show or commercial a “look”. Grading ranges from the simple enhancement of what the director of photography gave you – all the way to completely “relighting” a scene to radically alter the original image. Whenever you grade a project, the look you establish should always be in keeping with the story and the mood the director is trying to achieve. Color provides the subliminal cues that lead the audience deeper into the story.

Under the best of circumstances, the colorist is working as an extension of the director of photography and both are on the same page as the director. Frequently the DP will sit in on the grading session; however, there are many cases – especially in low budget projects – where the DP is no longer involved at that stage. In those circumstances, it is up to the colorist to properly guide the director to the final visual style.

I’ve pulled some examples from two digital films that I graded – The Touch (directed by Jimmy Huckaby) and Scare Zone (directed by Jon Binkowski). The first was shot with a Sony F900 and graded with Final Cut Pro’s internal and third-party tools. The latter used two Sony EX cameras and was graded in Apple Color.

The Touch

This is a faith-oriented film, based on a true story about personal redemption tied to the creation of a local church’s women’s center. The story opens as our lead character is arrested and goes through police station booking. Since this was a small indie film, a real police station was used. This meant the actual, ugly fluorescent lighting – no fancy, stylized police stations, like on CSI. Since the point of this scene isn’t supposed to be pretty, the best way to grade it was to go with the flow. Don’t fight the fluorescent look, but go more gritty and more desaturated.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Once she’s released and picked up by her loser boyfriend, we are back outside in sunny Florida weather. Just stick with a nice exterior look.

Nearly at the bottom of her life, she’s in a hotel room on the verge of suicide. This was originally a very warm shot, thanks to the incandescents in the room. But I felt it should go cooler. It’s night – there’s a TV on casting bluish light on her – and in general, this is supposed to be a depressing scene. So we swung the shot cooler and again, more desaturated from the original.

The fledgling women’s center holds group counseling sessions in a living room environment. This should feel comfortable and inviting. Here we went warmer.

Our lead character is haunted by the evils of her past, including childhood molestation and a teen rape. This is shown in various flashback sequences marked by an obvious change in editorial treatment utilizing frenetic cutting and speed ramps – together with a different visual look. The flashbacks were graded differently using Magic Bullet Looks for a more stylized appearance, including highlight glows.

Our lead comes to her personal conversion through the church and again, the sanctuary should look warm, natural and inviting. Since the lens used on the F900 resulted in a very deep depth of field, we decided to enhance these wider shots using a tilt-and-shift lens effect in Magic Bullet Looks. The intent was to defocus the background slightly and draw the audience in towards our main character.

Scare Zone

As you’ve probably gathered, Scare Zone is a completely different sort of tale than The Touch. Scare Zone is a comedy-horror film based on a Halloween haunted house attraction, which I discussed in this earlier post. In this story, our ensemble cast are part-time employees who work as “scaractors” in the evening. But… They are being killed off by a real killer. Most of the action takes place in the attraction sets and gift shop, with a few excursions off property. As such, the lighting style was a mixed bag, showing the attraction with “work lights” only and with full “attraction lighting”. We also have scenes without lights, except what is supposed to be moonlight or street lamp lighting coming through leaks from the exterior windows. And, of course, there’s the theatrical make-up.

This example shows one of the attraction scenes with work lights as the slightly, off-kilter manager explains their individual roles.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Here are several frames showing one of the actors in scenes with show lighting, work lights and at home.

These are several frames from the film’s attraction/action/montage segments showing scaractor activity under show lighting. In the last frame, one of our actresses gets attacked.

The gift shop has a more normal lighting appearance. Not as warm as the work light condition, but warmer than the attraction lighting. In order to soften the look of the Goth make-up on the close-ups of our lead actress, I used a very slight application of the FCP compound blur filter.

Naturally, as in any thriller, the audience is to be left guessing throughout most of the film about the identity of the real killer. In this scene one of the actresses is being follow by the possible killer. Or is he? It’s a dark part of the hallway in a “show lighting” scene. One of the little extras done here was to use two secondaries with vignettes to brighten each eye socket of the mask, so as to better see the whites of the character’s eyes.

A crowd of guests line up on the outside, waiting to get into the attraction. It’s supposed to look like a shopping mall parking lot at night with minimal exterior lighting.

And lastly, these frames are from some of the attack scenes during what is supposed to be pre-show or after-show lighting conditions. In the first frame, one of our actresses is being chased by the killer through the attraction hallways and appears to have been caught. Although the vignette was natural, I enhanced this shot to keep it from being so dark that you couldn’t make out the action. The last two frames show some unfortunate vandals who tried to trash the place over the night. This is supposed to be a “lights-off” scene, with the only light being from the outside through leaks. And their flashlights, of course. The last frame required the use of secondary correction to make the color of the stage blood appear more natural.

©2011 Oliver Peters