The Ouch of 4K Post

df_4kpost_sm4K is the big buzz. Many in the post community are wondering when the tipping point will be reached when their clients will demand 4K masters. 4K acquisition has been with us for awhile and has generally proven to be useful for its creative options, like reframing during post. This has been possible long before the introduction of the RED One camera, if you were shooting on film. But acquiring in 4K and higher is quite a lot different than working a complete 4K post production pipeline.

There are a lot of half-truths surrounding 4K, so let me tackle a couple. When we talk about 4K, the moniker applies only to frame dimensions in pixels, not resolution, as in sharpness. There are several 4K dimensions, depending on whether you mean cinema specs or television specs. The cinema projection spec is 4096 x 2160 (1.9:1 aspect ratio) and within that, various aspects and frame sizes can be placed. The television or consumer spec is 3840 x 2160 (16:9 or 1.78:1 aspect ratio), which is an even multiple of HD at 1920 x 1080. That’s what most consumer 4K TV sets use. It is referred to by various labels, such as Ultra HD, UHD, UHDTV, Quad HD, 4K HD and so on. If you are delivering a digital cinema master it will be 4096 pixels wide, but if you deliver a television 4K master, it will be 3840 pixels wide. Regardless of which format your deliverable will be, you will most likely want to acquire at 4096 x 2304 (16:9) or larger, because this gives you some reframing space for either format.

This brings us to resolution. Although the area of the 4K frame is 4x that of a 1080p HD frame, the actual resolution is only theoretically 2x better. That’s because resolution is measured based on the vertical dimension and is a factor of the ability to resolve small detail in the image (typically based on thin lines of a resolution chart). True resolution is affected by many factors, including lens quality, depth of field, accuracy of the focus, contrast, etc. When you blow up a 35mm film frame and analyze high-detail areas within the frame, you often find them blurrier than you’d expect.

The brings us to post. The push for 4K post comes from a number of sources, but many voices in the independent owner-operator camp have been the strongest. These include many RED camera owners, who successfully cut their own material straight from the native media of the camera. NLEs, like Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Apple Final Cut Pro X, make this a fairly painless experience for small, independent projects, like short films and commercials. Unfortunately it’s an experience that doesn’t extrapolate well to the broader post community, which works on a variety projects and must interchange media with numerous other vendors.

The reason 4K post seems easy and viable to many is that the current crop of 4K camera work with highly compressed codecs and many newer computers have been optimized to deal with these codecs. Therefore, if you shoot with a RED (Redcode), Canon 1DC (Motion-JPEG), AJA Cion (ProRes), BMD URSA (ProRes) and Sony F55 (XAVC), you are going to get a tolerable post experience using post-ready, native media or by quickly transcoding to ProRes. But that’s not how most larger productions work. A typical motion picture or television show will take the camera footage and process it into something that fits into a known pipeline. This usually means uncompressed DPX image sequences, plus proxy movies for the editors. This allows a base level of color management that can be controlled through the VFX pipeline without each unit along the way adding their own color interpretation. It also keeps the quality highest without further decompression/recompression cycles, as well as various debayering methods used.

Uncompressed or even mildy compressed codecs mean a huge storage commitment for an ongoing facility. Here’s a quick example. I took a short RED clip that was a little over 3 minutes long. It was recorded as 4096 x 2304 at 23.976fps. This file was a bit over 7GB in its raw form. Then I converted this to these formats with the following results:

ProRes 4444 – 27GB

ProRes HQ (also scaled to UHD 3840 x 2160) – 16GB

Uncompressed 10-Bit – 116GB

DPX images (10-bits per channel) – 173GB

TIFF images (8-bits per channel) – 130GB

As you can see, storage requirement increase dramatically. This can be mitigated by tossing out some data, as the ProRes444 versus down-sampled ProResHQ comparison shows. It’s worth noting that I used the lower DPX and TIFF color depth options, as well. At these settings, a single 4K DPX frame is 38MB and a single 4K TIFF frame is 28MB.

For comparison, a complete 90-100 minute feature film mastered at 1920 x 1080 (23.976fps) as ProRes HQ will consume about 110-120GB of storage. UHD is still 4x the frame area, so if we use the ProRes HQ example above, 30x that 3 min. clip would give us the count for a typical feature. That figure comes out to 480GB.

This clearly has storage ramifications. A typical indie feature shot with two RED cameras over a one-month period, will likely generate about 5-10TB of media in the camera original raw form. If this same media were converted to ProRes444, never mind uncompressed, your storage requirements just increased to an additional 16-38TB. Mind you this is all as 24p media. As we start talking 4K in television-centric applications around the world, this also means 4K at 25, 30, 50 and 60fps. 60fps means 2.5x more storage demands than 24p.

The other element is system performance. Compressed codecs work when the computer is optimized for these. RED has worked hard to make Redcode easy to work with on modern computers. Apple ProRes enjoys near ubiquitous playback support. ProRes HQ even at 4K will play reasonably well from a two-drive RAID-0 stripe on my Mac Pro. Recode plays if I lower the debayer quality. Once you start getting into uncompressed files and DPX or TIFF image strings, it takes a fast drive array and a fast computer to get anything approaching consistent real-time playback. Therefore, the only viable workflow is an offline-online editorial system, since creative editorial generally requires multiple streams of simultaneous media.

This workflow gets even worse with other cameras. One example is the Canon C500, which records 4K camera raw files to an external recorder, such as the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q. These are proprietary Canon camera raw files, which cannot be natively played by an NLE. These must first be turned into something else using a Canon utility. Since the Odyssey records to internal SSDs, media piles up pretty quickly. With two 512GB SSDs, you get 62 minutes of record time at 24fps if you record Canon 4K raw. In the real world of production, this becomes tough, because it means you either have to rent or buy numerous SSDs for your shoot or copy and reuse as you go. Typically transferring 1TB of data on set is not a fast process.

Naturally there are ways to make 4K post efficient and not as painful as it needs to be. But it requires a commitment to hardware resources. It’s not conducive to easy desktop post running off of a laptop, like DV and even HD has been. That’s why you still see Autodesk Smokes, Quantel Rio Pablos and other high-end systems dominate at the leading facilities. Think, plan and buy before you jump in.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Amira Color Tool and your NLE

df_amiracolor_1I was recently alerted to the new Amira Color Tool by Michael Phillips’ 24p blog. This is a lightweight ARRI software application designed to create custom in-camera looks for the Amira camera. You do this by creating custom color look-up tables (LUT). The Amira Color Tool is available as a free download from the ARRI website (free registration required). Although the application is designed for the camera, you can also export looks in a variety of LUT file formats, which in turn, may be installed and applied to footage in a number of different editing and color correction applications. I tested this in both Apple Final Cut Pro X and Avid Media Composer | Software (v8) with good results.

The Amira Color Tool is designed to correct log-C encoded footage into a straight Rec709 offset or with a custom look. ARRI offers some very good instructions, white papers, sample looks and tutorials that cover the operation of this software. The signal flow is from the log-C image, to the Rec709 correction, and then to the CDL-based color correction. To my eye, the math appears to be floating point, because a Rec709 conversion that throws a shot into clipping, can be pulled back out of clipping in the look tab, using the CDL color correction tools. Therefore it is possible to use this tool for shots other than ARRI Amira or Alexa log-C footage, as long as it is sufficiently flat.

The CDL correction tools are based on slope, offset and power. In that model slope is equivalent to gain, offset to lift and power to gamma. In addition to color wheels, there’s a second video look parameters tab for hue intensities for the six main vectors (red, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta). The Amira Color Tool is Mac-only and opens both QuickTime and DPX files from the clips I tested. It worked successfully with clips shot on an Alexa (log-C), Blackmagic Cinema Camera (BMD Film profile), Sony F-3 (S-log) and Canon 1DC (4K Canon-log). Remember that the software is designed to correct flat, log-C images, so you probably don’t want to use this with images that were already encoded with vibrant Rec709 colors.

FCP X

df_amiracolor_4To use the Amira Color Tool, import your clip from the application’s file browser, set the look and export a 3D LUT in the appropriate format. I used the DaVinci Resolve setting, which creates a 3D LUT in a .cube format file. To get this into FCP X, you need to buy and install a LUT filter, like Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. To install a new LUT there, open the LUT Utility pane in System Preferences, click the “+” symbol and navigate to where the file was saved.df_amiracolor_5_sm In FCP X, apply the LUT Utility to the clip as a filter. From the filter’s pulldown selection in the inspector, choose the new LUT that you’ve created and installed. One caveat is to be careful with ARRI files. Any files recorded with newer ARRI firmware are flagged for log-C and FCP X automatically corrects these to Rec709. Since you don’t want to double up on LUTs, make sure “log processing” is unchecked for those clips in the info tab of the inspector pane.

Media Composer

df_amiracolor_6_smTo use the custom LUTs in Media Composer, select “source settings” for the clip. Go to the color management tab and install the LUT. Now it will be available in the pull-down menu for color conversions. This color management change can be applied to a single clip or to a batch of clips within a bin.

In both cases, the source clips in FCP X and/or Media Composer will play in real-time with the custom look already applied.

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©2014 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer | Software v8

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At NAB Avid presented its Avid Everywhere concept. While Everywhere is a over-arching marketing concept, involving “the cloud”, storage, asset management, a marketplace and more, for most independent editors, Avid is all about Media Composer and/or Pro Tools. Given that, there’s very little in the Everywhere concept that affects these users. The most salient part is a restructuring of licensing and software options.

Media Composer and the options

Avid’s flagship NLE is now known as Media Composer | Software and version numbers are only internal, rather than part of the product branding. Avid released Media Composer version 8.0 in May, but it is only known as Media Composer. Added to this are three options: Media Composer | Symphony, Media Composer | NewsCutter and Media Composer | Cloud. NewsCutter, which always was a variation of Media Composer, is now sold as an option, which adds news-centric features to the interface. Media Composer | Cloud (formerly known as Interplay Sphere) is essentially a plug-in to Media Composer that allows remote access to an Avid asset management and storage system. NewsCutter and Cloud require a larger facility infrastructure, so I’ll skip them in this discussion. They have little bearing on what most independent editors do.

Two other past options, PhraseFind and ScriptSync, are currently not available, as these are based on a phonetic search engine technology licensed from Nexidia. Avid and Nexidia are in current discussions for a new licensing arrangement. While many editors rely on this technology, most do not. It is important to realize that Avid’s script integration and the internal Find tool are not completely tied to this technology and continue to work fine. The Nexidia options add a level of automation to the process through a phonetic match-up between waveforms and typed text.

Without ScriptSync, you can still create script-based bins, but the alignment of takes to script lines has to be done manually. Without PhraseFind, you can still search for text found in bin fields, but you cannot search by audio. Nexidia sells its own products, as well as licenses another application for editors that is sold through BorisFX as Soundbite. This is a standalone application geared to Final Cut and Premiere, but is not compatible with Media Composer. Until this gets resolved, Avid has advised editors who are dependent on ScriptSync or PhraseFind, not to upgrade past Media Composer version 7 software. Resellers still have these options available, in a version that is compatible with earlier versions of Media Composer.

Enter the new model

Media Composer version 8 is the first release of the application under the new licensing guidelines. You can now buy or rent Media Composer using three methods: perpetual license (own), subscription (rental) or floating license. The latter applies to larger facilities that are interested in purchasing “packs” of 20 or 50 perpetual licenses, which can be assigned to various machines as their production needs shift. The subscription license is based on an annual commitment ($49.99/mo-individual) or month-by-month ($74.99/mo-individual) rental and may be used by individuals or facilities. For example, facilities may have a number of perpetual licenses, but need to add a few seats of Media Composer for several months to accommodate an incoming, short-term production. They could choose to augment their “owned” licenses with additional subscription licenses to get through this immediate production crunch.

Most customers are likely to be interested in the changes in how you “own” the software, as the perpetual license model has changed from that of the past. When you now purchase Media Composer | Software, the cost is $1299, which covers the cost of the software plus one year of Avid support and any upgrades within the course of that year. (The actual support portion of that includes unlimited tech support over the web and one tech support phone call per month.) Customers still interested in a hardware license key (dongle) may purchase one for an additional $500. The Symphony option adds $749 to the bill. Current Media Composer owners (MC 6.5 or higher) can upgrade to MC 8 simply by purchasing a single year of support at $299 before the end of 2014. No matter how they got there (new purchase or renewal of an existing license) the software license is now on the current plan.

The important thing is that you have to renew again at the end of the first year of support. This is where the complaints have come in. As long as you renew your support contract each year at $299 (current price) then you will get any Avid updates to the software without having to purchase a separate software upgrade. (In the past, a Media Composer version upgrade has been more expensive than that year of support.) However, if you decide to let the support lapse for a year and then decide you want an upgrade, you will have to repurchase the product and any options anew.

Let’s say you bought Media Composer with the Symphony option – $1299 + $749. Hypothetically, by the end of the first year, Media Composer | Software has moved up to v8.5 and then you decide not to renew. From that point on, your version is “frozen” and cannot be upgraded. A year later, Media Composer | Software v10 comes out with enough compelling features to get you back on board. You cannot renew your v8.5 software license to upgrade, but instead have to purchase the current version Media Composer and Symphony again. Now you have two licenses: MC v8.5 and MC v10. Both work, but the older one is not upgradeable while the newer one is, as long as you renew its support contract after the end of the first year from the time of purchase.

Third-party bundles

In addition to the Nexidia issue, Avid now offers fewer third-party applications and effects as a bundle with the software. With the last few versions, you received Avid DVD, AvidFX, Sorenson Squeeze and BorisFX BCC filters (BCC only with the Symphony option). Avid DVD is no longer being developed. Variations of the others are now sold with a separate Production Pack third-party bundle. It gets a little confusing, because the options vary a bit between the perpetual and subscription models. If you buy the software, you now only get the NewBlueFX Titler Pro 1 and a starter set of their filters. “Lite” versions of Sorenson Squeeze and BCC (4 effects only) are offered with the subscription model. Since these are third-party products, you can still purchase them independently and existing versions that you already own will continue to work with Media Composer. BorisFX is offering upgrade deals to their products from past versions. Since AvidFX is simply an OEM version of Boris RED, one of their current deals is to upgrade from AvidFX to Boris RED 5.5 for $295. You can also upgrade to BCC 9 AVX for $599.

It’s a shame to lose the tools that were included in the past, but it really boils down to a consequence of the industry’s “race to the bottom”. At the prices that Avid currently sells Media Composer | Software, there simply is no margin left over to make third-party bundling deals. Developers aren’t going to accept a pittance just to be packaged with Media Composer. From the customer’s angle, you still have a decent set of audio and video filters included with Media Composer, including the NewBlueFX starter filters, Avid Illusion effects and the built-in Animatte effects tools. If you need more than that, you’ll simply have to purchase other plug-ins.

What to do

You own Media Composer version 7. What should you do now? The good news is that there’s no urgency to upgrade. MC v8 is essentially the same as v7.0.4, except with a new resident license tool (Application Manager). There are no new compelling features in MC v8 itself. Avid has promised one or more upgrades to happen during the year and resolution-independence has been mentioned as a technology that will come to Media Composer (although no specific commitment to a timeframe). You have until the end of the year to spend your $299 for support and get onto version 8.x. The smart money is advising to wait a few months and see what the next update brings. If it’s compelling, then you can take advantage of the deal and purchase the annual support, which gives you access to the new software (if you are on a recent version of Media Composer). The advantage to this is that the one-year clock starts at that time, so the later in the year that you do this, the longer the time (from now) that you have, before you need to renew again.

Changes like this always create a certain amount of tension. That’s been clear in the debates around Adobe’s shift to subscription with Creative Cloud. Users will inevitably compare the new costs to their old upgrade patterns and what the software used to cost them. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, since financial pressures change and none of these companies have ever said that changes to their pricing wouldn’t happen, if it’s necessary. It seems to me that Avid has adopted the best blend of purchase and rental that I’ve seen among the NLE companies. There’s an incentive to stay current with the software, which is both to Avid’s and the customer’s advantage. If you were a loyal user who stayed current and always bought the upgrades when they came out, then the new deal is better for you financially. If you tended to sit on old versions and only sporadically upgraded, then you are likely to pay more this way. No right or wrong – just the way it is.

©2014 Oliver Peters

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

Final Cut “Studio 2014″

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A few years ago I wrote some posts about Final Cut Pro as a platform and designing an FCP-centric facility. Those options have largely been replaced by an Adobe approach built around Creative Cloud. Not everyone has warmed up to Creative Cloud. Either they don’t like the software or they dislike the software rental model or they just don’t need much of the power offered by the various Adobe applications.

If you are looking for alternatives to a Creative Cloud-based production toolkit, then it’s easy to build your own combination with some very inexpensive solutions. Most of these are either Apple software or others that are sold through the Mac App Store. As with all App Store purchases, you buy the product once and get updates for free, so long as the product is still sold as the same. Individual users may install the apps onto as many Mac computers as they personally own and control, all for the one purchase price. With this in mind, it’s very easy for most editors to create a powerful bundle that’s equal to or better than the old Final Cut Studio bundle – at less than its full retail price back in the day.

The one caveat to all of this is how entrenched you may or may not be with Adobe products. If you need to open and alter complex Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects or Premiere Pro project files, then you will absolutely need Adobe software to do it. In that case, maybe you can get by with an old version (CS6 or earlier) or maybe trial software will work. Lastly you could outsource to a colleague with Adobe software or simply pick up a Creative Cloud subscription on a month-by-month rental. On the other hand, if you don’t absolutely need to interact with Adobe project files, then these solutions may be all you need. I’m not trying to advocate for one over the other, but rather to add some ideas to think about.

Final Cut Pro X / Motion / Compressor

df_fcpstudio_fcpx_smThe last Final Cut Studio bundle included FCP 7, Motion, Compressor, Cinema Tools, DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro and Color. The current Apple video tools of Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor cover all of the video bases, including editing, compositing, encoding, transcoding and disc burning. The latter may be a bone of contention for many – since Apple has largely walked away from the optical disc world. Nevertheless, simple one-off DVDs and Blu-ray discs can still be created straight from FCP X or Compressor. Of course, FCP X has been a mixed bag for editors, with many evangelists and haters on all sides. If you square off Premiere Pro against Final Cut Pro X, then it really boils down to tracks versus trackless. Both tools get the job done. Which one do you prefer?

df_fcpstudio_motion_smMotion versus After Effects is a tougher call. If you are a power user of After Effects, then Motion may seem foreign and hard to use. If the focus is primarily on motion graphics, then you can certainly get the results you want in either. There is no direct “send to” from FCP X to Motion, but on the plus side, you can create effects and graphics templates using Motion that will appear and function within FCP X. Just like with After Effects, you can also buy stock Motion templates for graphics, show opens and other types of design themes and animations.

Logic Pro X

df_fcpstudio_lpx_smLogic Pro X is the DAW in our package. It becomes the replacement for Soundtrack Pro and the alternative to Adobe Audition or Avid Pro Tools. It’s a powerful music creation tool, but more importantly for editors, it’s a strong single file and multitrack audio production and post production application. You can get FCP X files to it via FCPXML or AAF (converted using X2Pro). There are a ton of plug-ins and mixing features that make Logic a solid DAW. I won’t dive deeply into this, but suffice it to say, that if your main interest in using Logic is to produce a better mix, then you can learn the essentials quickly and get up and running in short order.

DaVinci Resolve

df_fcpstudio_resolve_smEvery decent studio bundle needs a powerful color correction tool. Apple Color is gone, but Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is a best-of-breed replacement. You can get the free Resolve Lite version through the App Store, as well as Blackmagic’s website. It does most of everything you need, so there’s little reason to buy the paid version for most editors who do some color correction.

Resolve 11 (due out soon) adds improved editing. There is a solid synergy with FCP X, making it not only a good companion color corrector, but also a finishing editorial tool. OFX plug-ins are supported, which adds a choice of industry standard creative effects if you need more than FCP X or Motion offer.

Pixelmator / Aperture

df_fcpstudio_pixelmator_smThis one’s tough. Of all the Adobe applications, Photoshop and Illustrator are hardest to replace. There are no perfect alternatives. On the other hand, most editors don’t need all that power. If direct feature compatibility isn’t a need, then you’ve got some choices. One of these is Pixelmator, a very lightweight image manipulation tool. It’s a little like Photoshop in the version 4-7 stages, with a mix of Illustrator tossed in. There are vector drawing and design tools and it’s optimized for core image, complete with a nice set of image filters. However, it does not include some of Photoshop CC’s power user features, like smart objects, smart filters, 3D, layer groups and video manipulation. But, if you just need to doctor some images, extract or modify logos or translate various image formats, Pixelmator might be the perfect fit. For more sophistication, another choice (not in the App Store) is Corel’s Painter, as well as Adobe Photoshop Elements (also available at the App Store).

df_fcpstudio_aperture_smAlthough Final Cut Studio never included a photo application, the Creative Cloud does include Lightroom. Since the beginning, Apple’s Aperture and Adobe’s Lightroom have been leapfrogging each other with features. Aperture hasn’t changed much in a few years and is likely the next pro app to get the “X” treatment from Apple’s engineers. Photographers have the same type of “Chevy vs. Ford” arguments about Aperture and Lightroom as editors do about NLEs. Nevertheless, editors deal a lot with supplied images and Aperture is a great tool to use for organization, clean up and image manipulation.

Other

The list I’ve outlined creates a nice set of tools, but if you need to interchange with other pros using a variety of different software, then you’ll need to invest in some “glue”. There are a number of utilities designed to go to and from FCP X. Many are available through the App Store. Examples include Xto7, 7toX, EDL-X, X2Pro, Shot Notes X, Lumberjack and many others.

For a freewheeling discussion about this topic and other matters, check out my conversation with Chris Fenwick at FCPX Grille.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Comparing Color, Resolve, SpeedGrade and Symphony

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It’s time to talk about color correctors. In this post, I’ll compare Color, Resolve, SpeedGrade and Symphony. These are the popular desktop color correction systems in use today. Certainly there are other options, like Filmlight’s Baselight Editions plug-in, as well as other NLEs with their own powerful color correction tools, including Autodesk Smoke and Quantel Rio. Some of these fall outside of the budget range of small shops or don’t really provide a correction workflow. For the sake of simplicity, in this post I’ll stick with the four I see the most.

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Avid Technology Media Composer + Symphony

Although it started as a separate NLE product with dedicated hardware, today’s Symphony is really an add-on option to Media Composer. The main feature that differentiates Symphony from Media Composer in file-based workflows is an enhanced color correction toolset. Symphony used to be the “gold standard” for color correction within an NLE, combining controls “borrowed” from many other software and systems, like Photoshop, hardware proc amps and hardware versions of the DaVinci correctors. It was the first to use the color wheel control model for balance/hue offsets. A subset of the Symphony tools has been migrated into Media Composer. Basic correction features in Symphony include channel mixing, hue offsets (color balance), levels, curves and more.

Many perceive Symphony correction as a single level or layer of correction, but that’s not exactly true. Color correction occurs on two levels – segment and program track. Most of your correction is on individual clips and Symphony offers a relational grading system. This means you can apply grades based on single clips or all instances of a master clip, tape ID, camera, etc. All clips used from a common source can be automatically graded once the first instance of that clip is graded on the timeline. The program track grade allows the colorist to apply an additional layer of grading to a clip, a section of the timeline or the entire timeline. So, when the client asks for everything to be darker, a global adjustment can be made using the program track.

Symphony also offers secondary grading based on isolating colors via an HSL key and adjusting that range. Although Symphony doesn’t offer nodes or correction layers like other software, you can use Avid’s video track timeline hierarchy to add additional correction to blank tracks above those tracks containing the video clips. In this way you are using the tracks as de facto adjustment layers. The biggest weakness is the lack of built-in masking tools to create what is commonly referred to as “power windows” (a term originated by DaVinci). The workaround is to use Avid’s built-in Intraframe/Animatte effects tools to create masks. Then you can apply additional spot correction within the mask area. It takes a bit more work than other tools, but it’s definitely possible. Finally, many plug-in packages, like GenArts Sapphire, Boris Continuum Complete and Magic Bullet Looks include vignette filters that will work with Symphony.

The bottom line is that Symphony started it all, though by today’s standards is “long-in-the-tooth”. Nevertheless, the relational grading model – and the fact that you are working within the NLE and can freely move between color correction and editing/trimming – makes Symphony a fast unit to operate, especially in time-sensitive, long-form productions, like TV shows.

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Adobe SpeedGrade CC

If you are current as a Creative Cloud subscriber, then you have access to the most recent version of Adobe Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC. With the updates introduced late last year, Adobe added Direct Link interaction between Premiere Pro and SpeedGrade. When you use Direct Link to send your Premiere Pro timeline to SpeedGrade, the actual Premiere Pro sequence becomes the SpeedGrade sequence. This means codec decoding, transitions and Premiere Pro effects are handled by Premiere Pro’s effects engine, even though you are working inside SpeedGrade. As such, a project created via Direct Link supports features and codecs that would not be possible within a standalone SpeedGrade project.

Another unique aspect is that native and third-party transitions and effects used in Premiere Pro are visible (though not adjustable) when you are working inside SpeedGrade. This is an important distinction, because other correction workflows that rely on roundtrips don’t include NLE-based filters. You can’t see how the correction will be affected by a filter used in the NLE timeline. Naturally, in the case of SpeedGrade, this only works if you are working on a machine with the same third-party filters installed. When you return to Premiere Pro from SpeedGrade, the color corrections on clips are collapsed into a Lumetri filter effect that is applied to the clip or adjustment layer within the Premiere Pro sequence. Essentially this Lumetri effect is similar to a LUT that encapsulates all of the grading layers applied in SpeedGrade into a single effect in Premiere Pro. This is possible because the two applications share the same color science. The result is a render-free workflow with the easy ability to go back-and-forth between Premiere Pro and SpeedGrade for changes and adjustments. Unlike a standard LUT, Lumetri filters can carry masks, keyframes and are 100% precise.

As a color corrector, SpeedGrade is designed with a layer-based interface, much like Photoshop. Layers can be primary (fullscreen), secondary (keys and masks) or filters. A healthy selection of effects filters and LUTs are included. The correction model splits the signal into what amounts to a 12-way color wheel arrangement. There are lift/gamma/gain controls for the overall image, as well as for each of the shadow, middle and highlight ranges. Controls can be configured as wheels or sliders, with additional sliders for contrast, pivot, temperature (red vs. blue bias), magenta (red/blue vs. green bias) and saturation. There are no curves controls.

Overall, I like the looks I get with SpeedGrade, but I find it lacking in some ways. There are definite plusses and minuses. I miss the curves. It currently does not work with Blackmagic Design hardware. Matrox, Bluefish and AJA are OK. It’s got a tracker, but I find both tracking and masking to be mediocre. The biggest workflow shortcoming is the lack of a temporary memory register feature. You can save a whole grade, which saves the entire stack of grading layers applied to a clip as a Lumetri filter. You can apply grades from earlier timeline clips quite simply and SpeedGrade lets you open multiple playheads for comparison/correction between multiple shots on the timeline. You can access the nine grades ahead and the nine grades beyond the current playhead position. You can also copy the grade from the clip below mouse position to the clip under the playhead by pressing the C key. What you cannot do is store a random set of grades or just a single layer in a temporary buffer and then apply it from that buffer somewhere else in the timeline. Adding these two items would greatly speed up the SpeedGrade workflow.

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Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

The DaVinci name is legendary among color correction products, but that reputation was earned with its hardware products, like the DaVinci 2K. Resolve was the software-based product built around a Linux cluster. When Blackmagic bought the assets and technology of DaVinci, all of the legacy hardware products were dropped, in favor of concentrating on Resolve as the software that had the most life for the future. There are now four versions, including Resolve Lite (free), Resolve (paid – software only), Resolve with a Blackmagic control surface and Resolve for Linux. The first three work on Mac and PC. You may download the free Lite version from the Blackmagic website or Apple’s Mac App Store. The Lite version has nearly all of the power of the paid software, but with these limitations: noise reduction, stereoscopic tools and the ability to output at a resolution above UltraHD requires a paid version.

I’m writing this based on Resolve 10, which has rudimentary editing features. It is designed as a standalone color corrector that can be used for some editing. Blackmagic Design doubled-down on the editing side with Resolve 11 (shown at NAB 2014). When that’s finally released this summer, you’ll have a powerful NLE built into the application. The demos at NAB were certainly impressive. If that turns out to be the case, Resolve 11 would function as an Avid Symphony or Quantel Rio type of system. That means you could freely move between creative editing and color correction, simply by changing tabs in the interface. For now, Resolve 10 is mainly a color corrector, with some very good roundtrip and conforming support for other NLEs. Specifically there is very good support for Avid and FCP X workflows.

As a color corrector, Resolve offers the widest set of correction tools of any of these systems. In the work I’ve done, Resolve allows for more extreme grading and is more precise when trying to correct problem shots. I’ve done corrections with it that would have been impossible with any other tool. The correction controls include curves, wheels, primary sliders, channel mixers and more. Corrections are node-based and can be applied to clips or an entire track. Nodes can be applied in a serial or parallel fashion, with special splitter/combiner and layer mixing nodes. The latter includes Photoshop-style blend modes. Unlike SpeedGrade, you can store the value of a single node in a buffer (using the keyboard copy function) and then paste the value of just that node somewhere else. This makes it pretty fast when working up and down a timeline. Finally, the tracker is amazing.

A few things bother me about Resolve, in spite of its powerful toolset. The interface almost presents too many tools and it becomes very easy to lose track of what was done and where. There is no large viewer or fullscreen mode that doesn’t hide the node tree. This forces a lot of toggling between workspace configurations. If you have two displays, you cannot use the second display for anything other than the scopes and audio mixer. (This will change with Resolve 11.) Finally, you can only use Blackmagic Design hardware to view the video output on a grading monitor.

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Apple Color

Some of you are saying, “Why talk about that? It was killed off a few years ago! Who uses that anymore?” Yes, I know. What people so quickly forget, was that when the software was FinalTouch (before Apple’s purchase), it was very expensive and considered to be very innovative. Apple bought it, added some features and cleaned up some of the workflow. As part of Final Cut Studio, it set the standard for round-tripping with an NLE. Unfortunately for many Mac users, it retained its less glossy, “Unixy” interface and thus, didn’t really catch on for many editors. However, it still works just fine on the newest machines and OS versions and remains a fast, high-quality color corrector.

Nearly all of the long-form jobs I’ve done – including feature films and TV shows up to even a few months ago – have been done with Color. There are two reasons that I prefer it. The first is that most of these jobs were cut using FCP 7, so it’s still the most integrated software for these projects. More importantly, there are several key features that make it faster than SpeedGrade and Resolve for projects that fall within a standard range of grading. In other words, the in-camera look was good and there were no huge problem areas, plus the desired grade didn’t swing into extreme looks.

Color is designed with 10 levels of grading per clip – primary in, eight secondaries and primary out. Since secondaries can be fullscreen or a portion of the image qualified by an HSL key or mask, each secondary layer can actually have two corrections – inside and outside of the mask. In addition to these, there’s a ColorFX layer for node-based filter effects, which can also include color adjustments. In reality, the maximum number of corrections to a single clip could be up to 19. The primary corrections can include value changes for RGB lift/gamma/gain and saturation levels, as well a printer lights. On top of this are lift/gamma/gain color wheels and luma controls. Lastly there are curves. The secondaries include custom mask shapes and hue/sat/luma curves. There’s a tracker, too, but it’s not that great.

Where Color still shines for me is in workflow. Each layer is represented by a labelled bar on the timeline under the clip. This makes it easy to apply only a single secondary adjustment to other clips on the timeline simply by sliding the corresponding secondary bar from one timeline clip to one or more of the others. For example, I used Secondary 3 to qualify a person’s face and brighten it. I could then simply drag the bar for S3 that appears under the first clip on the timeline over to every other clip with the same person and similar set-up. All without selecting each of these clips prior to applying the adjustment.

Color works with all cards that work with Final Cut Pro, so there’s no AJA versus Blackmagic issue as mentioned above. Dual monitors work well. You can have scopes and the viewer (or a fullscreen viewer) on one display and the full control interface on the other. Realistically, Color works best with up to 2K video and one of the standard Apple codecs (uncompressed or ProRes work best). A lot of the footage I’ve graded with it was ProResHQ or ProRes 4444 that came native from an ARRI Alexa or transcoded from a C300, RED or a Canon 5D/7D. But I’ve also done a film that was all native EX rewrapped as .mov from a Sony camera and Color had no issues. Log-profile footage grades very nicely in Color, so Alexa ProRes 4444 encoded as Log-C forms a real sweet spot for Apple Color.

©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