NAB 2014 Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Oliver Peters

 

NLE Tips – Week 2

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Adobe Premiere Pro – Stacked Sequences

If you are used to editing in Adobe Premiere Pro or Apple Final Cut Pro “legacy”, then you are familiar with the concept of tabbed sequences. That is, you can have several open sequences, which each appear as a tab in the timeline window. This lets editor work between them, using copy and paste functions or compare one version of an edit to another. (Click images for an expanded view.)

Adobe’s interface design is based on dockable windows. In Premiere Pro, this means you can arrange the window layout in various custom workspace configurations that are conducive to your personal style or task needs. Sequences can be torn off into separate window elements. They may then be docked as a tab or embedded into any of four sides of the window as a separate pane within that window. Therefore, you can easily dock two sequences on top of each other within the same timeline window. When you do this, the focus of the sequence viewer and the effects control panel will follow whichever clip is selected by the editor in either sequence.

df_nle2_2_smLet’s say that you like to work from a “selected takes” sequence to a second sequence that is a “cutdown” of these selects. Stack one sequence above the other and then simply drag a clip from sequence 1 to sequence 2. Or highlight a clip in sequence 1, copy it and paste it to sequence 2. This also makes it easy to re-arrange the order of clips from one sequence to the other, when building stories based on soundbite and voice-over elements.

In another example, you might have two versions of an edit, such as a long-form cut for the web and a :30 cut for commercial TV. Each will have the same effects applied to shots that are common to both versions. Stack the sequences and open the effects controls. As you click on a clip, the effects that have been applied are revealed in the control panel. Or you can apply new effects to that clip by adding them to this open window.

df_nle2_3_smOnce you’ve applied and adjusted effects in the long-form cut, select the effects in that window and copy them. Then click on the same shot in the second sequence. The effect control window has been “refocused” on the other clip and is therefore empty. Paste the matching effect(s) to the empty effects control panel. Now the shot in the short-form cut will match the appearance of that same shot from the long-form cut. All done by simply moving back and forth between the two stacked sequences in the timeline window.

©2014 Oliver Peters

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

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

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Differing business models

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

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

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

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

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Dealing with formats

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

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

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

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Adobe Premiere Pro CC (version 7.2.1)

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

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

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

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

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Apple Final Cut Pro X (version 10.1)

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

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

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

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

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Avid Media Composer (version 7.0.3)

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Typemonkey

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One of the ways to extend functions in Adobe After Effects is through scripting. These are automated macros to quickly perform tasks you could do yourself. By using scripts the results can be built more quickly without manually performing tedious, repetitive commands. Developers can create advanced scripts to automate complex creative treatments. These are installed like plug-ins, but show up as a module under the Window pulldown menu. One such script unit is Typemonkey – a kinetic text generator.

Kinetic Text

df_typemonkey_5We’ve all seen this current design trend for TV spots and marketing videos. The copy is presented via animated words, which move into position on screen. The view shifts from one word to the next in sync with the announcer at the reading pace of the viewer. Creating a kinetic text layout is relatively straightforward and can easily be created by an editor using After Effects or Motion.

The starting point for kinetic text is a large layout of stacked words. These are arranged horizontally and vertically in a bigger-than-raster field. It’s like taking a variety of building blocks and stacking them like a building. This word design can be created as a layered Photoshop document or as a series of layers in After Effects or Motion – one word per layer. To add energy and pace, you would next offset the timing of each layer and add an entry animation to the word on that layer, so that it flys, fades, rotates or types into visibility.

df_typemonkey_4Once this layout is created, the entire stack of layers is viewed with a 3D camera, which in turn is animated to create the moves from one word to the next as they appear inside the raster of your composition. This brings them full screen for a moment as the reader follows the context of this text. While this process is very easy once you understand it, the time it takes to build it can be quite long. In addition, a paragraph of words will result in a lengthy series of After Effects layers in your timeline pane.

Automating the process

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Where Typemonkey enters the picture is to streamline the process and reduce or even eliminate the manual steps. Once installed, you open the Typemonkey interface module from the Window menu. Set the starting font from After Effects’ normal text control pane, paste or type your text into the Typemonkey window and press the “Do it!” button. At this point Typemonkey operates as a macro to automatically build the layers, the moves and the 3D camera animation. The final result is a timeline that shows the 3D camera layer with all word layers shied. Moves from word to word are evenly space for the length of the composition or selected work area with markers at each change. This builds a very nice composition with kinetic text in a matter of seconds.

df_typemonkey_7Naturally, most editors and designers will want to customize the defaults, so that every composition isn’t identical. This can be achieved through both the Typemonkey pane and AE’s standard layer effects. Sliding the markers in the composition timeline will change the animation pacing of the 3D camera’s move from word to word. This lets you hold longer on some words and move more quickly through others.

df_typemonkey_3The controls within the Typemonkey pane let you adjust some of the move styles and interpolations. You can also set up a series of colors, so that each word changes color as it cycles through the five palette choices. Through adjustments at both locations, designers can get quite a large range of variations from this single tool. The actual effects are performed using After Effects expressions, rather than keyframes, so you cannot easily make individual changes to the internal moves. However, you can certainly add your own keyframed transform effects on top of what Typemonkey creates.

Typemonkey is a low cost tool that will pay for itself in the time saved on a single job. Obviously its use is specific to kinetic text creative treatments, but used sparingly and with taste, it’s a look that will bring your motion graphics up a notch.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Understanding Premiere Pro Transitions

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Switchers from Apple Final Cut Pro to Adobe Premiere Pro might miss the wealth of inexpensive transition effects offered by third-party and hobbyist plug-in developers. Native Premiere Pro transitions, like dissolves and wipes, can be applied just like in FCP. Drop the transition on a cut and you are done. Unfortunately third-party transitions don’t work this way, leading some users to conclude that they just don’t work or that Premiere Pro is less versatile.

(EDIT: This changed somewhat a day ago, when Noise Industries released FxFactory 4.1.1. Their transitions now are drag-and-drop enabled, just like Adobe’s default transitions. For other filters, like Sapphire Edge transitions, they must still be applied as I outline in the rest of this post.)

df_pprotrans_2The confusion comes, because Premiere Pro filters are based on a similar architecture to After Effects. Therefore, applying third-party transitions in Premiere Pro needs to be done in much the same manner as in After Effects. Instead of creating a transition between two adjacent clips on the same video track, third-party transitions work by creating a transition between clips on adjacent vertical tracks. In other words, not from A to B on V1, but rather A on V1 to B on V2 or the other way around.

Here are some basic tips to make Premiere Pro’s transitions work for you. (Click on any image for an expanded view.)

df_pprotrans_4Start by moving your B clip up one video level, such as from V1 to V2 or V2 to V3. The new Option + Up Arrow command works well in Premiere Pro CC. Extend the end of the A or B clip or both. This should create an overlap of the two clips equal to the length of the intended duration of the transition. Use the blade tool to add a cut on the B clip (on the higher track) at the end of the overlap.

Access your transition from the transitions group of that filter family. This will be contained within the main Video Effects folder, not the main Video Transitions folder. Drag-and-drop a third-party transition effect to the overlapping portion of the B clip.df_pprotrans_3

df_pprotrans_5Open the Effect Controls for that filter and set the background selection and transition direction. Set beginning and ending keyframes or set it to use or ignore the percentage value. Typically a transition goes from 0% to 100% over the length of the clip to which it is applied. Adjust the filter controls as needed. The example that I’ve shown is a Lens Flare Dissolve from the SapphireEdge transitions collection. With this effect, you can tweak some parameters in the Effect Controls window, but you can also pick from a wide range of presets using the SapphireEdge presets browser. Something worth noting is that the unrendered, real-time performance of this effect is somewhat slow in FCP X, but plays very well in Premiere Pro CC.df_pprotrans_6

Although these steps might feel cumbersome to some users when compared with FCP’s drag-and-drop approach, they are more or less the same as in After Effects. They also offer a greater level of control than in some simpler transition implementations.

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(UPDATE: If you are running an older version of FxFactory, there have been conflicts with SpeedGrade CC. Please download the FxFactory 4.1.1 update from the Noise Industries website to correct this.)

©2013 Oliver Peters