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

Adobe Creative Suite 5.5

Adobe’s development efforts have been running full bore with several Creative Suite updates in close succession during recent years. 2011 is no exception, with the launch of Adobe Creative Suite 5.5, announced at NAB. This is a point-five release that concentrates mainly on the video products, which are offered in the Production Premium software collection.

In addition to various improvements and enhancements throughout the applications, Adobe CS5.5 signals some big changes. The first is that the Adobe Creative Suite is now available on both a purchase and a subscription basis. For the first time, Adobe customers may access the power of the Creative Suite tools on a low-cost monthly basis. This is designed to cover suite owners who might be ineligible for upgrade pricing, single product owners and new customers who may want to test the waters for a few months. The individual collections (Master, Design, Web and Production), as well as individual products, may be used with a one-year or month-by-month subscription.

The second big change is that Audition comes to the Mac platform. Audition is Adobe’s full-featured digital audio workstation software. As a Windows application, it was originally part of the collection prior to Adobe Premiere Pro’s return to the Mac. Audition will replace Soundbooth and once again be the audio tool within the Production Premium bundle. Unfortunately, if you really liked Soundbooth, it is now an end-of-life product.

Premiere Pro

I’m going to focus this first look on three of the core products in the Production Premium suite – Premiere Pro, After Effects and Audition. In CS5, Premiere Pro made a big splash with tons of native camera format support, 64-bit operation and the Mercury Playback Engine. For many, Mercury Playback seemed to come down to the CUDA processing technology of specific NVIDIA graphics cards. In reality, MPE is a lot more and not just a function of CUDA. The NVIDIA cards do indeed accelerate certain effects and a wider range of NVIDIA cards is now supported; however, Adobe has integrated additional CPU optimization throughout the product. My Mac Pro has the ATI 5870 card installed and I have no problems with RED, ProRes, AVC-Intra or other native camera formats.

Adobe’s optimization for Premiere Pro CS5.5 is most evident with plug-ins. Previously, filters with custom user interfaces, like Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Colorista II, were extremely sluggish in Premiere Pro. This is now a thing of the past, with Colorista II nearly as responsive as it is in After Effects. That’s super news for me, as I much prefer it to Premiere Pro’s built-in color correction tools. Another example is GenArts Sapphire – a plug-in package installed for After Effects, but which also works in Premiere Pro. When I drop one of these filters onto a 1920×1080 ProRes clip in the timeline, playback is still smooth at full resolution without dropping frames.

Premiere Pro has attracted the interest of the RED camera user community as one of the better desktop editing solutions for their needs. It’s one of the few that can actually work natively with the camera raw .r3d files at a full 4K timeline resolution. Premiere Pro CS5.5 uses the latest RED SDK, which gives Adobe editors access to RED’s “new color science” – meaning better color processing from old and new camera files. The beta version I tested did not yet handle files from EPIC – RED’s newest camera, but Adobe plans to support EPIC at launch, including 5K RED timelines. There will be a link to a software extension via the Adobe Labs website.

Another improvement is better XML and AAF translation when importing projects started in Apple Final Cut Pro and Avid Media Composer, respectively. That often hasn’t worked well for complex sequences when using Premiere Pro CS5; however, it appears to have been fixed in CS5.5. I ran into very few issues importing my XML sequence files from FCP7 into Premiere Pro. To be safe, I first removed filters and embedded Motion projects in Final Cut Pro, but the import worked perfectly with several different test projects. These sequences included video clips, audio files, text and graphics. Premiere Pro properly linked to all of these, plus translated dissolves, opacity changes, speed changes, placeholder text and audio keyframes. Likewise, I was able to move Media Composer sequences, with QuickTime media only linked via Avid Media Access, straight into Premiere Pro and from there into After Effects. This improved interoperability offers the possibility of some exciting alternative workflows for the future.

Audition

Soundbooth was a simplified, task-specific “lite” audio production and post tool. Audition is more sophisticated and can easily hold its own against competitors, like Avid Pro Tools and Apple Logic or Soundtrack Pro. Unlike some of these other applications, it’s designed specifically around audio production, editing and mixing and isn’t bloated with tons of audio loops and MIDI features. This makes it very streamlined for easy use by a video editor. It can be launched and run by itself or as part of a roundtrip with Premiere Pro CS5.5. There is also OMF support for audio post with projects started on Media Composer or Final Cut Pro systems.

Moving from Premiere Pro to Audition is simply a matter of right-clicking the sequence in the Premiere Pro project window and “sending to” an Audition multi-track session. All tracks open in Audition and retain the volume keyframing created in Premiere Pro. In Audition, feel free to edit, add filters and mix. To return, simply use the “Export to Adobe Premiere Pro” option. Completed mono, stereo or 5.1 surround mixes can also be exported as a mixdown, which may be re-imported into Premiere Pro (or another application) for final mastering and encoding.

Audition is designed as two applications in one – a multitrack editor/mixer and a clip-based audio editor. These are identified in the interface by the Waveform and Multitrack tabs. Opening a clip directly in Waveform (or clicking a timeline clip to send it to Waveform) opens a clip-based tool to clean-up, process or otherwise alter individual clips. This uses one of the best spectral view displays of any audio tool and permits Photoshop-style “healing” functions to eliminate unwanted background sounds. The Multitrack tab opens a multitrack timeline and mixer window where you would slip or trim clips, add cross-fades, adjust levels and add track-based filters.

Audition comes with a large selection of Adobe and iZotope filters and can access any VST and/or AU filters installed on your system. This includes those used by Final Cut Pro and additional plug-ins, like Focusrite Scarlett and BIAS. Audition is really a joy to use. It’s very responsive, thanks to a new code base that’s been optimized for multi-core, multi-processor systems. You can easily make on-the-fly changes to filters and other parameters without any hiccups as the timeline continues to play.

Adobe still has some unfinished business to round out Audition. There is no control surface hardware support and I/O for the Mac is limited to units that are supported at the Mac system level. For example, my Avid Mbox2 Mini audio interface works fine for stereo monitoring. There is also no automation mixing. If you want to ride levels throughout a piece, you’ll either have to do that by rubberbanding keyframes for each track or use the mixer automation function within Premiere Pro.

Users can access Adobe’s Resource Central web service from within the Audition interface to download a wealth of sound effects and some music tracks. As yet there are no Soundbooth-style controls within Audition to modify the structure, length or arrangement of these music tracks. Presumably that might resurface in a later version of Audition.

After Effects

Adobe has been promoting their products heavily to the Canon 5D/7D videographers, thanks to good native support for H.264 files. As we all know, these cameras suffer from rolling shutter artifacts, which often distort the image within the frame. An impressive, new After Effects feature is the Warp Stabilizer. This filter combines standard stabilization of a moving shot with intraframe correction of the horizontal and vertical distortion due to rolling shutter. Send a clip to After Effects from Premiere Pro using Dynamic Link and apply the Warp Stabilizer. The clip is analyzed in the background and can be tweaked as needed. The result will be much smoother than the original.

Adobe has also enhanced the z-space tools in After Effects, by changing the lighting falloff behaviors in 3D space. Another addition is the new Camera Lens Blur effect, designed to more accurately simulate realistic shallow depth-of-field looks and rack-focus effects. Finally, After Effects CS5.5 now lets you set up a project using existing stereo 3D elements or you can create a stereoscopic output from a 3D project, which consists of layers of 2D elements. Start by creating a Stereo 3D Rig and position elements in z-space. After Effects provides the controls for stereo convergence, left/right-eye adjustments and stereo output.

Conclusion

I’ve covered the 30,000 foot view, but there’s more, including enhancements to Adobe Story, Flash Catalyst,  Flash Pro and Adobe Media Encoder. Adobe Production Premium includes a complimentary one-year subscription to CS Live, Adobe’s “cloud” web site, which hosts Adobe Story. Scripts created in Story can now be directly imported into Premiere Pro from CS Live, without going through On Location first. These scripts can also be used to reconcile speech-to-text translations created in Premiere Pro. I feel speech translation is still a weak part of the application and fails to deliver on the user’s expectation. Using a transcript to correct the translation errors helps make it a functional feature.

The improvements in the three core applications I’ve discussed make this a worthwhile update for most users. Premiere Pro CS5.5 definitely feels more responsive than the CS5 version and Audition seals the deal if you want advanced audio tools at your disposal. I hope that mixer automation will make it into a software update for Audition without having to wait for CS6. If you’re new to Premiere Pro, this is the version to try. Interchange is good with Final Cut Pro, you can work with Media Composer or FCP7 keyboard layouts and it includes Ultra – one of the best green/blue-screen keyers in any NLE.

It’s quite refreshing to see steady performance improvements in subsequent versions. An editor working with Premiere Pro has seen tangible performance boosts with each new Creative Suite version. Once again, Adobe has ratcheted development up a notch and it shows.

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2011 Oliver Peters

Color grading choices

If buzz equals sales, then Blackmagic Design has a hit on its hands with DaVinci Resolve for the Mac. They have successfully cashed in on DaVinci’s mystique with the desktop crowd. Blackmagic Design even seems to be getting the interest of Apple Color users, in spite of the fact that Resolve really doesn’t have anything significantly better to offer, aside from the brand name. Ironically, a number of big DaVinci users have told me off the record that they are moving on to Quantel, Autodesk and other advanced systems. For these customers, “big iron” support is something they’ve grown to rely on and that clearly isn’t Blackmagic Design’s plan for DaVinci.

My experience is primarily as a desktop software user, so I’d like to compare and contrast some of the options at this level. If you are looking for a dedicated desktop color grading tool, there are four viable options – Avid Media Composer, Apple Color, Adobe CS5 (using Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse within After Effects) and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. I’m going to skip over Avid DS and Autodesk Smoke simply because I’d like to concentrate on the under-$5,000 solutions. Likewise, I’ll exclude Avid Symphony – partially out of cost and partially because most of the toolset matches that of Media Composer. As a past Symphony user, I know that it has a few really nice bells-and-whistles that improve grading efficiency, but the inherent toolset – what you can do with an image – is largely the same.

When you look at those four solutions, you find that they all offer a similar toolset – curves, lift/gamma/gain color balance adjustments, trackers and secondary color correction. When it gets to this last point, Media Composer comes out pretty weak. There’s no integrated secondary correction (note: Symphony does have limited secondary control), but you can get to a similar result using the animatte/intraframe editing/paint tools, plug-ins and nesting techniques.

When you use Color Finesse within After Effects, you do have color-isolation-based secondary correction, which is much like the same feature that’s in Symphony (but not included in Media Composer). The downside of After Effects is the lack of a true shot-to-shot color grading workflow. (There is a standalone version of Color Finesse, which uses a similar roundtrip approach to that of Apple Color, but it has never caught on and is not included with the CS5 bundle.)

Unless you are a masochist, it’s a really only a choice between an integrated tool, such as Avid’s, and a dedicated grading application like Resolve or Color. Although I’ve done really nice grading work with Avid Symphony and Media Composer, I really consider them to be mediocre grading tools given the competition. For dedicated grading, it really does boil down to a Color versus Resolve choice. Let me interject that I’m mainly talking about grading for commercials and long form projects that need grading for a “look”. If grading is an integral part of a complex composite for a visual effects shot, then none of these solutions is good enough. In those instances, advanced applications like Avid DS or Autodesk Smoke really do have an edge. Some of those results can be achieved with Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Studio and Adobe CS5, but often require a healthy set of special-purpose plug-ins to augment the built-in tools. I’ll skip that for now and concentrate on standard grading.

One of the things that struck me as I worked with Resolve for the review was just how good Color actually is. Resolve has some very limiting hardware requirements, while Color will run on most newer Mac Pros and Macbook Pros and use just about any monitor. People tend to forget about the fact the Apple has done a good job of enabling Final Cut Studio to work across a wide spectrum of OS versions and hardware combinations.

Not so with Resolve. What this tends to mean is that Color functions quite nicely in a multipurpose suite for editing, graphics, audio, effects and grading. Resolve, on the other hand, dictates a machine and room that is built around the needs of Resolve. On the plus side, DaVinci leverages the CUDA power of certain NVIDIA cards for greater real-time performance. Unfortunately this chews up your slot space and limits you to one brand of graphics card. I personally would never build a “DaVinci room” unless I knew it would primarily serve as a color grading suite.

Both toolsets feature primary and secondary grading (vignettes and HSL keyer), but only Color integrates with Final Cut Pro using an XML roundtrip. Color also includes the Color FX room with a plug-in architecture and available third party plug-ins. Both apps work well, however, for me the only reason to pick Resolve over Color comes down to three reasons: 1) you haven’t invested in the FCP/Studio suite, 2) you feel the DaVinci name will bring you clients, or 3) you have a talented colorist available to you who performs better with Resolve. Given these points, it would seem to me that Resolve has a greater appeal to Avid editors than to owners of Final Cut Studio.

As I mentioned before, you might need to deal with color grading as an integrated feature within the editing interface itself. If this means desktop solutions like Premiere Pro/After Effects, Final Cut Pro/Motion or Media Composer, then you’ll want to add some filters specifically geared around color. The most recognized solutions are Magic Bullet Looks, Mojo and Colorista II, but don’t forget the others. Each of the popular packages from Boris, GenArts, CoreMelt and Noise Industries includes filters for color manipulation. The stand-outs include DV Shade, PHYXSapphire and Luca Visual FX.

© 2011 Oliver Peters

Automatic Duck ProImportAE5

Even though many NLE vendors are integrating the ability to import AAF and XML project formats, Automatic Duck remains the leader in timeline translation. The company started in 2001 with Pro Import for After Effects. The main goal at that time was to move Avid Media Composer sequences into After Effects for advanced compositing work.

Automatic Duck has recently released Pro Import AE 5.0 for After Effects CS5 (Mac is shipping now, with a Windows version to follow.) The application will also work with After Effects CS3 and CS4. Pro Import AE elegantly handles the process of importing Avid OMF/AAF, Final Cut Pro XML or Motion projects into After Effects as a composition. In this file conversion, it will connect clips to the original media files, translate as many applicable effects parameters and keyframes as possible and apply matching filter settings whenever a common filter occurs in both the NLE and After Effects. Version 5.0 adds even a few more twists that are hard to beat.

I tested Pro Import AE 5.0 with both Final Cut Pro 7 and Media Composer 5. Simply export an Avid AAF composition file or an FCP XML file as a starter. Automatic Duck also offers a free XML exporter for Final Cut. Both it and the built-in FCP exporter work, but I had more consistent results using the Automatic Duck XML exporter. If your Media Composer 5 sequence consists of AMA-linked media, then you’ll first need to transcode the timeline into Avid MXF media before an AAF export is possible.

Start a new After Effects project and use the Automatic Duck Pro Import AE option to open the target XML or AAF file. Pro Import AE offers some settings choices to control how media is to be handled and how to configure the After Effects timeline. For example, you can opt to bring all clips in as individual media in one timeline – or nest all clips from a single NLE video track into a mini-composition within a larger After Effects comp. You may also choose to include audio or not. QuickTime media files from Final Cut open natively in After Effects, but Avid’s MXF format typically can’t be read. Automatic Duck adds the neat trick of creating QuickTime reference files for Avid media. This takes very little time and makes it possible to open an Avid sequence in After Effects. Since a clip on the After Effects timeline is linked to the full-length media clip, you still have the ability to slip, slide and otherwise trim your edited sequence even in After Effects.

A very interesting option added in version 5 is the ability to handle native REDCODE .R3D camera files. If you edited a RED project in FCP using transcoded proxy media (created by FCP’s Log and Transfer – NOT the camera-generated QuickTime reference movies), Pro Import AE can be set to automatically replace the proxy files with the camera raw .R3D files. The imported After Effects composition now includes the RED files in all their 4K goodness. Since the media file sizes have changed in this process, you will need to make some scale adjustments in After Effects. At the moment, this media replacement feature only applies to Final Cut XML and not to Avid AAF files.

I tested a number of complex sequences from both Avid and Final Cut with good success. In fact, this process worked far better than Adobe’s own XML and AAF importer built-in into Premiere Pro. I’ve never had Adobe’s AAF import work and XML import frequently had errors. Pro Import AE seems far more bullet-proof. Unsupported effects showed an error message, but never stopped the import from working. When a filter is used that doesn’t exist in After Effects, like FCP’s 3-way color corrector, the timeline clip will show a little flag with the name of the filter.

Text generators seem to be the biggest issue. FCP’s Boris titler resulted in a blank, color slug in After Effects. Standard FCP text generators were partially translated. The text itself and opacity keyframes were there, but the font style, size and position were wrong. I had far better results when I applied common filter sets. For example, the same Noise Industries and CoreMelt filters install into Final Cut, Motion and After Effects. If you use Final Cut on the same system as After Effects and apply one of these filters in your sequence, it will appear with the correct parameters in the translated After Effects composition. That’s because the same filter has been installed into both applications.

Out of curiosity, I also moved the After Effects sequence into Premiere Pro. I first imported an XML file via Pro Import AE into After Effects CS5. Next, I copied-and-pasted the After Effects clips from its timeline into a Premiere Pro sequence. Much easier and more reliable than using the Adobe importer! After Effects stacks timeline clips onto adjacent tracks like a continually ascending or descending staircase. When I pasted the After Effects clips into Premiere Pro, they returned to the track order used in Final Cut. Pretty cool!

Automatic Duck continues to be in a class by itself. Pro Import AE is a must-have for anyone using After Effects to augment their NLE for advanced effects or as a finishing tool. With the new RED replacement option, Pro Import AE becomes the ideal bridge between a Final Cut creative edit and a 4K finish in After Effects. Not to mention that it’s still the best way for Avid cutters to tap into a word-class desktop compositor. Once again proving why Automatic Duck Pro Import AE is an essential item in the toolbox.

Written for Videography and DV magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2010 Oliver Peters

RED Post – the Easy Way III

If you’ve read some of my past articles about RED, you know I’m not a huge fan of “native” editing using the camera raw files as source clips. I find that an offline/online workflow is still best for smoothly editing RED projects, yet it still retains access to the raw color data during the finishing process. Previously I discussed an easy workflow for Apple Final Cut Pro and Color users, but this isn’t the only solution. As you know, Avid Media Composer 5 and Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 have both integrated support for RED’s camera raw files. In this post, I’m going to discuss a couple of ways to use these tools in a non-native fashion.

Option A:  Avid Media Composer 5 offline-online RED workflow

Thanks to AMA and RED camera’s SDK, Media Composer 5 offers access to RED’s .R3D files. You can import camera files and adjust the source color settings from within the NLE’s interface. You can either edit directly from these files or transcode them to Avid media for a smoother and faster editing experience. Here is a short step-by-step explanation of a Media Composer-based workflow.

Step 1. Access/import RED .R3D files via AMA (Avid Media Access). Camera clips will open inside Media Composer bins, complete with camera metadata.

Step 2. If you want to change the levels/gamma/exposure/balance of the file by altering the camera raw data, then open the Source Settings for each clip and adjust the video.

Step 3. Adjust the clip framing by opening the bin Reformat column and set the option for each clip (center cut, letterboxed, etc.). Remember that your RED clips may have a 2:1 aspect ratio, but your Avid sequence will be either HD 16:9 or SD 16:9 / 4:3.

Step 4. Set the Media Creation render tab to a video resolution of DNxHD36 with a Debayer quality of “quarter”. Since the objective is a good rough cut – not “finishing” – this quality settings is more than adequate for editing and screening your creative edits.

Step 5. Transcode all source clips. This process runs at close to real-time on a fast machine. When transcoding is done, close all AMA bins and do not use them during the edit. You’ll edit with the transcoded media only.

Step 6. Edit as normal until you get an approved, “locked” picture.

Step 7. Now it’s time to switch to “finishing”. Move or hide all Avid media (the transcoded DNxHD36 clips) by taking them out of the Avid MediaFiles/MXF/1 folder(s) on your media hard drive(s). You could also delete them, but it’s safer not to do that unless you really have to. Best to simply move them into a relabeled folder. Once you’ve done this, your edited sequence will appear with all media off-line.

Step 8. Open the AMA bins (with the .R3D files) and relink the edited sequence to the AMA clips. Make sure the “Allow relinking of imported/AMA clips by Source File name” is NOT checked in the Relink dialogue window. When relinking is completed, the sequence will be repopulated with AMA media, which will be the native, camera raw .R3D files. If you want to change the raw color data at this point, you will need to change each source clip and then refresh the sequence to update the color for clips that appear within the timeline.

Step 9. Change the Media Creation settings to a higher video resolution (such as DNxHD 175 X) and a Debayer quality of “full”.

Step 10. Consolidate/transcode your sequence. This will create new Avid media clips at full quality that are only the length of the clips as they appear in the cut, plus handles. Since a transcode using a “full” Debayer setting will be EXTREMELY SLOW, make sure you set very short handle lengths. (Note: If you have a Red Rocket card installed, Avid supports hardware-assisted rendering to accelerate the transcoding of RED media.)

Step 11. Finish all effects and color grading within the NLE as you normally would.

Option B:  Apple FCP / Automatic Duck / Adobe CS5 workflow

You might be asking, why not just edit in Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro? The hitch is that Final Cut doesn’t support 4K files and Premiere Pro has a good native, but not a good offline-online workflow for RED files. FCP users clearly outnumber Premiere Pro users among professional film and video editors, however, both After Effects and Premiere Pro offer some interesting finishing options. In fact, a number of feature films have used both for all or part of the finishing process. A combination of Apple and Adobe tools creates some interesting scenarios for RED post. (Note: Automatic Duck Pro Import AE 5.0 is required.)

Step 1. Ingest your RED .R3D clips into Final Cut Pro using Log and Transfer. Set the preferences to use ProRes Proxy (NOT “native”). Set the color to “as shot”. This requires that the RED plug-in for FCS has been installed. (Refer to the previous article for a more in-depth explanation of this first step.) Please note that it is important to do this with the R3D files and not to start by simply dragging the in-camera-generated H, M or P QuickTime reference files into the FCP browser. Many RED users erroneously consider these to be “proxy” edit files. They are not. They are reference files at different resolutions/sizes that are linked to the R3D files and do not work correctly in this process.

Step 2. Edit normally in FCP until the cut is “locked”.

Step 3. Export an XML of your Final Cut sequence. I prefer using Automatic Duck’s free XML exporter and have had more reliable results with it, but the built-in FCP XML exporter will also work.

Step 4. Launch Adobe After Effects CS5. (Pro Import AE 5 works with CS3 and CS4, too, but you need to use an Adobe CS version compatible with native RED files.) Import the XML file using Pro Import AE 5. Make sure your Automatic Duck preferences are set to “Replace proxy footage with .R3D files.” The result will be an After Effects timeline with settings that match the Final Cut Pro sequence settings, except that all the clips will now be linked to the original camera files.

Step 5. Since the ProRes Proxy files were most likely 2K files, and the newly relinked camera files are the original 4K size, you will need to reset the scale value of each clip in the composition. This reframes the shot to fit inside the 2K frame, just as they did in FCP. Or you can creatively reframe the shots, since you have all the “bleed” of the full 4K frame. Alternatively, you can change the After Effects composition setting to match the 4K size.

At this point you could completely finish the project in After Effects, and there are a number of folks who would advocate that. From my point-of-view, After Effects is a compositing tool, rather than a DI or editing application. With the changes in Premiere Pro CS5, my druthers would be to get the media into that application. I’m only using After Effects as a conduit between Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro in this process.

You could go from After Effects to Premiere Pro via Adobe’s Dynamic Linking, but I’d rather not. That simply nests the After Effects composition as a single clip on the Premiere Pro timeline. I want the shots available as individual timeline clips, so follow these steps.

Step 6. Launch a new Premiere Pro CS5 project and select a new sequence setting from one of the RED presets, such as a 4K timeline.

Step 7. Highlight all of the .R3D clips in the After Effects composition and Copy.

Step 8. Switch to the Premiere Pro sequence window and Paste. All of the RED clips will now fill up the Premiere Pro sequence. At this point you should have a native 4K sequence with .R3D camera raw media. Corresponding master clips will show up in the Premiere Pro project window.

Step 9. To change the camera raw color settings of the .R3D files, open a clip from the project window and alter its source settings. These changes will automatically update that clip on the timeline.

Step 10. Finish effects and color grading as desired. If you are using this process with the intent of sending files to a DI house for film finishing, then your settings and any grading should be very neutral to allow for maximum latitude at the next stage.

Step 11. Export media. A big selling point of Premiere Pro CS5 to RED users is that it allows you to export DPX image sequences, in addition to all of the standard media options. DPX is the preferred format of most high-end DI solutions, like Quantel Pablo, Autodesk Lustre, etc. Premiere Pro CS5 is one of the few desktop solutions that enables an export of full-resolution 4K DPX files from the edited timeline.

OK, I’ve given you a lot to chew on. In three articles on RED post, I’ve covered quite a few ways to finish RED-acquired projects. Don’t get overwhelmed. Remember that you don’t have to use them all. Simply pick the one that’s best for you and have fun.

©2010 Oliver Peters