Why film editors love Avid Media Composer

df_filmeditors_mc_1_sm

The editing of feature films is a small niche of the overall market for editing software, yet companies continue to highlight features edited with their software as a form of aspirational marketing to attract new users. Avid Technology has had plenty of competition since the start of the company, but the majority of mainstream feature films are still edited using Avid Media Composer software. Lightworks and Final Cut Pro “legacy” have their champions (soon to be joined by FCP X and Premiere Pro CC), but Media Composer has held the lead – at least in North America – as the preferred software for feature film editors.

Detractors of Avid like to characterize these film editors as luddites who are resistant to change. They like to suggest that the interface is stodgy and rigid and just not modern enough. I would suggest that change for change’s sake is not always a good thing. Originally Final Cut Pro got a foothold, because it did well with file-based workflows and was very cheap compared to turnkey workstations running Media Composer or Film Composer. Those days are long gone, so trying to make the argument based on cost alone doesn’t go very far.

Editing speed is gained through familiarity and muscle memory. When you hire a top-notch feature editor, you aren’t hiring them for their software prowess. Instead, you are hiring them for their mind, ideas and creativity. As such, there is no benefit to one of these editors in changing to another piece of software, just because it’s the cool kid on the block. Most know how they need to manipulate the software tools so well, that thinking about what to do in the interface just disappears.

Change is attractive to new users, with no preconceived preferences. FCP X acolytes like to say how much easier it is to teach new users FCP X than a track-based system, like FCP 7, Premiere Pro or Media Composer. As someone who’s taught film student editing workshops, my opinion is that it simply isn’t true. It’s all in what you teach, how you teach it and what you expect them to accomplish. In fact, I’ve had many who are eager to learn Media Composer, precisely because they know that it continues to be the “gold standard” for feature film editing software.

There are some concrete reasons why film editors prefer Media Composer. For many, it’s because Avid was their first NLE and it felt logical to them. For others, it’s because Avid has historically incorporated a lot of user input into the product. Here are a dozen factors that I believe keep the equation in favor of Avid Media Composer.

1. Film metadata - At the start of the NLE area, Avid was an offline editing system, designed to do the creative cut electronically. The actual final cut for release was done by physically conforming (cutting) camera negative to match the rough cut. Avid built in tools to cut at 24fps and to track the metadata back to film for frame-accurate lists that went to the lab and the negative cutter. Although negative cutting is all but dead today, this core tracking of metadata benefits modern versions of Media Composer and is still applicable to file-based workflows.

2. Trimming - Avid editors rave about the trim mode in Media Composer. It continues to be the best there is and has been augmented by Smart Tools for FCP-style contextual timeline editing. Many editors spend a lot of time trimming and nothing matches Media Composer.

3. Logical layout - When Avid started out, they sought the direct input from many working editors and this helped the interface evolve into something totally logical. For example, the keyboard position of JKL (transport controls) or mark/clear/go-to in/out is based on hand positions when placed on the keyboard and not an arbitrary choice by a software designer. If you look at the default keyboard map in Media Composer, there are fewer layers than the other apps. I would argue that Media Composer’s inherent design makes more layers unnecessary. In fact, more layers become more confusing.

 4. Script integration – Early on, Avid’s designers looked at how an actual written script might be used within the software. This is completely different than simply attaching copied-and-pasted text to a clip. With Media Composer, you can set up the bin with the actual script pages and link clips to the text of the dialogue. This is included with the base software as a manual process, but if you want to automate the linking, then the optional ScriptSync add-on will lighten the load. A second dialogue-driven option, PhraseFind, is great for documentary filmmakers. Some editors never use these features, but those that do, wouldn’t want to work any other way.

5. Built-in effect tools - The editorial team on most features gets involved in creating temporary visual effects. These are placeholders and style ideas meant to help the director and others visualize the effects. Sometimes these are editorial tricks, like an invisible split screen to combine different takes. The actual, final effect is done by the visual effects compositors. Avid’s internal tools, however, allow a talented film editor or assistant editor, to temp in an effect at a very high quality level. While Media Composer is certainly not a finishing tool equal to Avid DS (now EOL’ed) or Autodesk Smoke, the internal tools surpass all other desktop offline editors. FCP X requires third-party plug-ins or Motion 5 and Premiere Pro CC requires After Effects. With Media Composer, you have built-in rotosplining, tracking, one of the better keyers, stabilization and more. All without leaving the primary editing interface.

6. Surround mixing – Often film editors will build their rough cut with LCR (left-center-right) or full 5.1 surround panning. This helps to give a better idea of the theatrical mix and preps a sequence for early screenings with a preview or focus group audience. Other systems let you work in surround, too, but none as easily as with Media Composer, assuming you have the right i/o hardware.

7. Project sharing – You simply cannot share the EXACT SAME project file among simultaneous, collaborative users with any other editing application in the same way as you can with Media Composer and Avid’s Unity or Isis shared storage networks. Not every user needs that and there are certainly functional alternatives for FCP and Premiere Pro, as well as Media Composer. For film editors, the beauty of the Avid approach, is that everyone on the team can be looking at the exact same project. When changes are made to a sequence for a scene and the associated bin is saved, that updated info ripples to everyone else’s view. Large films may have as many as 15 to 20 connected users, once you tally editors, assistants and visual effects editors. This function is hard to duplicate with any alternative software.

8. Cross-platform and easy authorization – Media Composer runs under both Mac OS X and Windows on a wide range of machines. This makes it easy for editors on location to shift between a desktop workstation and a laptop, which may be of differing OS platforms. In the past, software licensing was via a USB license key (dongle), but newer versions use software authorization to activate the application. The software may be installed on any number of machines, with one active and authorized at any given time. De-activation and re-activation only takes a few seconds if you are connected to the Internet.

9. Portability of projects and media – Thanks to Avid’s solid media management with internal media databases, it’s easy to move drives between machines with no linking issues. Keep a common and updated project file on two machines and you can easily move a media drive back and forth between them. The software will instantly find all the correct media when Media Composer is launched. In addition, Avid has held one of the best track records for project interchange among older and newer versions.

10. Interoperability with lists – Feature film workflows are all about “playing well with others”. This means industry-standard list formats, like EDLs, AAFs and OMFs. I wish Media Composer would also natively read and write XMLs, but that’s a moving target and generally not as widely accepted in the facilities that do studio-level work. The other standards are all there and built into the tools. So sending lists to a colorist or audio editor/mixer requires no special third-party software.

11. Flexible media architecture – Avid has moved forward from the days when it only handled proprietary Avid media formats. Thanks to AMA, many native camera file formats and QuickTime codecs are supported. Through a licensing deal with Apple, even ProRes is natively supported, including writing ProRes MXF files on Apple workstations. This gives Media Composer wider support for professional codecs than nearly every other editing application. On top of that, you still have Avid’s own DNxHD, one of the best compression schemes currently in professional film and video use.

12. Robust – In most cases, Media Composer is a rock-solid application, with minimal hiccups and crashes. Avid editors have become very used to reliability and will definitely pipe up when that doesn’t happen. Generally Avid editors do not experience the sorts of RAM leaks that seem to plaque other editing software.

For the sake of full disclosure, I am a member of one of the advisory councils that are part of the Avid Customer Association. Obviously, you might feel that this taints what I’ve written above. It does not.

I’ve edited with Avid software since the early 90s, but I’ve edited for years with other applications, too. Most of the last decade leading up to Apple’s launch of Final Cut Pro X was spent on FCP “legacy”. The last couple of years have been spent trying to work the kinks out of FCP X. I’ve cut feature films on Media Composer, FCP 4-7, FCP X and even a Sony BVE-9100. I take a critical view towards all of them and go with what is best for the project.

Even though I don’t use many of the Avid-specific features mentioned above, like ScriptSync, I do see the strengths and why other film editors wouldn’t want to use anything else. My main goal here was to answer the question I hear so often, which is, “Why do they still use Avid?” I hope I’ve been able to offer a few answers.

For some more thoughts, take a look at these videos about DigitalFilm Tree’s transition from FCP to Media Composer and Alan Bell’s approach to using Avid products for cutting films like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”.

©2014 Oliver Peters

NLE Tips – Week 3

df_nle3_1_sm

The Avid  – Resolve Roundtrip Workflow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Oliver Peters

NLE Tips – Week 1

df_nle1_1_sm

Avid Media Composer Pointers

Getting better results out of your editing experience means learning a few useful tricks. For the next few posts, I’ll offer some suggestions intended to improve your efficiency on several popular editing applications. This first post covers three quick tips with Avid Media Composer. (Click images for an expanded view.)

Film strips

df_nle1_3_smOne of the features of Apple’s FCP X that I really like is the way the selected clip is displayed when the “event” browser (bin) is set to the list view. The selected clip is shown at the top of the browser window as a film strip covering the length of that clip. This makes it very easy to look at the strip and identify at a glance that the shot starts as a wide and zooms to a close-up. The Avid frame view won’t give you such information without scrubbing. But did you know there’s a similar film strip solution in Media Composer?

Most editors are used to double-clicking a clip in a bin to load it into the source viewer. For many, it’s a habit that ignores another approach. When selecting a clip in a bin, simply hit the enter key to load it into the viewer. No need to click or double-click. That’s the first step in this tip.

df_nle1_2_smThe Avid timeline window always loads two timelines – the edited sequence and the source. You can toggle between source and edit timelines with a keystroke. The timeline window can also be set to display a “film” video track. When doing so, you get a film strip view of the entire timeline. When you view the source side of the timeline window, the result is a film strip display of the entire source clip. By leaving the timeline window toggled to the source view with the film track enabled, you can quickly go through your bin selections using the enter key and checking out the clip in this film strip display. This will give you a fast way to review your footage with minimal scrubbing and clicking.

The Find menu

df_nle1_4_smWhen you call up the Media Composer Find menu (cmd-F on a Mac), you get several search options, including Phrase Find, if you’ve purchased that option and have indexed the audio files. Find works with more than Phrase Find, though. It can search for clips across all bins, but it also allows you to search for any text in locators (markers). If you’ve placed locators in your sequence and labelled these with text info, simply type the text into the Find menu search field, click the Find button and your play head will jump to that locator in the timeline.

Master bus

df_nle1_5_smWith Media Composer 7, Avid has added a master bus to the audio mixer panel. Aside from controlling overall levels, this bus will also accept real-time audio plug-ins from Media Composer’s standard set (RTAS) or from compatible third-party audio filters. I often will add a basic compressor/limiter to my mixes and with the new master bus, Avid has given me an ideal place for it.

Some additional Media Composer tips here and here.

If you are serious about your Media Composer chops, here are three great books that will help you up your game.

Avid Uncut: Workflows, Tips, and Techniques from Hollywood Pros (Steve Hullfish)

Avid Agility: Working Faster and More Intuitively with Avid Media Composer, Third Edition (Steven Cohen)

Avid Media Composer 6.x Cookbook  (Ben Hershleder)

df_nle1_6

©2014 Oliver Peters

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

df_nle_1_sm

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.

df_nle_11_sm

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.

df_nle_5_sm

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.

df_nle_3_sm

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.

df_nle_2_sm

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.

df_nle_4_sm

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

Lone Survivor

df_ls_01

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have already spawned a number of outstanding films, but one that is bound to set the bar higher is the recently-released Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg as US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. In early screenings, a number of critics have already compared the film favorably with Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down.

df_ls_06Skip ahead a paragraph if you are concerned about spoilers. The story is based on Luttrell’s best-selling memoir by the same name. It focuses on the failed 2005 Operation Red Wings in which a four-man SEAL team that included Luttrell was sent to retrieve an Al Queda-aligned Taliban leader. Their position was discovered by local shepherds and the SEALs had to decide whether to let them go or kill them. After a unit discussion, the locals were released, which presumably compromised the SEAL unit’s position. Finding themselves surrounded and outnumbered, a firefight ensued. A helicopter sent to extract the team was shot down resulting in the deaths of sixteen, including SEAL and Army special operations units. In the fight, Luttrell’s three teammates were also killed. The story continues with the unusual circumstances that led to his survival through the help of local tribesmen and subsequent rescue. The team leader, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on that day.

Making this film was entrusted to writer/director Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock, The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights). For the edit, Berg tapped Colby Parker, Jr., who has cut seven films with Berg. Parker works on a mix of films, music videos and commercials. In fact, he first met Berg doing a Limp Bizkit music video. For commercials, Parker works out of LA’s Rock Paper Scissors editorial company, also home to Academy Award-winning editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network).

df_ls_07I recently spoke with Parker about his experiences on Lone Survivor. Parker explained, “While we were working on Hancock, Peter brought in Marcus and introduced him. We were going to go full speed into Lone Survivor, but then Battleship came up first, so that had to be put on the back burner. After Battleship, it was back to Lone Survivor, but Peter had to find independent financing for it. He had to work really hard to make it happen. Peter has a great affection for three things – his son, football and the military. His father was a Navy historian, so this was a passion project for him.”

Marcus Luttrell was instrumental in the film staying technically accurate. Parker continues, “Marcus was involved in approving the locations, as well as the edit. In a typical war movie, you see a lot of yelling in a battle as commands are issued back and forth. That’s completely different from how the SEALs operate. They are very disciplined units and each member knows what each person’s role is and where there should be. Communication is often silent through signals and there’s a lot of flanking. The SEALs call it ‘water through trees’. The SEALs tend to shoot sparsely and then wait for a response, so the enemy will reveal their position. I had to recut some scenes, to minimize the yelling that wasn’t correctly portrayed.”

df_ls_05Lone Survivor involved a 44-day shoot in New Mexico, where the mountains were a sufficient substitute for Afghanistan. Tobias Schliessler (The Fifth Estate, Hancock) was the director of photography, working with RED cameras. According to Parker, they watched a lot of other war films for the right frame of mind. He explained, “As a reference for how the environment should look, the guideline was the documentary Restrepo about the Afghanistan war. This was his basis for sky, lighting and terrain.”

Editing took about six months. Parker said, “Peter likes to shoot with three cameras all the time, so there’s a lot of coverage. I edit while they are shooting, but I wasn’t on location. I like to blast through the footage to keep up with the camera. This way I can let Peter know if any extra coverage is needed. Often I’ll get word to the 1st AD and he’ll sneak in extra shots if the schedule permits. Although I will have a first assembly when the production wraps, Peter will never sit though a complete viewing of that. He works in a very linear manner, so as we start to view a scene, if there’s something that bothers him, we’ll stop and address it. My first cut was about two-and-a-half hours and the final length came in at two hours.”

df_ls_03Parker continued, “There were a number of scenes that paced well when we intercut them, rather than let them play as written in a linear fashion. For instance, we wanted to let the mission briefing scene play normally. This is where the SEAL team is briefed on their target.  That scene was followed by a scene of the target beheading a local. However, we realized that an actual briefing is very technical and rote – so intercutting these scenes helped keep the audience engaged.” In a film that is intended to accurately portray the frenetic events and chaos of a battle, continuity becomes a challenge for the editor. Parker explained, “In some of the key scenes, the cameras would be on the stars for their takes and then would be turned around to cover the side of the scene showing the Taliban. It was always an issue of matching the energy.”

df_ls_04“I purposefully wanted to make the battlefield clear for the audience. I didn’t want it to be a messy confusing battle. I wanted the audience to experience exactly what the SEALs felt, which was the Taliban closing in on them. I slowed down the pacing so the audience could really track the scene. I’ve had people tell me after screenings that they appreciated the way the first battle is presented, because they’re never lost or confused. In the key scene, where the seal team is debating about what to do with the goat herders, there was a lot of improvisation and a lot of coverage. There was so much strong footage that it was overwhelming. I ended up transcribing every line of dialogue to index cards, then I would lay them on the floor and edit the scene together with these cards.”

Another struggle was how much violence to show. Parker continued, “During the battle, there are scenes with long falls and jumps down the mountainside as the SEALS are looking for cover. These were very brutal visually and I had to be conscious of whether I was getting desensitized to the brutality and needed to dial it back some. One scene that I fought hard to keep in the way I’d cut it, was when Marcus breaks his leg. There’s a bone sticking out through the skin and he has to push it back in. Some folks thought that showing this was just too much, because it was too gruesome. That’s obviously extremely painful, but it’s accurate to what happened and tells a lot about what sort of people become SEALs. I’m glad it stayed in.”

df_ls_02Visual effects played a large role in making Lone Survivor. Image Engine Design (Elysium, Zero Dark Thirty, District 9) in Vancouver handled the majority of effects. The Chinook helicopter crash sequence was completed by ILM. Parker said, “There were a lot of practical visual effects done on location, but these were augmented by Image Engine. The crew did trek up into the upper mountains in New Mexico into some difficult places, so that created a realistic starting point. Muzzle flashes were added or enhanced and mountains were added to some backgrounds. The sets of the villages were only one or two huts and then Image Engine built everything around those. Same for the SEAL base. There were only a few real buildings and from that, they built out a larger base.”

Sound was also a key part of the experience. Parker explained, “Wylie Stateman (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds) was the supervising sound editor and working with him was very inspiring. He uses a lot of foley, rather than canned effects, and was able to build up a whole sound design ‘language’ for the environment of each scene. It was very collaborative. Wylie and I would discuss our ideas and massage edits to make the sound design more effective.”

The editorial department was set up with four Avid Media Composer systems connected via Unity shared storage. Parker is a big proponent of Avid. He said, “I strictly cut on Avid, but I like some of the improvements they made, thanks for the pressure put on them by Final Cut Pro. This includes some of the timeline-based editing changes, like the ability to copy and paste within the timeline.” The final DI and color grading was handled by Company 3 in Los Angeles.

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters