Amira Color Tool and your NLE

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

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

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

FCP X

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

Media Composer

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

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

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©2014 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer | Software v8

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

Media Composer and the options

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

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

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

Enter the new model

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

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

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

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

Third-party bundles

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

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

What to do

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

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

©2014 Oliver Peters

Comparing Color, Resolve, SpeedGrade and Symphony

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

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Avid Technology Media Composer + Symphony

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

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

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

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

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Adobe SpeedGrade CC

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

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

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

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

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Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

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

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

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

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

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Apple Color

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Oliver Peters

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. The following 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!

Click here for more analysis at Digital Video’s website.

©2014 Oliver Peters

 

Why film editors love Avid Media Composer

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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