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

 

The NLE that wouldn’t die

It’s been 18 months since Apple launched Final Cut Pro X and the debate over it continues to rage without let-up. Apple likely has good sales numbers to deem it a success, but if you look around the professional world, with a few exceptions, there has been little or no adoption. Yes, some editors are dabbling with it to see where Apple is headed with it – and yes, some independent editors are using it for demanding projects, including commercials, corporate videos and TV shows. By comparison, though, look at what facilities and broadcasters are using – or what skills are required for job openings – and you’ll see a general scarceness of FCP X.

Let’s compare this to the launch of the original Final Cut Pro (or “legacy”) over 12 years ago. In a similar fashion, FCP was the stealth tool that attracted individual users. The obvious benefit was price. At that time a fully decked out Avid Media Composer was a turnkey system costing over $100K. FCP was available as software for only $999. Of course, what gets lost in that measure, is the Avid price included computer, monitors, wiring, broadcast i/o hardware and storage. All of this would have to be added to the FCP side and in some cases, wasn’t even possible with FCP. In the beginning it was limited to DV and FireWire only. But there were some key advantages it introduced at the start, over Avid systems. These included blend modes, easy in-timeline editing, After Effects-style effects and a media architecture built upon the open, extensible and ubiquitous QuickTime foundation. Over the years, a lot was added to make FCP a powerful system, but at its core, all the building blocks were in place from the beginning.

When uncompressed SD and next HD became the must-have items, Avid was slow to respond. Apple’s partners were able to take advantage of the hardware abstraction layer to add codecs and drivers, which expanded FCP’s capabilities. Vendors like Digital Voodoo, Aurora Video Systems and Pinnacle made it possible to edit something other than DV. Users have them to thank – more so than Apple – for growing FCP into a professional tool. When FCP 5 and 6 rolled around, the Final Cut world was pretty set, with major markets set to shift to FCP as the dominant NLE. HD, color correction and XML interchange had all been added and the package was expanded with an ecosystem of surrounding applications. By the time of the launch of the last Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) in 2009, Apple’s NLE seemed unstoppable. Unfortunately FCP 7 wasn’t as feature-packed as many had expected. Along with reticence to chuck recently purchased PowerMac G5 computers, a number of owners simply stayed with FCP 5 and/or FCP 6.

When Apple discusses the number of licensees, you have to parse how they define the actual purchases. While there are undoubtedly plenty of FCP X owners, the interpretation of sales is that more seats of FCP X have been sold than of FCP 7. Unfortunately it’s hard to know what that really means. Since it’s a comparison to FCP 7 – and not every FCP 1-6 owner upgraded to 7 – it could very well be that the X number isn’t all that large. Even though Apple EOL’ed (end of life) Final Cut Studio with the launch of FCP X, it continued to sell new seats of the software through its direct sales and reseller channels. In fact, Apple seems to still have it available if you call the correct 800 line. When Apple says it has sold more of X than of 7, is it counting the total sales (including those made after the launch) or only before? An interesting statistic would be the number of seats of Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) sold since the launch of FCP X as compared to before. We’ll never know, but it might actually be a larger number. All I know is that the system integrators I personally know, who have a long history of selling and servicing FCP-based editing suites, continue to install NEW FCP 7 rooms!

Like most drastic product changes, once you get over the shock of the new version, you quickly realize that your old version didn’t instantly stop working the day the new version launched. In the case of FCP 7, it continues to be a workhorse, albeit the 32-bit architecture is pretty creaky. Toss a lot of ProRes 4444 at it and you are in for a painful experience. There has been a lot of dissatisfaction with FCP X among facility owners, because it simply changes much of the existing workflows. There are additional apps and utilities to fill the gap, but many of these constitute workarounds compared to what could be done inside FCP 7.

Many owners have looked at alternatives. These include Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer/Symphony, Media 100 and Autodesk Smoke 2013. If they are so irritated at Apple as to move over to Windows hardware, then the possibilities expand to include Avid DS, Grass Valley Edius and Sony Vegas. Several of these manufacturers have introduced cross-grade promotional deals to entice FCP “legacy” owners to make the switch. Avid and Adobe have benefited the most in this transition. Editors who were happy with Avid in the past – or work in a market where Avid dominates – have migrated back to Media Composer. Editors who were hoping for the hypothetical FCP 8 are often making Adobe Premiere (and the Production Premium bundle) their next NLE of choice. But ironically, many owners and users are simply doing nothing and continuing with FCP 7 or even upgrading from FCP 6 to FCP 7.

Why is it that FCP 7 isn’t already long gone or on the way out by now? Obviously the fact that change comes slowly is one answer, but I believe it’s more than that. When FCP 1.0 came on the scene, its interface and operational methodology fit into the existing NLE designs. It was like a “baby Avid” with parts of Media 100 and After Effects dropped in. If you cut on a Media Composer, the transition to FCP was pretty simple. Working with QuickTime made it easy to run on most personal machines without extra hardware.  Because of its relatively open nature and reliance in industry-standard interchange formats (many of which were added over time), FCP could easily swap data with other applications using EDLs, OMFs, text-based log files and XML. Facilities built workflows around these capabilities.

FCP X, on the other hand, introduced a completely new editing paradigm that not only changed how you work, but even the accepted nomenclature of editing. Furthermore, the UI design even did things like reverse the behavior of some keystrokes from how similar functions had been triggered in FCP 7. In short, forget everything you know about editing or using other editing software if you want to become proficient with FCP X. That’s a viable concept for students who may be the professional editors of the future. Or, for non-fulltime editors who occasionally have to edit and finish professional-level productions as one small part of their job. Unfortunately, it’s not a good approach if you want to make FCP X the ubiquitous NLE in established professional video environments, like post houses, broadcasters and large enterprise users.

After all, if I’m a facility manager and you can’t show me a compelling reason why this is better and why it won’t require a complete internal upheaval, then why should I change? In most shops, overall workflow is far more important than the specific features of any individual application. Gone are the differences in cost, so it’s difficult to make a compelling argument based on ROI. You can no longer make the (false) argument of 1999 that FCP will only cost you 1% of the cost of an Avid. Or use the bogus $50K edit suite ad that followed a few years later.

Which brings us to the present. I started on Avid systems as the first NLE where I was in the driver’s seat. I’ve literally cut on dozens of edit systems, but for me, Final Cut Pro “legacy” fit my style and preferences best. I would have loved a 64-bit version with a cleaned-up user interface, but that’s not what FCP X delivers. It’s also not exactly where Premiere Pro CS6 is today. I deal with projects from the outside – either sent to me or at shops where I freelance. Apple FCP 7 and Avid Media Composer continue to be what I run into and what is requested.

Over the past few months I’ve done quite a few complex jobs on FCP X, when I’ve had the ability to control the decision. Yet, I cannot get through any complex workflow without touching parts of Final Cut Studio (“legacy”) to get the job done. FCP X seems to excel at small projects where speed trumps precision and interoperability. It’s also great for individual owner-operators who intend to do everything inside FCP X. But for complex projects with integrated workflows, FCP 7 is still decidedly better.

As was the case with early FCP, where most of the editing design was there at the start, I now feel that with the FCP X 10.0.6 update, most of its editing design is also in place. It may never become the tool that marches on to dominate the market. FCP “legacy” had that chance and Apple walked away from it. It’s dubious that lightning will strike twice, but 18 months is simply too short of a timeframe in which to say anything that definitive. All I know is that for now, FCP 7 continues as the preferred NLE for many, with Media Composer a close second. Most editors, like old dogs, aren’t too eager to learn new tricks. At least that’s what I conclude, based on my own ear-to-the-ground analysis. Check back this time next year to see if that’s still the case. For now, I see the industry continuing to live in a very fractured, multi-NLE environment.

©2012 Oliver Peters

Film Budgeting Basics

New filmmakers tackling their first indie feature will obviously ask, “What is this film going cost to produce?” The answer to this – like many of these questions – is, “It depends.” The cost of making a film is directly related to the resources needed and the time required for each resource. That often has little to do with the time involved in actually filming the scenes.

A friend of mine, after directing his first feature, was fond of saying, “The total time of saying the words ‘roll, action, cut, print’ was probably less than an hour; but, it took me two years prior to that to have the privilege.” Cost is almost never related to return. I’ve often told budding filmmakers to consider long and hard what they are doing. They could instead take the same amount of money and throw themselves the biggest party of their life. After all the effort of making the film, you might actually have more to show for it from the party. Film returns tend to follow other media success percentages, where typically 15% are successful and 85% fail (or at least don’t make a financial return). Understanding how to maximum the value on the screen is integral to budgeting a feature film.

I often work in the realm of indie features, which includes dramatic productions and documentaries. Each of these two categories tends to break into cost tiers like these:

Dramatic films

$0 – $50,000

$200,000

$500,000

$1,000,000-$2,000,000

Over $2,000,000

Documentaries

$0 – $30,000

$50,000

$300,000-$1,500,000

Over $1,500,000

Money is always tight within these ranges. Once you get over $2,000,000, you tend to have a bit more breathing room and the ability to tackle issues by adding more resources to the equation. Production is related to time and that varies greatly between scripted films and documentaries, where the story is often evolving over time and out of the director’s control. Here is a typical rule-of-thumb timeline for the production of each.

Dramatic films – timeline

1 year to secure rights and funding

2 months of casting, scouting, preparation

1 month readying actual production logistics

2-5 weeks of production (stage and location)

8-20 weeks of picture editorial

8-20 weeks sound editorial and scoring (usually starts after picture is “locked”)

1-2 weeks of picture finish/conform/grade

1-2 weeks of audio mix (re-recording mix)

1 week to finalize all deliverables

Documentaries – timeline

The timeframe up to the start of editorial differs with every project and is an unknown.

8-60 weeks of picture editorial

8-20 weeks sound editorial and scoring (usually starts after picture is “locked”)

1-2 weeks of picture finish/conform/grade

1-2 weeks of audio mix (re-recording mix)

1 week to finalize all deliverables

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Clearly any of these categories can take longer, but in the indie/low-budget field, indecision and letting things drag out will destroy the viability of the project. You don’t have the luxury of studio film timeframes. This is where a savvy line producer, unit manager and production manager (often the same person on small films) can make or break the budget. Here are some cost variables to consider.

Cost variables that need to be evaluated and balanced

Union versus non-union.

More days of shooting versus fewer, but longer days, with overtime pay.

The size of the cast and the experience level of the actors.

Allotting adequate (non-filmed) rehearsal time.

The number of script pages (a shorter script means a less costly production).

Accurate timing of scene descriptions to determine how much production time is required for each scene.

The number of locations and location changes/distances.

Period drama versus a contemporary story.

Stage and sets versus shooting at real locations.

The number of make-up and wardrobe changes.

A production location with local crews and facilities versus bringing in resources from the outside.

Film versus digital photography.

The number of cameras.

The amount of gear (dollies, cranes, etc.).

Cost-saving tips

Investigate opportunities to partner with regional film schools.

Using a director of photography who is his own camera operator and who can supply his own cameras and lenses.

Using a location mixer with his own gear.

Using an editor with his own gear.

Eliminate the needs for an elaborate “video village” and possibly reduce the need for a DIT (if you have savvy camera assistants).

Negotiate lower equipment rental costs based on fewer days per week.

Negotiate local resources for food, lodging, travel and craft services.

Explore alternatives to stages, such as empty warehouses.

Explore unsigned local musical artists for songs, scores, etc.

Hold one or more days of production in reserve (to fix “gaps” discovered during editing), in order to shoot inserts, B-roll, transitional shots, the opening title, etc.

Errors that will drive up cost

The film is too short or too long (ideal is a first cut that’s about 10% longer than target, so it can be trimmed back).

Unforeseen or poorly executed visual effects.

Judgment calls made on location to “save” time/effort on a rushed day.

Allowing the actors too much freedom to ad lib and improvise, as well as play with props.

Indecision in the edit.

Changing the edit after the cut is “locked”.

Using stock images or popular music without making provisions in advance for clearance and budgeting.

Cost-saving items that AREN’T

Failing to shoot a complete master shot as part of the coverage on complex scenes.

Using two or more camera throughout the entire production.

Letting actors ad lib in lieu of adequate rehearsal.

Not hiring a script supervisor/continuity person.

Using blue/green-screen effects for driving shots.

Relying on low-light cameras instead of proper lighting.

Extensive use of the “video village” on set.

Limiting the amount of footage sent to the editors (send them everything, not only “circle takes”).

Short-changing the importance of the role of the data wrangler.

Not allowing adequate time or resources for proper data management.

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For reference, I put together two sample budgets a year ago, as part of a presentation at Digital Video Expo in Pasadena. It’s available for download here in Numbers, Excel and PDF versions. Feel free to manipulate the spreadsheets for your own production to see how they stack up. I break down a film/DI and a digital photography budget. As you can see, going with 35mm film adds about $175K more to the budget, largely due to stock, processing and DI costs. In a major studio feature, the difference in formats is inconsequential, but not in the million dollar indie range. I have not included a “film-out”, which will add $75-$200K.

The budget I developed, with the help of a number of experienced unit managers, represents a fairly typical, non-union, indie film. It includes most of the cost for crew, cast, production and post, but does not include such items as the cost of the script, props, sets, production office rentals, hotels, insurance, creative fees and others. As a rule-of-thumb, I’ve factored gear and stage rentals as 3-day weeks. This means you get seven days of use, but are only charged for three. In the past year, I’ve heard rates as low as 1.5-day weeks, but I don’t think you can plan on that being the norm. A 3-day or 4-day week is customary.

Many states offer film production incentives, designed to entice producers to shoot a project in that state. Often local investment money and economic incentives will attract producers to a particular locale. That’s great if the state has good local crew and production resources, but if not, then you’ll have to bring in more from the outside. This adds cost for travel and lodging, some of which an enterprising producer can negotiate for trade in the form of a credit on the film. There’s no guarantee of that, though, and as it’s such a variable, this is a cost item that must be evaluated with each individual production.

Remember that post production work has to occur in some physical place. Audio post is typically done in a studio owned or rented by the audio engineer. That’s not the case for editors. If you hire a freelance film editor, you will also need to factor in the cost of the editing system, as well as a rental office in which to house the operation. Some editors can supply that as a package deal and others don’t.

Naturally, a savvy line producer can find ways to bring this budget even lower. I work a lot with the Valencia College Film Technology Program in Orlando. Over the years they have partnered with many producers to complete Hollywood-grade features. I’m not talking student films, but rather name directors and actors working alongside students and working pros to put out films destined for theatrical distribution. The films produced there often place a level of production value on the screen that’s as much as twice the actual out-of-pocket cost of production and post. All thanks to the resources and services the program has to offer.

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Most new producers have a good handle on the production phase, but post is a total black hole. As a consequence, post often gets short-changed in the budgeting process. Unfortunately, some producers try to figure out their post production costs at the point when everything is in the can, but almost all of the money has been spent. That’s in spite of the fact that post generally takes much more time than the period allotted to location and stage photography. In order to properly understand the post side of things, here are the workflows for four finishing scenarios.

Film – traditional post

Shoot on location with film – 1,000ft. of 35mm = about 10 minutes of unedited footage.

Process the negative at the lab and do a “best light” transfer to videotape or a hard drive.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates a cut list for the negative cutter.

The negative cutter conforms the negative (physical splices).

All visual effects are added as optical effects.

Lab color timing is performed and answer prints are generated for review.

Film deliverables are generated.

Film – DI (digital intermediate) post

Shoot on location with film – 1,000ft. of 35mm = about 10 minutes of unedited footage.

Process the negative at the lab and do a “best light” transfer to videotape or a hard drive.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates edit lists for the finishing house.

Selected shots are retransferred (or scanned), conformed and graded.

Visual effects are inserted during the conform/grade.

Digital and/or film deliverables are generated.

Digital production – camera raw photography

Shoot on location with a digital camera that records in a raw file format to a card or hard drive.

The footage is converted into a viewable form for the editors.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates edit lists for the finishing house.

Camera raw files are conformed and color graded in a process similar to a DI.

Visual effects are inserted during the conform/grade.

Digital and/or film deliverables are generated.

Digital production – tape or file-based (not raw) photography

Shoot on location with a digital camera and recorded to tape or as files to a card or hard drive.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates edit lists for the finishing house.

Camera files are conformed and color graded.

Visual effects are inserted during the conform/grade.

In some cases, the editing format and the system is of a level to be considered final quality and the same editor can do both the creative edit and finishing.

Digital and/or film deliverables are generated.

As these workflows show, a lot goes into post beyond simply editing and mixing the film. These elements take time and determine the level of polish you present to your audience. The sample budgets I’ve compiled aren’t intended to cause sticker shock. It’s clear that getting the tally to $1 Million doesn’t take very much and that’s a pretty realistic range for a small film. Granted, I’ve worked on films done for $150,000 that looked like a lot more, but it takes a lot of work to get there. And often leaning hard on the good graces of the crew and resources you use.

For comparison, here’s an example at The Smoking Gun that’s purported to be the working budget for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village under the working title of The Woods. It doesn’t really matter whether it is or it isn’t the actual budget. The numbers are in line with this type of studio film, which makes it a good exercise in seeing how one can spend $70 Million on a film.

Whether you play in the studio or the independent film arena, it’s important to understand how to translate the vision of the script in a way that correlates to time and money. Once that becomes second nature, you are on your way to becoming a producer that puts the most production value on the screen for the audiences to appreciate.

©2012 Oliver Peters

The race to the bottom

Whenever a group of established professionals in the business gets together, they bemoan the “race to the bottom”. That’s the concept that simpler, more inexpensive tools result in the lowering of quality. The prevailing attitude is that now “anyone can do it” so no one “values the craft”. Editors complain about what low-cost editing software like Final Cut Pro has done to facilities. Directors of photography complain about the Canon 5D or the Blackmagic Cinema Camera and how these are killing quality production. Colorists complain about the impact of free color grading tools, like DaVinci Resolve Lite on their ability to earn a living.

I’m sure this is echoed in other industries. Whether you are talking about multitrack audio decks versus Pro Tools, or vinyl records versus CDs versus iTunes, or the work of a talented machinist compared to “fab labs” and 3D printing – the theme (and fear) is the same. That is, that these trends bring more users into the field and I/we/my company will go out-of-business. I won’t argue the result, because disruptive technologies do displace workers and do change the dynamics of cost. In fact, at my first paid editing gig after college in the mid-70s, the company billed $275/hour for editing time. That was with three quad VTRs, a switcher and audio mixer, edit controller and two black-and-white title card cameras. All analogue, no character generator, no digital video effects manipulation (ADO, K-scope, A-53, etc.). Bare bones. Today, you’d be hard pressed to pay more than $175/hour for most NLE suites with editor. That’s a room with an order-of-magnitude more features than the typical mid-70s edit suite, for a lot less. And that’s not even accounting for the change in the value of money over four decades!

I view the technology of our business as more of a bell curve than a slide down from the top. When film production and post was the norm, the cost of the tools was relatively cheap. Yes, a film camera and Moviola or KEM were expensive, precision mechanical products, but they were within the grasp of a sole entrepreneur to own. With the introduction and expansion of video production and post, the industry diverted to a three-decades-long love of the next biggest-baddest box. In the heyday of the linear digital suite, a decked-out room was a million-dollar investment. Facilities marketed themselves based on the hardware, rather than the talent at the controls.

Then we started moving down from the top of the curve and many of those same facilities never survived. That “race to the bottom” started with Avid, Lightworks, Media 100 and EMC2, who introduced digital NLEs that were built around affordable, desktop systems. As expensive as they were at the time, they were significantly less costly than the linear suite of the day or even other first-generation nonlinear systems. One of the early NLEs that was used extensively in episodic television offline editing was the Ediflex. It used 12 industrial-grade VHS decks to mimic random access. You could only lease them in Los Angeles, but being in Orlando, the post house I was with considered the purchase of four systems. The asking price was $250K each, so we continued leasing. Ultimately the company went belly-up and the four systems we were leasing weren’t worth the shipping cost and so ultimately ended up on the scrap heap. The Ediflex was done in by the success of the desktop NLEs, like Avid, which ushered in widespread nonlinear post. Following the technology advances of all other computing and software trends, quality improved, cost dropped, operation was easier and performance and capacity became better. Final Cut Pro was simply a new stop on this ride.

Many of my fellow editors equate software complexity with professional. Maybe it’s a macho thing. If software takes an effort to understand and use, it must be inherently better than one which is simpler, even though the end result might be identical. Yet, all professional software developers are embracing simpler UIs that feature more unified controls, presets and templates. It’s not just the post industry. As I can attest from meetings I’ve attended, this is the over-riding software development direction taken in other fields, too, such as the engineering and CAD products from Autodesk, Solidworks and similar companies. Software can be both easy and deep (when needed) and that’s a design direction across-the-board. This is enabled by the fact that the under-the-hood processes required for the hidden magic are easy to run on most modern, off-the-shelf desktop and laptop computers. They finally have the necessary horsepower.

As tools get cheaper and easier to use, pros fret that the proverbial “YouTubers” and the “editor in his bedroom” will put them out of business. And yes, ease of use and low cost-of-entry do mean that there’s more competition. It also means that your clients will often decide to tackle the post on a job by themselves. All of this is true, but it’s the nature of technological change. We’ve seen it before in desktop publishing and photography. Some folks went out of business and some embraced the change and figured out how to thrive. After all, FCP X at $299 benefits the working pro just as much as the up-and-comer. This is especially true considering that FCP X is well-suited for the next wave of technology change in post – namely 2K and 4K frame sizes and higher frame rates, such as 1080p/59.94.

In most cases (though, unfortunately not in all) – the cream will rise to the top. The Canon 5D and RED One are good examples. These cameras lowered the needed investment to shoot high-end footage. In the hands of a talented DP, each camera can yield superb results. Likewise, in the hands of a wannabe who hasn’t learned the basics, they can also produce crap. Why? Simply put, the basics are still the most important. Lighting, lens selection, camera movement, focus, art direction, etc. These all contribute to the difference between art and junk. Believe it or not, most clients actually can see the difference. Sometimes they don’t know why. Sometimes they don’t need the difference. Sometimes they don’t want to pay for the difference. That’s why we as professionals need to continue to educate clients on the value that we bring to the project and NOT the value that our tools bring.

This isn’t always an easy sell, but it’s what makes good writers, directors, record producers, musicians and others successful. Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or Eric Johnson would sound as good on any guitar they played. A movie cut by Walter Murch, Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter or Pietro Scalia would be just as good, regardless of the edit software at their disposal.

© 2012 Oliver Peters

Three choices

We now know where the four “A”s are headed. With the dust settling just a little, picking your favored approach to post is shaping up into three choices: the software suite, the all-in-one and the toolkit. That’s not to say you can’t mix these options up a bit, but let me outline each approach.  Before I start, let me clarify that these choices are designed for the needs of small shops that post the average types of projects, including corporate videos, commercials, reality TV shows and low budget indie films. If you only cut studio films or are a high-end VFX specialist, then your world view is likely to be quite a bit different. So, let’s start.

A. The Software Suite

If you wanted to build your facility around a complementary suite of applications as I outlined in this previous post, then Apple Final Cut Studio had been the dominant option. With Apple’s changes, Adobe becomes the logical successor. The new Creative Suite 6 offerings provide many of the advances that Final Cut users had expected in a hypothetical Final Cut Pro 8 or Final Cut Studio 4. If you are looking for a package that can cover all the bases – including logging/ingest, editing, audio mixing, color grading and encoding/authoring – then Adobe CS6 Production Premium is the place to go.

Most Adobe applications may be purchased as standalone applications, as part of a suite or through a Creative Cloud subscription. If you are buying a site license as a multi-seat user, then you’ll likely go with perpetual licenses (the software has no time limit) rather than the Creative Cloud. (Adobe does plan to offer “Team” subscriptions later in the year.) Understand that if you are purchasing Adobe software with the intent of running different applications on different workstations, you will still have to purchase the appropriate suite (or a Cloud subscription) for each workstation. You cannot buy one software bundle license and then pick and choose specific applications to install and authorize on numerous computers for simultaneous operation. For that, you’d need a volume, or multi-seat license. It allows you to deploy bundles like Production Premium onto multiple workstations, using a common license number.

Granted, any FCP/Color editor moving to Premiere Pro or SpeedGrade is probably going to miss a few of their favorite features, but once comfortable with the differences, will find a very comprehensive package. One that lets you do everything you need for creative cutting and finishing – all within the Adobe family. There are links between Premiere Pro and Audition or After Effects or SpeedGrade, so it’s pretty easy to start in Premiere Pro (or even Prelude for ingest/transcode/logging) and then move to After Effects for vfx/motion graphics, Audition for the mix and SpeedGrade for the final grading pass.

Right now, the least-integrated application is SpeedGrade, which was acquired by Adobe only last September. Only the “send to” half of the roundtrip with Premiere Pro is in place. You can’t monitor broadcast output on any card except an NVIDIA with SDI, which most video editors don’t own and which doesn’t work on the Mac. You can, however, view a full screen signal on a second display that’s connected via DVI or DisplayPort. This is likely to change pretty quickly under Adobe control, but if you can work within the current constraints, SpeedGrade is a powerful color correction tool on par with Color or Resolve.

The intent of this post is not to go into depth about the pros and cons of any individual software application, so I’ll leave a discussion of Premiere Pro’s strengths or weaknesses as an editor for another time. Suffice it to say that if you want a powerful and comprehensive set of tools from a single vendor, who has made interoperability a priority, then Adobe is the best option today.

B. The All-In-One Editor

The editor who prefers to have everything at his or her fingertips inside of a single application is going to have to stick with Avid. The best bang-for-the-buck until mid-June is the Avid Symphony cross-grade promotion for FCP “legacy” owners. For $999 you get Symphony, AvidFX (Boris RED integrated into Symphony), the Boris Continuum Complete filter set, Sorenson Squeeze and Avid DVD (PC only). The advantage of Symphony over Media Composer includes advanced color correction tools and the bundling of the BCC filters. Both are cross-platform and work with the full range of third-party i/o hardware.

Naturally Autodesk Smoke and Avid DS editors might consider their favored NLE as more deserving of the all-in-one label, but I see the strengths of these systems in finishing and not offline or creative editing tasks. DS does offer many of those tools (though is typically not considered the first choice for such tasks), but Smoke doesn’t. In other words, if you want a system that can tackle any task from film editing to finishing, Symphony and Media Composer definitely fit the bill. The weaknesses are that you are limited to a maximum of HD-sized frames, the effects modules need a lot of improvement and the color correction tools are also long-in-the-tooth. Nevertheless, in the hands of an experienced editor, 80-90% of all editing and finishing challenges can be tackled inside of Symphony. This includes creative cutting, mixing, finishing and color grading – all accomplished without ever leaving the Avid editing interface.

For folks interested in understanding the differences between Media Composer and Symphony, check out this video at Avid. Furthermore, you can search for “avid fx tutorial” at Google or YouTube to find numerous tutorials on how to use Avid FX within the Media Composer or Symphony interface.

C. The Toolkit

This is where I see Apple Final Cut X fitting. FCP X by itself is not a complete NLE for advanced work and needs to be augmented with many other tools. When I say this, I’m focusing on the small shop, multi-suite user, not the individual videographer or editor who needs to bang out spots and corporate videos on his home or portable system. The work that many editors do requires collaboration with other editors, mixers and colorists. FCP X lacks those tools internally and instead leans on third-party utilities. The mix that seems to work best is some combination of FCP X (creative editing), DaVinci Resolve (advanced color grading) and Autodesk Smoke (visual effects and finishing).

As I watch the rapid expansion of the FCP X-based ecosystem, it’s becoming clear that what appears to be a lack of features is, in fact, spawning innovation to complement FCP X. As a result, the application is becoming more of a platform than the previous version or other editing software. Final Cut Pro X becomes the editing hub that is augmented by other applications and utilities based on your individual workflow needs.

Naturally any purchase of FCP X would be incomplete without Motion 5 and Compressor 4, not to mention that essential media management and interchange tools include Event Manager X, Xto7 for Final Cut Pro, 7toX for Final Cut Pro and X2Pro Audio Convert. I also find that it’s very hard to get through most complex productions without some fallback to the “legacy” Final Cut Studio suite. For example, if you need to generate EDLs or OMF files or prefer Color to other grading tools, then FC Studio (assuming you already own a copy anyway) is the best choice. In fact, you can still buy a Final Cut Pro Studio license from Apple’s 800-number business sales operation. Adobe CS6 Production Premium can also fulfill many of these same functions and there’s no reason not to own both CS6 and FCP X. For the sake of this post, I’m presenting Choice C as a non-Avid, non-Adobe alternative.

Advanced post functions in the toolkit include grading, audio mixing and advanced finishing. There are plenty of options for audio, including Apple’s own Logic and Soundtrack Pro. There’s no clear path from FCP X to either of these, yet. You can export audio streams as Roles, but those are “flattened” tracks without handles. Best to bounce over to FCP 7 and then to STP or Logic. Other solutions include ProTools, Audition and Nuendo. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro is designed to send FCP X audio tracks to Pro Tools in the AAF format, but not OMF, so it’s not compatible with some of the other DAW software options, like Logic.

Blackmagic Design has done a good job of integrating FCP X’s XML into DaVinci Resolve, so even the free LITE version works well as a grading companion to FCP X. Resolve can easily be installed on any workstation in the facility and if you want a dedicated grading room, then it’s worth the investment in a proper monitor, scopes and a control surface. Likewise, if you invest in Autodesk Smoke, it is probably with the intent to make this a client-supervised “hero” room. Yes, all of these applications can reside on a single workstation, but that doesn’t make the best business sense.

Another thing to consider is i/o hardware. Final Cut Pro X works with most of the PCIe and Thunderbolt capture/output cards and devices, but Resolve only works with Blackmagic Design’s own hardware. Conversely, Smoke requires an AJA KONA 3G or IoXT. For a facility owner, having dedicated Smoke and Resolve suites makes sense and, therefore, it’s OK to have different cards in different workstations. This does mean you will have to do a bit of planning to best manage your configuration.

This also brings to mind shared storage. FCP X is still evolving in that regard and currently works with Xsan. You can use it with volume-level SANs, but the “Add SAN Location” feature may or may not work at your site. For instance, it doesn’t work with Command Soft FibreJet. You’ll be fine with shared media, as long as your Final Cut Events and Final Cut Projects folders are on locally-controlled volumes, where the FCP X workstation has write permission to that volume or drive.

Last but not least is Adobe Photoshop, which I find essential for all sessions. Other editors disagree and prefer to avoid Photoshop – either for reasons of need or cost. So, alternatives to Photoshop include Corel Painter, Photoshop Elements or Pixelmator.

In closing, remember this is just a simple way to present the options. There’s nothing that says you can’t mix and match After Effects and/or Pro Tools with EDIUS, Media Composer, Vegas, Media 100 or any other variation. My world is headed primarily to an Apple/Adobe witches brew of applications. I hope my little overview makes some sense out of the confusing NLE landscape. It’s still very fluid and will likely continue to change over the coming year. The key is to pick a direction and stick to it. You don’t have to know everything, but pick the right tools for your clients and workload. Learn to use them well and dive in!

© 2012 Oliver Peters