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

NAB 2012 – Adobe CS6, Smoke 2013, Thunderbolt and more

Get some coffee, sit back and take your time reading this post. I apologize for its length in advance, but there’s a lot of new hardware and software to talk about. I’m going to cover my impressions of NAB along with some “first looks” at Adobe Creative Suite 6, Smoke 2013 and Thunderbolt i/o devices. There’s even some FCP X news!

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Impressions of NAB 2012

I thought this year was going to be quiet and laid back. Boy, was I wrong! Once again Blackmagic Design stole the spotlight with democratized products. This year the buzz had to be the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. It delivers on the objective of the original RED Scarlet idea. It’s a $3K camera with 2.5K of resolution and 13 stops. I’ll leave the camera discussions to the camera guys, but suffice it to say that this camera was thought up with post in mind. That is – no new, proprietary codec. It uses ProRes, DNxHD or Cinema DNG (the Adobe raw format). It also includes a copy of Resolve and UltraScope with the purchase.

Along with that news was Blackmagic’s re-introduction of the Teranex processors. Prior to that company’s acquisition by Blackmagic Design, the top-of-the-line Teranex image processor loaded with options was around $90K. Now that Grant Petty’s wizards have had a go at it, the newest versions in a nicely re-designed form factor are $2K for 2D and $4K for 3D. Sweet. And if you think free (or close to it) stifles R&D, take a look at the new, cleaned-up DaVinci Resolve 9.0 interface. Great to see that the development continues.

You’ll note that there was a lot of buzz about 4K camera, but did you notice you need to record that image to something? Enter AJA – not with a camera – but, with the KiPro Mini Quad. That’s right – a 4K version of the Mini already designed with Canon’s C500 4K camera in mind. It records 4K ProRes 4444 files. AJA is also building its Thunderbolt portfolio with T-Tap, a monitoring-only Thunderbolt-to-SDI/HDMI output adapter under $250. More on Thunderbolt devices later in this post.

The NLE news was dominated by Adobe’s reveal of Creative Suite 6 (with Premiere Pro CS6) and Autodesk’s re-designed Smoke 2013. Avid’s news was mainly broadcast and storage-related, since Media Composer version 6 had been launched months before. Although that was old news to the post crowd, it was the first showing for the software at NAB. Nevertheless, to guarantee some buzz, Avid announced a short-term Symphony cross-grade deal that lasts into June. FCP (excluding X), Media Composer and Xpress Pro owners can move into Symphony for $999. If you are an Avid fan, this is a great deal and is probably the best bang-for-the-buck NLE available if you take advantage of the cross-grade.

An interesting sidebar is that both FilmLight and EyeOn are developing plug-in products for Avid software. FilmLight builds the Baselight color correction system, which was shown and recently released in plug-in form for FCP 7. Now they are expanding that to other hosts, including Nuke and Media Composer under the product name of Baselight Editions. EyeOn’s Fusion software is probably the best and fastest, feature film-grade compositor available on Windows. EyeOn is using Connection (a software bridge) to send Media Composer/Symphony or DS timeline clips to Fusion, which permits both applications to stay open. In theory, if you bought Symphony and added Baselight and Fusion, the combination becomes one of the most powerful NLEs on the market. All at under $5K with the current cross-grade!

Autodesk has been quite busy redesigning its Smoke NLE for the Mac platform. Smoke 2013 features a complete Mac-centric overhaul to turn it into an all-in-one “super editor” that still feels comfortable for editors coming from an FCP or Media Composer background. See my “first look” section below.

Quantel, who often gets lost in these desktop NLE discussions showed the software-only version of Pablo running on a tweaked PC. It uses four high-end NVIDIA cards for performance and there’s also a new, smaller Neo Nano control surface. Although pricing is lower, at $50K for the software alone, it’s still the premium brand.

There’s been plenty of talk about “editing in the cloud”, but in my opinion, there were three companies at the show with viable cloud solutions for post: Avid, Quantel and Aframe. In 2010 Avid presented a main stage technology preview that this year has started to come to fruition as Interplay Sphere. The user in the field is connected to his or her home base storage and servers over various public networks. The edit software is a version of the NewsCutter/Media Composer interface that can mix local full-res media with proxy media linked to full-res media at the remote site. When the edit is done, the sequence list is “published” to the server and local, full-res media uploaded back to the home base (trimmed clips only). The piece is conformed and rendered by the server at home. Seems like the branding line should be Replace your microwave truck with a Starbucks!

The company with a year of real experience “in the cloud” at the enterprise level is Quantel with Qtube. It’s a similar concept to Avid’s, but has the advantage of tying in multiple locations remotely. Media at the home base can also be searched and retrieved in formats that work for other NLEs, including Media Composer and Final Cut.

An exciting newcomer is Aframe. They are a British company founded by the former owner of Unit, one of Europe’s largest professional post facilities built around FCP and Xsan. Aframe is geared toward the needs of shows and production companies more so than broadcast infrastructures. The concept uses a “private cloud” (i.e. not Amazon servers) with an interface and user controls that feel a lot like a mash-up between Vimeo and Xprove. Full-res media can be uploaded in several ways, including via regional service centers located around the US. There’s full metadata support and the option to use Aframe’s contracted logging vendor if you don’t want to create metadata yourself. Editors cut with proxy media and then the full-res files are conformed via EDLs and downloaded when ready. Pricing plans are an attractive per-seat, monthly structure that start with a free, single seat account.

Apple doesn’t officially do trade shows anymore, but they were at NAB, flying under the radar. In a series of small, private meetings with professional customers and media, Apple was making their case for Final Cut Pro X. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the same can be said for re-building a dominant editing application from the ground up. Rather than simply put in the same features as the competition, Apple opted to take a fresh look, which has created much “Sturm und Drang” in the industry. Nevertheless, Apple was interested in pointing out the adoption by professional users and the fact that it has held an above-50% market share with new NLE seats sold to professional users during 2011. You can parse those numbers anyway you like, but they point to two facts: a) people aren’t changing systems as quickly as many vocal forum posts imply, and b) many users are buying FCP X and seeing if and how it might work in some or all of their operation.

FCP X has already enjoyed several quick updates in less than a year, thanks to the App Store mechanism. There’s a robust third-party developer community building around X. In fact, walking around the NAB floor, I saw at least a dozen or more booths that displayed FCP X in some fashion to demonstrate their own product or use it as an example of interoperability between their product and X. Off the top of my head, I saw or heard about FCP X at Autodesk, Quantel, AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, MOTU, Tools On Air, Dashwood and SONY – not to mention others, like resellers and storage vendors. SONY has announced the new XDCAM plug-ins for X and compatibility of its XDCAM Browser software. Dashwood Cinema Solutions was showing the only stereo3D package that’s ready for Final Cut Pro X. And of course, we can’t live without EDLs, so developer XMiL Workflow Tools (who wasn’t exhibiting at NAB) has also announced EDL-X, an FCP XML-to-EDL translator, expected to be in the App Store by May.

On the Apple front, the biggest news was another peek behind the curtain at some of the features to be included in the next FCP X update, coming later this year. These include multichannel audio editing tools, dual viewers, MXF plug-in support and RED camera support. There are no details beyond these bullet points, but you can expect a lot of other minor enhancements as part of this update.

“Dual viewers” may be thought of as “source/record” monitors – added by Apple, thanks to user feedback. Apple was careful to point out to me that they intended to do a bit more than just that with the concept. “RED support” also wasn’t defined, but my guess would be that it’s based on the current Import From Camera routine. I would imagine something like FCP 7’s native support of RED media through Log and Transfer, except better options for bringing in camera raw color metadata. Of course, that’s purely speculation on my part.

Now, sit back and we’ll run through some “first looks”.

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Adobe Creative Suite 6 – A First Look

Adobe charged into 2012 with a tailwind of two solid years of growth on the Mac platform and heavy customer anticipation for what it plans to offer in Creative Suite 6. The release of CS5 and CS5.5 were each strong in their own right and introduced such technologies as the Mercury Playback Engine for better real-time performance, but in 2011 Adobe clearly ramped up its focus on video professionals. They acquired the IRIDAS SpeedGrade technology and brought the developers of Automatic Duck on board. There have been a few sneak peeks on the web including a popular video posted by Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco editors, but the wait for CS6 ended with this year’s NAB.

Production Premium

Adobe’s video content creation tools may be purchased individually, through a Creative Cloud subscription or as part of the Master Collection and Production Premium bundles. Most editors will be interested in CS6 Production Premium, which includes Prelude, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Photoshop Extended, SpeedGrade, Audition, Encore, Adobe Media Encoder, Illustrator, Bridge and Flash Professional. Each of these applications has received an impressive list of new features and it would be impossible to touch on every one here, so look for a more in-depth review at a future date. I’ll quickly cover some of the highlights.

Prelude

As part of CS6, Adobe is introducing Prelude, a brand new product designed for footage acquisition, ingest/transcode, organization, review and metadata tagging. It’s intended to be used by production assistants or producers as an application to prepare the footage for an editor. Both Prelude and Premiere Pro now feature “hover scrubbing”, which is the ability to scan through footage quickly by moving the mouse over the clip thumbnail, which can be expanded as large as a mini-viewer. Clips can be marked, metadata added and rough cuts assembled, which in turn are sent to Premiere Pro. There is a dynamic reading of metadata between Prelude and Premiere Pro. Clip metadata changes made in one application are updated in the other, since the information is embedded into the clip itself. Although Prelude is included with the software collection for single users, it can be separately purchased in volume by enterprise customers, such as broadcasters and news organizations.

Premiere Pro

A lot of effort was put into the redesign of Premiere Pro. The user interface has been streamlined and commands and icons were adjusted to be more consistent with both Apple Final Cut Pro (“legacy” versions) and Avid Media Composer. Adobe took input from users who have come from both backgrounds and wanted to alter the UI in a way that was reasonably familiar. The new CS6 keyboard shortcuts borrow from each, but there are also full FCP and full MC preset options. Workspaces have been redesigned, but an editor can still call up CS5.5 workspace layouts with existing projects to ease the transition. A dockable timecode window has been added and Adobe has integrated a dynamic trimming function similar to that of Media Composer.

The changes are definitely more than cosmetic, though, as Adobe has set out to design a UI that never forces you to stop. This means you can now do live updates to effects and even open other applications without the timeline playback ever stopping. They added Mercury Playback acceleration support for some OpenCL cards and there’s a new Mercury Transmit feature for better third-party hardware i/o support across all of the video applications. Many new tools have been added, including a new multi-camera editor with an unlimited number of camera angles. Some more features have been brought over from After Effects, including adjustment layers and the Warp Stabilizer that was introduced with CS5.5. This year they’ve broken out the rolling shutter repair function as a separate tool. Use it for quick HDSLR camera correction without the need to engage the full Warp Stabilizer.

SpeedGrade

By adding a highly-regarded and established color grading tool, Adobe has strengthened the position of Production Premium as the primary application suite for video professionals. The current level of integration is a starting point, given the short development time that was possible since last September. Expect this to expand in future versions.

SpeedGrade works as both a standalone grading application, as well as a companion to the other applications. There’s a new “Send to SpeedGrade” timeline export operation in Premiere Pro. When you go into SpeedGrade this way, an intermediate set of uncompressed DPX files is first rendered as the source media to be used by SpeedGrade. Both applications support a wide range of native formats, but they aren’t all the same, so this approach offers the fewest issues for now, when working with mixed formats in a Premiere sequence. In addition, SpeedGrade can also import EDLs and relink media, which offers a second path from Premiere Pro into SpeedGrade. Finished, rendered media returns to Premiere as a single, flattened file with baked-in corrections.

As a color correction tool, SpeedGrade presents an easy workflow – enabling you to stack layers of grading onto a single clip, as well as across the entire timeline. There are dozens of included LUTs and looks presets, which may be used for creative grading or to correct various camera profiles. An added bonus is that both After Effects and Photoshop now support SpeedGrade Look files.

Audition

With CS5.5, Adobe traded out Soundbooth for a cross-platform version of Audition, Adobe’s full-featured DAW software. In CS6, that integration has been greatly improved. Audition now sports an interface more consistent with After Effects and Premiere, newly added Mackie and Avid Eucon control surface protocol support and mixing automation. The biggest feature demoed in the sneak peeks has been the new Automatic Speech Alignment tool. You can take overdubbed ADR lines and automatically align them for near-perfect sync to replace the on-camera dialogue. All of this is thanks to the technology behind Audition’s new real-time, high-quality audio stretching engine.

Audition also gains a number of functions specific to audio professionals. Audio CD mastering has been added back into the program and there’s a new pitch control spectral display. This can be used to alter the pitch of a singer, as well as a new way to create custom sound design. Buying Production Premium gives you access to 20GB of downloadable audio media (sound effects and music scores) formerly available only via the online link to Adobe’s Resource Central.

After Effects

Needless to say, After Effects is the Swiss Army knife of video post. From motion graphics to visual effects to simple format conversation, there’s very little that After Effects isn’t called upon to do. Naturally there’s plenty new in CS6. The buzz feature is a new 3D camera tracker, which uses a point cloud to tightly track an object that exhibits size, position, rotation and perspective changes. These are often very hard for traditional 2D point trackers to follow. For example, the hood of a car moving towards the camera at an angle.

Now for the first time in After Effects, you can build extruded 3D text and vector shapes using built-in tools. This includes surface material options and a full 3D ray tracer. In general, performance has been greatly improved through a better hand-off between RAM cache and disk cache. As with Premiere Pro, rolling shutter repair is now also available as a separate tool in After Effects.

Photoshop

Photoshop has probably had the most online sneak peeks of any of the new Adobe apps. It has been available as a public beta since mid-March. Photoshop, too, sports a new interface, but that’s probably the least noteworthy of the new features. These include impressive new content-aware fill functions, 3D LUT support (including SpeedGrade Look files) and better auto-correction. There’s better use of GPU horsepower, which means common tasks like Liquefy are accelerated.

Photoshop has offered the ability to work with video as a single file for several versions. With CS6 it gains expanded video editing capabilities, enabled by a new layer structure akin to that used in After Effects. Although Premiere Pro or After Effects users probably won’t do much with it, Adobe is quite cognizant that many of its photography customers are increasingly asked to deal with video – thanks, of course, to the HD-video-enabled DSLRs, like the Canon EOS series. By integrating video editing and layering tools into Photoshop, it allows these customers to deliver a basic video project while working inside an application environment where they are the most comfortable. Video editors gain the benefit of having it there if they want to use it. Some may, in fact, develop their own innovative techniques once they investigate what it can do for them.

Adobe Creative Suite 6 offers a wealth of new features, expanded technologies and a set of brand new tools. It’s one of Adobe’s largest releases ever and promises to attract new interest from video professionals.

Click here for updated price and availability information.

Click here for videos that explain CS6 features.

Plus, a nice set of tutorial videos here.

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Autodesk Smoke 2013 – A First Look

Thanks to the common Unix underpinnings of Linux and Mac OS X, Autodesk Media & Entertainment was able to bring its advanced Smoke editor to the Mac platform in December of 2009 as an unbundled software product. The $15K price tag was a huge drop from that of their standard, turnkey Linux Smoke workstations, but still hefty for the casual user. Nevertheless, thanks to an aggressive trial and academic policy, Autodesk was very successful in getting plenty of potential new users to download and test the product. In the time since the launch on the Mac, Autodesk has had a chance to learn what Mac-oriented editors want and adjust to the feedback from these early adopters.

Taking that user input to heart, Autodesk introduced the new Smoke 2013 at NAB. This is an improved version that is much more “Mac-like”. Best of all it’s now available for $3,495 plus an optional annual subscription fee for support and software updates. Although this is an even bigger price reduction, it places Smoke in line with Autodesk’s animation product family (Maya, Softimage, etc.) and in keeping with what most Mac users feel is reasonable for a premium post production tool. Smoke 2013 will ship in fall, but the new price took effect at NAB. Any new and existing customers on subscription will receive the update as part of their support. Tutorials and trial versions of Smoke 2013 are expected to be available over the summer.

More Mac-like

Autodesk was successful in attracting a lot of trial downloads, but realized that the biggest hurdle was the steep learning curve even expert Final Cut and Media Composer editors encountered. Previous Mac versions of Smoke featured a user interface and commands inherited from the Linux versions of Smoke and Flame, which were completely different from any Mac editing application. Just getting media into the system baffled many. With Smoke 2013, Autodesk has specifically targeted editors who come from an Apple Final Cut Pro and/or Avid Media Composer background. The interface uses a standard, track-based editing workflow to maintain the NLE environment that editors are comfortable with. There’s a familiar Mac OS X menu bar at the top and the application has adopted most of the common OS commands. In short, it’s been redesigned – but not “re-imagined” – to act like a Mac application is supposed to.

Smoke now features a tab structure to quickly switch between modes, like media access, editing, etc. The biggest new tool is the Media Hub. This is an intelligent media browser that lets you easily access any compatible media on any of your hard drives. It recognizes native media formats, as opposed to simply browsing all files in the Finder. Media support includes RED, ARRIRAW, ProRes, DNxHD, H.264, XDCAM, image sequences, LUTs and more. Media Hub is the place to locate and import files, including the ability to drag-and-drop media directly into your Smoke library, as well as from the Finder into Smoke. Settings for formats like RED (debayer, color, etc.) are maintained even when you drag from the Finder. Since Smoke is designed as a finishing tool, you can also import AAF, XML (FCP 7, FCP X, Premiere Pro) and EDL lists generated by offline editors.

ConnectFX

Beyond familiar commands and the Media Hub, the editing interface has been redesigned to be more visually appealing and for the easier application of effects. ConnectFX is a method to quickly apply and modify effects right in the timeline. Tabbed buttons let you change between modes, such as resizing, time warps, Sparks filter effects and color correction. When you choose to edit effects parameters, the interface opens a ribbon above the timeline where you can alter numerical settings or enter a more advanced effects editing interface. If you need more sophistication, then move to nodes using ConnectFX. Smoke is the only editor with a node-based compositor that works in 3D space. You get many of the tools that have been the hallmark of the premium Autodesk system products, such as effects process nodes, the Colour Warper, relighting, 3D tracking and more.

Smoke 2013 is positioned as an integrated editing and effects tool. According to Autodesk’s research, editors who use a mixture of several different tools to get the job done – from editing to effects to grading – often use up to seven different software applications. Smoke is intended as a “super editor” that places all of these tools and tasks into a single, comprehensive application with a cohesive interface. The design is intended to maximize the workflow as an editor moves from editing into finishing.

Lighter system requirements

Apple is changing the technology landscape with more powerful personal workstations, like the iMac, which doesn’t fit the traditional tower design. Thunderbolt adds advanced, high-bandwidth connectivity for i/o and storage in a single cable connection.

To take advantage of these changes, Smoke 2013 has been designed to run on this new breed of system. For example, it will work on a newer MacBook Pro or iMac, connected to fast Thunderbolt storage, like a Promise Pegasus RAID array. A key change has been in the render format used by Smoke. Up until now, intermediate renders have been to uncompressed RGB 4:4:4 DPX image sequence files. While this maintains maximum quality, it quickly eats storage space and is taxing on less powerful machines. Rendering to an uncompressed RGB format is generally overkill if your camera originals started as some highly-compressed format like XDCAM or H.264. Now Smoke 2013 offers the option to render to compressed formats, such as one of the Apple ProRes codecs.

Another welcomed change is the ability to use some of the newer Thunderbolt i/o devices. Smoke on a Mac Pro tower has been able to work with AJA KONA 3G cards, but with Smoke 2013, AJA’s new Io XT has been added to the mix. The Io XT is an external unit with most of the features and power of the KONA card. It connects in the Thunderbolt chain with storage and/or a secondary display and is the only current Thunderbolt i/o device with a loop-through connection. Thus it isn’t limited to being at the end of the chain.

While at NAB, I took a few minutes to see how comfortable this new version felt. I’ve been testing Smoke 2012 at home and quite frankly had some of the same issues other FCP and Media Composer editors have had. It has been a very deep program that required a lot of relearning before you could feel comfortable. When I sat down in front of Smoke 2013 in the NAB pod, I was able to quickly work through some effects without any assistance, primarily based on what seemed logical to me in a “standard” NLE approach. I’m not going to kid you, though. To do advanced effects still requires a learning curve, but editors do plenty of in-timeline effects that never require extensive compositing. When I compare doing this type of work in Smoke 2013 versus 2012, I’d say that the learning requirements have been cut by 60% to 75% with this new version. That’s how much the redesign improves things for beginners.

You can start from scratch editing a project strictly on Smoke 2013, but in case you are wondering, this really shouldn’t be viewed as a complete replacement for FCP 7. Instead, it’s the advanced product used to add the polish. As such, it becomes an ideal companion for a fast application used for creative cutting, like Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Media Composer.

Apple’s launch of Final Cut Pro X was a disruptive event that challenged conventional thinking. Autodesk Media & Entertainment’s launch of Smoke 2013 might not cause the same sort of uproar, but it brings a world-class finishing application to the Mac at a price that is attractive to many individual users and small boutiques.

Click here for videos and tutorials about Smoke.

Click here for Autodesk’s NAB videos.

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Thunderbolt I/O Devices – A First Look

Over the years media pros have seen data protocols come and go. Some, like Fibre Channel, are still current fixtures, while others, such as SCSI, have bitten the dust. The most exciting new technology is Thunderbolt, which is a merger of PCI Express and DisplayPort technologies co-developed by Intel and Apple. Started under the code name of Light Peak, the current implementation of Thunderbolt is a bi-directional protocol that passes power, video display signals and data transfer at up to 10Gbps of throughput in both directions. According to Apple, that’s up to twelve times faster than FireWire 800. It’s also faster than Fibre Channel, which tends to be the protocol of choice in larger facilities. Peripherals can access ten watts of power through Thunderbolt, too. Like SCSI and FireWire, Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained with special cables. Up to six devices can be connected in series, but certain devices have to be at the end of the chain. This is typically true when a PCIe-to-Thunderbolt adapter is used.

A single signal path can connect the computer to external storage, displays and capture devices, which provides editors with a powerful data protocol in a very small footprint. Thunderbolt technology is currently available in Apple iMac, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mini computers and is starting to become available on some Windows systems. It is not currently available as a built-in technology on Mac Pros, but you can bet that if there’s a replacement tower, Thunderbolt will be a key part of the engineering design.

By its nature, Thunderbolt dictates that peripheral devices are external units. All of the processing horsepower of a PCIe card, such as a KONA or Decklink, is built into the circuitry of an external device, which is connected via the Thunderbolt cable to the host computer. I tested three Thunderbolt capture/output devices for this review: AJA Io XT, Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 3D and Matrox MXO2 LE MAX. AJA added the monitoring-only T-Tap at NAB to join the Io XT in AJA’s Thunderbolt line-up. Blackmagic Design has developed four Thunderbolt units at difference price tiers. For smaller installations or mobile environments, the UltraStudio Express, Intensity Shuttle Thunderbolt or Intensity Extreme are viable solutions.

Matrox has taken a different approach by using an adapter. Any of its four MXO2 products – the standard MXO2, Mini, LE or Rack – can be used with either Thunderbolt or non-Thunderbolt workstations. Simply purchase the unit with a Thunderbolt adapter, PCIe card and/or Express 34 slot laptop card. The MXO2 product is the same and only the connection method differs for maximum flexibility. The fourth company making Thunderbolt capture devices is MOTU. Their HDX-SDI was not available in time for this review, but I did have a chance to play with one briefly on the NAB show floor.

Differentiating features

All three of the tested units include up/down/cross-conversion between SD and HD formats and perform in the same fashion as their non-Thunderbolt siblings. Each has pros and cons that will appeal to various users with differing needs. For instance, the AJA Io XT is the only device with a Thunderbolt pass-through connector. The other units have to be placed at the end of a Thunderbolt path. They all support SDI and HDMI capture and output, as well as RS-422 VTR control. Both the AJA and Blackmagic units support dual-link SDI for RGB 4:4:4 image capture and output. The Matrox and AJA units use a power supply connected via a four-pin XLR, which makes it possible to operate them in the field on battery power.

The need to work with legacy analog formats or monitoring could determine your choice. This capability represents the biggest practical difference among the three. Both the MXO2 LE and UltraStudio 3D support analog capture and output, while there’s only analog output from the Io XT. The MXO2 LE uses standard BNC and XLR analog connectors (two audio channels on the LE, but more with the MXO2 or Rack), but the other two require a cable harness with a myriad of small connectors. That harness is included with the Blackmagic unit, but with AJA, you need to purchase an optional DB-25 Tascam-style cable snake for up to eight channels of balanced analog audio.

One unique benefit of the Matrox products is the optional MAX chip for accelerated H.264 processing. In my case, I tested the MXO2 LE MAX, which includes the embedded chip. When this unit is connected to a Mac computer, Apple Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder, Avid Media Composer, Telestream Episode and QuickTime perform hardware-accelerated encodes of H.264 files using the Matrox presets.

Fitting into your layout

I ran the Io XT, UltraStudio 3D and MXO2 LE through their paces connected to a friend’s new, top-of-the-line Apple iMac. All three deliver uncompressed SD or HD video over the Thunderbolt cable to the workstation. Processing to convert this signal to an encoded ProRes or DNxHD format will depend on the CPU. In short, recording a codec like ProRes4444 will require a fast machine and drives. I haven’t specifically tested it, but I presume this task would definitely challenge a Mac Mini using only internal drives!

The test-bed iMac workstation was configured with a Promise Pegasus 6-drive RAID array. The iMac includes two Thunderbolt ports and the Pegasus array offers a pass-through, so I was able to test these units both directly connected to the iMac, as well as daisy-chained onto the Promise array. This system would still allow the connection of more Thunderbolt storage and/or a secondary computer monitor, such as Apple’s 27″ Thunderbolt Display. Most peripheral manufacturers do not automatically supply cables, so plan on purchasing extra Thunderbolt cables ($49 for a six-foot cable from Apple).

These units work with most of the current crop of Mac OS X-based NLEs; however, you may need to choose a specific driver or software set to match the NLE you plan to operate. For instance, AJA requires a separate additional driver to be installed for Premiere Pro or Media Composer, which is provided for maximum functionality with those applications. The same is true for Matrox and Media Composer. I ran tests with Final Cut Pro 7, X and Premiere Pro CS 5.5, but not Media Composer 6, although they do work fine with that application. Only the Blackmagic Design products, like the UltraStudio 3D, will work with DaVinci Resolve. In addition to drivers, the software installation includes application presets and utility applications. Each build includes a capture/output application, which lets you ingest and lay off files through the device, independent of any editing application.

Broadcast monitoring and FCP X

The biggest wild card right now is performance with Final Cut Pro X. Broadcast monitoring was a beta feature added in the 10.0.3 update. With the release of 10.0.4 and compatible drivers, most performance issues have stabilized and this is no longer considered beta. Separate FCP X-specific drivers may need to be installed depending on the device.

If you intend to work mainly with Final Cut Pro “legacy” or Premiere Pro, then all of these units work well. On the other hand, if you’ve taken the plunge for FCP X, I would recommend the Io XT. I never got the MXO2 LE MAX to work with FCP X (10.0.3) during the testing period and initially the UltraStudio 3D wouldn’t work either, until the later version 9.2 drivers that Blackmagic posted mid-March. Subsequent re-testing with 10.0.4 and checking these units at NAB, indicate that both the Blackmagic and Matrox units work well enough. There are still some issues when you play at fast-forward speeds, where the viewer and external monitor don’t stay in sync with each other. I also checked the MOTU HDX-SDI device with FCP X in their NAB booth. Performance seemed similar to that of Matrox and Blackmagic Design.

The Io XT was very fluid and tracked FCP X quite well as I skimmed through footage. FCP X does not permit control over playback settings, so you have to set that in the control panel application (AJA) or system preference pane (Blackmagic Design and Matrox) and relaunch FCP X after any change. The broadcast monitoring feature in FCP X does not add any new VTR control or ingest capability and it’s unlikely that it ever will. To ingest videotape footage for FCP X using Io XT or UltraStudio, you will have to use the separate installed capture utility (VTR Xchange or Media Express, respectively) and then import those files from the hard drive into FCP X. Going the other direction requires that you export a self-contained movie file and use the same utility to record that file onto tape. The Matrox FCP X drivers and software currently do not include this feature.

Finally, the image to the Panasonic professional monitor I was using in this bay matched the FCP X viewer image on the iMac screen using either the Io XT or UltraStudio 3D. That attests to Apple’s accuracy claims for its ColorSync technology.

Performance with the mainstream NLEs

Ironically the best overall performance was using the end-of-life Final Cut Pro 7. In fact, all three units were incredibly responsive on this iMac/Promise combo. For example, when you use a Mac Pro with any FireWire or PCIe-connected card or device, energetic scrubbing or playing files at fast-forward speeds will result in the screen display and the external output going quickly out of sync with each other. When I performed the same functions on the iMac, the on-screen and external output stayed in sync with each of these three units. No amount of violent scrubbing caused it to lose sync. The faster data throughput and Thunderbolt technology had enabled a more pleasant editing experience.

I ran these tests using both a direct run from the iMac’s second Thunderbolt port, as well as looped from the back of the Promise array. Neither connection seemed to make much difference in performance with ProRes and AVCHD footage. I believe that you get the most data throughput when you are not daisy-chaining devices, however, I doubt you’ll see much difference under standard editing operation.

The best experience with Premiere Pro was using the Matrox MXO2 LE MAX, although the experience with the AJA and Blackmagic Design devices was fine, too. This stands to reason, as Matrox has historically had a strong track record developing for Adobe systems with custom cards, such as the Axio board set. Matrox also installs a high-quality MPEG-2 I-frame codec for use as an intermediate preview codec. This is an alternative to the QuickTime codecs installed on the system.

Portions of this entry originally written for Digital Video Magazine.

©2012 Oliver Peters