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. Look for a more detailed analysis of the 2014 NAB show in my upcoming article for Digital Video magazine. For now, here 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!

©2014 Oliver Peters

 

NLE Tips – Week 4

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Apple FCP X and Lined Scripts

Feature film editing is facilitated by the information coming from the script supervisor’s notes and adjusted script. This is frequently called a “lined script” because the supervisor will draw vertical lines with notations that indicate which angles and takes cover specific sections of every scene. In addition, editors developed another notation of horizontal lines that separate the dialogue. This was the basis of the original Ediflex Script Mimic process that eventually found its way into Avid as Script Integration and Script Sync. (Click on any image for an expanded view.)df_nle4_4_sm

There are a couple of simple ways to adapt this concept to Apple Final Cut Pro X. A few methods have been proposed, but the easiest and fastest method for me is to use markers. The first step is to take the printed script with the script supervisor’s notations and add the horizontal line notation that splits up the dialogue.

df_nle4_2_smStart at line 1 on page one and you’ll eventually end up with 1,000 or more at the end of the last page. Other numbering conventions are fine. Ideally this could be added to the script by the supervisor before the start of the production. If not, you or the assistant editor (if you are lucky enough to have one) will need to do this. You can add as many lines as you want to, depending on how granular you want the division of the dialogue to be. This could be with every carriage return of the printed script or it could be just between every paragraph.

When the camera files are imported and logged into the FCP X event, you’ll need to add scene and take information. This can be done by renaming the clip name or (which I prefer) by entering it into the scene/take columns (or both). As each clip is reviewed, add markers at every point within the clip that matches the position of the horizontal divisions made to the script dialogue. Rename these markers to match the numbers assigned on the written script.

df_nle4_3_smWhen you’ve gone through this process for each file that covers the scene, you will have scene/take information that matches the supervisor’s vertical lines and markers that align with the horizontal separation. Under each clip, there’s now a list of markers, which you’ve labelled to match the script lines. By clicking on one of these, you can instantly jump to that point in the dialogue within any given clip.

In a lengthy scene, if you want to see all the coverage options that are available for a particular line of dialogue somewhere in the middle of the scene, all you have to do is go to the corresponding numbered marker closest to that line of dialogue. If that number is “201″ for example, simply click on the marker labelled “201″ within each clip and you can successively review each angle and take at that point.

Naturally you can leverage FCP X’s capabilities by creating favorites and smart collections based on these choices, but script lining and using markers is a good and easy starting point.

©2014 Oliver Peters

FCP X Screen Layouts

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One of the things I really liked about Final Cut Pro “legacy” was the ability to create and customize numerous screen layouts. By rearranging its collection of tabbed and floating windows, it was easy to design and save numerous, task-specific, personalized screen layouts of the user interface. When I edit, I prefer to work on dual-display workstations, so I can lay out my tools with plenty of screen real estate. This usually means source bins and clips in one screen and the viewers and timeline in the other.

This level of interface customization is one of the features that I miss in Final Cut Pro X. Apple’s basic design for FCP X is intended to optimize it for single-display use, especially iMacs and MacBook Pros. The user interface for FCP X is more static than FCP “legacy” – using fly-out panels instead of moveable, floating, tabbed or docking windows. Nevertheless, if you have a dual-screen set-up, there are actually quite a few variations that the interface enables. A nice feature is that some of the show/hide toggles can be mapped to the keyboard. For now, you can’t save configurations, but it is reasonably quick to open, close and swap interface elements. (Click any of the images for an expanded view.)

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One interesting concept is that you can access various open FCP X Libraries using Mission Control. It’s not always fool-proof and I haven’t found it all that useful, but it is possible.

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In a typical two-display workstation with the main menu on the right display, you can open the viewers or event browser on the secondary display. That’s left in this example, with the events set to display on the secondary monitor. The event browser includes a panel that displays the libraries, events, keyword collections and smart collections. A button in the lower left corner of the interface lets you hide this panel. Doing so sets the browser focus only on the clips for the selected location and thus reduces clutter.

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The event browser can be set to display clips as skimmable, filmstrip thumbnails or as a list of clips. In the list view, the selected clip is displayed as a single filmstrip across the top of the event browser. The viewer can be set to be a single, unified viewer that toggles between clips and the timeline. Alternatively, a second event viewer can be opened for a traditional 2-up source/record display.

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You may also choose to display the viewers on the secondary display, which leaves the timeline and events on the main display. Video scopes are tied to the viewers and can be displayed in a horizontal (next to the image) or vertical (under the image) position.

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Some plug-ins use on-screen controls. One such filter is Hawaiki Color – a color grading tool. Its OSC may be displayed around the image or fullscreen as an image overlay. With the viewer on the secondary screen and scopes enabled, the editor maintains focus only on one screen while color correcting shots.

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The timeline display offers several clip height options. The smallest is the “chiclet” view. The timeline clips can be expanded with other views that emphasize more of the picture information or more of the audio waveforms. In addition, video animation can be revealed for a clip. This will display keyframes for in-timeline adjustments.

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I recently discovered that the order of which monitor is considered the primary and secondary display can be swapped. Simply drag the main window by the top header bar to the other monitor. As you do, the window on the secondary display automatically shifts to the opposite monitor. Then, click the green plus symbol at the top corner of the window to have it properly fill the screen. This example demonstrates that the fullscreen viewer window can be shifted onto either screen.

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In this final example, the viewer/timeline and event browser (on the secondary display) are shifted from one screen to the next.

©2014 Oliver Peters

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

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The editing world includes a number of software options, such as Autodesk Smoke, Grass Valley EDIUS, Lightworks, Media 100, Sony Vegas and Quantel. The lion’s share of editing is done on three platforms: Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere Pro. For the last two years many users have been holding onto legacy systems, wondering when the dust would settle and which editing tool would become dominant again. By the end of 2013, these three companies released significant updates that give users a good idea of their future direction and has many zeroing in on a selection.

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Differing business models

Adobe, Apple and Avid have three distinctly different approaches. Adobe and Avid offer cross-platform solutions, while Final Cut Pro X only works on Apple hardware. Adobe offers most of its content creation software only through a Creative Cloud subscription. Individual users have access to all creative applications for $49.99 a month (not including promotional deals), but when they quit subscribing, the applications cease to function after a grace period. Users may install the software on as many computers as they like (Mac or PC), but only two can be activated at any time.

Apple’s software sells through the Mac App Store. Final Cut Pro X is $299.99 with another $49.99 each for Motion and Compressor. Individual users may install and use these applications on any Mac computers they own, but enterprise users are supposed to purchase volume licenses to cover one installation per computer. With the release of FCP X 10.1, it appears that Apple is offering updates at no charge, meaning that once you buy Final Cut, you never pay for updates. Whether that continues as the official Apple policy from here on is unknown. FCP X uses a special version of XML for timeline interchange with other applications, so if you need to send material via EDL, OMF or AAF – or even interchange with previous versions of Final Cut Pro – you will need to augment FCP X with a variety of third-party utilities.

Avid Media Composer remains the only one of the three that follows a traditional software ownership model. You purchase, download and install the software and activate the license. You may install it on numerous Macs and PCs, but only one at a time can be activated. The software bundle runs $999 and includes Media Composer, several Avid utilities, Sorenson Squeeze, Avid FX from BorisFX and AvidDVD by Sonic. You can expand your system with three extra software options: Symphony (advanced color correction), ScriptSync (automated audio-to-script alignment) and PhraseFind (a dialogue search tool). The Symphony option also includes the Boris Continuum Complete filters.

Thanks to Avid’s installation and activation process, Media Composer is the most transportable of the three. Simply carry Mac and Windows installers on a USB key along with your activation codes. It’s as simple as installing the software and activating the license, as long as any other installations have been de-activated prior to that. While technically the FCP X application could be moved between machines, it requires that the new machine be authorized as part of a valid Apple ID account. This is often frowned upon in corporate environments. Similarly, you can activate a new machine as one of yours on a Creative Cloud account (as long as you’ve signed out on the other machines), but the software must be downloaded again to this local machine. No USB key installers here.

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Dealing with formats

All three applications are good at handling a variety of source media codecs, frame rates and sizes. In some cases, like RED camera files, plug-ins need to be installed and kept current. Both Apple and Avid will directly handle some camera formats without conversion, but each uses a preferred codec – ProRes for Final Cut Pro X and DNxHD for Media Composer. If you want the most fluid editing experience, then transcode to an optimized codec within the application.

Adobe hasn’t developed its own mezzanine codec. In fact, Premiere Pro CC has no built-in transcoding tools, leaving that instead to Adobe Prelude or Adobe Media Encoder. By design, the editor imports files in their native format without transcoding or rewrapping and works with those directly in the sequence. A mix of various formats, frame rates, codecs and sizes doesn’t always play as smoothly on a single timeline as would optimized media, like DNxHD or ProRes; but, my experience is that of these three, Premiere Pro CC handles such a mix the best.

Most of us work with HD (or even SD) deliverables, but higher resolutions (2K, UHD, 4K) are around the corner. All three NLEs handle bigger-than-HD formats as source media without much difficulty. I’ve tested the latest RED EPIC Dragon 6K camera files in all three applications and they handle the format well. Both Adobe and Apple can output bigger sequence sizes, too, such as 2K and 4K. For now, Avid Media Composer is still limited to HD (1920 x 1080 maximum) sequences and output sizes. Here are some key features of the most recent updates.

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Adobe Premiere Pro CC (version 7.2.1)

The current build of Premiere Pro CC was released towards the end of 2013. Adobe has been enhancing editing features with each new update, but two big selling points of this version are Adobe Anywhere integration and Direct Link between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC. Anywhere requires a shared server for collaborative workflows and isn’t applicable to most users who don’t have an Anywhere infrastructure in place. Nevertheless, this adds the client-side application integration, so those who do, can connect, sign in and work.

df_nle_7_smOf more interest is Direct Link, which sends the complete Premiere Pro CC timeline into SpeedGrade CC for color correction. Since you are working directly with the Premiere Pro timeline, SpeedGrade functions with a subset of its usual controls. Operations, like conforming media to an EDL, are inactive. Direct Link facilitates the use of various compressed codecs that SpeedGrade wouldn’t normally handle by itself, since this is being taken care of by Premiere Pro’s media engine. When you’ve completed color correction, the saved timeline is sent back to Premiere Pro. Each clip has an applied Lumetri filter that contains grading information from SpeedGrade. The roundtrip is achieved without any intermediate rendering.

df_nle_6_smThis solution is a good first effort, but I find that the response of SpeedGrade’s controls via Direct Link are noticeably slower than working directly in a SpeedGrade project. That must be a result of Premiere Pro working in the background. Clips in Premiere Pro with applied Lumetri effects also require more resources to play well and rendering definitely helps. The color roundtrip results were good in my tests, with the exception of any clips that used a filter layer with a LUT. These displayed with bizarre colors back in Premiere Pro.

You can’t talk about Premiere Pro without addressing Creative Cloud. I still view this as a “work in progress”. For instance, you are supposed to be able to sync files between your local drive and the Cloud, much like DropBox. Even though everything is current on my Mac Pro, that tab in the Creative Cloud application still says “coming soon”. Others report that it’s working for them.

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Apple Final Cut Pro X (version 10.1)

This update is the tipping point for many FCP 7 users. Enough updates have been released in over two years to address many of the concerns professional editors have expressed. 10.1 requires an operating system update to Mavericks (10.9 or later) and has three marquee items – a revised media structure, optimization for 4K and overall better performance. It is clear that Apple is not about to change the inherent design of FCP X. This means no tracks and no changes to the magnetic timeline. As with any update, there are plenty of small tweaks, including enhanced retiming, audio fades on individual channels, improved split edits and a new InertiaCam stabilization algorithm.

df_nle_9_smThe most obvious change is the move from separate Events and Projects folders to unified Libraries, similar to Aperture. Think of a Library as the equivalent to a Final Cut Pro 7 or Premiere Pro CC project file, containing all data for clips and sequences associated with a production. An FCP X Library as viewed in the Finder is a bundled file, which can be opened using the “show package contents” Finder command. This reveals internal folders and files for Events, Projects and aliases linked to external media files. Imported files that are optionally copied into a Library are also contained there, as are rendered and transcoded files. The Libraries no longer need to live at the root of a hard drive and can be created for individual productions. Editors may open and close any or all of the Libraries needed for an edit session.

df_nle_8_smFCP X’s performance was optimized for Mavericks, the new Mac Pro and dual GPU processing. By design, this means improved 4K throughput, including native 4K support for ProRes, Sony XAVC and REDCODE camera raw media files. This performance boost has also filtered down to older machines. 10.1 brought better performance with 1080p ProRes and even 5K RED files to my 2009 Mac Pro. Clearly Apple wants FCP X to be a showcase for the power of the new Mac Pro, but you’ll get benefits from this update, even if you aren’t ready to leap to new hardware.

Along with Final Cut Pro X 10.1, Apple also released updates to Motion and Compressor. The Motion update was necessary to integrate the new FxPlug3 architecture, which enables developers to add custom interface controls. Compressor was the biggest change, with a complete overhaul of the interface in line with the look of FCP X.

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Avid Media Composer (version 7.0.3)

The biggest feature of Media Composer 7.0.3 is optimization for new operating systems. It is qualified for Windows 8.1 and Mac OS X 10.8.5, 10.9 and 10.9.1. There are a number of interface changes, including separate audio and video effects palette tabs and changing the appearance of background processing indicator icons. 24fps sound timecode is now supported, the responsiveness with the Avid Artist Color Controller has been improved and the ability to export a simplified AAF file has been  added.

df_nle_10_smTranscode choices gain a set of H.264 proxy file codecs. These had been used in other Avid news and broadcast tools, but are now extended into Media Composer. Support for RED was updated to handle the RED Dragon format. With the earlier introduction of 7.0, Avid added background transcoding services and FrameFlex – Avid’s solution for bigger-than-HD files. FrameFlex enables resizing and pan/scan/zoom control within that file’s native resolution. Media Composer also accepts mixed frame rates within a single timeline, by applying Motion Adapters to any clip that doesn’t match the frame rate of the project. 7.0.3 improves control over the frame blending method to give the editor a better choice between temporal or spatial smoothness.

There is no clear winner among these three. If you are on Windows, then the choice is between Adobe and Avid. If you need 4K output today, Apple or Adobe are your best option. All three handle a wide range of popular camera formats well – especially RED. If you like tracks – go Avid or Adobe. If you want the best application for the new Mac Pro, that will clearly be Apple Final cut Pro X. These are all great tools, capable of any level of post production – be it commercial, corporate, web, broadcast entertainment or feature films. If you’ve been on the fence for two years, now is the time to switch, because there are no bad tools – only preferences.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

LUTs and FCP X

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LUTs or color look-up tables are a method of converting images from one color space or gamma profile into another. LUTs are usually a mathematically correct transform of one set of color and level values into another. For most editors and colorists, LUTs are commonly associated with log profiles that are increasingly used with various digital cameras, like an ARRI ALEXA, RED One, RED Epic or Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera. (Click on the images in this article for an expanded view.)

The concept gets confusing, because there are various types of LUTs and they can be inserted into different stages of the pipeline. There are display LUTs, used to convert the viewing color space, such as from Rec. 709 (video) into P3 (digital cinema projection). These can be installed into hardware conversion boxes, monitors and within software grading applications. There are camera LUTs, which are used to convert gamma profiles, such as from log-C to Rec. 709. And finally, there are creative LUTs used for aesthetic purposes, like film stock emulation.

df_luts_02One of the really sweet parts of Apple Final Cut Pro X is that it offers a vastly improved color pipeline that ties in closely to underpinnings of the OS, such as ColorSync. This offers developers opportunities over FCP “legacy” and quite frankly over many other competitors. Built into the code is the ability to recognize certain camera metadata if the camera manufacturer chooses to take advantage of Apple’s SDK. ARRI, Sony and RED are among those that have done so. For example, when you import ARRI ALEXA footage that was recorded with a log-C gamma profile, a metadata flag in the file toggles on log processing automatically within FCP X. Instead of seeing the flat log-C image, you see one that has already been converted, on-the-fly into Rec. 709 color space.

This built-in log processing comes with some caveats, though. The capability is only enabled with files recorded on ALEXA cameras with more recent firmware. It cannot be manually applied to older log-C footage, nor to any other log-encoded video file. It can only be toggled on or off without any adjustments. Finally, because this is done via under-the-hood ColorSync profile changes, it happens prior to the point any filters or color correction can be applied within FCP X itself.

df_luts_03A different approach has been developed by colorist Denver Riddle, known for his Color Grading Central website, products and tutorials. His new product, LUT Utility, is designed to provide FCP X editors with a better way of using LUTs for both corrective and creative color transforms. The plug-in installs into both Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5 and comes with a number of built-in LUTs for various cameras, such as the ALEXA, Blackmagic and even the Cinestyle profiles used with the Canon HDSLRs. Simply drop the filter onto a clip and select the LUT from the pulldown menu in the FCP X inspector pane. As a filter, you can freely apply any LUT selection, regardless of camera – plus, you can adjust the strength of the LUT via a slider. It can work within a series of filters applied to the same clip and can be placed upstream or downstream of any other filters, as well as within an adjustment layer (blank title effect). You can also stack multiple instances of the LUT with different settings on the same clip for creative effect.

df_luts_04The best part of LUT Utility is that you aren’t limited to the built-in LUTs. When you install the plug-in, a LUT Utility pane is added to System Preferences. In that pane, you can add additional LUTs sold by Color Grading Central or that you have created yourself. (External LUT files can be directly accessed within the filter when working in Motion 5.) One such package is the set of Osiris Digital Film Emulation LUTs developed jointly by Riddle and visionCOLOR. These are a set of nine film LUTs designed to mimic the looks of various film stocks. Each has two settings designed for either log or Rec. 709 video. For example, you can take an ALEXA log-C file and apply two instances of LUT Utility. Set the first filter to use the log-C-to-Rec.709 LUT. Then in the second filter, pick one of the film LUTs, but use the Rec. 709 version of it. Or, you could apply one instance of the LUT Utility filter and simply pick the same film LUT, but instead, select its log version. Both work, but will give you slightly different looks. Using the filter’s amount slider, it’s easy to fine tune the intensity of the effect.

df_luts_05LUT Utility is applied as a filter, which means you can still add other color correction filters before or after it. Applying a filter, like Hawaiki Color, prior to a log conversion LUT, means that you would be adjusting color values of the log image, before converting it into Rec. 709. If you add such a filter after the LUT, then you are grading the already-converted image. Each position will give you different results, but most of this is handled gracefully, thanks to FCP X’s floating-point processing. Finally, you can also apply the LUT as a filter and then do additional corrections downstream of the filter by using the built-in Color Board tools.

I found these LUTs easy to install and use. They appear to be pretty lightweight in how they affect FCP X playback performance. I’m running a 2009 Mac Pro with a new Mavericks installation. I can apply one or more instances of the LUT Utility filter and my unrendered ProRes media plays in real-time. With the widespread use of log and log-style gamma profiles, this is one of the handiest filter sets to have if you are a heavy FCP X user. Not only are most of the common cameras covered, but the Osiris LUTs add a nice creative edge that you won’t find at this price point in competitive products. If you use FCP X for color correction and finishing, then it’s really an essential tool.

©2014 Oliver Peters