The NLE that wouldn’t die II

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With echoes of Monty Python in the background, two years on, Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Studio are still widely in use. As I noted in my post from last November, I still see facilities with firmly entrenched and mature FCP “legacy” workflows that haven’t moved to another NLE yet. Some were ready to move to Adobe until they learned subscription was the only choice going forward. Others maintain a fanboy’s faith in Apple that the next version will somehow fix all the things they dislike about Final Cut Pro X. Others simply haven’t found the alternative solutions compelling enough to shift.

I’ve been cutting all manner of projects in FCP X since the beginning and am currently using it on a feature film. I augment it in lots of ways with plug-ins and utilities, so I’m about as deep into FCP X workflows as anyone out there. Yet, there are very few projects in which I don’t touch some aspect of Final Cut Studio to help get the job done. Some fueled by need, some by personal preference. Here are some ways that Studio can still work for you as a suite of applications to fill in the gaps.

DVD creation

There are no more version updates to Apple’s (or Adobe’s) DVD creation tools. FCP X and Compressor can author simple “one-off” discs using their export/share/batch functions. However, if you need a more advanced, authored DVD with branched menus and assets, DVD Studio Pro (as well is Adobe Encore CS6) is still a very viable tool, assuming you already own Final Cut Studio. For me, the need to do this has been reduced, but not completely gone.

Batch export

Final Cut Pro X has no batch export function for source clips. This is something I find immensely helpful. For example, many editorial houses specify that their production company client supply edit-friendly “dailies” – especially when final color correction and finishing will be done by another facility or artist/editor/colorist. This is a throwback to film workflows and is most often the case with RED and ALEXA productions. Certainly a lot of the same processes can be done with DaVinci Resolve, but it’s simply faster and easier with FCP 7.

In the case of ALEXA, a lot of editors prefer to do their offline edit with LUT-corrected, Rec 709 images, instead of the flat, Log-C ProRes 4444 files that come straight from the camera. With FCP 7, simply import the camera files, add a LUT filter like the one from Nick Shaw (Antler Post), enable TC burn-in if you like and run a batch export in the codec of your choice. When I do this, I usually end up with a set of Rec 709 color, ProResLT files with burn-in that I can use to edit with. Since the file name, reel ID and timecode are identical to the camera masters, I can easily edit with the “dailies” and then relink to the camera masters for color correction and finishing. This works well in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Apple FCP 7 and even FCP X.

Timecode and reel IDs

When I work with files from the various HDSLRs, I prefer to convert them to ProRes (or DNxHD), add timecode and reel ID info. In my eyes, this makes the file professional video media that’s much more easily dealt with throughout the rest of the post pipeline. I have a specific routine for doing this, but when some of these steps fail, due to some file error, I find that FCP 7 is a good back-up utility. From inside FCP 7, you can easily add reel IDs and also modify or add timecode. This metadata is embedded into the actual media file and readable by other applications.

Log and Transfer

Yes, I know that you can import and optimize (transcode) camera files in FCP X. I just don’t like the way it does it. The FCP 7 Log and Transfer module allows the editor to set several naming preferences upon ingest. This includes custom names and reel IDs. That metadata is then embedded directly into the QuickTime movie created by the Log and Transfer module. FCP X doesn’t embed name and ID changes into the media file, but rather into its own database. Subsequently this information is not transportable by simply reading the media file within another application. As a result, when I work with media from a C300, for example, my first step is still Log and Transfer in FCP 7, before I start editing in FCP X.

Conform and reverse telecine

A lot of cameras offer the ability to shoot at higher frame rates with the intent of playing this at a slower frame rate for a slow motion effect – “overcranking” in film terms. Advanced cameras like the ALEXA, RED One, EPIC and Canon C300 write a timebase reference into the file that tells the NLE that a file recorded at 60fps is to be played at 23.98fps. This is not true of HDSLRs, like a Canon 5D, 7D or a GoPro. You have to tell the NLE what to do. FCP X only does this though its Retime effect, which means you are telling the file to be played as slomo, thus requiring a render.

I prefer to use Cinema Tools to “conform” the file. This alters the file header information of the QuickTime file, so that any application will play it at the conformed, rather than recorded frame rate. The process is nearly instant and when imported into FCP X, the application simply plays it at the slower speed – no rendering required. Just like with an ALEXA or RED.

Another function of Cinema Tools is reverse telecine. If a camera file was recorded with built-in “pulldown” – sometimes called 24-over-60 – additional redundant video fields are added to the file. You want to remove these if you are editing in a native 24p project. Cinema Tools will let you do this and in the process render a new, 24p-native file.

Color correction

I really like the built-in and third-party color correction tools for Final Cut Pro X. I also like Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, but there are times when Apple Color is still the best tool for the job. I prefer its user interface to Resolve, especially when working with dual displays and if you use an AJA capture/monitoring product, Resolve is a non-starter. For me, Color is the best choice when I get a color correction project from outside where the editor used FCP 7 to cut. I’ve also done some jobs in X and then gone to Color via Xto7 and then FCP 7. It may sound a little convoluted, but is pretty painless and the results speak for themselves.

Audio mixing

I do minimal mixing in X. It’s fine for simple mixes, but for me, a track-based application is the only way to go. I do have X2Pro Audio Convert, but many of the out-of-house ProTools mixers I work with prefer to receive OMFs rather than AAFs. This means going to FCP 7 first and then generating an OMF from within FCP 7. This has the added advantage that I can proof the timeline for errors first. That’s something you can’t do if you are generating an AAF without any way to open and inspect it. FCP X has a tendency to include many clips that are muted and usually out of your way inside X. By going to FCP 7 first, you have a chance to clean up the timeline before the mixer gets it.

Any complex projects that I mix myself are done in Adobe Audition or Soundtrack Pro. I can get to Audition via the XML route – or I can go to Soundtrack Pro through XML and FCP 7 with its “send to” function. Either application works for me and most of my third-party plug-ins show up in each. Plus they both have a healthy set of their own built-in filters. When I’m done, simply export the mix (and/or stems) and import the track back into FCP X to marry it to the picture.

Project trimming

Final Cut Pro X has no media management function.  You can copy/move/aggregate all of the media from a single Project (timeline) into a new Event, but these files are the source clips at full length. There is no ability to create a new project with trimmed or consolidated media. That’s when source files from a timeline are shortened to only include the portion that was cut into the sequence, plus user-defined “handles” (an extra few frames or seconds at the beginning and end of the clip). Trimmed, media-managed projects are often required when sending your edited sequence to an outside color correction facility. It’s also a great way to archive the “unflattened” final sequence of your production, while still leaving some wiggle room for future trimming adjustments. The sequence is editable and you still have the ability to slip, slide or change cuts by a few frames.

I ran into this problem the other day, where I needed to take a production home for further work. It was a series of commercials cut in FCP X, from which I had recut four spots as director’s cuts. The edit was locked, but I wanted to finish the mix and grade at home. No problem, I thought. Simply duplicate the project with “used media”, create the new Event and “organize” (copies media into the new Event folder). I could live with the fact that the media was full length, but there was one rub. Since I had originally edited the series of commercials using Compound Clips for selected takes, the duping process brought over all of these Compounds – even though none was actually used in the edit of the four director’s cuts. This would have resulted in copying nearly two-thirds of the total source media. I could not remove the Compounds from the copied Event, without also removing them from the original, which I didn’t want to do.

The solution was to send the sequence of four spots to FCP 7 and then media manage that timeline into a trimmed project. The difference was 12GB of trimmed source clips instead of HUNDREDS of GB. At home, I then sent the audio to Soundtrack Pro for a mix and the picture back to FCP X for color correction. Connect the mix back to the primary storyline in FCP X and call it done!

I realize that some of this may sound a bit complex to some readers, but professional workflows are all about having a good toolkit and knowing how to use it. FCP X is a great tool for productions that can work within its walls, but if you still own Final Cut Studio, there are a lot more options at your disposal. Why not continue to use them?

©2013 Oliver Peters

The NLE that wouldn’t die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2012 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X roundtrips

XML (eXtensible Markup Language) has become a common method of data interchange between post production applications. Standard XML variations are like Romance languages – one version is as different from another, as German is from French; thus, translation software is required. Apple’s Final Cut Pro X was updated to include XML interchange, but this new version of XML (labeled FCP XML) is completely different from the XML format used in FCP 7. Stretching the language analogy, FCP 7’s XML is as different from FCP X’s XML as English is from Russian.

The underlying editing structure of Final Cut Pro 7 is based on the relationship of clips against time and tracks. FCP X links one object to another in a trackless parent-child connection, so there is no easy and direct translation of complex projects between the two versions. Some interchange between Final Cut Pro X and 7 has been achieved by CatDV, DaVinci Resolve and Assisted Editing’s Xto7 for Final Cut Pro and 7toX for Final Cut Pro . These offer migration of edited sequences when you stay within the parameters that FCP XML currently exposes to developers. I’ll concentrate on Resolve, Xto7 and 7toX – as these have the most direct application for editors.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

DaVinci Resolve offers an exchange in both directions between Resolve and Final Cut Pro 7 or X. (It also allows Avid roundtrips using AAF and MXF media.) This is intended as a color-correction roundtrip, so you can go from FCP 7 or FCP X to Resolve and back; but, you can also go from X to Resolve to 7 and the other way around. (Note: With the FCP X 10.0.3 update, you will also need to update your version of Resolve, as the XML format was also enhanced with this release.)  For this article, let’s stick with Resolve’s position as a professional grading tool that can augment FCP X.

1. Start by cutting your project in FCP X. Avoid compound clips and speed ramps and remember that effects are not passed through FCP XML at this time. Highlight the project in the project browser and export an FCP XML file.

2. Launch DaVinci Resolve and make sure Media Storage includes the location of your source media files. Import the FCP XML file, which will link to these clips. Check your configuration settings to make sure the frame rate matches. I have noticed that 23.98 sequences are often identified as 24fps. Reset these to 23.98. Proceed to color grade the timeline.

3. Open the Render module and select FCP XML roundtrip from the Easy Set-up pulldown menu and assign the handle length. Individual new clips with modified file names will be rendered to an assigned folder, using Resolve’s source-mode rendering. These correspond to the timeline.

4. From the Conform tab, export an FCP X XML file.

5. Return to Final Cut Pro X and import the FCP XML file from Resolve. The graded clips will automatically be imported into a new Event and this will complete the roundtrip. The new, imported project will be video-only. As a safe step, I recommend that you copy-and-paste all of the clips from this project (the “from Resolve” timeline) into a new, fresh project.

6. Take the audio mix from the original (before Resolve) project – using either a mixdown or a compound clip – and edit it as a connected clip to the new timeline containing the graded clips. Lastly, re-apply any effects, such as transforms, crops, filters, speed ramps or stabilization.


Assisted Editing Xto7 for Final Cut  Pro / 7toX for Final Cut Pro

When Final Cut Pro X was launched, the biggest shock was the fact that you couldn’t migrate sequences from previous versions into the new application. Intelligent Assistance / Assisted Editing developed two translation apps as conduits between the two formats of XML. Xto7 for Final Cut Pro translates sequences (Projects) from FCP X to FCP 7, whereas 7toX for Final Cut Pro translates complete projects, bins and/or sequences from FCP 7 to FCP X. Both are available on the Mac App Store, but check the info on the Intelligent Assistance website for limitations and restrictions in what comes across in these translations.

First, let’s look at Xto7. At first blush, one might ask, “What good is going from FCP X to FCP 7?”  In reality, it’s a very useful tool, because it empowers FCP X users with a whole range of post production solutions. FCP X is a closed application that as yet offers none of the versatility of Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) or Adobe Creative Suite. With Xto7, an editor can perform the creative cut in FCP X and then use Color, Soundtrack Pro, After Effects, Premiere Pro, Audition, ProTools, Smoke and other applications for finishing. In fact, since Automatic Duck has made its plug-ins available for free, this path also enables an editor to move from FCP X to Avid Media Composer by way of FCP 7 and Automatic Duck Pro Export FCP.

1. Start in FCP X. Cut your project, but avoid a few known issues, like speed ramps and compound clips. (Check with Assisted Editing for more specifics.) Also, don’t apply effects, as they won’t translate. Highlight the project in the project browser and export an FCP XML file.

2. Launch Xto7 and navigate to the FCP XML file.

3. You have two choices: Send to Final Cut Pro 7 or Save Sequence XML. The first option opens the timeline as a new FCP 7 project. The second saves an XML file that can later be imported into FCP 7, but also Adobe Premiere Pro or Autodesk Smoke.

4. Once inside FCP 7, you have access to all the usual effect filters and roundtrip tools. This includes creating an EDL for grading or an OMF file for a Pro Tools mixer. Or sending to Color for a grading roundtrip or to Soundtrack Pro for a mix. Likewise, if you opened the XML into Premiere Pro, you could send the audio to Audition for a mix or to After Effects for effects, grading and compositing using Dynamic Link.

If you want to got in the other direction, from legacy Final Cut projects or sequences to Final Cut Pro X, then 7toX for Final Cut Pro is the tool to use. Again, check the website for translation limitations.

1. Open your project in FCP 7 and make sure your media all properly connects.

2. Highlight the project, bin or sequence you’d like to export. Then export an XML file.

3. Launch 7toX and select the exported XML file to open. Then choose the option to “open in FCP X”.

FCP X will launch, import the items into a new Event and relink to the media. Edited FCP 7 sequences will show up in the Event as a Compound clip and will be located in a Keyword Collection labeled FCP 7 Sequences.

None of these processes is perfect yet, but these are just some examples of how a new ecosystem is growing up around Apple Final Cut Pro X. This controversial editing tool may not be right for everyone, but solutions like DaVinci Resolve and Xto7 / 7toX for Final Cut Pro mean you aren’t stranded on an island.

Written for DV magazine (NewBay Media LLC)

©2012 Oliver Peters

Improving FCP X

A short while ago I started a thread at Creative COW entitled, “What would it take?” My premise is that Final Cut Pro X has enough tantalizing advantages that many “pro users” (whatever that means) would adopt it, if only it had a few extra features. I’m not talking about turning it into FCP 8. I think that’s pretty unrealistic and I believe Apple is going in a different direction. The point is that there are a number of elements that could be added and stay within the FCP X paradigm, which would quell some of the complaints. The thread sparked some interesting suggestions, but here are a few of mine in no particular order of priority.

1. Make audio trimming and transitions as easy as and comparable to video trimming. Currently audio seems to take a back seat to video editing when it comes to trims and transitions.

2. Add “open in Motion” or “send to Motion” functions for clips. Motion 5 is quite powerful and it fills in many gaps that exist in FCP X. For example, drawing mattes. A “send to” roundtrip function would help.

3. Either add track-based mixing or add a “send to Logic” function. I feel audio without tracks is a pretty tough way to mix. Assuming the next version of Logic isn’t as drastic of a change as FCP 7 to FCP X, then it would be nice to offer the option of sending your FCP X project audio to Logic for mixing.

4. Add modifiers to give you some user-defined control over the magnetic timeline. More than just the position tool. Time to tame the magnetic timeline.

5. Add user-defined controls for more track-like behavior. Such as expanded use/behavior of additional storylines. I’m not sure what form this would take, but the desire is to get the best of both worlds.

6. Add a “save as” function.

7. Add event/project management to open/hide projects and media. This exists in Assisted Editing’s Event Manager X, but it should be a direct function within FCP X.

8. Add a choice to not see the event thumbnail/filmstrip when you click on it. Even in list view, when you click on an event clip it is refreshed in the single visible filmstrip at the top. This slows down the response of the system. I’d like to see a true list-only view for faster response when I’m entering data.

9. Remember clip in/out points.

10. Add some user control over window layouts. FCP 7’s workspace customization was great and it’s a shame we lost it.

11. Add some way to see a second window as a source/record (2-up) view.

12. Bring back copy/paste/remove attributes.

13. Bring back the equivalent to the Track Tool.

14. Import legacy FCP sequences. I realize some third-party developer will likely create an XML to FCP XML translator, but it sure would make sense if Apple solved this issue. Even if it means only a simple sequence without effects, speed ramps or audio levels.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Video sweetening

Color grading for mood, style and story

Video “sweetening” is both a science and an art. To my way of thinking, Color correction is objective – evening out shot-to-shot consistency and adjusting for improper levels or color balance. Color grading is subjective – giving a movie, show or commercial a “look”. Grading ranges from the simple enhancement of what the director of photography gave you – all the way to completely “relighting” a scene to radically alter the original image. Whenever you grade a project, the look you establish should always be in keeping with the story and the mood the director is trying to achieve. Color provides the subliminal cues that lead the audience deeper into the story.

Under the best of circumstances, the colorist is working as an extension of the director of photography and both are on the same page as the director. Frequently the DP will sit in on the grading session; however, there are many cases – especially in low budget projects – where the DP is no longer involved at that stage. In those circumstances, it is up to the colorist to properly guide the director to the final visual style.

I’ve pulled some examples from two digital films that I graded – The Touch (directed by Jimmy Huckaby) and Scare Zone (directed by Jon Binkowski). The first was shot with a Sony F900 and graded with Final Cut Pro’s internal and third-party tools. The latter used two Sony EX cameras and was graded in Apple Color.

The Touch

This is a faith-oriented film, based on a true story about personal redemption tied to the creation of a local church’s women’s center. The story opens as our lead character is arrested and goes through police station booking. Since this was a small indie film, a real police station was used. This meant the actual, ugly fluorescent lighting – no fancy, stylized police stations, like on CSI. Since the point of this scene isn’t supposed to be pretty, the best way to grade it was to go with the flow. Don’t fight the fluorescent look, but go more gritty and more desaturated.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Once she’s released and picked up by her loser boyfriend, we are back outside in sunny Florida weather. Just stick with a nice exterior look.

Nearly at the bottom of her life, she’s in a hotel room on the verge of suicide. This was originally a very warm shot, thanks to the incandescents in the room. But I felt it should go cooler. It’s night – there’s a TV on casting bluish light on her – and in general, this is supposed to be a depressing scene. So we swung the shot cooler and again, more desaturated from the original.

The fledgling women’s center holds group counseling sessions in a living room environment. This should feel comfortable and inviting. Here we went warmer.

Our lead character is haunted by the evils of her past, including childhood molestation and a teen rape. This is shown in various flashback sequences marked by an obvious change in editorial treatment utilizing frenetic cutting and speed ramps – together with a different visual look. The flashbacks were graded differently using Magic Bullet Looks for a more stylized appearance, including highlight glows.

Our lead comes to her personal conversion through the church and again, the sanctuary should look warm, natural and inviting. Since the lens used on the F900 resulted in a very deep depth of field, we decided to enhance these wider shots using a tilt-and-shift lens effect in Magic Bullet Looks. The intent was to defocus the background slightly and draw the audience in towards our main character.

Scare Zone

As you’ve probably gathered, Scare Zone is a completely different sort of tale than The Touch. Scare Zone is a comedy-horror film based on a Halloween haunted house attraction, which I discussed in this earlier post. In this story, our ensemble cast are part-time employees who work as “scaractors” in the evening. But… They are being killed off by a real killer. Most of the action takes place in the attraction sets and gift shop, with a few excursions off property. As such, the lighting style was a mixed bag, showing the attraction with “work lights” only and with full “attraction lighting”. We also have scenes without lights, except what is supposed to be moonlight or street lamp lighting coming through leaks from the exterior windows. And, of course, there’s the theatrical make-up.

This example shows one of the attraction scenes with work lights as the slightly, off-kilter manager explains their individual roles.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Here are several frames showing one of the actors in scenes with show lighting, work lights and at home.

These are several frames from the film’s attraction/action/montage segments showing scaractor activity under show lighting. In the last frame, one of our actresses gets attacked.

The gift shop has a more normal lighting appearance. Not as warm as the work light condition, but warmer than the attraction lighting. In order to soften the look of the Goth make-up on the close-ups of our lead actress, I used a very slight application of the FCP compound blur filter.

Naturally, as in any thriller, the audience is to be left guessing throughout most of the film about the identity of the real killer. In this scene one of the actresses is being follow by the possible killer. Or is he? It’s a dark part of the hallway in a “show lighting” scene. One of the little extras done here was to use two secondaries with vignettes to brighten each eye socket of the mask, so as to better see the whites of the character’s eyes.

A crowd of guests line up on the outside, waiting to get into the attraction. It’s supposed to look like a shopping mall parking lot at night with minimal exterior lighting.

And lastly, these frames are from some of the attack scenes during what is supposed to be pre-show or after-show lighting conditions. In the first frame, one of our actresses is being chased by the killer through the attraction hallways and appears to have been caught. Although the vignette was natural, I enhanced this shot to keep it from being so dark that you couldn’t make out the action. The last two frames show some unfortunate vandals who tried to trash the place over the night. This is supposed to be a “lights-off” scene, with the only light being from the outside through leaks. And their flashlights, of course. The last frame required the use of secondary correction to make the color of the stage blood appear more natural.

©2011 Oliver Peters

The software suite

The power of modern desktop editing solutions is often in the aggregate of the parts and not just the core editing application. Apple Final Cut Studio and Adobe CS5 Production Premium (or Master Collection) are certainly recognized as software suites, but this is also true of Avid Media Composer, especially when you add the Production Studio bundle of third party software. Dedicated, all-in-one editing/compositing tools are primarily the domain of more expensive tools, like Avid DS, Autodesk Smoke and Quantel eQ/iQ/Pablo.

When you dissect the three main desktop bundles, you find tools for editing, color grading, visual effects, motion graphics, encoding, DVD authoring and sound mixing. These break out in this fashion:

Avid – Media Composer (editing, color grading, sound mixing with RTAS plug-ins)

Avid FX and Boris BCC plug-ins (effects and compositing)

Marquee (motion graphics)

Sorenson Squeeze (encoding)

Avid DVD (Blu-ray, NTSC and PAL DVD authoring)

Extra: Avid “helper” applications, like EDL Manager, Film Scribe, MetaSync, etc.

Optional: ScriptSync and PhraseFind

Apple – Final Cut Pro (editing)

Color (color correction and grading)

Motion (effects and compositing/motion graphics)

Compressor (encoding and blu-ray authoring)

DVD Studio Pro (NTSC and PAL DVD authoring / HD-DVD authoring)

Soundtrack Pro (sound design, audio editing and mixing)

Extra: Cinema Tools, media content

Adobe – Premiere Pro (editing)

Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse (color correction and grading)

After Effects (effects and compositing/motion graphics)

Adobe Media Encoder (encoding)

Encore (Blu-ray, NTSC and PAL DVD authoring)

Soundbooth (sound design, audio editing and mixing)

Extra: Bridge, Dynamic Link, Device Central, Mocha tracker for AE, media content

I’m not going to argue the relative merits of one tool versus another. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of ways to complete a given job with great results using any of these toolkits. What’s more important is how well the collection works. How are the tools integrated and why does a manufacturer go down this route in the first place?

Marketing “the suite” versus “the brand”

If you look at the first issue, Adobe and Apple clearly market their packages as a studio suite, while Avid tends to position Media Composer as the main brand. This is a bit of a mistake, because it encourages a tendency to compare just the Media Composer editing application against the entire software collections of its competitors. As such, Media Composer – even at its current, vastly reduced price – is perceived as a lot more expensive than Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. Customers forget about the other software you get with the Avid solution, but clearly know they get a lot of bang-for-the-buck with Apple and Adobe. In reality the comparison and cost differential is a lot closer than many believe. It’s a double-edged sword. Media Composer is clearly Avid’s marquee brand, so how does Avid best market the fact there’s more to it?

Host control versus “the roundtrip”

In addition to focusing on Media Composer as the core, there is also a more technical issue. Media Composer actually does run as the host application. Tools like the BCC filters, Avid FX, the RTAS audio plug-ins and Marquee primarily work from inside Media Composer. Although you can create templates, the applications themselves won’t work with other editing solutions. They are not inherently standalone applications in their own right, like Motion or After Effects. The plus side of this is that all project metadata is stored in the central Media Composer project. You don’t have to worry about saving all the component project files for Avid FX or Marquee in order for them to stay editable. As such, they function more as plug-in than anything else.

In the case of Adobe and Apple, they have tied together individual applications, which operate in tandem with the host NLE, as well as separate standalone applications. Although Apple’s “roundtripping” and Adobe’s Dynamic Link are ways to integrate projects files into the host editor, this isn’t a perfect solution. For example, Motion projects (as opposed to rendered exports) in an FCP timeline frequently crash Final Cut. Neither company has a good audio roundtrip approach. You can “send to” the audio application, but you can only return a mixed and exported, “flattened” soundtrack. Clearly all of these solutions are evolving.

Pros and cons of studio software development

The biggest reason a manufacturer uses the software collection is for reasons of marketing and development cost. Look at Color. Apple acquired the technology of Final Touch and reintroduced it as Color within Final Cut Studio. All of a sudden, FCP editors gained a $25,000 color grading solution “for free”. Even if users never opened the interface, the addition of Color clearly sold more seats of Final Cut Pro.

Using this approach, product managers can often shield lower-performing applications from the ax. It’s widely accepted that including the less-popular Premiere Pro with the more-popular After Effects and Photoshop has helped justify further Premiere Pro development. This has been paying off for Adobe in better customer reception of Premiere Pro as a viable editing alternative. It’s hard to break out the revenue from an individual application within a collection of software. But the opposite situation is also true. Apple felt that LiveType and Motion offered redundant motion graphics capabilities. Why develop two apps? So, Apple dropped LiveType in order to focus R&D on Motion.

By keeping components of a software suite separate, it’s easier to develop each application. There is less chance of inducing new problems that might cascade throughout a larger all-in-one application. Large, integrated solutions are subject to feature creep and often become “bloatware”, necessitating a periodic ground-up rewrite of the application. It’s also easier to add or remove components based on customer requests and market research when the individual applications stay separate within the collection.

Adobe’s Audition provides another example. Audition is a full-featured DAW geared towards audio pros and it used to be part of the Creative Suite with Premiere Pro. Adobe felt that the limited focus of Soundbooth better suited the needs of video and web professionals and so swapped Audition out for Soundbooth as the audio application in its suite collections. Audition continues as a Windows-based, standalone digital audio workstation application competing with Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools. This year will see its return to the Mac platform (currently in public beta).

For all of these various reasons, most observers feel that it’s unlikely we’d ever see an all-inclusive “extreme” version of Final Cut Pro. Would we really want that? After all, finding a qualified Avid DS, Autodesk Smoke or Quantel iQ “artist” (editor) is pretty hard in most markets. Wishing for some massive end-all-be-all editing solution might sound good in principle, but be careful of what you wish for. It’s not necessarily the best idea in the real world. Not for the user and not for the developer.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Audio mixing strategy, part 2

In my previous post, I discussed creating split-track audio – also know as stems – for the dialogue, sound effects and music components of the composite stereo mix. One useful aspect of the QuickTime format is that it can be a multi-track file, holding numerous discrete audio tracks within the same file. Likewise, Apple Final Cut Pro can create and use multi-track audio in a discrete fashion. The trick is in how you set up your sequence settings and in how you use the mixer panel.

Set the sequence audio configuration to Channel Grouped or Discrete Channels. This lets you control the output destination of your audio channels and whether they work as stereo pairs or as individual mono tracks.

In the Audio Outputs tab, establish how many target outputs the sequence will have. If you want three separate stereo pairs for dialogue, sound effects and music, then this tab should be set to six outputs of stereo pairs or dual mono tracks. If you are using stereo instead of multi-channel audio hardware (an Avid Mbox2 Mini in my case), you’ll receive a warning message alerting you that all tracks cannot be monitored. Just ignore it.

The last step is to make sure that your new sequence is actually set to output to the assigned tracks. Right-click on each track of the track panel and make sure your audio outputs are properly assigned. A1 and A2 to 1 & 2, A3 and A4 to 3 & 4 and A5 and A6 to 5 & 6.

Edit the stereo stem files to their appropriate tracks.

Notice a separate meter bar for each output track in the master section of the Audio Mixer. At this point you will only hear the output of audio track A1 and A2, due to your stereo audio hardware.

To monitor the composite mix, enable stereo downmix in the master section. Now all tracks are monitored. Muting and soloing specific tracks will let you isolate parts of the mix to hone in on a section. Working with stems can be very useful when the client calls to say they liked the mix, but can you bring the music down a bit. Instead of having your outside audio studio remix the track, simply make the level adjustment using these stems.

To archive your master file with discrete, split-audio tracks, export a self-contained file using Current Settings.

You can check this file in QuickTime Player 7 (Show Movie Properties) and verify the separate sound tracks embedded within the file.

In addition, you can import this file back into FCP, edit it across to a new sequence and confirm that the tracks are indeed discrete.

If you did make level changes to create a new mix from the stems, then it is also possible to export a self-contained version of the file with this new composite stereo track. Duplicate the sequence and change the settings back to a two-channel output. Make sure all track assignments are reset to 1 & 2. A self-contained export from this sequence will contain a single mixed stereo track.

You might also want to revisit “Sitting in the Mix” for more on mixing strategies.

©2011 Oliver Peters