More Grunt with CoreMelt

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In the world of plug-in effects filters, CoreMelt might seem like the new kid but that would be incorrect. CoreMelt is the brainchild of Roger Bolton, an accomplished Flame artist and visual effects veteran with numerous film credits, including Kingdom of Heaven and The Lords of the Rings trilogy. Bolton started out as one of the principal developing partners with Noise Industries, originally designing the Organoptics FX package for Factory Tools (Avid) and later ImageFlow and PolyChrome for FxFactory (FCP).

 

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Earlier this year CoreMelt broke out on its own to release the V2 products, based on CoreMelt’s V-Twin effects engine. It no longer ties into the FxFactory filter management engine; however, it’s perfectly fine to have both the FxFactory version of the CoreMelt products, as well as the V2 filters, installed on the same system. In fact, both CoreMelt and Noise Industries recommend that you might need to do that for compatibility with legacy projects. Previous versions installed under FxFactory show up with a CM prefix in the effects palette, whereas the new filters have a C2 prefix.

 

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As in the case of the previous versions, CoreMelt V2 filters install into five hosts: Apple Final Cut Pro, Motion, Final Cut Express plus Adobe After Effects CS3 and CS4. These effect packs include filters, transitions and generators, which match FCP’s filter organization. Be sure to look for the installed effects in those three folders. Motion and After Effects don’t use this exact same structure, so for instance, all C2 (CoreMelt V2) selections will appears under the single After Effects pulldown menu for effects. Transition effects will have an asterisk after the name to indicate a two-layer transition effect.

 

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I’ve been testing the filters in FCP, Motion and After Effects and they generally seem pretty solid in each, however, it seems to me that they are most responsive inside FCP. That difference is pretty subtle, so don’t let that deter you from considering it for After Effects as a primary host. I’m testing these on a MacBook Pro, so obviously a Mac Pro tower with a fast graphics card would make a big difference. Even so, these filters run fast on the laptop and adjustments are responsive. Plus, these filters are just plain fun to work with.

 

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The CoreMelt V2 product line groups filters into packs with similar functions. These include transitions (PolyChrome), editor tools (Gadget), glows & blurs (Luminous), color correction (Pigment) and distortion & grunge effects (Shatter). There’s also the image montage package (ImageFlow Fx) and VeeYou – plug-ins that generate VU and EQ animations from audio files in your project.

 

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There have been some solid improvements to ImageFlow Fx V2. Now you have a lot more control, including such things as adding frames around the stills from a selection of preset graphic frames.

 

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I do a lot of the color grading, so the Pigment and Luminous filters had the most appeal to me. Like many of the newer advanced filters, CoreMelt departs from the standard FCP slider parameters to add its own custom GUI in the filter control pane. If you get lost in how an effect should work, click on the CoreMelt logo and a PDF manual opens in Preview to walk you through the steps. You can pick between the standard or custom interface. Custom uses certain range-based sliders that are helpful in some of the color correction adjustments.

 

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In addition, there’s a heads-up graphic that overlays on top of the picture when you are making color adjustments. You may have this up the entire time or only when dragging a slider. This seems particularly helpful when making S-curve adjustments. Curve functions are missing in Final Cut’s built-in color grading tools and would normally require a trip to Apple Color without such a plug-in.

 

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CoreMelt breaks their products down into a number of attractive bundling options ranging from CoreMelt Complete V2 to individual filter packs. For instance, if you are only interested in the color correction tools, than all you have to do is purchase the CoreMelt Pigment pack for just those 22 plug-ins. In addition, the ImageFlow Fx V2 and PolyChrome Transitions V2 trial versions include several free plug-ins, plus there’s a free download of the 12 VeeYou filters.

 

I won’t go into depth on the whole set, because it’s something that’s easy enough to check out for yourself. These filters seem to have a low system impact – in other words, safe to try. On the whole, CoreMelt V2 is a great addition to the editor’s toolkit at a really low price.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Loader

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The last 6 – 12 months have seen a bumper crop of new Final Cut plug-ins and utilities that extend its power and functionality. Quite a few have come to light since this year’s NAB. I’m going to spend the summer highlighting a number of these throughout the next series of posts.

 

The first isn’t really a plug-in at all. Digital Heaven’s Loader is an utility that launches whenever FCP is started and is designed as a “helper application” to manage media files that you import into a Final Cut project. The cardinal mistake that I see many editors make is in how they handle file organization. Setting your scratch disk locations in FCP takes care of ingested tape-based or tapeless media, but it doesn’t do anything to help you organize music, announcer tracks, photos and graphics, which make up a large part of a project.

 

I occasionally inherit projects from other editors and am confronted with missing media. The majority of the camera media relinks just fine from an external drive, but then I find a handful of clips that are offline. Digging a bit deeper, it turns out that these aren’t on the drive at all. These images or tracks had been imported from the editor’s local Pictures folder or iTunes music folder and never copied to the external project drive in the first place.

 

Another problem is sample rate conversion of audio. FCP does an poor job of dealing with 44.1kHz audio and MP3 files. You should ALWAYS convert to 48kHz AIF files BEFORE bringing these into your FCP project, but most editors never do. Issues like these, which are automatically handled for Avid editors by their application, require extra thought on the part of the FCP editor.

 

Enter Loader, which helps to resolve this dilemma. Loader is designed to deal with still images, sound files and QuickTime movies that are not ingested from tape, P2, XDCAM or other professional camera format. The application does three very simple functions:

 

1) Loader automatically copies the imported files into a central location that is independent of their original folders. The original images, tracks and movies are preserved and untouched. More importantly, the media that is used in the edit stays with the rest of the project files.

 

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2) Loader organizes this non-timecode-based media into three neat folders – Movies, Audio and Graphics. You get to choose where these files are to be placed at the time of the first import into the project. After that, Loader will remember where to send the files. In my case, I typically create a Project Files media folder at the same location as my Capture Scratch folder. Inside the Project Files folder, I’ll create folders for each FCP project in this manner: Drive Name/FCP Media/Project Files/Project Name. That last folder is where I will direct Loader to send the imported files. Loader will automatically create a Movies, Audio and Graphics folder inside, thus keeping everything neatly organized.

 

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3) The last and most important function is automatic sample rate conversion of imported audio tracks. Simply drag an MP3 track or a song from iTunes to Loader and it automatically copies the file and converts it to a 48kHz/16-bit AIF file, retaining its original file name. It will also handle Apple’s CAF files.

 

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Loader’s own interface is pretty minimal. There are preferences where you can chose whether or not to launch Loader with FCP. You can also add or remove file extensions from the 3 primary media types. Loader appears in FCP as a small clapstick icon on top of the left or right edge of the FCP interface. Hold down the Command key and slide the clapstick bar up or down to keep it from obscuring part of the interface.

 

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Don’t use the FCP’s import menu command to bring in a new file. Instead, simply drag the file that’s to be imported towards the clapstick icon. As you hover over the bar, Loader’s full interface slides out – looking like the rest of a film slate. Drop the file onto the “slate” and Loader takes care of the rest.

 

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Any files handled by Loader appear in the FCP browser inside a new date/time-stamped “imports” bin. Of course, you can move or change this bin or the master clip in the FCP browser, just like any other clip.

 

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If you edit with multiple FCP projects open at once, Loader will also keep track of these. Simply drag-and-drop the file to the correct FCP project name on the slate icon and Loader takes care of placing the media into the correct folders and into the right project pane. Once you get used to Loader, you’ll quickly see how this can save you time and hassles on many future FCP projects.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Compositing with Avid Media Composer

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Most editors do a lot of compositing. Not eye-popping visual effects, but the day-to-day motion graphics work typical of promos, show opens, corporate videos and local market TV spots. There are many apps to use, but I feel that most editors would prefer to stay within the environment of their favorite NLE.

 

I know that many editors think that Final Cut Pro is a great compositing tool, because it includes Photoshop-style blend modes and uses an After Effects model for effects parameters. I might be in the minority, but I happen to think FCP isn’t really that great for motion graphics work. In fact, Apple might even secretly agree with me or they wouldn’t have developed Motion. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of very nice compositing inside Avid Media Composer with timelines surpassing 50 layers at times.

 

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Of the various NLEs available as software-only products, I feel that Avid Media Composer has the best built-in motion graphics and compositing tools. No need to bounce your tracks to another app, like After Effects or Motion, but if you want more, there’s AvidFX. It’s essentially an OEM version of Boris Red that runs from within the Media Composer interface. The best part of staying inside the application is that you don’t have to waste a lot of effort keeping track of additional project types and media assets. It’s all right there inside the one Avid project.

 

Aside from a solid toolkit for effects, several key software design components expedite work in Media Composer. For example, rendering can be done on intermediate tracks within the timeline and Avid does a superb job of retaining these renders as changes are made. One simple change won’t cause the whole timeline to have to be re-rendered. Secondly, you can replace the “fill” media of any real-time graphic with an alpha channel – whether imported or internally generated – with moving video. This can be a direct replacement or even a blend of moving video and the original graphic “fill” and it retains real-time performance. It also appears as a single timeline video clip that can be easily moved or trimmed.

 

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The third powerful feature is Collapse. This lets you exceed the nominal track limits of Media Composer. For instance, a timeline might consist of 10 video tracks that each hold collapsed clips. A collapsed clip is a “container” with additional tracks inside it. Each can hold many tracks, so if the clips in this example each consisted of 10 internal tracks, the entire timeline would actually be 100 tracks deep! It’s important to understand that Avid’s Collapse is NOT like FCP’s Nesting. The latter is really a reference clip that is tied to a separate timeline and changes ripple between the two timelines. In Media Composer, Collapsing is simply a way to non-destructively combine a group of clips so you can treat and display them as a single unit.

 

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The sample frames I’m showing are from a fake extreme sports promo that I use to present Media Composer compositing and effects concepts. There’s a base layer of stock sports images with grunge and color effects. Next is a top and bottom layer of colorized checkered flags followed by layers of crawling text. These are collapsed clips containing several tracks for the words, which are being moved horizontally using simple DVE position changes. The last layer is the word SPORTS spelled in oversized letters. Each letter is a set of full screen elements that take up several tracks for the shadow, beveled edge and letter interior. The inside of the letter is cut by a matte, which is filled by the metallic texture blended with moving video.

 

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I use Photoshop as the graphics companion to any NLE. In this case, I created the SPORTS graphic elements in Photoshop, with layer sets for each letter’s shadow, full color image and interior matte.

 

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The metallic texture of the letters was also created in Photoshop by using the gradient and liquefy tools. First, organize and position the layers in the Media Composer timeline. Then it’s a simple matter of using DVE moves to create the traveling effect of the word moving through the frame (combined with video inside the letters).

 

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This 25th anniversary graphic uses the same concept. The Avid timeline combines stock footage and Artbeats water elements with versions of the graphic built in Photoshop. Once inside Media Composer, you can play with layers and opacity values to get just the right look, including the watery “25” reflection in the foreground.

 

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Upfront I praised Media Composer’s toolset. To start with, there’s a much better DVE than either FCP or Premiere Pro. You can actually do decent “2.5D” DVE moves with ease. Another tool that’s simply better in Media Composer is the Spectramatte keyer for blue and green screen keys.

 

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To me, it’s far better than the built in tools in FCP, Premiere Pro or even Motion’s “lite” version of Primatte. I’m sure you can top it with various plug-ins and the built-in After Affects keyers, but again this discussion is about NLEs. So without spending more bucks on an extra chromakey plug-in, Spectramatte does a really good job on common keying situations.

 

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Most software NLEs have keyers, but they don’t all have matte and paint tools and built-in tracking. This is a big plus for Avid. There’s a built in tracker that comes in handing for locking composited elements together, as well as stabilizing shots. Even more handy is Animatte – a built-in paint tool for creating traveling mattes. Some apps refer to this as rotosplining, but the point of Animatte is to isolate a portion of the image. In my example, I’ve isolated the motocross rider in order to make the surrounding black-and-white. With enough patience, I can create a very tight matte and adjust that frame-by-frame throughout the shot so that it stays with the rider and completely isolates his action for the duration of the clip. This can also be used in conjunction with color correction tools to create shapes and vignettes for secondary color correction.

 

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It’s nice to have these tools, but even better that system response if very good when you are working with them. For example, when you apply a 4-point or 8-point matte in Final Cut, the system can be very slow to respond. The performance difference is very striking when you compare the same Mac using an FCP matte versus Avid’s Animatte. In the end, you should use the tools you are comfortable with, but sometimes we overlook what’s right at our fingertips. I wanted to take this space to point out some of the tools that give Avid editors a reason to stick with the product.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

NAB 2009 – 10 goodies you might have missed

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By now you’ve probably caught up on all big announcements from NAB 2009. If not, then hop over to Videography or DV for the NAB coverage supplied by my colleagues and me during our blogs and wrap-up stories for the magazine. In this post I’d like to focus on 10 relatively inexpensive items that will improve your productivity.

 

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AJA Video – The AJA Ki Pro was the hit of the show for many, but don’t forget the Io Express. The new little brother of the IoHD follows on the heels of the older IoLA and IoLD, except that it now handles HD. Io Express connects via PCIe instead of FireWire and is ideal for laptop monitoring and mastering.

 

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Automatic Duck – The Duck is known for timeline translation, but has brought back a popular application from the past. Media Copy 2.0 reads an Avid AAF or OMF 2.0 file or a Final Cut Pro XML file, figures out which media files are used by that sequence then copies the media to a location you specify. This is a great way to consolidate media and helps out where FCP’s own Media Manager is deficient.

 

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Blackmagic Design – Lots of buzz about their UltraScope waveform monitor, but check out their DVI Extender. I’m not a big fan of the Gefen extenders so I’m glad to see BMD’s product, which uses standard BNC connectors and SDI cables to extend computer monitor signals. The DVI Extenders can also be used for DVI-to-SDI video conversion at HD and SD resolutions.

 

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Boris FXBoris Continuum Complete 6 – Always a winner, BCC continues improving and covers nearly every host system on the market. BCC6 for After Effects is out and BCC6 for FxPlug (FCP & Motion) is in beta and will hit the market soon. New effects include extruded 3D text using the Boris Blue engine and reflections. The FxPlug version will have a few extra twists, such as an interactive preset preview browser.

 

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Chemical Wedding – Location crews will welcome the Helios Sun Calculator, which is available through the iTunes Store as an iPhone application. This convenient tool provides accurate information about the path of the sun and how that may influence the planning of a shoot.

 

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CoreMelt – This has been a popular set of effects filters and transitions available in Noise Industries’ FxFactory toolset. New this year are the V2 filter sets that run independent of the FxFactory filter management tool. CoreMelt V2 packs can be purchased either as a complete collection for FCP or After Effects, or as individual modules. For example, if you only want color correction filters or only glow filters, then those can be purchased without buying the whole collection. I especially like their color correction filters, which use intuitive sliders and feature a heads-up-display for grading curves.

 

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Euphonix – I love control surfaces and if you hate to mix in FCP, Pro Tools or Logic with the mouse, then the Euphonix Artist Series is for you. These modular panels include MC Mix, MC Control and the new MC Transport. You can mix-and-match modules depending on whether you just want fader control or more panels with programmable hot keys.

 

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Matrox – They are one of three strong hardware suppliers for FCP and Premiere Pro editors. MXO2 has become quite popular, so take a look at the new MXO2 Mini, if you’d like something even more portable. It can ingest and output HD via HDMI or analog connections plus analog-only for NTSC and PAL. It is a cost-effective monitoring and conversion unit for the laptop user. Even better, Minis will include the MAX encoding option. For an additional cost, MXO2 Minis can be purchased with onboard, hardware-accelerated H.264 encoding, adding more functionality to the unit. This means all three MXO2 products with MAX can be used to accelerate any H.264 files using Compressor. The NAB demos provided considerably faster-than-real-time performance.

 

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Noise Industries – You’ve got to love FxFactory. The 2.0.7 update is available as a free download and every release adds a few more free effects plug-ins. FxFactory filters are supplied by Noise Industries as well as other development partners like iDustrial Revolution. iDustrial just released its own update to their really cool Volumetrix filter set. If you do a lot with type also check out Motype. A new partnership has been announced with Boinx for a series of tile and shatter filters.

 

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Singular SoftwarePluralEyes was the simplest, yet most amazing FCP companion at the show. It’s essential if you do a lot of multicam editing in FCP. PluralEyes automatically synchronizes multiple sources without the use of timecode. If you shoot a concert with pro-consumer camcorders, there is no longer any need to hand-sync each clip. Instead, PluralEyes will analyze the audio tracks and line up the various sources in sync with each other based solely on the alignment of the audio.

 

Check out DV and Videography writers’ commentary during the show at DV’s (Almost) Live from NAB blog: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Apple Aperture 2 for Video Pros

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Programs for two-dimensional graphics fall into three categories: design, paint and photography. Adobe Photoshop has been the “Swiss Army Knife” software that most video professionals rely on to do all of these functions, but its main strength is image layout and design. Realistic painting that mimics natural media like oils and chalks continues to be the hallmark of Corel Painter. Neither application is much help if you need to organize hundreds of images, so programs like Apple’s iPhoto, Corel’s Paint Shop Pro Photo X2 and Google’s Picasa have come to fill that void for legions of photographers worldwide. These serve the needs of most amateurs, but if you’re a pro who needs industrial strength photo organization and manipulation software, then Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom lead the pack. Both applications offer similar features and Adobe and Apple have been responding to each other tit-for-tat with new features in every software update – all to the benefit of the user.

 

In early 2008, Apple released Aperture 2, which was quickly followed by the 2.1 update. Aperture 2 added 100 new features, but the biggest improvement was faster performance, enabling quicker previews and image browsing. Aperture 2.1 introduced a plug-in architecture that has opened Aperture to a large field of third party developers. To date about 70 plug-ins have been developed for functions that include image manipulation, export, file transfer and Apple Automator workflow scripts. Apple has targeted professional photographers as the main customers for Aperture 2 and offers extensive support, such as video tutorials, on their website. There’s also a growing community of users and developers focused on Aperture and its plug-ins.

 

Organization

 

Documentary films and corporate image videos make extensive use of photographs to tell the story. Aperture 2’s file management is the biggest selling point for video producers and editors. Images in your library are organized by projects, albums, books and light tables. You can store master images in the Aperture library or link to other folders. There’s a new Quick Preview mode to that rapidly updates images during browsing. When not in the Quick Preview mode, Aperture 2 loads the full resolution images into the viewer (if they are available on the mounted drives) from the master files. You may use the Loupe (photographer’s magnifying glass) to isolate and analyze a portion of the photo at a 1:1 pixel size, which is accessed from the master image. Or just zoom the image to its actual size if your prefer. If the drive with the master images is not mounted, then Aperture displays a hi-resolution proxy image. Standard image corrections can be made when master files are available and these are applied as non-destructive filters, like adjustment layers in Photoshop, so your master image is never altered. Corrections are applied only to an exported image, therefore “baking in” these changes to a new version of the photo.

 

You can add custom metadata to each photo, which can be used to automatically populate smart albums. For example, as you browse and evaluate images, a rating system or keyword can be applied to each selected still. Smart albums can be tied to certain metadata information, so as you apply the right criteria, these images instantly show up in the appropriate smart album. Photos in an album, smart album, book or light table are linked back to the original image files in the project. As you adjust the non-destructive color settings, these changes ripples through to all the instances of that image in an album or light table. There are numerous templates and now export plug-ins to send images to locations outside of the Aperture 2 environment. The application is tightly integrated with Apple’s MobileMe web service, but other options via third party exporters include Facebook, Flickr, Gmail and Picassa to name a few. This makes Aperture 2 the ideal tool for location managers, casting directors, producers and directors who like to post photos to a web location for quick and easy client review. If you are a Final Cut Pro editor, there’s even a plug-in to send selected images out as a Final Cut Pro sequence, complete with a choice of transition effects.

 

Image tools

 

Imposing structure on a ton of photos is very important, but in the end, it’s all about image quality. In the documentary scenario, many stills given to the editor require a lot of clean-up, like dust-busting and cropping. Newer snapshots may require red-eye correction. These tasks have been traditional Photoshop strengths, but are actually better handled in a photo-centric application like Aperture 2. The tools include straightening and cropping, as well as a variety of color balance and enhancement filters. The image adjustment toolset is rounded out by non-destructive retouching brushes (repair, clone, healing) and vignettes. If you shoot camera RAW photography, Aperture 2 supports a wide variety of camera models plus the Adobe DNG format, and gained new RAW fine-tuning tools.

 

Photographers can now tether certain Nikon and Canon digital SLR cameras to the computer and capture their images directly into Aperture 2. You might not think this applies to video editors, but I’ve done a lot of projects where old photographic prints had to be scanned or shot with a video camera. Tethered operation for copy stand work seems like a much better and faster way to accomplish this task!

 

While we’re talking about camera RAW images, I have to quickly point out that the .R3D format of RED Digital Cinema’s RED One camera is not supported in Aperture 2. One of the beauties of shooting with RED is that the high resolution progressive frames also make great stills for print campaigns derived from the same shoot. Much like pulling a frame out of the 35mm negative after a film shoot. The RedAlert application can export 2K and 4K stills in the TIFF format, so it’s a simple task to import these into Aperture 2 for further manipulation. Aperture 2 isn’t as complex as Photoshop and its photographic tools are more comfortable for most directors of photography. So, it’s the ideal place for a DP to import sample stills from RED and do a quick grade for the director, client or colorist as a reference for his intended look.

 

Plug-ins

 

Aperture has offered an “edit with” feature since the beginning, which lets you designate an application like Photoshop as an external image editor. The new, third party image filters are accessed through the same “edit with” menu selection. Unlike other plug-in formats, these filters open as separate applications with their own interface. Apple got the ball rolling by integrating a full-featured Dodge and Burn filter. Tiffen and DFT joined the party, as did traditional photography software and Photoshop filter vendors, like Nik Software (Color Efex Pro, Silver Efex Pro) and Picture Code (Noise Ninja). Unlike Aperture’s own internal tools, these filter changes are destructive, so when you use one, a copy of the image is created with the applied effect, so you aren’t locked into that result.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine and NewBay Media, L.L.C.