NAB 2013 Distilled

df_nab2013_1Another year – another NAB exhibition. A lot of fun stuff to see. Plenty of innovation and advances, but no single “shocker” like last year’s introduction of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. Here are some observations based on this past week in Las Vegas.

4K

Yes, 4K was all over. I was a bit surprised that many of the pieces for a complete end-to-end solution are in place. The term 4K refers to the horizontal pixel width of the image, but two common specs are used – the DCI (film) standard of 4096 and the UltraHD (aka QuadHD) standard of 3840. Both are “4K”. Forgotten in the discussion is frame rate. Many displays were showing higher frame rates, such as 4K at 60fps. 120fps is also being discussed.

4K (and higher) cameras were there from Canon, Sony, RED, JVC, GoPro and now Blackmagic Design. Stereo3D was there, too, in pockets; but, it’s all but dead (again). 4K, though, will have legs. The TV sets and distribution methods are coming into position and this is a nonintrusive experience for the viewer. SD to HD was an obvious “in your face” difference. 4K is noticeably better, but not as much as SD to HD. More like 720p versus 1080p. This means that consumer prices will have to continue to drop (as they will) for 4K to really catch hold, except for special venue applications. Right now, it’s pretty obvious how gorgeous 4K is when standing a few feet away from an 84” screen, but few folks can afford that yet.

Interestingly enough, you can even do live 4K broadcasts, using 4K cameras and production products from Astro Designs. This will have value in live venues like sporting events and large corporate meetings. A new factor – “region of interest” – comes into play. This means you can shoot 4K and then scale/crop the portion of the image that interests you. Naturally there was also 8K by NHK and also Quantel. Both have been on the forefront of HD and then 4K. Quantel was demonstrating 8K (downsampled to a 4K monitor) just to show their systems have the headroom for the future.

ARRI did not have a 4K camera, but the 4 x 3 sensor of the ALEXA XT model features 2880 x 2160 photosites. When you use an anamorphic 2:1 lens and record ARRIRAW, you effectively end up with an unsqueezed image of 5760 x 2160 pixels. Downsample that to a widescreen 2.4:1 image inside a 4096 DCI frame and you have visually similar results as with a Sony or RED camera delivering in 4K. This was demonstrated in the booth and the results were quite pleasing. The ALEXA looked a bit softer than comparable displays at the Sony and RED booths, but most cinematographers would probably opt for the ARRI image, since it appears a lot closer to the look of scanned film at 4K. Part of this is inherent with ARRI’s sensor array, which includes optical filtering in-camera. Sony was showing clips from the upcoming Oblivion feature film, which was shot with an F65. To many attendees these clips looked almost too crisp.

In practical terms, most commercial, corporate, television or indie film users of 4K cameras want an easy workflow. If that’s your goal, then the best “true” 4K paths are to shoot with the Canon C500 or the Sony F55. The C500 can be paired with the (now shipping) AJA KiPro Quad to record 4K ProRes files. The Sony records in the XAVC codec (a variant of AVC-Intra). Both are ready to edit (importer plug-ins may be required) without conversions.

You can also record ARRI 2K ProRes in an ALEXA or use one of the various raw workflows (RED, Canon, Blackmagic, Sony, ARRI). Raw is nice, but adds extra steps to the process – often with little benefit over log-profile recording to an encoded file format.

Edit systems

With the shake-up that Apple’s introduction of Final Cut Pro X has brought to the market, brand dominance has been up for grabs. Apple wasn’t officially at the show, but did have some off-site presence, as well as a few staffers at demo pods. For example, they were showing the XAVC integration in an area of the Sony booth. FCP X was well-represented as part of other displays all over the floor. An interesting metric I noticed, was that all press covering the show on video, were cutting their reports on laptops using FCP X. That is a sweet spot for use of the application. No new FCP X news (beyond the features released with 10.0.8) was announced.

Adobe is currently the most aggressive in trying to earn the hearts of editors. The “next” versions of Premiere Pro, SpeedGrade, Audition and After Effects have a ton of features that respond to customer requests and will speed workflows. Adobe’s main stage demos were packed and the general consensus of most editors discussing a move away from FCP 7 (and even Avid) was a move to Adobe. In early press, Adobe mentioned working with the Coen brothers, who have committed to cutting their next film with Premiere.

The big push was for Adobe Anywhere – their answer for cloud-based editing. Although a very interesting product, it will compete in the same space as Quantel Qtube and Avid Interplay Sphere. These are enterprise solutions that require servers, storage, software and support. While it’s an interesting technology, it will tend to be of more interest to larger news operations and educational facilities than smaller post shops.

Avid came on with Media Composer 7 at a new price, with Symphony as an add-on option to Media Composer. The biggest features were the ability to edit with larger-than-HD video sources (output is still limited to HD), LUT support, improved media management of AMA files and background transcoding using managed folders (watch folders). In addition, Pro Tools goes to 11, with a new video engine – it can natively run Avid sequences from AAF imports – and faster-than-real-time bounce. The MC background transcode and the PT11 bounce will be time savers for Avid users and that translates into money saved.

Avid Interplay Sphere (announced last year) now works on Macs, but its main benefit is remote editing for stations that have invested in Interplay solutions. Avid is also bundling packages of ISIS storage, Interplay asset management and seats of Media Composer at even lower price points. Although still premium solutions, they are finally in a range that may be attractive to some small edit facilities and broadcasters, given that it includes installation and support.

The other NLE players include Avid DS (not shown), Quantel Pablo Rio, Autodesk Smoke 2013, Grass Valley EDIUS, Sony Vegas, Media 100 (not shown) and Lightworks. Most of these have no bearing in my market. Smoke 2013 is getting traction. Autodesk is working to get user feedback to improve the application, as it moves deeper into a market segment that is new to them. EditShare is forging ahead with Lightworks on the Mac. It looked pretty solid at the show, but expect something that’s ready for users towards the end of the year. It’s got the film credits to back it up, so a free (or near free) Mac version should shake things up even further.

One interesting addition to the market is DaVinci Resolve 10 gaining editing features. Right now the editing bells-and-whistles are still rudimentary, though all of the standard functions are there. Plus there are titles, speed changes with optical flow and a plug-in API (OpenFX). You can already apply GenArts Sapphire filters to your clips. These are applied in the color correction timeline as nodes, rather than effects added to an editing timeline. This means the Sapphire filters can be baked into any clip renders. The positioning of Resolve 10 is as an online editing tool. That means conforming, titling and trims/tweaks after grading. You now have even greater editing capabilities at the grading stage without having to return to an NLE. Ultimately the best synergy will be between FCP X and Resolve. Together the two apps make for a very interesting package and Apple seems to be working closely with Blackmagic Design to make this happen. Ironically the editing mode page looks a lot like FCP X would have looked with tracks and dual viewers.

Final thoughts

I was reading John Buck’s Timeline on the plane. Even though we think of the linear days as having been dominated by CMX, the reality was that there were many systems, including Mach One, Epic, ISC, Strassner, Convergence, Datatron, Sony, RCA and Ampex. In Hollywood, the TV industry was split among them, which is why a common interchange standard of the EDL was developed. For awhile, Avid became the dominant tool in the nonlinear era, but the truth is that hasn’t always been the norm – nor should it be. The design dilemma of engineering versus creative was a factor from the beginning of video editing. Should a system be simple enough that producers, directors and non-technical editors can run it? Sound familiar?

When I look at the show I am struck at how one makes their buying choices. To use the dreaded car analogy, FCP X is the sports car and Avid is the truck. But the sports car is a temperamental Ferrari that does some things very well , but isn’t appropriate for others. The truck is a Tundra with all the built-in, office-on-the-road niceties.

If I were a facility manager, making a purchase for a large scale facility, it would probably still be Avid. It’s the safe bet – the “you don’t get fired for buying IBM” bet. Their innovations at the show were conservative, but meet the practical needs of their current customers. There simply is no other system with a proven track record across all types of productions that scales from one user to massive installations. But offering conservative innovation isn’t a growth strategy. You don’t get new users that way. Media Composer has become truly complex in ways that only veteran users can accept and that has to change fast.

Apple FCP X is the wild card, of course. Apple is playing the long game looking for the next generation of users. If FCP X weren’t an Apple product, it would receive the same level of attention as Vegas Pro, at best. Also a great tool with a passionate user base, but nothing that has the potential of dominating market share. The trouble is Apple gets in its own way due to corporate secrecy. I’ve been using FCP X for awhile and it certainly is a professional product. But to use it effectively, you have to change your workflow. In a multi-editor, multi-production facility, this means changing a lot of practices and retraining staff. It also means augmenting the software with a host of other applications to fix the short-comings.

Broadening the appeal of FCP X beyond the one-man-band operations may be tough for that reason. It’s too non-standard and no one has any idea of where it’s headed. On the other hand, as an editor who’s willing to deal with new challenges, I like the fast, creative cutting performance of FCP X. This makes it a great offline editing tool in my book. I find a “start in X, finish in Resolve” approach quite intriguing.

Right now, Adobe feels like the horse to beat. They have the ear of the users and an outreach reminiscent of when Apple was in the early FCP “legacy” era. Adobe is working hard to build a community and the interoperability between applications is the best in the industry. They are only hampered by the past indifference towards Premiere that many pro users have. But that seems to be changing, with many new converts. Although Premiere Pro “next” feels like FCP 7.5, that appears to be what users really want. The direction, at least, feels right. Apple may have been “skating to where the puck will be”, but it could be that no one is following or the puck simply wasn’t going there in the first place.

For an additional look – click over to my article for CreativePlanetNetwork – DV magazine.

©2013 Oliver Peters

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

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

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Impressions of NAB 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adobe Creative Suite 6 – A First Look

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

Production Premium

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

Prelude

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

Premiere Pro

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

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

SpeedGrade

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

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

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

Audition

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

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

After Effects

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

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

Photoshop

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

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

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

Click here for updated price and availability information.

Click here for videos that explain CS6 features.

Plus, a nice set of tutorial videos here.

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Autodesk Smoke 2013 – A First Look

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

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

More Mac-like

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

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

ConnectFX

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

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

Lighter system requirements

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for videos and tutorials about Smoke.

Click here for Autodesk’s NAB videos.

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Thunderbolt I/O Devices – A First Look

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

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

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

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

Differentiating features

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

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

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

Fitting into your layout

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

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

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

Broadcast monitoring and FCP X

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

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

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

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

Performance with the mainstream NLEs

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

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

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

Portions of this entry originally written for Digital Video Magazine.

©2012 Oliver Peters

Trends to watch at NAB 2012

I’m posting this on my way out the door to Las Vegas for NAB 2012. The manufacturers have been holding their NAB info close to the vest during the run-up to the show. There are a few details I do know, but can’t spill the beans due to various NDAs. A lot of online speculation has only been fueled by rumors and some wishful thinking, but not even media types have been given advance peeks. This year many manufacturers have already shown new versions of products for the past six months. It seems like 2012 will be more of a stable year when many products shown will actually be proven in the field and ready to ship.

Acquisition

This is likely to be a great year for RED Digital Cinema. The upstart camera maker is getting its sea legs along with the street credibility that comes from being used on numerous high-visibility feature film productions. I suspect RED will show their next move into player and projection products in addition to the cameras, which are already known in the market. As a broad stroke, expect to see RED have a lot of soul-mates in the 4K (and above) arena.

At the high end, NAB will be a three-way tug among RED, ARRI and Sony. The RED EPIC – arguably the most innovative camera on the market – will be RED’s standard-bearer for 4K (and beyond) acquisition. Sony will be in full force to challenge RED’s niche with the F65. It was introduced last year in prototype form as Sony’s 4K answer, but this year it will return as an actual production model. Meanwhile ARRI will present several versions of the ALEXA camera. Although primarily an HD camera that’s also capable of 3K camera raw recordings, the ARRI ALEXA has garnered a sizeable share of the episodic TV market this year, as well as tent pole features, like Hugo.

The middle tier pits the Sony F3, the new RED SCARLET and the Canon C300 against each other. This will be the first showing at NAB for these RED and Canon offerings, which continue to feed the appetite for Super 35mm-sized sensors at all price ranges. Although the stereo 3D frenzy will likely be subdued, Sony, Panasonic and JVC each offer twin-lens, one-piece camcorders for easy stereo production. Sony’s HXR-NX3D1U is a lightweight 2D/3D camera that’s part of their NXCAM family. Panasonic has built on its development of the AG-3DA1 to offer two additional twin-lens cameras, including the AG-3DP1 and HDC-Z10000. JVC has joined the excitement with the small GY-HMZ1U. It uses the same chip technology at the GY-HMQ10 camcorder, which is capable of capturing and recording 3840 x 2160 (“quad HD”) images at 24p, 50p and 60p. This JVC model promises to be the lowest cost camera to record 4K frame sizes.

Undoubtedly 4K will be a theme for many camera manufacturers. Just at the beginning of April, Sony announced its NEX-FS700U, an HD super slomo camcorder that’s a step up within the NXCAM product family from the FS100. Like the FS100, it features a Super35mm-sized sensor and interchangeable E-mount lens mount, but also up to 120fps and 240fps burst recordings at 1080p resolution. According to their press release, “Sony is planning a future firmware upgrade that will enable the NEX-FS700U to output 4K bitstream data over 3G HD-SDI when used with an optional Sony 4K recorder.”

To counter this, Canon announced its Cinema EOS C500, which will output a raw 4K picture (4096×2160) to an external recorder via dual 3G-SDI output. Shipping date has not been announced. The video-enabled DSLRs continue to be popular, with particular interest in the Canon EOS-1D X and EOS-5D Mark III, which promise improved HD video capture. Naturally there’s now a 4K version in the form of the EOS-1D C.

Currently, the only truly production-friendly camera of this style and in this price range remains Panasonic’s AG-AF100, which is based on the Micro Four Thirds format. Of course, these cameras don’t fit the needs of many run-and-gun videographers, which means Sony, Panasonic and JVC will continue to promote their popular XDCAM, P2 VariCam and ProHD products, as well.

Naturally, acquisition includes a growing selection of solid state recorders from AJA, Convergent Design, Cinedeck, Sound Devices, Atomos, Blackmagic Design and others. An interesting trend in all of these is the move to add additional codec options. Many started as Apple ProRes-based QuickTime media recorders, but Apple’s introduction of Final Cut Pro X has spooked the industry enough to hedge its bets. Many of these vendors are also offering the ability to record using an Avid DNxHD codec in addition to ProRes. With the popularity of the ALEXA camera, expect to see a few lower-cost options for recording ARRIRAW using the T-link protocol. The most likely candidate may be Convergent Design’s Gemini 4:4:4. Finally, a new, albeit expensive, addition to this group is the Sony SR-R4 portable memory recorder designed as a companion to the F65.

Post

Apple hasn’t been an official exhibitor for years, but the company nevertheless continues to impact NAB. In fact, they just released updates to Final Cut, Motion and Compressor on Tuesday. Final Cut Pro X has splintered the industry in a way that has sparked new interest in Avid, Adobe and Grass Valley desktop edit systems. In November, Avid released its highly-anticipated 64-bit update for the Media Composer/NewsCutter/Symphony product family (version 6.0). It also released ProTools 10, but this will be the first NAB showing for each. Left out of these announcements has been any word of their flagship Avid DS editor, so maybe that will leave some room for an NAB surprise.  In the pre-NAB sneaks, Avid did roll out a super cross-grade promotion for FCP (excluding X), Media Composer and Xpress Pro owners. Until June 15th they can get Symphony 6 for only $999.

The betting money is on Adobe for the show with its big Creative Suite news. The video products in the Creative Suite only saw a small upgrade last year to version CS 5.5. Since then, Adobe has made tremendous gains from the Apple fallout, not to mention picking up IRIDAS (makers of the SpeedGrade color correction software) and Automatic Duck’s development team. They’ve become popular with the RED camera users and have played instrumental roles in the post pipelines for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo and Act of Valor. Recently Adobe previewed Prelude, a media browsing and pre-editing application. They’ve also posted little online “peeks” at some of the new content-aware and video editing features for Photoshop. Clearly the drumbeat was mounting. So, just ahead of the show’s start, Adobe rolled out Creative Suite 6. The Production Premium CS6 bundle will include Story, Prelude, Premiere Pro, SpeedGrade, After Effects, Adobe Media Encoder, Encore, Audition, Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash Professional. Click here for a “first look”.

As users reconsider the Mac platform entirely, Windows-only solutions like Grass Valley EDIUS are gaining interest. At NAB, EDIUS 6.5 will demonstrate a comprehensive stereo 3D editing workflow and native support for raw footage from RED cameras. A special systemized EDIUS version will be able to work with the Grass Valley K2 Summit 3G server. The full family of 3D-compatible Grass Valley editing peripherals, such as the STORM 3G 3D and STORM 3G Elite 3D accelerator cards, are now all supported from the EDIUS timeline. EDIUS 6.5 also incorporates a new Flash exporter, native image stabilization, built-in Loudness Meter and closed caption/audio bit stream (Dolby-E, AC-3) pass-through support.

EditShare has continued advanced development of Lightworks, adding greater codec and third-party support, project sharing and stereoscopic workflows. On the NAB stand, EditShare will host a “Lightworks Edit Bar,” where attendees can test-drive the latest Lightworks release. EditShare is a leading supplier of shared storage solutions and systems for collaborative workflows. New capabilities that will be shown at NAB include Adobe Premiere Pro project sharing, support for Final Cut Pro X and enhanced networking configurations.

Autodesk Media & Entertainment will mark the 20th anniversary of Flame at NAB with top-notch client demos. Evan Schechtman, Chief Technology Officer of @radical.media who will be presenting Smoke for Mac and Vico Sharabani, VFX Supervisor/Co-Founder of COPA who will be presenting Flame Premium 2013. If you are an animator or game developer, then check out the Entertainment Creation Suites. New is the 2013 “Ultimate” bundle, which includes all of the animation tools – Maya, Max, Softimage, Mudbox and Motion Builder.

Thunderbolt

Last year Thunderbolt was the newest fledgling technology, but this year I predict it will be in abundance. Thunderbolt-equipped Macs have been selling for months and the first PCs with Thunderbolt are hitting the market this year. For editors, this means Thunderbolt capture/output/broadcast monitoring cards and storage. There are various solutions from all the vendors with differing features depending on your need. AJA IoXT builds on AJA’s track record with the robust Io product family. The IoXT supports analog output, digital i/o, VTR control, Thunderbolt loop-through and 4:2:2 or 4:4:4 SDI plus HDMI connections. Blackmagic Design will offer three Thunderbolt products: Intensity Shuttle Thunderbolt, Intensity Extreme and UltraStudio 3D. These target a variety of needs and prices designed for anything from simple HDMI monitoring to full 2K and 3D capabilities.

MOTU – another popular interface vendor – has added Thunderbolt technology to its HDX-SDI video device. It’s a one-rack-unit-high, rugged HD/SD external device with extensive audio features in addition the video capability. Matrox, on the other hand, has decided to offer a PCIe-to-Thunderbolt adapter instead of a dedicated Thunderbolt-specific product. The adapter, showcased last year, can be used with any of the MXO2 products, which means that these can continue to be used with non-Thunderbolt workstations and laptops. For the first time in the history of the industry, all of these i/o products are now supported by the most popular NLE software. Some of the drivers are still in beta and current performance is still being optimized for NLE’s like Final Cut Pro X, but all of these devices are expected to work with FCP X, FCP 7, Premiere Pro and Media Composer.

Storage is the other part of this story, since the design of Thunderbolt technology permits the i/o device, the computer display and an external drive array to be connected to one port as part of a single daisy chain. Promise Technology introduced its Pegasus RAID last year and to date has been the main Thunderbolt-compatible system. Likewise, LaCie has also been shipping units and Sonnet Technology offers both drive arrays and an ExpressCard/34-to-Thunderbolt adapter. Expect to see a lot more options at NAB, including products from G-Technology, Western Digital and possibly CalDigit.

One interesting development is the announcement by Tektronix to develop Thunderbolt test gear. These aren’t video waveform monitors, but rather test equipment to validate Thunderbolt implementation by developers and manufacturers. Purely speculation on my part, but maybe we’ll see something from Tektronix at NAB that also combines video measurement and Thunderbolt.

Of further interest…

Questions over the future of the Mac Pro tower have some users moving to PCs, especially those made by HP. Ironically, HP announced its own all-in-one computer, along the lines of the iMac. In past years, Apple has had an invisible presence, simply based on the number of machines (usually Mac Pro towers) used by the demo artists in many vendor booths. It will be interesting to see how many of those same demos are running under Windows this year instead.

On the other hand, a good yardstick for the progress of FCP X into the “pro” market will be how many workflows are demonstrated that incorporate FCP X in some manner. Along those lines, Hamburg Pro Media, makers of the popular MXF4mac tools, have announced VirtualMXF, which enables direct access to MXF media inside Final Cut Pro X. This means drag and drop import of XDCAM, AVC-Intra and Avid DNxHD media files to name a few. No rewrapping or transcoding required. I’d be willing to bet that you’ll see quite a few workflow demos on the floor that integrate FCP X in some fashion. The likely candidates would be AJA, Blackmagic Design, Autodesk, Square Box (CatDV), Building4Media and maybe Active Storage.

Blackmagic Design has been on the corporate acquisition trail for several years, assimilating DaVinci and Echolab products into its family. The newest member is Teranex, maker of the “gold standard” in format converters. Predictably the initial result has been a simplified product line and a lower price for its flagship VC100 processor. Expect to find them in the ever-growing Blackmagic Design booth.

A couple of interesting plug-in developments have the post world buzzing. One is the release of the Baselight plug-in by FilmLight for FCP 7 and Nuke. Releasing it for FCP 7 seems a bit too late, but now they are alluding to releasing it for other hosts, including Avid Media Composer. Along the same lines, EyeOn will show its Connection plug-in for Media Composer. This adds a powerful node-based editor as a bridged plug-in operating in its own interface.

Cloud editing has kept a low profile since a number of prominent demos by Avid and others a few years ago. Yet, both Avid and Quantel are actually offering the only cloud-based editing solutions to date. In the case of Avid this falls under the Integrated Media Enterprise banner and specific products as part of Interplay and iNEWS. For Quantel, it’s QTube, a complete set of scalable mobile, browsing and editing applications that work over IP. On a smaller scale, Adobe has been promoting its cloud-based Story application as part of an end-to-end use of metadata.

Adobe has pegged this year to push more cloud services and applications via their Creative Cloud. Likewise Autodesk will be promoting its Autodesk 360 brand of cloud solutions. Not all of the Adobe or Autodesk products and services are relevant to film and video professionals, since each company develops solutions for a broad spectrum of industries. Nevertheless, they clearly are among the many companies who see our future in the cloud. For example, Singular Software just announced CloudEyes, a set of audio-video synchronization services over the web.  Expect to see more from these and others at the show.

Updated – Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet Networks

©2012 Oliver Peters

Random Impressions – NAB 2010

I always enjoy the show – partly for the new toys – but also to hook up once again, face-to-face, with many friends in the business. I’m back home now and have had a day to decompress and make a few observations about NAB Convention.

First off, this was an extremely strong show for post. Tons of new versions of many of your favorite NLEs, color grading tools and other items. Second, the attendance was good. A bit more than last year – so still a “down” year compared with peaks of a few years ago. Yet, I felt the floor density was higher than the 2009 vs. 2010 numbers indicated. Thursday was still well-attended and not the ghost town I would have expected. So, on the purely subjective metric of how crowded the floor felt, I would have to say that daily averages were much better than 2009.

If you want more specific product knowledge about what was on the floor, check out the various NAB reports at Videography, DV, TV Technology, Studio Daily, Post and Pro Video Coalition. I would encourage you to check out DV’s “(Almost) Live From the NAB Show Blog” – Part 1 and Part 2. The following thoughts fall under opinion and observation, so I’m bound to skip a lot of the details that you might really want to know.

Apple

It never ceases to amaze me when I see blog posts and forum comments that seem to expect Apple to pop up out of nowhere at the show with some amazing new version of Final Cut Studio. Have these folks been under a rock? Apple swore off trade shows several years ago and there’s no indication this policy has changed. They were never on the 2009 or 2010 exhibitor’s list and you can’t plan a 1500-3000 seat “user event” at an area ballroom without word getting out. So, I have no idea why people persist in this fantasy game.

The short term scenario is that it is unlikely that there’ll be a feature-laden new version of FCP/FCS any time soon. Maybe an incremental update like the “new” Final Cut Studio from last year, but I wouldn’t expect that until a few months down the road at the earliest. Or maybe not until 2011. Even if that doesn’t happen or even if the release strikes many as lackluster instead of awesome, it won’t change the breakdown of NLEs to any great degree. If you work with FCP today, you are getting the job done and probably relatively happy with the product. I don’t foresee any change in the product that would greatly alter that situation.

The more important news – as it pertains to NAB – is that Apple is doing a good job of attracting a number of new partners to its core technologies. Autodesk’s Smoke for Mac OS X is a good example, but they are just one of the over 300-strong developer community that constitues the Final Cut ecosystem. A number of folks, such as ARRI, have licensed the ProRes codec, which is a pretty good endorsement of image quality, as well as workflow.

Avid

Certain versions tend to become milestones for a company’s software. I believe Media Composer 5 will be one of those. Avid renumbered versions with the release of Adrenaline several years ago, so this version 5 is really more like version 17. Numbers notwithstanding, other milestones for Media Composer had been the old version 5.x and version 7.x and I believe this newest release (targeted for June) will have just as much impact for Avid editors.

Media Composer 5 goes a long way towards keeping Avid editors in the fold and may even get some Avid-to-FCP “switchers” to come back. It adds limited 3rd party i/o hardware support, wider codec support (including RED and QuickTime through AMA) Pro Tools-style audio features and more FCP-like timeline editing functions. I highly doubt that it will really get any FCP diehards to convert, but it might pique the interest of those selecting their first high-end NLE. Down the road, I’ll have proper review when it’s ready for actual use.

In addition to Media Composer 5, Avid also previewed its “editing in the cloud” concept. This is largely based on work already done by Maximum Throughput, which had been acquired by Avid. The demo looked pretty fluid, but I think it’s probably a number of years off. That’s OK as this was merely a technology preview; however, it does have relevance to large enterprises. The same concepts developed for editing over the internet clearly apply to editing on an internal companywide LAN or WAN system.

The direction that Avid seems to be taking here – along with its expansion of Interplay into a family of asset management products – sets them up to make the Professional Services department into an IBM-style corporate consultation service and profit center. In other words, if you are a large company or TV network and want to implement the “cloud” editing concept along with the necessary asset management tools, it’s going to take a knowledgeable organization to do that for you. Avid naturally has such expertise and is poised to leverage its internal assets into billable services. The small editing boutique may not have any interest in that concept, but if it makes Avid a stronger company overall, then I’m all for it.

Adobe Creative Suite 5

CS5 is just about here. It’s 64-bit and uses the Mercury Playback Engine. But will Premiere Pro really pick up steam as an NLE of choice? Like Media Composer, expect a real review in the coming months. I’ve used Premiere Pro in the past on paying gigs and didn’t have the sort of issues I see people complain about. These were smaller projects, so I didn’t hit some of the problems that have plagued Premiere Pro, which mainly relate to scalability. Although it’s not touted in the CS5 press info, it does appear to me that Adobe has done a lot of tweaking under the hood. This is related to the changes for 64-bit, so I really expect Premiere Pro CS5 to be a far better product than previous versions.

Whether that’s true or not is going to depend on your particular system. For example, much has been written about the Mercury Playback Engine. This is an optimization for the CUDA technology of specific high-end NVIDIA graphics cards. If you don’t have one of these cards installed, Premiere Pro shifts into software emulation. In some cases, it will be a big difference and in other cases it won’t. There’s lots of native codec and format support, but not all camera codecs are equal. Some are CPU-intensive, some GPU-intensive and others require fast disk arrays. If your system is optimized for DVCPRO HD, for example (older CPU, but fast arrays), you won’t see outstanding results with AVC-Intra, which is processor-intensive, requiring the newest, fastest CPUs.

There’s plenty in the other apps to sell editors on the CS5 Production Premium bundle, even if they never touch Premiere Pro. On the other hand, Premiere Pro CS5 is still pretty powerful, so editors without a vested interest in Avid, Apple or something else, will probably be quite happy with it.

One format to rule them all

With apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien, the hopes of a single media format seem to have been totally shattered at this NAB. When MXF and AAF were originally bounced around, the hope was for a common media and metadata format that could be used from camera to NLE to server without the need for translation, transcoding or any other sort of conversion.

I think that idea is toast, thanks to the camera manufacturers, who – along with impatient users – have pushed NLE developers to natively support just about every new camera format and codec imaginable. Since the software can handle it, we see NLEs evolving into a more browser-style format. This is the basis for how Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro are structured. It is now becoming a model that others are embracing. Avid has AMA (a plug-in API for camera manufacturers), but you also see “soft import” in the Autodesk systems and “soft mount” in Quantel. All variations of the same theme. In fact, Apple is the “odd man out” in this scenario, forcing everything into QuickTime before FCP can work with it.

The three advanced formats that seem to have the broadest support today are Avid DNxHD, Apple ProRes and Panasonic AVC-Intra. To a lesser extent you can add AVCHD, Sony XDCAM (various flavors) and DV/DVCPRO/DV50/DVCPRO HD.

Stereo 3D

Just when we thought we had this HD thing figured out, the electronics manufacturers are pushing us into stereo 3D. There was plenty of 3D on the floor, but bear in mind that there are very few in the production community pushing to do this. It’s driven almost entirely by display manufacturers and studios looking to cash in on 3D theater distribution. I think we are headed for a 3D bubble that will eventually drop back into a niche, albeit a large niche for some.

Whether 3D is big or not doesn’t matter. It’s here now and something many of us will have to deal with, so you might as well start figuring things out. The industry is at the starting point and a lot is in flux. First off – the terminology. Walking around the floor there were references to Stereo 3D, S3D, Stereoscopic and so on. Or what about marketing slogans like Panasonic’s “from camera to couch”? Or Sony’s “make.believe”? Hmm… Did the marketing people really think that one through? New crew positions will evolve. Are you a “stereographer”? Or should you be called a “stereoscopist”?

I watched a lot of stereo 3D demos and I generally didn’t like most of them. Too much of 3D looks like a visual effect and not the way my eyes see reality. It also affects the creative direction. For instance, the clip of a Kenny Chesney 3D concert film, which was edited in a typical, fast-paced, rock-n-roll-style of cutting, was harder to adjust to than the nice slow camera moves from the Masters golf coverage.

I also observed that most 3D shots have an extremely deep depth-of-field. More so even in 3D, than if you just looked at the shot in 2D. Shallow depth-of-field, like the gorgeous shots from the HDSLRs that everyone loves, don’t seem to work in 3D. I tended to pay attention to objects in the background, instead of the foreground, which I would presume is the opposite of what a director would have wanted. Many of the 3D shots felt like multi-planed pieces of animation. I have heard this referred to as “density zones” and seems to be an anomaly with 3D shots. A lot of these shots simply had the effect of a moving version of the vintage View-Masters of the past.

Obviously a lot of companies will try to produce 3D content from archival 2D masters. To answer that need JVC showed a real-time 2D-to-3D convertor, which was able to take standard programs and adjust shots on-the-fly using a set of sophisticated algorithms.  This creates some interesting artifacts. First off, you have to interpolate the information so that alternating fields become left and right eye views. Viewing the result shows visible scanlines on an HD display. That seems to be a common problem with current 3D displays.

Second, there are errors in the 3D. Some of the computation is based on colors, which means that occasionally some objects are incorrectly placed due to their color. That part of an object (like a shirt or certain colors in a flag) will appear at a different point in Z-space compared to the rest of the object to which it is attached. My guess is that casual viewers will almost never see these things and therefore such products will be quite successful.

My whole take on this is that we simply don’t see real life the way that stereo 3D films force us to see. Many folks will disagree with me on this, including a number of scientists, but I feel that people largely view life in 2D. Your eyes converge on an object and focus (both physically and mentally) on that object. Other things are on the periphery, so you are aware of them, but not focused on them. When you want to look at something else, you change your attention and change your focus, much like a pan or tilt with a rack focus. By the same token, we don’t see the sort of extreme shallow depth-of-field caused by some lenses, but that somehow feels more natural. These issues may evolve as stereo 3D evolves, but for me, the most natural images were those that were closest to 2D. If that’s the case, then you have to conclude, “What’s the point?”

Disruptive technology

Blackmagic Design definitely generated the buzz this year. They bought the ailing DaVinci Systems company last year and promptly told everyone in the media that they had no intension of selling cheaper versions of these flagship systems. We now know that wasn’t true. It turns out that Blackmagic has once again been true to form – as everyone had initially thought – and brought a brand new Mac version of DaVinci Resolve to NAB at a very low price.

Upon acquiring DaVinci, Blackmagic decided to “end-of-life” all hardware products (like the DaVinci 2K), end all support contracts and focus on rebuilding the company around its flagship software products – Resolve (grading) and Revival (film restoration). They redesigned the signature DaVinci control surfaces to better fit into Blackmagic Design’s manufacturing pipeline. You can now purchase Resolve in three configurations: software-only Mac ($1K), software (Mac) with panels ($30K) or a Linux version with panels ($50K). Add to this the computer, high-end graphics cards and drives.

The software-only version will work with a panel like the Tangent Wave, so it will allow a user to create a color grading room with the “name brand” product at a ridiculously low price. This has plenty of folks on various forums pretty steamed. I suspect there will be three types of DaVinci products.

Customer A is the existing facility that upgrades from an older DaVinci to Resolve 7.0 These people will build a high-end room using a cluster of Linux towers. That’s not cheap, but will still cost far less than in the past.

Customer B will be the facility that wants to set up a less powerful “assist” station. It may also be the entrepreneurial colorist who decides to set up his own home system – either to branch out on his own – or to be able to work from home to avoid the commute.

Customer C – the one that scares most folks – is the shop that sets up a bare bones grading room around Resolve, just so they can say that they have a DaVinci room. There are obvious performance differences between Resolve on a Mac and a full-featured, real-time 2K-capable-and-more DaVinci suite, so the fear is that some folks will represent one as being the other.

No matter what, that’s the same argument made when FCP came out and also when Color arrived. Grant Petty (Blackmagic Design’s founder) has always been about empowering people by lowering the cost of entry. This is just another step in that journey. I think the real question will be whether owners who have set up Apple Color rooms will convert these to DaVinci. Color is good, but DaVinci has the brand recognition and there are plenty of experienced DaVinci colorists around. At an extra $1K for software, this might be an easy transition. Likewise for Avid shops. Media Composer’s and Symphony’s color correction tools are pretty long-in-the-tooth and those owners are looking for options. DaVinci makes a lot more sense for these shops than investing in the Final Cut Studio approach. Hard to tell at this point.

Digital cameras

RED had its RED Day event. I was registered, but blew it off. Too much other stuff to see and quite frankly, I have little or no interest in being teased by cameras that are yet to come (late or if ever). In my world, HDSLRs have far greater impact than RED One or Epic. Judging by the number of Canons and Nikons I saw being used on the floor for video coverage and podcasts, I’d have to say the rest of the world shares that experience.

The real news is that RED is no longer the only game if you want a digital cinematography camera. Sure there’s Sony and Panasonic, but more importantly there’s ARRI with the Alexa and Aaton with the Penelope-∆ (Delta). Both companies have a strong film pedigree and these new cameras coming this year and in 2011 will offer some options that will interest DPs. The Penelope is oddest in that it’s a hybrid film/digital camera using two interchangeable magazines – one for film and another that’s a digital back. It uses an optical viewfinder, so the sensor if attached to the digital magazine in precisely the same location as the film loop in the film magazine. This leaves it exposed when you swap magazines, but the folks at Aaton don’t see this as an issue, aside from occasional, simple cleaning. In reality, you probably won’t be swapping back and forth between film and digital on the same production.

In my opinion, where RED has gone wrong has been in placing resolution over workflow. No matter how smooth, native or fast current RED post workflow is, they will have a hard time shaking the common “slam” that their workflow is slow, hard or expensive. ARRI and Aaton offer somewhat lower resolution than RED, but they record both camera RAW and direct-to-edit formats. The Alexa records in ARRI RAW as well as ProRes, while Aaton uses DNxHD (for now) as its compressed file format. This means that the camera generates a file that is ready to edit in Avid or FCP straight from the shoot. If you are working in TV, that may be all you need. If you are doing a feature film, it becomes an offline editing format. The camera RAW file is preserved as a “digital negative”, which would be used for color grading and finishing. ARRI RAW is already supported by a number of systems, including Avid (with Metafuze) and Assimilate Scratch.

Pure magic

Last year I was “wowed” by Singular Software’s PluralEyes. This year it was GET from AV3 Software. GET is a phonetic search tool based on the same Nexidia  technology that is licensed to Avid for Media Composer’s ScriptSync feature. Think of GET as Spotlight for speech. GET operates as a standalone application that can be used in conjunction with Final Cut Pro. It shouldn’t be thought of as just a plug-in.

The process is simple. First, index the media files that are to be reviewed. This only needs to happen once and the company claims that files can be indexed 200 times faster than real time. (ScriptSync’s indexing is extremely fast.) Once files are indexed, enter the search term into the GET search field and all the possible choices are located. Adjusting the accuracy up or down will increase or decrease the number of matching clips.

You can also do searches using multiple parameters, such as a search term plus a date or a reel number. Since the algorithms are phonetic, correct spelling is less important, as long are it sounds the same. GET includes its own player and clips imported into FCP will have markers at the matching points within the master clip. The shipping version of the product (in a few months) will also subclip the matching segments.

Other snapshots

There are a few other interesting things to mention.

CatDV from Square Box Systems has come along nicely. Many of my FCP friends have looked at this and characterize it as “what Final Cut Server should have been.” Check it out.

I ran into Boris Yamnitsky (Boris FX founder) at the show and he was more than happy to show me some of their upcoming release. Boris FX wasn’t officially exhibiting this year, but they are starting to roll out BCC 7, starting with the After Effects version (ready for CS5). It will include a number of key new features, like particles. What really caught my eye, though, was a color correction filter that combined functionality from both Colorista and Color. It’s a single layer color correction filter with 3 color wheels, but the twist is that you can apply masks with both inside and outside grades – all within the same instance of the filter.

Lastly, Lightworks is back. Well, it never actually left – just changed hands a few times. This placed it with EditShare after they acquired Geevs Broadcast last year. Rather than bang it out with the “A” NLE vendors, EditShare has opted to release it as open source and see what the development community can do for the product. It already has a small, loyal following among film editors and has a few, unmatched touches for collaborative editing. For instance, two editors can work on exactly the same sequence (not copies). One editor at a time has “record” control. As one makes changes, the other can see these updated on his own timeline!

See, I told you it was a fun year.

©2010 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