FCP X Grading Strategy

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I’ve expounded on ways to tackle color grading in numerous posts. Recently in “Understanding SpeedGrade” I explained a workflow combining color grading tools with LUTs to create custom looks. In this post, I’m going to follow a similar process for FCP X users. (Note: This post was written before the release of FCP X 10.2. However, the fundamental items I discuss herein haven’t changed with the update. The main differences are that the Color Board has become a standard color correction effect and that all effects filters now have built-in masking.)

The approach I’m taking is using a creative LUT to define the overall look and then color correct individual clips for consistency.  A creative LUT should only be considered as spice, not as the main course. You can’t rely solely on the creative LUT for your shot. There is no “easy” button when grading shots on a timeline. In this example, I’m using one of the SpeedLooks LUTs from LookLabs. They offer a variety of styles from clean to stylized. To use any third-party LUT with FCP X, you have to use some plug-in that reads and applies LUTs as an effects filter. I use Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. Any .cube formatted LUT copied into its folder (located in the Motion Templates folder) will show up as a pulldown option when LUT Utility is applied to a clip in FCP X. (Click images to enlarge.)

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_11_smSpeedLooks LUTs are based on log or Rec 709 color space. If you have log footage and it has already been corrected to Rec 709, then you could simply use one of the Rec 709 versions. However, if you want to get the most out of their looks, then it’s best to shoot log and use a log-based LUT. Since log values vary among camera manufacturers, LookLabs designed their LUTs around a universal log value used within their LUT curves. To properly use one of their looks requires two stages of LUTs. The first stage is a camera patch, which shifts the video (by camera type) into LookLabs’ intermediate log space. They even include a patch for generic Rec 709 video. Once the first LUT has been applied, you may add the second LUT for the desired look. df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_12_smIn our grading strategy, the grading filters and/or tools are sandwiched between the first LUT (camera patch) and the second LUT (creative look).

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_2Step 1. For this example, I’m using ARRI Alexa footage that was encoded with a log-C gamma profile. FCP X has built-in LUT processing to convert these clips into Rec 709 color space. Disable that in the inspector for all clips. df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_3Assuming you have installed the LUTs into the correct template folder, apply LUT Utility to the first clip. From the pulldown menu select a camera patch LUT appropriate for the camera (in this case, Alexa log-C). Now copy-and-paste-attributes for just this filter to all clips on the timeline (assuming all clips use the same camera and gamma profile).df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_10

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_4Step 2. Add your preferred color correction effect to the clip. It will be stacked after the LUT Utility filter. I’m using Color Grade from Lawn Road’s Color Precision group. I like it because the controls are fast and I’ve grown fond of using exposure/contrast/temperature/tint controls in this type of grading. I could just as easily use one of the color wheel, color correction filters (Color Finale, Moods, Hawaiki Color, Colorista III) or even the FCP X Color Board. If the camera clips are reasonably consistent, the creative LUT you select is going to define the tonality of shadows and highlights, so there’s no reason to get carried away with big color balance changes in this grade.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_9Note: At this stage, you can copy-and-paste the Color Grade filter to all other clips or wait until later when you’ve actually started to make adjustments. If all shots are different, you might at well copy-and-paste now to have the filter in place with default starting values. If it’s a situation where you want to match the same cameras cutting back and forth – like A and B cameras in an interview – then you might opt to grade the first few clips and then copy-and-paste for the rest.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_5Step 4. Next it’s time to apply the creative LUT. Since you want to apply a single LUT across all clips, you’ll want to apply a blank, adjustment layer title effect as a connected clip. You can produce your own using Motion or download one of the free ones from the internet. The length of the adjustment layer should span the length of your timeline. To this title clip, add LUT Utility and select the desired SpeedLooks LUT (or any other you’ve added) from the pulldown menu. In this example, I used one of their Clean Kodak looks.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_7_smStep 5. I generally apply a slight vignette to most of my graded clips. This  is used to subtly darken the edge of the frame. FCP X won’t let you do this using a shape mask within the Color Board setting of a blank title, like the adjustment layer. (Note: This was corrected in 10.2. It is now possible to add a mask and color correction adjustment within an adjustment layer.) You will need to add a specific Vignette effect as another connected title. I’m using the Ripple Training RT Vignette in this example. Adjust the vignette’s size, shape, and darkening to taste. The RT Vignette lets you also blur of the edges and mix in an overall sepia toning to the clip as added features. I wouldn’t use these features as part of a standard vignette effect, but in some cases they might be appropriate.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_8_smStep 6. Finally! You’ve arrived. Now it’s time to do the real grade. Simply go clip by clip and only adjust the values of the Color Grade filter until you get the right look. Depending on the original shot and the way the LUT is being applied, part of what you are doing in this pass is adjusting the grade so that it looks optimum through the curves of the LUT. Generally you are working with smaller adjustments than without the LUT, since the creative LUT is doing most of the work to set your look.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer Goes 4K

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Avid Technology entered 2015 with a bang. The company closed out 2014 with the release of its Media Composer version 8.3 software, the first to enable higher resolution editing, including 2K, UHD and 4K projects. On January 16th of this year, Avid celebrated its relisting on the NASDAQ exchange by ringing the opening bell. Finally – as in most years – the Academy Awards nominee field is dominated by films that used either Media Composer and/or Pro Tools during the post-production process.

In a software landscape quickly shifting to rental (subscription) business models, Avid now offers the most flexible price model. Media Composer | Software may be purchased, rented, or managed through a floating licensing. If you purchase a perpetual license (you own the software), then an annually-renewed support contract gives you phone support and continued software updates. Opt out of the contract and you’ll still own the software you bought – you just lose any updates to newer software.

You can purchase other optional add-ons, like Symphony for advanced color correction. Unfortunately there’s still no resolution to the impasse between Avid and Nexidia. If you purchased ScriptSync or PhraseFind in the past, which rely on IP from Nexidia, then you can’t upgrade to version 8 or higher software and use those options. On the other hand, if you own an older version, such as Media Composer 7, and need to edit a project that requires a higher version, you can simply pick up a software subscription for the few months. This would let you run the latest software version for the time that it will take to complete that project.

df0915_avidmc83_1_smThe jump from Media Composer | Software 8.2 to 8.3 might seem minor, but in fact this was a huge update for Avid editors. It ushered in new, high-resolution project settings and capabilities, but also added a resolution-independent Avid codec – DNxHR. Not merely just the ability to edit in 4K, Media Composer now addresses most of the different 4K options that cover the TV and cinema variations, as well as new color spaces and frame rates. Need to edit 4K DCI Flat (3996×2160) at 48fps in DCI-P3 color space? Version 8.3 makes it possible. Although Avid introduced high-resolution editing in its flagship software much later than its competitors, it comes to the table with a well-designed upgrade that attempts to address the nuances of modern post.

df0915_avidmc83_2_smAnother new feature is LUT support. Media Composer has allowed users to add LUTs to source media for awhile now, but 8.3 adds a new LUT filter. Apply this to a top video track on your timeline and you can then add a user-supplied, film emulation (or any other type) look to all of your footage. There’s a new Proxy setting designed for work with high-resolution media. For example, switch your project settings to 1/4 or 1/16 resolution for better performance while editing with large files. Switch Proxy off and you are ready to render and output at full quality. As Media Composer becomes more capable of functioning as a finishing system, it has gained DPX image sequence file export via the Avid Image Sequencer, as well as export to Apple ProRes 4444 (Mac only).

df0915_avidmc83_4_smThis new high resolution architecture requires that the software increasingly shed itself of any remaining 32-bit parts in order to be compatible with modern versions of the Mac and Windows operating systems. Avid’s Title Tool still exists for legacy SD and HD projects, but higher resolutions will use NewBlue Titler Pro, which is included with Media Composer. It can, of course, also be used for all other titling.

There are plenty of new, but smaller features for the editor, such as a “quick filter” in the bin. Use it to quickly filter items to match the bin view to correspond with your filter text entry. The Avid “helper” applications of EDL Manager and FilmScribe have now been integrated inside Media Composer as the List Tool. This may be used to generate EDLs, Cut Lists and Change Lists.

df0915_avidmc83_3_smAvid is also a maker of video i/o hardware – Mojo DX and Nitris DX. While these will work to monitor higher resolution projects as downscaled HD, they won’t be updated to display native 4K output, for instance. Avid has qualifying AJA and Blackmagic Design hardware for use as 4K i/o. It is currently also qualifying BlueFish 444. If you work with a 4K computer display connected to your workstation, then the Full Screen mode enables 4K preview monitoring.

Avid Media Composer | Software version 8.3 is just the beginning of Avid’s entry into the high-resolution post-production niche. Throughout 2015, updates will further refine and enhance these new capabilities and expand high-resolution to other Avid products and solutions. Initial user feedback is that 8.3 is reasonably stable and performs well, which is good news for the high-end film and television world that continues to rely on Avid for post-production tools and solutions.

(Full disclosure: I have participated in the Avid Customer Association and chaired the Video Subcommittee of the Products and Solutions Council. This council provides user feedback to Avid product management to aid in future product development.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Filmmaking is Team Art

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One of the sad byproducts of the circle of life is that relatives, friends and colleagues precede you to that great film production in the sky. As you get older, that sadly increases in frequency. In the recent past I’ve seen my parents go. They meant a lot to me and the way they faced life’s challenges has always been an inspiration to me. But that’s a post for another time. Each passing of a friend hits you just a little harder.

This past weekend Florida lost a true legend in the business – Ralph R. Clemente. He was the program director and professor for the Film Production Technology program at Valencia College – a unique film production program that he crafted together with the then Dean, Rick Rietveld. The program grew out of a grant program sponsored by the Walt Disney Company, followed by Universal Studios in the heady “Hollywood East” days of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Central Florida. This program eventually became a formal certificate program under Valencia’s wing.

Ralph was born in Germany at the end of World War II and made his way into acting and then later into filmmaking. His family emigrated to the United States and, after many years, he ended up in south Florida teaching film production at the University of Miami. Valencia recruited him to set up the program in Orlando and, as they say, the rest is history. Unlike many other college film programs that are geared towards turning out auteurs, Valencia’s program has always targeted developing the working stiffs of the film industry – DPs, gaffers, grips, editors, production managers, and so on.

df1815_ralph_2While other film programs produce student films as their bread-and-butter, Valencia’s program was structured from the beginning as a partnership with professional filmmakers. Under Ralph’s guidance over several decades, the program has produced 47 feature films in productions that paired key working crew members with student staffs. This mentorship structure usually breaks down into a student/pro split of about 60/40. In these productions, students worked alongside talented pros, but were also exposed to legendary actors and actresses – including Julie Harris, Mickey Rooney, Sally Kellerman, Ed Begley, Jr., Charles Nelson Reilly, and many others – and leading directors, like George Romero, Robert Wise and Reza Badiyi.

For many students the training they received in Ralph’s University of Miami and/or Valencia College programs paid off well. Alumni include many working professionals in Florida, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. This includes folks working at every crew position, as well as some who have made it up the ladder to become noted directors and production managers in their own right.

I’ve had the good fortune to edit four of the films produced through the program, including two directed by Ralph. The last of these is still in post production. I’ve also provided other post production services on numerous other films produced through the program. Even when Ralph wasn’t the director, they still benefitted from his guiding hand and assistance to the producers and directors of those projects.

As a filmmaker, Ralph always valued the collaborative side of the art and craft. He was fond of considering it a “team art” and not the dictatorial vision of only one person. He imbued this feeling to his students and practiced it as a director. In our editor/director relationship, I always found him to be open to ideas, but he was also the kind of director who’d often need to “sleep on it”. This frequently resulted in creative inspiration that tended to solve the challenges the next day.

df1815_ralph_3Several aspects get less attention in the various online memorial comments I’ve seen. Ralph – a Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran – had a soft spot in his heart for the plight of many of his fellow veterans and sometimes found ways to build those stories into his scripts as a way of honoring his comrades. When classes weren’t tied up with specific film projects, Ralph also involved them in the production of numerous pro bono videos for various charities, such as the Coalition for the Homeless. This was not only his way of giving back, but also teaching students that film production had the potential to do good in ways that were more important than box office success.

What most who knew him will remember is that Ralph was the consummate people-person. He was very gifted at navigating the triad of college politics, mentoring students, and professional filmmaking. He was an experienced “schmoozer” – in the best sense of the word. He could manage to get the necessary resources to get the job done. Students and friends called him “the humble Bavarian” – thanks to his heritage and southern-tinged, Schwarzenegger-like accent. Many were fond of mimicking his casual accented greeting of “Howya doin’, howya doin’?”. All meant only as a compliment and never received with offense. But funny remembrances aside, there was no more passionate avocate for Florida filmmaking than Ralph. He loved the stories of his adopted state and the quaint little towns that time passed by, which still made for great film locations. His efforts included tireless lobbying to legislators for the benefit of the film community, such as the state film incentive program.

df1815_ralph_4Ralph’s passing came too suddenly due to illness, but he died doing what he loved, with active projects still in production. His time on this Earth left its mark with countless students who are now working film and television pros. All consider him a friend and mentor that set them on the path of their career. For those of us who worked with him on many projects and regarded him as a friend, his passing leaves a big void in the community that will be hard to fill. If there’s a Director’s Guild in Heaven, his card is waiting.

Ralph, my friend, rest in peace.

(Photo credits: Christian Saab, Brian Osmon, Valencia College, Mike Acevedo)

©2015 Oliver Peters

Focus

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Every once in awhile a movie comes along that has the potential to change how we in the film and video world work. Focus is one such movie. It’s a romantic caper film in the vein of To Catch a Thief or the Oceans franchise. It stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie as master and novice con artists who become romantically involved. Focus was written and directed by the veteran team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) who decided to use some innovative, new approaches in this production.

Focus is a high-budget, studio picture shot in several cities, including New Orleans and Buenos Aires. It also happens to be the first studio feature film that was cut using Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. The production chose to shoot with ARRI Alexa cameras, but record to ProRes 4444, instead of ARRIRAW (except for some VFX shots). At its launch in 2011, Final Cut Pro X had received a negative reaction from many veteran editors, so this was a tough sell to Warner Bros execs. In order to get over that hurdle, the editorial team went through extensive testing of all of the typical processes involved in feature film post production. They had to prove that the tool was more than up to the task.

Proving the concept

df1515_focus_5_smMike Matzdorff, first assistant editor, explains, “Warner Bros wanted to make sure that there was a fallback if everything blew up. That ‘Plan B’ was to step back and cut in either [Apple] FCP 7 or [Avid] Media Composer. Getting projects from Final Cut Pro X into Media Composer was very clunky, because of all the steps – getting to FCP 7 and then Automatic Duck to Avid. Getting to FCP 7 was relatively solid, so we ran a ‘chase project’ in FCP 7 with dailies for the entire show. Every couple days we would import an XML and relink the media. Fortunately FCP X worked well and ‘Plan B’ was never needed.”

df1515_focus_8_smGlenn Ficarra adds, “The industry changes so quickly that it’s hard to follow the progress. The studio was going off of old information and once they saw that our approach would work and also save time and money, then they were completely onboard with our choice.” The editorial team also consulted with Sam Mestman of FCPworks to determine what software, other than FCP X, was required to satisfy all of the elements associated with post on a feature film.

df1515_focus_4_smThis was a new experience for editor Jan Kovac (Curb Your Enthusiasm), as Focus is his first Hollywood feature film. Kovac studied film in the Czech Republic and then editing at UCLA. He’s been in the LA post world for 20 years, which is where he met Ficarra and Requa. Kovac was ready to be part of the team and accept the challenge of using Final Cut Pro X on a studio feature. He explains, “I was eager to work with John and Glenn and prove that FCP X is a viable option. In fact, I was using FCP X for small file-based projects since the fall of 2012.”

Production and post on the go

df1515_focus_1_smFocus was shot in 61 days across two continents, during a three-month period. Kovac and three assistants (Mike Matzdorff, Andrew Wallace, Kimaree Long) worked from before principal photography started until the sound mix and final delivery of the feature – roughly from September 2013 until August 2014. The production shot 145 hours of footage, much of it multicam. Focus was shot in an anamorphic format as 2048 x 1536 ProRes 4444 files recorded directly to the Alexa’s onboard cards. On set the DIT used the Light Iron Outpost mobile system to process the files, by de-squeezing them and baking in CDL color information. The editors then received 2048 x 1152 color-corrected ProRes 4444 “dailies”, which were still encoded with a Log-C gamma profile. FCP X has the ability to internally add a Log-C LUT on-the-fly to correct the displayed image. Therefore, during the edit, the clips always looked close the final appearance. Ficarra says, “This was great, because when we went through the DI for the final grading, the look was very close to what was decided on set. You didn’t see something radically different in the edit, so you didn’t develop ‘temp love’ for a certain look”.

df1515_focus_6_smA number of third-party developers have created utilities that fill in gaps and one of these is Intelligent Assistance, which makes various workflow tools based on XML. The editors used a number of these, including Sync-N-Link X, which enabled them to sync double-system sound with common timecode in a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Only a little use of Sync-N-Link X was made on Focus, because the DIT was using the Light Iron system to sync dailies.) Script data can also be added to Final Cut Pro X clips as notes. On Focus, that had to be done manually by the assistants. This need to automate the process spurred Kevin Bailey (Kovac’s assistant on his current film) to develop Shot Notes X, an application that takes the script supervisor’s information and merges it with FCP X Events to add this metadata into the notes field.

During the months of post, Apple released several updates to Final Cut Pro X and the team was not shy about upgrading mid-project. Matzdorff explains, “The transition to 10.1 integrated Events and Projects into Libraries. To make sure there weren’t any hiccups, I maintained an additional FCP X ‘chase project’.  I ran an alternate world between 10.0.9 and 10.1. We had 52 days of dailies in one Library and I would bring cuts across to see how they linked up and what happened. The transition was a rough one, but we learned a lot, which really helped down the line.”

Managing the media

df1515_focus_2_smFinal Cut Pro X has the unique ability to internally transcode quarter-sized editorial proxy files in the ProRes Proxy format. The editor can easily toggle between original footage and editorial proxies and FCP X takes care of the math to make sure color, effects and sizing information tracks correctly between modes. Throughout the editing period, Kovac, Ficarro, and the assistants used both proxies and the de-sequeezed camera files as their source. According to Kovac, “In Buenos Aires I was working from a MacBook Pro laptop using the proxies. For security reasons, I would lock up the footage in a safe. By using proxies, which take up less drive space, a much smaller hard drive was required and that easily fit into the safe.”

df1515_focus_3_smBack at their home base in LA, four rooms were set up connected to XSAN shared storage. These systems included iMacs and a Mac Pro (“tube” version). All camera media and common source clips. like sound effects libraries. lived on the XSAN, while each workstation had a small SSD RAID for proxies and local FCP X Libraries. The XSAN included a single transfer Library so that edits could be moved among the rooms. Kovac and Ficarra shared roles as co-editors at this stage, collaborating on each other’s scenes. Kovac says, “This was very fluid going back and forth between Glenn and me. The process was a lot like sharing sequences with FCP 7. It’s always good to keep perspective, so each of us would review the other’s edited scenes and offer notes.” The other two systems was used by the assistants. Kovac continues, “The Libraries were broken down by reel and all iterations of sharing were used, including the XSAN or sneaker net.”

Setting up a film edit in FCP X

df1515_focus_9_smAs with any film, the key is organization and translating the script into a final product. Kovac explains his process with FCP X, “The assistants would group the multicam clips and ‘reject’ the clip ranges before ‘action’ and after ‘cut’. This hides any extraneous material so you only have to sort through useable clips. We used a separate Event for each scene. With Sam and Mike, we worked out a process to review clips based on line readings. The dialogue lines in the script were numbered and the assistants would place a marker and a range for every three lines of dialogue. These were assigned keywords, so that each triplet of dialogue lines would end up in a Keyword Collection. Within a scene Event, I would have Keyword Collections for L1-3, L4-6, and so on. I would also create Smart Collections for certain criteria – for instance, a certain type of shot or anything else I might designate.”

Everyone involved felt that FCP X made the edit go faster, but it still takes time to be creative. Ficarra continues, “The first assembly of the film according to the script was about three hours long. I call this the ‘kitchen sink’ cut. The first screening cut was about two-and-a-half hours. We had removed some scenes and lengthened others and showed it to a ‘friends and family’ audience. It actually didn’t play as well as we’d hoped. Then we added these scenes back in and shortened everything, which went over much better. We had intentionally shot alternate versions of scenes just to play around with them in the edit. FCP X is a great tool for that, because you can easily edit a number of iterations.”

Engineered for speed

df1515_focus_10_smWhile many veteran editors experienced in other systems might scoff at the claims that FCP X is a faster editor, Mike Matzdorff was willing to put a finer point on that for me. He says, “I find that because of the magnetic timeline, trimming is a lot faster. If you label roles extensively, it’s easier to sort out temporary from final elements or organize sound sources when you hand off audio for sound post. With multi-channel audio in an Avid, for example, you generally sync the clips using only the composite mix. That way you aren’t tying up a lot of tracks on the timeline for all of the source channels. If you have to replace a line with a clean isolated mic, you have to dig it out and make the edit. With FCP X, all of the audio channels are there and neatly tucked away until you need them. It’s a simple matter of expanding a clip and picking a different channel. That alone is a major improvement.”

Ficarra and Kovac are in complete agreement. Ficarra points out, “As an editor, I’m twice as fast on FCP X as on Avid. There’s less clicking. This is the only NLE that’s not trying to emulate some other model, like cutting on a flatbed. You are able to move faster on your impulses.” Kovac adds, “It keeps you in the zone.”

The final DI was handled by Light Iron, who conformed and graded Focus. The handoff was made using an EDL and an FCPXML, along with a QuickTime picture reference. Light Iron relinked to the original anamorphic camera masters and graded using a Quantel Rio unit.

Filling in the workflow gaps

A number of developers contributed to the success of FCP X on Focus. Having a tight relationship with the editing team let them tailor their solutions to the needs of the production. One of these developers, Philip Hodgetts (President, Intelligent Assistance) says, “One of the nice things about being a small software developer is that we can react to customer needs very quickly. During the production of Focus we received feature requests for all the tools we were providing – Sync-N-Link X, Change List X and Producer’s Best Friend. For example, Sync-N-Link X gained the ability to create multicam clips, in addition to synchronizing audio and video, as a result of a feature request from first assistant Mike Matzdorff.” This extended to Apple’s ProApps team, who also kept a close and helpful watch on the progress of Focus.

df1515_focus_11_smFor every film that challenges convention, a lot of curiosity is raised about the process. Industry insiders refer to the “Cold Mountain moment” – alluding to the use of FCP 3 by editor Walter Murch on the film, Cold Mountain. That milestone added high-end legitimacy for the earlier Final Cut among professional users. Gone Girl did that for Adobe Premiere Pro and now Focus has done that for a new Final Cut. But times are different and it’s hard to say what the true impact will be. Nevertheless, Focus provided the confidence for the team to continue on their next film in the same manner, tapping Final Cut Pro X once again. Change can be both scary and exciting, but as Glenn Ficarra says, “We like to shake things up. It’s fun to see the bemused comments wondering how we could ever pull it off with something like FCP X!”

For those that want to know more about the nuts and bolts of the post production workflow, Mike Matzdorff released “Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow”, an e-book that’s a step-by-step advanced guide based on the lessons learned on Focus. It’s available through iTunes and Kindle.

For some additional reading on the post production workflow of Focus, check out this Apple “in action” story, as well as Part 1 and Part 2 of FCP.co’s very in-depth coverage of how the team got it done. For a very in-depth understanding, make sure you watch the videos at PostPerspective.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Understanding SpeedGrade

df1615_sg_1How you handle color correction depends on your temperament and level of expertise. Some editors want to stay within the NLE, so that editorial adjustments are easily made after grading. Others prefer the roundtrip to a powerful external application. When Adobe added the Direct Link conduit between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC, they gave Premiere Pro editors the best of both worlds.

Displays

df1615_sg_4SpeedGrade is a standalone grading application that was initially designed around an SDI feed from the GPU to a second monitor for your external video. After the Adobe acquisition, Mercury Transmit was eventually added, so you can run SpeedGrade with one display, two computer displays, or a computer display plus a broadcast monitor. With a single display, the video viewer is integrated into the interface. At home, I use two computer displays, so by enabling a dual display layout, I get the SpeedGrade interface on one screen and the full-screen video viewer on the other. To do this you have to correctly offset the pixel dimensions and position for the secondary display in order to see it. Otherwise the image is hidden behind the interface.

Using Mercury Transmit, the viewer image is sent to an external monitor, but you’ll need an appropriate capture/monitoring card or device. AJA products seem to work fine. Some Blackmagic devices work and others don’t. When this works, you will lose the viewer from the interface, so it’s best to have the external display close – as in next to your interface monitor.

Timeline

df1615_sg_3When you use Direct Link, you are actually sending the Premiere Pro timeline to SpeedGrade. This means that edits and timeline video layers are determined by Premiere Pro and those editing functions are disabled in SpeedGrade. It IS the Premiere Pro timeline. This means certain formats that might not be natively supported by a standalone SpeedGrade project will be supported via the Direct Link path – as long as Premiere Pro natively supports them.

There is a symbiotic relationship between Premiere Pro and SpeedGrade. For example, I worked on a music video that was edited natively using RED camera media. The editor had done a lot of reframing from the native 4K media in the 1080 timeline. All of this geometry was correctly interpreted by SpeedGrade. When I compared the same sequence in Resolve (using an XML roundtrip), the geometry was all wrong. SpeedGrade doesn’t give you access to the camera raw settings for the .r3d media, but Premiere Pro does. So in this case, I adjusted the camera raw values by using the source settings control in Premiere Pro, which then carried those adjustments over to SpeedGrade.

df1615_sg_2Since the Premiere Pro timeline is the SpeedGrade timeline when you use Direct Link, you can add elements into the sequence from Premiere, in order to make them available in SpeedGrade. Let’s say you want to add a common edge vignette across all the clips of your sequence. Simply add an adjustment layer to a top track while in Premiere. This appears in your SpeedGrade timeline, enabling you to add a mask and correction within the adjustment layer clip. In addition, any video effects filters that you’ve applied in Premiere will show up in SpeedGrade. You don’t have access to the controls, but you will see the results interactively as you make color correction adjustments.

df1615_sg_17All SpeedGrade color correction values are applied to the clip as a single Lumetri effect when you send the timeline back to Premiere Pro. All grading layers are collapsed into a single composite effect per clip, which appears in the clip’s effect stack (in Premiere Pro) along with all other filters. In this way you can easily trim edit points without regard to the color correction. Traditional roundtrips render new media with baked-in color correction values. There, you can only work within the boundaries of the handles that you’ve added to the file upon rendering. df1615_sg_16Not so with Direct Link, since color correction is like any other effect applied to the original media. Any editorial changes you’ve made in Premiere Pro are reflected in SpeedGrade should you go back for tweaks, as long as you continue to use Direct Link.

12-way and more

df1615_sg_5Most editors are familiar with 3-way color correctors that have level and balance controls for shadows, midrange and highlights. Many refer to SpeedGrade’s color correction model as a 12-way color corrector. The grading interface features a 3-way (lift/gamma/gain) control for four ranges of correction: overall, shadows, midrange, and highlights. Each tab also adds control of contrast, pivot, color temperature, magenta (tint), and saturation. Since shadow, midrange, and highlight ranges overlap, you also have sliders that adjust the overlap thresholds between shadow and midrange and between the midrange and highlight areas.

df1615_sg_7Color correction is layer based – similar to Photoshop or After Effects. SpeedGrade features primary (“P”) , secondary (“S”) and filter layers (the “+” symbol). When you add layers, they are stacked from bottom to top and each layer includes an opacity control. As such, layers work much the same as rooms in Apple Color or nodes in DaVinci Resolve. You can create a multi-layered adjustment by using a series of stacked primary layers. Shape masks, like that for a vignette, should be applied to a primary layer. df1615_sg_10The mask may be normal or inverted so that the correction is applied either to the inside or the outside of the mask. Secondaries should be reserved for HSL keys. For instance, highlighting the skin tones of a face to adjust its color separately from the rest of the image. The filter layer (“+”) is where you’ll find a number of useful tools, including Photoshop-style creative effect filters, LUTs, and curves.

Working with grades

df1615_sg_13The application of color correction can be applied to a clip as either a master clip correction or just a clip correction (or both). When you grade using the default clip tab, then that color correction is only being applied to that single clip. If you grade in the master clip tab, then any color correction that you apply to that clip will also be applied to every other instance of that same media file elsewhere on the timeline. Theoretically, in a multicam edit – made up of four cameras with a single media file per camera – you could grade the entire timeline by simply color correcting the first clip for each of the four cameras as a master clip correction. All other clips would automatically inherit the same settings. Of course, that almost never works out quite as perfectly, therefore, you can grade a clip using both the master clip and the regular clip tabs. Use the master for a general setting and still use the regular clip tab to tweak each shot as needed.

df1615_sg_9Grades can be saved and recalled as Lumetri Looks, but typically these aren’t as useful in actual grading as standard copy-and-paste functions – a recent addition to SpeedGrade CC. Simply highlight one or more layers of a graded clip and press copy (cmd+c on a Mac). Then paste (cmd+v on a Mac) those to the target clip. These will be pasted in a stack on top of the default, blank primary correction that’s there on every clip. You can choose to use, ignore, or delete this extra primary layer.

SpeedGrade features a cool trick to facilitate shot matching. The timeline playhead can be broken out into multiple playheads, which will enable you to compare two or more shots in real-time on the viewer. This quick comparison lets you make adjustments to each to get a closer match in context with the surrounding shots.

A grading workflow

df1615_sg_14Everyone has their own approach to grading and these days there’s a lot of focus on camera and creative LUTs. My suggestions for prepping a Premiere Pro CC sequence for SpeedGrade CC go something like this.

df1615_sg_6Once, you are largely done with the editing, collapse all multicam clips and flatten the timeline as much as possible down to the bottom video layer. Add one or two video tracks with adjustment layers, depending on what you want to do in the grade. These should be above the last video layer. All graphics – like lower thirds – should be on tracks above the adjustment layer tracks. This is assuming that you don’t want to include these in the color correction. Now duplicate the sequence and delete the tracks with the graphics from the dupe. Send the dupe to SpeedGrade CC via Direct Link.

In SpeedGrade, ignore the first primary layer and add a filter layer (“+”) above it. Select a camera patch LUT. For example, an ARRI Log-C-to-Rec-709 LUT for Log-C gamma-encoded Alexa footage. Repeat this for every clip from the same camera type. If you intend to use a creative LUT, like one of the SpeedLooks from LookLabs, you’ll need one of their camera patches. This shifts the camera video into a unified gamma profile optimized for their creative LUTs. If all of the footage used in the timeline came from the same camera and used the same gamma profile, then in the case of SpeedLooks, you could apply the creative LUT to one the adjustment layer clips. This will apply that LUT to everything in the sequence.

df1615_sg_8Once you’ve applied input and output LUTs you can grade each clip as you’d like, using primary and secondary layers. Use filter layers for curves. Any order and any number of layers per clip is fine. Using this methodology all grading is happening between the camera patch LUT and the creative LUT added to the adjustment layer track. Finally, if you want a soft edge vignette on all clips, apply an edge mask to the default primary layer of the topmost adjustment layer clip. Adjust the size, shape, and softness of the mask. Darken the outside of the mask area. Done.df1615_sg_11

(Note that not every camera uses logarithmic gamma encoding, nor do you want to use LUTs on every project. These are the “icing on the cake”, NOT the “meat and potatoes” of grading. If your sequence is a standard correction without any stylized creative looks, then ignore the LUT procedures I described above.)

df1615_sg_15Now simply send your timeline back to Premiere Pro (the “Pr” button). Back in Premiere Pro CC, duplicate that sequence. Copy-and-paste the graphics tracks from the original sequence to the available blank tracks of the copy. When done, you’ll have three sequences: 1) non-color corrected with graphics, 2) color corrected without graphics, and 3) final with color correction and graphics. The beauty of the Direct Link path between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC is that you can easily go back and forth for changes without ever being locked in at any point in the process.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Sorenson Squeeze 10

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Video formats don’t hold still for long and neither do video codecs used for file encoding. As the industry looks at 4K delivery over the web and internet-based television streaming services, we now get more codecs to consider, too. Target delivery had seemed to settle on H.264 and MPEG-2 for awhile, but now there’s growing interest in HEVC/H.265 and VP9, thanks to their improved encoding efficiency. Greater efficiency means that you can maintain image quality in 4K files without creating inordinately large file sizes. Sorenson Media’s Squeeze application has been an industrial strength encoding utility that many pros rely on. With the release of Sorenson Squeeze 10, pros have a new tool designed to accommodate the new, beyond-HD resolutions that are in our future.

df0415_sqz10_5_smSorenson Squeeze comes in server and desktop versions. Squeeze Desktop 10 includes three variations: Lite, Standard and Pro. Squeeze Lite covers a wide range of input formats, but video output is limited to FLV, M4V, MP4 and WebM formats. Essentially, Lite is designed for users who primarily need to encode files for use on the web. Desktop Standard adds VP9 and Multi-Rate Bundle Encoding. The latter creates a package with multiple files of different bitrates, which is a configuration used by many web streaming services. Standard also includes 4K presets (H.264 only) and a wide range of output codecs. The Pro version adds support for HEVC, professional decoding and encoding of Avid DNxHD and Apple ProRes (Mac only), and closed caption insertion.df0415_sqz10_1_sm

All three models have added what Sorenson calls Simple Format Conversion. This is a preset available in some of the format folders. The source size, frame rate, and quality are maintained, but the file is converted into the target media format. It’s available for MP4/WebM with Lite, and MP4/MOV/MKV with Standard and Pro. Squeeze is supposed to take advantage of CUDA acceleration when you have certain NVIDIA cards installed, which accelerates MainConcept H.264/AVC encoding. I have a Quadro 4000 with the latest CUDA drivers installed in my Mac Pro running Yosemite (10.10.1). Unfortunately Squeeze Pro 10 doesn’t recognize the driver as a valid CUDA driver. When I asked Sorenson about this, they explained that MainConcept has dropped CUDA support for the MainConcept H.264 codec. “It will not support the latest cards and drivers. If you do use the CUDA feature you will likely see little-to-no speedup, maybe even a speed decrease, and your output video will have decreased quality compared to H.264 encoded with the CPU.”

df0415_sqz10_2_smAs a test, I took a short (:06) 4096×2160 clip that was shot on a Canon EOS 1DC camera. It was recorded using the QuickTime Photo-JPEG codec and is 402MB large. I’m running a 2009 8-core Mac Pro (2.26GHz), 28 GB RAM and the Quadro 4000 card. To encode, I picked the default Squeeze HEVC 4K preset. It encodes using a 1-pass variable bitrate at a target rate of 18,000Kbps. It also resizes to a UHD size of 3840×2160; however, it is set to maintain the same aspect ratio, so the resulting file was actually 3840×2024. Of course, the preset’s values can be edited to suit your requirements.

It took 3:32 (min/sec) to encode the file with the HEVC/H.265 codec and the resulting size was 13MB. I compared this to an encode using the H.264 preset, which uses the same values. It encoded in 1:43 and resulted in a 14.2MB file. Both files are wrapped as .MP4 files, but I honestly couldn’t tell much difference in quality between the two codecs. They both looked good. Unfortunately there aren’t many players that will decode and play the HEVC codec yet – at least not on the Mac. To play the HEVC file, I used an updated version of VLC, which includes an HEVC component. Of course, most machines aren’t yet optimized for this new codec.

df0415_sqz10_3_smOther features of Squeeze aren’t new, but are still worth mentioning. For example, the presets are grouped in two ways – by format and workflow. Favorites can be assigned for quick access to the few presets that you might use most often. Squeeze enables direct capture from a camera input or batch encoding of files in a monitored watch folder. In addition to video, various audio formats can also be exported.

Encoding presets can include a number of built-in filters, as well as any VST audio plug-in installed on your computer. Finally, you can add publishing destinations, including YouTube, Akamai, Limelight and Amazon S3 locations. Another publishing location is Squeeze Stream, the free account included with a purchase of Squeeze (Standard or Pro versions only). Thanks to all of these capabilities, Sorenson Media’s Squeeze Desktop 10 will continue to be the tool many editors choose for professional encoding.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

df0615_panthers_3_smDocumentaries covering subject matter that happens within a generation usually divides the audience between those who personally lived through the time period and those who’ve only read about it in history books. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one such film. If you are over 50, you are aware of the media coverage of the Black Panther Party and certainly have opinions and possibly misconceptions of who they were. If you are under 50, then you may have learned about them in history class, if which case, you may only know them by myth and legend. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The American Experience, Freedom Summer, Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) seeks to go beyond what you think you know with this new Sundance Film Festival documentary entry.

I spoke with the film’s editor, Aljernon Tunsil, as he was putting the finishing touches on the film to get it ready for Sundance presentation. Tunsil has worked his way up from assistant editor to editor and discussed the evolution in roles. “I started in a production company office, initially helping the assistant editor,” he says. “Over a period of seven or eight years, I worked my way up from assistant to a full-time editor. Along the way, I’ve had a number of mentors and learned to cut on both [Apple] Final Cut Pro and [Avid] Media Composer. These mentors were instrumental in my learning how to tell a story. I worked on a short with Stanley [Nelson] and that started our relationship of working together on films. I view my role as the ‘first audience’ for the film. The producer or director knows the story they want to make, but the editor helps to make sense of it for someone who doesn’t intimately know the material. My key job is to make sure that the narrative makes senses and that no one gets lost.”

df0615_panthers_2_smThe Black Panthers is told through a series of interviews (about 40 total subjects). Although a few notables, like Kathleen Cleaver, are featured, the chronicle of the rise and fall of the Panthers is largely told by lesser known party members, as well as FBI informants and police officers active in the events. The total post-production period took about 40 to 50 weeks. Tunsil explains, “Firelight Films (the production company) is very good at researching characters and finding old subjects for the interviews. They supplied me with a couple of hundred hours of footage. That’s a challenge to organize so that you know what you have. My process is to first watch all of that with the filmmakers and then to assemble the best of the interviews and best of the archival footage. Typically it takes six to ten weeks to get there and then another four to six weeks to get to a rough cut.”

Tunsil continues, “The typical working arrangement with Stanley is that he’ll take a day to review any changes I’ve made and then give me notes for any adjustments. As we were putting the film together, Stanley was still recording more interviews to fill in the gaps – trying to tie the story together without the need for a narrator. After that, it’s the usual process of streamlining the film. We could have made a ten-hour film, but, of course, not all of the stories would fit into the final two-hour version.”

df0615_panthers_5_smLike many documentary film editors, Tunsil prefers having interview transcripts, but acknowledged they don’t tell the whole story. He says, “One example is in the interview with former Panther member Wayne Pharr. He describes the police raid on the LA headquarters of the party and the ensuing shootout. When asked how he felt, he talks about his feeling of freedom, even though the event surrounding him was horrific. That feeling clearly comes across in the emotion on his face, which transcends the mere words in the transcript. You get to hear the story from the heart – not just the facts. Stories are what makes a documentary like this.”

As with many films about the 1960s and 1970s, The Black Panthers weaves into its fabric the music of the era. Tunsil says, “About 60% of the film was composed by Tom Phillips, but we also had about seven or eight period songs, like ‘Express Yourself’, which we used under [former Panther member] Bobby Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland. I used other pieces from Tom’s library as temp music, which we then gave to him for the feel. He’d compose something similar – or different, but in a better direction.”

df0615_panthers_6_smTunsil is a fervent Avid Media Composer editor, which he used for The Black Panthers. He explains, “I worked with Rebecca Sherwood as my associate editor and we were both using Media Composer version 7. We used a Facilis Terrablock for shared storage, but this was primarily used to transfer media between us, as we both had our own external drives with a mirrored set of media files. All the media was at the DNxHD 175 resolution. I like Avid’s special features such as PhraseFind, but overall, I feel that Media Composer is just better at letting me organize material than is Final Cut. I love Avid as an editing system, because it’s the most stable and makes the work easy. Editing is best when there’s a rhythm to the workflow and Media Composer is good for that. As for the stills, I did temporary moves with the Avid pan-and-zoom plug-in, but did the final moves in [Adobe] After Effects.”

df0615_panthers_1_smFor a documentary editor, part of the experience are the things you personally learn. Tunsil reflects, “I like the way Stanley and Firelight handle these stories. They don’t just tell it from the standpoint of the giants of history, but more from the point-of-view of the rank-and-file people. He’s trying to show the full dimension of the Panthers instead of the myth and iconography. It’s telling the history of the real people, which humanizes them. That’s a more down-to-earth, honest experience. For instance, I never knew that they had a communal living arrangement. By having the average members tell their stories, it makes it so much richer. Another example is the Fred Hampton story. He was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the party who was killed in a police shootout; but, there was no evidence of gunfire from inside the building that he was in. That’s a powerful scene, which resonates. One part of the film that I think is particularly well done is the explanation of how the party declined due to a split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. This was in part as a result of an internal misinformation campaign instigated by the FBI within the Panthers.”

df0615_panthers_4_smThroughout the process, the filmmakers ran a number of test screenings with diverse audiences, including industry professionals and non-professionals, people who knew the history and people who didn’t. Results from these screenings enabled Nelson and Tunsil to refine the film. To complete the film’s finishing, Firelight used New York editorial facility Framerunner. Tunsil continues, “Framerunner is doing the online using an Avid Symphony. To get ready, we simply consolidated the media to a single drive and then brought it there. They are handling all color correction, improving moves on stills and up-converting the standard definition archival footage.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters