Apple Pivots – WWDC 2020

Monday saw Apple’s first virtual WWDC keynote presentation. This was a concise, detail-packed 108 minute webcast covering the range of operating system changes affecting all of Apple’s product lines. I shared my initial thoughts and reactions here and here. If you want some in-depth info, then John Gruber’s follow-up interview with Craig Federighi and Greg Joswiak of Apple is a good place to start. With the dust settling, I see three key takeaways from WWDC for Mac users.

Apple Silicon

Apple Silicon becomes the third processor transition for the Mac. Apple has been using Intel CPUs for 15 years. This shift moves Mac computers to the same CPU family as the mobile platforms. The new CPUs are based on Arm SoC (system on chip) technology. Arm originally stood for Acorn RISC Machine and is a technology developed by Arm Holdings PLC. They license the technology to other companies who are then free to develop their own chip designs. As far as we know, the Apple Arm chips will be manufactured in foundries owned by TSMC in Taiwan. While any hardware shift can be disconcerting, the good news is that Apple already has more than a decade-long track record with these chips, thanks to the iPhone and iPad. (Click here for more details on RISC versus CISC chip architectures.)

macOS software demos were ostensibly shown on a Mac with 16GB RAM and operating on an A12Z Bionic chip – the same CPU as in the current iPad Pro. That’s an 8-core, 64-bit processor with an integrated GPU. It also includes cores for the Neural Engine, which Apple uses for machine learning functions.

Apple is making available a developer transition kit (DTK) that includes a Mac mini in this configuration. This would imply that was the type of machine used for the keynote demo. It’s hard to know if that was really the case. Nevertheless, performance appeared good – notably with Final Cut Pro X showing three streams of 4K ProRes at full resolution. Not earth-shattering, but decent if that is actually the level of machine that was used. Federighi clarified in the Gruber interview that this DTK is only to get developers comfortable with the new chip, as well as the new OS version. It is not intended to represent a machine that is even close to what will eventually be shipped. Nor will the first shipping Apple Silicon chips in Macs be A12Z CPUs.

The reason to shift to Arm-based CPUs is the promise of better performance with a lower power consumption. Lower power also means less heat, which is great for phones and tablets. That’s also great for laptops, but less critical on desktop computers. This means overclocking is also a viable option. According to Apple, the transition to Apple Silicon will take two years. Presumably that means by the end of two years, all new Macs released going forward will use Arm-based CPUs.

Aside from the CPU itself, what about Thunderbolt and the GPU? The A12Z has an integrated graphics unit, just like the Intel chip. However, for horsepower Apple has been using AMD – and in years past, NVIDIA. Will the relationship with AMD continue or will Apple Silicon also cover the extra graphics grunt? Thunderbolt is technology licensed by Intel. Will that continue and will Apple be able to integrate Thunderbolt into its new Macs? The developer Mac mini does not include Thunderbolt 3 ports. Can we expect some type of new i/o format in these upcoming Macs, like USB 4, for example? (Click here for another concise hardware overview.)

macOS Big Sur – Apple dials it to 11

The second major reveal (for Mac users) was the next macOS after Catalina – Big Sur. This is the first OS designed natively for Arm-based Macs, but is coded to be compatible with Intel, too. It will also be out by the end of the year. Big Sur is listed as OS version 11.0, thus dropping the OS X (ten) product branding. A list of compatible Macs has been posted by Apple and quite a few users are already running a beta version of Big Sur on their current Intel Macs. According to anecdotes I’ve seen and heard, most indicate that it’s stable and the majority of applications (not all) work just fine.

Apple has navigated such transitions before – particularly from PowerPC to Intel. (The PowerPC used a RISC architecture.) They are making developer tools available (Universal 2) that will allow software companies to compile apps that run natively on both Intel and/or Arm platforms. In addition, Big Sur will include Rosetta 2, a technology designed to run Intel apps under native emulation. In some cases, Apple says that Rosetta 2 will actually convert some apps into native versions upon installation. Boot Camp appears to be gone, but virtualization of Linux was mentioned. This makes sense because some Linux distributions already will run on Arm processors. We’ll have to wait and see whether virtualization will also apply to Windows. Federighi did appear to say that directly booting into a different OS would not be possible.

Naturally, users want to know if their favorite application is going to be ready on day one. Apple has been working closely with Adobe and Microsoft to ensure that Creative Cloud and Office applications will run natively. Those two are biggies. If you can’t run Photoshop or Illustrator correctly, then you’ve lost the entire design community – photographers, designers, web developers, ad agencies, etc. Likewise, if Word, Excel, or Powerpoint don’t work, you’ve lost every business enterprise. Apologies to video editors, but those two segments are more important to Mac sales than all the video apps combined.

Will the operating systems merge?

Apple has said loudly and clearly that they don’t intend to merge macOS and iOS/iPadOS. Both the Mac and mobile businesses are very profitable and those products fulfill vastly different needs. It doesn’t make any business sense to mash them together in some way. You can’t run Big Sur on an iPad Pro nor can you run iPadOS 14 on a Mac. Yet, they are more than cousins under the hood. You will be able to run iOS/iPadOS applications, such as games, on an Arm-based Mac with Big Sur. This is determined by the developer, because they will retain the option to have some apps be iOS-only at the time the application is entered into the App Store.

Technology aside, the look, feel, style, and design language is now very close between these two operating system branches. Apple has brought back widgets to the Mac. You now have notification and control centers on all platforms that function in the same manner. The macOS Finder and iPad Files windows look similar to each other. Overall, the design language has been unified as typified by a return to more color and a common chiclet design to the icons. After all, nearly ever Apple product has a similar style with rounded corners, going back to the original 1984 Mac.

Are we close to actually having true macOS on an iPad Pro? Or a Mac with touch or Apple Pencil support? Probably not. I know a lot of Final Cut Pro X users have speculated about seeing “FCPX Lite” on the iPad, especially since we have Adobe’s Rush and LumaTouch’s LumaFusion. The speculation is that some stripped-down version of FCPX on the iPad should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately iPads lack a proper computer-style file system, standard i/o, and the ability to work with external storage. So, there are still reasons to optimize operating systems and applications differently for each hardware form factor. But a few years on – who knows?

Should you buy a Mac now?

If you need a Mac to get your work done and can’t wait, then by all means do so. Especially if you are a “pro” user requiring beefier hardware and performance. On the other hand, if you can hold off, you should probably wait until the first new machines are out in the wild. Then we’ll all have a better idea of price and performance. Apple still plans to release more Intel Macs within the next two years. The prevailing wisdom is that the current state of Apple’s A-series chips will dictate lower-end consumer Macs first. Obviously a new 12″ MacBook and the MacBook Air would be prime candidates. After that, possibly a Mac mini or even a smaller iMac.

If that in fact is what will happen, then high-end MacBook Pros, iMacs, iMac Pros, and the new Mac Pro will all continue running Intel processors until comparable (or better) Apple Silicon chips become available. Apple is more willing to shake things up than any other tech company. In spite of that, they have a pretty good track record of supporting existing products for quite a few years. For example, Big Sur is supposed to be compatible with MacBook Pros and Mac Pros going back to 2013. Even though the FCPX product launch was rough, FCP7 continued to work for many years after that through several OS updates.

I just don’t agree with people who grouse that Apple abandons its existing costumers whenever one of these changes happen. History simply does not bear that out. Change is always a challenge – more for some types of users than others. But we’ve been here before. This change shouldn’t cause too much hand-wringing, especially if Apple Silicon delivers on its promise.

Click here for a nice recap of some of the other announcements from WWDC.

©2020 Oliver Peters

VEGAS POST

If you are focused on Media Composer, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut Pro X, then it’s easy to forget that there are a number of other capable NLEs in the wild – especially for the Windows/PC platform. One of those is VEGAS Pro, which was originally developed by Sonic Foundry and came to market in 1999. At first VEGAS was a DAW, but video was quickly added, thus turning it into a competitive NLE. Over the years, the software development team moved to Sony (Sony Creative Software) and then to its new home, VEGAS Creative Software, owned by Magix, a German software company. Along with the VEGAS product line, Magix also handles the other creative apps from the Sonic Foundry/Sony family, including Acid and Sound Forge.

The VEGAS edit applications may be purchased in a number of versions and bundles, depending on your need and budget. Magix sent me VEGAS POST for this review, which bundles the latest VEGAS Pro 17 editing application with VEGAS Effects and VEGAS Image. The latter two apps were developed in conjunction with FX Home. VEGAS Effects shares technology with HitFilm Pro, while VEGAS Image shares a foundation with Imerge Pro. As a bundle, it’s similar to Adobe Premiere Pro grouped with After Effects and Photoshop.

VEGAS POST is available as a perpetual license or through subscription. Magix also offers other apps and add-ons, which are included with some of the other bundles or can be separately purchased. These include VEGAS DVD Architect, as well as plug-ins from Boris FX, and New Blue. Since I mainly work on Macs, Puget Systems loaned me one of their custom PCs for this review. More about Puget at the end.

First impressions

Technically this isn’t a first impression, because I’ve reviewed VEGAS a number of times in the past and my son had used VEGAS extensively for music recording and mixing years ago. But this is my first chance to look over the updated VEGAS Pro 17. To start with, this is an easy-to-use editing application that’s optimized for a Windows 10 workstation. It’s a 64-bit application that thoroughly takes advantage of the Windows media framework. If you are using NVIDIA or AMD graphics cards, then you also get the benefit of GPU acceleration for effects and some codecs, as well as for speeding up rendering.

If you’ve never worked with VEGAS and are used to NLEs like Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere Pro, then it will take a while to get comfortable with the user interface and workflow of VEGAS. In a very broad sense, the general editing concepts are much like Apple’s approach to iMovie and Final Cut Pro X, although VEGAS was there long before Apple developed their own take on things. VEGAS Pro 17 sports a modernized UI with a darker appearance and tabbed panels. The interface can be customized by undocking the tabs and moving panels. In addition to a fresher look, there are plenty of contextual “hamburger” menus throughout parts of the interface. I wish they had gone farther with this new interface design, but then I know how hard it is to change interfaces when you have a loyal fan base.

VEGAS claims to be faster than any other NLE. I would take that claim with a grain of salt, although it is fast and the interface is very responsive. It handles media well and thanks to the tight Windows integration, nearly any media file can be previewed from any location on your system and edited directly to the timeline. That’s without first importing these files into your project. Clips are treated as combined audio/video clips until you trim or ungroup them. VEGAS uses a very fluid form of hover scrubbing to skim through clips.

The editing workflow is more like working with an audio application than most video editing tools. So it’s oriented around a click-and-drag approach with direct timeline interaction. For example, you can trim clips while maintaining playback. If you drag a clip past the edge of another on the timeline, it will automatically create an audio and video crossfade in the overlap region between those two clips. This can be controlled by a preference setting. All timeline clips include audio and video fade handles. If you double-click a source clip in your project panel, it will automatically edit to the place in the timeline where your cursor is parked. Once you get used to the VEGAS way of editing, you can work quite quickly.

What’s new in VEGAS Pro 17

Thanks to Magix’s renewed support of the VEGAS Creative Software team, VEGAS Pro 17 sports over 30 new features. The biggest of these is nested timelines. VEGAS has always approached its project structure as being based on a single timeline. Working with multiple timelines required a workaround that involved opening multiple instances of the application. While nested or compound clips are pretty common in most other NLEs, this new feature in VEGAS takes a different approach.

To work with nested timelines, start by editing some clips together on the timeline, select them, and create and save a new nested timeline consisting of those selected clips. This nest is actually saved as a separate VEGAS project file. Multiple editors can work separately on each nest as its own VEGAS project. Changes made are then reflected back in the parent timeline. For instance, you might be editing a show and create three separate nested timelines for the show open, the body of the show, and the finale. Each segment could be edited as a self-contained project by a different editor. The three are then automatically combined and updated within the parent timeline. New tools on the bottom toolbar make it easy to navigate between the nested and parent timelines.

The next big feature is a unified color grading workspace. This combines all of the common grading tools like color wheels and curves into a single panel. Although VEGAS does not honor embedded camera LUTs, such as from an ARRI Amira, you can import and apply technical and creative LUTs from this grading workspace. VEGAS now also supports HLG HDR and the ACES 1.1 color standard. The tools worked well, but the controls have a rather coarse range when using a mouse. Holding down the CTL (control) key will give you a finer adjustment range.

Other features include planar tracking, optical flow slow motion, a warp flow (morph) transition, support for 8K files, integrated screen capture, a mesh warp effect, clip stabilization, and more. An offshoot of the warp transition is a new Smart Split edit function, which would commonly be used to shorten interview soundbites without a jump cut. Mark the in and out points within a lengthy timeline clip and perform the Smart Split command. In a single step, that section is trimmed out, the ends joined together, and a short warp flow transition is applied. You can see the effect in real time; however, the morph is between two still frames, rather than with continuous motion through the duration of the transition. Avid uses a similar effect in Media Composer.

Putting VEGAS Pro 17 through the paces

I used a mixture of media formats and projects to compare VEGAS Pro’s performance against Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve installed on the same PC. Most media was fine, although there’s no support for Blackmagic BRAW or Apple ProRes RAW. Standard ProRes media playback was good, except that VEGAS had issues with some 4K ProRes 4444 files from an ARRI Alexa LF camera. The other files that exhibited stuttering playback were the heavier 320Mb/s H.264 files from a Panasonic EVA1. The ProRes 4444 files played smoothly in Premiere Pro and Resolve, but only Resolve was fluid with the EVA1 files.

I also tested some older 4K REDCODE (.R3D) raw files. These open and play well in VEGAS, but the application does immediately start to generate some form of peak or proxy files upon import. However, you can cancel out of this file generation process and it doesn’t appear to affect the application or prevent you from playing the R3D. These were older RED One camera files, but judging by various forums comments that I’ve seen, newer RED camera files are not yet supported.

VEGAS supports several project exchange formats, including AAF and FCPXML. The latter is a specific interchange format exported by Final Cut Pro X. My AAF import from Premiere translated well, but the FCPXML import wasn’t successful. This doesn’t surprise me, because only Resolve – among the other editing apps – correctly supports FCPXML.

To claim to be fast, you also need speedy timeline exports. I was surprised to find that ProRes and DNxHD/HR formats were not available, even though other NLEs do offer these format options on Windows. It also wasn’t clear what the exact H.264 MP4 settings were. For consistency across the competing applications, I exported the same :90 test timeline from each using the Sony XDCAM HD422 50Mb/s MXF format. Export times were 1:20 for VEGAS Pro and 1:08 for Premiere Pro. But Resolve smoked them both with a zippy 28 seconds.

This PC was configured with an AMD rather than Intel CPU. It’s quite possible that VEGAS Pro or Premiere Pro may have faired better if I had been running the same test using an Intel Xeon or Core i9 processor. Nevertheless, media performance with VEGAS Pro is good, assuming you are working with formats for which VEGAS Pro is optimized.

I didn’t do much testing with either VEGAS Effects or VEGAS Image, but the combination does offer similarities to Adobe’s integration. You can send a clip on the timeline to VEGAS Effects for compositing, further image editing, or adding one of the many plug-in effects. When you save that change in VEGAS Effects, the clip is replaced in the VEGAS Pro timeline by a nest, which is a self-contained VEGAS project file. This method effectively gives you the same sort of dynamic link between the applications as you have between Premiere Pro and After Effects.

Conclusion

VEGAS Pro 17 continues to be a solid editor for the user who prefers Windows. It’s got a lot going for it, but it’s different than most other NLEs. The typical user is going to be the independent video professional who doesn’t regularly need to exchange project files or work with a mix of other freelance editors. That’s very similar to the situation with Final Cut Pro X among Apple users. Nevertheless, variety is good and that’s what VEGAS fans like about the application. So it’s a good thing that Magix sees value in supporting ongoing development.

A word about the Puget Systems PC

This review was made possible thanks in part to the help of Puget Systems. While Puget has benchmarked plenty of creative applications and has a good handle on how to optimize a PC configuration specific to your needs, they hadn’t ever tested the VEGAS products. In my consultation with them it was decided to configure a custom PC workstation optimized for Adobe applications. At retail, this would be a $5,000 system.

The workstation is a very quiet and cool tower built into a Fractal Design case. It was configured with an AMD Ryzen 9 16-core CPU, 64GB RAM, and an RTX 2080 Ti XC (11GB) GPU. Hard drives are the key to good media performance. We configured this with two Samsung 1TB M.2 SSDs – one of which was my main media drive for these tests. The SSD drives clocked in at about 2600 MB/s (write)/2900-3100 MB/s (read). Of course, the case and power supply support plenty of internal hardware and media expansion, along with numerous USB ports. While not cheap, this workstation is certainly more bang-for-the-buck than an equivalent HP or Apple workstation.

Part of the pleasure of dealing with the company is the personalized touch that Puget Systems’ customers enjoy when buying a new system. There’s a consultation call up front to nail down the specs and configuration that’s best for each customer. They are now extending that with Puget Systems Lab Services. This is an independent hardware consultation service, intended for people who need hardware advice, regardless of whether or not they are purchasing one of the custom Puget Systems PCs.

Originally written for Pro Video Coalition.

©2020 Oliver Peters

The Missing Mac

High-end Mac users waited six years for Apple to release its successor to the cylindrical 2013 Mac Pro. That’s a unit that was derided by some and was ideal for others. Its unique shape earned the nickname of the “trash can.” Love it or hate it that Mac Pro lacked the ability to expand and grow with the times. Nevertheless, many are still in daily service and being used to crank out great wok.

The 2019 Mac Pro revitalized Apple’s tower configuration – dubbed the “cheese grater” design. If you want expandability, this one has it in spades. But at a premium price that puts it way above the cost of a decked out 2013 Mac Pro. Unfortunately for many users, this leaves a gap in the product line – both in features and in price range.

If you want a powerful Mac in the $3,000 – $5,000 range without a built-in display, then there is none. I really like the top-spec versions of the iMac and iMac Pro, but if I already own a display, would like to only use an Apple XDR, or want an LG, Dell, Asus, etc, then I’m stuck. Naturally one approach would be to buy a 16″ MacBook Pro and dock it to an external display, using the MacBook Pro as a second display or in the clamshell configuration. I’ve discussed that in various posts and it’s one way nimble editing shops like Trim in London tend to work.

Another option would be the Mac Mini, which is closest to the unit that best fits this void. It recently got a slight bump up in specs, but it’s missing 8-core CPU options and an advanced graphics card. The best 6-core configuration might actually be a serviceable computer, but I would imagine effects requiring GPU acceleration will be hampered by the Intel UHD 630 built-in graphics. The Mini does tick a lot of the boxes, including wi-fi, Bluetooth, four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, HDMI 2.0, two USB 3.0 ports, plus Ethernet and headphone jacks.

I’ve tested both the previous Mac Mini iteration (with and w/o eGPU) and the latest 16″ MacBook Pro. Both were capable Macs, but the 16″ truly shines. I find it hard to believe that Apple couldn’t have created a Mac Mini with the same electronics as the loaded 16″ MacBook Pro. After all, once you remove the better speaker system, keyboard, and battery from the lower case of the laptop, you have about the same amount of “guts” as that of the Mac Mini. I think you could make the same calculation with the iMac electronics. Even if the Mini case needed to be a bit taller, I don’t see why this wouldn’t be technically possible.

Here’s a hypothetical Mac Mini spec (similar to the MacBook Pro) that could be a true sweet spot:

  • 2.4GHz 8-core, 9th-generation Intel Core i9 processor (or faster)
  • 64GB 2666MHz DD4 memory
  • AMD Radeon Pro 5600M GPU with 8GB HBM2 memory
  • 1TB SSD storage (or higher – up to 8TB)
  • 10 Gigabit Ethernet

Such a configuration would likely be in the range of $3,000 – $5,000 based on the BTO options of the current Mini, iMac, and MacBook Pro. Of course, if you bump the internal SSD from 1TB to the higher capacities, the total price will go up. In my opinion, it should be easy for Apple to supply such a version without significant re-engineering. I recognize that if you went with a Xeon-based configuration, like the iMac Pros, then the task would be a bit more challenging, in part due to power demands and airflow. Naturally, an even higher-spec’ed Mac like this in the $5,000 – $10,000 range would also be appealing, but that would likely be a bridge too far for Apple.

What I ultimately want is a reasonably powerful Mac without being forced to also purchase an Apple display as this isn’t always the best option. But I want that without spending as much as on a car to get there. I understand that such a unit wouldn’t have the ability to add more cards, but then neither do the iMacs and MacBook Pros. So I really don’t see this as a huge issue. I feel that this configuration would be an instant success with many editors. Plug in the display and storage of your choice and Bob’s your uncle.

I’m not optimistic. Maybe Apple has run the calculation that such a version would rob sales from the 2019 Mac Pro or iMac Pros. Or maybe they simply view the Mini as fitting into a narrow range of server and home computing use cases. Whatever the reason, it seems clear to me that there is a huge gap in the product line that could be served by a Mac Mini with specs such as these.

On the other hand, Apple’s virtual WWDC is just around the corner, so we can always hope!

©2020 Oliver Peters

Is good enough finally good enough?

Like many in post, I have spent weeks in a WFH (work from home) mode. Although I’m back in the office now on a limited basis, part of those weeks included studying the various webinars covering remote post workflows. Not as a solution for now, but to see what worked and what didn’t for the “next time.”

It was interesting to watch some of the comments from executives involved in network production groups and running multi-site, global post companies. While many offered good suggestions, I also heard a few statements about having to settle for something that was “good enough” under the circumstances. Maybe it wasn’t meant the way it sounded to me, but to characterize cutting in Premiere Pro and delivering ProRes masters as something they had to “settle for” struck me as just a bit snobbish. My apologies if I took it the wrong way.

A look back

The image at the top (click to expand) is a facility that I helped design and build and that I worked out of for over a dozen years. This was Century III, the resident post facility at Universal Studios Florida – back in the “Hollywood east” days of the 1990s. Not every post house of the day was this fancy and as equipped, but it represented the general state-of-the-art for that time. During its operation, we worked with 1″, D1, D2, Digital Betacam, and eventually some HD. But along the way, traditional linear post gave way to cheaper non-linear suites. We evolved with that trend and the last construction project was to repurpose one of the linear suites into a high-end Avid Symphony finishing suite.

All things come to an end and 2002 saw Century III’s demise. In part, because of the economic aftermath following September 11th, but also changes in the general film climate in Florida. That was also a time when dramatic and comedic filmed series gave way to many non-scripted, “reality” TV series.

I became a freelancer/independent contractor that year and about a year or so later was cutting and finishing an Animal Planet series. We cut and finished with four, networked Avid workstations spread across two apartments. There we covered all post, except the final audio mix. It was readily obvious to me that this was up to 160 hours/week of post that was no longer being done at an established facility. And that it was a trend that would accelerate, not go away.

Continued shift

It’s going on two decades now since that shift. In that time I’ve worked out of my home studio (picture circa 2011), my laptop on site, and within other production companies and facilities. Under various conditions, I’ve cut, finished, and delivered commercials, network shows, trade-show presentations, themed attraction projects, and feature films and documentaries. I’ve cut and graded with Final Cut Pro (“legacy” and X), Premiere Pro, Media Composer/Symphony, AvidDS, Color, Resolve, and others. The final delivered files have all passed rigid QC. It’s a given to me that you don’t need a state-of-the-art facility to do good work – IF you know what you are doing – and IF you can trust your gear in a way that you can generate predictable results. So I have to challenge the assumptions, when I hear “good enough.”

Predictable results – ah, there’s the rub. Colorists swear by the necessity for rooms with the proper neutral paint job and very expensive, calibrated displays. Yet, now many are working from home in ad hoc grading rooms. Many took home their super-expensive Sonys, but others are also using high-end LG, Flanders, or the new Apple XDR to grade by. And guess what? Somehow it all works. Would a calibrated grading environment be better? Sure, I’m not saying that it wouldn’t – simply that you can deliver quality without one when needed.

I’ve often asked clients to evaluate an in-progress grade using an Apple iPad, simply because they display good, consistent results. It’s like audio mixers who use the old Auratone cube speakers. Both devices are intended to be a “lowest common denominator.” If it looks or sounds good there, then that will translate reasonably well to other consumer devices. For grading I would still like to have the client present at the end for a final pass. Color is subjective and it’s essential that you are looking at the same display in the same room to make sure everyone is talking the same language.

I need to point out that I’m generally talking about finishing for streaming, the web, and/or broadcast with a stereo mix. When it comes to specialized venues, like theatrical presentations and custom attractions (theme parks or museums), the mixing and grading almost always has to be completed in properly designed suites/theaters/mix stages (motion pictures) or on-site (special venues). For example, if you mix a motion picture for theatrical display, you need a properly certified 5.1, 7.1, or Dolby Atmos environment. Otherwise, it’s largely a guessing game. The same for picture projection, which differs from TV and the web in terms of brightness, gamma, and color space. In these two instances, it’s highly unlikely that anyone working out of their house is going to have an acceptable set-up.

The new normal

So where do we go from here? What is the “new normal?” Once some level of normal has returned, I do believe a lot of post will go back to the way it was before. But, not all. Think of the various videoconference-style (Skype, Zoom, etc) shows you’ve been watching these weeks. Obviously, these were produced that way out of necessity. But, guess what! Quite a few are downright entertaining, which says to me that this format isn’t going away. It will become another way to produce a show that viewers like. Just as GoPros and drones have become a standard part of the production lexicon, the same will be true of iPhones and even direct Zoom or Skype feeds. Viewers are now comfortable with it.

At a time when the manufacturers have been trying to cram HDR and 8K down our throats, we suddenly find that something entirely different is more important. This will change not only production, but also post. Of course, many editors have already been working from home or ad hoc cutting rooms prior to this; but editing is a collaborative art working with other creatives.

All situations aren’t equal though. I’ve typically worked without a client sitting over my shoulder for years. Review-and-approval services like Frame.io have become standard tools in my workflow. Although not quite as efficient as haven’t a client right there, it still can be very effective. That’s common in my workflows, but has likely become a new way of working over these past two months for editors and colorists who never worked that way prior to Covid-19.

Going forward

Where does “good enough” fit in? If cutting in Media Composer and delivering DNxHR has been your norm within a facility, then using editors working from home may require a shift in thinking. For example, is cutting in Resolve, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut Pro X and then delivering ProResHQ (or higher) an acceptable alternative? There simply is no quality compromise, regardless of what some may believe, but it may require a shift in workflow or thinking.

Security may be harder to overcome. In studio or network-controlled features and TV series, security is tight, making WFH situations dicey. However, the truth of the matter is that the lowest common denominator may be more dangerous than a hacker. Think about the unscrupulous person somewhere in the chain who has access to files. Or someone with a smartphone camera recording a screen. In the end, do you or don’t you have employees and/or freelancers that you can trust? Frame.io is addressing some of these security questions with personalized screeners. Nevertheless, such issues need to be addressed and in some case, loosened.

Another item to consider is what are your freelancers using to cut or grade with? Do they have an adequate workstation with the right software, plug-ins, and fonts? Or does the company need to supply that? What about monitoring? All of these are items to explore with your staff and freelancers.

The hardest nut to crack is if you need access to a home base. Sure you can “sneakernet” drives between editors. You can transfer large files over the internet on a limited basis. These both come with a hit in efficiency. For example, my current work situation requires ongoing access to high-res, native media stored on QNAP and LumaForge Jellyfish NAS systems – an aggregate of about 3/4PB of potential storage. Fortunately, we have a policy of archiving all completed projects onto removable drives, even while still storing the projects on the NAS systems for as long as possible. In preparation for our WFH mode, I brought home about 40 archive drives (about 150TB of media) as a best guess of everything I might need to work on from home. Two other editors took home a small RAID each for projects that they were working on.

Going forward, what have I learned? The bottom line is – I don’t know. We can easily work from home and deliver high-quality work. To me that’s a given and has been for a while. In fact, if you are running a loaded 5K iMac, iMac Pro, or 16″ MacBook Pro, then you already have a better workstation than most suites still running 10-year-old “cheese grater” or 7-year-old “trash can” Mac Pros. Toss in a fast Thunderbolt or USB3.0 RAID and ProRes or DNxHR media becomes a breeze. Clearly this “good enough” scenario will deliver comparable results to a “blessed” edit suite.

Unfortunately, if you can’t stay completely self-contained, then the scenarios involve someone being at the home base. In larger facilities this still requires IT personnel  or assistant editors to go into the office. Even if you are an editor cutting from home with proxy files, someone has to go into the office to conform the camera originals and create deliverables. This tends to make a mockery out of stringent WFH restrictions.

If the world truly has changed forever, as many believe, and remote work will be how the majority of post-production operates going forward, then it certainly changes the complexion of what a facility will look like. Why invest in a large SAN/NAS storage solution? Why invest in a fleet of new Mac Pros? There’s no need, because the facility footprint can be much smaller. Just make sure your employees/freelancers have adequate hardware to do your work.

The alternative is fast, direct access over the internet to your actual shared storage. Technically, you can access files in a number of ways. None of them are particularly efficient. The best systems involve expense, like Teradici products or the HP RGS feature. However, if you have an IT hiccup or a power outage, you are back in the same boat. The “holy grail” for many is to have all media in the cloud and to edit directly from the cloud. That to me is still a total pipe dream and will be for a while for a variety of reasons. I don’t want to say that all of these ideas present insurmountable hurdles, but they aren’t cheaper – nor more secure – than being on premises. At least not yet.

The good news is that our experience over the past few months has spurred interest in new ways of working that will incentivize development. And maybe – just maybe – instead of fretting about the infrastructure to support 8K, we’ll find better, faster, more efficient ways to work with high-quality media at a distance.

©2020 Oliver Peters

It’s great… Until it isn’t

No, that picture at the top isn’t a map of Covid-19 hotspots. It’s the map of US users affected by this week’s Adobe sign-in outage. This past Wednesday (May 27th) affected users across all of Adobe’s various cloud products were unable to sign into their accounts – locking them out of using any installed Adobe products. But not every user – only those who needed to sign in to enable their applications.

Adobe products, like Creative Cloud, are paid on a monthly or prorated annual basis. You sign in one time to activate the account on that device and you are good to go until renewal time, as long as you stay signed into the cloud license manager application. In theory, you don’t need to be continually connected to the internet for the applications to function. However, once a month Adobe’s servers are pinged and you may be prompted to sign in again. So if Wednesday was your machine’s day to “phone home,” you haven’t used the apps in a while, or if you were signing in after having previously signed out, then your Adobe cloud manager application was unable to connect to the server and activate (or reactive) your software product(s). Just like that, a day of billable time flushed away.

Before you grab the torches and pitchforks, it may be useful to revisit the pros and cons of the various software licensing models.

Subscription

Quite a few companies have adopted the subscription – aka software as a service or SaaS – model. The argument is that you never actually own any software, regardless of the company or the application (read any EULA). Rather, you pay for the right to use it over a specified period of time – monthly, annually, or perpetually. Adobe decided to go all-in on subscription plans, arguing that the upfront costs were cheaper for the user, the plans offered a better ROI with access to many more Adobe products, and that this provided a predictable revenue stream to fuel more frequent product updates.

Generally, these points have been realized and the system works rather well most of the time. Yes, you can argue that over time you pay more for your CC subscription than in the old CS days (assuming you skipped a few CS updates). But if you are an active facility, production company, or independent contractor, then it’s a small monthly business expense, just like your internet or electric bill, which is easily absorbed against the work you are bringing in. The software cost has shifted from cap-ex to op-ex.

That is all true, unless you have no revenue coming in or are merely working with media as a hobby. In addition, once you stop subscribing, all past project files – whether that’s Premiere Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, In Design, etc – can no longer be opened until you renew.

Unfortunately, when you hit a day like Wednesday, all rational arguments go out the window.

The App Store model

If you are a Final Cut Pro X user, then Wednesday might have stirred the urge to say, “I told you so.” I get that. The App Store method of purchasing/installing/updating software works well. You only have to sign in for new purchases, new Mac installations, and occasionally for updates.

However, don’t be smug. Certain applications that Apple sees as a service, like News, occasionally prompt you to sign in with your Apple ID again before you can use that software. This is true even if you haven’t subscribed to any paid magazines or newspapers. In a scenario such as Adobe’s Wednesday outage, I can image that you would be just as locked out. Not necessarily from your creative apps, like FCPX, but rather certain software/services, such as News, iTunes, Music, etc. As someone who uses my iCloud e-mail account quite a lot through web browsers, I can’t count the number of times access has been hampered.

License managers

Similar to the App Store or Adobe Creative Cloud, some companies use license manager software that’s installed onto your machine. This is a common method for plug-in developers, such as FxFactory and Waves. It’s a way of centralizing the installation and authorization of that software.

FxFactory follows the App Store approach and includes purchasing and update features. Others, like Waves and Avid Link, are designed to activate and/or move licenses between machines, based on the company’s stored, online database of serial numbers. You typically do not need to stay online or be signed in unless making changes or updates, or your system has changed in some way, like a new OS installation. These work well, but aren’t bulletproof – as many Media Composer editors can attest.

Activation codes

One of the oldest methods is simply to provide the user with a serial number/activation code. Install the software and activate the license with the supplied code number. If you need to move the software to a different machine, then you will typically have to deactivate that application on the first machine and activate it again on the second machine. You only have to be connected to the company’s servers during these activation times. Some companies also offer offline methods for activation in the event you don’t have internet access.

Seems simple, right? Well, not necessarily. First of all, if you have a lot of software that uses this method, that’s a lot of serial numbers you will have to keep track of. Second, some companies only give you a limited number of times you can deactivate and reactivate the software. If that’s the case, you can’t really move the license back and forth between two machines every other week. If your motherboard dies with the software activated, you are likely going to have to jump through hoops to get the company to deactivate the number on their server in order to be able to activate it again on the repaired machine. That’s because the new motherboard IDs it as a completely different machine. Finally, even some of these companies require you to occasionally sign in or reactivate the software in order for you to continue being able to use it.

Hardware license key

Ah, the “dongle.” When Avid switched to software licensing, many Media Composer editors approached it with the attitude of “from my cold, dead hands.” And so, Avid still maintains hardware licensing for many Avid systems. Likewise, Blackmagic Design has also shipped dongles for DaVinci Resolve and Fusion. iLok devices, common among Pro Tools users, are another variant of this. Dongles, which are actually USB hardware keys, make it simple to move authorization between machines. That’s useful if you maintain a fleet of rental systems. No internet required. Just a USB port.

Unfortunately, dongles are subject to forgetfulness, loss, breakage, theft, and even counterfeiting. A friend reminded me that when Avid Symphony first came out and cost $100K for a system, dongle theft was a very real issue. That’s likely less the case now, because software is so cheap by comparison. I do know of film schools that extended their Media Composer dongles on a USB extension cable and then strung it to the inside of their Mac Pro. Lock the case for viable theft prevention.

Free

The Holy Grail – right? Or so many users believe. It’s the model Blackmagic uses for the standard versions of Resolve and Fusion. Many plug-in developers use the free model on a few plug-ins just to get you interested in their other paid products. Of course, the ease of making Motion Templates for Final Cut Pro X has create a homegrown hobbyist/developer market of free or extremely cheap effects and graphics templates.

Even though some commercial software is free, you are only granted the right to use it, not ownership. Often in exact for user data so that you can be marketed to in the future. As a business plan for a commercial developer, this model is only sustainable because of other revenue, like hardware sales. And in practice, even the Mac App Store model, with its “buy once” policy, is close to free when you own and personally control a number of Macs.

There are pros and cons to all of these models. They all work well until they don’t. When there’s a hiccup, roll with the punches, or contact support if it’s appropriate. With some luck, there will be a speedy resolution and you’ll be back up and running in no time.

©2020 Oliver Peters