Santa’s Cutting Room

Holiday time is a joyous affair, but it’s also the time of the year when retailers roll out their specials and cyber-deals. In these past almost-two years, many editors have spent a significant time cutting from home. Many have been working with ad hoc set-ups, like spreading a laptop and drives across the dining room table. If that’s you, maybe now is the time to create a more comfortable and productive editing environment.

I’ve discussed the minimalist approach in the past and that’s what I’m revisiting in this post. The objective is to set up a powerful room built for modern workflows, but with a light footprint. My goal is a comfortable cutting room, not a high-end grading or mixing suite. For example, with editing in mind, you don’t necessarily need a large video reference display and AJA or Blackmagic Design i/o hardware. You can if you want to, but it’s not essential.

I’m going to describe a layout designed around a laptop with an external display. While you could certainly go with a workstation, the laptops offer you mobility, should you need to move the project to the location. Modern laptops, like the new 14″ and 16″ MacBook Pros have more than enough horsepower to compete with most desktop system. However, if mobility is less important and you still want the latest Apple hardware, then a Mac mini or a 24″ iMac might best fit the bill. Currently these use the entry-level M1 chip. While offering plenty of power for most users, you might want to wait until 2022 before committing, since more powerful versions are expected. After a couple of years running an older 15″ MacBook Pro plus a Dell display, I reconfigured my home cutting room around a 27″ Intel iMac. This best matches my current needs, since I rarely work on-location anymore.

Since I typically work with Macs, I’m going to focus on them here. If you prefer Windows PCs, then simply substitute your favorite – maybe a Dell, HP, or even a custom Puget Systems machine. If you are purchasing a new Mac with an Apple Silicon M1 integrated SoC, then make sure the hardware and software you add is compatible with the M1 chipset, as well as the latest macOS. While I have tried to make selections that are compatible, I don’t have personal experience with each and every item, so do your own research before you buy. My whole point here is to spark some ideas that may help you hone in on just the right room layout and tools for you.

Click the embedded links that appear throughout this post for more specific product information.

The room

For sake of discussion, I’m talking about repurposing a spare bedroom, office, cave, etc into a permanent editing suite. However, this doesn’t mean a total rehab. You certainly could do that, but I’m not advocating making the walls soundproof, adding a compression ceiling, or anything crazy. If that is your goal, then check out some of my old posts about DIY edit suite construction. There are three key considerations – power, your sitting/standing preference, and sound treatment.

Most modern residential buildings have adequate power in the normal outlets to power your gear. However, I would highly recommend bringing in an electrician to wire dedicated circuits just for your computer and accessories. After all, you don’t want your RAID on the same circuit as the kitchen microwave or toaster. In addition, add an uninterruptible power supply, like an APC Smart-UPS or CyberPower Systems UPS. A single floor unit (1500-220VA) will be sufficient to provide power through momentary black-outs, as well as provide some voltage regulation. Also include a few standard power strips.

The chair and desk will be the most important purchases over time. Whether you prefer to sit, stand, or mix it up is a personal choice. I like large flat table surfaces in the 3′ x 6′ range. To cover the bases look at something like a Jarvis Bamboo Standing Desk. Make sure you pick an adjustable height model with electrical control and add the option of cable trays for neater cable management. Your sit/stand preference will dictate whether you need a standard office chair or stool. I’m a fan of the Herman Miller Aeron and Mirra 2 models for their quality and durability, but X-Chair or similar gaming chair is also a high-quality alternative.

Finally, the acoustic wall treatments. You may have enough furnishings and irregular surfaces in the room already to sufficiently kill sound reflections. If not, a good solution will be sound panels that can be mounted on the walls, like color-coordinated kits from Acoustical Solutions.

Computer and peripherals

As I stated up top, this room is designed around a laptop with an external display. My top laptop pick right now is Apple’s 16″ MacBook Pro with the M1 Max chip. Get the 10-core (CPU) / 32-core (GPU) model with 64GB RAM and a 1TB internal drive. Except for the drive, this is maxed out, so it should be ready for anything you toss at it. Some will prefer the 14″ MacBook Pro, which is smaller yet offers similar power. (Although some have noted that the “notch” is more intrusive on the 14″ models.)

Be sure to add an external Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and/or trackpad. I recommend also adding a Rain Design mStand laptop stand and an Anker USB dock for additional USB-A ports. If you prefer to run your laptop in the clamshell mode and tuck it out of the way, then go for the Twelve South BookArc. In that case, the smaller 14″ MacBook Pro might be the better choice, since the laptop screen is less important in daily use.

When it comes to the display, the goal is a large primary interface display that’s good (enough) for critical video evaluation. But it’s not a dedicated video display. The laptop’s screen becomes your secondary display if you configure this as a dual-display layout. There are plenty of options, but my top three choices are the Apple Pro Display XDR, Apple’s version of the LG UltraFine 5K display, and the ASUS ProArt PA32UCG-K.

If you prefer a matched dual-display layout, instead of using the laptop screen as a second display, then you may want to consider a pair of the LG UltraFine 4K models. Remember to add AppleCare to any of the products purchased from Apple. Yes, it’s an “insurance” policy, but I have actually had to use it in the past with an older Apple laptop. I was glad I had it then.

Storage

The type and capacity of required storage will depend on the projects you tackle. If you work with many projects or a lot of media, then I would recommend two RAID choices. The Promise RAIDs are tried and true, so the Pegasus32 R4, R6, or R8 models stand out. Another interesting option is OWC’s Thunderbay Flex 8, because you can mix both SSD/NVMe and spinning drives in the same enclosure. The enclosure also adds some expansion capability.

Because you never have enough ports, look at the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock. This may or may not be necessary if you purchase the Thunderbay Flex 8, as that unit already adds some additional ports. But you may need both.

I archive all client projects onto removable drives. If you work with such raw drives, make sure to get a fast drive dock, such as the OWC Drive Dock USB-C. This is handy not only for archiving, but if the dock and drive are fast enough, you can also edit directly from it, should quick revisions be required in the future. For media, my current choice is Seagate’s Ironwolf Pro line. Regardless of brand or capacity, select drives that run at 7200 RPM or faster, carry a 5-year limited warranty, and are rated for NAS use.

If you prefer to use small external drives or need them for location work, then you can’t beat the Samsung T7, G-Drive Pro, or Glyph Atom SSDs.

Audio hardware

While I think you can do without an external video monitor in this type of room, I do believe you need good audio monitoring. I’m not a fan of working and mixing 100% of the time using only headphones, so speakers and an audio interface are important. How invested you are in audio gear is going to depend on whether you want to be able to work in stereo only or also surround. While I think you can adequately mix and master (for TV and the web) simple stereo projects in this environment, I don’t recommend that for surround. The intent is purely monitoring while editing, using either an LCR or a 5.1 configuration.

The most straightforward is a stereo-only configuration. There are plenty of interface options, but my top choices are the PreSonus AudioBox USB 96, PreSonus Studio 24c, Apogee Symphony Desktop, or Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. If you want or need to monitor LCR or 5.1, then this requires an audio interface with additional discrete analog line outputs. 5.1 requires six outputs, but most units will come in configurations with eight line outputs. I have not personally tested these, but based on my research, I would recommend the PreSonus Studio 1824c, Focusrite Scarlett 18i20, or Focusrite Pro Red 16Line.

If the interface uses macOS core audio, then it should be compatible.  However, if a separate software driver is used, then make sure that it will work with the M1 Macs and the latest macOS version. If you use powered speakers, then you can design the room without an external audio mixer, unless you prefer to add one.

Powered speakers eliminate the need for additional amps, wiring, a mixer, etc. This fits with the minimalist ethos. There are plenty of great speakers to choose from, but it’s a highly subjective choice. My top picks include Genelec, ADAM Audio, PreSonus, KRK, and M-Audio. Obviously for stereo, you’ll only need a pair of speakers; but for a 5.1 surround, you’ll need to purchase five matched speakers, plus a subwoofer. I also recommend speaker stands or risers – especially for any speaker sitting on the desk. This isolates vibration between the speaker and the desk and elevates the cones to the right height for your ears. I currently use speaker ISO-Stands from isoAcoustics.

Having speakers won’t eliminate the need to use headphones from time to time, so pick some good ones. AKG studio models are my go-to. Need to record any scratch tracks? Don’t forget a basic microphone. I’m fond of RØDE’s NT-USB Mini or their PodMic (with stand).

Video software / plug-ins

I’m not going to dwell on the choice of editing software (NLE). The options are all good and what you use will depend on preference or business/project requirements. I’m talking about Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, or DaVinci Resolve. Of course, you can also toss in Lightworks and Media 100. Of these, Premiere Pro, FCP, and Resolve will be the most up-to-date with Mac compatibility. If your needs are simple, then you are probably fine using the tools as they come. But if your needs are more advanced or you are required to interchange projects with users who are running other NLEs, then you’ll have to augment the NLE with third-party tools.

Final Cut Pro users who exchange files with Premiere Pro editors or send sequences to a mixer using Pro Tools will need to invest in interchange products from Intelligent Assistance, XMiL, and/or Marquis Broadcast. These are available through the Apple App Store.

If you perform advanced color correction, but want to stay within the NLE, then Media Composer editors can choose to add the Symphony option. Final Cut Pro editors have several choices, including plug-ins and applications from Color Finale or Coremelt. Other tools available to the various NLEs are FilmConvert’s Nitrate and CineMatch. Need more effects grunt than what the native effects and transitions offer? The best all-around package is Continuum from Boris FX.

Audio plug-ins

Like video, most of these NLEs have a solid selection of built-in audio effect/filter plug-ins. Nevertheless, often a third-party tool might handle tough sound situations in a better manner. One area is audio clean-up. My three top choices include the Accusonus ERA bundle, Klevgrand Brusfri, and iZotope RX. The first two offer good real-time performance and work well applied to clips or tracks. RX does include some real-time plug-ins, but you are better off using the standalone application that’s part of the RX bundle.

If you need to add more processing (EQ, compression, limiting), then I really like the various FabFilter plug-ins. But, there are also some good free plug-ins from Tokyo Dawn Labs and TBProAudio.

Other software applications

To wrap it up, don’t forget about some other useful tools. Even through you may use Photoshop, it’s still a good investment to add Pixelmator Pro and Affinity Photo. Each offers some graphics capabilities that Photoshop doesn’t. For example, Photoshop no longer supports certain font types as editable text within .PSD files. However, Affinity Photo can edit these, which helps with legacy files.

You are probably using either Apple Compressor or Adobe Media Encoder to batch-encode camera footage, generate files for review, and create web deliverables. Yet, there are still formats that these skip. One solution is the free (donation requested) Shutter Encoder. Two other applications in my video player toolkit include the free VLC – an all-purpose media player – and Telestream Switch. The latter is a bit pricey, but is my go-to application for detailed video analysis and QC. It can also transcode single video files when needed. Finally, if you do a lot of work with batches of files, Better Rename is one of my most-used applications.

OK, there you have the round-up to build a powerful, yet minimalist cutting room from the ground up. Remember that minimalist does not mean cheap. Heck, I’d venture to guess that if you max out this list, you might be pushing $35K. This is an investment in your business and future, so bite off what makes sense now and leave the rest for later. In any case, enjoy the holidays and maybe this rundown will give you some ideas as to what to put on the wishlist for Santa!

©2021 Oliver Peters

CineMatch for FCP

Last year FilmConvert, developers of the Nitrate film emulation plug-in, released CineMatch. It’s a camera-matching plug-in designed for multiple platforms – including operating systems and different editing/grading applications. The initial 2020 release worked with DaVinci Resolve and Premiere Pro. Recently FilmConvert added Final Cut Pro support. You can purchase the plug-in for individual hosts or as a bundle for multiple hosts. If you bought the bundled version last year, then that license key is also applicable to the new Final Cut Pro plug-in. So, nothing extra to purchase for bundle owners.

CineMatch is designed to work with log and raw formats and a wide range of camera packs is included within the installer. To date, 70 combinations of brands and models are supported, including iPhones. FilmConvert has created these profiles based on the color science of the sensor used in each of the specific cameras.

CineMatch for FCP works the same way as the Resolve and Premiere Pro versions. First, select the source profile for the camera used. Next, apply the desired target camera profile. Finally, make additional color adjustments as needed.

If you a shoot with one predominant A camera that is augmented by B and C cameras of different makes/models, then you can apply CineMatch to the B and C camera clips in order to better match them to the A camera’s look.

You can also use it to shift the look of a camera to that of a different camera. Let’s say that you want a Canon C300 to look more like an ARRI Alexa or even an iPhone. Simply use CineMatch to do that. In my example images, I’ve adjusted Blackmagic and Alexa clips so that they both emulate the color science of a Sony Venice camera.

When working in Final Cut Pro, remember that it will automatically apply Rec 709 LUTs to some log formats, like ARRI Alexa Log-C. When you plan to use CineMatch, be sure to also set the Camera LUT pulldown selector in the inspector pane to “none.” Otherwise, you will be stacking two LUT conversions resulting in a very ugly look.

Once camera settings have been established, you can further adjust exposure, color balance, lift/gamma/gain color wheels, saturation, and the luma curve. There is also an HSL curves panel to further refine hue, saturation, and luma for individual color ranges. This is helpful when trying to match two cameras or shots to each other with greater accuracy. FCP’s comparison viewer is a great aid in making these tweaks.

As a side note, it’s also possible to use CineMatch in conjunction with FilmConvert Nitrate (if you have it) to not only adjust color science, but then to subsequently emulate different film stocks and grain characteristics.

CineMatch is a useful tool when working with different camera types and want to achieve a cohesive look. It’s easy and quick to use with little performance impact. CineMatch now also supports M1 Macs.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Storage for Editors 

Storage is the heart of a modern post-production facility. The size and type of storage you pick can greatly impact the efficiency of the facility. Surprisingly the concerns and requirements around a storage network aren’t all that different, regardless of whether you’re a large or smaller post facility.

I recently spoke with industry veterans at Molinare in London and Republic Editorial in Dallas about how they’ve addressed storage needs. 

Check out my interview at postPerspective.

©2021 Oliver Peters

My Kingdom for Some Color Bars

In a former life, video deliverables were on videotape and no one seriously used the internet for any mission-critical media projects. TVs and high-quality video monitors used essentially the same display technology and standards. Every videotape started with SMPTE color bars used as a reference to set up the playback of the tape deck. Monitors were calibrated to bars and gray scale charts to assure proper balance, contrast, saturation, and hue. If the hardware was adjusted to this recognized standard, then what you saw in an edit suite would also be what the network or broadcaster would see going out over the air.

Fast forward to the present when nearly all deliverables are sent as files. Aesthetic judgements – especially by clients and off-site producers – are commonly made viewing MOV or MP4 files on some type of computer or device screen. As an editor who also does color correction, making sure that I’m sending the client a file that matches what I saw when it was created is very important.

Color management and your editing software

In researching and writing several articles and posts about trusting displays and color management, I’ve come to realize the following. If you expect the NLE viewer to be a perfect match with the output to a video display or an exported file playing in every media player, then good luck! The chances are slim.

There are several reasons for this. First, Macs and PCs use different gamma standards when displaying media files. Second, not all computer screens work in the same color space. For instance, some use P3-D65 while others use sRGB. Third, these color space and gamma standards differ from the standards used by televisions and also projection systems.

I’ll stick to standard dynamic range (SDR) in this discussion. HDR is yet another mine field best left for another day. The television display standard for SDR video is Rec. 709 with a 2.4 gamma value. Computers do not use this; however, NLEs use it as the working color space for the timeline. Some NLEs will also emulate this appearance within the source and record viewers in order to match the Rec. 709, 2.4 gamma feed going out through the i/o hardware to a video monitor.

As with still photos, a color profile is assigned when you export a video file, regardless of file wrapper or codec. This color profile is metadata that any media player software can use to interpret how a file should be displayed to the screen. For example, if you edit in Premiere Pro, Adobe uses a working SDR color space of Rec. 709 with 2.4 gamma. Exported files are assigned a color profile of 1-1-1. They will appear slightly lighter and less saturated in QuickTime Player as compared with the Premiere Pro viewer. That’s because computer screens default to a different gamma value – usually 1.96 on Macs. However, if you re-import that file back into Premiere, it will be properly interpreted and will match the original within Premiere. There’s nothing wrong with the exported file. It’s merely a difference based on differing display targets.

The developer’s conundrum

A developer of editing software has several options when designing their color management system. The first is to assume that the viewer should match Rec. 709, 2.4 gamma, since that’s the television standard and is consistent with legacy workflows. This is the approach taken by Adobe, Avid, and Blackmagic, but with some variations. Premiere Pro offers no alternate SDR timeline options, but After Effects does. Media Composer editors can set the viewer based on several standards and different video levels for Rec. 709: legal range (8-bit levels of 16-235) versus full range (8-bit levels of 0-255). Blackmagic enables different gamma options even when the Rec. 709 color space is selected.

Apple has taken a different route with Final Cut Pro by utilizing ColorSync. The same image in an FCP viewer will appear somewhat brighter than in the viewer of other NLEs; however, it will match the playback of an exported file in QuickTime Player. In addition, the output through AJA or Blackmagic i/o hardware to a video display will also match. Not only does the image look great on Apple screens, but it looks consistent across all apps on any Apple device that uses the ColorSync technology.

You have to look at it this way. A ton of content is being delivered only over the internet via sites like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube rather than through traditional broadcast. A file submitted to a large streamer like Netflix will be properly interpreted within their pipeline, so no real concerns there. This begs the question. Should the app’s viewer really be designed to emulate Rec. 709, 2.4 gamma or should it look correct for the computer’s display technology?

The rubber meets the road

Here’s what happens in actual practice. When you export from Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, or Media Composer, the result is a media file tagged with the 1-1-1 color profile. For Premiere and Media Composer, exports will appear with somewhat less contrast and saturation than the image in the viewer.

In Resolve, you can opt to work in Rec. 709 with different gamma settings, including 2.4 or 709-A (“A” for Apple, I presume). These two different output settings would look the same until you start to apply a color grade (so don’t switch midstream). If you are set to 2.4 (or automatic), then the exported file has a color profile of 1-2-1. But with 709-A the exported file has a color profile of 1-1-1. These Resolve files will match the viewer and each other, but will also look darker than the comparable Premiere Pro and FCP exports.

All of the major browsers use the color profile. So do most media players, except VLC. These differences are also apparent on a PC, so it’s not an Apple issue per se. More importantly the profile determines how a file is interpreted. For instance, the two Resolve ProRes exports (one at 1-1-1, the other at 1-2-1) look the same in this first generation export. But let’s say you use Adobe Media Encoder to generate H.264 MP4 viewing copies from those ProRes files. The transcoded MP4 of the 709-A export (1-1-1 color profile) will match its ProRes original. However, the transcoded MP4 of the 2.4 export (1-2-1 color profile) will now look a bit brighter than its ProRes original. That’s because the color profile of the MP4 has been changed to 1-1-1.

Gamma changes mostly affect the midrange and shadow portion of a video signal. Therefore, differences are also more or less apparent depending on content. The more extreme your grading, the more apparent (and to some, obnoxious) these differences become. If these really bother you, then there are several ways to create files that are “enhanced” for computer viewing. This will make them a bit darker and more saturated.

  1. You can tweak the color correction by using an adjustment layer to export a file with a bit more contrast and saturation. In Premiere Pro, you can use a Lumetri effect in the adjustment layer to add a slight s-curve along with a 10% bump in saturation.
  2. You can use a QT Gamma Correction LUT (such as from Adobe) as part of the export. However, in my experience, it’s a bit too dark in the shadows for my taste.
  3. You can pass the exported file through After Effects and create a separate sRGB version.

These approaches are not transparent. In other words, you cannot re-import these files and expect them to match the original. Be very careful about your intentions when using any of these hacks, because you are creating misadjusted files simply for viewing purposes. 

In the end, is it really right to use Rec. 709 2.4 gamma as the standard for an NLE viewer? Personally, I think Apple used the better and more modern approach. Should you do any of these hacks? Well, that’s up to you. More and more people are reviewing content on smart phones and tablets – especially iPhones and iPads – all of which show good-looking images. So maybe these concerns are simply much ado about nothing.

Or paraphrasing Dr. Strangelove – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Color Profiles.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Blood Red Sky

Halloween is just around the corner. It’s the traditional time of the year for ghosts, ghouls, and vampires. Sounds like a great time to enjoy the Netflix original, Blood Red Sky. This highly-viewed, German-language film is a genre mix that blends horror with heart. It was edited by veteran Berlin-based film editor Knut Hake. Just in time for the latest Final Cut Pro update, Blood Red Sky has also been highlighted by Apple for its challenging feature film workflow.

I recently had a chance to interview Hake about cutting the film, working through the pandemic, and his use of Final Cut Pro on such high-end projects. Read the interview here at FCP.co.

©2021 Oliver Peters