Pixelmator Pro Revisited

Many Final Cut Pro X users prefer the software precisely because it does not require an ongoing subscription. If you bought all of Apple’s ProApps products, then you have largely replaced the need for an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. The exception to that is graphics and photography design and manipulation. Even the most diehard FCPX users often maintain the basic Adobe photography bundle just to have Photoshop in their toolset, since Apple doesn’t make such as application.

There are alternatives, which I have reviewed in the past. Principal replacements come from either Pixelmator or Serif. If you want the most direct alternative to the Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign trifecta then your best bet would be to buy Affinity Photo, Designer, and Publisher. On the other hand, if you only want an alternative to Photoshop, then Affinity Photo or Pixelmator Pro might be your best option. While I like them both, Pixelmator Pro seems the closest to the FCPX design ethos.

I reviewed Pixelmator Pro after its initial release a bit over two years ago and have recently started to use it on a more full-time basis. Like others who have the Creative Cloud apps installed alongside FCPX, I tend to go where muscle memory takes me. So if you have Photoshop installed, then you’ll probably just continue to use Photoshop as the line of least resistance. However, if you want to stay strictly within the macOS, FCPX-centric ecosystem, then you owe it to yourself to move over to something new.

Pixelmator Pro is a clean app written with newer code, designed to take advantage of Metal. Its interface design is a perfect complement to Final Cut – using a similar approach to tool/layer/inspector panels. These panels can be revealed or hidden, which means that you can have a very minimalist interface that focuses only on the image, if that’s how you like to work.

Another new technology integrated into Pixelmator Pro is machine learning. It’s important to remember that there isn’t really any “learning” involved with machine learning. Instead, calculations are made against a defined set of parameters. For instance, the application uses machine learning to automatically name layers when you import a photo and place it on a layer. It makes a generic guess at the name, like “building” for an image of a building, tower, or other similar image, which is based on shape recognition. In addition, alternative suggested names are also available. If you change it to a custom name, Pixelmator Pro does not “learn” that new name for future use. The available library of possible names is not increased or improved.

Machine learning can also be used for an image’s color/level adjustments. This is more sophisticated than a simple automatic white balance. I find the results more pleasing and successful than similar automatic adjustments in other applications. At the end of 2019, an update added machine learning to image scaling. If you want to blow up a lower resolution image for a higher resolution result, you can employ Pixelmator Pro’s Super Resolution function. This will give you the cleanest edges around complex images and textures as opposed to the other available algorithms. Unfortunately, it is a very slow process on my older MacBook Pro; however, its use it entirely optional. Expect faster results on the newer Macs.

As I’ve been using Pixelmator Pro more these days – instead of the knee-jerk reaction to head to Photoshop first – I’m rediscovering things that I like and that I find to be more fluid and intuitive than in Photoshop. While you can’t do some of Photoshop’s more exotic functions, like video animations, Pixelmator Pro covers the bulk of what an editor needs to do with a graphics tool. Furthermore, if you use Apple Photos, Pixelmator Pro is also supported as an extension and through Photos’ “edit with” functions. In short, Pixelmator Pro is a perfect match for Final Cut Pro X. If Apple were to design a graphics app, it would undoubtedly look and feel a lot like Pixelmator Pro.

Check out an enhanced version of the article at FCPco.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Apple 2019 16″ MacBook Pro

Creatives in all fields are the target market for Apple’s MacBook Pro product line. Apple introduced the 16″ model to replace its 15″ predecessor in late 2019. This new model is not only a serious tool for location work but is powerful enough to form the hub of your edit suite, whether on-site or at a fixed facility.

Nuts and bolts

The 2019 MacBook Pro comes in 6-core (Intel Core i7) and 8-core (Intel Core i9) configurations. It boasts up to 64GB RAM, an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M series GPU with up to 8GB of GDDR6 VRAM, and can be equipped with up to 8TB of internal SSD storage. Prices start at under $2,800 USD*, but the full monty rings up at about $6,500 USD*. The high-capacity SSD options contribute to the most expensive configurations, but those sizes may be overkill for most users. A more realistic price for a typical editor’s 8-core configuration would be about $3,900 USD*. Just stick to a 1TB internal SSD and back the RAM down to 32GB. Quite frankly the 6-core is likely to be sufficient for many editing and design tasks. (*With AppleCare warranty, but no local VAT or sales taxes added.)

While there are great PC laptop choices, it’s very hard to make direct comparisons to laptops with all of these same components. Few PC laptops offer this much RAM or SSDs that large, for example. When you can make a direct comparison, name brand PC laptops are often more expensive. And remember, great gaming PCs are not necessarily the best editing machines and vice versa.

What’s improved?

Apple loaned me a space gray, 8-core 16″ MacBook Pro configured with 64GB RAM, the AMD GPU with 8GB VRAM, and a 4TB internal hard drive. I own a mid-2014 MacBook Pro as the center of my edit system at home. The two MacBook Pros are physically very similar. They are nearly the identical size, with the 2019 MacBook Pro a bit thinner and lighter. The keyboard footprint is the same as my five-year-old model, though the keys are slightly larger on the new laptop with less space between. Apple tweaked the keyboard mechanism on the 16″ model. Typing feels about the same between these two, though the keys on the new machine are quieter. Plus, it has a much bigger trackpad and the touch bar.

The Retina screen is housed in a lid about the same size as the 15″ model. Its 16″ diagonal spec is achieved by using smaller bezels. Of course, the newer display is also higher density resulting in 3072 x 1920 pixels at 226 ppi. This 500-nit, P3 display offers True Tone, thanks to macOS Catalina. True Tone alters the color temperature based on ambient light. It’s easy on the eyes, because it warms up the image in standard room lighting. However, I would discourage enabling it while working on projects requiring critical color accuracy.

The MacBook Pro features four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, like its 15″ predecessor. These connect peripherals and/or power. I don’t know whether Apple had room to add standard USB-A ports or if there was a trade-off for space needed for cooling or the improved speaker system. Maybe it was just a decision to move forward regardless of some short-term inconvenience. In any case, if you purchase a MacBook Pro, plan on also buying a few adapters and cables, a USB hub, and/or a Thunderbolt 3 dock.

Performance testing

How does the 2019 MacBook Pro stack up against a desktop Mac, like the 10-core 3.0 GHz 2017 iMac Pro used at my daily editing gig? Both have 64GB RAM, but there are 16GB of VRAM in the iMac Pro. I tested with both the internal SSDs and an external USB 3.0 GDRIVE SSD. Both internal drives clocked well over 2500 MB/sec, while the GDRIVE was in the 400-500 range.

My “benchmark” tests included BruceX for Final Cut Pro X, Puget Systems’ After Effects benchmark, and two of Simon Ubsdell’s Motion tutorial projects. For the “real world” tests, I used a travelogue series sizzle edit with 4K (and larger) media, various codecs, scaling, speed changes, and color correction. The timeline was exported to ProRes and H.264 using various NLEs. My final test sequence was a taxing 6K FCPX timeline composed of nine layers of 6K RED raw files.

Until the release of the new Mac Pro tower, the iMac Pro had been Apple’s most powerful desktop computer. Yet, in nearly all of these tests, the 16″ MacBook Pro equaled or slightly bettered the times of the iMac Pro. The laptop had faster export times and a higher Puget score with After Effects. One exception was my nine-layer 6K RED project, where the iMac Pro shined – exporting twice as fast as the MacBook Pro. Both Macs played back and scrubbed through this variety of files with ease, regardless of application or internal versus external drive. Overall, the biggest difference I noticed was that exports on the iMac Pro stayed quiet throughout, while the MacBook Pro frequently had to rev up the fans.

Apple claims up to 11 hours of battery life, but that’s really just during light duty computing: checking e-mails, writing, surfing the web, etc. And if you’ve optimized your energy settings for battery life. The MacBook Pro includes an integrated Intel GPU and employs automatic graphics cards switching. During tasks that don’t generate a heavy GPU load the machine is running on the integrated card. It switches to the AMD for apps like Final Cut or Premiere. I purposefully set up a looping 4K sequence in FCPX and found that the battery drained from 100% down to 10% in about two hours. While this is more stress than normal editing, it’s typical behavior for creative applications. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t expect to be editing for 11 hours straight running only on the internal battery.

Final thoughts

This machine comes with macOS Catalina pre-installed. Don’t plan on downgrading that. Catalina is the first version of macOS that is purely 64-bit and with significant under-the-hood security changes. All 32-bit dependencies have been dropped, which means that some software and hardware products might not be fully compatible. So, check first. I would recommend a clean install of apps and plug-ins rather than migrating from another machine’s drive. I did a clean installation of apps through my Apple and Adobe CC IDs and was ready to go in half a day. Conversely I’ve heard stories from others who pulled their hair out for a week trying to migrate between machines and OS versions. There are ways to do this and most of the time they work, but why not just start out fresh when you get a new machine?

Apple’s ProApps, Adobe Creative Cloud software, and DaVinci Resolve are all ready to go. Media Composer editors have a slight wait. Avid is beta testing a Catalina-compatible version of Media Composer (at the time of this writing). Some functionality won’t be there at the start, but updates will quickly add in many of those missing features.

Mac owners who bought a recent 15″ MacBook Pro will see a definite boost, but probably not enough to refresh their systems yet. But if, like me, you are running a five-year-old model, then this unit becomes very tempting, especially when working with anything more taxing than ProRes 1080p files. For work on-the-go, like on-site editing, DIT tasks, photo processing, or other creative tasks, the 2019 MacBook Pro easily fits the bill. Many editors may also need a machine that can easily shift from the field to the office/home/studio in place of an iMac or iMac Pro. If that’s you, then the MacBook Pro has the horsepower. Plug it up to a Thunderbolt dock, an external display, or other peripherals, and you are ready to go – no desktop computer needed.

Original written for RedShark News.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Color Finale 2.0

HDR, camera raw, and log profiles are an ever-increasing part of video acquisition, so post-production color correction has become an essential part of every project. Final Cut Pro X initially offered only basic color correction tools, which were quickly augmented by third party developers. One of the earliest was Color Finale – the brainchild of colorist/trainer Denver Riddle and ex-DI supervisor and color correction software designer Dmitry Lavrov. In the last year Lavrov created both Cinema Grade, now owned and run by Riddle, and Color Finale 2.0, owned and run by Lavrov himself under his own company, Color Trix Ltd. By focusing exclusively on the development of Color Finale 2.0, Lavrov can bring to market more advanced feature ideas, upgrades, and options with the intent of making Final Cut a professional grading solution.

For many, Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve and Fimlight’s Baselight systems set the standard for color correction and grading. So you might ask, why bother? But if you edit with Final Cut Pro X, then this requires a roundtrip between Final Cut and a dedicated grading suite or application. Roundtrips pose a few issues, including turnaround time, additional media rendering, and frequent translation errors with the edit and effects data between the edit and the grading application. The ideal situation is to never leave the editing application, but that requires more than just a few, simple color correction filters.

Over the course of eight years of Final Cut Pro X’s existence, the internal color tools have been improved and even more third-party color correction plug-ins have been developed. However, effective and fast color correction isn’t only about looks presets, LUTs, and filters. It’s about having a tool that is properly designed for a grading workflow. If you want to do advanced correction in FCPX with the least amount of clicking back-and-forth, then there are really only two options: Coremelt’s Chromatic and Color Finale.

This brings us to the end of 2019 and the release of Color Finale 2.0, which has been redesigned from the ground up as a new and improved version of the original. The update has been optimized for Metal and the newest color management, such as ACES. It comes in two versions – standard and Pro. Color Finale 2 Pro supports more features, such as Tangent panel control, ACES color space, group grading, mask tracking, and film grain emulation. Color Finale has been designed from the beginning as only a Final Cut Pro X plug-in. This focus means better optimization and a better user experience.

Primary color correction

Color Finale 2 is intended to give Final Cut users similar grading control to that of Resolve, Avid Symphony, or Adobe Premiere Pro’s Lumetri panel. It packs a lot of punch and honestly, there’s a lot more than I can easily cover with any depth here. The user interface is designed around two components: the FCPX Inspector controls and the floating Layers panel. The Inspector pane is a lot more than simply the place from which to launch the Layers panel. In fact, it’s a separate primary grading panel, not unlike the functions of the Basic tab within Adobe’s Lumetri panel.

The Inspector pane is where you control color management, along with exposure, contrast, pivot, temperature, tint, saturation, and sharpness. According to Lavrov, “Our Exposure tool is calibrated to real camera F-stop numbers. We’ve actually taken numerous images with the cameras and test charts shot at the different exposure settings and matched those to our slider control. Basically setting the Exposure slider to 1 means you’ve increased it by one stop up.”

There are also copy and paste buttons to transfer Color Finale settings between clips, false color indicators, and shot-matching based on standard color charts. Finally, there’s a Film Emulation tab, which is really a set of film grain controls. At the bottom is a mix slider to control the opacity value of the applied correction.

Layers

The real power of Color Finale 2 happens when you launch the Layers panel. This panel can be resized and positioned anywhere over the FCPX interface. It includes four tools: lift/gamma/gain color wheels/sliders (aka “telecine” controls), luma+RGB curves, six-vector secondary color, and hue/sat curves. This is rounded out by a looks preset browser. Each of these tools can be masked and the masks can be tracked within the image. Mask tracking is good, though not quite as fast as Resolve’s tracker (almost nothing is).

I suspect most users will spend the bulk of their time with color wheels, which can be toggled from wheels to sliders, depending on your preference. Of course, if you invested in a Tangent panel, then the physical trackballs control the color wheels. Another nice aspect of the lift/gamma/gain color tool is saturation management. You can adjust saturation for each of the three ranges. There is also a master saturation control with separate controls for shadow and highlight range restrictions. This means that you can increase overall saturation, but adjust the shadow or highlights range value so that more or less of the dark or light areas of the image are affected.

As you add tools, each stacks as a new layer within the panel. The resulting color correction is the sum of all of the layers. You can stack as many layers as you like and the same tool can be used more than once. Layers can be turned on and off to see how that correction affects the image. They can also be reordered and grouped into a folder. In fact, when you load a preset look, this is actually a group of tools set to generate that look. Finally, each layer has a blend control to set the opacity percentage and alter the blend mode – normal, add, multiply, etc – for different results.

Advanced features

Let me expand on a few of the advanced grading features, such as color management. You have control over four methods: 1) assume video (the default) – intended for regular Rec 709 video or log footage where FCPX has already applied a LUT (ARRI Alexa, for example); 2) assume log – pick this if you don’t know the camera type and Color Finale will apply a generic Rec 709 LUT correction; 3) use ACES; and 4) use input LUT – import a technical or custom LUT file that you wish to apply to a clip.

ACES is an advanced color management workflow designed for certain delivery specs, such as for Netflix originals. The intent of the ACES color space is to be an intermediate color space that can be compatible with different display systems, so that your grade will look the same on any of these displays. Ideally you want to select ACES if you are working within a complete ACES color pipeline; however, you can still apply it to shots for general grading even if you don’t have to provide an ACES-compliant master. To use it, you must select both the input LUT (typically a camera-specific technical LUT) and the target display color space, such as Rec 709 100 nits (for non-HDR TVs and monitors).

In order to facilitate a proper ACES workflow, Color Trix added the ability to import and export CDLs (color decisions lists). Currently this is more for testing purposes and is designed for compatibility between Final Cut and ACES-compliant grading systems, like Baselight. A CDL is essentially like an EDL (edit decision list), but with basic color correction information. This will translate to the lift/gamma/gain/saturation settings in Color Finale 2 Pro, but nothing more complex, such as curves, selective color, or masks.

Performance and workflow

Overall, I really liked how the various tools worked. Response was fast and I was able to get good grading results with a build-up of several layers. In addition, I prefer the ergonomics of a horizontal layout for color wheels versus the cluster of controls used by Apple’s built-in tool. I had tested the betas of both Color Finale 1.0 and now 2.0 and I remember that it originally took a while to dial in the RGB curves for the 1.0 release. In general, curves can be quite destructive, so if you don’t get the math right, you’ll see banding with very little change of a curve. That was fixed before 1.0 was ever released and the quality in 2.0 looks very good.

Color Finale 2.0 beta had an issue with color wheels. For some users (myself included) the image didn’t update in real-time as you moved the color wheel pucks with a mouse. This was fixed right after release with an update. So if you are experiencing that issue, make sure you have re-installed the update.

The difference between grading and simple clip-based color correction is workflow. That’s where a good colorist using a dedicated grading application will shine. Unfortunately the “apply color correction from one (two, three) clip(s) back” command in Final Cut Pro X can only be used with its own built-in correction. So if you intend to use Color Finale 2 for a full timeline of clips, then you have to develop a workflow to quickly apply the Color Finale or Color Finale Pro effect, without constantly dragging it from the effects browser to each individual clip.

One solution is to apply the effect to the first clip, copy that clip, select all the rest, and then apply “paste effects” or “paste attributes” to the rest of the clips in the timeline. As you move from clip to clip, the Color Finale effect is open in the Inspector so you can tweak settings and edit layers as needed. I have found that by using this method the layers panel often doesn’t stay open persistently. The second method is to designate the Color Finale or Pro effect as the default video effect and map “apply default effect” to a key. Using this second method, the panel stayed open in my testing when go through successive clips on the timeline. Documentation and tutorials are a bit light at the moment, so hopefully Color Trix will begin posting more tips-and-tricks information to their support page or YouTube channel.

One can only run a valid test of any plug-in by using it on a real project. As an example of what you can do with Color Finale 2, I’ve graded Philip Bloom’s 2013 “Hiding Place” short featuring actress Kate Loustau. This was shot on the London Eye in “stealth” mode using the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. Bloom made the ungraded cut available for non-commercial use. I’ve used it a number of times to test color correction applications. Click the link to see the video, which includes two different grading looks, achieved through Color Final 2 Pro.

Color Finale 2.0 is a huge improvement over the original, but it’s not a one-click solution. It’s designed as an advanced, yet easy to use color correction tool. I find the toolset and visual results similar to the old Apple Color. The graded images appear very natural, which is a good fit for my aesthetic. DaVinci Resolve is better for extreme “surgical” grading, but Color Finale 2.0 certainly covers at least 90% of most color correction needs and styles. If you want to stay entirely within the Final Cut Pro X environment and skip the roundtrips, then Color Finale 2 Pro should be part of your arsenal. It’s this sort of extensibility that FCPX users like about the approach Apple has taken. Having powerful tools, like Color Finale 2.0, from independent developers, like Color Trix, definitely validates the concept.

Check out the Color Finale website for the various purchase and upgrade plans, including add-ons, like the Ascend presets packages.

The article was originally written for FCPco.

©2020 Oliver Peters

A First Look at Postlab Cloud

Apple developed Final Cut Pro X around single-editor workflows. As such, professional editing teams who wanted to use this tool for collaborative editing have been challenged to develop their own solutions. One approach was Postlab, which was developed in-house at Dutch broadcaster Evanglische Omroep (EO). In order to expand the product as a commercial application, lead developer Jasper Siegers decided to move it under the Hedge umbrella. This required the app to be rebuilt with new code before it could be offered to the FCPX market. That time has come and Postlab is now available as Postlab Cloud.

As the name implies, Postlab Cloud hosts your FCPX libraries “in the cloud,” i.e. on Postlab’s servers. Some production companies or broadcasters are reticent to have their editing computers connected online, but it’s important to note that only libraries and no media or caches are hosted by Postlab. This keeps the transfer times fast and file sizes light. Cache and media files stay local, whether on your machine or on connected shared storage. Postlab sets up accounts based on site licenses and numbers of users. Each user is assigned a log-in based on an e-mail address and a password. This means that a production hosted by Postlab can be accessed by authorized users anywhere in the world, provided there’s a viable internet connection.

The owner of the account can set up productions and organize them within folders. Each production is a collection or bundle of one or more Final Cut Pro X libraries. If you have ever worked with Final Cut Server in the FCP7 days, then the Postlab workflow is very similar. Once a production has been created, an editor can log in, download the library (a check-out step), edit in it, and then upload the changed version (a check-in step). As part of this upload, the Postlab interface prompts you to add comments describing the work you’ve done. Only one editor at a time can download a library and have write access; however, other users can still download it with read-only access. If you have two editors ping-ponging work on the same library file, then one has to upload it (check in) before the other editor can download it (check out) for their edits.

Getting started

I decided to test Postlab Cloud in two scenarios: a) multiple workstations connected to a shared storage network, and b) two disconnected editors collaborating over long distances. To start, once an account has been established, any editor using Postlab Cloud must install the small Postlab application. Since the app controls some of Final Cut’s functions, you will be prompted to enable GUI Scripting in your privacy preferences. In order for Postlab to work properly, media and cache files need to be outside of the library bundle. When you first download a library, you may be prompted to change your settings. In a networked environment with media on shared storage, the path to the media should be the same on each workstation. This means when Editor A finishes and checks in the production and then Editor B checks it back out, you generally will not need to relink the media files on Editor B’s system. Therefore, this edit collaboration can proceed fluidly.

Once a production has been downloaded, the library file exists as a temporary file on the local machine and not the network. This means that Postlab can still work in tandem with storage solutions that don’t normally perform well with FCPX libraries. In addition to this temporary library file, the Final Cut backup library is also stored in the location you have designated. If you are working in a networked, collaborative environment, then the advantage Postlab offers is version tracking and the ability for multiple users to open a library file (only one with write access).

Long distance

The second scenario is working with other editors outside of your facility. The first step is to get the media to the outside editor. You could certainly send a drive, but that isn’t efficient in time nor cost, especially across continents. If you only need creative editing and not finishing services, then low-res, proxy files are fine. So I converted my 4K UHD ProRes HQ files to 960 x 540 H264 (3Mbps) files and used Frame.io to transfer them over the internet. The key to proper relinking when you are done is to set audio to pass-through when converting this files. This was a double-system sound shoot, so I uploaded both the H264 videos files and the sound recordist’s WAV files to Frame and then downloaded them again at the other end (my home). Now I had media in both locations. The process would be the same even if it were two editors in two different countries.

The first Postlab step is to create and upload this FCPX library. Once that has been established, any authorized user with a Postlab log-in can access the production. I decided to go back and forth on this production between my home and the facility and also using different user log-ins – thus simulating a team of remote editors. Each time I did this, version changes were tracked by Postlab. If I were working with multiple editors, I would have been able to see what tasks each had performed.

It’s important to note that when you collaborate in this way, each editor should be using the same effects, LUTs, and Motion templates, otherwise some things will appear offline. Since the path to the media was different at home versus at the facility, each time I went between the two, checking in and then checking out the production, media files would appear offline. A simple relink fixed this, but it’s something to be aware of. Once totally done, I could relink to the high-res camera files and “finish” the project back at the office.

Wrap-up

When you upload a library back to Postlab, that open FCPX library is closed within Final Cut Pro X on your system, because you have checked it back in. Once you log out of Postlab, the temporary library file is moved to the trash. If you need a local version of the library, then export it from the Postlab app.

Once you get the hang of it, collaboration is simple using Postlab Cloud. Library files stay light without any of the sort of corruption caused by using services like DropBox. My test project included synchronized multi-cam clips and multi-channel audio. Each time during this exchange clips, projects, and edits showed up as expected when going between the various users. Whether or not Apple ever tackles collaboration within Final Cut Pro X is an unknown. But why wait? If you need that today, then Postlab Cloud offers a solid answer.

The relaunched Postlab Cloud includes three plans, which are priced per user/per year: Postlab, Postlab Pro, and Postlab Server. The first tier only allows for library version tracking and sharing. Pro allows for a lot more libraries to be shared and comes with more features. Server is a dedicated Postlab Cloud server for larger teams or those that require IT-specific features like Active Directory. Finally, Hedge/Postlab plans to ship a local version of Postlab – designed for use within local networks – soon after launch.

Postlab has now expanded to include Premiere Pro users.

Check out the Postlab tutorials for more information.

The article was originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

ADA Compliance

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has enriched the lives of many in the disabled community since its introduction in 1990. It affects all of our lives, from wheelchair-friendly ramps on street corners and business entrances to the various accessibility modes in our computers and smart devices. While many editors don’t have to deal directly with the impact of the ADA on media, the law does affect broadcasters and streaming platforms. If you deliver commercials and programs, then your production will be affected in one way or another. Typically the producer is not directly subject to compliance, but the platform is. This means someone has to provide the elements that complete compliance as part of any distribution arrangement, whether it is the producer or the outlet itself.

Two components are involved to meet proper ADA compliance: closed captions and described audio (aka audio descriptions). Captions come in two flavors – open and closed. Open captions or subtitles consists of text “burned” into the image. It is customarily used when a foreign language is spoken in an otherwise English program (or the equivalent in non-English-speaking countries). Closed captions are enclosed in a data stream that can be turned on and off by the viewer, device, or the platform and are intended to make the dialogue accessible to the hearing-impaired. Closed captions are often also turned on in noisy environments, like a TV playing in a gym or a bar.

Audio descriptions are intended to aid the visually-impaired. This is a version of the audio mix with an additional voice-over element. An announcer describes visual information that is not readily obvious from the audio of the program itself. This voice-over fills in the gaps, such as “man climbs to the top of a large hill” or “logos appear on screen.”

Closed captions

Historically post houses and producers have opted to outsource caption creation to companies that specialize in those services. However, modern NLEs enable any editor to handle captions themselves and the increasing enforcement of ADA compliance is now adding to the deliverable requirements for many editors. With this increased demand, using a specialist may become cost prohibitive; therefore, built-in tools are all the more attractive.

There are numerous closed caption standards and various captioning file formats. The most common are .scc (Scenarist), .srt (SubRip), and .vtt (preferred for the web). Captions can be supplied as “embedded” (secondary data within the master file) or as a separate “sidecar” file, which is intended to play in sync with the video file. Not all of these are equal. For example, .scc files (embedded or as sidecar files) support text formatting and positioning, while .srt and .vtt do not. For example, if you have a lower-third name graphic come on screen, you want to move any caption from its usual lower-third, safe-title position to the top of the screen while that name graphic is visible. This way both remain legible. The .scc format supports that, but the other two don’t. The visual appearance of the caption text is a function of the playback hardware or software, so the same captions look different in QuickTime Player versus Switch or VLC. In addition, SubRip (.srt) captions all appear at the bottom, even if you repositioned them to the top, while .vtt captions appear at the top of the screen.

You may prefer to first create a transcription of the dialogue using an outside service, rather than simply typing in the captions from scratch. There are several online resources that automate speech-to-text, including SpeedScriber, Simon Says, Transcriptive, and others. Since AI-based transcription is only as good as the intelligibility of the audio and dialects of the speakers, they all require further text editing/correction through on online tool before they are ready to use.

One service that I’ve used with good results is REV.com, which uses human transcribers for greater accuracy, as well as offering on online text editing tool. The transcription can be downloaded in various formats, including simple text (.txt). Once you have a valid transcription, that file can be converted through a variety of software applications into .srt, .scc, or .vtt files. These in turn can be imported into your preferred NLE for timing, formatting, and positioning adjustments.

Getting the right look

There are guidelines that captioning specialists follow, but some are merely customary and do not affect compliance. For example, upper and lower case text is currently the norm, but you’ll still be OK if your text is all caps. There are also accepted norms when English (or other) subtitles appear on screen, such as for someone speaking in a foreign language. In those cases, no additional closed caption text is used, since the subtitle already provides that information. However, a caption may appear at the top of the screen identifying that a foreign language is being spoken. Likewise, during sections with only music or ambient sounds, a caption may briefly identifying it as such.

When creating captions, you have to understand that readability is key, so the text will not always run perfectly in sync with the dialogue. For instance, when two actors engage in rapid fire dialogue, each caption may stay on longer than the spoken line. You can adjust the timing against that scene so that they eventually catch up once the pace slows down. It’s good to watch a few captioned programs before starting from scratch – just to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

If you are creating captions for a program to run on a specific broadcast network or streaming services, then it’s a good idea to find out of they provide a style guide for captions.

Using your NLE to create closed captions

Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, and Apple Final Cut Pro X all support closed captions. I find FCPX to be the best of this group, because of its extensive editing control over captions and ease of use. This includes text formatting, but also display methods, like pop-on, paint-on, and roll-up effects. Import .scc files for maximum control or extract captions from an existing master, if your media already has embedded caption data. The other three NLEs place the captions onto a single data track (like a video track) within which captions can be edited. Final Cut Pro X places them as a series of connected clips, like any other video clip or graphic. If you perform additional editing, the FCPX magnetic timeline takes care of keeping the captions in sync with the associated dialogue.

Final Cut’s big plus for me is that validation errors are flagged in red. Validation errors occur when caption clips overlap, may be too short for the display method (like a paint-on), are too close to the start of the file, or other errors. It’s easy to find and fix these before exporting the master file.

Deliverables

NLEs support the export of a master file with embedded captions, or “burned” into the video as a subtitle, or the captions exported as a separate sidecar file. Specific format support for embedded captions varies among applications. For example, Premiere Pro – as well as Adobe Media Encoder – will only embed captioning data when you export your sequence or encode a file as a QuickTime-wrapped master file. (I’m running macOS, so there may be other options with Windows.)

On the other hand, Apple Compressor and Final Cut Pro X can encode or export files with embedded captions for formats such as MPEG2 TS, MPEG 2 PS, or MP4. It would be nice if all these NLEs supported the same range of formats, but they don’t. If your goal is a sidecar caption file instead of embedded data, then it’s a far simpler and more reliable process.

Audio descriptions

Compared to closed captions, providing audio description files is relatively easy. These can either be separate audio files – used as sidecar files for secondary audio – or additional tracks on the delivery master. Sometimes it’s a completely separate video file with only this version of the mix. Advanced platforms like Netflix may also require an IMF (Interoperable Master Format) package, which would include an audio description track as part of that package. When audio sidecar files are requested for the web or certain playback platforms, like hotel TV systems, the common deliverable formats are .mp3 or .m4a. The key is that the audio track should be able to run in sync with the rest of the program.

Producing an audio description file doesn’t require any new skills. A voice-over announcer is describing any action that occurs on screen, but which wouldn’t otherwise make sense if you were only listening to audio without that. Think of it like a radio play or podcast version of your TV program. This can be as simple as fitting additional VO into the gaps between actor/host/speaker dialogue. If you have access to the original files (such as a Pro Tools session) or dialogue/music/effects stems, then you have some latitude to adjust audio elements in order to fit in the additional voice-over lines. For example, sometimes the off-camera dialogue may be moved or edited in order to make more space for the VO descriptions. However, on-camera/sync dialogue is left untouched. In that case, some of this audio may be muted or ducked to make space for even longer descriptions.

Some of the same captioning service providers also provide audio description services, using their pool of announcers. Yet, there’s nothing about the process that any producer or editor couldn’t handle themselves. For example, scripting the extra lines, hiring and directing talent, and producing the final mix only require a bit more time added to the schedule, yet permits the most creative control.

ADA compliance has been around since 1990, but hasn’t been widely enforced outside of broadcast. That’s changing and there are no more excuses with the new NLE tools. It’s become easier than ever for any editor or producer to make sure they can provide the proper elements to touch every potential viewer.

For additional information, consult the FCC guidelines on closed captions.

The article was originally written for Pro Video Coalition.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Video Technology 2020 – Shared Storage

Shared storage used to be the domain of “heavy iron” facilities with Avid, Facilis, and earlier Apple Xserve systems providing the horsepower. Thanks to advances in networking and Ethernet technology, shared storage is accessible to any user. Whether built-in or via adapters, modern computers can tap into 1Gbps, 10Gbps, and even higher, networking speeds. Most computers can natively access Gigabit Ethernet networks (1Gbps) – adequate for SD and HD workflows. Computers designed for the pro video market increasingly sport built-in 10GbE ports, enabling comfortable collaboration with 4K media and up. Some of today’s most popular shared storage vendors include QNAP, Synology, and LumaForge.

This technology will become more prolific in 2020, with systems easier to connect and administer, making shared storage as plug-and-play as any local drives. Network Attached Storage (NAS) systems can service a single workstation or multiple users. In fact, companies like QNAP even offer consumer versions of these products designed to operate as home media servers. Even LumaForge sells a version of its popular Jellyfish through the online Apple Store. A simple, on-line connection guide will get you up and running, no IT department required. This is ideal for the individual editor or small post shop.

Expect 2020 to see higher connection speeds, such as 40GbE, and NAS proliferation even more widespread. It’s not just a matter of growth. These vendors are also interested in extending the functionality of their products beyond being a simple bucket for media. NAS systems will become full-featured media hubs. For example, if you an Avid user, you are familiar with their Media Central concept. In essence, this means the shared storage solution is a platform for various other applications, including the editing software. There are additional media applications that include management apps for user permission control, media queries, and more. Like Avid, the other vendors are exploring similar extensibility through third-party apps, such as Axle Video, Kyno, Hedge, Frame.io, and others. As such, a shared network becomes the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Along with increased functionality, expect changes in the hardware, too. Modern NAS hardware is largely based on RAID arrays with spinning mechanical drives. As solid state (SSD) storage devices become more affordable, many NAS vendors will offer some of their products featuring RAID arrays configured with SSDs or even NVMe systems. Or a mixture of the two, with the SSD-based units used for short-term projects or cache files. Eventually the cost will come down enough so that large storage volumes can be cost-effectively populated with only SSDs. Don’t expect to be purchasing 100TB of SSD storage at a reasonable price in 2020; however, that is the direction in which we are headed. At least in this coming year, mechanical drives will still rule. Nevertheless, start looking at some percentage of your storage inventory to soon be based on SSDs.

Click here for more on shared storage solutions.

Originally written for Creative Planet Network.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Video Technology 2020 – The Cloud

The “cloud” is merely a collection of physical data centers in multiple locations around the world – not much different than a small storage center you might have. Of course, they employ more advanced systems for power, redundancy, and security than you do. When you work with one of the companies marketing cloud-based editing or a review-and-approval service, like Frame.io or Wipster, they provide the user-facing interface, but are actually renting storage space from one of the big three cloud providers – Google, Amazon, or Microsoft.

There are three reasons that I’m skeptical about ubiquitous, cloud-based editing (with media at native resolutions) in the short term: upload speeds, cost, and security.

Speed

5G (fifth generation wireless) is the technology predicted to offer adequate speeds and low latency for native 4K (and higher) media. While 5G will be a great advancement for many things, it’s a short distance signal requiring more transmission spots than current wireless technology. Full coverage in most metro areas, let alone widespread geographical coverage worldwide, will take many years to fully deploy. Other than potential camera-to-cloud uploads of proxy media in the field, 5G won’t soon be the killer solution. Current technology still dictates that if you want the fastest possible upload speeds for large amounts of data, then you have to tap as close as possible to the internet’s backbone.

Cost

Cloud storage is cheap, but extensive upload and download times aren’t. Unfortunately modern video resolutions also result in huge amounts of data generated on every shoot. Uploading native 4K media for a week-long production is considerably more expensive than FedEx and overnight charges to ship drives. What about long term storage? Let’s say that all of your native media is in the cloud and you pay according to a monthly or annual subscription plan. But what if you want to stop? That media will have to be downloaded and stored locally, which will incur data rate charges, as well as your time to download everything.

Security

Think these sites are unequivocally secure? Look at any data hack at a major company. Security is such a concern in our business that most major movie studios won’t let their editors connect the computers to the internet. Many make these editors check their cell phones at the door. No matter how secure, it’s going to be a hard sell, except for limited slices of the production, such as cloud-based VFX rendering.

I do believe 2020 will be a year in which many will take advantage of some modes of long distance, cloud-based edit services using low-res proxy media. Increasingly some services will be used to move dailies and deliverables around the globe via the cloud. But that’s a big difference from cloud-based editing becoming the norm. One edit scenario many will experiment with is to store the edit project files in the cloud, but with the media mirrored locally at each edit site. This way only the lightweight files used for edit collaboration need be moved over the internet. Think of this as Google Docs for editing. Adobe already offers a version of this, but I suspect you’ll see others, including solutions for Final Cut Pro X. So while true cloud-based editing is not a near-term solution, bits and pieces will become increasingly commonplace.

Originally written for Creative Planet Network.

©2020 Oliver Peters