AJA Ki Pro

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If you thought that there were more than enough tapeless recording devices already on the market by Focus Enhancements, Edirol and Convergent Designs, you would only be partially right. The AJA Ki Pro sparked a lot of enthusiasm at NAB 2009. While it clearly offers cameramen many benefits, it also provides some opportunities for the world of post production.

The Ki Pro was developed by AJA, but like the Io and the IoHD before it, the internal software was co-developed with Apple. Ki Pro approaches tapeless field production from an NLE-friendly, rather than camera-native, design. It records QuickTime movies using embedded versions of Apple’s ProRes 422 and ProRes 422HQ codecs. As a result, you can open these files directly from the hard drive using any QuickTime compliant application, as long as the ProRes codecs are installed on your computer.

As an aside, the name Ki Pro stems from the Asian concept of ki or chi. This is a term for the life force or inner power of all living beings and plays a large part in the philosophies of many types of martial arts.

Configuration

The AJA Ki Pro uses a small, lightweight form factor. It’s about the size of a very large paperback book and can be attached in the field to various camera rigs. The standard package (MSRP $3,995) includes the Ki Pro device, a 250GB removable hard drive and AC power adapters for the Ki Pro and the drive, for when it is detached. Optional accessories include larger capacity drives, solid state storage and a cage and rail system called the Exoskeleton. The latter is a bracket and mount to install the Ki Pro onto a camera rig or tripod and then to attach a small camera to that Exoskeleton system.

Think of the Ki Pro as a recording device that’s built around a version of the AJA FS1 format converter. This means that you not only record in native 525i, 625i, 720p, 1080i or 1080psf, but you can also up/down/cross-convert a signal to one of these formats on input or output. The front panel gives you access to transport controls, menu functions and mix levels for the analog inputs. The back panel holds a series of input and output connectors for HDMI, SDI, component analog and composite video. There are also unbalanced RCA and balanced analog audio XLR connectors with a mic, line and phantom power switch. Finally, there are other interface connections, including timecode in/out, a 9-pin serial port, 1394a, 1394b and Ethernet.

The Ki Pro includes a removable, Mac-formatted 250GB hard drive, which docks to the Ki Pro and connects over a custom multi-pin connector. It can also be connected externally to any computer with a FireWire 800 port (1394b). The Ki Pro front panel sports two ExpressCard|34 memory slots, for optional future recording to a card-based medium.

In the field

I found the Ki Pro to be extremely well thought out. You can run it in the field off of battery or the AC adapter if you have shore power. The system can be controlled from the front panel, a LAN or wirelessly through an access point like an Airport base station. This means you can control it remotely from a laptop or even an iPhone or iPod Touch via a web browser. The latter might come in handy if you have a Ki Pro mounted at the end of a camera crane.

The record settings, like format, clip name, conversion, timecode values, etc. are set by an operator using the front panel controls or one of the remote methods. The menu is easy to navigate once you get the hang of it, but it’s easier to do from the web interface. I tested it through my home router without any issues. Plug in the IP address as the URL and you have access to all the Ki Pro settings (and operational control) using Firefox, Safari or another standard browser.

As an editor, I appreciate the thought put into naming conventions. Unlike the cryptic methods used by camera manufacturers, the Ki Pro lets you assign reel IDs and clip or scene numbers in an EDL and script-compatible manner. Typically all recordings on one drive would have the same reel number, from 001 to 999. Recordings can be designated as clips or scenes with appended alphabetical values and take numbers. Once you assign the initial values, subsequent recordings automatically increment the take number until the operator makes a change. Your first recorded file might be labeled as SC12ATK1, the next would be SC12ATK2 and so on. When you mount the drive on your computer, it shows up with the name of 001 (or another assigned reel number) on the desktop.

Actual use

At the time of this review, shipping units like my evaluation Ki Pro have 1.0 software. Not all functions are yet enabled. For example, I couldn’t start/stop recordings from a camera. AJA is planning an October firmware update that will enable such automatic recording. You will be able to roll the camera and if it provides SDI embedded timecode or has LTC timecode output, then the Ki Pro starts recording when it sees the timecode value change and stops when the value stops changing.

Another function I like is auto-format-sensing. Whatever is coming into Ki Pro will automatically be the native format recorded, unless up/down/cross-conversion is assigned. The exception is 23.98PsF media. To properly record these files, the operator must change the Record Type from Normal to PsF. I was able to test this with SDI from a Sony EX-3 and it worked as advertised. In a future update, AJA plans to provide VFR support as in its KONA and IoHD products. This means you would be able to record the output of a Panasonic VariCam and the Ki Pro would record and recognize the variable speed flags.

AJA started development of Ki Pro long before Apple released its new Final Cut Studio, which included additional ProRes codecs. It is likely that AJA will eventually expand the recording options to include other ProRes codecs; however, the Ki Pro is a single-stream 4:2:2 SDI device. This makes it unlikely that the current Ki Pro model will support the new high-end ProRes 4444 codec. Personally, I have no problem with this, because Ki Pro is intended to be a mastering device on par with high-quality videotape. ProRes 422 equates to the data rate of HDCAM at 147Mbps, while ProRes 422HQ is close to HD-D5 at 220Mbps. In its present form, Ki Pro delivers outstanding visual quality already matching or surpassing all other HD camcorder recordings.

One of the big benefits of Ki Pro is that it extends the life of cameras that have good image technology, but weak recording systems. Many Panasonic VariCam owners aren’t keen to change to newer P2 cameras, since their tape-based VariCams still create very compelling images. Adding a Ki Pro and recording the full-raster, uncompressed HD-SDI output from the camera as native 720p or converted 1080i, means that there’s a lot of life left in those VariCams. Another example is Canon’s XL H1, which is a great camera burdened with a 25Mbps HDV recording mechanism. Ki Pro adds a superior recording system to that camera.

Post production

All of the above makes Ki Pro a great recording product, but the real beauty is for Final Cut editors. Simply eject the 250GB drive, connect it to your computer via FW800 and it mounts on the desktop. All files are contained within a single AJA folder. You can copy those files to your local drive or edit directly from the Ki Pro drive. If you want to edit directly, simply import the AJA folder into the FCP browser and the clips are immediately available. I received a “media not optimized” prompt on my MacBook Pro, but, I didn’t see that same message with a Mac Pro tower. This is a result of how FCP’s Dynamic RT technology indexes performance on these two different computers. Nevertheless, various HD clips in both ProRes 422 and ProRes 422HQ played fine from the Ki Pro’s removable drive on both the laptop and the workstation.

The AJA Ki Pro offers other advantages away from the field. Since up/down/cross-conversion is built-in, simply cable the Ki Pro to nearly any monitor and you can play out audio and video. I was even able to connect HDMI to my living room flat panel and see the high-def video from the Ki Pro. Since the drive uses standard Mac formatting, you can also copy compatible QuickTime ProRes files from the computer back into the AJA folder on the drive. Once the drive is docked back into the Ki Pro, these files can be played out through the video spigots as if they were recorded by the Ki Pro. In addition, the front panel will display the file name, even if it doesn’t conform to the clip/scene naming convention used by the Ki Pro.

(Note: According to AJA this is not yet officially supported, due to some remaining audio work. This will be fully implemented in a future update. Also in the future will be support for the i/o of up to 8 channels of audio over embedded SDI and HDMI.)

This last situation brings up some interesting possibilities. Many small shops are resisting the need to purchase HD VTRs, which can potentially cost more than their entire edit system. If you need to deliver a high definition videotape master (HDCAM, HDCAM-SR, HD-D5, etc.), Ki Pro could be used as an intermediate source. Copy the show to the Ki Pro drive and then take the complete unit to a facility that owns the necessary deck. Connect the Ki Pro to the VTR using SDI and dub from the Ki Pro to the videotape. Granted it’s two steps, but the cost of the Ki Pro, the service and tape stock is a lot less than owning a high-end VTR for only infrequent use. Several days’ rental alone of an HDCAM-SR deck would pay for the Ki Pro.

In closing, it’s important to note that although the ProRes codecs are optimized for Final Cut, this doesn’t mean Ki Pro recordings are limited to only Final Cut Pro. If you run Adobe’s CS4 products on a Mac, then ProRes and ProRes HQ files open and can be used in both Premiere Pro and After Effects. (Final Cut Studio or a ProRes QT component must also be installed to enable this.) Same for Media 100. These files can also be imported into Avid Media Composer, but will be transcoded into DNxHD media upon import. (That might change down the road, if Avid includes drivers for QuickTime files within its Avid Media Architecture API.) Finally, Apple offers a free Windows playback-only QuickTime component for ProRes files. This enables you to open and play ProRes-encoded movies on PCs with QuickTime installed.

On the whole, AJA’s Ki Pro is a versatile product that has quite a few useful applications in the field, the studio and in post. AJA has earned a stellar support reputation, which goes a long way towards pushing the Ki Pro ahead of the competition. If you’ve been looking for a tapeless acquisition device that was designed with post in mind, then look no further. The AJA Ki Pro is it.

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Written for NewBay Media LLC and DV magazine

Blackmagic Design UltraScope

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Blackmagic Design’s UltraScope gained a lot of buzz at NAB 2009. In a time when fewer facilities are spending precious budget dollars on high-end video and technical monitors, the UltraScope seems to fit the bill for a high-quality, but low-cost waveform monitor and vectorscope. It doesn’t answer all needs, but if you are interested in replacing that trusty NTSC Tektronix , Leader or Videotek scope with something that’s both cost–effective and designed for HD, then the UltraScope may be right for you.

The Blackmagic Design Ultrascope is an outgrowth of the company’s development of the Decklink cards. Purchasing UltraScope provides you with two components – a PCIe SDI/HD-SDI input card and the UltraScope software. These are to be installed into a qualified Windows PC with a high-resolution monitor and in total, provide a multi-pattern monitoring system. The PC specs are pretty loose. Blackmagic Design has listed a number of qualified systems on their website, but like most companies, these represent products that have been tested and known to work – not all the possible options that, in fact, will work. Stick to the list and you are safe. Pick other options and your mileage may vary.

Configuring your system

The idea behind UltraScope is to end up with a product that gives you high-quality HD and SD monitoring, but without the cost of top-of-the-line dedicated hardware or rasterizing scopes. The key ingredients are a PC with a PCIe bus and the appropriate graphics display card. The PC should have an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.5GHz processor (or better) and run Windows XP or Vista. Windows 32-bit and 64-bit versions are supported, but check Blackmagic Design’s tech specs page for exact details. According to Blackmagic Design, the card has to incorporate the OpenGL 2.1 (or better) standard. A fellow editor configured his system with an off-the-shelf card from a computer retailer for about $100. In his case, a Diamond-branded card using the ATI 4650 chipset worked just fine.

You need the right monitor for the best experience. Initial marketing information specified 24” monitors. In fact, the requirement is to be able to support a 1920×1200 screen resolution. My friend is using an older 23” Apple Cinema Display. HP also makes some monitors with that resolution in the 22” range for under $300. If you are prepared to do a little “DIY” experimentation and don’t mind returning a product to the store if it doesn’t work, then you can certainly get UltraScope to work on a PC that isn’t on Blackmagic Design’s list. Putting together such a system should cost under $2,000, including the UltraScope and monitor, which is well under the price of the lowest-cost competitor.

Once you have a PC with UltraScope installed, the rest is pretty simple. The UltraScope software is simply another Windows application, so it can operate on a workstation that is shared for other tasks. UltraScope becomes the dominant application when you launch it. Its interface hides everything else and can’t be minimized, so you are either running UltraScope or not. As such, I’d recommend using a PC that isn’t intended for essential editing tasks, if you plan to use UltraScope fulltime.

Connect your input cable to the PCIe card and whatever is being sent will be displayed in the interface. The UltraScope input card can handle coax and fiber optic SDI at up to 3Gb/s and each connection offers a loop-through. Most, but not all, NTSC, PAL and HD formats and frame-rates are supported. For instance, 1080p/23.98 is supported but 720p/23.98 is not. The input is auto-sensing, so as you change project settings or output formats on your NLE, the UltraScope adjusts accordingly. No operator interaction is required.

The UltraScope display is divided into six panes that display parade, waveform, vectorscope, histogram, audio and picture. The audio pane supports up to 8 embedded SDI channels and shows both volume and phase. The picture pane displays a color image and VITC timecode. There’s very little to it beyond that. You can’t change the displays or rearrange them. You also cannot zoom, magnify or calibrate the scope readouts in any way. If you need to measure horizontal or vertical blanking or where captioning is located within the vertical interval, then this product isn’t for you. The main function of the UltraScope is to display levels for quality control monitoring and color correction and it does that quite well. Video levels that run out of bounds are indicated with a red color, so video peaks that exceed 100 change from white to red as they cross over.

Is it right for you?

The UltraScope is going to be more useful to some than others. For instance, if you run Apple Final Cut Studio, then the built-in software scopes in Final Cut Pro or Color will show you the same information and, in general use, seem about as accurate. The advantage of UltraScope for such users, is the ability to check levels at the output of any hardware i/o card or VTR, not just within the editing software. If you are an Avid editor, then you only have access to built-in scopes when in the color correction mode, so UltraScope is of greater benefit.

My colleague’s system is an Avid Media Composer equipped with Mojo DX. By adding UltraScope he now has fulltime monitoring of video waveforms, which is something the Media Composer doesn’t provide. The real-time updating of the display seems very fast without lag. I did notice that the confidence video in the picture pane dropped a few frames at times, but the scopes appeared to keep up. I’m not sure, but it seems that Blackmagic Design has given preference in the software to the scopes over the image display, which is a good thing. The only problem we encountered was audio. When the Mojo DX was supposed to be outputting eight discrete audio channels, only four showed up on the UltraScope meters. As we didn’t have an 8-channel VTR to test this, I’m not sure if this was an Avid or Blackmagic Design issue.

Since the input card takes any SDI signal, it also makes perfect sense to use the Blackmagic Design UltraScope as a central monitor. You could assign the input to the card from a router or patch bay and use it in a central machine room. Another option is to locate the computer centrally, but use Cat5-DVI extenders to place a monitor in several different edit bays. This way, at any given time, one room could use the UltraScope, without necessarily installing a complete system into each room.

Future-proofed through software

It’s important to remember that this is 1.0 product. Because UltraScope is software-based, features that aren’t available today can easily be added. Blackmagic Design has already been doing that over the years with its other products. For instance, scaling and calibration aren’t there today, but if enough customers request it, then it might be available in the next software update as a simple downloadable update.

Blackmagic Design UltraScope is a great product for the editor that misses having a dedicated set of scopes, but who doesn’t want to break the bank anymore. Unlike hardware units, a software product like UltraScope makes it easier than ever to update features and improve the existing product over time. Even if you have built-in scopes within your NLE, this is going to be the only way to make sure your i/o card is really outputting the right levels, plus it gives you an ideal way to check the signal on your VTR without tying up other systems. And besides… What’s cooler to impress a client than having another monitor whose display looks like you are landing 747s at LAX?

©2009 Oliver Peters

Written for NewBay Media LLC and DV magazine

Final Cut vs. Avid Redux

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People like competition for its own sake, so the NLE argument – just like other platform wars – never dies. In the past year, Apple and Avid have broken new ground with very solid updates to their flagship editor applications. Apple with its introduction of the “new” Final Cut Studio, featuring Final Cut Pro 7 – and Avid, first with Media Composer 3.5 and now 4.0. Although Final Cut is today my first choice when picking an NLE to use, I have years of experience with both systems. In this post, I’m trying to present a balanced (non-“fanboy”) look at the two.

A market share tally

Apple claims 1.3 million licensed Final Cut users, however, this figure includes all Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express and Final Cut Studio licenses since day one, excluding upgrades. One research study pointed to 47% market share for Apple and 22% for Avid a couple of years ago. Recently Apple execs indicated to me that FCP has now passed the 50% mark for all new NLE sales. If the figure of 1.3M licensed users represents nearly 50% of the total market, then this means that Avid must have between 400,000 and 600,000 systems (all products) out in the field worldwide.

Although this would seem to give Apple the lead in the NLE wars, one must understand that the Final Cut world is heavily skewed with a wide range of amateur users – students, hobbyists and non-editing video professionals who occasionally do some of their own “hands on” cutting. I think that it’s fair to say that a greater percentage of Avid users are professional editors. It’s my observation that broadcast news and traditional (major studio) film and television show post is dominated by Avid NLEs. In contrast, the boutique editing world of small and medium markets has shifted in favor of Apple’s Final Cut. In all likelihood, the number of users who make a living with either Final Cut or Avid (Media Composer/NewsCutter/Symphony plus Avid DS) is probably fairly even.

Many perceptions of Apple’s and Avid’s products are based on outdated information. Both are robust enough to meet deadline-driven demands. Each comes with pros and cons, however, the choice often comes down to preference and background. Avid reacted late to market forces that have brought better hardware and lower cost, but they are by no means out of the game. Final Cut is no longer the young upstart. It still benefits from Apple’s “coolness” halo, but there’s no longer the “pirate radio” attitude among users that spawned the fledgling FCP user groups at the beginning. Lots of indie films and reality TV shows can be counted in the FCP camp, but the number of major broadcasters and feature film editors who continue to stay loyal to Avid hasn’t significantly changed. In spite of such notable editors as Walter Murch, the Coens, Angus Wall and Billy Fox being vocal proponents of Final Cut, the numbers really haven’t shifted since the release of Cold Mountain. Nevertheless, by every assessment, it seems clear that Apple’s Final Cut Pro market share is still growing in all sectors, while Avid’s isn’t – even in Hollywood.

Let’s take a look at how these two newest versions stack up against each other.

What comes in the box

The Final Cut Studio and Avid Media Composer bundles are both collections of several companion applications. It’s obvious with Final Cut, but often forgotten with Avid.  Both software packages include dedicated applications for editing, compression, DVD authoring, Blu-ray authoring, multi-layered compositing/effects and film database management. Final Cut includes a separate DAW (Soundtrack Pro) and color grading tool (Color). Avid doesn’t have these, but does offer the Boris Continuum Complete filters. BCC6 would double the price of Final Cut Studio if you purchased these for FCP.

Software updates are a touch-and-go issue. We see that once again with Snow Leopard and I’m sure we’ll see that with Windows 7 as well. Avid tends to hang back before their products are qualified for the latest OS updates, but when they are ready, it’s a fairly simple matter of a few updates and you are done. If you live in the Final Cut world, then you’re more likely to stay on top of Apple’s latest updates. This typically involves both the OS and QuickTime. Unfortunately this comes with an uncomfortable dance to make sure all your software, plug-ins and hardware drivers are compatible. Final Cut users simply have to be more vigilant anytime an update or upgrade rolls around.

One further consideration is that Media Composer is cross-platform and FCP only runs on Macs. This isn’t a big deal for FCP users, of course, but many professional editing environments are built on Windows workstations. Using either a dongle or software activation, the same Media Composer license may be legally installed on multiple computers – both Mac or PC. The activated system (or with dongle attached) is the one that may be used at any given time. This means that Avid editors enjoy the benefit of being able to use a PC workstation at work, then activate a Mac laptop and continue editing the project at home or on the road – all with the purchase of a single license. Final Cut Studio does work with multiple installs on different computers, but technically this is a violation of Apple’s EULA. Actually it’s OK to install FCP on 2 personal machines, like a laptop and a tower. Apple intends that you only run one copy at a time and they won’t run concurrently if they are on the same network.

The media backbone

A big item in FCP7 is the addition of more codecs within the ProRes family. This brings ProRes on par with Avid’s DNxHD and in fact, ups the ante with 4:4:4:4 and 2K support. At a casual glance, FCP would seem more open, because of QuickTime – FCP’s underlying media architecture. With the right codecs, QuickTime media files can be directly dragged into FCP – ready to edit without ingest, conversion or rendering. Avid requires an import or ingest phase to convert the media into Avid-compatible OMF or MXF files. That’s the perception at least. In fact, QuickTime is a media standard controlled only by Apple and media that doesn’t match the narrow specs of FCP optimization won’t play very well. Take, for example, H.264 files or RED’s Redcode files. Neither result in a fluid editing experience compared with DV25/50/100 or ProRes.

Yes, you do have to convert some files to DNxHD within Avid, but once you’ve done that, the media plays and scrubs much more responsively in Media Composer than inside FCP. In fact, it’s my experience that even lightweight files like DV25 media are somewhat more responsive in Media Composer than in FCP. Now we are confronted with the issue of native camera formats, like P2 (DVCPRO HD and AVC-Intra) and XDCAM. Avid has embarked on its AMA structure (Avid Media Access), which lets you edit directly from the camera files (or clones of them). Apple still requires these files to be copied and rewrapped as QuickTime movies. I’m all for copying the files before editing, but in a fast-breaking news environment, AMA would seem to give Avid an edge. Copying your files is safer, but native is faster, though at times riskier. In any case, working with native camera media without ANY backup somewhere can be a recipe for disaster.

Media management

FCP is often criticized for its media management. This has become considerably better over recent versions, but it could still stand to improve. I occasionally still run into problems going from offline to online in FCP – something that’s pretty bullet-proof in Avid. Seriously, if you get better results using an EDL than the app’s own Media Manager (as I have), then something is wrong.

The rub is that media linking in FCP is based on a match of name and QuickTime parameters (mainly length and number of tracks). Avid uses reel number and timecode. In addition, both applications track other metadata, but lately Apple has chosen to hide some of that data from the user. For example, when you roundtrip a sequence through Color, your FCP project contains two sequences – before and after Color. The corresponding clips in the two timelines will both carry the same name, but each sequence is linked to a different set of media files: the originals in the before sequence and the Color-rendered media in the after. Although FCP tracks this, that information is “under the hood” and not directly available to the editor.

Avid has always based its media management on two factors: rich metadata that’s embedded into the file wrapper of the media and a database file that cross-references media clips and projects. This results in a more robust media architecture, but one that’s less conducive to drag-and-drop media imports. On balance, both approaches do work well and in spite of occasional hiccups, the FCP approach offers some added versatility for the editor. Thanks to the use of XML, the Apple method has also opened to door to many developers who have created plenty of useful companion applications that let you manipulate media via XML round-tripping.

Collaborative editing

If you’ve ever worked on a feature, TV series or a newscast in which the editors rely on shared storage, then Avid’s Unity has set the standard for concurrent editing workflows. Numerous editors can work inside the exact same project at the same time and each has access to the timelines created by others. This workflow is uniquely Avid’s, although EditShare has created their own viable solution for a similar workflow using either Avid or FCP. If you use another shared storage environment for FCP, like Apple Xsan, you still can’t attain the style of sharing that Avid editors enjoy with Unity. Even though Avid, Quantel, Grass Valley and Facilis are among the companies who have embraced FCP support on their storage, sharing is limited to media, not projects.

It’s important to understand that this does not mean you cannot collaboratively edit with FCP. Mark Raudonis of reality TV shop Bunim-Murray Productions has explained the workflow quite well in this article at Avid2FCP. The key is that Avid stores its metadata in the bins. When an Avid editor on Unity works within a bin, he or she is actually locking all other editors out of that bin. It becomes “read-only” for the others until it’s closed and updated.

FCP stores metadata at the project level. Through careful management, it is possible for FCP editors to enjoy a similar workflow as Avid editors do. Since multiple FCP projects can be open at once, editors can work on local copies of a project. In effect, projects in FCP are treated like bins in an Avid Unity workflow. Nevertheless, the key point is that Avid’s approach automatically takes care of some of the project organization issues. FCP is far more freeform and requires the editors to impose a structured approach of their own, in order to avoid trouble. I personally do some TV station work with both shared Avid+Unity and shared FCP+Xsan systems (in separate departments). I can attest that the “Avid is better because of Unity” argument is a bit of a red herring. Once you get used to the best workflow, both systems get the job done in a collaborative environment.

Tailor your system

An area in which Apple’s Final Cut Studio clearly has an edge is in the sheer number of vendors supplying hardware and software options to enhance the editing environment. I covered this in my “platform” blog post, but one glance at the two ecosystem pages at the top makes it clear that if you want options, FCP is clearly the path for you. In fact, there are a couple of hundred partner-developers who are tied into Apple’s Final Cut Studio structure, many of whom have elements that are integrated right into the FCP UI.

Having a variety of fancy plug-in filters is cool, but the true difference is the availability of third party hardware. This includes audio/video capture and output cards and units (AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, MOTU, Telestream), audio interfaces (Apogee, Focusrite, Presonus) and control surfaces (JL Cooper, Tangent Devices, Euphonix, Mackie, Frontier Designs). If you are an Avid editor, then you are limited to primarily using Avid products.

You do get more choice in the Final Cut world, but at a cost of optimization and performance. AJA, Blackmagic Design and Matrox manufacture great hardware for Final Cut, but I feel that Avid’s hardware delivers more fluid playback, more robust performance and more real-time layers. Nevertheless, third party hardware does a pretty good job of giving this to Final Cut. You might not have quite as much performance, but it won’t cost you as much either. In addition, you may also gain many more options for built-in format/aspect conversions and other valuable features. The choice of third party hardware is one of the key reasons that editors and owners are turning to Final Cut over Avid solutions. That same choice is also high on the wish list of many Avid editors.

This shift toward Final Cut has not been lost on the broadcast server manufacturers, like Omneon, Grass Valley, Quantel and yes, even Avid. All have promoted the fact that you can integrate Final Cut Pro editing clients into their server environment. Media Composer isn’t automatically excluded, but obviously they see the value of promoting this feature to potential Final Cut users. Many broadcasters now work with mixed environments: Avid for hard news and Final Cut for creative services (spots, promos, specials).

Unique features

It’s hard to decide how unique features stack up when comparing Media Composer 4 to Final Cut Pro 7. Both companies are cognizant that their users have to make a living with these products and have been careful not to break things with new features. As much as I like FCP, I have to say that Apple at times tends to be a “refiner” rather than an innovator, when it comes to their Pro Apps software. Many of the products were acquired, although the very innovative Aperture, Motion and Soundtrack Pro are exceptions. More often than not, FCP has introduced new features that had been in Media Composer or other NLEs for quite some time. Apple frequently refines these features, making them easier to use and more efficient; but, the real talent is in their marketing. Apple creates the atmosphere that such “bells and whistles” were first introduced in Final Cut, when in fact they weren’t. Of course, all NLEs copy each other to some extent. Both companies integrate innovations first found in Premiere Pro or EDIUS or Quantel, as well as the other way around.

We have reached a time when NLE tools are pretty mature. It’s very hard to come up with new, earth-shattering tools that set one product apart from another. Still, I don’t want to take away from the advances in FCP 7. The new speed tools, Sharing, Blu-ray support and general editing refinements, like sequence markers that ripple, go a long way towards addressing the needs of working editors. Apple is big on the user experience and I personally find their approach in FCP makes for faster editing. Obviously, others are going to vehemently disagree. I value the in-context, in-timeline editing tools and find that my style on Media Composer has also changed based on how I now edit in FCP. In short, it’s made me a faster editor on both systems.

However, these are refinements and not truly unique items that aren’t offered directly or indirectly by other NLEs. My main beef with the FCP approach is that Apple chooses to add true finesse outside of the main editing application. If you want tracking, a 2.5D or 3D DVE, cleaner slomos and better text, you have to go into Motion. If you want elaborate color grading tools, you have to go to Color. While there are valid reasons for this, I dislike the fact that it’s one or more additional project types that I have to keep track of.

When you compare the same technologies in Media Composer to Final Cut Pro, the advantage is often with Avid. For instance, the FluidMotion and TimeWarp technologies (used for variable speed, tracking and stabilization) yield cleaner results than similar FCP functions. I say cleaner, because FCP blends fields and frames during variable speed functions. Avid’s FluidMotion creates new in-between frames based on motion vector analysis. When you compare individual frames between FCP and Media Composer, the difference is quite distinct. You get a very good chromakeyer in SpectraMatte and if you factor in 3D Warp, Marquee and Avid FX (Boris Red), then Media Composer offers a wealth of compositing, DVE and titling tools right inside the NLE.

Don’t get me wrong. It don’t see it as all rosy on the Media Composer side. The compositing model needs a serious overhaul and there are tons of limitations, but my point is that Media Composer offers the Avid editor some unique features that just aren’t directly inside FCP.

Now let’s look at really unique technologies, where Avid has led the way. Principally, this includes AMA, 3D Stereoscopic video and ScriptSync. I’ve already mentioned AMA, so no need to rehash; however, it can be argued that AMA is really just copying of FCP’s Log & Transfer. Avid wasn’t the first to incorporate 3D tools, but it’s the first NLE used in creative editing (the rough cut) to add Stereoscopic features. ScriptSync is another Avid-only tool. It’s both a feature and a workflow, because it allows film and documentary editors to work strictly with bins and media clips that are organized around a written script. I don’t use either of these two features in my work, but for those editors who do, Avid is the only option. Of course, the real question, is whether enough editors use these features to warrant the R&D investment. Avid tends to do this in-house, while Apple often leaves these niche fields open to 3rd party developers. For instance, Tim Dashwood’s 3D plug-in for FCP (via Noise Industries’ FxFactory).

I chided Apple as being less of an innovator when it comes to FCP, but I have to say that Avid isn’t immune to playing catch-up as well. This is especially true for Media Composer 4’s new Mix-and-Match feature. FCP has been able to mix media of different sizes and frame rates on the same timeline for several years now. Previous versions of Media Composer could mix 480i and 1080i, but you had to stick with compatible frame rates and scan systems. That barrier is now dropped, so in MC 4, feel free to mix NTSC with PAL, 720p with 1080i, 24fps media in a 29.97 timeline and so on. The initial feedback from early users seems to indicate that Avid does this a bit better and with less rendering than FCP does. Clearly its an update that has Avid editors cheering.

People like to argue about platform wars, but this is more silly than productive. The reality is that NLEs are a mature product and nearly every company that offers editing tools has introduced many of the same features. Competition between companies makes for better and more cost-effective products. There’s a loyal user base for each of these systems or they wouldn’t be on the market. Apple and Avid will continue to run in a dead heat among professional film and video editors. Use the tool that meets your needs and your budget and I’m sure you – and your clients – will be happy with result.

(Updated 12/7/09)

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Autodesk Flares Up

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All manufacturers are looking for the best way to deal with these challenging economic times. The Autodesk Media & Entertainment division has managed to hold up well at the high end, with signature products like Smoke, Flame, Inferno and Lustre; but its customers, like everyone else, are certainly clamoring for cost-effective solutions. Autodesk has offered software-based effects products, like Toxik and Combustion, but what’s the best way to offer a lower cost version of the high end system products? That answer came at NAB 2009 in the form of Autodesk Flare 2010.

Autodesk Flare differs from Toxik and Combustion in several ways. Toxik is a complete visual effects pipeline designed for the type of collaborative workflow used at motion picture visual effects houses. It doesn’t really replace the “hero” finishing and compositing suite that a system like Inferno or Flame is known for.  Combustion was a desktop software application acquired from another company. Although it gained a number of features from Flame, Combustion could never be used to take a share of the work off of a heavily-booked Flame room.

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Creative companion

In looking for ways to satisfy demanding Inferno and Flame owners, Autodesk realized that it couldn’t release anything short of the full Flame toolset. Flare is really envisioned as a “creative companion” to Flame or Inferno. It can fit into the same Flame workflow, because it uses the same tools – mainly Flame’s Action (part of Flame’s node-based, Batch procedural compositing environment). All the effects tools are the same as a full-blown Flame system.

Flare is sold as a software-based system to existing Flame and Inferno customers who are willing to handle their own hardware integration on a qualified system. Autodesk doesn’t quote prices and customizes system solutions to the needs of the purchaser, so in loose numbers, Flare is positioned as costing approximately one-fifth the cost of a Flame. Since Flare uses a floating license, customers can install the software onto a number of machines and then authorize any one of these machines to be the active Flare system when needed. This includes laptops, which means that for the first time, a visual effects supervisor can bring the Flame toolset on location to test composites. When those shots are brought back to the facility, the same project can be opened in Flame and the work continued without changing compositing tools.

Autodesk Flare 2010 differs from Inferno and Flame in several ways. The flagship system products are built as turnkey workstations designed for speed and performance in client-supervised sessions. They use an AJA hardware card for SD and HD video capture and a high-end NVIDIA graphics card for broadcast-quality display and video output. In contrast, Flare is a Linux application and it’s up to the customer to configure the workstation and storage according to their performance and budget requirements. There is file i/o, but no video i/o through hardware. There is no broadcast monitor support and Flare doesn’t use the desktop module portion of the Flame GUI. You can see full-screen images, of course, but that’s on a standard computer monitor using the monitor’s color space. Essentially Autodesk took the complete Batch compositing environment from Flame, added file i/o with GigE and Infiniband support and turned that into a separate product – Flare.

Autodesk Flare 2010 solves several customer issues, which are mainly cost and efficiency. A customer who has shied away from purchasing an additional turnkey Flame system, because of the higher cost, can now build up the throughput in his facility by adding seats of Flare. There’s an obvious savings, but more importantly, the owner has increased the capacity to turn out billable work in a timely manner. Most Flame suites are well-booked at successful facilities, so it’s hard for owners to make systems available to junior artists for more mundane tasks. By installing Flare, up-and-coming Flame artists can be assigned to tasks that don’t necessarily require client supervision, but still use the same toolset. Thus more work gets down and at the same time, the staff becomes more experienced on the tools that bring in clients.

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Flare in the real-world

I recently spoke with Jeff Beckerman, President/Creative Director of BOND, a New York creative post house, about their decision to purchase Flare. “Our shop uses a mixture of tools, including Avid Symphony Nitris DX for editorial finishing and Adobe After Effects for design work. The Flame suite is where we tackle complex visual effects. It simply has the best toolset when you need to create seamless effects shots with a high degree of finesse. We were bidding on two effects-heavy projects around the time of NAB. These jobs would have put us in a situation of having to run two Flames to meet the schedule. Renting a second Flame in New York would have cost us about 10-15 grand a month in rental expenses. When we saw the demo of Flare, we knew we had the solution, since the projected rental costs would have been a large chunk towards owning Flare.”

Beckerman continued, “As part of this whole purchase, we upgraded the HP workstation for our existing Flame and installed the Flare software on the older HP model that had been part of the Flame system. This has really boosted the high-def performance of the Flame. Our new Flare station is currently being used for a lot of rig removal, rotoscoping and clean-up work on a standard-def project and all the interaction is in real-time. On an SD job like this one, Flare is giving us the same speed as we previously had on the Flame.”

I asked Beckerman if BOND had taken advantage of the floating license aspect of Flare. He replied, “Not really. I see where that might have advantages in the future, but in our shop we have configured it so the Flame is the ‘host’ system, handling video i/o and media storage. The Flare is networked to the Flame and its storage, so media is moved between the systems in a push-pull approach. We couldn’t have justified the purchase of a second Flame right now, so adding Flare is like having one-and-a-half Flames. BOND’s selling point is creativity. Our strength is in our talented people, so it’s important to us that the technology lets our editors and artists turn out great work for the clients. Flare uses the powerful Flame Batch toolset and we are running it with experienced Flame artists. Now we can respond more quickly when schedules are accelerated or when additional visual effects shots are added to a job at the last minute. There’s no compromise in the quality of the work or the efficiency in getting it done.”

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New Flame and Flare 2010 Tools

If you take a look at the many ways that a Flame system is used, it’s easy to see how such tasks as basic compositing, rig removal, mask creation and more can be prepped or even finished on a Flare. For example, the lead Flame artist can assign several shots to other artists. They would work collaboratively with the lead Flame artist to complete these shots on Flares. Time and resources are maximized without a compromise in the tools. Flare also allows a Flame artist to take a project on the road or home when there’s a need to do so. Flare can handle the same file formats as Flame, which now includes support for REDCODE raw, multichannel OpenEXR and Avid DNxHD with Apple QuickTime.

Flare and Flame share the same tools, so new Flame 2010 features are also included in Flare 2010. It’s already a rich toolset that includes particles, paint, tracking, keying, color correction, morphing and warping tools. Flare, like Flame, processes all content in 4:4:4 RGB and all compositing operates in 3D space. The applications both utilize a 64-bit architecture for fluid interaction. Some of the new creative tools include Normal Mapping, an enhanced 3D text tool and a 3D Blur tool.

Normal Mapping lets the artist access multiple render passes typically generated by 3D animation programs, such as Maya. This is made possible by the OpenEXR format. By controlling these layers, the Flare artist can relight rendered scenes without going back to the 3D application. The enhanced 3D text tool permits the designer to create extruded text within Flare and create expression-based animated text. For example, individual characters can be controlled and text can be animated along a 3D path.

It’s worth noting that Flare and Flame also share the same Sparks filter plug-in architecture. Plug-ins designed for Flame will also work with Flare, but they don’t use a floating license and third party Sparks vendors have yet to produce special versions for Flare. This creates a bit of a dilemma since Autodesk can restrict the functionality of Flame in producing Flare, but plug-ins are different. You can’t really limit the functionality. You get 100% of the benefit of the filter, even if the host application costs less money. I spoke with the marketing folks at GenArts, makers of the popular Sapphire plug-ins. GenArts is presently trying to develop a pricing strategy for Flare customers. They expressed an interest in talking with Flare customers who also wanted to purchase Sapphire for Sparks. This will help them evaluate how to address the situation in the future. Naturally Flare owners are hoping that the third party Sparks vendors will offer a reduced price on Flare Sparks, but for now the product is young enough that any such strategies are still being worked out.

Along with Flare, Autodesk has added another way for users to increase productivity and that is the launch of the new Area website (area.autodesk.com). This is a new user community site for content showcases, blogs, tutorials, tips and discussion forums. All of these moves provide opportunities to move the Autodesk brand into new markets, such as smaller creative shops and broadcast graphics and promotion. Flare now makes this more approachable than ever.

©2009 Oliver Peters

Written for NewBay Media, LLC and Videography magazine

The new Final Cut Studio

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With little fanfare, Apple simply announced the new Final Cut Studio on their website, ending months of speculation in the online communities. Apple had prepped for this moment, however, with ready-made, free Ripple Training and Lynda.com tutorials, online documentation (no more paper manuals) and a number of extra downloads.

The new Final Cut Studio (not version 3 or the 2009 edition) contains Final Cut Pro, Motion, Soundtrack Pro, Color, Compressor, DVD Studio Pro, Cinema Tools and Qmaster. Noticeably absent is LiveType, which didn’t make the cut., because Apple is shifting its text animation efforts totally to Motion. If you prefer LiveType, upgrading a previous version of Final Cut Studio won’t overwrite LiveType and you can continue to use it.

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The macro view

The big highlights of this release are Blu-ray support and expanding the ProRes codec family. Blu-ray support is handled through a new Share function in Final Cut Pro 7 or the Job Action window in Compressor 3.5. These are both essentially the same thing. Blu-ray is just one of the choices, along with DVD, MobileMe, YouTube and others.

If you have a Blu-ray burner, then you can use a simple template in Share or Job Action to create a Blu-ray disc consisting of a single track with chapters. Apple took the bare minimum approach – enough for one-offs to show the client, but not enough to author a disc with several tracks and menus. Adobe Encore is still a better tool for that. In fact, DVD Studio Pro, which would have been the logical choice, was hardly touched and still doesn’t support Blu-ray, even at this small level. It’s received so little attention that I have to question its future.

I tested Compressor’s Job Action feature with my MobileMe account and was pleasantly surprised. I used the presets, let it handle the upload and after a short while, my video was online. The quality was excellent and playback was far smoother than most of the video at popular sites like YouTube and Vimeo. Apple is finally adding professional value to MobileMe. I also burned an AVCHD disc. This is essentially the same thing as a simple Blu-ray, except using standard red laser DVD-R media. Many Blu-ray players, like my Samsung, will play these discs, so it makes one wonder why Blu-ray won in the first place.

The ProRes family gained three new codecs: ProRes 422 (Proxy) – a lightweight offline editing resolution; ProRes 422 (LT) – a broadcast-quality, reduced bandwidth codec; and ProRes 4444 – a high-end codec for compositing, which also supports an alpha channel. By rounding out these options, Apple has clearly made ProRes their editing codec of choice in much the same way as Avid has with DNxHD. This gives the Pro Apps team a codec they can control independent of the rest of  the myriad of QuickTime codecs.

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The micro view – Final Cut Pro 7

Final Cut Pro 7 received the most new features and by itself, makes the upgrade worthwhile. I’ve been running it for a few weeks on real projects without any major issues. It is Intel-only (bye-bye G5s), but you will see very little initial difference between it and the previous version. Stability is worth a lot, of course, so it’s also important to note that this version is ready for Snow Leopard (Mac OS 10.6). Initial anecdotal information from others who have made that jump, is that it’s fine, but with a few issues, like XDCAM SxS card support and so on. It’s important to note, however, that FCP7 doesn’t appear to be specifically optimized for Snow Leopard. That will happen down the road.

It’s best to check out the Ripple and Lynda tutorials for more in-depth details of the new features, but the best one for me is the new speed change tools. This finally makes variable speed ramps functional within FCP. You can access this by clicking on the keyframe button at the bottom of the timeline to reveal the speed tick marks. Select a clip and right-mouse-click the keyframe track to open the contextual menu, which includes the change speed option. Once selected, a new menu opens to reveal a number of related parameters, such as speed and velocity interpolation at the beginning and end of the effect.

NLE manufacturers have been chasing camera manufacturers and this release is no exception. Final Cut adds native support for Panasonic’s AVC-Intra. Bring in your clips through the Log and Transfer module and Final Cut will ingest the footage. It copies the file, rewraps it with a QuickTime wrapper, but does not transcode the codec. Both the 50Mbps and 100Mbps flavors of AVC-I support real-time, multi-stream effects through FCP’s RT Extreme engine.

Other Final Cut Pro 7 improvements might seem minor, but are huge for many editors. The big one for me is that timeline markers finally ripple as you insert or delete clips. This feature can be toggled on and off based on your needs. There are also a few that were previously available from plug-in suppliers, but not from Apple. For instance, you now have a large Avid-style Timecode window.  Formerly this required Digital Heaven’s BigTime plug-in, but now it’s native. Same for alpha transitions. Final Cut now includes built in wipes in which a foreground element covers the transition as an A scene wipes to a B scene. idustrial revolution did this first with SupaWipe, but now it’s built-in. In fact, Apple offers a serious of alpha transition effects with companion media that may be downloaded from their online resource page.

If you are a fan of control surfaces, you’ll be happy to know that Final Cut Studio has now implemented the Euphonix EuCon protocol, in addition to Mackie. Panels like Euphonix’s MC Control and MC Mix could be used before, but under Mackie emulation. Now there is native control, meaning you gain more of the programmable features that these consoles offer.

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Motion 4

Motion is one of the few applications within Final Cut Studio that was originally created by Apple engineers and it continues to get better with each iteration. New improvements include 3D shadows and reflections, depth-of-field effects and new text tools. The latter picks up and expands upon what was done in LiveType. There is a new Glyph tool that lets you manipulate each individual letter in 3D space. If you install Final Cut Studio and opt to skip the content, don’t do so for Motion. Some of the content enables text behaviors, so by not installing the Motion content, these behaviors won’t appear in the pulldown menu. I also noticed that when working with LiveFonts and the new Glyph tool, I had more control of the characters than I did in LiveType.

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Soundtrack Pro 3

Final Cut Studio’s built-in DAW received a number of small but important features, including better Euphonix integration, noise reduction enhancements, direct recording into the Multitake Editor and advanced Time Stretch. The smallest, but most obvious new feature is Voice-Level Match. This will probably see the most use by editors. If you have a number of dialogue or voice-over clips at differing volume levels, you can now use Lift and Stamp tools to analyze and adjust the volume of one clip relative to the other.

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Color 1.5

Folks that find Color challenging won’t be happy. It still presents a very un-Mac-like environment. Nevertheless, this powerful grading tool has gone through some improvements for better round-tripping between Color and Final Cut Pro and to optimize rendering. The most welcome news is for RED One owners. Color finally breaks the frame size limitations of Final Cut Pro by supporting native 4K camera raw files from the RED One camera. You can render back to ProRes 4444, but you have to export DPX files for larger frames, if you intend to stay at 4K sizes.

As part of the across-the-board Euphonix support, Color will also support the new MC Color panel. This is a trackball-style colorist’s panel. In addition, Color 1.5 supports the Tangent Devices Wave, so two low cost controllers have been added to the more expensive models from JL Cooper and Tangent Devices.

To help first time users become more productive with Color, a set of 90 Color look presets have been created. These may be downloaded from Apple and installed as part of your Color toolset.

Gotchas

I’ve had few very hiccups in the weeks that I’ve run the new Final Cut Studio. The main issue I’ve hit is gamma handling with legacy codecs, like Photo-JPEG, a favorite for stock footage houses. Using QuickTime Player Pro to convert these to ProRes causes elevated gamma levels in Final Cut Pro 7; but, only after a filter was added and the clip rendered. The same clips converted via Compressor were fine. As Apple moves more down the QuickTime X path, I suspect conversion of legacy codecs through QuickTime 7 should be avoided. Use Compressor 3.5 instead.

[ EDIT: I’ve recently hit two other issues. It appears that things related to interlacing are somewhat “broken”. Horizontal text crawls and vertical text rolls now render as frame-based media, i.e. progressive and not interlaced. They will preview as interlaced and they used to render as interlaced, but now become frame-based once rendered. This appears to be true using Boris, the internal text tools and third party FxScript plugins. The second issue I’ve hit is between Compressor 3.5 and FCP7. Compressor can now identify source clips and part of this is field order. It appears that it randomly guesses Field Order wrong. I loaded several 1080i Upper Field clips and these were ID’ed as Upper, Lower or Progressive. As a result, conversions made to these files were subsequently incorrect. FCP7 also reads these files incorrectly, but sometimes in the opposite direction. ]

In the end, this is a healthy update with both small and large improvements. I’ve cherry-picked the most notable to talk about, but there are many more. Apple has lowered the base price to $999 or an upgrade at $299. If you already own an Intel Mac Pro or MacBook Pro and make your living using Final Cut Studio, then don’t think twice about  moving up.

© 2009 Oliver Peters   Written for NewBay Media LLC and Videography magazine