Solutions to Improve FCP’s Media Management

Media management has long been considered Apple Final Cut Pro’s Achilles’ Heel. In reality, FCP has gotten better in this regard and does a pretty decent job of linking project master clips to media. The shortcomings of FCP media management become apparent when projects are moved around among different edit systems, hard drives and editors. I’ve started to dabble with a few different applications that improve on FCP’s native abilities. I’ll bring these to you on an irregular basis, once I get a chance to do a bit more testing.

The first of these is FcpReconnect from VideoToolShed. This is the brainchild of Bouke Vahl, a Dutch editor and software developer. FcpReconnect may be used in a number of different ways, but in general, works by linking files based on matching reel numbers and timecode. For FCP editors, it provides an excellent solution to projects that use an offline-online edit workflow. Since reel number and timecode are the key, you are less subject to FCP’s need to have file names that completely match. For most workflows, there are two basic ways of using FcpReconnect: a) consolidation and relink or b) relink via XML.

Method A – Consolidate and Relink

As a test, I started with footage from a recent Canon EOS 5D Mark II project. The native camera files are 1920×1080 H.264, 30fps and have no reel numbers or timecode. As I described in a previous post, I converted the media to Apple ProResLT in Compressor, conformed the files to 29.97fps in Cinema Tools and added reel numbers and timecode using QtChange – another handy application from VideoToolShed.

To test FcpReconnect, I used Compressor again to convert the hi-res ProResLT “master” files into DV anamorphic “proxy” files for offline editing. The DV files have the same reel number and timecode, but aren’t an exact file name match, as they had a “DV” suffix appended to the clip name.

I created an FCP edit project (NTSC DV anamorphic) and assembled a basic edit sequence using the DV proxy files. In this example, the DV clips are independent from the hi-res files, which would be the workflow if I decided to do an offline edit on my laptop or gave the files to another editor to cut segments for me. Only the DV files would be the sources in this edit.

Once the edit is done, the next step is to use FCP’s Media Manager to create an offline project. Set the target format to match the hi-res media (1920×1080/30p ProResLT) and set short handle lengths. This creates a new project, with only the clips that were used in the cut. The media for these hi-res clips will show up as “offline”, of course. Next, export a Batch List of this new sequence.

Open FcpReconnect and first make sure you have selected the right timecode standard in the Set Up pulldown menu. VideoToolShed is in The Netherlands, so the default at first launch will be PAL. Once you’ve set this, select the target media folder (the hi-res HD files) and select the Batch List that you just exported. Once it finds all of the matches, you have a few options.

For this test, I chose to use clip names and copy/trim self-contained media of the selected files. This is the equivalent of Avid’s “consolidate” feature.

The clips that are used in the edited sequence are copied to a new folder with a duration equal to the edited length on the timeline, plus the handles. It also renames the media files to match the clip names used in the sequence.

Return to FCP and reconnect the media (currently offline) of the hi-res sequence to the newly consolidated files. Typically, once the first file is located, the others will be automatically found. You will get an FCP dialogue box, because the new media attributes will not completely match the expected attributes. This is normal. Simply click “continue” and you’ll be OK.

Let me caution, that I would still avoid wildly renaming clips inside the FCP browser. The Canon files are sequentially numbered movie files. I tried some tests in which I completely renamed these files. For example, “MVI_2061-DV” might have been renamed to “Richard CU”. Most of the time this worked fine, but I did have a few clips that would not relink. My recommendation is still to use other columns in FCP or at least to leave the number as part of the new clip name. This will make it easier if you must manually locate a few files. I had no such problems in the tests where I left the master clip name the same as its corresponding media file name.

Method B – Relink via XML

An alternate method is to skip the consolidation step. After all, if you already have the hi-res media on your drives, you might not want to copy these files again. In Method B, you’d start the same way with hi-res and proxy files. Edit the proxy project and then use FCP Media Manager to create a new offline project matching the hi-res format. Export a Batch List AND an XML file from this new offline sequence.

In FcpReconnect, pick the target (hi-res) media folder and the Batch List. Instead of coping media, open the XML file. FcpReconnect analyzes the XML against the Batch List and the target media folder and generates a new XML.

Open this new XML file in Final Cut Pro and select “create new project”. The result will be a new FCP project containing one sequence, which is linked to the hi-res media. If you have done this properly, the sequence settings should match the target HD format (ProResLT in my example).

You can make sure the sequence clips are linked to the right media by checking the media path in “item settings”.

In addition, you can also verify frame-accuracy by placing the proxy edit sequence over the hi-res edit sequence and make sure everything lines up. My tests were all accurate.

VideoToolShed’s FcpReconnect is one of a number of applications being developed to fill in the gaps of Final Cut Pro’s media management. It’s clear to see that with a little care, it doesn’t take much to make FCP a far more robust NLE.

©2010 Oliver Peters

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CoreMelt Lock and Load X

CoreMelt offers a number of GPU-accelerated plug-in sets for Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express, Motion and After Effects. One powerful collection is CoreMelt Complete V2 (“v-twin”), which is currently up to 200 filters, transitions and generators. However a very cool, separate filter is their Lock & Lock X stabilization plug-in for Final Cut Pro. The original Lock & Load filter was updated to Lock & Lock X (a free upgrade for L&L users) shortly after NAB2010 and gained a significant new feature – Rolling Shutter Reduction.

Rolling shutter artifacts – the so-called “jello-o-cam” effect – have been the bane of CMOS-sensor cameras, most notably the HD-capable DSLR still cameras. The short answer for why this happens is that objects move in place during the time interval between the data being picked up from the top to the bottom of the sensor. The visual manifestation is skewing or a wobble to the image on fast horizontal motion or shaky handheld shots. CoreMelt’s Lock & Load X is designed to be used for both standard image stabilization, as well as reduction of these artifacts.

Final Cut Pro already includes a very good, built-in stabilization filter in the form of Smoothcam – a technology inherited from Shake. So why buy Lock & Load X when you already own Smoothcam? Two answers: speed and rolling shutter artifact reduction. Generally, Lock & Load X is faster than Smoothcam, although this isn’t always a given. CoreMelt claims up to12 times faster than Smoothcam, but that’s relative. One important factor is the length of the clip. When Smoothcam analyzes a clip to apply stabilization, it must process the entire media clip, regardless of how long of a clip was cut into the sequence. If the media clip is five minutes long, then Smoothcam processes all five minutes. Fortunately, this can proceed as a background function.

In contrast, Lock & Load X only analyzes the length of the clip that is actually in the sequence. If you only used ten seconds out of the five minutes, then Lock & Load X only processes those ten seconds. In this example, processing times between Smoothcam and Lock & Load X would be dramatically different. On the other hand, if you used the complete length of the clip, then processing times for the two might be similar. I’m not exactly sure whether Lock & Load X uses the same type of GPU-acceleration as the V2 filters, so I don’t know whether these processing times change with the card you have in your machine. I’m running a stock NVIDIA GeForce 120 in my Mac Pro, so it could be that an ATI or NVIDIA FX4800 card might show even better results with Lock & Load X. I don’t know the answer to that one, but in any case, processing a 1920 x 1080 ProResLT clip that was several seconds long took less than a minute for both stabilization and rolling shutter reduction.

When you compare the stabilized results between Smoothcam and Lock & Load X, you’ll generally prefer the latter. Most of the time the filter doesn’t zoom in quite as far and if you leave some movement in the image (such as with handheld shots), the “float” of the image feels more natural. However, there are exceptions. I tested one clip with a hard vertical adjustment by the cameraman. At that point, Smoothcam looked more natural than Lock & Load X, which introduced a slight rotation in correcting that portion of the clip. Another difference is real-time performance. On my machine, Smoothcam left me with a green render bar and Lock & Load X was orange. In FCP terms, this means that the unrendered Smoothcam clip played without degraded performance, while the Lock & Load X clip dropped frames. Once rendered, there’s no difference, of course, and render times were similar between the two. Again, this result might differ with another display card.

Rolling shutter artifact reduction is not unique to Lock & Load X, but as far as I know, is currently only available in one other, more expensive filter from The Foundry. In CoreMelt’s implementation, you must select the shutter coefficient, which is based on certain camera profiles supplied by CoreMelt with the filter. If you are working with Canon EOS 5D Mark II or EOS 7D footage, simply pick the camera, run the tracking analysis and you are done. You can choose to stabilize, reduce rolling shutter artifacts or both. In many cases, rolling shutter reduction is very subtle, so you might not see a massive change in the image. Sometimes, the filter simply corrects minor vertical distortions in the frame.

One application I find quite useful is with handheld shots that are intended to look like Steadicam shots. Lock & Load X does a nice job of steadying these shots without losing the natural “float” that you want to keep in the image. The “before” version might look decent, but when you compare the “after” version, it is definitely the preferable image. In order for Lock & Load X to do its magic, it has to blow-up the image slightly, so that the picture fills out to the edges of the frame This is true of any stabilization filter, including Smoothcam. Lock & Load X does this expansion within the filter and doesn’t change motion tab size values. The filter includes a “smart zoom” feature – intelligently resizing the image throughout the clip so that the least amount of blow-up is performed at any time. For a subtle stabilization, like the handheld shot example, Lock & Load X will typically zoom the image between 7% and 12% throughout the length of the clip. Thanks to the processing used, the quality of the rendered clip will be better than if you had zoomed in 10% in FCP’s motion tab.

CoreMelt’s Lock & Load X is a specialized filter. When you have the need for this function, it’s hard to beat. Clearly a new selling point is rolling shutter artifact reduction. Pro video cameras aren’t immune to the effect, however, since even a Sony EX uses a CMOS chip. But it’s a big factor for the HDSLRs. These cameras will continue to be the hot ticket for a while, so Lock & Load X becomes an indispensible tool for editors posting a lot of Canon and Nikon projects.

©2010 Oliver Peters

PHYX Color

I find the many color correction tools to be the most useful of the various plug-ins on the market. For me, they become the most often used, because they don’t lock you into a trite look, characteristic of many special effects filters. Noise Industries, whose filters are a cut above the norm, has accrued a nice collection of FxFactory filters that can be used for grading and color correction, thanks to their partnership with developers, such as DV Shade and Luca Visual FX.

A recent addition to the fold is PHYX, who has been a developer of plug-ins for Apple Shake. Their association with Noise Industries now brings two powerful tool groups (PHYX Keyer and PHYX Color) to Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express, Motion and After Effects.

Click any image to see an enlarged view

PHYX Color is a deceptively simple set of five color correction/grading filters: Bleach Bypass, Glow Dark, Selective Saturation, Shift/Suppress and Techni2Strip. The names might imply a one-trick pony, but that’s hardly the case. I’ve pulled a sample frame from a recent Canon 5D project I posted for DeBortoli Wines. This frame is of their lovely Yarra Valley, Australia winery estate. The image is as it came from the camera – in other words, I haven’t done any correction to it prior to applying these filters.

Techni2Strip

The look of the Technicolor process came back into vogue with The Aviator and a few filter sets include a plug-in similar to this. Techni2Strip attempts to authentically simulate the process of photographing through green and red filters and offers two methods. Above is an example of Method A, which offers the most control and is supposed to be the most accurate simulation of the process. In general, adjustments shift the image between being more yellow or more cyan.

Here’s an example of Method B, which offers less control and according to PHYX is a less authentic simulation.

Shift/Suppress

This filter is analogous to using a colored gel in either an additive or subtractive process. Shift (seen above) moves the colors in an image towards the selected color. In this example, teal.

When set to Suppress, the selected color is removed from the image. Here, I’ve selected a blue, which is then pulled out or suppressed as a component of the foliage, hills and sky in this shot.

Selective Saturation

Selective Saturation is a similar effect to Suppress but uses a different sampling technique. More of a specific color is removed and it is a better filter if you are trying to isolate a specific color. In this example, I sampled the darker vineyard area and desaturated it. This left saturation in the main building and hills in the background.

Glow Dark

This filter diffuses the darker area of the image. It is intended to be used on very crisp, synthetic images – like computer-generated scenes – and make them look more “real”. The diffusion removes the harshness of edges. Its use shouldn’t be limited to CGI, however. In this first example, you can see that an extreme setting gives you a very diffused look for a more dream-like result.

This second example with different settings yields a different result entirely. Note how the ridge in the middle of this scene feels almost three-dimensionally offset from the distant hills in the background.

Bleach Bypass

A bleach bypass filter has been a staple of many effects packages since the look first cropped back up in Three Kings and Savings Private Ryan. This one gives you an authentic look, which characteristically is desaturated, high contrast and has blown-out highlights. Unlike many others, PHYX Bleach Bypass can also be useful as a general grading filter and doesn’t need to result in the typical “skip bleach” look. Above, I’ve set it to have a very hyper-real, colorful appearance.

This second example is more like what you expect to see when you think of the look of a “bleach bypass” or “skip-bleach” or “ENR” process.

Mix and match

Like any filter in Final Cut Studio or After Effects, you don’t need to stop at just one! Often you get the best result when you stack up a few to establish a “look”. In the following examples, I’ve applied four PHYX Color filters (Bleach Bypass, Glow Dark, Suppress and Shift) to the image, which is shown neutral above.

First, I’ve applied Bleach Bypass and cranked up the settings for a very punchy result.

Second, Glow Dark adds some diffusion.

Third, I’ve used Suppress to pull some of the lushness out of the green of the foliage.

Fourth, I’ve used Shift to add an overall peach-color tint to the image.

©2010 Oliver Peters

Euphonix Artist Series

As a video editor who started in the days of linear suites, tactile control surfaces are near and dear to my heart. It’s one of the things I miss in the modern nonlinear edit suite. Control devices, such as transport controls and mixing panels make you more efficient and elevate the performance capabilities of the room, not to mention, lessen operator fatigue. Euphonix entered the market years ago as a manufacturer of large, digitally-controlled, analog mixing consoles. They are a leader today in digital consoles for recording studios, live broadcast and video/film post production.

From this heritage, Euphonix has developed the Artist Series – a line of smaller audio/video controllers, based on their EuCon communications protocol. These products include MC Control, MC Mix, MC Transport and MC Color. The first three units can be used with various audio applications, like Nuendo, Digital Performer and Pro Tools. When Apple introduced Final Cut Pro 7 late last year, EuCon support was added, so Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack Pro, Color and Logic Pro can now communicate with these Euphonix surfaces in their native protocol. You aren’t limited to emulation using Mackie Control or HUI protocol.

The four Artist Series controllers are designed to be mixed and matched based on your needs. MC Transport is a control unit to drive your timeline, similar to Contour Design’s Shuttle Pro, the Lightworks edit controller or the discontinued Avid MUI. It has a large jog/shuttle knob and a number of programmable soft keys. MC Mix features eight motorized faders with additional soft keys and adjustment knobs. It is intended purely for mixing without any dedicated transport control section. MC Control combines transport, application commands and mixing into a single unit.

The real news came when Euphonix introduced MC Control, a control surface designed specifically for Apple Color. Tangent Devices and JL Cooper already made panels for Color, but at $1499, the Euphonix product finally brought the price into a range that made it attractive for the average Final Cut Studio owner.

Getting started

Euphonix loaned me an MC Control and MC Color for a few weeks. They were tested at different times and not connected together, but there’s no issue in running multiple panels at once. After a simple installation process, the EuControl software is placed into your Applications folder and runs resident on your Mac. The panels themselves connect to either your Ethernet port or an Ethernet router.  Multiple panels require a router or switch.

A couple of key points. If your Mac Pro has two Ethernet ports, then only Port 1 works correctly. In my case, I also had to turn off the Airport (wireless) card to have the panel be recognized. Once each was set up and working, the panels performed without issue on both a 17” MacBook Pro laptop and a MacPro tower. The last step in the process is to select the Euphonix controller in each application’s Control Surface dialogue.

MC Control

MC Control works with either EuCon, Mackie or HUI protocol, so it can be used with FCP6 as well as FCP7. EuCon control adds functions not available under the others. The first feature to jump out at you is the colorful central touch screen, surrounded by a series of soft keys and soft knobs. These are application-specific, so if you have both Final Cut Pro and Soundtrack Pro open at the same time, the display and button functions will change as you toggle between the two applications.

The right third of the panel is home for navigation and transport controls. The left portion houses four motorized faders. These have a very smooth tactile feel and are the biggest selling point for the unit. The faders function the same way as the virtual faders do within the application, so you can set clip levels or use them to write automation mix passes. Like most mix controllers, MC Control has Nudge and Bank functions, so the four physical faders can be used with more than four timeline tracks. Nudge shifts the group over one track at a time. If you press Nudge once, then faders 1-4 shift to tracks 2-5. If you press Bank, it shifts in groups of four tracks at a time, so faders 1-4 control tracks 5-8.

Final Cut Pro’s mix tool is based on mono tracks. A stereo track in FCP is simply two linked mono tracks that are panned left and right. Soundtrack Pro, however, combines a stereo pair into a single stereo track. An eight-track FCP timeline made up of four stereo pairs shows up as four stereo tracks when sent to Soundtrack Pro. In other words, a stereo clip ties up two faders in Final Cut, but only one in Soundtrack Pro.

Fortunately MC Control is smart enough to follow this. I set up a test mix of the same material in both Final Cut Pro and Soundtrack Pro and then quickly bounced back and forth. MC Control had no difficulty in going between the two – each time resetting the fader positions, redrawing the touch screen and swapping between stereo and mono tracks. MC Control gives you a wide range of access to each application’s common commands, however, you are not able to control some items, like filter parameters. That communication isn’t sent out from FCP over EuCon to the device.

MC Color

MC Color is the first Euphonix panel to extend beyond an audio-centric world. It is optimized for Apple Color and features three trackballs with z-rings, touch-sensitive soft knobs, programmable soft keys, transport controls and dedicated keys to copy and paste four color grades. Euphonix did a good job of packing Color’s various tabs, buttons, rooms and controls into this panel. That’s no easy feat, as Apple Color is the most complex and foreign GUI that a typical FCP editor will encounter. It does take a while to get used to MC Color’s layout. The controls all do multiple duties and are contextual – changing as you move through Color’s various tabs, known as “rooms”. Once you use MC Color for a while, you’ll learn which common tasks are mapped to a knob, soft key, trackball or z-ring.

The main reason you’d use a control surface for color grading is the trackballs and that’s where I’ll focus. The three trackball/z-ring controls are designed to adjust the color wheels. These are the main tools for shadow, midrange and highlight color balance and levels. That’s a common function of nearly every color grading application. The trackballs move smoothly, but the default range of movement is very fine. It takes a lot of spins to move from one side to the other of the on-screen color wheel. You can adjust the sensitivity for faster movement, as well as assign a multiplier button to accelerate the amount of travel.

I cranked up the sensitivity to 50 (about midway in its range), which made the cursor travel faster, though actual cursor movement on-screen seemed a bit coarse. The tactile response of the trackball itself was still smooth, however. Since the trackballs works with optical sensors, you can’t just give the trackballs a hard spin and have inertia move the cursor faster. You get better results with a slower, steadier approach. Euphonix suggests a sensitivity setting of around 33 and then use the 10x multiplier soft key when you want to accelerate mouse/trackball movement.

Another favored colorist’s tool is Curves. This requires a mouse or a pen to place points along the curve graph. MC Color lets you turn the center trackball into a conventional trackball mouse. You can use this to navigate around the curves and inject and adjust points along a curve. Even though MC Color controls Apple Color well, I’m not sure I would use it exclusively without mouse or keyboard. At times, I found it simply faster to click or move something with the mouse than to use a soft key or trackball. Bear in mind that I approach it with a video editor’s mentality and the design of MC Color reflects input from a number of professional colorists.

Conclusion

Euphonix’s Artist panels are top-notch controllers. They are well designed and well-constructed. Light, but not light-weight. One good reason to buy a surface is to ease the wear and tear on your wrist from repetitive stress disorder, caused by long-term mouse use. An even bigger reason is to be faster and more productive. You mix better when you can grab more than one fader at a time. You fly through color grading when you can use both hands to adjust multiple parameters simultaneously. This is something mixers and colorists have known for years.

Each of these panels is designed with different tasks and working styles in mind. I’m a big keyboard user, so I prefer using it for transport control – a throwback to the linear days, I suppose. I hate to mix automation passes with the mouse; therefore, MC Mix holds more attraction than MC Transport or MC Control. If I were doing daily color grading sessions, MC Color would definitely be a “must have” accessory. Thanks to the small form factor of the Artist Series panels, I could easily fit both of these panels side-by-side on my desk. They would neatly fit between my keyboard and the two computer displays of my system. Obviously another editor might choose to mix and match panels in a different configuration. The good news is that Euphonix is offering a lot of power at a very attractive price. Even adding all four panels costs less than many of the other items purchased for a professionally-equipped Final Cut Studio suite.

NOTE: This review was written prior to the announcement at NAB and completion of Avid’s acquisition of Euphonix. The Artist panels currently work with ProTools under Mackie emulation, but one can only assume that down the road, Avid’s audio and video products will integrate the EuCon protocol. At this time it is unknown whether a panel like MC Color will eventually work with Media Composer, Symphony or DS. According to comments from Avid personnel, it is their intention to see the Artist Series panels continue to work with as many systems – including competitors – as possible.

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2010 Oliver Peters

Yanobox Nodes

In the run-up to NAB, Noise Industries, producer of the popular FxFactory plug-ins for Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express, Motion and After Effects, announced a very playful and inventive plug-in called Nodes.

Noise Industries works with a collection of partners who develop a variety of wildly different plug-ins that all take advantage of the Apple FxPlug architecture and operate under FxFactory as a filter management utility. FxPlug allows for GPU acceleration of effects. One of these developers is Yanobox, makers of Motype, a text animation tool. New from Yanobox is Nodes, which had been quietly in beta testing and was announced in conjunction with the show. Like Motype, Nodes installs as a “generator” within Final Cut Pro, but beyond that, it’s a bit hard to describe.

Yanobox has combined lines, objects and text into a single tool, where the lines tie the objects together and each object can have associated text linked to that object. These lines, objects and text stay linked together in 3D space.

The control panel offers plenty of ways to alter a basic preset to create a variety of movements, forming spirals, flying airplanes, geometric globes and much more.

I had a chance to play with Nodes in the weeks leading up to NAB and I must say that it’s one of those plug-ins that’s fun to use. It has a real retro feel to me – like something you’d see as part of the title sequence of a 1960s TV show.

I would suggest that an After Effects or Motion designer might feel more comfortable with it than the typical editor, but like all the other FxFactory plug-ins, there’s a free trial period in which users get to check it out. In either case, even the most “design-challenged” editor can use it to come up with something that looks pretty cool.

Originally written for DV Magazine and NewBay Media, LLC.

©2010 Oliver Peters