Sally Menke

Maybe it’s that my first editing mentor was a woman or that I think editors shouldn’t always slave away in anonymity, but something about Sally Menke’s untimely and unfortunate passing struck a chord with me. I am in LA at DV Expo and initially heard the news with half an ear while getting dressed in the morning. It was only later that the connection was made for me when I was told that the news had been about Menke – an apparent victim of the insane heat wave LA had just experienced.

Sally Menke was a frequent collaborator with director Quentin Tarantino. I’ve been fortunate to have met and interviewed a number of  “A-list” feature film editors. Sadly, Menke wasn’t one of them. Nevertheless, if editing is “the invisible art”, the films that she’s cut have left more of a mark on me than others. Few editors can boast such a body of work – ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill (1 and 2) to Inglourious Basterds. Not only have her films been memorable in many ways – not the least of which is editing – but they’ve made it into pop culture like few others. I’m not sure whether or not these films would have been as good in other hands, but they are all crisply cut and tackle the whole range of editing challenges from dialogue to action.

Folks who might be unfamiliar with Sally Menke should check out this Editors Guild magazine feature, as well as The Cutting Edge DVD, which features several clips by and about her. If you are a student of editing, then Menke’s work is a good place to start. She will be missed by millions who will never even know. God speed and rest in peace, Sally.

©2010 Oliver Peters

Configuring a Mac Pro for Editing

Nearly any modern laptop or desktop computer has enough horsepower to run the leading graphics, editing or encoding applications. The right choice depends on your need for expandability, interconnectivity and/or performance with specific formats.

I do a lot of Apple Final Cut Pro editing, so I stick with Macs. This also equips me for the other possibilities, including Adobe CS5, Avid Media Composer 5, Media 100 or Autodesk Smoke for the Mac. If I opted to set up a Windows partition under Boot Camp, Parallels or VMware Fusion, I could also run other PC-based NLEs like Sony Vegas Pro.

Although this article is going to be Apple-centric, the hardware considerations of how best to configure a Mac Pro are the same for a comparable HP if you are a Windows user. You can run most of the popular desktop editing applications on a MacBook Pro, iMac or Mac Pro, but if you need the most versatility, then the Mac Pro tower is the best option.

CPU/processing cores

Manufacturers hit the wall at around 3GHz of CPU speed. Companies like Intel re-engineered the CPU architecture to build more processing pipelines (cores) into a single chip. Current designs offer two (dual), four (quad) or six (hex) cores. Mac Pros come with either one or two Intel Xeon processors, each with either a quad-core (“Nehalem”) or hex-core (“Westmere”) design. You can configure a Mac Pro with four, six, eight or twelve cores of processing power. In addition, these chips allow for hyper-threading, which effectively doubles the core count, by making each physical core function as two virtual cores. Depending on the software, your eight-core Mac Pro may perform with the processing power of sixteen virtual cores.

The various chips come with different processor speed ratings, currently ranging from 2.4GHz to 3.33 GHz. Since it’s common to see a slower speed in a chip with more cores, the dilemma is whether to buy a machine based on the actual processor speed or the total number of CPU cores. Most NLEs don’t take advantage of all cores. In fact, Adobe CS5 is the first software package that’s starting to tap into the available power of all components.

In my experience, a faster four-core workstation will often equal and sometimes exceed the performance of a slower eight-core machine in real-world, day-to-day editing. Speed still matters. Other apps, like encoders, will often use all available cores, so that gives the edge to having more cores. Last October, I opted for the entry model, eight-core configuration, mainly because the two-CPU design offered the ability to use more RAM than the single-CPU machine. That’s still the case.

Note: The latest Mac Pros are set to launch in the 64-bit mode by default. Since many of your applications will most likely be 32-bit apps, you will want to reset the default to launch in the 32-bit mode, so you can run both types of software. The beauty of “Snow Leopard” is that 32-bit apps will run in a 32-bit mode, while 64-bit apps run as 64-bit, when you boot as 32-bit.

RAM

RAM queues the data feeding the CPU cores. The rule-of-thumb is to install 2GB of RAM per core. If you think of a twelve-core machine as having 24 virtual cores under hyper-threading, that would mean a maximum of 48GB of RAM, which would exceed the 32GB recommended limit of the current machine. A lot of RAM is nice, but again, most applications don’t utilize this effectively. I consider between 8GB and 16GB a practical amount, depending on how you use your machine. I installed 12GB of RAM and that’s been fine for most of my work. You can always add more RAM later from popular suppliers, like  Crucial and Other World Computing (OWC).

GPU/graphics card

When I bought my Mac Pro, Apple offered a choice of several models of NVIDIA and ATI graphics cards. Typically, Apple software, like Color, performs somewhat better with ATI, while Adobe, Avid and Autodesk prefer NVIDIA. In the interim, Adobe released CS5, whose Mercury Playback Engine takes advantage of the CUDA technology used in certain NVIDIA cards. For example, the Quadro FX 4800 offers a significant performance boost not only to Adobe Premiere Pro CS5, but also Autodesk Smoke for Mac OS X.

Apple dropped the NVIDIA options from their store, offering a couple of upgraded ATI Radeon cards instead. Adobe applications will still work fine with these cards, but I don’t know how that impacts Mercury performance. You can purchase and install an NVIDIA card yourself; however, you would have to initially purchase an ATI in the standard Apple configuration. In either case, be mindful of the video RAM installed on the card. 512MB of video RAM is the least you’d want to have, so fortunately all of the current ATI configurations start at 1GB.

Displays

While we are on the subject of graphics, factor in the displays. I like editing with two 20” displays and have been using matte-screen Apple Cinemas. Unfortunately Apple now only offers one model (not including the iMacs) – a 27” glossy screen display. As nice-looking as these displays are, they are very pricey compared to more-than-acceptable choices from Dell, HP, Viewsonic and others.

Connections are a consideration, too. If you get a new Mac Pro with an ATI Radeon HD 5770 or HD 5870card, it will come with two Mini DisplayPort sockets and one dual-link DVI port. That’s fine if you want Apple display; however, if you choose two other brands with DVI connectors, you’ll need to add at least one MDP-to-DVI adapter at about $30. On the other hand, if you opt to swap the graphics card for a different NVIDIA model, it will come with two DVI ports and no Mini DisplayPort. That’s fine for non-Apple displays, however using this card with two Apple 24” or 27” displays means adding two DVI-to-MDP adapters at about $150 each. If the budget is tight, then the most cost-effective option is to keep the ATI card, add the necessary MDP-to-DVI adapters and pick up some nice non-Apple displays.

Storage

Apple’s Mac Pro towers are an engineering tour de force, making do-it-yourself expansion a dream. These towers have room for up to four internal 3.5” eSATA hard drives for as much as 8TB inside.  You don’t have to fill these up when you purchase the machine. I bought my tower with two 640GB drives and later added two 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black drives. The main drive is for applications, project files and documents. The second drive is for software suite and production elements, like sound effects, music libraries and graphic templates. The third and fourth drives are “striped” (RAID-0) as an internal media drive. I have also connected an external FireWire 400 1TB Western Digital drive to be used as the target drive for Time Machine (Apple’s continuous back-up utility).

I stick with 7200RPM drives from manufacturers like Western Digital or Hitachi. The raw Caviar Black drives are available online and at computer retailers and come with a five year warranty. Another new Apple option is SSD (solid state drive) storage. I’m not sold on SSD yet for this application. SSD performance is fast, but the drives are still very expensive. Anecdotal evidence from editors using SSD storage indicates faster application launch times, but not necessarily faster editing performance. Plus, there is no established track record of reliability and data integrity over a longer period of time as compared with spinning drives.

PCI Express

The big complaint most professionals have with Mac Pros is the smaller number of PCI Express slots compared with HP workstations. A Mac Pro comes with three full-length expansion slots (not counting the graphics card slot). You can increase this by adding a third-party expansion chassis, but you don’t gain increased performance. PCI Express is rated in terms of data lanes, which are distributed across the slots. Adding an expansion chassis doesn’t add more data lanes, so the same bandwidth is simply spread out across more cards.

Three card slots provide adequate expandability for most professional users. This would allow you to install a video i/o card, like an AJA KONA 3G, an eSATA controller card for external storage and a third card, such as a RED Rocket or Matrox Compress HD accelerator card. Care does need to be taken in selecting the right graphics card if you plan to swap the included ATI. Some beefier cards are physically taller and can block access to the bottom PCI Express slot. A current Mac Pro also offers ports for four FireWire 800 and five USB 2.0 devices, plus two 1GB Ethernet ports and various analog and optical audio connections.

Software

Whether you buy an editor from Apple, Avid, Adobe or someone else, don’t forget about all the other “routine” software you’ll need to get through the day. Mac Pros come with a nice collection of software in the iLife package. Out of this, there are plenty of professional circumstances to take advantage of iWeb, iDVD, iPhoto and Garageband. But you’re likely to need more.

I generally recommend purchasing additional software for these needs: graphic creation/design/photo manipulation, general office productivity and format conversion/encoding. Adobe CS5 covers you for the first part, but it’s a large budget item if Premiere Pro isn’t also the primary editing tool – especially when you are equipping multiple workstations. Viable alternatives include Adobe Photoshop Elements, Pixelmator and Lemkesoft GraphicConverter.

By office productivity, I mean the need to be able to open scripts, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. The basic home version of Microsoft Office, as well as Apple’s iWork, are great solutions; however, there’s also free – as in NeoOffice.

Finally, encoding. If you purchase an Apple, Adobe or Avid bundle, each includes encoding/compression software. Augment this with the best general purpose conversion utility – Squared 5’s free MPEG Streamclip. Remember to install QuickTime Player 7 and purchase the Pro license (automatically included with Final Cut Studio). If you work with MPEG-2 files (like VOB files ripped from a DVD), you’ll also need to purchase the MPEG-2 QuickTime component from Apple.

Note: If you have any Windows applications you need to run, then you’ll also need to purchase a program like Parallels, as well as an installable copy of Windows.

Buying advice

Get the machine that meets your needs today, but don’t overbuy. Pick a basic configuration that can be easily and quickly expanded when the business warrants. That’s what made me pick the somewhat slower eight-core last year. It was fast enough, could be easily expanded and wouldn’t break the bank. Plan on an upgrade every three to four years, if your business supports it. Lastly, invest in the 3-year extended warranty. The same is true for a Dell, HP, Alienware or any other computer. If you lose a motherboard, which can happen, the repair would have easily justified the extended coverage. Lastly, make sure to budget money for plug-ins, professional monitoring, external storage, furniture and a good UPS (uninterruptable power supply).

Written for DV Magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2010 Oliver Peters

Avid DS shines for Metric

With all of the Media Composer 5 news, it might be easy to miss Avid’s latest update for the flagship system, Avid DS. Version 10.3.1 (see addendum below), released in mid-July, is a small point release that introduced two huge features – improved stereoscopic 3D control and support for RED Digital Cinema’s new “color science” and the Mysterium-X sensor. The new RED capabilities are showcased in the “All Yours” music video by the band Metric. It’s the official music video for The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which featured the track under the end credits.

I spoke with Dermot Shane, a Vancouver-based VFX/DI supervisor who specializes in using Avid DS. Shane was working with 10.3.1 (in beta) when he got the call to handle finishing for “All Yours” (directed by Brantley Gutierrez). According to Shane, “The schedule on this was very tight and changes were being made up until the last minute. That’s because the video integrates clips from the movie and there had been a few last minute changes to the cut. In fact, we ended up getting one of these clips FTP’ed to us just in time for the deadline!” The production company for Metric shot the music video scenes using a RED One with the updated Mysterium-X sensor, which offers improved dynamic range. The newest RED software also improves how the camera raw files are converted into color information. These latest RED software updates have been integrated into the RED SDK used in Avid DS 10.3.1.

Shane described the workflow on this project. “The production company had cut the offline edit on [Apple] Final Cut Pro and provided us with an EDL. Avid DS can take this EDL and relink to the original R3D camera files, which gives me direct access to the raw data from the camera files by way of RED’s SDK. It’s an easy matter to scale the images for HD and to alter any of the looks of the images, based on changes that the director might want. Because these changes are made from the camera raw files, color grading is far cleaner than if I only had a flat image to start from. Once this is adjusted, I can cache the media into the DS and everything is real-time. On this project, the caches were working in 10-bit YUV high-def, and the master was rendered directly from the RED MX files. I probably changed the color information on all but three of the 162 clips in the music video.”

The new RED Mysterium-X support came in handy on this project. Shane continued, “The new sensor is much more sensitive and Avid DS 10.3.1 let me take advantage of this. For instance, I could create three versions of a clip all linked to the same R3D file. In each of these versions, I would create a different color setting using the RED source setting controls inside Avid DS.  One clip might be adjusted for the best shadow detail, another for the midrange and a third to preserve the highlights. These would then be composited into a single shot using the standard DS keyers and masks. The final image almost looks like a high dynamic range image. This is something you can’t do through standard grading techniques when the camera image has a ‘baked in’ look. It really shows the advantage of working with camera raw files.”

And what is the best thing about this new Avid DS release? “Stability,” answered Shane. “We worked around the clock for three or four days without a hiccup. That’s hard to sell people on up front, but it really matters when you are in a crunch. On this project, we literally finished about 20 minutes before the deadline. My client really appreciated the integrated environment that DS offers. Their previous projects had gone from Final Cut to a Smoke finish and a Lustre grade. These are very capable Autodesk finishing systems, but Avid DS is a complete finishing solution. You can do editing, effects and color grading all in one workstation. This makes it a lot better for the client, especially when last minute changes are made during the color correction pass.”

Stereo 3D tools have been enhanced in DS 10.3.1. Convergence tools now allow independent adjustment of 3D content for each eye. There is also real-time playback of stereoscopic containers and effects. Although “All Yours” wasn’t a stereo 3D project, I asked Shane about the new 3D tools. He replied, “So far I’ve only had a  chance to do some testing with the new tools. In previous versions, I would have to go out to [The Foundry’s] Nuke and use Ocula for stereo 3D work. Our DS has the Furnace plug-in set, which includes some stereoscopic tools. With Avid DS 10.3.1, I can complete one eye, apply the same grading to the other eye, adjust the convergence and then use one of the Furnace plug-ins to tweak the minor grading differences between the left and right eye views.”

Addendum: This article was originally written prior to the 2010 IBC exhibition in Amsterdam. At that conference, Avid announced the release of Avid DS 10.5, which will be available both as a full-featured software-only version and as a turnkey solution. The software version will be available for under $10K and comes bundled with a copy of Avid Media Composer 5. Some of the features in DS 10.5 – available for the first time in a software version – include full 2K playback and REDRocket accelerator support. In addition, the software has been ported to the Windows 7 64-bit OS, making it one of the most powerful editing/VFX/grading solutions for the PC platform.

Written for Videography and DV magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2010 Oliver Peters

Improving Media Composer

As an editor, I’ve probably used a dozen different editing systems for billable gigs. If you add the other systems I’ve reviewed, but didn’t use on client projects, coupled with those I’ve had working exposure to, that’s easily twice as many. This experience gives one a keen awareness of the pros and cons of different product designs. When you spend eight, ten, twelve hours or more staring at a screen, the user interface becomes a key factor in whether the system helps or hinders your work.

Within the past year or so, Apple, Adobe and Avid have all released updates to their flagship editing products. Since I use and have reviewed them all, it gives me a unique opportunity to compare apples-to-apples, so to speak, with the same footage and same projects.

I started nonlinear editing almost 20 years ago with early Avid systems (around version 4.5). A lot of my work today is on Apple Final Cut Pro, but I still do a certain percentage of Media Composer jobs and have a soft spot for the product. Competition is good and the release of Media Composer 5 was a milestone for the company.

Unfortunately, Avid has a large installed customer base, many of whom are reticent to change. They have two decades of muscle memory based on how the user interface has traditionally worked, so even the slightest change is met with very polarized responses. Some of the occasionally negative reactions are justified, because certain changes didn’t seem very well thought-out. In fact, a number of Avid product designers have responded on various forums to clarify that a few of these are “works in projects” and are likely to be improved in subsequent releases.

In other cases, the changes are perfectly logical, but Avid might not have done the best job of re-educating its customers, so these changes came as a surprise. In fairness to Avid, I’ve also seen forum posts by editors who simply dived into a new project – using a freshly installed version of MC5 – only to flounder went hit with the unexpected, because they didn’t acquaint themselves first with the changes.

I’m an advocate for a serious overhaul of the Avid Media Composer user interface. The current model, even with the MC5 changes, is very long-in-the-tooth compared with the competition. Here are 25 suggestions to improve the interface and functions of Media Composer, as well as Symphony and NewsCutter.

1. Font size and smoothing. The interface text doesn’t take advantage of the way the OS renders text to the screen. In general, the interface stems from a time when 1024×768 was an extremely high-resolution display. On a 20” Apple Cinema (1680×1050), text is thin and wiry. Options to change the font or size look awful. Compare this to any other applications, like Word or FireFox and there’s a world of difference. This is more obvious on Macs than on PCs.

2. Interface colors and text brightness. In an effort to “clean up” the GUI in MC5, designers dropped the button shape, shading and color options for a more streamlined and limited approach. If you like MC5 with a dark UI (like Adobe or Magic Bullet applications), then you only get lighter letters with the darkest background color choice. That’s too much contrast. Adobe does a much better job with their simple interface brightness slider. It intelligently switches from dark to light text at a functional point. This can easily be fixed in MC5 with the addition a brightness slider for the text. Or just copy Adobe.

3. 1:1 pixel mapping. Media Composer started in the day when all on-screen video looked bad and you had to use an external broadcast monitor. Those days are all but gone for many editors, who frequently edit without an external video monitor. When you look at video in FCP’s Canvas or Premiere Pro at 100%, you get 1:1 pixel mapping and very crisp full-frame images. HD in Media Composer’s Record window looks pretty good, but SD is embarrassingly bad. Even more so with text and graphics.

4. Expanded luma range. Digital video uses a luma range with nominal black and white points mapped to values of 16 and 235 on a 0-255 scale. Avid systems display this accurately on RGB monitors (your computer screen) while FCP expands the scale, so that 16-235 looks like 0-255. Even though the two systems will output video at the same level, the result is that images look washed out on the Media Composer interface screen and more pleasing on an FCP screen. Avid offers the option to display an expanded range in their full screen mode, but it would also be nice to have this option for the source/record monitor windows.

5. Real-time scopes. Media Composer offers waveform/vector displays in the color correction mode only. It would be nice to have these available at all times and to update in real-time as the timeline plays. It would be even nicer if these were active for anything in the Source window, as well.

6. Logical submenu item placement. One frustrating issue for new editors is that not all items are in their appropriate place. For example, to set a custom bin color, you have to look in the Edit pulldown menu instead of the Bin menu or the dedicated “hamburger” menu at the bottom corner of each bin.

7. Docking, tabbed, unified windows. Take a look at how others do this and copy it. SuperBin is a weak attempt to get away from numerous floating windows. Time to revisit the paradigm.

8. XML import and export. XML interchange has been a huge development edge for Final Cut. For Media Composer to advance, there needs to be even more openness and XML is a great place to start.

9. FCP project import. Avid lives in a world shared with Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Although it may not be possible for Avid to directly open an FCP project file, there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be able to open an Apple FCP XML file. This is different than Item 8 above, because it means being able to translate the particular flavor of XML written by Apple. Seems like something Avid should develop or license from Boris or Automatic Duck.

10. Improved relinking. AMA is a nice feature, but using it to relink to other media requires some very arcane steps. I tried moving an FCP sequence into Media Composer and then used AMA and relinking to connect to the ProRes media files. It’s ultimately an easy process if there are no timecode issues, but the steps are akin to knowing the secret fraternity handshake. Compare AMA relinking to the ease of doing the same in FCP or Premiere Pro and you’ll see what I mean. I should just be able to point a clip to the right media file and be done.

11. Drag and drop using AMA. You can currently drag & drop clips from the Finder into a Media Composer bin. This activates an import process, which automatically transcodes the clip (based on your import settings) and creates new media. The drag & drop import method should also follow AMA rules, acting like the “Link to AMA file(s)” command. This would link to the file “in place”, without creating additional media files.

12. Smart Tool. In an effort to out-do FCP, Avid engaged in a classic case of “overthink”. The intent was to add in-context, timeline-based editing tools, but Smart Tool seems to have made matters worse. The biggest two complaints are that the tool palette itself cannot be removed from the timeline pane and there is no way to actually disable the tool. Even when it is toggled off, Smart Tool will occasionally activate itself based on its operating rules. The tool functions change based on the location of the cursor within a track, so mouse precision is critical – something that Avid editors haven’t had to deal with in past versions. This is one of those “works in progress”.

13. Slip-slide trim. As Avid editors have been trying to figure out Smart Tool, slip-slide trimming behavior seems to have confused many. You have to lasso the clip in the right direction and combine that with the right modifier key. Come on! FCP does this much easier. Tap the “S” key once or twice and move on. A simple 1-key tool would improve Media Composer efficiency.

14. Subframe audio editing. Moving some functionality from Pro Tools into MC5 was a nice first step, but how about adding subframe editing? I realize there’s perf-slipping in film projects, but it seems like it’s time to modernize the audio editing capabilities of the system.

15. Resolution-independence for graphics. If you can’t make the entire application completely resolution-independent yet, then how about doing it at least for stills, photos and graphics? Time to end being limited to a plug-in, just for dealing with high-res images.

16. External i/o hardware support. Matrox MXO2 Mini was step one. This needs to be expanded to the rest of the ecosystem, including the other Matrox units, AJA, Blackmagic Design and MOTU.

17. External control surface support. Avid now owns Euphonix, so clearly, it’s time to see Artist panels compatible with Media Composer for mixing and color correction. But don’t stop with the “in house” brands. Include others, like Tangent Devices, Mackie, Tascam, Behringer, Presonus and Frontier Designs.

18. Improved color correction tools. Symphony started it, but now seriously lags behind other available toolsets – notably Apple Color. The lack of a good secondary tool for shapes and vignettes is the most common complaint. Take a look at the Boris 3-way filter or Magic Bullet Colorista II for some ways to amp up Media Composer’s (and Symphony’s) color correction tools.

19. Improved text tools. You have your choice between the ancient Title Tool or Marquee – a vestige of Avid’s 1990s attempt at a dedicated OpenGL character generator. Why not dump these for something better? Avid owns Deko, but I’m not sure it’s all that editor-friendly. Seems like something closer to Adobe’s Premiere Pro titler is a better design target. Of course, Avid could simply get Boris to write a custom version of Graffiti for Media Composer or purchase LiveType from Apple (since they don’t seem to want it anymore). Any of these would be better.

20. Fix GUI corruption. It’s vexing that MC5 is still plagued with earlier bugs, like screen draw corruption. One of these is the persistently corrupt trim icon.

21. Custom filter interface in AVX. There are a number of popular plug-ins that can’t be used with Avid Media Composer, because the AVX architecture doesn’t allow custom filter interfaces. That’s why there’s no Colorista II for Avid. Audio plug-ins can have their own unique interfaces, but not video.

22. Multiple open sequences. The ability to have several sequences open at once and to be able to bounce from one to another is a popular FCP feature. It would be nice to see Media Composer offer this.

23. Interlace/de-interlace management. We live in a world with all mixes of progressive and interlaced media. Avid provides few if any provisions for dealing with interlace errors. Seems like some field shift, swap and blend and de-interlace tools are in order.

24. Copy & paste or remove attributes. One of the most useful FCP tools for me is the ability to copy & paste or remove attributes from a clip. This allows me to copy a set of filters from one clip and then apply these to the rest of the timeline or just to a handful of selected clips. All in one step without entering a special mode.

25. Improved effects mode. Media Composer’s effects controls need a huge overhaul. For example, an easy way to stack filters without nesting and then to be able to quickly enable/disable and re-arrange the filters. This is something quite common in just about every other application.

Well, there’s the list for now. I offer this as constructive criticism. These are suggestions that I feel would make a great product better and more efficient to use. Of course, that’s mainly based on my own personal world view, however, I also recognize that the Avid editor crowd is hard to please. So, product designers – good luck!

By the way – here are a few earlier perspectives. Some of these older issues have been addressed in newer application versions, so it’s good to know that product developers are responsive to user input.

Will CS5 and MC5 toast FCP?

Improving FCP and Media Composer

Final Cut vs. Avid Redux

©2010 Oliver Peters

Automatic Duck ProImportAE5

Even though many NLE vendors are integrating the ability to import AAF and XML project formats, Automatic Duck remains the leader in timeline translation. The company started in 2001 with Pro Import for After Effects. The main goal at that time was to move Avid Media Composer sequences into After Effects for advanced compositing work.

Automatic Duck has recently released Pro Import AE 5.0 for After Effects CS5 (Mac is shipping now, with a Windows version to follow.) The application will also work with After Effects CS3 and CS4. Pro Import AE elegantly handles the process of importing Avid OMF/AAF, Final Cut Pro XML or Motion projects into After Effects as a composition. In this file conversion, it will connect clips to the original media files, translate as many applicable effects parameters and keyframes as possible and apply matching filter settings whenever a common filter occurs in both the NLE and After Effects. Version 5.0 adds even a few more twists that are hard to beat.

I tested Pro Import AE 5.0 with both Final Cut Pro 7 and Media Composer 5. Simply export an Avid AAF composition file or an FCP XML file as a starter. Automatic Duck also offers a free XML exporter for Final Cut. Both it and the built-in FCP exporter work, but I had more consistent results using the Automatic Duck XML exporter. If your Media Composer 5 sequence consists of AMA-linked media, then you’ll first need to transcode the timeline into Avid MXF media before an AAF export is possible.

Start a new After Effects project and use the Automatic Duck Pro Import AE option to open the target XML or AAF file. Pro Import AE offers some settings choices to control how media is to be handled and how to configure the After Effects timeline. For example, you can opt to bring all clips in as individual media in one timeline – or nest all clips from a single NLE video track into a mini-composition within a larger After Effects comp. You may also choose to include audio or not. QuickTime media files from Final Cut open natively in After Effects, but Avid’s MXF format typically can’t be read. Automatic Duck adds the neat trick of creating QuickTime reference files for Avid media. This takes very little time and makes it possible to open an Avid sequence in After Effects. Since a clip on the After Effects timeline is linked to the full-length media clip, you still have the ability to slip, slide and otherwise trim your edited sequence even in After Effects.

A very interesting option added in version 5 is the ability to handle native REDCODE .R3D camera files. If you edited a RED project in FCP using transcoded proxy media (created by FCP’s Log and Transfer – NOT the camera-generated QuickTime reference movies), Pro Import AE can be set to automatically replace the proxy files with the camera raw .R3D files. The imported After Effects composition now includes the RED files in all their 4K goodness. Since the media file sizes have changed in this process, you will need to make some scale adjustments in After Effects. At the moment, this media replacement feature only applies to Final Cut XML and not to Avid AAF files.

I tested a number of complex sequences from both Avid and Final Cut with good success. In fact, this process worked far better than Adobe’s own XML and AAF importer built-in into Premiere Pro. I’ve never had Adobe’s AAF import work and XML import frequently had errors. Pro Import AE seems far more bullet-proof. Unsupported effects showed an error message, but never stopped the import from working. When a filter is used that doesn’t exist in After Effects, like FCP’s 3-way color corrector, the timeline clip will show a little flag with the name of the filter.

Text generators seem to be the biggest issue. FCP’s Boris titler resulted in a blank, color slug in After Effects. Standard FCP text generators were partially translated. The text itself and opacity keyframes were there, but the font style, size and position were wrong. I had far better results when I applied common filter sets. For example, the same Noise Industries and CoreMelt filters install into Final Cut, Motion and After Effects. If you use Final Cut on the same system as After Effects and apply one of these filters in your sequence, it will appear with the correct parameters in the translated After Effects composition. That’s because the same filter has been installed into both applications.

Out of curiosity, I also moved the After Effects sequence into Premiere Pro. I first imported an XML file via Pro Import AE into After Effects CS5. Next, I copied-and-pasted the After Effects clips from its timeline into a Premiere Pro sequence. Much easier and more reliable than using the Adobe importer! After Effects stacks timeline clips onto adjacent tracks like a continually ascending or descending staircase. When I pasted the After Effects clips into Premiere Pro, they returned to the track order used in Final Cut. Pretty cool!

Automatic Duck continues to be in a class by itself. Pro Import AE is a must-have for anyone using After Effects to augment their NLE for advanced effects or as a finishing tool. With the new RED replacement option, Pro Import AE becomes the ideal bridge between a Final Cut creative edit and a 4K finish in After Effects. Not to mention that it’s still the best way for Avid cutters to tap into a word-class desktop compositor. Once again proving why Automatic Duck Pro Import AE is an essential item in the toolbox.

Written for Videography and DV magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2010 Oliver Peters