Horses for courses

Frequent forum discussions among editors involve those arguing the relative merits of one favorite editing tool versus another. The reality is that no one tool is ideal for every task. It’s all about picking the right tool for the job – or as the British call it – “horses for courses”. Whether you cut news, films, shows or spots –  handle your own finishing or farm it out – or just want to deal with the least technical tool available – you’ll want to pick the right editing application for you. Often the choice is purely subjective, such as a preference for one operating system or hardware platform over another. Or it’s the system you first used and liked in school.

In this post, I’ve set out to offer some choices based on these needs. I’ll stick to desktop, software-based solutions, which make Autodesk Smoke for Mac OSX and Avid Symphony the top end in our group, based on price. Very capable options, like Quantel or Autodesk on Linux are clearly excluded, simply because of price. On the other hand, if it’s your job to determine solutions for a news operation or DI house, then be sure to check these out. Lastly, I’ve also excluded the wild card NLEs, like Lightworks (open source) or The Foundry’s Storm. These are still in beta and it’s too early to tell what sort of impact they’ll have on the industry at large. Let’s dive in.

Finishing / Online Editing

Avid DS

Autodesk Smoke for Mac OSX

“Finishing” covers the whole range of creating a final master that meets broadcast or digital cinema specs. The ideal system not only produces the highest quality image, but also includes advanced color correction and compositing tools. An increasingly important feature is the ability to be resolution-independent and work in raster sizes that are larger than HD. Both of these systems fulfill that criteria.

One glaring omission might be Avid Symphony. It fills the niche of conforming and delivering shows for television quite well, but it really doesn’t offer many advanced features beyond that of Avid Media Composer. When you look at the needs of DI, high-end spot work or visual effects, Symphony simply hasn’t been sufficiently developed by Avid since its early days.

Creative cutting / offline editing

Avid Media Composer

Apple Final Cut Pro

The focus of these systems is to provide an editor with tools that make storytelling fast and easy. It also must be robust with good metadata-handling, for when projects drag on for months and years. Lastly, it needs to generate advanced edit lists that can be used by finishing systems when advanced mastering and output is required.

Although I feel that Avid has done the best job here, I also don’t think Final Cut merits the smack most of its detractors talk. Both are credible tools with successful track records for cutting all sorts of content. Each has its proponents that include some of the best – and most award-winning – editors in the world. Avid Media Composer sports integrated features like strong metadata tracking and ScriptSync. What FCP lacks can be easily supplemented by its large developer community.

All-in-one solutions

Avid Media Composer / Symphony

Apple Final Cut Pro / Final Cut Studio

Adobe Premiere Pro / Production Premium Collection

These three companies build the so-called “A” NLE solutions. Their studio software bundles cover most of the needs of shops that have to do it all – creative cutting, color grading, mixing and finishing/mastering. If you are the editor that has to do a bit of everything, then one of these packages is the right one for you. The tools are advanced, though not as strong is in the true finishing systems, yet they are adequate for 80-90% of the work done in professional film and video post.

As software bundles, other applications augment the core capabilities of the NLE itself. Need better compositing? Bounce over to Avid FX (actually Boris Red), Apple Motion or Adobe After Effects. Need to author a DVD? That’s what Avid DVD (by Sonic) or Apple DVD Studio Pro or Adobe Encore are for. In short, any of these collections gets the job done, but better yet, they are cheap enough that you can own more than one!

Adobe and Apple NLEs can be used with a good selection of third party hardware for i/o, but until recently, Avid systems required Avid hardware. Media Composer has opened slightly to include support for the Matrox MXO2 Mini, but Symphony is limited to the Avid Nitris DX chassis. That makes Symphony the most expensive solution in this compilation.

Event and news production

Grass Valley EDIUS

Avid Media Composer / NewsCutter

Adobe Premiere Pro

The hallmark of this group is the need for fast, easy-to-use software and the ability to ingest various codecs with the shortest turnaround time. These systems do service for news editing, wedding videos and on-site editing for news, sports and conventions. Each of these can support most of the various broadcast and prosumer acquisition formats without the need to transcode or rewrap files. As such, it’s an easy matter to drop a mix of media on the timeline, edit and output with little loss of time. The editing toolsets are rich, with included software tools for export and encoding. So, if you need to cut something on location and feed a finished product to the web, you won’t go wrong with any of these three.

© 2011 Oliver Peters