Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4

For the fourth iteration of Lightroom, Adobe has enhanced the processing capabilities and added features to aid photographers with handling modern photographic challenges, such as the integration of video. Although Lightroom is primarily a photographer’s tool, it is also indispensable for video producers and editors who have to deal with a large volume of photographs, such as when producing documentaries that are based on archival images. Lightroom is the ideal application to store, organize, adjust, crop and prepare stills for video editing. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom competes directly with Apple Aperture and each has its loyal proponents among photographers. Both are powerful tools and each new version tends to leapfrog that of the competitor. For now, Lightroom offers the more advanced video features and, of course, is a cross-platform application.

Photo features

Let’s first look at the improvements for photography. Image processing and color science have been changed in Lightroom 4. If you open existing photos that have been processed and catalogued in previous versions of Lightroom, you have the option of sticking with the old correction or update the file. Naturally, all changes are non-destructive, so your original photo is always unaltered. The biggest changes have been made in highlight/shadow recovery and noise reduction.

Highlight/shadow recovery is critical in digging out detail in bright skies and dark areas in an image. If you work with camera raw images, Lightroom uses the same raw processing engine as Photoshop. There’s also advanced black-and-white conversion. This lets you use eight color channels to control the tonal qualities of the black-and-white image. In other words, you have more control than merely desaturating the image. Finally, there are new selective brushes to control such options as white balance within areas of the picture.

With the increased use of smart phone cameras and online social media and photo services, like Flickr and Facebook, Lightroom 4 now lets you organize images based on location information embedded in the image metadata. This is aided by a new Map module accessible at the top of the interface. There is also enhanced sharing integration with some social media sites.

The big new selling point for photographers is photo book creation. This was a feature that previously had some Lightroom users jumping over to Aperture just to use, but no longer. Photo book creation lets photographers design coffee table book layouts, complete with proofing and ready to send to the printer. To enter the Book module, click the title button at the top (like Slideshow or Web) to access the book layout controls.

Plug-in integration

As a video editor, plug-ins are something I use a lot. A video plug-in is typically applied as a filter within the editing application, but photo plug-ins work differently. Lightroom sends your image to an external application launched from the Develop module’s Photo/Edit In pulldown menu command. This architecture has been available since version 1.0 and developers have steadily been creating photo-compatible versions of their tools. Adobe Photoshop, Magic Bullet Looks, Tiffen Dfx, DFT Film Stocks and DFT Photo Copy are all available as external “plug-ins”.

When you send a photo to an application like Magic Bullet Looks, Lightroom gives you the option to send a copy with or without the Lightroom correction “baked in” for further processing. When you are done, the external application returns you to Lightroom, where you then have two versions of the photo – the “before image” and the “after image” with the look added.

I like using Lightroom for processing photos, but I also find these plug-in options quite enticing. For example, adding selective focus filters, stylized effects, textures or painterly effects can be best achieved using an application like Photoshop or Tiffen Dfx. By starting and ending in Lightroom, you maintain the ability to organize these images in a central environment.

Video

Photographers have increasingly had to deal with video as part of their workflows, so photo organizing/processing applications have added video features. This includes Adobe Photoshop, Bridge and Lightroom. First, in version 3 and now more so in Lightroom 4. Videos are accessed in the Library module, but you only have limited processing control. You can’t open video files in the Develop module for full color correction. Individual videos can be opened in a viewer by double-clicking the file in the browser. You can trim the in and out points of the clip and set a reference frame for the browser thumbnail.

The Library module does allow limited adjustments, as well as the application of custom and built-in presets. With video clips you can adjust white balance, exposure, contrast, black and white points and vibrance. A variety of video formats are supported, which on my Mac Pro included ProRes HQ and 4444 files from an ARRI ALEXA and RED files from both RED One M-X and EPIC cameras. Although the RED images are a raw format, Lightroom still only sees these as video, even when using an EPIC to shoot stills. If you do nothing to the RED files, then Lightroom applies the in-camera metadata settings created by the videographer. If you adjust the color metadata settings of the .R3D files using RED’s free REDCINE-X PRO application, then these updated settings will be recognized by Lightroom.

To test the custom presets, I exported a TIFF from an EPIC file out of REDCINE-X PRO using the flatter RedLogFilm gamma curve. This was imported into Lightroom as a photo, so I was able to bring it into the Develop module and make detailed image corrections. These parameters were then saved as a custom preset. Doing this enabled me to open my RED files in their native .R3D raw format (using the same RedLogFilm metadata setting) and apply the custom preset as a batch to all of the files. Although it’s possible to work with RED files inside Lightroom 4, frankly it’s a slow process. REDCINE-X PRO is the better tool if you are a RED photographer/videographer; however, there’s no reason you can’t use the two applications in conjunction with each other. This is especially true if you are using an EPIC camera for still photography, such as fashion shoots, since Lightroom 4 is far better as a tool for adjusting and organizing still images.

Another new video feature is the ability to export color corrected and trimmed video clips. Lightroom 4 offers three options: original, H.264 and DPX.  If you export as “original” then no color adjustments are applied and the existing clip is merely copied in its original size and length. DPX image sequences and H.264 files accept the color changes and are exported between the trimmed in and out point (if set). The maximum video output size is 1920×1080 for H.264 and DPX, but I was unsuccessful in exporting RED files as anything other than the original format. The ProRes files from the ALEXA, however, exported in all three variations and included the baked-in settings I’d used to offset the camera’s Log-C gamma profile.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 continues to improve as the best, cross-platform photography application. It sports a new, lower price ($149), plus will be available through the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription service. The new processing features bump its power up a notch, but if you need to create photo books, then this upgrade is essential. If you are a video professional, then it’s not the most ideal tool for dealing with video, but obviously that’s merely a secondary feature, rather than the primary intent of the software. Nevertheless, photographers who want a limited ability to make color adjustments and to organize their video clips in a familiar environment will welcome the new video features.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet / NewBay Media, LLC

© 2012 Oliver Peters

Adobe Premiere Pro CS6

Editors looking for an alternative to Apple Final Cut Pro view Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 as the logical choice, but there’s more to this release than a hypothetical FCP 8. I’ve reviewed and used each version of the Creative Suite for many years and Premiere Pro is one of the few NLEs where each new version exhibits tangible performance improvements. Creative Suite 6 is no different, with performance tweaks and expanded GPU usage in Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere Pro.

Adobe’s video bundle, CS6 Production Premium, is a complete end-to-end workflow solution covering ingest to distribution. Adobe Prelude (ingest, transcode and logging) becomes the substitute for OnLocation, which was geared towards the tape-based world. SpeedGrade adds film-style color grading to the package. Production Premium is a 6GB file download, plus there’s an additional 21GB of optional sound effects and music loops that Adobe customers may also download for free.

A focus on performance

With Premiere Pro CS6, Adobe focused on performance improvements and an overhaul of the user interface. There’s better use of screen real estate for functional tasks, less blank space and you now have the ability to turn off buttons and displays. As folks say, “There’s less chrome.”  The idea was to make Premiere Pro look and feel closer to the experience of NLEs like Apple FCP “legacy” and Avid Media Composer. Premiere Pro offers the most direct translation and shortest learning curve for editors moving over from Final Cut, but it is still different – mostly in good ways.

The changes in Premiere Pro are designed to get you editing faster and make the experience more direct. There’s “hover scrubbing”, which is Adobe’s answer to Apple’s “skimming” found in iMovie and Final Cut Pro X. Source clips in the Project panel, in the Media Browser and in the Adobe Prelude ingest dialogue box can be quickly reviewed when in the icon view by moving the mouse over the image. Thumbnail icons can be expanded to be quite large, functioning almost like a separate viewer. Once you click the icon, use the standard JKL transport controls, mark a selection and edit it to the timeline. Trimming gains special attention in Premiere Pro CS6 with better contextual timeline control. This includes asymmetrical trimming akin to working in Media Composer’s trim mode and smart timeline trimming tools.

The Premiere Pro approach

The differences between Premiere Pro CS6 and other NLEs come in three areas: native codecs, rendering and plug-in support. Premiere Pro is not based on a QuickTime or MXF media architecture, so timelines can mix various native codecs and maintain real-time playback. There is no need to first transcode to a common format on import/ingest, so you can get to the task of editing more quickly. Many codecs and file wrappers are supported natively, including AVC-Intra, ProRes, HDV, H.264, RED, etc. Premiere Pro generally maintains real-time playback without rendering, but processing-intensive filters can cause performance to drop. To mitigate this and to keep from dropping frames, there’s a playback resolution setting, which is adjustable from full to one-half or to one-quarter resolution (plus 1/8 and 1/16 with RED and other large formats). If the effects are still too taxing for the GPU/CPU of a given system, the timline may be rendered for real-time playback.

Premiere Pro’s render files are intended for previewing and are ignored during export to maintain maximum quality. (You do have the option to use them as part of the export, to speed things up.) Every export from a Premiere Pro timeline uses the Adobe Media Encoder engine. Certain native media formats, like XDCAM HD or DVCPRO will not be re-encoded in this process if exported back to the same format. Timelines that do require re-encoding or the rendering of effects will have somewhat longer output times when writing a master file to disk; however, AME also lets you queue up simultaneous encodes in various formats.

There is no free lunch and you can pay the “render tax” on any system either at the beginning, middle or end of the process. Adobe has picked the end. If you decided to edit with native files like RED, long-GOP H.264 or HDV, then your export can take some time. For RED files specifically, this can mean that a sequence of several minutes will take quite a few hours to export, if your target format is a 1920×1080 ProRes file. If you are editing native P2 media using the AVC-Intra codec and export to this same format, the export time will be significantly less.

It’s a different story for videotape users. If you output to tape through a capture card, anything that plays at full resolution without dropping frames, regardless of whether it’s rendered, will be mastered at full broadcast quality. The exception is RED editing. Premiere Pro easily supports real-time editing at a reduced resolution setting with 4K RED media on a native 4K timeline; but, this image will not be output at converted SD and HD sizes using a hardware i/o card, like a KONA or Decklink. It can’t be monitored through such a card either.

A number of Final Cut users have lamented over the lack of an equivalent to FxScript filters. This was a tool in FCP that allowed users without extensive programming knowledge to create their own custom effect filters and transitions and distribute them for free or at a low cost. Premiere Pro doesn’t have anything like that (nor does Avid for that matter), although obviously there’s an SDK for both Premiere Pro and After Effects that’s available to professional developers. Many of the third-party filters purchased for After Effects will work natively in Premiere Pro. This list is expanding and due to the changes in CS6, it’s important to update the filters you own. Red Giant Software, Noise Industries, Boris FX, GenArts, Digital Film Tools, Tiffen and others have recently all released updates for CS6 compatibility. Thanks to the playback resolution throttle, many that would require rendering in another NLE to even play will run in real-time in Premiere Pro CS6.

CUDA, Mercury Transmit and OpenCL

One aspect of the Mercury Playback Engine was hardware acceleration for some effects when using certain CUDA-enabled NVIDIA cards. This has been expanded with CS6 to include two of the OpenCL cards used in the newest MacBook Pros. Unfortunately, if you are running a Mac Pro with an ATI 5870, as I am, Mercury Playback acceleration still only runs in a software mode. Honestly though, I didn’t find it to be much of an issue. I tested my Mac Pro with an NVIDIA Quadro 4000 and received numerous crashes when I applied taxing filters. To compare, a filter like Magic Bullet Looks (not CUDA-accelerated) ran in real-time at half-resolution using the ATI card.  Better yet – no crashes!

New to CS6 is Mercury Transmit – a hardware abstraction layer for third-party i/o cards – to enable video output. This is a change from CS5.5 and all of the vendors, like AJA, Matrox and Blackmagic Design, are in the process of updating their drivers to be compatible with CS6. I tested Premiere Pro with a Decklink HD Extreme 3D card and everything worked well. The few minor issues I had were resolved when the Premiere Pro 6.0.1 update was released. (Older cards may not work in some cases.)

Adobe SpeedGrade

The engineers have only had since September to integrate SpeedGrade, so it’s not fully “Adobe-ized” just yet. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful tool that can easily fit into any editor’s workflow, once they learn the application. The design of the interface is focused on working quickly with a lot of real-time performance. It’s the only desktop grading application that enables multiple, real-time timeline viewers for easy shot comparison and color correction matching.

The SpeedGrade design fits in well with other Adobe software – using a layer model for primaries and secondaries instead of Apple Color’s tabbed rooms or DaVinci Resolve’s nodes. Grading layers can be applied to individual clips or to the timeline track and can be used for full-screen, keyed or masked grading (with tracking). The number of layers is unlimited and each has visibility and opacity values, just like in Photoshop or After Effects. The grading parameters can be adjusted using color wheels, sliders or numerical entries. For primaries, offset/gamma/gain settings are applied in four ranges: overall, shadows, midtones and highlights. In addition, each of these four ranges has sliders for input and output saturation, contrast and pivot, plus temperature and tint (magenta). SpeedGrade also includes a healthy set of Look presets and display LUTs for cinematic styles and camera profiles, such as correction for ARRI ALEXA Log-C.

You can “send to” SpeedGrade from a Premiere Pro timeline, but there’s no roundtrip, i.e. no Dynamic Link, back into Premiere Pro. Right now, SpeedGrade is ideally positioned to be the last step in the post workflow, although that will likely change in the future. Export your timeline to SpeedGrade and intermediate, uncompressed DPX files are rendered. These are approximately 8MB/frame (1920×1080). That’s because a number of broadcast codecs, like AVC-Intra, are not yet natively supported by SpeedGrade. The alternative is to export an EDL and relink the media in SpeedGrade. This works well and is faster for ProRes or RED media than the DPX route.

SpeedGrade does not use Mercury Transmit to connect to third-party broadcast video cards. Instead, it only uses NVIDIA cards with SDI connections for that purpose, but you can display a full-screen image on a second computer monitor. There’s no user guide yet, so rely on the introductory web videos to get up and running. These are all minor, short term issues. Don’t let that stop you from diving into a very powerful grading tool that’s right at your fingertips.

Conclusion

Premiere Pro CS6 has undergone significant improvements, but it’s still optimized for the single user instead of a team of editors working collaboratively. In order to truly make inroads into the space dominated by Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe must make sure that it plays well with the outside world. XML support for FCP 7 files is quite good. It was relatively painless to move timelines and projects into Premiere Pro. I ran into some issues importing 23.976fps EDLs, related to a calculation difference when timecode was externally added to media files, rather than generated in-camera. Fortunately Adobe had been working on this and the problem appears to have been corrected in the Premiere Pro 6.0.1 update.

Many team projects involve one or more editors working on duplicate copies of the same project, each with the same media and master clips. To share versions of their edits with each other, sequence files are exchanged, which seamlessly connect to the media. Media Composer, FCP 7 and FCP X editors simply save a bin or project file that only contains a sequence and pass that along to their colleague.

This same workflow needs improvement in Premiere Pro. Importing a sequence from one project into another also imports some associated master clips, even though they already exist in the project. This results in duplicate master clips in the project browser. If you delete the duplicates, the imported sequence is negatively affected. Going back and forth a few times like this would result in a lot of unnecessary extra clips and potentially some real problems.

The good news is that they are listening. After all, Adobe’s stated goal is to make Premiere Pro the Photoshop of video. More than most other companies, Adobe is passionately and proactively soliciting input from professional customers to make its video products better. That’s a refreshing approach, which goes a long way to overcome any differences that users might encounter as they make the transition. For now, Adobe is making a lot of folks happy with an update in Premiere Pro CS6 that lets them edit exactly how they want to.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet / NewBay Media, LLC

©2012 Oliver Peters

Into the fire with FCP X

As most of you know in following this blog, I’ve challenged the wisdom of what Apple has done with Final Cut Pro X. You may have also sensed, however, that I have warmed a bit to the application over the months. I’ve been working with FCP X since its launch nearly a year ago, mostly on smaller, unsupervised commercials and web videos that I could do on my home system. A couple of my freelance clients have been looking at a possible move to Final Cut Pro X, so I could see it as an option in  my future.

Working on a small scale has been a good way to test the system and get my sea legs, but at some point you have to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. Time to see how it really handled itself on a bigger job – with a client in the room – on a project that required working beyond the simple confines of the FCP X environment. The ideal project came along at a facility where I often hang out and edit. It’s a four-suite SAN-connected facility. I was confident enough with the software and its ability to get the job done that we deployed FCP X on a few of the workstations for this inaugural project.

Creative concept and production

This project was a series of employee-oriented TV commercials for a Midwest grocery retailer. In the commercials, real employees deliver variations on the company slogan. On-camera delivery included the full line and portions of the phrase, so that in edit, I would mix and match different employees saying all or part of the line. The style is based on the cadence created by juxtaposing different speakers. Of course, each spot needed the right blend of departments, ages, gender, etc. representing the client’s diverse workforce. It’s precisely because this concept would mesh with FCP X’s organizational abilities and the magnetic timeline that I felt X was the ideal editorial tool for these spots.

Past productions for this client have included 35mm film, ARRI ALEXA and Canon 5D. This time the primary camera was the new Canon C300, with a little bit of slomo B-roll footage recorded on the Canon 5D Mark III. An extra element in the mix was a Sound Devices PIX240 to be used as the prime recorder, taking the SDI feed (audio, video and timecode) out of the C300 camera. Footage was recorded to the on-board CF cards as a back-up, but the point of using the PIX240 was the ability to record a high-quality signal as ProResHQ in the PIX. Since the camera triggered the PIX240’s recording function, there would be matching clip numbers and timecode on each.

One issue in this configuration was the preferred format of 24p (1920×1080 @ 23.976fps progressive). The C300 adds 3:2 pulldown to the SDI stream to output 29.97. Fortunately, the PIX240 has built-in conversion capabilities, which includes pulldown removal. After some brief testing, I was comfortable enough with how the PIX240 handled this and in its ability to record an artifact-free 24p signal to its hard drive.

Pre-edit preparation

I’m a big believer in first preparing your footage in a proper manner before editing. I’m not a big fan of mixing a lot of native formats. This is especially true when it’s footage I know I will need to get back to and decipher in the future. Plus this footage had to go out-of-house for additional post work. In this case, the end product would be color graded on a Baselight system, so I wanted to make sure the post house would have all the media in the ProRes format, with EDL-compatible reel IDs and timecode.

The PIX240 recorded ProResHQ clips with a matching number scheme to the native Canon XF recordings, but the PIX assigned an arbitrary reel number of 001 as the default for recordings made on that hard drive. I prefer to have reel numbers correlate in some fashion to the date and location of the production. The reason is that this is metadata embedded into the file. If I simply read the file again a few years down the road, the reel number by itself will give me some idea what that file belongs to. The beauty of QuickTime files is that they can be modified in various valuable ways if you have the right software. In the case of the PIX240 recordings, I decided to alter the names and the reel ID information.

Changing the file name is relatively easy. I use Better Renamer, a batch renaming utility, to strip off the part of the name I don’t want and to add character strings that I do. The production took place in four cities and the C300 onboard recordings took several cards (which we referred to as rolls). Using Better Renamer, I would strip off PIX_ from a default name like PIX_355 and add back the prefix of KC_R4_ to change the name to KC_R4_355. This would designate Kansas City, roll 4, clip 355.

Changing the reel ID is trickier and technically a “destructive” process, because you are altering native file information. The easiest place to make such batch changes is Final Cut Pro 7. Yes, it’s hard at this point to get through a complex project like these spots and do it all within FCP X.

In FCP 7 you can batch-rename reel IDs in the browser, which alters the embedded information of the media file itself. Highlight the selected clips, make the change in the correct column and ignore the warning. I altered the default 001 to an 8-digit alphanumeric name (all caps) that matches EDL specs. I also wanted something that would make sense in the future for identification purposes. So clips shot on May 31 by the A-camera would become HV0531A1. Client – date – A camera – roll 1.

To convert the 5D files, I followed my standard method (outlined numerous times in this blog):

a) MPEG Streamclip to convert the files to ProRes

b) Cinema Tools to conform the speed to 23.98

c) QtChange to add/alter reel ID names and timecode

d) Better Renamer to change the file names.

Some of you will read this and wonder why I didn’t use Final Cut Pro X’s “Import from Camera” (like FCP 7’s Log & Transfer) or to simply edit natively. Part of the answer is that I first wanted to alter the media files themselves. This is important if you intend to hand off portions of the project to another system. FCP X changes internal database information, but not the media file. If you choose to import and copy the media into your event, then the new media file is named with a date/time UID stamp that’s pretty meaningless to someone just reading the file name.

FCP X also works with optimized media. One of the formats it considers optimized is the Canon XF codec, so you can’t have it convert this to ProRes even if you have that option selected. For this project, it made more sense to prep the files prior to entering into the FCP X world. That might not be the case on a different production.

Organizing your media for the edit

My biggest rationale for Final Cut Pro X were the internal organization features. The production included 720 Canon C300 clips (6 ½ hours) and 15 5D slomo clips (about 15 minutes). A total of 660GB of media (ProResHQ and ProRes). My current approach – and what I used on this session – is to import all the files into a single Event and leave the media linked to its original location on the hard drive – a folder on the SAN volume. If you do this, DO NOT move or alter the media files once you start editing in FCP X or you’ll run the risk of losing connection to the media files.

If you work with a lot of different FCP X jobs, you quickly learn that there is no internal way to manage different clients’ work. You either have to move these files manually from the Final Cut Events and Final Cut Projects folders to an “inactive” folder(s) – or you have to use a utility like Event Manager X. Doing this often and manually can add some confusion, so I recommend the following solution. Assign all productions a job number and add Media and Edits to the naming convention.

As an example, an Event might be labeled 2040_clientname_title_Media. You can create folders in the Project Library. At the top level create a new folder that will contains all of the Projects (sequences) for that production. It would be called 2040_clientname_title_Edits. Now when you have to manually move folders, there is only one top-level folder for each and it’s clear which one goes back into an Events or Projects folder.

Since I had placed all media clips into a single Event, Keyword Collections became the primary method of organizing the clips. Think of these as bins. There were 132 employees, 4 cities and 12 categories (pharmacy, managers, deli, etc.). I used keywords for each employee’s name and their category. Next, I created a folder for Keyword Collections to group people according to their city. Keywords can be assigned to hotkeys and you can apply keywords to a group of clips at once. Multiple keywords may be added to any clip.

The beauty is that anything you do in one area is applied to all. For example, applying the keyword Joe Smith to a clip sends that clip to the Keyword Collection for Joe Smith. Now, if you are in the Joe Smith Collection (think of it as a bin) and apply another keyword for Manager, the clip will also be added to the Manager Collection. All of the keywords (and ratings – like Favorite or Reject) that you have assigned to this clip, will appear in all instances for the clip. In this example, that would be in three places: the Event, the Joe Smith and the Manager Collections.

The next handy feature is ratings for Favorites and Rejects. With modern file-based cameras, you typically end up with a lot of short clips. In addition to false starts and bogus clips, these may also include short bursts for the slates preceding the actual clips. Using the Reject rating on any of these clips – and then setting the Event browser to “Hide Rejected” – will remove these clips from view. They are still there if you change the setting to “All Clips”. Obviously, you could use this for any completely bad takes, as well. After I culled the clips down to those with actual content using this method, the 720 employee clips was filtered down to 408 clips (6 hrs. 12 min. of content).

I set my Event browser to a  list (not thumbnail) view, which displays the selected clip as a filmstrip at the top of this pane of the UI. Since it shows video and audio in this filmstrip view, you can quite easily identify the spikes in the audio waveform every time the person delivers their line. It’s a simple matter to skim through each clip and add a marker for every successful line delivery. When it comes time to review the footage with the client, simply skip ahead to each marker to review that section.

The actual session

Working with the client in the room is a charm with Final Cut Pro X if you’ve done this level of organization. When clips from a certain person are requested, finding the right choice only takes a few moments. The best way to note client selects for the possible takes is to use FCP X’s system of range-based Favorites. Simply mark in-out points and hit “F” for favorite. A subclip is created for that portion of the longer clip. FCP X allows multiple, overlapping range-based selections within a clip.

Another trick is to use Smart Collections. For example, in this session, I created a Smart Collection for Favorites from each city. Once the proper filtering was defined, if I chose a range-based Favorite (subclip) for Joe Smith in Kansas City, then that section would appear in the Kansas City Smart Collection. Going forward, if the client or I wanted to review only the best options from those that had already been selected, I only needed to review the clips populated into these various Smart Collections.

The magnetic timeline design of Final Cut Pro X has been hotly debated, but it was the ideal approach for this set of spots, because we frequently re-arranged the order of the people in the spots. I did use Auditions once, but that didn’t prove too useful, due to the general slowness of setting up Audition clips. I used most of the editing tools X has to offer, excluding the various “automatics”, which aren’t too useful for this type of production. Since I varied the speed of some of the slomo shots, as well as slowed some of the standard shots, I was happy to have X’s Optical Flow for cleaner slomos.

Although I didn’t do the final color grading, I did have to use the built-in tools for review copies. The footage shot with the C300 used the Canon Log profile, resulting in a flatter, darker image. I was able to edit just fine this way, as the client understood, but then I quickly graded the completed rough cuts using the Color Board tool for a close-to-final look. This was needed in order to show execs for approval of the rough cuts.

Sending out

The final mix and color correction was done out-of-house, which required timeline translation with Xto7 for Final Cut Pro. Export an FCP X XML, import that into Xto7, which in turn opens it as an FCP 7 project and sequence.

Now for some glitches. Audio was all recorded with two mics, so FCP X defaults to stereo. I had changed these to dual mono in the Project and disabled (unchecked) the mic channel I wasn’t using on a clip-by-clip basis. The corresponding XML resulted in having no audio on the FCP 7 timeline. The fix seemed to be to restore my FCP X Project clips back to stereo, remove all level changes and then send to FCP 7 again. Now all the audio was there, except for one or two clips. These seem to have been affected by the slomo clips in the timeline, which also didn’t show up. In both cases, it was easy to manually add these clips back to the FCP 7 timeline and fix the issue.

From there, I exported an OMF  file with embedded audio for our Pro Tools mixer. Next, I needed to send full QuickTimes and a matching EDL to the colorist who was working on a Baselight system. I like to consolidate the media first and my favorite application is Automatic Duck Media Copy. It takes the FCP 7 XML and copies all the media used in that sequence. There is no conversion done in that process, so I feel it’s a safer approach than FCP 7’s Media Manager. Once copied, I take the new XML and open it back into FCP 7 and make sure that all media is reconnected to the copied files. This sequence is used to generate an EDL needed by the Baselight system. 94 clips were used in the string of six :30 commercials, requiring only 134GB of media instead of the full 660GB.

The roundtrip back

Now to conform the final commercials. Audio was no problem. Simply line up the AIFF files containing the mix and the stems (separate dialogue, sound effects and music) at the head and you have all you need for mixed and a split-track masters. Due to the “rubbery-ness” of the magnetic timeline, it did appear that removing transitions at the beginning and end of spots and removing the slomo clips caused some shifting of the spots within this string of six spots on a single Project timeline. No sync issues, but definitely not as locked into position as with an FCP 7 timeline. I did use the Audio Roles functions to export a multi-channel QuickTime file as a split-track submaster, which worked well.

Replacing the “dailies” footage with the rendered files from the Baselight system proved to be a bit trickier. Most color correction systems that render individual clips with handles will append unique IDs to the end of the file names for the rendered files. That’s because you might have used several clips from a single, longer camera file. Unfortunately, this complicates reconnecting the new media files. It’s completely impossible with FCP X, because everything about the file is seen by the software as different.

FCP 7 and Premiere Pro can relink, but require you to do this one clip at a time, as they can’t match the file names. Not ideal for 94 clips. I have done this in the past with Color, but for some reason, this time Color simply wouldn’t do it. In the future I will get a new XML from the transfer house that matches their baked files, which should eliminate these issues.

The workaround was to use Better Renamer and strip off the added suffix from the file name. Only a couple of clips were from a common source, so the application adds its own suffix (a, b, c, etc.) to these clips with the same name. Back in FCP 7, reconnect this media, manually reconnect the few clips with modified names and voila – you have the correct timeline linked to the new, graded shots. The last step was to export a new XML and use 7toX for Final Cut Pro to bring that sequence back into Final Cut Pro X. Marry it to the audio, make sure everything still lines up, add final graphics and Bob’s your uncle!

The final masters are HD, but broadcast distribution is still largely standard definition, 4×3 letterboxed files. After Effects continues to be my favored conversion method due to its clean scaling and correct 29.97fps interlaced files with the proper 3:2 pulldown cadence. All files were distributed electronically rather than on videotape. The finished spots may be viewed here.

Impressions

By and large this first big project went reasonably well. Editing in Final Cut Pro X is an acquired taste. If you stick with it and learn it, there’s a lot to like. I found that learning a few simple keystrokes and short cuts made things go faster and muscle memory kicked in for the new commands pretty quickly. I can’t say it was faster than with FCP 7. We got more done in the allotted schedule than was anticipated, but I believe (based on what I’ve done before with the same client) that the same would have been true with FCP 7, Media Composer or Premiere Pro.

There were some hiccups. The first was the SAN. This is a volume-level SAN, where each room has its own write volume plus read access to all the others. This doesn’t seem to work with FCP X’s “Add SAN Location” function, which was probably designed for a file-level SAN, like Apple Xsan. That doesn’t seem very important though, since multiple editors can still share the same media on the SAN drives.

I started with the Final Cut Events and Projects folders on the SAN volume, but experienced a lot of beachballs with nearly every second or third task. Sometimes a fraction of a second long and at other times, a couple of seconds. I experienced a couple of crashes and/or force quits a day. To FCP X’s credit, nothing was ever lost. Towards the end of the production, I moved the Events and Projects folder to the local drive (media still linked on the SAN volume) and all of these issues went away. So maybe network traffic creates some conflicts. The moral of the story is to keep your Events and Projects (renders, too, unfortunately) on a fast local drive and performance should be OK.

There are a lot of editing enhancements and software optimization that I hope will come soon. Editing/mixing audio is pretty weak in my opinion. (In fact, I found it refreshing to do some quick audio fixes on an existing commercial using FCP 7 again, after working in X for a while.) Simple titles are all Motion templates, so performance is VERY challenged. Stack two basic text lines over each other (no animation) and even a fast machine drops frames quickly unless you render.

After final delivery, I had to make a few quick changes, which required swapping clips on one spot and some color correction tweaks on three others. I had to match both the out-of-house color correction and the mix for these new clips. I could come close on the color correction using the Color Board, but needed the Broadcast Safe filter to clip white levels. This only works when you apply it to a compound clip, so you can’t see how your corrections are affected by the filter as you adjust the colors. Plus, it does more of a soft clip, thus changing the levels close to the ends rather than simply clipping. This filter has almost no adjustment control, making it of limited value. The same is true for audio, where compression and limiting does not work correctly when you try to apply it at the end of the audio chain. It is very hard to adjust your audio levels interactively between the compressor and the volume slider and get the correct limit.

Lastly, some of these fixes required that I use a few of the free plug-ins that various users have developed. You get what you pay for, as I found one that had a huge mistake in it. Applying the filter arbitrarily scaled the image up 150%. Fortunately these are all Motion templates, so it was a relatively easy matter to edit the filter in Motion and correct the mistake.

In the end, none of my concerns or complaints were deal-breakers. Editing was fast and generally fun, though you have to be very, very, very careful in what you do, when precision is important. Given the experience, I’ve moved onto another large corporate video project and will use Final Cut Pro X again on this one. Hey – I’m in the fire now!

©2012 Oliver Peters

It starts at the camera

Modern color correction and grading systems allow you to performance a lot of magic in post. All too often though, producers take the “fix it in post” mantra way too seriously. Since modern cameras offer excellent low light sensitivity, the basics of good lighting and proper art direction get short-changed. If the director, DP and lighting crew are allowed a bit of time to exercise their craft, the results will be so much better in the end. Grading can make up for lighting deficiencies, but often at a cost of noise and color artifacts. Here are three basics to remember that will greatly improve your next production.

Exposure

Proper exposure is essential, but with improved low light sensitivity and an increased use of log-based gamma curves, operators often have a hard time deciding what the right exposure actually is. I’ve mocked up some images to help clarify some of my points. (Click on any of these images throughout this post for an enlarged view.)

Most log curves mathematically “bend” or “compress” the high-end and low-end range of what the sensor is picking up. It’s a way of squeezing a wide dynamic range into a recordable space. The typical mantra is to “expose to the right”. This can be interpreted as making the image brighter by setting the exposure so it displays in the bright section (the right side) of a histogram. In you expose too dark, you will effectively underexpose the image. When you try to make it brighter during color correction, you will increase noise, especially in the midrange. That’s because there’s not enough of an image to gracefully “stretch” without introducing artifacts, such as noise, posterization and banding.

To illustrate these points, I have taken this RED One shot and created various exposures from the raw file. These were then exported as “baked” ProRes files, which I subsequently graded using FCP X’s color board tool. I took the corner of the image into Photoshop and exaggerated the levels to make the defects in the dark area more obvious. If you review the larger images, you’ll see the one that started with the darkest simulated exposure as having the most posterized look, while the dark areas are smoothest in the shots that represented brighter lighting.

You want to be careful not to go too bright, since the opposite is also true. Highlights on hair make be too bright and you might have difficultly getting the image dark enough in the dark areas of the picture. Ideally, the image wants to cover an area on a histogram that’s roughly the middle third of the scale. On a waveform, skin values want to hit in the 50-60IRE range. This lets a colorist stretch up or down from there, without having to raise skin values “out of the mud”.

Contrast ratio

Next to having the image bright enough for good correction, you need to have some range to work with between the darkest and lightest portions of the picture. A typical waveform would show this as 0-100IRE, but that gets more difficult with log images, which start out considerably more washed out in appearance. Typically a 20-40 IRE spread in a log image, like ARRI Log-C or RED RedLogFilm, will yield excellent grading results, as these images attest.

Hue separation

One of the in-vogue looks is the “orange and teal” style popularized by blockbuster films and emulated by Magic Bullet Mojo and Looks. This is based on the color theory of various color models. But to get the look in a convincing way, you really need to start out with proper art direction. Skin tones tend to be pink-orange. If you shoot a very warm scene with an actor standing close to an orange wall, you’ve effectively set up a monochrome situation where all the hue values are the same and only saturation and brightness are changed. In that example, it’s very difficult to make the flesh tones and the wall color be different from each other. This can be fixed in the beginning by proper art direction and lighting.

A good place to go to understand and play with examples is Adobe’s Kuler website. The interactive color swatch tools are a good way of testing color schemes using scientific models of complementary colors, triads, etc.

©2012 Oliver Peters

Three choices

We now know where the four “A”s are headed. With the dust settling just a little, picking your favored approach to post is shaping up into three choices: the software suite, the all-in-one and the toolkit. That’s not to say you can’t mix these options up a bit, but let me outline each approach.  Before I start, let me clarify that these choices are designed for the needs of small shops that post the average types of projects, including corporate videos, commercials, reality TV shows and low budget indie films. If you only cut studio films or are a high-end VFX specialist, then your world view is likely to be quite a bit different. So, let’s start.

A. The Software Suite

If you wanted to build your facility around a complementary suite of applications as I outlined in this previous post, then Apple Final Cut Studio had been the dominant option. With Apple’s changes, Adobe becomes the logical successor. The new Creative Suite 6 offerings provide many of the advances that Final Cut users had expected in a hypothetical Final Cut Pro 8 or Final Cut Studio 4. If you are looking for a package that can cover all the bases – including logging/ingest, editing, audio mixing, color grading and encoding/authoring – then Adobe CS6 Production Premium is the place to go.

Most Adobe applications may be purchased as standalone applications, as part of a suite or through a Creative Cloud subscription. If you are buying a site license as a multi-seat user, then you’ll likely go with perpetual licenses (the software has no time limit) rather than the Creative Cloud. (Adobe does plan to offer “Team” subscriptions later in the year.) Understand that if you are purchasing Adobe software with the intent of running different applications on different workstations, you will still have to purchase the appropriate suite (or a Cloud subscription) for each workstation. You cannot buy one software bundle license and then pick and choose specific applications to install and authorize on numerous computers for simultaneous operation. For that, you’d need a volume, or multi-seat license. It allows you to deploy bundles like Production Premium onto multiple workstations, using a common license number.

Granted, any FCP/Color editor moving to Premiere Pro or SpeedGrade is probably going to miss a few of their favorite features, but once comfortable with the differences, will find a very comprehensive package. One that lets you do everything you need for creative cutting and finishing – all within the Adobe family. There are links between Premiere Pro and Audition or After Effects or SpeedGrade, so it’s pretty easy to start in Premiere Pro (or even Prelude for ingest/transcode/logging) and then move to After Effects for vfx/motion graphics, Audition for the mix and SpeedGrade for the final grading pass.

Right now, the least-integrated application is SpeedGrade, which was acquired by Adobe only last September. Only the “send to” half of the roundtrip with Premiere Pro is in place. You can’t monitor broadcast output on any card except an NVIDIA with SDI, which most video editors don’t own and which doesn’t work on the Mac. You can, however, view a full screen signal on a second display that’s connected via DVI or DisplayPort. This is likely to change pretty quickly under Adobe control, but if you can work within the current constraints, SpeedGrade is a powerful color correction tool on par with Color or Resolve.

The intent of this post is not to go into depth about the pros and cons of any individual software application, so I’ll leave a discussion of Premiere Pro’s strengths or weaknesses as an editor for another time. Suffice it to say that if you want a powerful and comprehensive set of tools from a single vendor, who has made interoperability a priority, then Adobe is the best option today.

B. The All-In-One Editor

The editor who prefers to have everything at his or her fingertips inside of a single application is going to have to stick with Avid. The best bang-for-the-buck until mid-June is the Avid Symphony cross-grade promotion for FCP “legacy” owners. For $999 you get Symphony, AvidFX (Boris RED integrated into Symphony), the Boris Continuum Complete filter set, Sorenson Squeeze and Avid DVD (PC only). The advantage of Symphony over Media Composer includes advanced color correction tools and the bundling of the BCC filters. Both are cross-platform and work with the full range of third-party i/o hardware.

Naturally Autodesk Smoke and Avid DS editors might consider their favored NLE as more deserving of the all-in-one label, but I see the strengths of these systems in finishing and not offline or creative editing tasks. DS does offer many of those tools (though is typically not considered the first choice for such tasks), but Smoke doesn’t. In other words, if you want a system that can tackle any task from film editing to finishing, Symphony and Media Composer definitely fit the bill. The weaknesses are that you are limited to a maximum of HD-sized frames, the effects modules need a lot of improvement and the color correction tools are also long-in-the-tooth. Nevertheless, in the hands of an experienced editor, 80-90% of all editing and finishing challenges can be tackled inside of Symphony. This includes creative cutting, mixing, finishing and color grading – all accomplished without ever leaving the Avid editing interface.

For folks interested in understanding the differences between Media Composer and Symphony, check out this video at Avid. Furthermore, you can search for “avid fx tutorial” at Google or YouTube to find numerous tutorials on how to use Avid FX within the Media Composer or Symphony interface.

C. The Toolkit

This is where I see Apple Final Cut X fitting. FCP X by itself is not a complete NLE for advanced work and needs to be augmented with many other tools. When I say this, I’m focusing on the small shop, multi-suite user, not the individual videographer or editor who needs to bang out spots and corporate videos on his home or portable system. The work that many editors do requires collaboration with other editors, mixers and colorists. FCP X lacks those tools internally and instead leans on third-party utilities. The mix that seems to work best is some combination of FCP X (creative editing), DaVinci Resolve (advanced color grading) and Autodesk Smoke (visual effects and finishing).

As I watch the rapid expansion of the FCP X-based ecosystem, it’s becoming clear that what appears to be a lack of features is, in fact, spawning innovation to complement FCP X. As a result, the application is becoming more of a platform than the previous version or other editing software. Final Cut Pro X becomes the editing hub that is augmented by other applications and utilities based on your individual workflow needs.

Naturally any purchase of FCP X would be incomplete without Motion 5 and Compressor 4, not to mention that essential media management and interchange tools include Event Manager X, Xto7 for Final Cut Pro, 7toX for Final Cut Pro and X2Pro Audio Convert. I also find that it’s very hard to get through most complex productions without some fallback to the “legacy” Final Cut Studio suite. For example, if you need to generate EDLs or OMF files or prefer Color to other grading tools, then FC Studio (assuming you already own a copy anyway) is the best choice. In fact, you can still buy a Final Cut Pro Studio license from Apple’s 800-number business sales operation. Adobe CS6 Production Premium can also fulfill many of these same functions and there’s no reason not to own both CS6 and FCP X. For the sake of this post, I’m presenting Choice C as a non-Avid, non-Adobe alternative.

Advanced post functions in the toolkit include grading, audio mixing and advanced finishing. There are plenty of options for audio, including Apple’s own Logic and Soundtrack Pro. There’s no clear path from FCP X to either of these, yet. You can export audio streams as Roles, but those are “flattened” tracks without handles. Best to bounce over to FCP 7 and then to STP or Logic. Other solutions include ProTools, Audition and Nuendo. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro is designed to send FCP X audio tracks to Pro Tools in the AAF format, but not OMF, so it’s not compatible with some of the other DAW software options, like Logic.

Blackmagic Design has done a good job of integrating FCP X’s XML into DaVinci Resolve, so even the free LITE version works well as a grading companion to FCP X. Resolve can easily be installed on any workstation in the facility and if you want a dedicated grading room, then it’s worth the investment in a proper monitor, scopes and a control surface. Likewise, if you invest in Autodesk Smoke, it is probably with the intent to make this a client-supervised “hero” room. Yes, all of these applications can reside on a single workstation, but that doesn’t make the best business sense.

Another thing to consider is i/o hardware. Final Cut Pro X works with most of the PCIe and Thunderbolt capture/output cards and devices, but Resolve only works with Blackmagic Design’s own hardware. Conversely, Smoke requires an AJA KONA 3G or IoXT. For a facility owner, having dedicated Smoke and Resolve suites makes sense and, therefore, it’s OK to have different cards in different workstations. This does mean you will have to do a bit of planning to best manage your configuration.

This also brings to mind shared storage. FCP X is still evolving in that regard and currently works with Xsan. You can use it with volume-level SANs, but the “Add SAN Location” feature may or may not work at your site. For instance, it doesn’t work with Command Soft FibreJet. You’ll be fine with shared media, as long as your Final Cut Events and Final Cut Projects folders are on locally-controlled volumes, where the FCP X workstation has write permission to that volume or drive.

Last but not least is Adobe Photoshop, which I find essential for all sessions. Other editors disagree and prefer to avoid Photoshop – either for reasons of need or cost. So, alternatives to Photoshop include Corel Painter, Photoshop Elements or Pixelmator.

In closing, remember this is just a simple way to present the options. There’s nothing that says you can’t mix and match After Effects and/or Pro Tools with EDIUS, Media Composer, Vegas, Media 100 or any other variation. My world is headed primarily to an Apple/Adobe witches brew of applications. I hope my little overview makes some sense out of the confusing NLE landscape. It’s still very fluid and will likely continue to change over the coming year. The key is to pick a direction and stick to it. You don’t have to know everything, but pick the right tools for your clients and workload. Learn to use them well and dive in!

© 2012 Oliver Peters