The East

df_east_1Director Zal Batmanglij’s The East caught the buzz at Sundance and SXSW. It was produced by Scott Free Productions with Fox Searchlight Pictures. Not bad for the young director’s sophomore outing. The film takes its name from The East, a group of eco-terrorists and anarchists led by Benji, who is played by Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood). The group engages in “jams” – their term for activist attacks on corporations, which they tape and put out on the web. Sarah, played by Brit Marling (Arbitrage), is a corporate espionage specialist who is hired to infiltrate the group. In that process, she comes to sympathize with the group’s ideals, if not its violent tactics. She finds herself both questioning her allegiances and is falling in love with Benji. Marling also co-wrote the screenplay with Batmanglij.

In addition to a thriller plot, the film’s production also had some interesting twists along the way to completion. First, it was shot with an ARRI ALEXA, but unlike most films that use the ALEXA, the recording was done as ProRes4444 to the onboard SxS cards, instead of ARRIRAW to an external recorder. That will make it one of the few films to date in mainstream release to do so. ProRes dailies were converted into color-adjusted Avid DNxHD media for editing.

Second, the film went through a change of editors due to prior commitments. After the production wrapped and a first assembly of the film was completed, Andrew Weisblum (Moonrise Kingdom, Black Swan) joined the team to cut the film. Weisblum’s availability was limited to four months, though, since he was already committed to editing Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. At that stage, Bill Pankow (The Black Dahlia, Carlito’s Way) picked up for Weisblum and carried the film through to completion.

df_east_2Andrew Weisblum explained, “When I saw the assembly of The East, I really felt like there was a good story, but I had already committed to cut Noah. I wasn’t quite sure how much could be done in the four months that I had, but left the film at what we all thought was a cut that was close to completion. It was about 80% done and we’d had an initial preview. Bill [Pankow] was a friend, so I asked if he would pick it up for me there, assuming that the rest would be mainly just a matter of tightening up the film. But it turned out to be more involved than that.”

Bill Pankow continued, “I came on board June of last year and took the picture through to the locked cut and the mix in November. After that first screening, everyone felt that the ending needed some work. The final scene between the main characters wasn’t working in the way Zal and Brit had originally expected. They decided to change some things to serve the drama better and to resolve the relationship of the main characters. This required shooting additional footage, as well as reworking some of the other scenes. At that point we took a short hiatus while Zal and Brit  rewrote and reshot the last scene. Then another preview and we were able to lock the cut.”

df_east_3Like nearly all films, The East took on a life of its own in the cutting room. According to Weisblum, “The film changed in the edit from the script. Some of what I did in the cut was to bring in more tension and mystery in the beginning to get us to the group [The East] more quickly. We also simplified a number of story points. Nothing really radical – although it might have felt like that at the time – but just removing tangents that distracted from the main story.” Pankow added, “We didn’t have any length constraints from Fox, so we were able to optimize each scene. Towards the end of the film, there were places that needed extra ‘moments’ to accentuate some of the emotion of what the Sarah character was feeling. In a few cases, this meant re-using shots that might have appeared earlier. In addition to changing the last scene, a few other areas were adjusted. One or two scenes were extended, which in some cases replaced other scenes.”

Since the activists document their activities with video cameras, The East incorporates a number of point-of-view shots taken with low-res cameras. Rather than create these as visual effects shots, low-res cameras were used for the actual photography of that footage. Some video effects were added in the edit and some through the visual effects company. Weisblum has worked as a VFX editor (The Fountain, Chicago), so creating temporary visual effects is second nature. He said, “I usually do a number of things either in the Avid or using [Adobe] After Effects. These are the typical ‘split screen’ effects where takes are mixed to offset the timing of the performances. In this film, there was one scene where two characters [Tim and Sarah] are having a conversation on the bed. I wanted to use a take where Tim is sitting up, but of course, he’s partially covered by Sarah. This took a bit more effort, because I had to rotoscope part of one shot into the other, since the actors were overlapping each other. I’ll do these things whenever I can, so that the film plays in as finished a manner as possible during screening. It also gives the visual effects team a really good roadmap to follow.”

df_east_4Bill Pankow has worked as an editor or assistant on over forty features and brings some perspective to modern editing. He said, “I started editing digitally on Lightworks, but then moved to Avid. At the time, Lightworks didn’t keep up and Avid gave you more effects and titling tools, which let editors produce a more polished cut. On this film the set-up included two Avid Media Composer systems connected to shared storage. I typically like to work with two assistants when I can. My first assistant will add temporary sound effects and clean up the dialogue, while the second assistant handles the daily business and paperwork of the cutting room. Because assistants tend to have their own specialties these days, it’s harder for assistants to learn how to edit. I try to make a point of involving my assistants in watching the dailies, reviewing a scene when it’s cut and so on. This way they have a chance to learn and can someday move into the editor’s chair themselves.”

Both editors agree that working on The East was a very positive experience. Weisblum said, “Before starting, I had a little concern for how it would be working with Zal and Brit, especially since Brit was the lead actress, but also co-writer and producer. However, it was very helpful to have her involved, as she really helped me to understand the intentions of the character. It turned out to be a great collaboration.” Pankow concluded, “I enjoyed the team, but more so, I liked the fact that this film resonates emotionally, as well as politically, with the current times. I was very happy to be able to work on it.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

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After Effects for the Finish

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Many editors view Adobe After Effects as a great motion graphics tool or a reasonably powerful compositor. It’s a great “Swiss Army knife” for all things in post. I use it all the time to add or remove cadence going between 24fps and 30fps formats, as well as to perform high-quality SD-HD up/down/cross-conversions. Want a great credit roll? Create a long Photoshop document with names and titles, drop it into an After Effects composition of the desired length, add two keyframes, render and Bob’s your uncle! Needless to say After Effects is one of those indispensable Adobe tools for many editors, regardless of the editing software that they use.

As a compositor it’s powerful, as well, although the serious VFX folks tend to gravitate to Flame, Nuke, Shake, Fusion or other apps. As compositing software goes, applications tend to be split between tracks and nodes, with After Effects in the former category. In a stricter view, though, After Effects uses layers rather than tracks. It’s like Photoshop in that sense, where each new clip goes onto a new video layer – except that these layers are set against time. This gives it a cosmetic similarity to NLE tracks. Each layer can be masked, adjusted in 2D and 3D space and have filter effects applied to it. Layers can be connected in parent-child relationships. Null layers can be added, which are technically “blank” layers to which other layers are linked. By manipulating the null layer, the others are all changed accordingly. Like Photoshop, there are adjustment layers often used for filter or graphic elements, like vignettes. These affect the look of all the other layers that are underneath.

What many don’t realize is that quite a few editors use After Effects as their complete editorial finishing tool. Maybe it’s because After Effects is so versatile or maybe because these editors came from a graphics and design background, but I’ve run across quite a few cases, where the NLE was used to build a very basic timeline and then everything else was done in After Effects. This approach has also been popularized by Stu Maschwitz in his The DV Rebel’s Guide. There are several ways to get from an NLE into After Effects. Media Composer and Final Cut “legacy” editors can use Automatic Duck. If you prefer FCP X, then ClipExporter is the path into AE. Premiere Pro offers a “live” connection between the two applications using Dynamic Link, but you can also just copy-and-paste Premiere Pro timeline clips into a new AE composition. If all else fails, the easiest method is simply to export a self-contained media file and bring that into an AE comp. Use the “split layer” command to slice the single clip at the cuts, in order to place each shot onto its own layer.

Just to be clear, nearly everything that can be done this way – using After Effects for finishing – could also be done using Apple Motion or Boris RED. It’s just that I haven’t run into many folks doing the same thing with those applications, but I have run into plenty using After Effects. In any case, Motion has a lot going for it and of the alternatives to After Effects, it offers the most bang for the least bucks. Of these three, it’s probably the easiest tool for new users and is incredibly powerful, when those same users is ready for more.

Doing a complete finish in After Effects or Motion isn’t necessarily my cup-of-tea, because I’m more comfortable within an NLE. Plus, if you have a lot of shots, that means a lot of layers. A quick-cut :30 commercial, could easily mean 20-40 layers. On the other hand, you have some great tools in After Effects – or that come bundled with it. Built-in, you’ve got text, paint, masking, tracking, blend modes, color correction, distortion, a puppet tool and more. It comes bundled with Cycore plug-ins, the Keylite keyer, the Mocha tracker and Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse grading tool. New with After Effects CC is a live link to Cinema 4D models and a bundled version of the Cinema 4D Lite application.

Thanks to AE’s ability to nest compositions within other compositions, it makes a great tool for broadcast versioning. For example, let’s say you create a separate comp for the end tag of a commercial. That tag comp might have several layers that can be turned on or off to create different variations to the commercial. The tag composition becomes the last layer within the comp for the complete commercial. Now once you are ready to render/export each version of the commercial, simply change the active layers in the end tag composition and it will be updated within the full composition for the commercial.

In May I was freelancing at a broadcast affiliate, where nearly every promo, commercial, billboard, show open or station ID went through this process. Editors who joined that team would be completely useless without an intermediate knowledge of After Effects – if nothing else, just to dive into past projects. I’ve run into this same scenario at other broadcast shops, as well. Cut the base spot. Export a file for After Effects where all the finesse happens. Render the comp and bring it back into the NLE for final broadcast formatting. Needless to say, Autodesk’s Smoke 2013 is trying to become the tool of choice for this niche, but that’s an uphill climb. Adobe’s price is better, the learning curve is easier and there’s a larger user base.

Although I like to finish inside my NLE, I have certainly been more than happy with the results I get in After Effects and there are few applications that work better with plug-ins. If you want to add that touch of art and design to the completion or your projects, then it’s worth taking a closer look at After Effects or Motion as more than just a tool to create motion graphics.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer Power Tips

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Avid Media Composer might seem daunting to new users, but here are several “power user” tips to improve your editing experience.

1. Managing Bin Data

df_avidpwrtips_2_smCustom Sift – Creating filtering values for columns in the Custom Sift window lets the editor control the view and reduce clutter of a bin. For example, to see only your selected takes, create a Selects column in the bin and place an “x” in that column next to each selected clip. Now apply the custom sift filtered for those values and only these clips will be shown. Return to the unsifted view to see all clips in the bin.

df_avidpwrtips_11_smFind – The Find command (cmd-F on a Mac) opens the Find window. This can be used for text, script and phonetic dialogue searches (if the optional PhraseFind software was installed). For text searches, enter the text string, adjust the search parameters and go. Any matching clips will be displayed in this window. It’s a powerful tool that can be set to search all bins in the projects – not just the current, open bin. If you had a Selects column with an “x” marked for the best takes, you could use the Find window to show all selects for your entire production simply by setting the filter parameters accordingly. That works even when all the bins are closed.

2. Timeline Editing Tricks

df_avidpwrtips_3_smCollapse – Reduce your timeline’s video track complexity with the Collapse command. Collapsed clips enable you to add transitions in and out of complex, multi-layered effects. Highlight the clips and enable the tracks to be combined, click “collapse” and all the selected clips will be nested into a single container clip on the lowermost video track. Double-click the clip icon and the component pieces will be expanded vertically to reveal the contents for additional editing.

df_avidpwrtips_15_smReplace edit – One of the most useful editorial tools is the Replace Edit function. This is great when you need to eye-match shots to overcut one clip with another, or when syncing a sound effect to a visual cue. Mark the in/out points on the timeline clip and park the playhead over the frame that you want to sync to.  For instance, this might be someone jumping into the water. Next, load a new source clip, leave it unmarked and park the source at its sync point. In this case, it might be an audio clip with a sound effect of water splashing. Click the Replace Edit command to edit the new clip into place onto the audio tracks. The sound effect of the splash will coincide with the visual of the person hitting the water.

df_avidpwrtips_8_smTitle preview – The Avid Title Tool is a simple WYSIWYG titler that overlays text onto a reference image from the parked position on the timeline. The default is an aliased display for faster operation, but selecting Preview in the Title Tool’s top menu will display an anti-aliased version that better represents the final quality of the rendered text.

3. Audio Control

df_avidpwrtips_6_smAudio effects – Media Composer offers two plug-in types for audio filters. Audiosuite filters are clip-based plug-ins. These can be previewed in real-time, but must be rendered to be applied to the clip. RTAS plug-ins are real-time, track-based audio effects. Up to five filters can be applied to each track. Real-time performance is subject to processor and RAM demands, of course. Media Composer ships with a set of Digirack and AIR audio plug-ins. Many third-party native RTAS filters for Pro Tools will also work in Media Composer.

df_avidpwrtips_7_smAudio mixing – Avid enables three ways to mix audio within Media Composer: clip volume level settings, rubberbanding keyframes within the track and automation mixing. The mixer panel defaults to clip for an overall setting of volume/pan for the clips under the playhead. Toggle the mixer mode button to access automation mixing. This lets the editor write a real-time volume pass by adjusting the fader levels with the mouse (or an external control surface) on-the-fly. In addition, keyframes can be inserted onto the timeline track and then adjusted for proper level.

4. Video Effects

df_avidpwrtips_12_smAdjustment layers – Avid does not define tracks or effects as adjustment layers like in Adobe Photoshop or After Effects. Nevertheless, effects may be added to empty, higher tracks and these affect all the clips below. For example, if you want to change the color correction for the entire range of clips on V1, simply apply a color correction setting to the empty filler on V2. One example where this is useful is when you have cameras that record an image with a flat, log profile. Simply apply a curves setting on V2 to function as a viewing LUT for all of the images below it on the timeline.

df_avidpwrtips_4_smCopy/paste effects – To copy an effect with adjusted settings, simply drag the effect icon from the effects editor window to an open bin. To apply that effect to another clip on the timeline, drag the effect from the bin to the clip. Alternatively, you can highlight one or more clips and double-click the effect icon in the bin. It will then apply this effect with its settings to all of the highlighted clips.

df_avidpwrtips_13_smFluidmotion and Timewarp – Media Composer’s motion tools are some of the best to be found in any NLE. Timewarp is used for advanced retiming or timeline-based speed effects. Fluidmotion is an optical flow-style process that creates in-between frames. Together they provide similar results to that of the RE:Vision Twixtor plug-in. Apply a Timewarp effect to a clip and adjust the motion effects editor for the desired result. There you can also adjust the quality settings by changing the interpolation mode from the Type pulldown menu. Fluidmotion will provide the smoothest results, but there are other options when you prefer faster processing over quality.

df_avidpwrtips_14_smStabilization – A lesser-known feature is Avid’s cloud-point stabilizer. Apply the Stabilize effect to a timeline clip, select FluidStabilizer from the tracking window and start the track. Media Composer will automatically track the image without any user-defined tracking points. It will then apply real-time scale and position adjustments, which can be altered by the editor.

 5. Media Management

df_avidpwrtips_5_smIntermediate renders – Media Composer effects can be rendered at any level, not just the topmost video track. If you apply effects to clips on V1 and render that layer, clips and effects added above it on V2 will not unlink the V1 render files. This is also true if you subsequently remove the clips on V2. This architecture makes it possible to render complex effects at various “in-progress” stages for easy effects creation, better real-time response and with less processing time needed for the final render.

df_avidpwrtips_9_smMXF imports – A number of applications can render Avid-compliant MXF media files. There are several ways to import these into your Media Composer projects. First, the MXF media files should be placed into a new numbered subfolder inside the Avid MediaFiles/MXF folder on one of your hard drives. When you launch Media Composer, the software will scan the drives and index the new media. If a corresponding AAF file was created for this media by the other application, simply import the AAF file and the media clips will be relinked in the bin. If no AAF file was created, you can drag the Avid database file (labeled “msmMMOB.mdb”) from the numbered MediaFiles folder into an empty bin. Lastly, you can also use the Avid Media Tool from the top menu to access the clips and drag them into an empty bin.

df_avidpwrtips_10_smSAS QT reference movies – Avid supports the ability to export sequences in the QuickTime reference movie format. To maintain video quality, these should be exported using the Avid codec “same as source” setting. This is a fast export and the resulting QuickTime reference file is wrapped in a .MOV container, but uses one of the Avid codecs. When these files are converted to another format, like H.264 or Apple ProRes in an encoder, such as Apple Compressor, the transcoded file will have proper video levels.

df_avidpwrtips_16_smAutomatic Duck Media Copy – While not an Avid product, Automatic Duck’s Media Copy program (still available for free at automaticduck.com) is ideal for archiving media tied to a specific project or sequence. It has the ability to read into Avid bin files to identify sequences and the associated media. From there, it will copy only the media used in the cut to a designated folder. This may be moved or archived for later use.

Click here for “Avid Media Composer Tips for the FCP Switcher”.

For two great books to improve your Avid abilities, check out Ben Hershleder’s Avid Media Composer 6.x Cookbook and Steve Cohen’s Avid Agility.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2013 Oliver Peters

Making FCP X Work For You, Part 2

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Let me dive a bit deeper into last week’s post about working with Final Cut Pro X. Although fun, powerful and intuitive, FCP X can also be quite frustrating. Unlike any other NLE software, FCP X needs to be approached with a working strategy. That’s partially because certain terms and concepts have changed, but also because elements within the application do not operate with the same properties. An Event functions differently than a Project and a clip on the Primary Storyline can do different things than the same clip edited to the timeline as a Connected Clip.

Apple has not offered any “best practices” white papers or tutorials for things like the optimum use of Events, Compound Clips – when to use them and when not. (Click here for resources that are available from Apple and other companies.) There’s a lot of anecdotal data on the web, but much of it conflicts. Plenty of folks tell you how the app works, but most don’t know what they are talking about – often projecting onto the software what they want it to become, rather than what it is today.

How many Events?

One such issue is how many Events should you place your source material into? Events have been presented as analogous to Bins or even Project files in FCP 7. This leads you to think that more Events might be better. For example, if you shot an indie film over thirty days, should you create a new Event for each shoot day? Or should it go into one big Event?

Since there is little or no database functionality across Events – and definitely none if the Event is hidden – then one big Event would be the better approach. However, the larger the Event – or the more open Events you have – the more sluggish the application becomes. There’s obviously a sweet spot, but I don’t know what it is. So this becomes a delicate dance.

My largest Events to date have contained about 1,000 clips and that seems to be workable. For features films, I’ve also seen suggestions to place all the footage for a single “reel” into an Event and then work one reel at a time. Hide the others not being used via Event Manager X. I’m not sure how well that works when you start to revise and recut the film, but it’s an idea in any case.

Compound Clips

Compound Clips are the equivalent of nested sequences in FCP 7. I’ve come to view these as “evil” in the same way as the way I have avoided nesting in FCP “legacy”. Use Compound Clips sparingly. For example, if you edit a long timeline of selects, compound it and use that Compound as a source for shorter edits, the database is still tracking all of the longest elements within that Compound.

I have found this to be the case, even if you break apart the Compound Clip within the new timeline. I discovered this when I went to consolidate an edited sequence into a new Event. Even though the clips had been broken apart, those clips copied into the new Event included the source Compounds, as well as all the source clips used in those Compounds. The result was the need to copy a lot more into the new Event than was actually used in the final timeline. The solution (though I haven’t fully tested this) has been to first delete the Compound Clips, before I consolidate the sequence into a new Event. So for now, I only use Compound Clips for basic visual effects composites.

Primary versus Connected

At the top, I spoke about developing an editing strategy. One of the choices you are presented with is whether to: a) edit directly to the Primary Storyline or, b) to edit your clips as Connected Clips attached to a blank slug filling the Primary Storyline. Neither is right nor wrong. Primary Clips let you take advantage of the magnetic timeline function, but Connected Clips can be freely re-arranged without concern for parent-child clip dependencies.

The issue becomes more critical when you have to make changes. For example, your client changes the VO or music, which you’ve edited as Connected Clips attached to your main video on the Primary Storyline. The rub is that the timing of these different elements is interrelated, so you can’t simply replace the VO or music. At that point magnetism works against you.

Here’s where FCP X offers two helpful commands – Lift from Storyline and Overwrite to Storyline. The Lift command moves Primary clips out of the Primary Storyline and turns than into Connected Clips. Overwrite does the opposite and places Connected Clips back to the Primary Storyline using an Overwrite edit. It’s best if this is used early in the process, since certain effects, like transitions, are removed or broken. It’s a fast way to pop clips out of the Storyline, quickly re-arranged the order without affecting other Connected Clips and then drop the new order back into place.

Simplify your timeline

Final Cut Pro X enables you to build very complex Projects (edited sequences). These may work well within X, but are difficult to properly translate if you need to move to other applications, like Resolve, Smoke, After Effects, Final Cut Pro 7, Premiere Pro and others. Most of these don’t understand Compound Clips or applied effects, however Resolve and Smoke do have good FCP XML conversions from FCP X. Round-tripping with Resolve is quite good. If you need to maintain interoperability with a wide range of other applications, I still feel that it is best to first “flatten” or reduce the clip complexity of your timeline. This means to move as much down onto the Primary Storyline as possible. Although grading tools, like Resolve, will work with multilayered timeline, they really work best when video is presented as a single track. Anything you can do ahead of time to streamline the sequence and ease the translation will benefit your project down the line.

Effects handling

There are plenty of cool effects available for Final Cut Pro X, but there is no dedicated effects architecture built into FCP X. All effects are built for the FxPlug API that is part of Motion. Even if you didn’t purchase Motion 5, that “engine” is contained within FCP X. All third-party effects are built in (or based on) Motion and published as an FCP X effect, which is actually a Motion template. By design, effects parameters are intended to be streamlined within FCP X. The more complexity a developer adds to a given filter, the more performance suffers inside FCP X. This translates into poor real-time playback with an unrendered effect, as well as a sluggish response when you try to adjust the parameter sliders.

I’ve found that the built-in filters and the simpler third-party effects, designed as straightforward Motion templates, run reasonably well inside X. Usually these are effects that only do one function, like a glow or a vignette – as opposed to a filter that combines color correction, glow and vignette into a single plug-in. The ones that are more elaborate offer a greater challenge to zippy performance. My general advice is to limit the effects you do within X to the built-in effects or simpler third-party effects for transitions and image styles/looks. Avoid the more complex effects or any extensive compositing, unless you are ready to render a lot. Typically, I’d suggest using X to cut, but then bounce over to Motion or After Effects for advanced effects. The plug-ins operate far better there and you have a lot more options to play with.

© 2013 Oliver Peters