Digital Anarchy Samurai Sharpen

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Editors often face the dilemma of dealing with less-than-perfect footage. Focus is the bane of this challenge, where you have the ideal shot, but the operator missed the optimal focus, leaving a useable, albeit soft, image. Editing and compositing apps offer a number of built-in and third-party sharpen and unsharp mask filters that can be employed as a fix. While you can’t really fix the focus issue, you can sharpen the image so that it is perceived by the viewer as being better in focus. All of these filters work on the concept of localized contrast. This means that any dark-to-light edge transition within the image is enhanced and contrast in that area is increased. The dark area is darkened and the brighter part enhanced. This creates a halo effect, which can become quite visible as you increase the amount of sharpening, but also quite obnoxious when you push the amount to its full range. A little bit improves the image – a lot creates an electric, stylized effect.

One of the better sharpening filters on the market is Digital Anarchy’s Samurai Sharpen, which is available for Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC. (According to their website, Avid and OpenFX plug-ins are in development and coming soon.) What makes Samurai Sharpen different is that it includes sophisticated masking in order to restrict the part of the image to be sharpened. For example, on a facial close-up, you can enhance the sharpness of eyes without also pushing the skin texture by an unflattering amount. Yet, you still have plenty of control to push the image into a “look”. For example, the photographic trend these days seems to be photos with an obvious over-sharpened look for dramatic appeal. If you want subtle or if you want to stylize the image, both are achievable with Samurai Sharpen.df0717_sam_2_sm

Click any of the example images to see an enlarged view. In these comparisons, pay attention to not only the eyes, but also lips and strands of hair, as these are also affected by sharpening. (Image courtesy of Blackmagic Design.)

df0717_sam_4_smThe effect controls are divided into three groups – Sharpen, Mask and Blend. The top three sharpen controls are similar to most other filters. Amount is self-explanatory, radius adjusts the size of the localized contrast halo, and edge mask strength controls the mask that determines what is or isn’t sharpened. The edge mask strength range markings might seem counter-intuitive, though. All the way to the left (0) means that you haven’t increased the mask strength, therefore, more of the image is being sharpened. In our facial close-up example, more texture (like the skin) and noise (background) would be sharpened. If you crank the slider all the way to the right (50), you have increased the mask strength, thus less of the image is being sharpened. For the face, this means the eyes and eyelashes are sharpened, but the skin stays smooth. The handy “show sharpening” toggle renders a quick hi-con image (mask) of the area being sharpened.

df0717_sam_3_smThe real power of Samurai Sharpen is in the Mask Group. You have two controls each for shadow and highlights, as well as an on/off toggle to enable shadow and/or highlight masking. These four sliders function like a curves control, enabling you to broaden or restrict the range of dark or light portions of the image that will be affected by the sharpening. Enabling and adjusting the shadow mask controls lets you eliminate darker background portions of the image from being sharpened. You don’t want these areas sharpened, because it would result in a noisier appearance. The mask can also be blurred in order to feather the fall-off between sharpened and unprocessed portions of the image. Finally, there’s a layer mask control in this group, which shows up a bit differently between the Adobe apps and FCPX. Essentially it allows you to use another source to define your sharpening mask.

df0717_sam_5_smThe last section is the Blend Group. This offers slider adjustments for the opacity of the shadow and highlight masks created in the Mask Group section. GPU acceleration results in an effect that is quick to apply and adjust, along with good playback performance.

While there are many free sharpening tools on the market, Digital Anarchy’s Samurai Sharpen is worth the extra for the quality and control it offers. Along with Beauty Box and Flicker Free, they offer a nice repertoire of image enhancement tools.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Voyage of Time

df0617_vot_3_smFans of director Terrence Malick adore his unique approach to filmmaking, which is often defined by timeless and painterly cinematic compositions. The good news for moviegoers is that Malick has been in the most prolific period of his directing career. What could be the penultimate in cinema as poetry is Malick’s recent documentary, Voyage of Time. This is no less than a chronicle of the history of the universe as seen through Malick’s eyes. Even more intriguing is the fact that the film is being released in two versions – a 90 minute feature (Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey), narrated by Cate Blanchett, as well as a 45 minute IMAX version (Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience), narrated by Brad Pitt.

This period of Malick’s increased output has not only been good for fans, but also for Keith Fraase, co-editor of Voyage of Time. Fraase joined Malick’s filmmaking team during the post of The Tree of Life. Although he had been an experienced editor cutting commercials and shorts, working with Malick was his first time working on a full-length feature. Keith Fraase and I recently discussed what it took to bring Voyage of Time to the screen.

Eight years in the making

“I began working with Terry back in 2008 on The Tree of Life,” Fraase says. “Originally, Voyage of Time had been conceived as a companion piece to The Tree of Life, to be released simultaneously. But plans changed and the release of Voyage was delayed. Some of the ideas and thematic elements that were discussed for Voyage ended up as the ‘creation sequence’ in Tree, but reworked to fit the tone and style of that film. Over the years, Voyage became something that Terry and I would edit in between post on his other narrative films. It was our passion project.”

df0617_vot_1Malick’s cutting rooms are equipped with Avid Media Composer systems connected to Avid shared storage. Typically his films are edited by multiple editors. (Voyage of Time was co-edited by Fraase and Rehman Nizar Ali.) Not only editors, but also researchers, needed access to the footage, so at times, there were as many as eight Media Composer systems used in post. Fraase explains, “There is almost always more than one editor on Terry’s films. At the start of post, we’d divvy up the film by section and work on it until achieving a rough assembly. Then, once the film was assembled in full, each editor would usually trade-off sections or scenes, in the hope to achieve some new perspective on the cut. It was always about focusing on experimentation or discovering different approaches to the edit. With Voyage, there was so much footage to work with, some of which Terry had filmed back in the 70s. This was a project he’d had in his mind for decades. In preparation, he traveled all over the world and had amassed years of research on natural phenomena and the locations where he could film them. During filming, the crew would go to locations with particular goals in mind, like capturing mud pots in Iceland or cuttlefish in Palau. But Terry was always on the lookout for the unexpected. Due to this, much of the footage that ended up in the final films was unplanned.”

df0617_vot_2Cutting Voyage of Time presented an interesting way to tackle narration. Fraase continues, “For Voyage, there were hours and hours of footage to cut with, but we also did a lot of experiments with sound. Originally, there was a 45 page script written for the IMAX version, which was expanded for the full feature. However, this script was more about feelings and tone than outlining specific beats or scenes. It was more poetry than prose, much of which was later repurposed and recorded as voiceover. Terry has a very specific way of working with voiceover. The actors record pages and pages of it. All beautifully written. But we never know what is going to work until it’s recorded, brought into the Avid, and put up against picture. Typically, we’ll edit together sequences of voiceover independent of any footage. Then we move these sequences up and down the timeline until we find a combination of image and voiceover that produces meaning greater than the sum of the parts. Terry’s most interested in the unexpected, the unplanned.”

The art of picture and sound composition

Naturally, when moviegoers think of a Terrence Malick film, imagery comes to mind. Multiple visual effects houses worked on Voyage of Time, under the supervision of Dan Glass (Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas, The Master). Different artists worked on different sections of the film. Fraase explains, “Throughout post production, we sought the guidance from scientific specialists whenever we could. They would help us define certain thematic elements that we knew we wanted – into specific, illustratable moments. We’d then bring these ideas to the different VFX shops to expand on them. They mocked up the various ‘previz’ shots that we’d test in our edit – many of which were abandoned along the way. We had to drop so many wonderful images and moments after they’d been painstakingly created, because it was impossible to know what would work best until placed in the edit.”

df0617_vot_4“For VFX, Terry wanted to rely on practical film elements as much as possible. Even the shots that were largely CGI had to have some foundation in the real. We had an ongoing series of what we called ’skunkworks shoots’ during the weekends, where the crew would film experiments with elements like smoke, flares, dyes in water and so on. These were all layered into more complex visual effects shots.” Although principal photography was on film, the finished product went through a DI (digital intermediate) finishing process. IMAX visual effects elements were scanned at 11K resolution and the regular live action footage at 8K resolution.

df0617_vot_5The music score for Voyage of Time was also a subject of much experimentation. Fraase continues, “Terry has an extensive classical music library, which was all loaded into the Avid, so that we could test a variety of pieces against the edit. This started with some obvious choices like [Gustav] Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and [Joseph] Haydn’s ‘The Creation’ for a temp score. But we tried others, like a Keith Jarrett piano piece. Then one of our composers [Hanan Townshend, To The Wonder, Knight of Cups] experimented further by taking some of the classical pieces we’d been using and slowing them way, way down. The sound of stringed instruments being slowed results in an almost drone-like texture. For some of the original compositions, Terry was most interested in melodies and chords that never resolve completely. The idea being that, by never resolving, the music was mimicking creation – constantly struggling and striving for completion. Ultimately a collection of all these techniques was used in the final mix. The idea was that this eclectic approach would provide for a soundtrack that was always changing.”

Voyage of Time is a visual symphony, which is best enjoyed if you sit back and just take it in. Keith Fraase offers this, “Terry has a deep knowledge of art and science and he wanted everyone involved in the project to be fascinated and love it as much as he. This is Terry’s ode to the earth.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Sonicfire Pro 6

df0517_sfp6_01Most editors have a pretty innate sense of rhythm, yet often finding and tailoring the right music to your video poses a challenge for even the most talented cutter. SmartSound has provided a solution to this dilemma for many years. Last year they updated their custom Sonicfire Pro audio mixing software to version 6. This update adds interesting new features and support for today’s crop of NLEs.

The starting point is SmartSound’s library of original music. You buy the tracks you like once, which includes easy licensing, and then tailor the song for the length needed, for as many productions as required. SmartSound’s offerings cover a wide range of genres, all of which have been quantized into beat blocks that the Sonicfire Pro application automatically uses for timing adjustments. While this might sound like all the music would need to be synthetically generated – it isn’t. These tracks are played by humans with real instruments, so if you want rock, electronic, symphonic, etc. – you’ve got it. Many selections have been mood-mapped – SmartSound’s term to identify music cues that are multi-layered with up to nine instrument layers. If you like the track, but want to lose the drums or lower the lead instrument’s volume within the mix, simply turn off that layer or adjust its volume envelope. Both multi-layer and single-layer tracks can all be adjusted for time within Sonicfire Pro.df0517_sfp6_02

Sonicfire Pro 6 brings with it a modern interface

The new Sonicfire Pro 6 application is a welcomed update. It’s more streamlined than version 5, with a clean, modern interface. This excellent mini-tutorial by Larry Jordan will give you a quick overview of how it works.

df0517_sfp6_08From within the application, you have immediate access to all of your owned titles, as well as any other SmartSound selection (when you are online). If you don’t already own it, find something from SmartSound that you like, buy and download it right from within Sonicfire Pro 6. In the upper browser pane, search for specific tracks, albums and style, or sort by tempo or intensity.

Naturally, Sonicfire Pro 6 supports video, since it’s intended to empower user-friendly music scoring to picture. To add a video clip, show the video window and from its pulldown, select “Add Video”. You can also resize the Sonicfire Pro 6 interface larger (it references your monitor size automatically) and at the right size it will allow you to have both the Video window and either the Inspector or Markers window open simultaneously, so you can actually reference your video when making adjustments in these panels. Now the video will run in sync with your timeline. You can also import audio from a video file, if you want to do the whole mix in Sonicfire – much like a traditional DAW. In addition, you can also export tracks, full mixes and/or complete audio/video files with completed mixes. However, this is optional, as you can run SFP6 as just an audio-only tool without ever involving video, should you decide to work that way.

df0517_sfp6_04df0517_sfp6_05When you initially pick a track, three settings will get you started. The first is duration. Enter the desired duration and Sonicfire Pro will change the song structure to fit the length. It does this without just repeating the same loop. Next, pick your variation. Each track has a set of variations, which are different arrangements of the same song. Finally, for mood-mapped (multi-layer) tracks, make a mood selection. Moods are different instrument arrangements within the song, going from a full mix to various combinations of dominant instruments used for that song. Finally, there’s a advanced tab for additional options, including adjusting the mix of multi-layer tracks and shifting the tempo. A really cool search function is “Tap”. Simply tap out the beats by clicking the Tap button a few times and Sonicfire Pro will subsequently sort the library selections based on the tempo you tapped out.

df0517_sfp6_06Working in the timeline

Once you’ve auditioned and (optionally) adjusted the duration, variation and mood, drag and drop the selection to the timeline at the bottom of the application window. If you need the track to be longer or shorter, just drag the edge of the clip to the desired length and Sonicfire Pro will automatically change the arrangement as needed, based on SmartSound’s proprietary beat block structure. Additional selections can be dragged to the timeline, so it’s easy to score an entire video using multiple track selections. Each added song dragged to the timeline creates its own, new track on the timeline. This enables you to still make volume, length and mood adjustments to a song without affecting other surrounding selections on that timeline.

Within the inspector you have additional controls, including the fade in and out handles for a clip, along with a new timing control feature. This was introduced in SFP5, but improved in version 6. As of this writing SmartSound has updated 110 albums for this feature, that’s over 1,100 tracks, and adds new albums regularly. For the tracks that have been updated, when you enable timing control, several markers appear on the clip in the timeline. These markers can be dragged to better adjust song changes to match key points in your video. When you drag a marker, SFP6 automatically shuffles the arrangement of that song. For example, if you want a big ending to happen at a better match for your video cut, sliding the marker will make this happen. In actual practice during my testing, this was a bit of trial and error. In one case, a change made too close to the end left me with an incomplete ending. I needed to also slide the track length a tad longer for SFP6 to come up with a good-sounding ending. But, this feature is designed to enable experimentation to produce a custom score, so, don’t be afraid to play with it.

df0517_sfp6_07Finally, as part of its integration with NLEs, Sonicfire offers a new feature called “Cut-Video-to-Music”. Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro CC, Avid Media Composer and Vegas Pro are all supported. This new feature lets you export a track along with a corresponding XML file, which in turn is imported into the designated project. Inside the NLE, the track shows up with markers identifying your choice of either beats, strong beats only, SmartSound blocks or music sections, making it easy to edit picture cuts accordingly.

Conclusion

Make sure you are running on the most recent version after you initially install the software. I did run into some minor issues with the initial 6.0.0 version, which were fixed with the df0517_sfp6_036.0.3 update. Updates may be downloaded from the SmartSound website. Overall, SmartSound’s Sonicfire Pro 6 is a welcomed refresh to a wonderful tool. To my knowledge, no other software developer offers anything to match it. Adobe briefly tried with its custom music features inside Soundbooth, but then dropped this function after a couple of years. Magix and Apple offer applications where you can create your own loop-based tunes; however, neither starts with finished compositions that can be modified both in length and arrangement with such ease.

While music choices are very subjective, I’ve personally built up a SmartSound library over the years, which lets me offer clients quality music alternatives without much fuss or cost. Just another service I can offer to a client. It allows you as an editor to be the hero to your client and accomplish the task expediently and on budget.

©2017 Oliver Peters