Avid Media Composer | First

They’ve teased us for two years, but now it’s finally out. Avid Technology has released its free nonlinear editing application, Media Composer | First. This is not dumbed-down, teaser software, but rather a partially-restricted version of the full-fledged Media Composer software and built upon the same code. With that comes an inherent level of complexity, which Avid has sought to minimize for new users; however, you really do want to go through the tutorials before diving in.

It’s important to understand who the target user is. Avid didn’t set out to simply add another free, professional editing tool to an increasingly crowded market. Media Composer | First is intended as a functional starter tool for users who want to get their feet wet in the Avid ecosystem, but then eventually convert to the full-fledged, paid software. That’s been successful for Avid with Pro Tools | First. To sweeten the pot, you’ll also get 350 sound effects from Pro Sound Effects and 50 royalty-free music tracks from Sound Ideas (both sets are also free).

Diving in

To get Media Composer | First, you must set up an Avid master account, which is free. Existing customers can also get First, but the software cannot be co-installed on a computer with the full version. For example, I installed Media Composer | First on my laptop, because I have the full Media Composer application on my desktop. You must sign into the account and stay signed in for Media Composer | First to lunch and run. I did get it to work if I signed in, but then disconnected the internet. There was a disconnection prompt, but nevertheless, the application worked, saved, and exported properly. It doesn’t seem mandatory to be constantly connected to Avid over the internet. All project data is stored locally, so this is not a cloud application.

The managing of the account and future updates are handled through Application Manager, an Avid desktop utility. It’s not my favorite, as at times it’s unreliable, but it does work most of the time. Opening the installer .dmg file will take a long time to verify. This seems to be a general Avid quirk, so be patient. When you first open the application, you may get a disk drive write permissions error message. On macOS you normally set drive permissions for “system”, “wheel”, and “everyone”. Typically I have the last two set to “read only”, which works for every other application, except Avid’s. Therefore, if you want to store Avid media on your internal system hard drive, then “everyone” must be changed to “read & write”.

The guided tour

The Avid designers have tried to make the Media Composer | First interface easy to navigate for new users – especially those coming from other NLEs, where media and projects are managed differently than in Media Composer. Right at the launch screen you have the option to learn through online tutorials. These will be helpful even for experienced users who might try to “out-think” the software. The interface includes a number of text overlays to help you get started. For example, there is no place to set project settings. The first clip added to the first sequence sets the project settings from there on. So, don’t drop a 25fps clip onto the timeline as your first clip, if you intend to work in a 23.98fps project. These prompts are right in front of you, so if you follow their guidance, you’ll be OK.

The same holds true for importing media through the Source Browser. With Media Composer you either transcode a file, which turns it into Avid-managed media placed into the Avid MediaFiles folder, or simply link to the file. If you select link, then the file stays in place and it’s up to the user not to move or delete that file on the hard drive. Although the original Avid paradigm was to only manage media in its MediaFiles hard drive folders, the current versions handle linking just fine and act largely the same as other NLEs.

Options, restrictions, and limitations

Since this is a free application, a number of features have been restricted. There are three biggies. Tracks are limited to four video tracks and eight audio tracks. This is actually quite workable, however, I think a higher audio track count would have been advisable, because of how Avid handles stereo, mono, and multichannel files. On a side note, if you use the “collapse” function to nest video clips, it’s possible to vertically stack more than just four clips on the timeline.

The application is locked to a maximum project size of 1920×1080 (Rec. 709 color space only) and up to 59.94fps. Source files can be larger (such as 4K) and you can still use them on the timeline, but you’ll have to pan-and-scan, crop, or scale them. I hope future versions will permit at least UltraHD (4K) project sizes.

Finally, Media Composer | First projects cannot be interchanged with full fledged Media Composer projects. This means that you cannot start in Media Composer | First and then migrate your project to the paid version. Hopefully this gets fixed in a future update. If not, it will negatively impact students and indie producers using the application for any real work.

As expected, there are no 3D stereoscopic tools, ScriptSync (automatic speech-to-text/sync-to-script), PhraseFind (phonetic search engine), or Symphony (advanced color correction) options. One that surprised me, though, was the removable of the superior Spectramatte keyer. You are left with the truly terrible RGB keyer for blue/green-screen work.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of horsepower left. For example, FrameFlex to handle resizing and Timewarps for retiming clips, which is how 4K and off-speed frame rates are handled. Color correction (including scopes), multicam, IllusionFX, source setting color LUTs, Audiosuite, and Pro Tools-style audio track effects are also there. Transcoding allows for the use of a wide range of codecs, including ProRes on a Mac. 4K camera clips will be transcoded to 1080. However, exports are limited to Avid DNxHD and H.264 QuickTime files at up to 1920×1080. The only DNxHD export flavor is the 100Mbps variant (at 29.97, 80Mbps for 23.98), which is comparable to ProResLT. It’s good quality, but not at the highest mastering levels.

Conclusion

This is a really good first effect, no pun intended. As you might expect, it’s a little buggy for a first version. For example, I experienced a number of crashes while testing source LUTs. However, it was well-behaved during standard editing tasks. If Media Composer | First files can become compatible with the paid systems and the 1080 limit can be increased to UHD/4K, then Avid has a winner on its hands. Think of the film student who starts on First at home, but then finishes on the full version in the college’s computer lab. Or the indie producer/director who starts his or her own rough cut on First, but then takes it to an editor or facility to complete the process. These are ideal scenarios for First. I’ve cut tons of short and long form projects, including a few feature films, using a variety of NLEs. Nearly all of those could have been done using Media Composer | First. Yes, it’s free, but there’s enough power to get the job done and done well.

©2017 Oliver Peters

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Suburbicon

George Clooney’s latest film, Suburbicon, originated over a decade ago as a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. Clooney picked it up when the Coens decided not to produce the film themselves. Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov (The Monuments Men, The Ides of March, Good Night, and Good Luck), rewrote it as taking place in the 1950s and added another story element. In the summer of 1957, the Myers, an African-American couple, moved into a largely white suburb in Levittown, Pennsylvania, setting off months of violent protests. The rewritten script interweaves the tale of the black family with that of their next-door neighbors, Gardner (Matt Damon) and Margaret (Julianne Moore). In fact, a documentary was produced about the historical events and shots from that documentary were used in Suburbicon.

Calibrating the tone

During the production and editing of the film, the overall tone was adjusted as a result of the actual, contemporary events occurring in the country. I spoke with the film’s editor, Stephen Mirrione (The Revenant, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Monuments Men) about this. Mirrione explains, “The movie is presented as over-the-top to exaggerate events as satire. In feeling that out, George started to tone down the silliness, based on surrounding events. The production was being filmed during the time of the US election last year, so the mood on the set changed. The real world was more over-the-top than imagined, so the film didn’t feel quite right. George started gravitating towards a more realistic style and we locked into that tone by the time the film moved into post.”

The production took place on the Warner Brothers lot in September 2016 with Mirrione and first assistant editor Patrick Smith cutting in parallel with the production. Mirrione continues, “I was cutting during this production period. George would come in on Saturdays to work with me and ‘recalibrate’ the cut. Naturally some scenes were lost in this process. They were funny scenes, but just didn’t fit the direction any longer. In January we moved to England for the rest of the post. Amal [Clooney, George’s wife] was pregnant at the time, so George and Amal wanted to be close to her family near London. We had done post there before and had a good relationship with vendors for sound post. The final sound mix was in the April/May time frame. We had an editing room set up close to George outside of London, but also others in Twickenham and at Pinewood Studios. This way I could move around to work with George on the cut, wherever he needed to be.”

Traveling light

Mirrione is used to working with a light footprint, so the need for mobility was no burden. He explains, “I’m accustomed to being very mobile. All the media was in the Avid DNxHD36 format on mobile drives. We had an Avid ISIS shared storage system in Twickenham, which was the hub for all of the media. Patrick would make sure all the drives were updated during production, so I was able to work completely with standalone drives. The Avid is a bit faster that way, although there’s a slight trade-off waiting for updated bins to be sent. I was using a ‘trash can’ [2013] Mac Pro plus AJA hardware, but I also used a laptop – mainly for reference – when we were in LA during the final steps of the process.” The intercontinental workflow also extended to color correction. According to Mirrione, “Stefan Sonnenfeld was our digital intermediate colorist and Company 3 [Co3] stored a back-up of all the original media. Through an arrangement with Deluxe, he was able to stream material to England for review, as well as from England to LA to show the DP [Robert Elswit].”

Music was critical to Suburbicon and scoring fell to Alexandre Desplat (The Secret Life of Pets, Florence Foster Jenkins, The Danish Girl). Mirrione explains their scoring process. “It was very important, as we built the temp score in the edit, to understand the tone and suspense of the film. George wanted a classic 1950s-style score. We tapped some Elmer Bernstein, Grifters, The Good Son, and other music for our initial style and direction. Peter Clarke was brought on as music editor to help round out the emotional beats. Once we finished the cut, Alexandre and George worked together to create a beautiful score. I love watching the scenes with that score, because his music makes the editing seem much more exciting and elegant.”

Suiting the edit tool to your needs

Stephen Mirrione typically uses Avid Media Composer to cut his films and Suburbicon is no exception. Unlike many film editors who rely on unique Avid features, like ScriptSync, Mirrione takes a more straightforward approach. He says, “We were using Media Composer 8. The way George shoots, there’s not a lot of improv or tons of takes. I prefer to just rely on PDFs of the script notes and placing descriptions into the bins. The infrastructure required for ScriptSync, like extra assistants, is not something I need. My usual method of organization is a bin for each day of dailies, organized in shooting order. If the director remembers something, it’s easy to find in a day bin. During the edit, I alternate my bin set-ups between the script view and the frame view.”

With a number of noted editors dabbling with other software, I wondered whether Mirrione has been tempted. He responds, “I view my approach as system-agnostic and have cut on Lightworks and the old Laser Pacific unit, among others. I don’t want to be dependent on one piece of software to define how I do my craft. But I keep coming back to Avid. For me it’s the trim mode. It takes me back to the way I cut film. I looked at Resolve, because it would be great to skip the roundtrip between applications. I had tested it, but felt it would be too steep a learning curve, and that would have impacted George’s experience as the director.”

In wrapping our conversation, Mirrione concluded with this take away from his Suburbicon experience. He explains, “In our first preview screening, it was inspiring to see how seriously the audience took to the film and the attachment they had to the characters. The audiences were surprised at how biting and relevant it is to today. The theme of the film is really talking about what can happen when people don’t speak out against racism and bullying. I’m so proud and lucky to have the opportunity to work with someone like George, who wants to do something meaningful.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Mindhunter

The investigation of crime is a film topic with which David Fincher is very familiar. He returns to this genre in the new Netflix series, Mindhunter, which is executive produced by Fincher and Charlize Theron. The series is the story of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and how it became an elite profiling team, known for investigating serial criminals. The TV series is based on the nonfiction book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, co-written by Mark Olshaker and John Douglas, a former agent in the unit who spent 25 years with the FBI. Agent Douglas interviewed scores of serial killers, including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Ed Gein, who dressed himself in his victims’ skin. The lead character in the series, Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) is based on Douglas. The series takes place in 1979 and centers on two FBI agents, who were among the first to interview imprisoned serial killers in order to learn how they think and apply that to other crimes. Mindhunter is about the origins of modern day criminal profiling.

As with other Fincher projects, he brought in much of the team that’s been with him through the various feature films, like Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Zodiac. It has also given a number in the team the opportunity to move up in their careers. I recently spoke with Tyler Nelson, one of the four series editors, who was given the opportunity to move from the assistant chair to that of a primary editor. Nelson explains, “I’ve been working with David Fincher for nearly 11 years, starting with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I started on that as an apprentice, but was bumped up to an assistant editor midway through. There was actually another series in the works for HBO called Videosyncrasy, which I was going to edit on. But that didn’t make it to air. So I’m glad that everyone had the faith in me to let me edit on this series. I cut the four episodes directed by Andrew Douglas and Asif Kapadia, while Kirk Baxter [editor on Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network] cut the four shows that David directed.”

Pushing the technology envelope

The Fincher post operation has a long history of trying new and innovative techniques, including their selection of editing tools. The editors cut this series using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Nelson and the other editors are no stranger to Premiere Pro, since Baxter had cut Gone Girl with it. Nelson says, “Of course, Kirk and I have been using it for years. One of the editors, Byron Smith, came over from House of Cards, which was being cut on [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7. So that was an easy transition for him. We are all fans of Adobe’s approach to the entertainment industry and were onboard with using it. In fact, we were running on beta software, which gave us the ability to offer feedback to Adobe on features that will hopefully make it into released products and benefit all Premiere users.”

Pushing the envelope is also a factor on the production side. The series was shot with custom versions of the RED Weapon camera. Shots were recorded at 6K resolution, but framed for a 5K extraction, leaving a lot of “padding” around the edges. This allowed room for reposition and stabilization, which is done a lot on Fincher’s projects. In fact, nearly all of the moving footage is stabilized. All camera footage is processed into EXR image sequences in addition to ProRes editing files for “offline” editing. These ProRes files also get an added camera LUT so everyone sees a good representation of the color correction during the editing process. One change from past projects was to bring color correction in-house. The final grade was handled by Eric Weidt on a FilmLight Baselight X unit, which was sourcing from the EXR files. The final Netflix deliverables are 4K/HDR masters. Pushing a lot of data through a facility requires robust hardware systems. The editors used 2013 (“trash can”) Mac Pros connected to an Open Drives shared storage system. This high-end storage system was initially developed as part of the Gone Girl workflow and uses storage modules populated with all SSD drives.

The feature film approach

Unlike most TV series, where there’s a definite schedule to deliver a new episode each week, Netflix releases all of their shows at once, which changes the dynamic of how episodes are handled in post. Nelson continues, “We were able to treat this like one long feature film. In essence, each episode is like a reel of a film. There are 10 episodes and each is 45 minutes to an hour long. We worked it as if it was an eight-and-a-half to nine hour long movie.” Skywalker Sound did all the sound post after a cut was locked. Nelson adds, “Most of the time we handed off locked cuts, but sometimes when you hear the cleaned up sound, it can highlight issues with the edit that you didn’t notice before. In some cases, we were able to go back into the edit and make some minor tweaks to make it flow better.”

As Adobe moves more into the world of dialogue-driven entertainment, a number of developers are coming up with speech-to-text solutions that are compatible with Premiere Pro. This potentially provides editors a function similar to Avid’s ScriptSync. Would something like this have been beneficial on Mindhunter, a series based on extended interviews? Nelson replies, “I like to work with the application the way it is. I try not to get too dependent on any feature that’s very specific or unique to only one piece of software. I don’t even customize my keyboard settings too much, just so it’s easier to move from one workstation to another that way. I like to work from sequences, so I don’t need a special layout for the bins or anything like that.”

“On Mindhunter we used the same ‘KEM roll’ system as on the films, which is a process that Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall [editor on Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network] prefer to work in,” Nelson continues. “All of the coverage for each scene set-up is broken up into ‘story beats’. In a 10 minute take for an interview, there might be 40 ‘beats’. These are all edited in the order of last take to first take, with any ‘starred’ takes at the head of the sequence. This way you will see all of the coverage, takes, and angles for a ‘beat’ before moving on to the group for the next ‘beat’. As you review the sequence, the really good sections of clips are moved up to video track two on the sequence. Then create a new sequence organized in story order from these selected clips and start building the scene. At any given time you can go back to the earlier sequences if the director asks to see something different than what’s in your scene cut. This method works with any NLE, so you don’t become locked into one and only one software tool.”

“Where Adobe’s approach is very helpful to us is with linked After Effects compositions,” explains Nelson. “We do a lot of invisible split screen effects and shot stabilization. Those clips are all put into After Effects comps using Dynamic Link, so that an assistant can go into After Effects and do the work. When it’s done, the completed comp just pops back into the timeline. Then ‘render and replace’ for smooth playback.”

The challenge

Certainly a series like this can be challenging for any editor, but how did Nelson take to it? He answers, “I found every interview scene to be challenging. You have an eight to 10 minute interview that needs to be interesting and compelling. Sometimes it takes two days to just get through looking at the footage for a scene like that. You start with ‘How am I going to do this?’ Somewhere along the line you get to the point where ‘This is totally working.’ And you don’t always know how you got to that point. It takes a long time approaching the footage in different ways until you can flesh it out. I really hope people enjoy the series. These are dramatizations, but real people actually did these terrible things. Certainly that creeps me out, but I really love this show and I hope people will see the craftsmanship that’s gone into Mindhunter and enjoy the series.”

In closing, Nelson offered these additional thoughts. “I’d gotten an education each and every day. Lots of editors haven’t figured it out until well into a long career. I’ve learned a lot being closer to the creative process. I’ve worked with David Fincher for almost 11 years. You think you are ready to edit, but it’s still a challenge. Many folks don’t get an opportunity like this and I don’t take that lightly. Everything that I’ve learned working with David has given me the tools and I feel fortunate that the producers had the confidence in me to let me cut on this amazing show.”

Click here for Scott Simmons’ interview from NAB 2018.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters