Viva Las Vegas – NAB 2018

As more and more folks get all of their information through internet sources, the running question is whether or not trade shows still have value. A show like the annual NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show in Las Vegas is both fun and grueling, typified by sensory overload and folks in business attire with sneakers. Although some announcements are made before the exhibits officially open – and nearly all are pretty widely known before the week ends – there still is nothing quite like being there in person.

For some, other shows have taken the place of NAB. The annual HPA Tech Retreat in the Palm Springs area is a gathering of technical specialists, researchers, and creatives that many consider the TED Talks for our industry. For others, the Cine Gear Expo in LA is the prime showcase for grip, lighting, and camera offerings. RED Camera has focused on Cine Gear instead of NAB for the last couple of years. And then, of course, there’s IBC in Amsterdam – the more humane version of NAB in a more pleasant setting. But for me, NAB is still the main event.

First of all, the NAB Show isn’t merely about the exhibit floor at the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center. Actual NAB members can attend various sessions and workshops related to broadcasting and regulations. There are countless sidebar events specific to various parts of the industry. For editors that includes Avid Connect – a two-day series of Avid presentations in the weekend leading into NAB; Post Production World – a series of workshops, training sessions, and presentations managed by Future Media Concepts; as well as a number of keynote presentations and artist gatherings, including SuperMeet, FCPexchange, and the FCPX Guru Gathering. These are places where you’ll rub shoulders with some well-known editors, colorists, artists, and mixers, learn about new technologies like HDR (high dynamic range imagery), and occasionally see some new product features from vendors who might not officially be on the show floor with a booth, like Apple.

One of the biggest benefits I find in going to NAB is simply walking the floor, checking out the companies and products who might not get a lot of attention. These newcomers often have the most innovative technologies and it’s these new things that you find, which were never on the radar prior to that week.

The second benefit is connection. I meet up again in person with friends that I’ve made over the years – both other users, as well as vendors. Often it’s a chance to meet people that you might only know through the internet (forums, blogs, etc.) and to get to know them just a bit better. A bit more of that might make the internet more friendly, too!

Here are some of my random thoughts and observations from Las Vegas.

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Editing hardware and software – four As and a B

Apple uncharacteristically pre-announced their new features just prior to the show, culminating with App Store availability on Monday when the NAB exhibits opened. This includes new Final Cut Pro X/Motion/Compressor updates and the official number of 2.5 million FCPX users. That’s a growth of 500,000 users in 2017, the biggest year to date for Final Cut. The key new feature in FCPX is a captioning function to author, edit, and export both closed and embedded (open) captions. There aren’t many great solutions for captioning and the best to date have been expensive. I found that the Apple approach was now the best and easiest to use that I’ve seen. It’s well-designed and should save time and money for those who need to create captions for their productions – even if you are using another brand of NLE. Best of all, if you own FCPX, you already have that feature. When you don’t have a script to start out, then manual or automatic transcription is required as a starting point. There is now a tie-in between Speedscriber (also updated this week) and FCPX that will expedite the speech-to-text function.

The second part of Apple’s announcement was the introduction of a new camera raw codec family – ProResRAW and ProResRAW HQ. These are acquisition codecs designed to record the raw sensor data from Bayer-pattern sensors (prior to debayering the signal into RGB information) and make that available in post, just like RED’s REDCODE RAW or CinemaDNG. Since this is an acquisition codec and NOT a post or intermediate codec, it requires a partnership on the production side of the equation. Initially this includes Atomos and DJI. Atomos supplies an external recorder, which can record the raw output from various cameras that offer the ability to record raw data externally. This currently includes their Shogun Inferno and Sumo 19 models. As this is camera-specific, Atomos must then create the correct profile by camera to remap that sensor data into ProResRAW. At the show, this included several Canon, Sony, and Panasonic cameras. DJI does this in-camera on the Inspire 2.

The advantage with FCPX, is that ProResRAW is optimized for post, thus allowing for more streams in real-time. ProResRAW data rates (variable) fall between that of ProRes and ProResHQ, while the less compressed ProResRAW HQ rates are between ProRes HQ and ProRes 4444. It’s very early with this new codec, so additional camera and post vendors will likely add ProResRAW support over the coming year. It is currently unknown whether or not any other NLEs can support ProResRAW decode and playback yet.

As always, the Avid booth was quite crowded and, from what I heard, Avid Connect was well attended with enthused Avid users. The Avid offerings are quite broad and hard to encapsulate into any single blog post. Most, these days, are very enterprise-centric. But this year, with a new CEO at the helm, Avid’s creative tools have been reorganized into three strata – First, standard, and Ultimate. This applies to Sibelius, Pro Tools, and Media Composer. In the case of Media Composer, there’s Media Composer | First – a fully functioning free version, with minimal restrictions; Media Composer; and Media Composer | Ultimate – includes all options, such as PhraseFind, ScriptSync, NewsCutter, and Symphony. The big difference is that project sharing has been decoupled from Media Composer. This means that if you get the “standard” version (just named Media Composer) it will not be enabled for collaboration on a shared storage network. That will require Media Composer | Ultimate. So Media Composer (standard) is designed for the individual editor. There is also a new subscription pricing structure, which places Media Composer at about the same annual cost as Adobe Premiere Pro CC (single app license). The push is clearly towards subscription, however, you can still purchase and/or maintain support for perpetual licenses, but it’s a little harder to find that info on Avid’s store website.

Though not as big news, Avid is also launching the Avid DNxID capture/export unit. It is custom-designed by Blackmagic Design for Avid and uses a small form factor. It was created for file-base acquisition, supports 4K, and includes embedded DNx codecs for onboard encoding. Connections are via component analog, HDMI, as well as an SD card slot.

The traffic around Adobe’s booth was thick the entire week. The booth featured interesting demos that were front and center in the middle of one of the South Hall’s main thoroughfares, generally creating a bit of a bottleneck. The newest Creative Cloud updates had preceded the show, but were certainly new to anyone not already using the Adobe apps. Big news for Premiere Pro users was the addition of automatic ducking that was brought over from Audition, and a new shot matching function within the Lumetri color panel. Both are examples of Adobe’s use of their Sensei AI technology. Not to be left out, Audition can now also directly open sequences from Premiere Pro. Character Animator had been in beta form, but is now a full-fledged CC product. And for puppet control Adobe also introduced the Advanced Puppet Engine for After Effects. This is a deformation tool to better bend, twist, and control elements.

Of course when it comes to NLEs, the biggest buzz has been over Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve 15. The company has an extensive track record of buying up older products whose companies weren’t doing so well, reinvigorating the design, reducing the cost, and breathing new life into them – often to a new, wider customer base. This is no more evident than Resolve, which has now grown from a leading color correction system to a powerful, all-in-one edit/mix/effects/color solution. We had previously seen the integration of the Fairlight audio mixing engine. This year Fusion visual effects were added. As before, each one of these disparate tools appears on its own page with a specific UI optimized for that task.

A number of folks have quipped that someone had finally resurrected Avid DS. Although all-in-ones like DS and Smoke haven’t been hugely successful in the past, Resolve’s price point is considerably more attractive. The Fusion integration means that you now have a subset of Fusion running inside of Resolve. This is a node-based compositor, which makes it easy for a Resolve user to understand, since it, too, already uses nodes in the color page. At least for now, Blackmagic Design intends to also maintain a standalone version of Fusion, which will offer more functions for visual effects compositing. Resolve also gained new editorial features, including tabbed sequences, a pancake timeline view, captioning, and improvements in the Fairlight audio page.

Other Blackmagic Design news includes updates to their various mini-converters, updates to the Cintel Scanner, and the announcement of a 4K Pocket Cinema Camera (due in September). They have also redesigned and modularized the Fairlight console mixing panels. These are now more cost-effective to manufacture and can be combined in various configurations.

This was the year for a number of milestone anniversaries, such as the 100th for Panasonic and the 25th for AJA. There were a lot of new product announcements at the AJA booth, but a big one was the push for more OpenGear-compatible cards. OpenGear is an open source hardware rack standard that was developed by Ross and embraced by many manufacturers. You can purchase any OpenGear version of a manufacturer’s product and then mix and match a variety of OpenGear cards into any OpenGear rack enclosure. AJA’s cards also offer Dashboard support, which is a software tool to configure and control the cards. There are new KONA SDI and HDMI cards, HDR support in the IO 4K Plus, and HDR capture and playback with the KiPro Ultra Plus.

HDR

It’s fair to say that we are all learning about HDR, but from what I observed on the floor, AJA is one of the only companies with a number of hardware product offerings that will allow you to handle HDR. This is thanks to their partnership with ColorFront, who is handling the color science in these products. This includes the FS | HDR – an up/down/cross, SDR/HDR synchronizer/converter. It also includes support for the Tangent Element Kb panel. The FS | HDR was a tech preview last year, but a product now. This year the tech preview product is the HDR Image Analyzer, which offers waveform and histogram monitoring at up to 4K/60fps.

Speaking of HDR (high dynamic range) and SDR (standard dynamic range), I had a chance to sit in on Robbie Carman’s (colorist at DC Color, Mixing Light) Post Production World HDR overview. Carman has graded numerous HDR projects and from his HDR presentation – coupled with exhibits on the floor – it’s quite clear that HDR is the wild, wild west right now. There is much confusion about color space and dynamic range, not to mention what current hardware is capable of versus the maximums expressed in the tech standards. For example, the BT 2020 spec doesn’t inherently mean that the image is HDR. Or the fact that you must be working in 4K to also have HDR and the set must accept the HDMI 2.0 standard.

High dynamic range grading absolutely requires HDR-compatible hardware, such as the proper i/o device and a display with the ability to receive metadata that turns on and sets its target HDR values. This means investing in a device like AJA’s IO 4K Plus or Blackmagic’s UltraStudio 4K Extreme 3. It also means purchasing a true grading monitor costing tens of thousands of dollars, like one from Sony, Canon, or Flanders. You CANNOT properly grade HDR based on the image of ANY computer display. So while the latest version of FCPX can handle HDR, and an iMac Pro screen features a high nits rating, you cannot rely on this screen to see proper HDR.

LG was a sponsor of the show and LG displays were visible in many of the exhibits. Many of their newest products qualify at the minimum HDR spec, but for the most part, the images shown on the floor were simply bright and not HDR – no matter what the sales reps in the booths were saying.

One interesting fact that Carman pointed out was that HDR displays cannot be driven across the full screen at the highest value. You cannot display a full screen of white at 1,000 nits on a 1,000 nits display without causing damage. Therefore, automatic gain adjustments are used in the set’s electronics to dim the screen. Only a smaller percentage of the image (20% maybe?) can be driven at full value before dimming occurs. Another point Carman made was that standard lift/gamma/gain controls may be too coarse to grade HDR images with finesse. His preference is to use Resolve’s log grading controls, because you can make more precise adjustments to highlight and shadow values.

Cameras

I’m not a camera guy, but there was notable camera news at the show. Many folks really like the Panasonic colorimetry for which the Varicam products are known. For people who want a full-featured camera in a small form factor, look no further than the Panasonics AU-EVA-1. It’s a 4K, Super35, handheld cinema camera featuring dual ISOs. Panasonic claims 14 stops of latitude. It will take EF lenses and can output camera raw data. When paired with an Atmos recorder it will be able to record ProResRAW.

Another new camera is Canon’s EOS C700 FF. This is a new full-frame model in both EF and PL lens mount versions. As with the standard C700, this is a 4K, Super35 cinema camera that records ProRes or X-AVC at up to 4K resolution onboard to CFast cards. The full-frame sensor offers higher resolution and a shallower depth of field.

Storage

Storage is of interest to many. As costs come down, collaboration is easier than ever. The direct-attached vendors, like G-Tech, LaCie, OWC, Promise, and others were all there with new products. So were the traditional shared storage vendors like Avid, Facilis, Tiger, 1 Beyond, and EditShare. But three of the newer companies had my interest.

In my editing day job, I work extensively with QNAP, which currently offers the best price/performance ratio of any system. It’s reliable, cost-effective, and provides reasonable JKL response cutting HD media with Premiere Pro in a shared editing installation. But it’s not the most responsive and it struggles with 4K media, in spite of plenty of bandwidth  – especially when the editors are all banging away. This has me looking at both Lumaforge and OpenDrives.

Lumaforge is known to many of the Final Cut Pro X editors, because the developers have optimized the system for FCPX and have had early successes with many key installations. Since then they have also pushed into more Premiere-based installations. Because these units are engineered for video-centric facilities, as opposed to data-centric, they promise a better shared storage, video editing experience.

Likewise, OpenDrives made its name as the provider for high-profile film and TV projects cut on Premiere Pro. Last year they came to the show with their highest performance, all-SSD systems. These units are pricey and, therefore, don’t have a broad appeal. This year they brought a few of the systems that are more applicable to a broader user base. These include spinning disk and hybrid products. All are truly optimized for Premiere Pro.

The cloud

In other storage news, “the cloud” garners a ton of interest. The biggest vendors are Microsoft, Google, IBM, and Amazon. While each of these offers relatively easy ways to use cloud-based services for back-up and archiving, if you want a full cloud-based installation for all of your media needs, then actual off-the-shelf solutions are not readily available. The truth of the matter is that each of these companies offers APIs, which are then handed off to other vendors – often for totally custom solutions.

Avid and Sony seem to have the most complete offerings, with Sony Ci being the best one-size-fits-all answer for customer-facing services. Of course, if review-and-approval is your only need, then Frame.io leads and will have new features rolled out during the year. IBM/Aspera is a great option for standard archiving, because fast Aspera up and down transfers are included. You get your choice of IBM or other (Google, Amazon, etc.) cloud storage. They even offer a trial period using IBM storage for 30 days at up to 100GB free. Backblaze is a competing archive solution with many partnering applications. For example, you can tie it in with Archiware’s P5 Suite of tools for back-up, archiving, and server synchronization to the cloud.

Naturally, when you talk of the “cloud”, many people interpret that to mean software that runs in the cloud – SaaS (software as a service). In most cases, that is nowhere close to happening. However, the exception is The Foundry, which was showing Athera, a suite of its virtualized applications, like Nuke, running on the Google Cloud Platform. They demo’ed it running inside the Chrome browser, thanks to this partnership with Google. The Foundry had a pod in the Google partners pavilion.

In short, you can connect to the internet with a laptop, activate a license of the tool or tools that you need, and then all media, processing, and rendering is handled in the cloud, using Google’s services and hardware. Since all of this happens on Google’s servers, only an updated UI image needs to be pushed back to the connected computer’s display. This concept is ideal for the visual effects world, where the work is generally done on an individual shot basis without a lot of media being moved in real-time. The target is the Nuke-centric shop that may need to add on a few freelancers quickly, and who may or may not be able to work on-premises.

Interesting newcomers

As I mentioned at the beginning, part of the joy of NAB is discovering the small vendors who seek out NAB to make their mark. One example this year is Lumberjack Systems, a venture by Philip Hodgetts and Greg Clarke of Intelligent Assistance. They were in the Lumaforge suite demonstrating Lumberjack Builder, which is a text-based NLE. In the simplest of explanations, your transcription or scripted text is connected to media. As you re-arrange or trim the text, the associated picture is edited accordingly. Newly-written text for voiceovers turns into spoken word media courtesy of the computer’s internal audio system and system voice. Once your text-based rough cut is complete, an FCPXML is sent to Final Cut Pro X, for further finesse and final editing.

Another new vendor I encountered was Quine, co-founded by Norwegian DoP Grunleik Groven. Their QuineBox IoT device attaches to the back of a camera, where it can record and upload “conformable” dailies (ProRes, DNxHD) to your SAN, as well as proxies to the cloud via its internal wi-fi system. Script notes can also be incorporated. The unit has already been battle-test on the Netflix/NRK production of “Norsemen”.

Closing thoughts

It’s always interesting to see, year over year, which companies are not at the show. This isn’t necessarily indicative of a company’s health, but can signal a change in their direction or that of the industry. Sometimes companies opt for smaller suites at an area hotel in lieu of the show floor (Autodesk). Or they are a smaller part of a reseller or partner’s booth (RED). But often, they are simply gone. For instance, in past years drones were all the rage, with a lot of different manufacturers exhibiting. DJI has largely captured that market for both vehicles and camera systems. While there were a few other drone vendors besides DJI, GoPro and Freefly weren’t at the show at all.

Another surprise change for me was the absence of SAM (Snell Advanced Media) – the hybrid company formed out of Snell & Wilcox and Quantel. SAM products are now part of Grass Valley, which, in turn, is owned by Belden (the cable manufacturer). Separate Snell products appear to have been absorbed into the broader Grass Valley product line. Quantel’s Go and Rio editors continue in Grass Valley’s editing line, alongside Edius – as simple, middle, and advanced NLE products. A bit sad actually. And very ironic. Here we are in the world of software and file-based video, but the company that still has money to make acquisitions is the one with a heavy investment in copper (I know, not just copper, but you get the point).

Speaking of “putting a fork in it”, I would have to say that stereo 3D and 360 VR are pretty much dead in the film and video space. I understand that there is a market – potentially quite large – in gaming, education, simulation, engineering, training, etc. But for more traditional entertainment projects, it’s just not there. Vendors were down to a few, and even though the leading NLEs have ways of working with 360 VR projects, the image quality still looks awful. When you view a 4K image within even the best goggles, the qualitative experience is like watching a 1970s-era TV set from a few inches away. For now, it continues to be a novelty looking for a reason to exist.

A few final points… It’s always fun to see what computers were being used in the booths. Apple is again a clear winner, with plenty of MacBook Pros and iMac Pros all over the LVCC when used for any sort of creative products or demos. eGPUs are of interest, with Sonnet being the main vendor. However, eGPUs are not a solution that solves every problem. For example, you will see more benefit by adding an eGPU to a lesser-powered machine, like a 13” MacBook Pro than one with more horsepower, like an iMac Pro. Each eGPU takes one Thunderbolt 3 bus, so realistically, you are likely to only add one additional eGPU to a computer. None of the NLE vendors could really tell me how much of a boost their application would have with an eGPU. Finally, if you are looking for some great-looking, large, OLED displays that are pretty darned accurate and won’t break the bank, then LG is the place to look.

©2018 Oliver Peters

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