Beyond the Supernova

No one typifies hard driving, instrumental, guitar rock better than Joe Satriani. The guitar virtuoso – known to his fans as Satch – has sixteen studio albums under his belt, along with several other EPs, live concert and compilation recordings. In addition to his solo tours, Satriani founded the “G3”, a series of short tours that feature Satriani along with a changing cast of two other all-star, solo guitarists, such as Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Guthrie Govan, and others. In another side project, Satriani is the guitarist for the supergroup Chickenfoot, which is fronted by former Van Halen lead singer, Sammy Hagar.

The energy behind Satriani’s performances was captured in the new documentary film, Beyond the Supernova, which is currently available on the Stingray Qello streaming channel. This documentary grew out of the general behind-the-scenes coverage of Satriani’s 2016 and 2017 tours in Asia and Europe, to promote his 15th studio album, Shockwave Supernova. Tour filming was handled by Satriani’s son, ZZ (Zachariah Zane) – an up-and-coming, young filmmaker. The tour coincided with Joe Satriani’s 60th birthday and 30 years after the release of his multi-platinum-selling album Surfing with the Alien. These elements, as well as capturing Satriani’s introspective nature, provided the ingredients for a more in-depth project, which ZZ Satriani produced, directed and edited.

According to Joe Satriani in an interview on Stingray’s PausePlay, “ZZ was able to capture the real me in a way that only a son would understand how to do; because I was struggling with how I was going to record a new record and go in a new direction. So, as I’m on the tour bus and backstage – I guess it’s on my face. He’s filming it and he’s going ‘there’s a movie in here about that. It’s not just a bunch of guys on tour.’”

From music to filmmaking

ZZ Satriani graduated from Occidental College in 2015 with a BA in Art History and Visual Arts, with a focus on film production. He moved to Los Angeles to start a career as a freelance editor. I spoke with ZZ Satriani about how he came to make this film. He explained, “For me it started with skateboarding in high school. Filmmaking and skateboarding go hand-in-hand. You are always trying to capture your buddies doing cool tricks. I gravitated more to filmmaking in college. For the 2012 G3 Tour, I produced a couple of web videos that used mainly jump cuts and were very disjointed, but fun. They decided to bring me on for the 2016 tour in order to produce something similar. But this time, it had to have more of a story. So I recorded the interviews afterwards.”

Although ZZ thinks of himself as primarily an editor, he handed all of the backstage, behind-the-scenes, and interview filming himself, using a Sony PXW-FS5 camera. He comments, “I was learning how to use the camera as I was shooting, so I got some weird results – but in a good way. I wanted the footage to have more of a filmic look – to have more the feeling of a memory, than simply real-time events.”

The structure of Beyond the Supernova intersperses concert performances with events on the tour and introspective interviews with Joe Satriani. The multi-camera concert footage was supplied by the touring support company and is often mixed with historical footage provided by Joe Satriani’s management team. This enabled ZZ to intercut performances of the same song, not only from different locations, but even different years, going back to Joe Satriani’s early career.

The style of cutting the concert performances is relatively straightforward, but the travel and interview bridges that join them together have more of a stream-of-consciousness feel to them and are often quite psychedelic. ZZ says, “I’m not a big [Adobe] After Effects guy, so all of the ‘effects’ are practical and built up in layers within [Adobe] Premiere Pro. The majority of ‘effects’ dealt with layering, blending and cropping different clips together. It makes you think about the space within the frame – different shapes, movement, direction, etc. I like playing around that way – you end up discovering things you wouldn’t have normally thought of. Let your curiosity guide you, keep messing with things and you will look at everything in a new way. It keeps editing exciting!”

Premiere Pro makes the cut

Beyond the Supernova was completely cut and finished in Premiere Pro. ZZ explains why,  “Around 2011-12, I made the switch from [Apple] Final Cut Pro to Premiere Pro while I was in a film production class. They informed us that was the new standard, so we rolled with it and the transition was very smooth. I use other apps in the Adobe suite and I like the layout of everything in each one, so I’ve never felt the need to switch to another NLE.”

ZZ Satriani continues, “We had a mix of formats to deal with, including the need to upscale some of the standard definition footage to HD, which I did in software. Premiere handled the PXW-FS5’s XAVC-L codec pretty well in my opinion. I didn’t transcode to Pro Res, since I had so much footage, and not a lot of external hard drive space. I knew this might make things go more slowly – but honestly, I didn’t notice any significant drawbacks. I also handled all of the color correction, using Premiere’s Lumetri color controls and the FilmConvert plug-in.” Satriani created the sound design for the interview segments, but John Cuniberti (who has also mixed Joe Satriani’s albums) re-mixed the live concert segments in his studio in London. The final 5.1 surround mix of the whole film was handled at Skywalker Sound.

The impetus pushing completion was entry into the October 2017 Mill Valley Film Festival. ZZ says, “I worked for a month putting together the trailer for Mill Valley. Because I had already organized the footage for this and an earlier teaser, the actual edit of the film came easily. It took me about two months to cut – working by myself in the basement on a [2013] Mac Pro. Coffee and burritos from across the street kept me going.” 

Introspection brings surprises

Fathers and sons working together can often be an interesting dynamic and even ZZ learned new things during the production. He comments, “The title of the film evolved out of the interviews. I learned that Joe’s songs on an album tend to have a theme tied to the theme of the album, which often has a sci-fi basis to it. But it was a real surprise to me when Joe explained that Shockwave Supernova was really his character or persona on stage. I went, ‘Wait! After all these years, how did I not know that?’”

As with any film, you have to decide what gets cut and what stays. In concert projects, the decision often comes down to which songs to include. ZZ says, “One song that I initially thought shouldn’t be included was Surfing with the Alien. It’s a huge fan favorite and such an iconic song for Joe. Including it almost seemed like giving in. But, in a way it created a ‘conflict point’ for the film. Once we added Joe’s interview comments, it worked for me. He explained that each time he plays it live that it’s not like repeating the past. He feels like he’s growing with the song – discovering new ways to approach it.”

The original plan for Beyond the Supernova after Mill Valley was to showcase it at other film festivals. But Joe Satriani’s management team thought that it coincided beautifully with the release of his 16th studio album, What Happens Next, which came out in January of this year. Instead of other film festivals, Beyond the Supernova made its video premiere on AXS TV in March and then started its streaming run on Stingray Qello this July. Qello is known as a home for classic and new live concerts, so this exposes the documentary to a wider audience. Whether you are a fan of Joe Satriani or just rock documentaries, ZZ Satriani’s Beyond the Supernova is a great peek behind the curtain into life on the road and some of the thoughts that keep this veteran solo performer fresh.

Images courtesy of ZZ Satriani.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Hawaiki AutoGrade

The color correction tools in Final Cut Pro X are nice. Adobe’s Lumetri controls make grading intuitive. But sometimes you just want to click a few buttons and be happy with the results. That’s where AutoGrade from Hawaiki comes in. AutoGrade is a full-featured color correction plug-in that runs within Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Premiere Pro and After Effects. It is available from FxFactory and installs through the FxFactory plug-in manager.

As the name implies, AutoGrade is an automatic color correction tool designed to simplify and speed-up color correction. When you install AutoGrade, you get two plug-ins: AutoGrade and AutoGrade One. The latter is a simple, one-button version, based on global white balance. Simply use the color-picker (eye dropper) and sample an area that should be white. Select enable and the overall color balance is corrected. You can then tweak further, by boosting the correction, adjusting the RGB balance sliders, and/or fine-tuning luma level and saturation. Nearly all parameters are keyframeable, and looks can be saved as presets.

AutoGrade One is just a starter, though, for simple fixes. The real fun is with the full version of AutoGrade, which is a more comprehensive color correction tool. Its interface is divided into three main sections: Auto Balance, Quick Fix, and Fine-Tune. Instead of a single global balance tool, the Auto Balance section permits global, as well as, any combination of white, black, and/or skin correction. Simply turn on one or more desired parameters, sample the appropriate color(s) and enable Auto Balance. This tool will also raise or lower luma levels for the selected tonal range.

Sometimes you might have to repeat the process if you don’t like the first results. For example, when you sample the skin on someone’s face, sampling rosy cheeks will yield different results than if you sample the yellowish highlights on a forehead. To try again, just uncheck Auto Balance, sample a different area, and then enable Auto Balance again. In addition to an amount slider for each correction range, you can also adjust the RGB balance for each. Skin tones may be balanced towards warm or neutral, and the entire image can be legalized, which clamps video levels to 0-100.

Quick Fix is a set of supplied presets that work independently of the color balance controls. These include some standards, like cooling down or warming up the image, the orange and teal look, adding an s-curve, and so on. They are applied at 100% and to my eye felt a bit harsh at this default. To tone down the effect, simply adjust the amount slider downwards to get less intensity from the effect.

Fine-Tune rounds it out when you need to take a deeper dive. This section is built as a full-blown, 3-way color corrector. Each range includes a luma and three color offset controls. Instead of wheels, these controls are sliders, but the results are the same as with wheels. In addition, you can adjust exposure, saturation, vibrance, temperature/tint, and even two different contrast controls. One innovation is a log expander, designed to make it easy to correct log-encoded camera footage, in the absence of a specific log-to-Rec709 camera LUT.

Naturally, any plug-in could always offer more, so I have a minor wish list. I would love to see five additional features: film grain, vignette, sharpening, blurring/soft focus, and a highlights-only expander. There are certainly other individual filters that cover these needs, but having it all within a single plug-in would make sense. This would round out AutoGrade as a complete, creative grading module, servicing user needs beyond just color correction looks.

AutoGrade is a deceptively powerful color corrector, hidden under a simple interface. User-created looks can be saved as presets, so you can quickly apply complex settings to similar shots and set-ups. There are already many color correction tools on the market, including Hawaiki’s own Hawaiki Color. The price is very attractive, so AutoGrade is a superb tool to have in your kit. It’s a fast way to color-grade that’s ideal for both users who are new or experienced when it comes to color correction.

(Click any image to see an enlarged view.)

©2018 Oliver Peters

More about ProRes RAW

A few weeks ago I wrote a two-part post – HDR and RAW Demystified. In the second part, I covered Apple’s new ProRes RAW codec. I still see a lot of misinformation on the web about what exactly this is, so I felt it was worth an additional post. Think of this post as an addendum to Part 2. My apologies up front, if there is some overlap between this and the previous post.

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Camera raw codecs have been around since before RED Digital Camera brought out their REDCODE RAW codec. At NAB, Apple decided to step into the game. RED brought the innovation of recording the raw signal as a compressed movie file, making on-board recording and simplified post-production possible. Apple has now upped the game with a codec that is optimized for multi-stream playback within Final Cut Pro X, thus taking advantage of how FCPX leverages Apple hardware. At present, ProRes RAW is incompatible with all other applications. The exception is Motion, which will read and play the files, but with incorrect default – albeit correctable – video levels.

ProRes RAW is only an acquisition codec and, for now, can only be recorded externally using an Atomos Inferno or Sumo 19 monitor/recorder, or in-camera with DJI’s Inspire 2 or Zenmuse X7. Like all things Apple, the complexity is hidden under the surface. You don’t get the type of specific raw controls made available for image tweaking, as you do with RED. But, ProRes RAW will cover the needs of most camera raw users, making this the raw codec “for the rest of us”. At least that’s what Apple is banking on.

Capturing in ProRes RAW

The current implementation requires a camera that exports a camera raw signal over SDI, which in turn is connected to the Atomos, where the conversion to ProRes RAW occurs. Although no one is very specific about the exact process, I would presume that Atomos’ firmware is taking in the camera’s form of raw signal and rewrapping or transforming the data into ProRes RAW. This means that the Atomos firmware would require a conversion table for each camera, which would explain why only a few Sony, Panasonic, and Canon models qualify right now. Others, like ARRI Alexa or RED cameras, cannot yet be recorded as ProRes RAW. The ProRes RAW codec supports 12-bit color depth, but it depends on the camera. If the SDI output to the Atomos recorder is only 10-bit, then that’s the bit-depth recorded.

Until more users buy or update these specific Atomos products – or more manufacturers become licensed to record ProRes RAW onboard the camera – any real-word comparisons and conclusions come from a handful of ProRes RAW source files floating around the internet. That, along with the Apple and Atomos documentation, provides a pretty solid picture of the quality and performance of this codec group.

Understanding camera raw

All current raw methods depend on single-sensor cameras that capture a Bayer-pattern image. The sensor uses a monochrome mosaic of photosites, which are filtered to register the data for light in the red, green, or blue wavelengths. Nearly all of these sensors have twice as many green receptors as red or blue. At this point, the sensor is capturing linear light at the maximum dynamic range capable for the exposure range of the camera and that sensor. It’s just an electrical signal being turned into data, but without compression (within the sensor). The signal can be recorded as a camera raw file, with or without compression. Alternatively, it can also be converted directly into a full-color video signal and then recorded – again, with or without compression.

If the RGGB photosite data (camera raw) is converted into RGB pixels, then sensor color information is said to be “baked” into the file. However, if the raw conversion is stored in that form and then later converted to RGB in post, sensor data is preserved intact until much later into the post process. Basically, the choice boils down to whether that conversion is best performed within the camera’s electronics or later via post-production software.

The effect of compression may also be less destructive (fewer visible artifacts) with a raw image, because data, rather than video is being compressed. However, converting the file to RGB, does not mean that a wider dynamic range is being lost. That’s because most camera manufacturers have adopted logarithmic encoding schemes, which allow a wide color space and a high dynamic range (big exposure latitude) to be carried through into post. HDR standards are still in development and have been in testing for several years, completely independent of whether or not the source files are raw.

ProRes RAW compression

ProRes RAW and ProRes RAW HQ are both compressed codecs with roughly the same data footprint as ProRes and ProRes HQ. Both raw and standard versions use a variable bitrate form of compression, but in different ways. Apple explains it this way in their white paper: 

“As is the case with existing ProRes codecs, the data rates of ProRes RAW are proportional to frame rate and resolution. ProRes RAW data rates also vary according to image content, but to a greater degree than ProRes data rates. 

With most video codecs, including the existing ProRes family, a technique known as rate control is used to dynamically adjust compression to meet a target data rate. This means that, in practice, the amount of compression – hence quality – varies from frame to frame depending on the image content. In contrast, ProRes RAW is designed to maintain constant quality and pristine image fidelity for all frames. As a result, images with greater detail or sensor noise are encoded at higher data rates and produce larger file sizes.”

ProRes RAW and HDR do not depend on each other

One of my gripes, when watching some of the ProRes RAW demos on the web and related comments on forums, is that ProRes RAW is being conflated with HDR. This is simply inaccurate. Raw applies to both SDR and HDR workflows. HDR workflows do not depend on raw source material. One of the online demos I saw recently immediately started with an HDR FCPX Library. The demo ProRes RAW clips were imported and looked blown out. This made for a dramatic example of recovering highlight information. But, it was wrong!

If you start with an SDR FCPX Library and import these same files, the default image looks great. The hitch here, is that these ProRes RAW files were shot with a Sony camera and a default LUT is applied in post. That’s part of the file’s metadata. To my knowledge, all current, common camera LUTs are based on conversion to the Rec709 color space, not HDR or wide gamut. If you set the inspector’s LUT tab to “none” in either SDR or HDR, you get a relatively flat, log image that’s easily graded in whatever direction you want.

What about raw-specific settings?

Are there any advantages to camera raw in the first place? Most people will point to the ability to change ISO values and color temperature. But these aren’t actually something inherently “baked” into the raw file. Instead, this is metadata, dialed in by the DP on the camera, which optimizes the images for the sensor. ISO is a sensitivity concept based on the older ASA film standard for exposing film. In modern digital cameras, it is actually an exposure index (EI), which is how some refer to it. (RedShark’s Phil Rhodes goes into depth in this linked article.)

The bottom line is that EI is a cross-reference to that camera sensor’s “sweet spot”. 800 on one camera might be ideal, while 320 is best on another. Changing ISO/EI has the same effect as changing gain in audio. Raising or lowering ISO/EI values means that you can either see better into the darker areas (with a trade-off of added noise) – or you see better highlight detail, but with denser dark areas. By changing the ISO/EI value in post, you are simply changing that reference point.

In the case of ProRes RAW and FCPX, there are no specific raw controls for any of this. So it’s anyone’s guess whether changing the master level wheel or the color temp/tint sliders within the color wheels panel is doing anything different for a ProRes RAW file than doing the same adjustment for any other RGB-encoded video file. My guess is that it’s not.

In the case of RED camera files, you have to install a camera raw plug-in module in order to work with the REDCODE raw codec inside of Final Cut Pro X. There is a lot of control of the image, prior to tweaking with FCPX’s controls. However, the amount of image control for the raw file is significantly more for a REDCODE file in Premiere Pro, than inside of FCPX. Again, my suspicion is that most of these controls take effect after the conversion to RGB, regardless of whether or not the slider lives in a specific camera raw module or in the app’s own color correction controls. For instance, changing color temperature within the camera raw module has no correlation to the color temperature control within the app’s color correction tools. It is my belief that few of these actually adjust file data at the raw level, regardless of whether this is REDCODE or ProRes RAW. The conversion from raw to RGB is proprietary with every manufacturer.

What is missing in the ProRes RAW implementation is any control over the color science used to process the image, along with de-Bayering options. Over the years, RED has reworked/improved its color science, which theoretically means that a file recorded a few years ago can look better today (using newer color science math) than it originally did. You can select among several color science models, when you work with the REDCODE format. 

You can also opt to lower the de-Bayering resolution to 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, etc. for a RED file.  When working in a 1080p timeline, this speeds up playback performance with minimal impact on the visible resolution displayed in the viewer. For full-quality conversion, software de-Bayering also yields different results than hardware acceleration, as with the RED Rocket-X card. While this level of control is nice to have, I suspect that’s the sort of professional complication that Apple seeks to avoid.

The main benefit of ProRes RAW may be a somewhat better-quality image carried into post at a lower file size. To get the comparable RGB image quality you’d need to go up to uncompressed, ProRes 4444, or ProRes 4444 XQ – all of which become very taxing in post. Yet, for many standard productions, I doubt you’ll see that great of a difference. Nevertheless, more quality with a lower footprint will definitely be welcomed.

People will want to know whether this is a game-changer or not. On that count, probably not. At least not until there are a number of in-camera options. If you don’t edit – and finish – with FCPX, then it’s a non-starter. If you shoot with a camera that records in a high-quality log format, like an ARRI Alexa, then you won’t see much difference in quality or workflow. If you shoot with any RED camera, you have less control over your image. On the other hand, it’s a definite improvement over all raw workflows that capture in image sequences. And it breathes some life into an older camera, like the Sony FS700. So, on balance, ProRes RAW is an advancement, but just not one that will affect as large a part of the industry as the rest of the ProRes family has.

(Note – click any image for an enlarged view. Images courtesy of Apple, FilmPlusGear, and OffHollywood.)

©2018 Oliver Peters