Reflections

The 2018 Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year season is wrapping up as 2019 blasts in with new wonders, advances, and challenges. It’s this time of year when we can take a moment to look back. That gives me a chance to check out the stats on this blog – to thank the readers who have been following me for a while – and to welcome new readers who have discovered this little corner of the internet.

I started this blog a few years back as a place to offer some thoughts and tips and to give additional and often extended life to my writings for various trade publications. To date I have written 500 posts (this is 501), which have accumulated nearly 5 million total views. And over 1,000 of you have signed on to follow this blog. Thank you.

I started in this business working at a radio station during my senior year of high school and was hired as a full-time video editor when I finished college. Depending on when you want to start the count, that’s well over four decades in the industry. Most of that involves hands-on linear and nonlinear video editing, but it also includes work in sound, producing/directing, facilities design and management, workflow consultation, training, and color correction. In that time, I’ve seen manufacturers come and go, fall in and out of favor, and as a result, have worked with nearly two dozen different editing and color correction tools on paying gigs. Throughout all of that, I tend to think of myself first and foremost as an editor, but not necessarily an operator of any specific tool.

Editors are storytellers and those of the tips that I like to talk about most on this blog. They are constants that are more important than any specific software or hardware application. Of all the posts, my interviews with other working editors are those I enjoy the most. It’s a chance to learn and to see the same passion that others put into their work.

As we roll into 2019, I look forward to more projects that can be tackled with passion, while working with teams of other creative individuals. Here’s wishing you the same!

©2018 Oliver Peters

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Edit Collaboration and Best Practices

There are many workflows that involve collaboration, with multiple editors and designers working on the same large project or group of projects. Let me say up front that if you want the best possible collaborative experience with multiple editors, then work with Avid Media Composer. Full stop. I have worked both sides of the equation and without a doubt, Media Composer connected to Avid Unity/Isis/Nexis shared storage is simply not matched by Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, or any other editing software/storage/cloud combination. Everything else is a compromise, which is why feature film and TV series editorial teams continue to select Avid solutions as their first choice.

In spite of that, there are many reasons to use other editing tools. I work most of the time in Adobe Premiere Pro CC and freelance at a shop with nine edit workstations connected to shared storage. We work mainly in Adobe Creative Cloud applications and our projects involve a lot of collaboration. Some of these are corporate videos that are frequently edited and revised by different editors. Some are entertainment shows, cut by a small editorial team focused on those shows. For some projects, Premiere Pro is the perfect tool. For others, we have to develop strategies to adapt Premiere to our workflow.

With that in mind, the following are tips and best practices that I’ll share for what has worked best for us over the past three years, while working on large projects with a team of editors. Although it applies to our work with Premiere Pro, the same would generally be true if we were working with Apple Final Cut Pro X instead.

Organization. We organize all projects into a specific folder structure, using a Post Haste template. All media files, like camera footage, audio, graphic elements, etc. go into common folders. Editors know where to look to find things. When new camera footage comes in, files are organized as “dailies” into specific folders by date, camera, and camera card. Non-pro formats, like GoPro and DSLR footage will be batch-renamed to reflect the project, date, and camera card. The objective is to have unique file names for each and every media file.

Optimized, transcoded, or proxy media. Depending on the performance and amount of media, you may need to do some prep work before even starting the edit process. Premiere and FCPX work well with some media formats and not with others. NAS/SAN storage is particularly taxing, especially once you get to resolutions greater than HD. If you want the most fluid experience in a shared workflow, then you will likely need to transcode proxy files from within the application. The reason to stay inside of FCPX or Premiere Pro is so that frame size offsets are properly tracked. Once proxies have been transcoded, it’s a simple matter of toggling between the proxy media (best playback performance) and full-resolution media (best image quality).

On the other hand, if you’d rather stick to full-resolution, native media, then some formats will have to be transcoded into “optimized” media. For instance, GoPro 4K footage is terrible to edit with natively. It should always be transcoded to ProRes or DNxHD before editing, if you don’t want to go the proxy route. This can be done inside or outside of the application and is an easy task with DaVinci Resolve, EditReady, Adobe Media Encoder, or Apple Compressor.

Finally, if you have image sequences from a drone or other source, forget trying to edit from these off of a network. Transcode them right away into some format of master movie file. I find Resolve to be the best tool for this. It’s fast and since these are often camera raw files, you can apply a base grade to them as a starting point for future color correction.

Break up your projects. Depending on the type and size of the job and number of editors working on it, you may choose to work in multiple Premiere projects. There may be a master file where all media is imported and initially organized. Then there may be multiple projects that are offshoots from this for component parts. In a corporate environment, it could be several different videos cut from a single, larger set of media. In a feature film, there could be different Premiere projects for each reel of the film.

Since Premiere Pro employs project locking, any project opened by one editor can also be opened in a read-only mode by other editors. Editors can have multiple Premiere projects open at one time. Thus, it’s simple to bring in elements from one project into another, even while they are all open. This workflow mimics Avid’s bin-locking strategy.

It helps to keep project files streamlined as progress on the production extends over time. You want to keep the number of sequences in any given project small. Periodically duplicate your project(s), strip out old sequences from the current project, and archive the older project files.

As a general note, while working to build the creative story edits – i.e. “offline editing” – you will want to keep plug-in filter effects to a minimum. In fact, it’s generally a good idea to keep the plug-in selection on each system small, so that all workstations in this shared environment are able to have the same set of installed plug-ins. The same is true of fonts.

Finishing stages of post. There are generally two paths in the finishing, aka “online editing” stage. Either all final color correction and assembly of effects is completed within Premiere Pro, or there is a roundtrip through a color correction application, like Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. The same holds true for audio, where a separate sound editor/designer/mixer may handle the finishing touches in Avid Pro Tools.

To accomplish an easy roundtrip with Resolve, create a sequence with all color correction and effects removed. Flatten the video to a single track (if possible), and remove the audio or do a simple stereo mixdown for reference. Ideally, media with mixed frame rates should be addressed as slow motion in the edited sequence. Avoid modifying the frame rate through any sort of “interpret” function within the application. Export an XML or AAF and send that and the associated media to Resolve. When color correction is complete, you can render the entire timeline at the sequence resolution as a single master file.

Conversely, if you want to send it back to Premiere Pro for final assembly and to complete the roundtrip, then render individual clips at their source resolution with handles of one to two seconds. Back in Premiere, re-apply titles, insert completed visual effects, and add any missing plug-in effects.

With audio post, there will be no roundtrip of elements, since the mixer will deliver a completed mixed stereo or surround track. This should be imported into Premiere (or Resolve if the final master is created in Resolve) and married back to the final video sequence. The mixer should also supply “stems” – the individual dialogue, music, and sound effects (D/M/E) submix tracks.

Mastering. Final sequences should be exported in a master file format (ProRes, DNxHD/HR, uncompressed) in at least two forms: 1) master with final mix and titles, and 2) textless submaster with split-track audio (multiple channels containing the D/M/E stems). All of these files are stored within the same job-based folder structure outlined at the top. It is quite common that future revisions will be made using the textless submaster rather than re-opening the full project, or that it may be used as source material in another edit.

Another aspect of finishing the project is media consolidation. This means taking the final sequence and generating a new project file from it. That file contained only those elements from the sequence, along with a copy of the media used, where each file has been trimmed to the portion within the sequence (plus handles). This is the Project Manager function in Premiere Pro. Unfortunately, Premiere is not consistently good at this task. Some formats will be properly trimmed, while others will be copied in their entirety. That’s OK for a :10 take, but a bummer when it’s a 30-minute interview.

The good news is that if you went through the Resolve roundtrip workflow and rendered individual clips, then effectively Resolve has already done media consolidation as a byproduct. In addition, if your source media is 4K, but you only finished in HD, the Resolve renders will be 4K. If in the future, you need to deliver the same master in 4K, everything is already set. Of course, that assumes that you didn’t do a lot of “punching in” and reframing in your edit sequence.

Cloud-based services. Often collaboration requires a distributed team, when not everyone is under one roof. While Adobe does offer cloud-based team editing methods, this doesn’t really work when editors are on different Creative Cloud accounts or when the collaboration is between an editor and a graphic designer/animator/VFX artist working in non-Adobe tools. In that case the old standbys have been Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive. Syncing is easy and relatively reliable. However, these are really just designed for sharing assets. But when this involves a couple of editors and each has a local, mirrored set of media, then simple sharing/syncing of only small project files makes for a working collaborative method.

Frame.io is the newbie here, with updated extension tools designed for in-application workspace panels within Final Cut Pro X, After Effects, and Premiere Pro. While they tout the ease of moving full-resolution media into their cloud, including camera files, I really wouldn’t recommend doing that. It’s simply not very practical on must projects. But for sharing cuts using a standard review-and-approach workflow, Frame.io definitely hits most of the buttons.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Building the Alternative Creative Toolkit

In the past, software was bought in a shrink-wrapped package with a single license to run the application on one computer. But trends change, with options today ranging from a one-time purchase, or a purchase plus a subscription for updates, all the way over to a total subscription model. While Adobe is the company most associated with the subscription model for creative software, nearly every company from Avid to Microsoft offers some variation of this. Software subscription makes a ton of sense for both the developer and the user, but it clearly is something that doesn’t suit everyone’s needs. If you want a comprehensive set of creative tools – but seek suggestions for alternatives to subscription – then look no further.

Productivity. The written side of production is as important as everything else. That means word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations often come first. The king of the hill has been Microsoft Office, but there are others. Still around and being updated by Corel is Wordperfect Office – one of the originals. Naturally you have Google Docs, but there are also plenty of others, such as OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and NeoOffice. Mac users have Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. These cover 90% of my needs, including very good compatibility with Microsoft Office documents. If your focus is structured creative writing, then you might also wish to check out Scrivener.

Design, graphics, and photography. It’s hard to find an exact replacement for Photoshop and Illustrator, but Serif comes the closest with its Affinity brand for Mac and Windows. Affinity Photo, Designer, and Publisher are solid substitutes with good levels of compatibility. But if your design tastes are more whimsical and artistic, then consider Pixelmator Pro (Mac) or Painter (Windows or Mac). If you need photo processing and manipulation, then Apple Photos, which is included with Macs, has become more potent in recent versions, although still targeted towards consumers. It’s not the industrial strength tool that is Adobe Lightroom Classic. If that’s your need and subscription is a no-go, then Capture One or ON1 seem to have captured many a photographer’s attention. Both include raw processing support and cataloging/organizing features.

Audio production and post. Avid Pro Tools is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to professional audio in studios and post houses. Offerings range from free to subscription to perpetual. But as an alternative, one of the most popular, full-featured tools for music creation, audio production, mixing, and post is Apple’s Logic Pro X. It’s a tool that just keeps getting better, with more virtual instruments and plug-ins being added with every version update. Naturally it’s only available for the Mac. If you are mainly a video editor and not a recording engineer, then another option would be Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, which has integrated the Fairlight audio toolset. This makes it viable as an audio-only application, as well as other post needs. However, other strong contenders are also still around, including Steinberg Nuendo, and Magix Vegas Pro and Sound Forge Pro. The latter two had been Sony Software products before Magix picked them up. While the Vegas products are considered video editing tools, they originally started life in audio and continue to be very viable audio post products. Sound Forge is an advanced single clip (up to 32 channels) audio editor that’s great for voice-over production, podcasts, and audio mastering.

Visual effects and motion graphics. If you love and really need Adobe After Effects, this is probably the one area where you won’t find a suitable equivalent. That’s fine, because Adobe offers attractive single-app licensing. While there are other options, simply none offer the depth of After Effects in a track/layer-based compositor. Apple has Motion, which is a great tool, but doesn’t tick all the boxes. Fusion and the Fusion page inside of DaVinci Resolve tackle composting by using nodes. So you work in a node-based, flowchart-style layout, rather than layers and tracks. All of these tools are powerful, but the switch from After Effects to Fusion or Motion require a complete mindset change, which most users aren’t interested in.

Editing. The best for last and in some ways, the category with the most options. Avid Media Composer continues its dominance for narrative broadcast and film editing. Like Pro Tools, there are free, perpetual, and subscription choices. Apple has been battling it out for mindshare with Final Cut Pro X, but of the group, it’s the one that is most different from a traditional NLE’s design and operation. Among the other solutions, you’ll find familiar names, including Grass Valley Edius, Magix Vegas Pro, DaVinci Resolve, and Lightworks. Even the venerable Media 100 (now owned by BorisFX) is still available for the Mac and for free!

Originally written for RedShark News

©2018 Oliver Peters

Preparing your Film for Distribution

First-time filmmakers are elated when their film finally gets picked up for distribution. But the hardest work may be next. Preparing your film and companion materials can be a very detailed and complex endeavor if you didn’t plan for it properly from the outset. While each distributor and/or network has slightly different specs, the general requirements are the same. Here are the more common ones.

1. Film master. Supplying a master file is self-evident, but the exact details are not consistent across the board. Usually some additional post will be required when you get distribution. You will need to add the distributor’s logo animation up front, make sure the first video starts at a specified timecode, and that you have audio channels in a certain configuration (see Item 2).

In spite of the buzz over 4K, many distributors still want 1920×1080 files at 23.98fps (or possibly 24.0fps) – usually in the Apple ProResHQ* video codec. The frame rate may differ for broadcast-oriented films, such as documentaries. In that case, 29.97fps might be required. Also, some international distributors will require 25.0fps. If you have any titles over the picture, then “textless” material must also be supplied. Generally, you can add those sections, such as the video under opening titles, at the end of the master, following the end credits of the film.

*Occasionally film festivals and some distributors will also require a DCP package instead of a single QuickTime or MXF master file.

2. Audio mixes and tracks. Stereo and/or 5.1 surround mixes are the most commonly requested audio configurations. You’ll often be asked to supply both the full mixes and the “stems”. The latter are separate submixes of only dialogue, sound effects, and music. Some distributors want these stems as separate files, while others want them attached to the master file. These are easy to supply if the film was originally mixed with that in mind. But if your mixer only produced a final mix, then it’s a lot harder to go back and get new stem tracks. A typical channel assignment on a delivery master is eight tracks for the 5.1 surround mix (L, R, C, LFE, Ls, Rs), the stereo mix (left, right), and a stereo M&E mix (combined music and effects, minus the dialogue).

3. Subtitles and captions. In order to be compliant with various accessibility regulations, you will likely have to supply closed captioning sidecar files that sync to your master. There are numerous formats and several NLEs allow you to create these. However, it’s far easier and usually more accurate to have a service create your files. There are numerous vendors, with prices starting as low as $1/minute. Closed captions should not be confused with subtitles, also called open captions. These appear on-screen and are common when someone is speaking in another language. Check with your distributor if this applies to you, because they may want the video without titles, in the event of international distribution.

4. Legal documentation. There’s a wide range of paperwork that you should be prepared to turn over. This includes licensing for any music and stock footage, talent releases, contracts, and deal memos. One important element is to be able to prove “chain-of-title”. You must be able to prove that you own the rights to the story and the film. Music is often a sticking point for indie filmmakers. If you used temp music or had a special deal for film festival showings, now is the time to pay up. You won’t get distribution until all music is clearly licensed. Music info should also include a cue sheet (song names, length, and position within the film).

5. Errors and omissions insurance. This is a catch-all policy you’ll need to buy to satisfy many distributors. It’s designed to cover you in the event that there’s a legal claim (frivolous or otherwise) against the film. For example, if someone comes out of the woodwork saying that you ripped them off and stole their story idea and that you now owe them money.

6. Trailer. Distributors often request a trailer to be used to promote the film. The preference seems to be that the trailer is under two minutes in length. It may or may not need to include the MPAA card at the front and should have a generic end tag (no “coming soon” or date at the end). Often a simple stereo mix will be fine, but don’t take that for granted. If you are going through full sound post anyway in creating a trailer, be sure to generate the full audio package – stereo and surround mixes and splits in various combinations, just like your feature film master.

7. Everything else. Beyond this list, you’ll often be asked for additional “nice to have” items. These include screeners (DVD or web), behind-the-scenes press clips or photos, frame grabs from the film, a final script, biographies of the creative team and lead actors, as well as a poster image.

As you can see, none of this seems terribly difficult if you are aware of these needs going in. But if you have prepared none of this in advance, it will become a mad scramble at the end to keep the distributor happy.

Originally written for RedShark News

©2018 Oliver Peters

Five Decades of Edit Suite Evolution

I spent last Friday setting up two new Apple iMac Pros as editing workstations. When I started as an editor in the 1970s, it was the early days of computer-assisted video editing. Edit suites (or bays) were intended for either “offline” editing with simple hardware, where creative cutting was the goal – or they were “online”, designed for finishing and used the most expensive gear. Sometimes the online bay would do double-duty for both creative and final post.

The minimum investment for such a linear edit suite would include three 2” videotape recorders, a video switcher (vision mixer), edit controller, audio mixer, and a small camera for titles and artwork. Suites were designed with creature comforts, since clients would often spend days at a time supervising the edit session. Before smart phones and the internet, clients welcomed the chance to get out of the office and go to the edit. Outfitting one of these edit suites would start at several hundred thousand dollars.

At my current edit gig, the company runs nine Mac workstations within a footprint that would have only supported three edit suites of the past, including a centralized machine room. Clients rarely come to supervise an edit, so the layout is more akin to the open office plan of a design studio. Editing can be self-contained on a Mac or PC and editors work in a more collegial, collaborative environment. There’s one “hero” room for when clients do decide to drop in.

In these five decades, computer-assisted editing has gone through four phases:

Phase 1 – Offline and online edit suites, primarily based on linear videotape technology.

Phase 2 – Nonlinear editing took hold with the introduction of Avid, EMC, Media 100, and Lightworks. The resolution was too poor for finishing, but the systems were ideal for the creative process. VTR-based linear rooms still handled finishing.

Phase 3 – As the quality improved, nonlinear systems could deliver finished masters. But camera acquisition and delivery was still centered on videotape. Nonlinear systems still had to be able to output to tape, which required specialized i/o hardware.

Phase 4 (current) – Editing is completely based around the computer. Most general-purpose desktop and even laptop computers are capable of the whole gamut of post services without the need for specialized hardware. That has become optional. The full shift to Phase 4 came when file-based acquisition and delivery became the norm.

This transition brought about a sea change in cost, workflow, facility design, and talent needs. It has been driven by technology, but also a number of socioeconomic factors.

1. Technology always advances. Computers get more powerful at a lower cost point. Moore’s Law and all that. Although our demands increase – SD, HD, 4K, 8K, and beyond – computers, so far, have not been outpaced. I can edit 4K today with an investment of under $10K, which was impossible in 1980, even with an investment of $500K or more. This cost reduction also applies to shared storage solutions (NAS and SAN systems). They are cheaper, easier to install, and more reliable than ever. Even the smallest production company can now afford to design editing around the collaboration of several editors and workstations.

2. The death of videotape came with the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan that disabled the Fukushima nuclear plant. A byproduct of this natural disaster was that it damaged the Sony videotape manufacturing plant, putting supplies of HDCAM-SR stock on indefinite backorder. This pointed to the vulnerability of videotape and hastened the acceptance of file-based delivery for masters by key networks and distributors.

3. Interactions with clients and human beings in general has changed – thanks to smartphones, personal computers, and the internet. While both good and bad, the result is a shift in our communication with clients. Most of the time, edit session review and approval is handled over internet services. Post your cut. Get feedback. Make your changes and post again. Repeat. Along with a smaller hardware footprint than in the past, this is one of the prime reasons that room designs have changed. You don’t need a big, comfortable edit suite designed for clients, if they aren’t going to come. A smaller room will do as long as your editors are happy and productive.

Such a transition isn’t new. It’s been mirrored in the worlds of publishing, graphic design, and recording studios. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look back at how far things have come. Naturally, some will view this evolution as a threat and others as filled with opportunities And, of course, where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.

All I know is that setting up two edit systems in a day would have been inconceivable in 1975!

Originally written for RedShark News

The hear a bit more about the changes and evolution of facilities, check out the Dec. 13th edition of the Digital Production Buzz. Click this link.

©2018 Oliver Peters