Adobe Premiere Pro CC Tips

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Adobe Premiere Pro CC is the dominant NLE that I encounter amongst my clients. Editors who’ve shifted over from Final Cut Pro “classic” may have simply transferred existing skills and working methods to Premiere Pro. This is great, but it’s easy to miss some of the finer points in Premiere Pro that will make you more productive. Here are seven tips that can benefit nearly any project.

df0616_ppro_1LUTs/Looks – With the addition of the Lumetri Color panel, it’s easy to add LUTs into your color correction workflow. You get there through the Color workspace preset or by applying a Lumetri Color effect to a timeline clip. Import a LUT from the Basic Correction or Creative section of the controls. From here, browse to any stored LUT on your hard drive(s) and it will be applied to the clip. There are plenty of free .cube LUTs floating around the web. However, you may not know that Look files, created through Adobe SpeedGrade CC in the .look format, may also be applied within the Creative section. You can also find a number of free ones on the web, including a set I created for SpeedGrade. Unlike LUTs, these also support effects used in SpeedGrade.

df0616_ppro_2Audio MixingPremiere Pro features very nice audio tools and internal audio mixing is a breeze. I typically use three filters on nearly every mix I create. First, I will add a basic dynamic compressor to all of my dialogue tracks. To keep it simple, I normally use the default preset. Second, I will add an EQ filter to my music tracks. Here, I will set it to notch out the midrange slightly, which lets the dialogue sit a bit better in the mix. Finally I’ll add limiting to the master track. Normally this is set to soft clip at -10db. If I have specific loudness specs as part of my delivery requirements, then I’ll route my mix through a submaster bus first and apply the limiting to the submaster. I will apply the RADAR loudness meter to the master bus and adjust accordingly to be compliant.

df0616_ppro_3Power windows – This is a term that came from DaVinci Resolve, but is often used generically to talk about building up a grade on a shot by isolating areas within the image. For example, brightening someone’s face more so than the overall image. You can do this in Premiere Pro by stacking up more than one Lumetri Color effect onto a clip. Start by applying a Lumetri Color effect and grade the overall shot. Next, apply a second instance of the effect and use the built-in Adobe mask tool to isolate only the selection that you want to add the second correction to, such as an oval around someone’s head. Tweak color as needed. If the shot moves around, you can even use the internal tracker to have your mask follow the object. Do you have another area to adjust? Simply add a third effect and repeat the process.

df0616_ppro_4Export/import titles – Premiere Pro titles are created in the Title Designer module and these titles can be exported as a separate metadata file (.prtl format). Let’s say that you have a bunch of titles that you plan to use repeatedly on new projects, but you don’t want to bring these in from one project to the next. You can do this more simply by exporting and re-importing the title’s data file. Simply select the title in the bin and then File/Export/Title. The hitch is that Adobe’s Media Browser will not recognize the .prtl format and so the easiest way to import it into a new project is to drag it from the Finder location straight into the new Premiere Pro project. This will create a new title inside of the new project. Both instances of this title are unique, so editing the title in any project won’t effect how it appears elsewhere.

df0616_ppro_5Replace with clip – I work on a number of productions where there’s a base version of a commercial and then a lot of versions with small changes to each. A typical example is a spot that uses many different lower third phone numbers, which are market-specific. The Replace function shaves hours off of this workflow. I first duplicate a completed sequence and rename it. Then I select the correct phone number in the bin, followed by selecting the clip in the timeline to be changed. Right-click and choose Replace with Clip/From Bin. This will update the content of my timeline clip with the new phone number. Any effects or keyframes that have been applied in the timeline remain.

df0616_ppro_6Optical flow speed changes – In a recent update, optical flow interpolation was added as one of the speed change choices. Other than the obvious uses of speed changes, I found this to be a get way of creating slower camera moves that look nearly perfect. Optical flow can be tricky – sometimes creating odd motion artifacts – and at other times it’s perfect. I have a camera slider move or pan along a mantle containing family photos. The move is too fast. So, yes, I can slow it down, but the horizontal motion will leave it as stuttering or blurred. However, if I slow it to exactly 50% and select optical flow, in most cases, I get very good results. That’s because this speed and optical flow have created perfect “in-between” frames. A :05 move is now :10 and works better in the edit. If I’m going to use this same clip a lot, I simply render/export it is as a new piece of media, which I’ll bring back into the project as if it were a VFX clip.

df0616_ppro_7Render and replace – Premiere Pro CC is great when you have a ton of different camera formats and want to work with native media. While that generally works, a large project will really impede performance, especially in the editing sequence. The alternative is to transcode the clips to an optimized or so-called mezzanine format. Adobe does this in the sequence rather than in the bin and it can be done for individual clips or every clip within the sequence. You might have a bunch of native 4K .mp4 camera clips in a 1080p timeline. Simply select the clips within the timeline that you would like to transcode and right-click for the Render and Replace dialogue. At this point you have a several options, including whether to use clip or sequence settings, handle length, codec, and file location. If you choose “clip”, then what you get is a new, trimmed clip in an optimized codec, which will be stored in a separate folder. This becomes a great way to consolidate your media. The clip is imported into your bin, so you have access to both the original and the optimized clip at the original settings. Therefore, your consolidated clips are still 4K if that’s how they started.

This also works for Dynamic Link After Effects compositions. Render and Replace those for better timeline performance. But if you need to go back to the composition in order to update it in After Effects, that’s just a few clicks away.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Producing a Short Mini-Doc with the AJA CION

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AJA surprised the industry in 2014 when it rolled out its CION digital cinema 4K camera. Although not known as a camera manufacturer, it had been working on this product for over four years. Last year the company offered its Try CION promotion (ended in October), which loaned camera systems to qualified filmmakers. Even though this promotion is over, potential customers with a serious interest can still get extended demos of the camera through their regional AJA sales personnel. It was in this vein that I arranged a two-week loan of a camera unit for this review.

I’m a post guy and don’t typically write camera reviews; however, I’m no stranger to cameras either. I’ve spent a lot of time “shading” cameras (before that position was called a DIT) and have taken my turn as a studio and field camera operator. My interest in doing this review was to test the process. How easy was it to use the camera in actual production and how easy was the post workflow associated with it?

CION details

The AJA CION is a 4K digital camera that employs an APS-C CMOS sensor with a global shutter and both infrared-cut and optical low-pass filters. It can shoot in various frame sizes (from 1920×1080 up to 4096×2160) and frame rates (from 23.98 up 120fps). Sensor scaling rather than windowing/cropping is used, which means the lens size related to the image it produces is the same in 4K as in 2K or HD. In other words, a 50mm lens yields the same optical framing in all digital sizes.

df0516_CION_Chellee5The CION records in Apple ProRes (up to ProRes 4444) using a built-in Pak media recorder. Think of this as essentially an AJA KiPro built right into the camera. Since Pak media cards aren’t FAT32 formatted like CF or SD cards used by other cameras, you don’t run into a 4GB file-size limit that would cause clip-spanning.  You can also record AJA Raw externally (such as to an AJA KiPro Quad) over 3G-SDI or Thunderbolt. Video is linear without any log encoding schemes; but, there are a number of gamma profiles and color correction presets.

df0516_CION_prod_1It is designed as an open camera system, using standard connectors for HDMI, BNC, XLR, batteries, lens mounts, and accessories. CION uses a PL lens mount system, because that’s the most open and the best glass comes for that mounting system. When the AJA rep sent me the camera, it came ready to shoot and included a basic camera configuration, plus accessories, including some rods, an Ikan D5w monitor, a Zeiss Compact Prime 28mm lens, 512GB and 256GB solid-state Pak media cards, and a Pak media dock/reader. The only items not included – other than tripod, quick-release base plate, and head, of course – were camera batteries. The camera comes with a standard battery plate, as well as an AC power supply.

Learning the CION

The subject of this mini-doc was a friend of mine, Peter Taylor. He’s a talented luthier who builds and repairs electric and acoustic guitars and basses under his Chellee brand. He also designs and produces a custom line of electric guitar pedals. To pull this off, I partnered with the Valencia College Film Production Technology Program, with whom I’m edited a number of professional feature films and where I teach an annual editing workshop. I worked with Ray Bracero, a budding DP and former graduate of that program who helps there as an instructional assistant. This gave me the rest of the package I needed for the production, including more lenses, a B-camera for the interview, lighting, and sound gear.

Our production schedule was limited with only one day for the interview and B-roll shots in the shop. To augment this material, I added a second day of production with my son, Chris Peters, playing an original track that he composed as an underscore for the interview. Chris is an accomplished session musician and instructor who plays Chellee guitars.

df0516_CION_prod_2With the stage set, this provided about half a day for Ray and me to get familiar with the CION, plus two days of actual production, all within the same week. If AJA was correct in designing an easy-to-use cinematic camera, then this would be a pretty good test of that concept. Ray had never run a CION before, but was familiar with REDs, Canons, and other camera brands. Picking up the basic CION operation was simple. The menu is easier than other cameras. It uses the same structure as a KiPro, but there’s also an optional remote set-up, if you want a wireless connection to the CION from a laptop.

4K wasn’t warranted for this project, so everything was recorded in 2K (2048×1080) to be used in an HD 2.35:1 sequence (1920×817). This would give me some room to reframe in post. All sync sound shots would be 23.98fps and all B-roll would be in slow motion. The camera permits “overcranking”, meaning we shot at 59.94fps for playback at 23.98fps. The camera can go up to 120fps, but only when recording externally in AJA Raw. To keep it simple on this job, all recording was internal to the Pak media card – ProResHQ for the sync footage and ProRes 422 for the slow motion shots.

Production day(s)

The CION is largely a “what you see is what you get” camera. Don’t plan on extensive correction in post. What you see on the monitor is typically what you’ll get, so light and control your production set-up accordingly. It doesn’t have as wide of a dynamic range as an ARRI ALEXA for example. The bottom EI (exposure index) is 320 and that’s pretty much where you want to operate as a sweet spot. This is similar to the original RED One. This means that in bright exteriors, you’ll need filtering to knocking down the light. There’s also not much benefit in running with a high EI. The ALEXA, for instance, looks great at 800, but that setting didn’t seem to help the CION.

df0516_CION_Chellee13_smGamma profiles and color temperature settings didn’t really behave like I would have expected from other cameras. With our lighting, I would have expected a white balance of 3200 degrees Kelvin, however 4500 looked right to the eye and was, in fact, correct in post. The various gamma profiles didn’t help with clipping in the same way as Log-C does, so we ultimately stayed with Normal/Expanded. This shifts the midrange down to give you some protection for highlights. Unfortunately with CION, when highlights are clipped or blacks are crushed, that is actually how the signal is being recorded and these areas of the signal are not recoverable. The camera’s low end is very clean and there’s a meaty midrange. We discovered that you cannot monitor the video over SDI while recording 59.94-over-23.98 (slow motion). Fortunately HDMI does maintain a signal. All was good again, once we switched to the HDMI connection.

CION features a number of color correction presets. For Day 1 in the luthier shop, I used the Skin Tones preset. This is a normal color balance, which slightly desaturates the red-orange range, thus yielding more natural flesh tones. On Day 2 for the guitar performance, I switched to the Normal color correction preset. The guitar being played has a red sunburst paint finish and the Skin Tones preset pulled too much of the vibrance out of the guitar. Normal more closely represented what it actually looked like.

df0516_CION_Chellee4During the actual production, Ray used three Zeiss Super Speed Primes (35mm, 50mm, and 85mm) on the CION, plus a zoom on the Canon 5D B-camera. Since the locations were tight, he used an ARRI 650w light with diffusion for a key and bounced a second ARRI 150w light as the back light. The CION permits two channels of high-quality audio input (selectable line, mic, or +48v). I opted to wire straight into the camera, instead of using an external sound recorder. Lav and shotgun mics were directly connected to each channel for the interview. For the guitar performance, the amp was live-mic’ed into an Apogee audio interface (part of Chris’ recording system) and the output of that was patched into the CION at line level.df0516_CION_Chellee8

The real-time interview and performance material was recorded with the CION mounted on a tripod, but all slow motion B-roll shots were handheld. Since the camera had been rigged with a baseplate and rods, Ray opted to use the camera in that configuration instead of taking advantage of the nice shoulder pad on the CION. This gave him an easy grasp of the camera for “Dutch angles” and close working proximity to the subject. Although a bit cumbersome, the light weight of the CION made such quick changes possible.

Post production

df0516_CION_FCPX_2As an editor, I want a camera to make life easy in post, which brought me to Apple Final Cut Pro X for the finished video. Native ProRes, easy syncing of two-camera interviews, and simple-yet-powerful color correction makes FCPX a no-brainer. We recorded a little over three hours of material – 146 minutes on the CION, 37 minutes on the 5D and 11 minutes on a C500 (for two pick-up shots). All of the CION footage only consumed about 50% of the single 512GB Pak media card. Using the Pak media dock, transfer times were fast. While Pak media isn’t cheap, the cards are very robust and unless you are chewing through tons of 4K, you actually get a decent amount of recording time on them.

I only applied a minor amount of color correction on the CION footage. This was primarily to bring up the midrange due to the Normal/Expanded gamma profile, which naturally makes the recorded shot darker. The footage is very malleable without introducing the type of grain-like sensor noise artifacts that I see with other cameras using a similar amount of correction. Blacks stay true black and clean. Although my intention was not to match the 5D to the CION – I had planned on some stylized correction instead – in the end I matched it anyway, since I only used two shots. Surprisingly, I was able to get a successful match.

Final thoughts

df0516_CION_Chellee6The CION achieved the design goals AJA set for it. It is easy to use, ergonomic, and gets you a good image with the least amount of fuss. As with any camera, there are a few items I’d change. For example, the front monitoring connectors are too close to the handle. Occasionally you have to press record twice to make sure you are really recording. There’s venting on the top, which would seem to be an issue if you suddenly got caught in the rain. Overall, I was very happy with the results, but I think AJA still needs to tweak the color science a bit more.

In conjunction with FCPX for post, this camera/NLE combo rivals ARRI’s ALEXA and AMIRA for post production ease and efficiency. No transcoding. No performance hits due to taxing, native, long-GOP media. Proper file names and timecode. A truly professional set-up. At a starting point of $4,995, the AJA CION is a dynamite camera for the serious producer or filmmaker. The image is good and the workflow outstanding.

Click this link to see the final video on Vimeo.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters

Carol

df0116_carol_smFilms tend to push social boundaries and one such film this season is Carol, starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler. It’s a love story between two women, but more importantly it’s a love story between two people.  The story is based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, who also penned The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train. Todd Haynes (Six by Sondheim, Mildred Pierce) directed the film adaptation. Carol was originally produced in 2014 and finished in early 2015, but The Weinstein Company opted to time the release around the start of the 2015 awards season.

Affonso Gonçalves (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone), the editor on Carol, explains, “Carol is a love story about two women coming to terms with the dissatisfaction of their lives. The Carol character (Cate Blanchett) is unhappily married, but loves her child. Carol has had other lesbian affairs before, but is intrigued by this new person, Therese (Rooney Mara), whom she encounters in a department store. Therese doesn’t know what she wants, but through the course of the film, learns who she is.”

Gonçalves and Haynes worked together on the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce. Gonçalves says, “We got along well and when he got involved with the production, he passed along the script to me and I loved it.” Carol was shot entirely on Super 16mm film negative, primarily as a single-camera production. Only about five percent of the production included A and B cameras. Ed Lachman (Dark Blood, Stryker, Selena) served as the cinematographer. The film negative was scanned in log color space and then a simple log-to-linear LUT (color look-up table) was applied to the Avid DNxHD36 editorial files for nice-looking working files.

Creating a timeless New York story

Cincinnati served as the principal location designed to double for New York City in the early 1950s. The surrounding area also doubled for Iowa and Pennsylvania during a traveling portion of the film. Gonçalves discussed how Haynes and he worked during this period. “The production shot in Cincinnati, but I was based at Goldcrest Films in New York. The negative was shipped to New York each day, where it was processed and scanned. Then I would get Avid editorial files. The cutting room was set up with Avid Media Composer and ISIS systems and my first assistant Perri [Pivovar] had the added responsibilities on this project to check for film defects. Ed would also review footage each day; however, Todd doesn’t like to watch dailies during a production. He would rely on me instead to be his eyes and ears to make sure that the coverage that he needed was there.”

He continues, “After the production wrapped, I completed my editor’s cut, while Todd took a break. Then he spent two weeks reviewing all the dailies and making his own detailed notes. Then, when he was ready, he joined me in the cutting room and we built the film according to his cut. Once we had these two versions – his and mine – we compared the two. They were actually very similar, because we both have a similar taste. I had started in May and by September the cut was largely locked. Most of the experimenting came with structure and music.”

The main editorial challenges were getting the right structure for the story and tone for the performances. According to Gonçalves, “Cate’s and Rooney’s performances are very detailed and I felt the need to slow the cutting pace down to let you appreciate that performance. Rooney’s is so delicate. Plus, it’s a love story and we needed to keep the audience engaged. We weren’t as concerned with trimming, but rather, to get the story right. The first cut was two-and-a-half hours and the finished length ended up at 118 minutes. Some scenes were cut out that involved additional characters in the story. Todd isn’t too precious about losing scenes and this allowed us to keep the story focused on our central characters.”

“The main challenge was the party scene at the end. The story structure is similar to Brief Encounters (a 1946 David Lean classic with the beginning and ending set in the same location). Initially we had two levels of flashbacks, but there was too much of a shift back and forth. We had a number of ‘friends and family’ screenings and it was during these that we discovered the issues with the flashbacks. Ultimately we decided to rework the ending and simplify the temporal order of the last scene. The film was largely locked by the sixth or seventh cut.”

As a period piece, music is very integral to Carol. Gonçalves explains, “We started with about 300 to 400 songs that Todd liked, plus old soundtracks. These included a lot of singers of the time, like Billie Holiday. I also added ambiences for restaurants and bars. Carter (Burwell, composer) saw our cut at around the second or third screening with our temp score. After that he started sending preliminary themes to for us to work into the cut. These really elevated the tone of the film. He’d come in every couple of weeks to see how his score was working out with the cut, so it became a very collaborative process.”

The editing application that an editor uses is an extension of how he works. Some have very elaborate routines for preparing bins and sequences and others take a simpler approach. Gonçalves fits into the latter group. He says, “Avid is like sitting down and driving a car for me. It’s all so smooth and so fast. It’s easy to find things and I like the color correction and audio tools. I started working more sound in the Avid on True Detective and its tools really help me to dress things up. I don’t use any special organizing routines in the bins. I simply highlight the director’s preferred takes; however, I do use locators and take a lot of handwritten notes.”

Film sensibilities in the modern digital era

Carol was literally the last film to be processed at Deluxe New York before the lab was shut down. In addition to a digital release, Technicolor also did a laser “film-out” to 35mm for a few release prints. All digital post-production was handled by Goldcrest Films, who scanned the Super 16mm negative on an ARRI laser scanner at 3K resolution for a 2K digital master. Goldcrest’s Boon Shin Ng handled the scanning and conforming of the film. Creating the evocative look of Carol fell to New York colorist John J. Dowdell III. Trained in photography before becoming a colorist in 1980, Dowdell has credits on over 200 theatrical and television films.

Unlike other films, Dowdell was involved earlier in the overall process. He explains, “Early on, I had a long meeting with Todd and Ed about the look of the film. Todd had put together a book of photographs and tear sheets that helped with the colors and fashions from the 1950s. While doing the color grading job, we’d often refer back to that book to establish the color palette for the film.” Carol has approximately 100 visual effects shots to help make Cincinnati look like New York, circa 1952-53. Dowdell continues, “Boon coordinated effects with Chris Haney, the visual effects producer. The ARRI scanner is pin-registered, which is essential for the work of the visual effects artists. We’d send them both log and color corrected files. They’d use the color corrected files to create a reference, preview LUT for their own use, but then send us back finished effects in log color space. These were integrated back into the film.”

Dowdell’s tool of choice is the Quantel Pablo Rio system, which incorporates color grading tools that match his photographic sensibilities. He says, “I tend not to rely as much on the standard lift/gamma/gain color wheels. That’s a video approach. Quantel includes a film curve, which I use a lot. It’s like an s-curve tool, but with a pivot point. I also use master density and RGB printer light controls. These are numeric and let you control the color very precisely, but also repeatably. That’s important as I was going through options with Todd and Ed. You could get back to an earlier setting. That’s much harder to do precisely with color wheels and trackball controls.”

The Quantel Pablo Rio is a complete editing and effects system as well, integrating the full power of Quantel’s legendary Paintbox. This permitted John Dowdell and Boon Schin Ng to handle some effects work within the grading suite. Dowdell continues, “With the paint and tracking functions, I could do a lot of retouching. For example, some modern elements, like newer style parking meters, were tracked, darkened and blurred, so that they didn’t draw attention. We removed some modern signs and also did digital clean-up, like painting out negative dirt that made it through the scan. Quantel does beautiful blow-ups, which was perfect for the minor reframing that we did on this film.”

The color grading toolset is often a Swiss Army Knife for the filmmaker, but in the end, it’s about the color. Dowdell concludes, “Todd and Ed worked a lot to evoke moods. In the opening department store scene, there’s a definite green cast that was added to let the audience feel that this is an unhappy time. As the story progresses, colors become more intense and alive toward the end of the film. We worked very intuitively to achieve the result and care was applied to each and every shot. We are all very proud of it. Of all the films I’ve color corrected, I feel that this is really my masterpiece.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Sicario

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Sicario is an emotional and suspenseful look into the dark side of the war on drugs as told by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners, Incendies). It teams a by-the-book FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) with an interagency task force led by CIA agent Matt (Josh Brolin). The shadowy mix of characters includes Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) – an enigmatic contractor working with Matt. As the special operation proceeds with increasingly extra-legal means, we learn that there’s more to Alejandro than meets the eye – part former crusading prosecutor and part hitman. Kate and the audience are forced to question the morality of whether the ends justify the means as told through an increasingly tense and suspenseful story.

From Wagner to Hollywood

The key to driving such a thriller is often the editor, which in this case was Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave, Hunger, Harry Brown). I had a chance to discuss Sicario with Walker as he took a break from cutting the next Villeneuve film, Story of Your Life. Walker’s road to Hollywood is different than many other top-level, feature film editors. While editors often play musical instruments as a hobby, Walker actually studied to be a classical composer in his native England.

df0416_sicario_7Walker explains, “It’s always been a hard choice between films and writing music. I remember when I was ten years old, I’d run 8mm films of the Keystone Cops at slow speed with Richard Wagner playing against it and kind of get depressed! So, these were twin interests of mine. I studied classical composing and balanced two careers of editing and composing up until the mid-2000s. I used my music degree to get a job with the BBC where I moved into assistant editor roles. The BBC is very cautious and it took me eleven years before finally being allowed to cut drama as an editor. This was all on 16mm film and then I moved into digital editing, first with Lightworks and later Avid. I always wanted to work on bigger films, but I felt there was a glass ceiling in England. Big studio films that came in would always bring their own editors. The big break for me was 12 Years a Slave, which provided the opportunity to move to Los Angeles.”

Controlling the story, characters and rhythm

df0416_sicario_6Sicario has a definite rhythm designed to build suspense. There are scenes that are slow but tense and others that are action-packed. Walker explains his philosophy on setting the pace, “Since working with Steve McQueen (director, 12 Years a Slave) I’ve been known for holding shots a long time to build tension. This is contrary to the usual approach, which says you build tension by an increasingly faster cutting pace. Sometimes if you hold a shot, there’s even more tension if the story supports it. I’ll even use the trick of invisible split screens in order to hold a take longer than the way it was originally shot. For example, the left side of one take might hold long enough, but something breaks on the right. I’ll pull the right side from a different take in order to extend the end of the complete shot.”

Another interesting aspect to Sicario is the sparseness of the musical score, in favor of sound design. Walker comments, “Music is in an abusive relationship with film. Putting on my composer hat, I don’t want to tell the audience what to think only by the music. It’s part of the composite. I try to cut without a temp score, because you have to know when it’s only the music that drives the emotion. I’ll even turn the sound down and cut it as if it was a silent movie, so that I can feel the rhythm visually. Then sound effects add another layer and finally music. In Sicario, I made use of a lot of walkie-talkie dialogue to fill in spaces – using them almost like a sound effect.  Jóhann Jóhannsson (composer, Prisoners, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher) was thrilled to get a clean output without someone else’s preconceived temp score, because it allowed him to start with a clean palette.”

df0416_sicario_3Editing shapes the characters. Walker says, “Taylor Sheridan’s script was fantastic, so I don’t want to do a disservice to him, but there was a continual process of paring down the dialogue and simplifying the story, which continued long into the edit. Benicio Del Toro’s character says very little and that helps keep him very mysterious. One of the biggest cuts we made in the edit was to eliminate the original opening scene, shot on the coast at Veracruz. In it, Alejandro (Del Toro) is interrogating a cop by holding his head underwater. He goes too far and kills him.  So he drags the lifeless body to the shore only to resuscitate him and begin the interrogation again. A strong and brutal scene, but one that told too much about Alejandro at the outset, rather than letting us – and Kate (Emily Blunt) – figure him out piece by piece. We needed to tell the story through Kate’s eyes. The film now starts with the hostage rescue raid, which better anchors the film on Kate.  And it’s not short of its own brutality. At the end of the scene we smash cut from a mutilated hand on the ground to Kate washing the blood out of her hair in the shower. This very violent beginning lets the audience know that anything could happen in this film.”

A carefully considered production

Sicario was produced for an estimated $31 million. While not exactly low budget, it was certainly modest for a film of this ambition. The majority of the film was shot in New Mexico over a 49-day period, starting in July of 2014. Final post was completed in March of this year. Roger Deakins (Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall), the film’s director of photography, relied on his digital camera of choice these days, the ARRI Alexa XT recording to ARRIRAW. The editorial team cut with transcoded Avid DNxHD media using two Avid Media Composer systems.

df0416_sicario_4Joe Walker continues, “This was a very carefully considered shoot. They spent a lot of effort working out shots to avoid overshooting. Most of the set-ups were in the final cut. They were also lucky with the weather. I cut the initial assembly in LA while they were shooting in New Mexico. The fine cut was done in Montreal with Denis for ten weeks and then back to LA for the final post. The edit really came together easily because of all the prep. Roger has to be one of our generation’s greatest cinematographers. Not only are his shots fantastic, but he has a mastery of sequence building, which is matched by Denis.”

“Ninety percent of the time the editorial team consisted of just my long-time first assistant Javier [Marcheselli] and me. The main focus of the edit was to streamline the storytelling and to be as muscular and rhythmic with the cutting as possible. We spent a lot of time focused on the delicate balance between how much we see the story through our central character’s eyes and how much we should let the story progress by itself.  One of the constructs that came out of the edit was to beef up the idea of surveillance by taking helicopter aerials of the desert and creating drone footage from it.  Javier is great with temp visual effects and I’m good with sound, so we’d split up duties that way.”

df0416_sicario_8“I’m happy that this was largely a single-camera production. Only a few shots were two-camera shots. Single-camera has the advantage that the editor can better review the footage. With multi-cam you might get four hours of dailies, which takes about seven hours to review. When are you left with time to cut? This makes it hard to build a relationship with the dailies. With a single-camera film, you have more time to really investigate the coverage. I like to mind-read what the direction was by charting the different nuances between takes.”

It shouldn’t matter what the knives are

Walker is a long-time Media Composer user. We wrapped up with a discussion about the tools of the trade. Walker says, “This was a small film compared to some, so we used two Avid workstations connected to Avid’s ISIS shared storage while in LA. It’s rock solid. In Montreal, there was a different brand of shared storage, which wasn’t nearly as solid as ISIS. On Michael Mann’s Blackhat, we sometimes had sixteen Avids connected to ISIS, so that’s pretty hard to beat. I really haven’t used other NLEs, like Final Cut, but Premiere is tempting. If anything, going back to Lightworks is even more intriguing to me. I really loved how intuitive the ‘paddles’ (the Lightworks flatbed-style Controller) were. But edit systems are like knives. You shouldn’t care what knives the chef used if the meal tastes good. Given the right story, I’d be happy to cut it on wet string.”

df0416_sicario_2The editing application isn’t Walker’s only go-to tool. He continues, “I wish Avid would include more improvements on the audio side of Media Composer. I often go to outside applications. One of my favorites is [UISoftware’s] MetaSynth, which lets me extend music. For instance, if a chord is held for one second, I can use MetaSynth to extend that hold for as much as ten, twenty seconds. This makes it easy to tailor music under a scene and it sounds completely natural. I also used it on Sicario to elongate some great screaming sounds in the scene where Alejandro is having a nightmare on the plane – they are nicely embedded into the sounds of the jet engines – we wanted the message to be subliminal.”

df0416_sicario_5Joe Walker is a fan of visual organization. He explains, “When I’m working with dailies, I usually don’t pre-edit select sequences for a scene unless it’s a humongous amount of coverage. Instead, I prefer to visually arrange the ‘tiles’ (thumbnail frames in the bin) in a way that makes it easier to tuck in. But I am a big fan of the scene wall. I write out 3” x 5” note cards for each scene with a short description of the essence of that scene on it. This is a great way to quickly see what that scene is all about and remind you of a character’s journey up to that point. When it comes time to re-order scenes, it’s often better to do that by shifting the cards on the wall first. If you try to do it in the software, you get bogged down in the logistics of making those edit changes. I’ll put the cards for deleted scenes off to the side, so a quick glance reminds me of what we’ve removed. It’s just something that works for me.  Denis has just spent the best part of a year turning words into pictures so he laughs at my wall and my reliance on it!”

(It’s also worth checking out Steve Hullfish’s excellent interview with Walker at his Art of the Cut column.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Steve Jobs

df0216_sj1_smIt’s challenging to condense the life of a complex individual into a two-hour-long film. So it’s no wonder that the filmmakers of Steve Jobs have earned both praise and criticism for their portrayal of the Apple co-founder. The real Steve Jobs generated differing emotions from those who knew him or those who viewed his life from the outside. To tackle that dilemma screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War) and director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later) set out to create a “painting instead of a photograph”.

Steve Jobs with Michael Fassbender in the central role uses a classic Shakespearean three-act structure, focusing on three key product launches. Act 1 depicts the unveiling of the first Macintosh computer (1984); Act 2 is the introduction of the NeXT computer (1988); Act 3 is the reveal of the original iMac (1998). These three acts cover the narrative arc of Jobs’ rise, humiliation/revenge, and his ultimate return to prominence at Apple. All of the action takes place backstage at these launch events, but is intercut with flashbacks. The emotional thread that ties the three acts together is Jobs’ relationship with his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs.

An action film of words

Aaron Sorkin’s scripts are known for their rapid fire dialogue and Steve Jobs is no exception. Clocking in at close to 190 script pages, the task of whittling that down to a two-hour movie fell to editor Elliot Graham (Milk, 21, Superman Returns). I recently spoke with Graham about how he connected with this project and some of the challenges the team faced. He explains, “I’ve been a fan of Danny’s and his regular editor wasn’t available to cut this film. So I reached out and met with them and I joined the team.”

Steve Jobs“When I read the script, I characterized it as an ‘action film of words.’ Early on we talked about the dialogue and the need to get to two hours. I’ve never talked about the film’s final length with a director at the start of the project, but we knew the information would come fast and we didn’t want the audience to feel pummeled. We needed to create a tide of energy from beginning to end that takes the viewer through this dialogue as these characters travel from room to room. It’s our responsibility to keep each entrance into a different room or hallway revelatory in some fashion – so that the viewer stays with the ideas and the language. Thank goodness we had sound recordist Lisa Pinero on hand – she really helped the cast stay true to the musicality of the writing. The script is full of intentional overlaps, and Danny didn’t want to stop them from happening. Lisa captured it so that I could edit it. We knew we wanted very little ADR in this film, so we let the actors play out the scene. That was pivotal in capturing Aaron’s language.”

“Each act is a little different, both in production design and in the format. [Director of photography] Alwin Küchler (Divergent, R.I.P.D., Hanna) filmed Act 1 on 16mm, Act 2 on 35mm, and Act 3 digitally with the ARRI Alexa. We also added visuals in the form of flashbacks and other intercutting to make it more cinematic. Danny would keep rolling past the normal end of a take and would get some great emotions from the actors that I could use elsewhere. Also when the audience arrives to take their seats at these launch events, Danny would record that, which gave us additional material to work with. In one scene with Jobs and Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Danny kept rolling on Kate after Michael left the room. In that moment we got an exquisite emotional performance from her that was never in the script. In another example, he got this great abstract close-up of Michael that we were able to use to intercut with the boardroom scene later. This really puts the audience into Steve’s head and is a pay-off for the revenge concept.”

Building structure

df0216_sj2Elliot Graham likes to make his initial cut tight and have a first presentation that’s reasonably finished. His first cut was approximately 147 minutes long compared with a final length of 117 minutes plus credits. He continues, “In the case of this film, cutting tight was beneficial, because we needed to know whether or not the pace would work. The good news is that this leaves you more time to experiment, because less time is spent in cutting it down for time. We needed to make sure the viewer would stay engaged, because the film is really three separate stories. To avoid the ‘stage play’ feeling and move from one act into the next, we added some interstitial visual elements to move between acts. In our experimenting and trimming, we opted to cut out part of the start of Act 2 and Act 3 and join the walking-talking dialogue ‘in progress.’ This becomes a bit of a montage, but it serves the purpose of quickly bringing the viewer along even though they might have to mentally fill in some of the gaps. That way it didn’t feel like Act 2 and Act 3 were the start of new films and kept the single narrative intact.”

“At the start, the only way to really ascertain the success of our efforts was to see Act 1, as close to screen-ready as we could come. So I put together an assemblage and Danny, the producers, and I viewed it. Not only did we want to see how it all worked together before moving on, we wanted to see that we had achieved the tone and quality we were after, because each act needed to feel completely different. And since Danny was shooting each piece a bit differently, I was cutting each one differently. For example, there’s a lot of energy, almost frenetic, to the camera movements in Act 1, plus it was shot on 16mm, so it gives it this cinema verité feel and harkens back to a less technically-savvy time. Act 2 has a more classical technique to it, so the cutting becomes a little slower in pacing. By getting a sense of what was working and maybe what wasn’t, it helped define how we were going to shoot the subsequent two acts and ensure we were creating an evolution for the character and the story. We would not have been able to do this if we had shot this film chronologically out of order, the way most features are.”

It’s common for a film’s scene structure to be re-arranged during the edit, but that’s harder to do with a film like Steve Jobs. There’s walking-talking dialogue that moves from one room to the next, which means the written script forces a certain linear progression. It’s a bit like the challenge faced in Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), except without the need to present the story as a continuous, single take. Graham says, “We did drop some scenes, but it was tricky, because you have to bridge the gap without people noticing. One of the scenes that was altered a lot from how it was written was the fight between John Scully (Jeff Daniels) and Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender). This scene runs about eleven minutes and Danny and I felt it lost momentum. So we spent about 48 hours recutting the scene. Instead of following the script literally, we followed the change in emotion of the actors’ performances. This led to a better emotional climax, which made the scene work.”

From San Francisco to London

df0216_sj4Steve Jobs was shot in San Francisco from January to April of this year and then post shifted to London from April until October. The editorial team worked with two Avid Media Composers connected to Avid ISIS shared storage. The film elements were scanned and then all media transcoded to Avid DNxHD for the editing team. Graham explains, “From the standpoint of the edit, it didn’t matter whether it was shot on film or digitally – the different formats didn’t change our workflow. But it was still exciting to have part of this on film, because that’s so rare these days. Danny likes a very collaborative process, so Aaron and the producers were all involved in reviewing the cuts and providing their creative input. As a director, Danny is very involved with the edit. He’d go home and review all the dailies again on DVD just to make sure we weren’t missing anything. This wasn’t an effects-heavy film like a superhero film, yet there were still several hundred visual effects. These were mostly clean-ups, like make-up fixes, boom removals, but also composites, like wall projections.”

Various film editors have differing attitudes about how much sound they include in their cut. For Elliot Graham it’s an essential part of the process. He says, “I love working with sound and temp music, because it changes your perception and affects how you approach the cut. For Steve Jobs, music was a huge part of the process from the beginning. Unlike other films, we received a lot of pieces of music from Daniel Pemberton (composer, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Cuban Fury, The Counselor) right at the start. He had composed a number of options based on his reading of the script. We tried different test pieces even before the shoot. Once some selections were made, Daniel gave us stems so that I could really tailor the music to the scene. This helped to define the flashbacks musically. The process was much more collaborative between the director and composer than on other films and it was a really unique way to work.”

Getting the emotion right

Elliot Graham joined the project after Michael Fassbender was signed to play Steve Jobs. Graham comments, “I’ve always thought Michael was a brilliant actor and I’d much rather have that to work with than someone who just looks like Jobs. Steve Wozniak (who is played by actor Seth Rogan in the film) watched the film several times and he commented that although the actual events were slightly different, the feeling behind what’s in the film was right. He’s said that to him, it was like seeing the real Steve.  So Michael was in some way capturing the essence of this guy.  I’m biased, of course, but Danny’s aim was to get the emotional approach right and I think he succeeded.”

“I’m a big Apple fan, so the whole process felt a bit strange – like I was in some sort of wonderful Charlie Kaufman wormhole. Here I was working on a Mac and using an iPhone to communicate while cutting a film about the first Mac and the person who so impacted the world through these innovations. I felt that by working on this film, I could understand Jobs just a little bit better. You get a sense of Jobs through his coming into contact with all of these people and his playing out whatever conflicts that existed. I think it’s more of a ‘why’ and ‘who’ story – rather than a point for point biography – why this person, whose impact on our lives is immeasurable, was the way he was. It’s my feeling that we were trying to look at his soul much more than track his life story.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Photo Phun 2015

df4315_pp15_52_sm

It’s holiday time again and a chance to take a break from serious talk about editing and the tools – sort of. I’ve done a version of this post for a few years. Usually I take a series of my photos and run them through Photoshop, Lightroom, or one of the other photography applications to create stylized treatments. This year, I figured, why not try it with Final Cut Pro X?

These images have all been processed in a custom FCP X timeline set to 2000 x 1500 pixels. I’ve used a wide range of filters, including some from the FxFactory partner family, Koji, the built-in FCP X effects, as well as my own Motion templates published over from Motion. Enjoy these as we go into the holiday season. See you in the new year!

Click any image to see a slideshow of these photos.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers 2015

df4215_stuff_smAs the year wraps up, it’s time to look at some of the items that might make an editor’s wish list.

Let me start out with some free items that can truly be useful. If you are a Logic Pro X user then this compilation of free audio plug-ins may be a good starting point. From EQs to amplifier simulation there are quite a few here to peruse. A lot of options are out for Final Cut Pro X users. I’ve created a set of Motion template effects that come in handy, as well as some color board presets. Idustrial Revolution, CoreMelt, and Alex4D have been good sources of free FCP X plug-ins, but an especially useful new one is the free XEffects audio fades package. These are simple drag-and-drop effects with preset fade durations.

Tracking has always been a high-end task, but CoreMelt now adds a free version to its SliceX product line. It’s still powered by mocha technology, but the masks are limited to ovals and rectangles. Nevertheless, this is still quite helpful in dealing with issues like facial tracking during color correction. Another useful FCP X tool is Role-O-Matic, currently at version 3. This is a batch renaming tool that will let you assign role names to multichannel audio files. If you work with a lot of sound files, then it’s a very handy item, especially when you need to pass the audio post along to a Pro Tools mixer.

Needless to say, the Grand Poobah of free is Blackmagic Design. Thanks to the acquisition of technology from EyeOn and DaVinci, Blackmagic is able to offer free versions of top-of-the-line color correction and compositing software. The base versions of Resolve and Fusion are nearly full-featured and available for both the Windows and Mac platforms. Resolve is being developed into a very capable NLE in addition to its color correction prowess. Fusion is a strong node-based compositor. The main difference between the free version and the $995 Studio version is that it adds advanced optical flow image analysis tools for stereo 3D, retiming, and stabilization. It also adds support for OpenFX plug-ins, network rendering, and multi-user collaboration.

I cover Noise Industries’ FxFactory often, because their development partners are so prolific in designing new and useful plug-ins for Apple and Adobe products. If you use FCP X in broadcast design and promotion, then these three products should be quite interesting to you. XEffects has developed two broadcast packages for Sports and News. I’ve previous written about the Sports Graphics package, but a new one is the News Graphics package. Both are highly customizable, since each package is a toolkit of common graphic elements used in broadcast design.

Although not specifically designed for broadcasters, a tool that helps round out these offerings is the first commercial product from Alex4DAnimation Transitions. This package is a series of transition effects for FCP X. These are drag-and-drop and when applied to connected clips, can add preset entry and exit effects. These can be tailored in a number of ways, including position and acceleration attributes. Before leaving FxFactory, let me also mention XLayers from Luca Visual FX. This is a series of effects and generators that can be used to stylize and composite video with geometric shapes. There are numerous ways to customize these effects with masks, colors, and blending modes.

A lot of the products I mentioned focus on FCP X. Don’t forget that there are many great tools for Premiere Pro editors. For example, it’s worth checking out my free Lumetri presets, which work with both Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC. The internal LUTs that come with the Premiere Pro CC Lumetri color controls are based on LookLabs’ SpeedLooks. Read my write up to understand how they work and be sure to check out some of their other products. Of course, it’s easy to integrate LUTs with any Premiere Pro timeline, so check out these LUT packages from Rocket Rooster, Osiris, and ImpulZ. My favorites remain the Koji Advance plug-in (with LUTs) and the FilmConvert package. Another great tool for Premiere Pro editor is PDFviewer from Primal Cuts. This lets you open and view a PDF – such as a script or storyboard – right inside the Premiere Pro UI.

Most editors use a variety of apps other than just their NLE of choice in order to encode, view, and otherwise deal with video. The default media player for many has been QuickTime Player, but a number of companies are developing great alternatives, as QuickTime continues to fade more into the background. One enjoying more development to keep up with Apple changes in media under the hood, is Digital Heaven’s Pro Player. This is designed as a full-featured player with JKL transport functionality and media info displayed right in the UI. A unique feature of Pro Player is gestural control. Using the mouse, you can scrub across the image in the viewer. The upper half enables shuttle while the lower half is for jog.

If you do a lot of encoding, then one of the best tools is Telestream’s Episode, which is now in version 7. Most users will be interested in either the base or the pro version. Both offer extensive format support and batch encoding functions, but Episode Pro adds support for MXF, GXF, MPEG-2/4 Transport Streams, image sequences, and multi-bitrate streaming formats. Common features in this update include support for 4K video, DNxHD/HR, JPEG2000 and DVCProHD.

©2015 Oliver Peters