Trusting Apple Displays?

In the “good old days” of post, directors, cinematographers, and clients would all judge final image quality in an online edit or color correction suite using a single, calibrated reference monitor. We’ve moved away from rooms that look like the bridge of the Enterprise into more minimalist set-ups. This is coupled with the current and possibly future work-from-home and general remote post experiences. Without everyone looking at the same reference display, it becomes increasingly difficult to be sure that what everyone sees is actually the proper appearance of the image. For some, clients rarely comes into the suite anymore. Instead, they are often making critical judgements based on what they see on their home or work computers and/or devices.

The lowest common denominator

Historically, a common item in most recording studios was a set of Auratone sound cubes. These small, single speaker monitors, which some mixers dubbed “awful-tones,” were intended to provide a representation of the mix as it would sound on radios and cheaper hi-fi audio set-ups. TV show re-recording mixers would also use these to check a mix in order to hear how it would translate to home TV sets.

Today, smart phones and tablets have become the video equivalent of that cheap hi-fi set-up. Generally that means Apple iPhones or iPads. In fact, thanks to Apple’s color management, videos played back on iPads and iPhones do approximate the correct look of your master file. As editors or colorists, we often ask clients to evaluate the image on an Apple device, not because they are perfect (they aren’t), but rather because they are the best of the many options out in the consumer space. In effect, checking against an iPhone has become the modern video analog of the Auratone sound cubes.

Apple color management

Apple’s color management includes several techniques that are helpful, but can also trip you up. If you are going to recommend that your clients use an iPhone, iPad, or even on iMac to judge the material, then you also want to make sure they have correctly set up their device. This also applies to you, the editor, if you are creating videos and only making judgements on an iMac (or XDR) display, without any actual external video (not computer) display.

Apple computers enable the use of different color profiles and the ability to make adjustments according to calibration. If you have a new iMac, then you are generally better off leaving the color profile set to the default iMac setting instead of fiddling with other profiles. New Apple device displays are set to P3 D65 color with a higher brightness capacity (up to 500 nits – more with XDR). You cannot expect them to perfectly reproduce an image that looks 100% like a Rec 709 100 nits TV set. But, they do get close.

I routinely edit/grade with Media Composer, Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, and Final Cut Pro on iMacs and iMac Pros. Of these four, only Final Cut Pro shows an image in the edit viewer window that is relatively close to the way that image appears on the video output to a monitor. This is thanks to Apple’s color management and the broader Apple hardware/software ecosystem. The viewer image for the other three may look darker, be more saturated, have richer reds, and/or show more contrast.

User control

Once you get past the color profile (Mac only), then most Apple devices offer two or three additional user controls (depending on OS version). Obviously there’s brightness, which can be manual or automatic. When set to automatic, the display will adjust brightness based on the ambient light. Generally auto will be fine, unless you really need to see crucial shadow detail. For example, the pluge portion of a test pattern (darkest gray patches) may not be discernible unless you crank up the brightness or are in a dark room.

The next two are gotchas. Along with the user interface dark mode, Apple introduced Night Shift and True Tone in an effort to reduce eye fatigue after long computer use. These are based on the theory that blue light from computer and device screens is fatiguing, harmful, and/or can impact sleep patterns. Such health concerns, as they relate to computer use, are not universally supported by the medical community.

Nevertheless, they do have a pleasing effect, because these features make the display warmer or cooler based on the time of day or the color temperature of the ambient light in the room. Typically the display will appear warmer at night or in a dimmer room. If you are working with a lot of white on the screen, such as working with documents, then these modes do feel more comfortable on your eyes (at least for me). However, your brain adjusts to the color temperature shift of the display when using something like True Tone. The screen doesn’t register in your mind as being obviously warm.

If you are doing anything that involves judging color, the LAST thing you want to use is True Tone or Night Shift. This applies to editing, color correction, art, photography, etc. It’s important to note that these settings only affect the way the image is displayed on the screen. They don’t actually change the image itself. Therefore, if you take a screen grab with True Tone or Night Shift set very cool or warm, the screen grab itself will still be neutral.

In my case, I leave these off for all of the computers I use, but I’m OK with leaving them on for my iPhone and iPad. However, this does mean I need to remember to turn the setting off whenever I use the iPhone or iPad to remotely judge videos. And there’s the rub. If you are telling your client to remotely judge a video using an Apple device – and color is part of that evaluation – then it’s imperative that you ask them (and maybe even teach them how) to turn off those settings. Unless they are familiar with the phenomena, the odds are that True Tone and/or Night Shift has been enabled on their device(s) and they’ve never thought twice about it simply because the mind adjusts.

QuickTime

QuickTime Player is the default media player for many professionals and end users, especially those using Macs. The way QuickTime displays a compatible file to the screen is determined by the color profile embedded into the file metadata. If I do a color correction session in Resolve, with the color management set to Rec 709 2.4 gamma (standard TV), then when I render a ProRes file, it will be encoded with a color profile of 1-2-1 (the 2 indicates 2.4 gamma).

If I export that same clip from Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro (or re-encode the Resolve export through one of those apps) the resulting ProRes now has a profile of 1-1-1. The difference through QuickTime Player is that the Resolve clip will look darker in the shadows than the clip exported from FCP or Premiere Pro. Yet both files are exactly the same. It’s merely how QuickTime player displays it to the screen based on the metadata. If I open both clips in different players, like Switch or VLC, which don’t use this same metadata, then they will both appear the same, without any gamma shift.

Client recommendations

How should one deal with such uncertainties? Obviously, it’s a lot easier to tackle when everyone is in the same room. Unfortunately, that’s a luxury that may become totally obsolete. It already has for many. Fortunately most people aren’t as sensitive to color issues as the typical editor, colorist, or DP. In my experience, people tend to have greater issues with the mix than they do with color purity. But that doesn’t preclude you from politely educating your client and making sure certain best practices are followed.

First, make sure that features like True Tone and Night Shift are disabled, so that a neutral image is being viewed. Second, if you use a review-and-approval service, like frame.io or Vimeo, then you can upload test chart image files (color bars, grayscale, etc). These may be used whenever you need to check the image with your client. Is the grayscale a neutral gray in appearance or is it warmer or cooler? Can you see separation in the darkest and brightest patches of these charts? Or are they all uniformly black or white? Knowing the answers will give you a better idea about what the client is seeing and how to guide them to change or improve their settings for more consistent results.

Finally, if their comments seem to relate to a QuickTime issue, then suggest using a different player, such as Switch (free with watermarks will suffice) or VLC.

The brain, eyes, and glasses

Some final considerations… No two people see colors in exactly the same way. Many people suffer from mild color blindness, i.e. color vision deficiencies. This means they may be more or less sensitive to shades of some colors. Eye glasses affect your eyesight. For example, many glasses, depending on the coatings and material, will yellow over time. I cannot use polycarbonate lenses, because I see chromatic aberration on highlights wearing this material, even though most opticians and other users don’t see that at all. CR-9 (optical plastic) or glass (no longer sold) are the only eyeglass materials that work for me.

If I’m on a flight in a window seat, then the eye closest to the window is being bombarded with a different color temperature of light than the eye towards the plane’s interior. This can be exacerbated with sunglasses. After extended exposure to such a differential, I can look at something neutral and when I close one eye or the other, I will see the image with a drastically different color temperature for one eye versus the other. This eventually normalizes itself, but it’s an interested situation.

The bottom line of such anecdotes is that people view things differently. The internet dress color question is an example of this. So when a client gives you color feedback that just doesn’t make sense to you, it might just be them and not their display!

Check out my follow-up article at PVC about dealing with color management in Adobe Premiere Pro.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Five Adobe Workflow Tips

Subscribers to Adobe Creative Cloud have a whole suite of creative tools at their fingertips. I believe most users often overlook some of the less promoted features. Here are five quick tips for your workflow. (Click on images to see an enlarged view.)

Camera Raw. Photographers know that the Adobe Camera Raw module is used to process camera raw images, such as .cr2 files. It’s a “develop” module that opens first when you import a camera raw file into Photoshop. It’s also used in Bridge and Lightroom. Many people use Photoshop for photo enhancement – working with the various filters and adjustment layer tools available. What may be overlooked is that you can use the Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop on any photo, even if the file is not raw, such as a JPEG or TIFF.

Select the layer containing the image and choose the Camera Raw Filter. This opens that image into this separate “develop” module. There you have all the photo and color enhancement tools in a single, comprehensive toolkit – the same as in Lightroom. Once you’re done and close the Camera Raw Filter, those adjustments are now “baked” into the image on that layer.

Remix. Audition is a powerful digital audio workstation application that many use in conjunction with Premiere Pro or separately for audio productions. One feature it has over Premiere Pro is the ability to use AI to automatically edit the length of music tracks. Let’s say you have a music track that’s 2:47 in length, but you want a :60 version to underscore a TV commercial. Yes, you could manually edit it, but Audition Remix turns this into an “automagic” task. This is especially useful for projects where you don’t need to have certain parts of the song time to specific visuals.

Open Audition, create a multitrack session, and place the music selection on any track in the timeline. Right-click the selection and enable Remix. Within the Remix dialogue box, set the target duration and parameters – for example, short versus long edits. Audition will calculate the number and location of edit points to seamlessly shorten the track to the approximate desired length.

Audition attempts to create edits at points that are musically logical. You won’t necessarily get an exact duration, since the value you entered is only a target. This is even more true with tracks that have a long musical fade-out. A little experimentation may be needed. For example, a target value of :59 will often yield significantly different results than a target of 1:02, thanks to the recalculation. Audition’s remix isn’t perfect, but will get you close enough that only minimal additional work is required. Once you are happy, bounce out the edited track for the shortened version to bring into Premiere Pro.

Photoshop Batch Processing. If you want to add interesting stylistic looks to a clip, then effects filters in Premiere Pro and/or After Effects usually fit the bill. Or you can go with expensive third party options like Continuum Complete or Sapphire from Boris FX. However, don’t forget Photoshop, which includes many stylized looks not offered in either of Adobe’s video applications, such as specific paint and brush filters. But, how do you apply those to a video clip?

The first step is to turn your clip into an image sequence using Adobe Media Encoder. Then open a representative frame in Photoshop to define the look. Create a Photoshop action using the filters and settings you desire. Save the action, but not the image. Then create a batch function to apply that stored action to the clean frames within the image sequence folder. The batch operation will automatically open each image, apply the effects, and save the stylized results to a new destination folder.

Open that new image sequence using any app that supports image sequences (including QuickTime) and save it as a ProRes (or other) movie file. Stylized effects, like oil paint, are applied to individual frames and will vary with the texture and lighting of each frame; therefore, the stitched movie will display an animated appearance to that effect.

After Effects for broadcast deliverables. After Effects is the proverbial Swiss Army knife for editors and designers. It’s my preferred conversion tool when I have 24p masters that need to be delivered as 60i broadcast files.

Import a 23.98 master and place it into a new composition. Scale, if needed (UHD to HD, for instance). Send to the Render Queue. Set the frame rate to 29.97, field render to Upper (for HD), and enable pulldown (any whole/split frame cadence is usually OK). Turn off Motion Blur and Frame Blending. Render for a proper interlaced broadcast deliverable file.

Photoshop motion graphics. One oft-ignored (or forgotten) feature of Photoshop is that you can do layer-based video animation and editing within. Essentially there’s a very rudimentary version of After Effects inside Photoshop. While you probably wouldn’t want to use it for video instead of using After Effects or Premiere Pro, Photoshop does have a value in creating animated lower thirds and other titles.

Photoshop provides much better text and graphic style options than Premiere Pro. The files are more lightweight than an After Effects comp on your Premiere timeline – or rendering animated ProRes 4444 movies. Since it’s still a Photoshop file (albeit a special version), the “edit in original” command opens the file in Photoshop for easy revisions. Let’s say you are working on a show that has 100 lower thirds that slide in and fade out. These can easily be prepped for the editor by the graphics department in Photoshop – no After Effects skills required.

Create a new file in Photoshop, turn on the timeline window, and add a new blank video layer. Add a still onto a layer for positioning reference, delete the video layer, and extend the layers and timeline to the desired length. Now build your text and graphic layers. Keyframe changes to opacity, position, and other settings for animation. Delete the reference image and save the file. This is now a keyable Photoshop file with embedded animation properties.

Import the Photoshop file into Premiere with Merged Layers. Add to your timeline. The style in Premiere should match the look created in Photoshop. It will animate based on the keyframe settings created in Photoshop.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers 2020

The end of the year is often  a good time to enhance your edit system with goodies. There are many cyber deals, plus the workload briefly slows enough to evaluate any changes that you need to make with your system. While not necessarily holiday specials, here are a few tools that caught my eye – or that I use regularly – and are worth checking out.

Boris FX Particle Illusion. This has been a component of the Continuum suite, but last summer Boris FX made Particle Illusion available as a free, standalone application for Mac and Windows systems. It’s a real-time, GPU-based, particle generator that comes with an emitter library of thousands of presets. These include a wide range of styles, including sci-fi effects, lightning, fireworks, sparkles, data streams, HUDs, and a ton more. Particle Illusion comes with its own layer-based composition window and timeline. Preset effects can be combined and modified to create unique effects, which may be exported as key-able elements. For example, I recently used it to create snowfall and snowflake animations in a virtual holiday performance video.

Yanobox Storm. Need some really cool animated backgrounds? Yanobox to the rescue with its new Storm generator. It’s available through the FxFactory platform for Final Cut Pro, Motion, Premiere Pro, and After Effects on Intel Macs. Like Particle Illusion, Storm features over 200 animated 3D presets and templates, including fire, organic fluid effects, fractals, and much more. Parameters are easily adjusted and performance is good even on older Macs. Storm is built around a self-contained rendering engine with beautiful shading, geometry, reflections, fractions, etc.

Color Finale LUTs. You’ve bought a bunch of LUTs, because you like the cool looks they offer. But it’s hard to deal with them across various LUT libraries and NLEs. The folks at Color Trix (makers of the Color Finale 2 grading solution for Final Cut Pro), have introduced Color Final LUTs. This is a standalone LUT management tool for the Mac. You can add and browse LUT collections within a single solution. The look of that LUT can be previewed using a default image or any reference images that’s you’ve added to the application. These can be manually added or via access to your Photos library. Color Finale LUTs integrates with Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, and DaVinci Resolve. Simply select the LUTs, designate the target NLE, and Color Finale LUTs will handle copying those LUTs into the proper folders.

BounceColor.  Speaking of LUTs, here’s a collection I recently became aware of. BounceColor offers a collection of creative and technical LUTs for a range of host applications in many looks and styles. Aside from the standard types of LUTs, BounceColor also offers cross-conversion LUTs. These include the usual camera log format to Rec 709, but also Blackmagic to ARRI Log-C. Finally, the BounceColor collections also include display LUTs, which are useful on location.

iZotope Holiday Bundle. Let’s not forget audio! All of the various audio filter plug-in developers offer cyber deals. Some, like Waves, seem to have perennial discounts on selected items. I’m a fan of iZotope’s products and have written about their tools, like Ozone and RX, in the past. Right now they are offering a Holiday Bundle, which is a collection of the Elements (“lite”) versions of four of their major bundles (Ozone, Nectar, Neutron, RX), plus some extras. Some of this won’t be useful for a video editor. The extras fall into what I would call “flash and trash” effects. Nectar can be useful for voice-overs, but Neutron is mainly geared around music instruments, not full mixes. However, editors will find that the RX effects (audio repair and clean-up), along with Ozone (mastering), may quickly because go-to items. Ozone Elements only includes three modules (EQ, imager, and maximizer), which is largely what you need on your master bus for some final mastering sweetness. Even though you might only use a few of the items in the bundle, the current price is still less than two of these products on their own, even at a discount. If the bundle is to your liking, I recommend going through an audio dealer, like Sweetwater, for a better online purchasing experience.

Enjoy!

©2020 Oliver Peters

CineMatch from FilmConvert

One of the many color correction challenges is matching dissimilar cameras used within the same production. This tends to be the case in many web, streaming, and non-scripted projects, where budgets and availability often dictate the mix of cameras to be used. I frequently end up with RED, ARRI, Panasonic, Sony, DJI, and GoPro cameras all in the same show. Most NLEs do include basic, albeit imperfect, shot-matching features. However, now several software developers are taking that challenge head on.

One such developer is New Zealand’s FilmConvert, developers of the FilmConvert Nitrate film emulation plug-in. Their newest product is CineMatch, a camera-matching plug-in that’s currently available for DaVinci Resolve and Premiere Pro – and coming to Final Cut Pro X in the future. As with Nitrate, CineMatch is a cross-platform plug-in that may be purchased for a specific NLE host or as a bundle license to cover all products.

The CineMatch concept is very straightforward. Most productions have a main or “hero” camera – typically designated as the A-camera. Then there are other cameras for cutaways and alternate angles – B-camera, C-camera, etc. The principle is to match the look of the B- and C-cameras to that of the A-camera.

Dealing with color science

Each camera manufacturer uses different color science for their products. Sony will have a distinctly different look from Canon or Panasonic. FilmConvert builds its plug-ins based on camera packs, which are each customized for a specific manufacturer and model in order to properly match that camera’s color science.

If you have a production that mixes a Sony FX9, an ARRI Amira, and a Panasonic GH5, then each uses a different camera pack. CineMatch is designed to work with Log/RAW/BRAW formats, so there are fewer packs available on the CineMatch site than on the Nitrate site. That’s because many of the prosumer cameras supported by Nitrate do not record in log and, therefore, wouldn’t be appropriate for CineMatch. Since CineMatch uses fewer camera packs, all currently-supported camera packs are included in the installer at this point in time.

The basics of matching

To start, disable any embedded LUT or remove any that you may have added. Next, apply the CineMatch effect to the clips on the timeline in Premiere Pro or as nodes in Resolve. On A-camera clips, set the appropriate source camera profile, but no target profile. For B-cams, C-cams, and other clips, set their source camera profile; however, set their target profile to match the A-camera source.

In a situation with an ALEXA A-cam and a Panasonic EVA1 as the B-cam, the ALEXA would only use the ALEXA source profile. The EVA1 would be set to the EVA1 source, but ALEXA as the target profile. Essentially you are moving all cameras into a color space matching the ARRI ALEXA Log-C color science.

To properly view the CineMatch output, apply the REC 709 transform. However, since CineMatch has converted all of these clips into a common log space, such as ARRI’s Log-C, you can also opt to leave this transform off within the clip filter and apply a conversion LUT at a different point, such as in an adjustment layer in Premiere Pro or as a timeline grading node in Resolve. This way, CineMatch is not limited to REC 709/SDR projects.

Additional color correction tools

Ideally the camera crew should have maintained proper and consistent exposure and white balance among cameras used on a common set-up. Even better if color charts have also been recorded at the start. In a perfect world, you’d now be done. Unfortunately, that’s never the case. You’ve unified the color space, but this doesn’t automatically match one clip to the next. CineMatch includes a comprehensive color correction toolkit to further match and adjust clips. There are white balance and exposure controls for quick adjustments.

If you use the split screen comparison view in Premiere Pro or Resolve, CineMatch HSL curves can be used to refine the match between source and target clips. As with Nitrate, there’s a full set of secondary color controls, including wheels, curves, and levels. Not only can you better match cameras to each other, but you can also use CineMatch to cover most basic grading needs without ever touching Resolve’s grading controls or Premiere’s Lumetri panel.

Working with CineMatch

Although this plug-in is marketed for camera matching, you can use it completely apart from that task. That’s primarily because of the camera packs. For example, when you film with a Panasonic GH5 in a log profile, no NLE offers a stock LUT that is correct for that camera. Generally you end up just correcting it without a LUT or applying a generic Panasonic V-Log LUT. That was designed for the Varicam’s color science and is not a perfect match for every other Panasonic camera. Close, but not spot-on. CineMatch lets you apply a correction that is tailor-made for each individual camera profile, thanks to FilmConvert’s development of a wide range of professional and prosumer camera packs.

The second advantage is that you can impart the look of other cameras. For example, I’m a fan of ARRI’s color science and really prefer the look of an ALEXA over most other cameras. I can apply CineMatch to a GH5 clip, set the source profile to GH5 and the target to ALEXA and impart a bit of that ARRI color to the GH5 clip. While it’s not a replacement for shooting with an ALEXA and the color conversion might not be absolutely perfect, it’s a nice adjustment that gives me a better image than working with that clip on its own.

Finally, if you own both CineMatch and FilmConvert Nitrate, it is possible to use the two in conjunction with each other. Just be very careful of the processes and their order. In the GH5/ALEXA example, make the profile conversion in CineMatch. Make no color adjustments there and don’t apply the REC 709 transform. Then add FilmConvert Nitrate, set its profile to the ARRI settings and make your film emulation and color adjustments to taste.

Original written for ProVideo Coalition.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer 2020

Avid Media Composer has been at the forefront of nonlinear, digital video editing for three decades. While most editors and audio mixers know Avid for Media Composer and Pro Tools, the company has grown considerably in that time. Whether by acquisition or internal development, Avid Technology encompasses such products as storage, live and post mixing consoles, newsroom software, broadcast graphics, asset management, and much more.

In spite of this diverse product line, Media Composer, as well as Pro Tools, continue to be the marquee products that define the brand. Use the term “Avid” and generally people understand that you are talking about Media Composer editing software. If you are an active Media Composer editor, then most of this article will be old news. But if you are new to Media Composer, read on.

The Media Composer heritage

Despite challenges from other NLEs, such as Final Cut Pro,  Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, and DaVinci Resolve, Media Composer continues to be the dominant NLE for television and feature film post around the world. Even in smaller broadcast markets and social media, it’s not a given that the other options are exclusively used. If you are new to the industry and intend to work in one of the major international media hubs, then knowing the Media Composer application is helpful and often required.

Media Composer software comes in four versions, ranging from Media Composer | First (free) up to Media Composer Enterprise. Most freelance editors will opt for one of the two middle options: Media Composer or Media Composer | Ultimate. Licenses may be “rented” via a subscription or bought as a perpetual license. The latter includes a year of support with a renewal at the end of that year. If you opt not to renew support, then your Media Composer software will be frozen at the last valid version issued within that year; but it will continue to work. No active internet connection or periodic sign-in is required to use Media Composer, so you could be off the grid for months and the software works just fine.

A Media Composer installation is full-featured, including effects, audio plug-ins, and background rendering software. Depending on the version, you may also receive loyalty offers (free) for additional software from third-party vendors, like Boris FX, NewBlueFX, iZotope, and Accusonus.

Avid only offers three add-on options for Media Composer itself: ScriptSync, PhraseFind, and Symphony. Media Composer already incorporates manual script-based editing. Plain text script documents can be imported into a special bin and clips aligned to sentences and paragraphs in that script. Synchronization has to be done manually to use this feature. The ScriptSync option saves time – automating the process by phonetically analyzing and syncing clips to the script text. Click on a script line and any corresponding takes can be played starting from that point within the scene.

The PhraseFind option is a phonetic search engine, based on the same technology as ScriptSync. It’s ideal for documentary and reality editors. PhraseFind automatically indexes the phonetics of the audio for your clips. Search by a word or phrase and all matching  instances will appear, regardless of actual spelling. You can dial in the sensitivity to find only the most accurate hits, or broader in cases where dialogue is hard to hear or heavily accented.

Media Composer includes good color correction, featuring wheels and curves. In fact, Avid had this long before other NLEs. The Symphony option expands the internal color correction with more capabilities, as well as a full color correction workflow. Grade clips by source, timeline, or both. Add vector-based secondary color correction and more. Symphony is not as powerful as Baselight or Resolve, but you avoid any issues associated with roundtrips to other applications. That’s why it dominates markets where turnaround time is critical, like finishing for non-scripted (“reality”) TV shows. A sequence from a Symphony-equipped Media Composer system can still be opened on another Media Composer workstation that does not have the Symphony option. Clips play fine (no “media offline” or “missing plug-in” screen); however, the editor cannot access or alter any of the color correction settings specific to Symphony.

Overhauling Media Composer

When Jeff Rosica took over as CEO of Avid Technology in 2018, the company embraced an effort to modernize Media Composer. Needless to say, that’s a challenge. Any workflow or user interface changes affect familiarity and muscle memory. This is made tougher in an application with a loyal, influential, and vocal customer base.  An additional complication for every software developer is keeping up with changes to the underlying operating system. Changes from Windows 7 to Windows 10, or from macOS High Sierra to Mojave to Catalina, all add their own peculiar speed bumps to the development roadmap.

For example, macOS Catalina is Apple’s first, full 64-bit operating system. Apple dropped any 32-bit QuickTime library components that were used by developers to support certain codecs. Of course, this change impacted Media Composer. Without Apple rewriting 64-bit versions of these legacy components, the alternative is for a developer to add their own support back into the application, which Avid has had to do. Unfortunately, this introduces some inevitable media compatibility issues between older and newer versions of Media Composer. Avid is not alone in this case.

Nevertheless, Media Composer changes aren’t just cosmetic, but also involve many “under the hood” improvements. These include a 32-bit float color pipeline, support for ACES projects, HDR support, dealing with new camera raw codecs, and the ability to read and write ProRes media on both macOS and Windows systems.

Avid Media Composer 2020.10

Avid bases its product version numbers by the year and month of release. Media Composer 2020.10 – the most recent version as of this writing – was just released. The versions prior to that were Media Composer 2020.9 and 2020.8, released in September and August respectively. But before that it was 2020.6 from June, skipping .7. (Some of the features that I will describe were introduced in earlier versions and are not necessarily new in 2020.10.)

Media Composer 2020.10 is fully compatible with macOS Catalina. Due to the need to shift to a 64-bit architecture, the AMA framework – used to access media using non-Avid codecs – has been revamped as UME (Universal Media Engine). Also the legacy Title Tool has been replaced with the 64-bit Titler+.

If you are a new Media Composer user or moving to a new computer, then several applications will be installed. In addition to the Media Composer application and its built-in plug-ins and codecs, the installer will add Avid Link to your computer. This is a software management tool to access your Avid account, update software, activate/deactivate licenses, search a marketplace, and interact with other users via a built-in social component.

The biggest difference for Premiere Pro, Resolve, or Final Cut Pro X users who are new to Media Composer is understanding the Avid approach to media. Yes, you can link to any compatible codec, add it to a bin, and edit directly with it – just like the others. But Avid is designed for and works best with optimized media.

This means transcoding the linked media to MXF-wrapped Avid DNxHD or HR media. This media can be OPatom (audio and video as separate files) or OP1a (interleaved audio/video files). It’s stored in an Avid MediaFiles folder located at the root level of the designated media volume. That’s essentially the exact same process adopted by Final Cut Pro X when media is transcoded and placed inside an FCPX Library file. The process for each enables a bullet-proof way to move project files and media around without breaking links to that media.

The second difference is that each Avid bin within the application is also a dedicated data file stored within the project folder on your hard drive. Bins can be individually locked (under application control). This facilitates multiple editors working in a collaborative environment. Adobe adopted an analog of this method in their new Adobe Productions feature.

The new user interface

Avid has always offered a highly customizable user interface. The new design, introduced in 2019, features bins, windows, and panels that can be docked, tabbed, or floated. Default workspaces have been streamlined, but you can also create your own. A unique feature compared to the competing NLEs is that open panes can be slid left or right to move them off of the active screen. They aren’t actually closed, but compacted into the side of the screen. Simply slide the edge inward again to reveal that pane.

One key to Avid’s success is that the keyboard layout, default workspaces, and timeline interactions tend to be better focused on the task of editing. You can get more done with fewer keystrokes. In all fairness, Final Cut Pro X also shares some of this, if you can get comfortable with their very different approach. My point is that the new Media Composer workspaces cover most of what I need and I don’t feel the need for a bunch of custom layouts. I also don’t feel the need to remap more levels of custom keyboard commands than what’s already there.

Media Composer for Premiere and Final Cut editors

My first recommendation is to invest in a custom Media Composer keyboard from LogicKeyboard or Editors Keys. Media Composer mapping is a bit different than the Final Cut “legacy” mapping that many NLEs offer. It’s worth learning the standard Media Composer layout. A keyboard with custom keycaps will be a big help.

My second recommendation is to learn all about Media Composer’s settings (found under Preferences and Settings). There are a LOT of them, which may seem daunting at first. Once you understand these settings, you can really customize the software just for you.

Getting started

Start by establishing a new project from the projects panel. Projects can be saved to any available drive and do not have to be in a folder at the root level. When you create a new project, you are setting the format for frame size, rate, and color space. All sequences created inside of this project will adhere to these settings. However, other sequences using different formats can be imported into any project.

Once you open a project, Media Composer follows a familiar layout of bins, timeline, and source/record windows. There are three normal bin views, plus script-based editing (if you use it): frame, column, and storyboard. In column view, you may create custom columns as needed. Clips can be sorted and filtered based on the criteria you pick. In the frame view, clips can be arranged in a freeform manner, which many film editors really like.

The layout works on single and dual-monitor set-ups. If you have two screens, it’s easy to spread out your bins on one screen in any manner you like. But if you only have one screen, you may want to switch to a single viewer mode, which then displays only the record side. Click a source clip from a bin and it open its own floating window. Mark in/out, make the edit, and close. I wish the viewer would toggle between source and record, but that’s not the case, yet

Sequences

Media Composer does not use stacked or tabbed sequences, but there is a history pulldown for quick access to recent sequences and/or source clips. Drag and load any sequence into the source window and toggle the timeline view between the source or the record side. This enables easy editing of portions from one sequence into another sequence.

Mono and stereo audio tracks are treated separately on the timeline. If you have a clip with left and right stereo audio on two separate channels (not interleaved), then these will cut to the timeline as two mono tracks with a default pan setting to the middle for each. You’ll need to pan these tracks back to left and right in the timeline. If you have a clip with interleaved, stereo audio, like a music cue, it will be edited to a new interleaved stereo track, with default stereo panning. You can’t mix interleaved stereo and mono content onto the same timeline track.

Effects

Unlike other NLEs, timeline clips are only modified when a specific effect is applied. When clips of a different format than the sequence format are cut to the timeline, a FrameFlex effect is automatically applied for transform and color space changes. There is no persistent Inspector or Effects Control panel. Instead you have to select a clip with an effect applied to it and open the effect mode editor. While this may seem more cumbersome, the advantage is that you won’t inadvertently change the settings of one clip thinking that another has been selected.

Media Composer installs a fair amount of video and audio plug-ins, but for more advanced effects, I recommend augmenting with BorisFX’s Continuum Complete or Sapphire. What is often overlooked is that Media Composer does include paint, masking, and tracking tools. And, if you work on stereo 3D projects, Avid was one of the first companies to integrate a stereoscopic toolkit into Media Composer

The audio plug-ins provide a useful collection of filters for video editors. These plug-ins come from the Pro Tools side of the company. Media Composer and Pro Tools use the AAX plug-in format; therefore, no AU or VST audio plug-ins will show up inside Media Composer.

Due to the 64-bit transition, Avid dropped the legacy Title Tool and Marquee titler, and rewrote a new Titler+. Honestly, it’s not as intuitive as it should be and took some time for me to warm up to it. Once you play with it, though, the controls are straight-forward. It includes roll and crawl options, along with keyframed moves and tracking. Unfortunately, there are no built-in graphics templates.

Trimming

When feature film editors are asked why they like Media Composer, the trim mode is frequently at the top of the list. The other NLEs offer advanced trimming modes, but none seems as intuitive to use as Avid’s. Granted, you don’t have to stick with the mouse to use them, but I definitely find it easier to trim by mouse in Premiere or Final Cut.

Trimming in Media Composer is geared towards fluid keyboard operation. I find that when I’m building up a sequence, my flow is completely different in Media Composer. Some will obviously prefer the others’ tools and, in fact, Media Composer’s smart keys enable mouse-based trimming, too. It’s certainly preference, but once you get comfortable with the flow and speed of Media Composer’s trim mode, it’s hard to go to something else.

Avid’s journey to modernize Media Composer has gone surprisingly well. If anything, the pace of feature enhancements might be too incremental for users wishing to see more radical changes. For now, there hasn’t been too much resistance from the old guard and new editors are indeed taking a fresh look. Whether you are cutting spots, social media, or indie features, you owe it to yourself to take an objective look at Media Composer as a viable editing option.

To get more familiar with Media Composer, check out Kevin P. McAuliffe’s Let’s Edit with Media Composer tutorial series on YouTube.

Originally written for Pro Video Coalition.

©2020 Oliver Peters