Autodesk Smoke 2015

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After NAB last year, Autodesk released Smoke 2015 – their Mac-based editing application. This version also marked Autodesk’s shift from perpetual licenses to a subscription model for Smoke. Any new Smoke users must subscribe for an active license, with monthly, quarterly, and annual plans available. In order to attract new users, Autodesk also introduced a free student license, which is active for three years. This is part of a companywide initiative to make all Autodesk software available to students worldwide.

df1015_smoke_2_smI wrote an in-depth review of Smoke 2013 two years ago. This was the first major optimization (after the introduction of Smoke 2011 for the Mac) to convert Smoke from the look and feel of its Irix and Linux roots into a predominantly Mac-oriented application. Much of Smoke 2015’s interface and operational style remains unchanged from that previous version. In the intervening two years, Autodesk has decided that Smoke and Flame no longer need to remain 100% compatible or locked into the same development cycle. Each product has evolved from a core toolset, but more and more is being designed for a specific audience and user need. Smoke 2015 is targeted at editors who want a strong compositor, but are most comfortable with track-based NLEs that run on Macs. This new release is even more Mac-friendly with improved performance on Mac hardware, including the new Mac Pros, iMacs and Retina MacBook Pros.

df1015_smoke_3_smThe hallmark of working with visual effects inside Smoke is the integration of a node-base compositing tool. That can also be the most daunting part of the learning curve for new users. Building on the 2013 version, Smoke 2015 has increased the amount of effects control that you can perform in the timeline, without touching any nodes. It uses a “ribbon” of common effects that can be applied to a clip and adjusted without ever leaving the timeline display. These consist of 14 effects modules that include most of the text, transform/DVE, color correction, and speed change effects commonly used by editors. For instance, you can apply a color correction to a clip or an adjustment layer, and then alter the look by numerical entry (keypad or mouse slider). You get a lot of correction control right within this ribbon, including access to master/highlight/mids/shadows and RGB/red/green/blue parameters. If you want more control with color wheels, then simply enter the effect editor to switch to that layout for the selected clip.

Smoke had included a third-party effects API (Sparks), but other than GenArts, never had many takers among the development community interested in rewriting their Sparks Linux plug-ins (originally developed for Flame and Smoke on Linux) into Mac versions for Smoke on the Mac. Not many users bought the ones that were available. As a result, Autodesk has moved away from this API for Smoke, even though the effects tab is still there. Instead, Autodesk engineers filled in the gaps through additional effects that now come with Smoke. The bottom line is that although there’s a Sparks tab in the ribbon, it’s a legacy item with no functionality without third-party plug-ins.

df1015_smoke_5_smSmoke has undergone a big performance improvement since its original Mac introduction. In the past, you could usually only play a timeline clip in real-time, when the clip had no more than a single effect applied to it. Add more effects and rendering was needed. Now it’s possible to apply several effects to a clip and still play through it without rendering. This is based on my testing on a 2009 8-core Mac Pro with 28GB of RAM and an ATI 5870 GPU card. To enable new users to adapt more quickly to complex composites and to add effects not supplied by third parties, Smoke 2015 includes a number of presets. For example, if you add a lens flare, there’s a wide range of preset styles accessible from a pulldown menu. When you set up a chromakey, you can start with a preset selection of nodes, designed to be a good starting point. Autodesk also added 3D camera tracking into Smoke 2015, which had been previously developed for Flame.

In an effort to position Smoke as a finishing tool that works well with Apple Final Cut Pro X, Autodesk has improved the compatibility with FCPXML lists generated from that application. While this works reasonably well, I did have problems relinking to clips with frame rates that differed from the main sequence rate. For example, 60fps clips from a Canon 5D that were cut into a 23.98fps timeline and slowed, did not properly relink when I imported the sequence into Smoke.

df1015_smoke_6_smOverall, Smoke 2015 is a good upgrade. With a subscription you get updates as they come out. Unfortunately, this process is not as easy as it is with Apple, Adobe, or even Avid products. My software went from SP1 (service pack) to SP2. When I tried to download SP2, I could only find SP3. I tried this version, but it was incompatible, because that was designed for legacy perpetual license owners. I finally got SP2 installed, but only through the help of tech support. On the plus side, I’ve found Autodesk’s support personnel to be very helpful and knowledgeable, when I’ve needed them.

Smoke does not support dual-display systems in the same way as its competitors. You can run the broadcast monitoring signal to a second display, which gives you full-screen video or a duplicate of the node tree in some modes; but, the user interface is not configurable across two screens like other NLEs. Smoke also accesses media differently than other NLEs, which conflicts with some of the Mac’s internal networking functions. I typically run with my internal Mac OS X firewall set to block all connections. This works fine with all creative applications, except Smoke. Set that way, all of the media is unlinked. Rather than reconfigure my settings to run Smoke (since my main use is for demo purposes), I simply turn off the internal firewall before launching Smoke.

df1015_smoke_4_smThe long-term success of the subscription software business model among creative applications is still an unknown. Adobe and Autodesk are primarily on the vanguard – with Avid offering it only as one option. Among users, it’s still a love/hate thing. It will take a few years yet to see whether or not it’s the right move. Nevertheless, if you have the business to justify the cost and want to stay current with a top-notch editor/compositor, then a Smoke subscription might be right for you. If you are serious about Smoke 2015, then I would highly recommend Alexis Van Hurkman’s book, “Autodesk Smoke Essentials”, which may be purchased through the Autodesk website, as well as from Amazon.com. It’s the ideal quick start guide for users committed to learning Smoke.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

FCP X Grading Strategy

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I’ve expounded on ways to tackle color grading in numerous posts. Recently in “Understanding SpeedGrade” I explained a workflow combining color grading tools with LUTs to create custom looks. In this post, I’m going to follow a similar process for FCP X users. (Note: This post was written before the release of FCP X 10.2. However, the fundamental items I discuss herein haven’t changed with the update. The main differences are that the Color Board has become a standard color correction effect and that all effects filters now have built-in masking.)

The approach I’m taking is using a creative LUT to define the overall look and then color correct individual clips for consistency.  A creative LUT should only be considered as spice, not as the main course. You can’t rely solely on the creative LUT for your shot. There is no “easy” button when grading shots on a timeline. In this example, I’m using one of the SpeedLooks LUTs from LookLabs. They offer a variety of styles from clean to stylized. To use any third-party LUT with FCP X, you have to use some plug-in that reads and applies LUTs as an effects filter. I use Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. Any .cube formatted LUT copied into its folder (located in the Motion Templates folder) will show up as a pulldown option when LUT Utility is applied to a clip in FCP X. (Click images to enlarge.)

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_11_smSpeedLooks LUTs are based on log or Rec 709 color space. If you have log footage and it has already been corrected to Rec 709, then you could simply use one of the Rec 709 versions. However, if you want to get the most out of their looks, then it’s best to shoot log and use a log-based LUT. Since log values vary among camera manufacturers, LookLabs designed their LUTs around a universal log value used within their LUT curves. To properly use one of their looks requires two stages of LUTs. The first stage is a camera patch, which shifts the video (by camera type) into LookLabs’ intermediate log space. They even include a patch for generic Rec 709 video. Once the first LUT has been applied, you may add the second LUT for the desired look. df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_12_smIn our grading strategy, the grading filters and/or tools are sandwiched between the first LUT (camera patch) and the second LUT (creative look).

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_2Step 1. For this example, I’m using ARRI Alexa footage that was encoded with a log-C gamma profile. FCP X has built-in LUT processing to convert these clips into Rec 709 color space. Disable that in the inspector for all clips. df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_3Assuming you have installed the LUTs into the correct template folder, apply LUT Utility to the first clip. From the pulldown menu select a camera patch LUT appropriate for the camera (in this case, Alexa log-C). Now copy-and-paste-attributes for just this filter to all clips on the timeline (assuming all clips use the same camera and gamma profile).df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_10

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_4Step 2. Add your preferred color correction effect to the clip. It will be stacked after the LUT Utility filter. I’m using Color Grade from Lawn Road’s Color Precision group. I like it because the controls are fast and I’ve grown fond of using exposure/contrast/temperature/tint controls in this type of grading. I could just as easily use one of the color wheel, color correction filters (Color Finale, Moods, Hawaiki Color, Colorista III) or even the FCP X Color Board. If the camera clips are reasonably consistent, the creative LUT you select is going to define the tonality of shadows and highlights, so there’s no reason to get carried away with big color balance changes in this grade.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_9Note: At this stage, you can copy-and-paste the Color Grade filter to all other clips or wait until later when you’ve actually started to make adjustments. If all shots are different, you might at well copy-and-paste now to have the filter in place with default starting values. If it’s a situation where you want to match the same cameras cutting back and forth – like A and B cameras in an interview – then you might opt to grade the first few clips and then copy-and-paste for the rest.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_5Step 4. Next it’s time to apply the creative LUT. Since you want to apply a single LUT across all clips, you’ll want to apply a blank, adjustment layer title effect as a connected clip. You can produce your own using Motion or download one of the free ones from the internet. The length of the adjustment layer should span the length of your timeline. To this title clip, add LUT Utility and select the desired SpeedLooks LUT (or any other you’ve added) from the pulldown menu. In this example, I used one of their Clean Kodak looks.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_7_smStep 5. I generally apply a slight vignette to most of my graded clips. This  is used to subtly darken the edge of the frame. FCP X won’t let you do this using a shape mask within the Color Board setting of a blank title, like the adjustment layer. (Note: This was corrected in 10.2. It is now possible to add a mask and color correction adjustment within an adjustment layer.) You will need to add a specific Vignette effect as another connected title. I’m using the Ripple Training RT Vignette in this example. Adjust the vignette’s size, shape, and darkening to taste. The RT Vignette lets you also blur of the edges and mix in an overall sepia toning to the clip as added features. I wouldn’t use these features as part of a standard vignette effect, but in some cases they might be appropriate.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_8_smStep 6. Finally! You’ve arrived. Now it’s time to do the real grade. Simply go clip by clip and only adjust the values of the Color Grade filter until you get the right look. Depending on the original shot and the way the LUT is being applied, part of what you are doing in this pass is adjusting the grade so that it looks optimum through the curves of the LUT. Generally you are working with smaller adjustments than without the LUT, since the creative LUT is doing most of the work to set your look.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer Goes 4K

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Avid Technology entered 2015 with a bang. The company closed out 2014 with the release of its Media Composer version 8.3 software, the first to enable higher resolution editing, including 2K, UHD and 4K projects. On January 16th of this year, Avid celebrated its relisting on the NASDAQ exchange by ringing the opening bell. Finally – as in most years – the Academy Awards nominee field is dominated by films that used either Media Composer and/or Pro Tools during the post-production process.

In a software landscape quickly shifting to rental (subscription) business models, Avid now offers the most flexible price model. Media Composer | Software may be purchased, rented, or managed through a floating licensing. If you purchase a perpetual license (you own the software), then an annually-renewed support contract gives you phone support and continued software updates. Opt out of the contract and you’ll still own the software you bought – you just lose any updates to newer software.

You can purchase other optional add-ons, like Symphony for advanced color correction. Unfortunately there’s still no resolution to the impasse between Avid and Nexidia. If you purchased ScriptSync or PhraseFind in the past, which rely on IP from Nexidia, then you can’t upgrade to version 8 or higher software and use those options. On the other hand, if you own an older version, such as Media Composer 7, and need to edit a project that requires a higher version, you can simply pick up a software subscription for the few months. This would let you run the latest software version for the time that it will take to complete that project.

df0915_avidmc83_1_smThe jump from Media Composer | Software 8.2 to 8.3 might seem minor, but in fact this was a huge update for Avid editors. It ushered in new, high-resolution project settings and capabilities, but also added a resolution-independent Avid codec – DNxHR. Not merely just the ability to edit in 4K, Media Composer now addresses most of the different 4K options that cover the TV and cinema variations, as well as new color spaces and frame rates. Need to edit 4K DCI Flat (3996×2160) at 48fps in DCI-P3 color space? Version 8.3 makes it possible. Although Avid introduced high-resolution editing in its flagship software much later than its competitors, it comes to the table with a well-designed upgrade that attempts to address the nuances of modern post.

df0915_avidmc83_2_smAnother new feature is LUT support. Media Composer has allowed users to add LUTs to source media for awhile now, but 8.3 adds a new LUT filter. Apply this to a top video track on your timeline and you can then add a user-supplied, film emulation (or any other type) look to all of your footage. There’s a new Proxy setting designed for work with high-resolution media. For example, switch your project settings to 1/4 or 1/16 resolution for better performance while editing with large files. Switch Proxy off and you are ready to render and output at full quality. As Media Composer becomes more capable of functioning as a finishing system, it has gained DPX image sequence file export via the Avid Image Sequencer, as well as export to Apple ProRes 4444 (Mac only).

df0915_avidmc83_4_smThis new high resolution architecture requires that the software increasingly shed itself of any remaining 32-bit parts in order to be compatible with modern versions of the Mac and Windows operating systems. Avid’s Title Tool still exists for legacy SD and HD projects, but higher resolutions will use NewBlue Titler Pro, which is included with Media Composer. It can, of course, also be used for all other titling.

There are plenty of new, but smaller features for the editor, such as a “quick filter” in the bin. Use it to quickly filter items to match the bin view to correspond with your filter text entry. The Avid “helper” applications of EDL Manager and FilmScribe have now been integrated inside Media Composer as the List Tool. This may be used to generate EDLs, Cut Lists and Change Lists.

df0915_avidmc83_3_smAvid is also a maker of video i/o hardware – Mojo DX and Nitris DX. While these will work to monitor higher resolution projects as downscaled HD, they won’t be updated to display native 4K output, for instance. Avid has qualifying AJA and Blackmagic Design hardware for use as 4K i/o. It is currently also qualifying BlueFish 444. If you work with a 4K computer display connected to your workstation, then the Full Screen mode enables 4K preview monitoring.

Avid Media Composer | Software version 8.3 is just the beginning of Avid’s entry into the high-resolution post-production niche. Throughout 2015, updates will further refine and enhance these new capabilities and expand high-resolution to other Avid products and solutions. Initial user feedback is that 8.3 is reasonably stable and performs well, which is good news for the high-end film and television world that continues to rely on Avid for post-production tools and solutions.

(Full disclosure: I have participated in the Avid Customer Association and chaired the Video Subcommittee of the Products and Solutions Council. This council provides user feedback to Avid product management to aid in future product development.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Understanding SpeedGrade

df1615_sg_1How you handle color correction depends on your temperament and level of expertise. Some editors want to stay within the NLE, so that editorial adjustments are easily made after grading. Others prefer the roundtrip to a powerful external application. When Adobe added the Direct Link conduit between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC, they gave Premiere Pro editors the best of both worlds.

Displays

df1615_sg_4SpeedGrade is a standalone grading application that was initially designed around an SDI feed from the GPU to a second monitor for your external video. After the Adobe acquisition, Mercury Transmit was eventually added, so you can run SpeedGrade with one display, two computer displays, or a computer display plus a broadcast monitor. With a single display, the video viewer is integrated into the interface. At home, I use two computer displays, so by enabling a dual display layout, I get the SpeedGrade interface on one screen and the full-screen video viewer on the other. To do this you have to correctly offset the pixel dimensions and position for the secondary display in order to see it. Otherwise the image is hidden behind the interface.

Using Mercury Transmit, the viewer image is sent to an external monitor, but you’ll need an appropriate capture/monitoring card or device. AJA products seem to work fine. Some Blackmagic devices work and others don’t. When this works, you will lose the viewer from the interface, so it’s best to have the external display close – as in next to your interface monitor.

Timeline

df1615_sg_3When you use Direct Link, you are actually sending the Premiere Pro timeline to SpeedGrade. This means that edits and timeline video layers are determined by Premiere Pro and those editing functions are disabled in SpeedGrade. It IS the Premiere Pro timeline. This means certain formats that might not be natively supported by a standalone SpeedGrade project will be supported via the Direct Link path – as long as Premiere Pro natively supports them.

There is a symbiotic relationship between Premiere Pro and SpeedGrade. For example, I worked on a music video that was edited natively using RED camera media. The editor had done a lot of reframing from the native 4K media in the 1080 timeline. All of this geometry was correctly interpreted by SpeedGrade. When I compared the same sequence in Resolve (using an XML roundtrip), the geometry was all wrong. SpeedGrade doesn’t give you access to the camera raw settings for the .r3d media, but Premiere Pro does. So in this case, I adjusted the camera raw values by using the source settings control in Premiere Pro, which then carried those adjustments over to SpeedGrade.

df1615_sg_2Since the Premiere Pro timeline is the SpeedGrade timeline when you use Direct Link, you can add elements into the sequence from Premiere, in order to make them available in SpeedGrade. Let’s say you want to add a common edge vignette across all the clips of your sequence. Simply add an adjustment layer to a top track while in Premiere. This appears in your SpeedGrade timeline, enabling you to add a mask and correction within the adjustment layer clip. In addition, any video effects filters that you’ve applied in Premiere will show up in SpeedGrade. You don’t have access to the controls, but you will see the results interactively as you make color correction adjustments.

df1615_sg_17All SpeedGrade color correction values are applied to the clip as a single Lumetri effect when you send the timeline back to Premiere Pro. All grading layers are collapsed into a single composite effect per clip, which appears in the clip’s effect stack (in Premiere Pro) along with all other filters. In this way you can easily trim edit points without regard to the color correction. Traditional roundtrips render new media with baked-in color correction values. There, you can only work within the boundaries of the handles that you’ve added to the file upon rendering. df1615_sg_16Not so with Direct Link, since color correction is like any other effect applied to the original media. Any editorial changes you’ve made in Premiere Pro are reflected in SpeedGrade should you go back for tweaks, as long as you continue to use Direct Link.

12-way and more

df1615_sg_5Most editors are familiar with 3-way color correctors that have level and balance controls for shadows, midrange and highlights. Many refer to SpeedGrade’s color correction model as a 12-way color corrector. The grading interface features a 3-way (lift/gamma/gain) control for four ranges of correction: overall, shadows, midrange, and highlights. Each tab also adds control of contrast, pivot, color temperature, magenta (tint), and saturation. Since shadow, midrange, and highlight ranges overlap, you also have sliders that adjust the overlap thresholds between shadow and midrange and between the midrange and highlight areas.

df1615_sg_7Color correction is layer based – similar to Photoshop or After Effects. SpeedGrade features primary (“P”) , secondary (“S”) and filter layers (the “+” symbol). When you add layers, they are stacked from bottom to top and each layer includes an opacity control. As such, layers work much the same as rooms in Apple Color or nodes in DaVinci Resolve. You can create a multi-layered adjustment by using a series of stacked primary layers. Shape masks, like that for a vignette, should be applied to a primary layer. df1615_sg_10The mask may be normal or inverted so that the correction is applied either to the inside or the outside of the mask. Secondaries should be reserved for HSL keys. For instance, highlighting the skin tones of a face to adjust its color separately from the rest of the image. The filter layer (“+”) is where you’ll find a number of useful tools, including Photoshop-style creative effect filters, LUTs, and curves.

Working with grades

df1615_sg_13The application of color correction can be applied to a clip as either a master clip correction or just a clip correction (or both). When you grade using the default clip tab, then that color correction is only being applied to that single clip. If you grade in the master clip tab, then any color correction that you apply to that clip will also be applied to every other instance of that same media file elsewhere on the timeline. Theoretically, in a multicam edit – made up of four cameras with a single media file per camera – you could grade the entire timeline by simply color correcting the first clip for each of the four cameras as a master clip correction. All other clips would automatically inherit the same settings. Of course, that almost never works out quite as perfectly, therefore, you can grade a clip using both the master clip and the regular clip tabs. Use the master for a general setting and still use the regular clip tab to tweak each shot as needed.

df1615_sg_9Grades can be saved and recalled as Lumetri Looks, but typically these aren’t as useful in actual grading as standard copy-and-paste functions – a recent addition to SpeedGrade CC. Simply highlight one or more layers of a graded clip and press copy (cmd+c on a Mac). Then paste (cmd+v on a Mac) those to the target clip. These will be pasted in a stack on top of the default, blank primary correction that’s there on every clip. You can choose to use, ignore, or delete this extra primary layer.

SpeedGrade features a cool trick to facilitate shot matching. The timeline playhead can be broken out into multiple playheads, which will enable you to compare two or more shots in real-time on the viewer. This quick comparison lets you make adjustments to each to get a closer match in context with the surrounding shots.

A grading workflow

df1615_sg_14Everyone has their own approach to grading and these days there’s a lot of focus on camera and creative LUTs. My suggestions for prepping a Premiere Pro CC sequence for SpeedGrade CC go something like this.

df1615_sg_6Once, you are largely done with the editing, collapse all multicam clips and flatten the timeline as much as possible down to the bottom video layer. Add one or two video tracks with adjustment layers, depending on what you want to do in the grade. These should be above the last video layer. All graphics – like lower thirds – should be on tracks above the adjustment layer tracks. This is assuming that you don’t want to include these in the color correction. Now duplicate the sequence and delete the tracks with the graphics from the dupe. Send the dupe to SpeedGrade CC via Direct Link.

In SpeedGrade, ignore the first primary layer and add a filter layer (“+”) above it. Select a camera patch LUT. For example, an ARRI Log-C-to-Rec-709 LUT for Log-C gamma-encoded Alexa footage. Repeat this for every clip from the same camera type. If you intend to use a creative LUT, like one of the SpeedLooks from LookLabs, you’ll need one of their camera patches. This shifts the camera video into a unified gamma profile optimized for their creative LUTs. If all of the footage used in the timeline came from the same camera and used the same gamma profile, then in the case of SpeedLooks, you could apply the creative LUT to one the adjustment layer clips. This will apply that LUT to everything in the sequence.

df1615_sg_8Once you’ve applied input and output LUTs you can grade each clip as you’d like, using primary and secondary layers. Use filter layers for curves. Any order and any number of layers per clip is fine. Using this methodology all grading is happening between the camera patch LUT and the creative LUT added to the adjustment layer track. Finally, if you want a soft edge vignette on all clips, apply an edge mask to the default primary layer of the topmost adjustment layer clip. Adjust the size, shape, and softness of the mask. Darken the outside of the mask area. Done.df1615_sg_11

(Note that not every camera uses logarithmic gamma encoding, nor do you want to use LUTs on every project. These are the “icing on the cake”, NOT the “meat and potatoes” of grading. If your sequence is a standard correction without any stylized creative looks, then ignore the LUT procedures I described above.)

df1615_sg_15Now simply send your timeline back to Premiere Pro (the “Pr” button). Back in Premiere Pro CC, duplicate that sequence. Copy-and-paste the graphics tracks from the original sequence to the available blank tracks of the copy. When done, you’ll have three sequences: 1) non-color corrected with graphics, 2) color corrected without graphics, and 3) final with color correction and graphics. The beauty of the Direct Link path between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC is that you can easily go back and forth for changes without ever being locked in at any point in the process.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Sorenson Squeeze 10

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Video formats don’t hold still for long and neither do video codecs used for file encoding. As the industry looks at 4K delivery over the web and internet-based television streaming services, we now get more codecs to consider, too. Target delivery had seemed to settle on H.264 and MPEG-2 for awhile, but now there’s growing interest in HEVC/H.265 and VP9, thanks to their improved encoding efficiency. Greater efficiency means that you can maintain image quality in 4K files without creating inordinately large file sizes. Sorenson Media’s Squeeze application has been an industrial strength encoding utility that many pros rely on. With the release of Sorenson Squeeze 10, pros have a new tool designed to accommodate the new, beyond-HD resolutions that are in our future.

df0415_sqz10_5_smSorenson Squeeze comes in server and desktop versions. Squeeze Desktop 10 includes three variations: Lite, Standard and Pro. Squeeze Lite covers a wide range of input formats, but video output is limited to FLV, M4V, MP4 and WebM formats. Essentially, Lite is designed for users who primarily need to encode files for use on the web. Desktop Standard adds VP9 and Multi-Rate Bundle Encoding. The latter creates a package with multiple files of different bitrates, which is a configuration used by many web streaming services. Standard also includes 4K presets (H.264 only) and a wide range of output codecs. The Pro version adds support for HEVC, professional decoding and encoding of Avid DNxHD and Apple ProRes (Mac only), and closed caption insertion.df0415_sqz10_1_sm

All three models have added what Sorenson calls Simple Format Conversion. This is a preset available in some of the format folders. The source size, frame rate, and quality are maintained, but the file is converted into the target media format. It’s available for MP4/WebM with Lite, and MP4/MOV/MKV with Standard and Pro. Squeeze is supposed to take advantage of CUDA acceleration when you have certain NVIDIA cards installed, which accelerates MainConcept H.264/AVC encoding. I have a Quadro 4000 with the latest CUDA drivers installed in my Mac Pro running Yosemite (10.10.1). Unfortunately Squeeze Pro 10 doesn’t recognize the driver as a valid CUDA driver. When I asked Sorenson about this, they explained that MainConcept has dropped CUDA support for the MainConcept H.264 codec. “It will not support the latest cards and drivers. If you do use the CUDA feature you will likely see little-to-no speedup, maybe even a speed decrease, and your output video will have decreased quality compared to H.264 encoded with the CPU.”

df0415_sqz10_2_smAs a test, I took a short (:06) 4096×2160 clip that was shot on a Canon EOS 1DC camera. It was recorded using the QuickTime Photo-JPEG codec and is 402MB large. I’m running a 2009 8-core Mac Pro (2.26GHz), 28 GB RAM and the Quadro 4000 card. To encode, I picked the default Squeeze HEVC 4K preset. It encodes using a 1-pass variable bitrate at a target rate of 18,000Kbps. It also resizes to a UHD size of 3840×2160; however, it is set to maintain the same aspect ratio, so the resulting file was actually 3840×2024. Of course, the preset’s values can be edited to suit your requirements.

It took 3:32 (min/sec) to encode the file with the HEVC/H.265 codec and the resulting size was 13MB. I compared this to an encode using the H.264 preset, which uses the same values. It encoded in 1:43 and resulted in a 14.2MB file. Both files are wrapped as .MP4 files, but I honestly couldn’t tell much difference in quality between the two codecs. They both looked good. Unfortunately there aren’t many players that will decode and play the HEVC codec yet – at least not on the Mac. To play the HEVC file, I used an updated version of VLC, which includes an HEVC component. Of course, most machines aren’t yet optimized for this new codec.

df0415_sqz10_3_smOther features of Squeeze aren’t new, but are still worth mentioning. For example, the presets are grouped in two ways – by format and workflow. Favorites can be assigned for quick access to the few presets that you might use most often. Squeeze enables direct capture from a camera input or batch encoding of files in a monitored watch folder. In addition to video, various audio formats can also be exported.

Encoding presets can include a number of built-in filters, as well as any VST audio plug-in installed on your computer. Finally, you can add publishing destinations, including YouTube, Akamai, Limelight and Amazon S3 locations. Another publishing location is Squeeze Stream, the free account included with a purchase of Squeeze (Standard or Pro versions only). Thanks to all of these capabilities, Sorenson Media’s Squeeze Desktop 10 will continue to be the tool many editors choose for professional encoding.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Preparing Digital Camera Files

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The modern direction in file-based post production workflows is to keep your camera files native throughout the enter pipeline. While this might work within a closed loop, like a self-contained Avid, Adobe or Apple workflow, it breaks down when you have to move your project across multiple applications. It’s common for an editor to send files to a Pro Tools studio for the final mix and to a colorist running Resolve, Baselight, etc. for the final grade. In doing so, you have to ensure that editorial decisions aren’t incorrectly translated in the process, because the NLE might handle a native camera format differently than the mixer’s or colorist’s tool. To keep the process solid, I’ve developed some disciplines in how I like to handle media. The applications I mention are for Mac OS, but most of these companies offer Windows versions, too. If not, you can easily find equivalents.

Copying media

df0815_media_6_smThe first step is to get the media from the camera cards to a reliable hard drive. It’s preferable to have at least two copies (from the location) and to make the copies using software that verifies the back-up. This is a process often done on location by the lowly “data wrangler” under less than ideal conditions. A number of applications, such as Imagine Products’ ShotPut Pro and Adobe Prelude let you do this task, but my current favorite is Red Giant’s Offload. It uses a dirt simple interface permitting one source and two target locations. It has the sole purpose of safely transferring media with no other frills.

Processing media on location

df0815_media_5_smWith the practice of shooting footage with a flat-looking log gamma profile, many productions like to also see the final, adjusted look on location. This often involves some on-site color grading to create either a temporary look or even the final look. Usually this task falls to a DIT (digital imaging technician). Several applications are available, including DaVinci Resolve, Pomfort Silverstack and Redcine-X Pro. Some new applications, specifically designed for field use, include Red Giant’s BulletProof and Catalyst Browse/Prepare from Sony Creative Software. Catalyst Browse in free and designed for all Sony cameras, whereas Catalyst Prepare is a paid application that covers Sony cameras, but also other brands, including Canon and GoPro. Depending on the application, these tools may be used to add color correction, organize the media, transcode file formats, and even prepare simple rough assemblies of selected footage.

All of these tools add a lot of power, but frankly, I’d prefer that the production company leave these tasks up to the editorial team and allow more time in post. In my testing, most of the aforementioned apps work as advertised; however, BulletProof continues to have issues with the proper handling of timecode.

Transcoding media

df0815_media_2_smI’m not a big believer in always using native media for the edit, unless you are in a fast turnaround situation. To get the maximum advantage for interchanging files between applications, it is ideal to end up in one of several common media formats, if that isn’t how the original footage was recorded. You also want every file to have unique and consistent metadata, including file names, reel IDs and timecode. The easiest common media format is QuickTime using the .mov wrapper and encoded using either Apple ProRes, Panasonic AVC-Intra, Sony XDCAM, or Avid DNxHD codecs. These are generally readable in most applications running on Mac or PC. My preference is to first convert all files into QuickTime using one of these codecs, if they originated as something else. That’s because the file is relatively malleable at that point and doesn’t require a rigid external folder structure.

Applications like BulletProof and Catalyst can transcode camera files into another format. Of course, there are dedicated batch encoders like Sorenson Squeeze, Apple Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder and Telestream Episode. My personal choice for a tool to transcode camera media is either MPEG Streamclip (free) or Divergent Media’s EditReady. Both feature easy-to-use batch processing interfaces, but EditReady adds the ability to apply LUTs, change file names and export to multiple targets. It also reads formats that MPEG Streamclip doesn’t, such as C300 files (Canon XF codec wrapped as .mxf). If you want to generate a clean master copy preserving the log gamma profile, as well as a second lower resolution editorial file with a LUT applied, then EditReady is the right application.

Altering your media

df0815_media_3_smI will go to extra lengths to make sure that files have proper names, timecode and source/tape/reel ID metadata. Most professional video cameras will correctly embed that information. Others, like the Canon 5D Mark III, might encode a non-standard timecode format, allow duplicated file names, and not add reel IDs.

Once the media has been transcoded, I will use two applications to adjust the file metadata. For timecode, I rely on VideoToolShed’s QtChange. This application lets you alter QuickTime files in a number of ways, but I primarily use it to strip off unnecessary audio tracks and bad timecode. Then I use it to embed proper reel IDs and timecode. Because it does this by altering header information, processing a lot of files happens quickly. The second tool in this mix is Better Rename, which is batch renaming utility. I use it frequently for adding, deleting or changing all or part of the file name for a batch of files. For instance, I might append a production job number to the front of a set of Canon 5D files. The point in doing all of this is so that you can easily locate the exact same point within any file using any application, even several years apart.

df0815_media_1_smSpeed is a special condition. Most NLEs handle files with mixed frame rates within the same project and sequences, but often such timelines do not correctly translate from one piece of software to the next. Edit lists are interchanged using EDL, XML, FCPXML and AAF formats and each company has its own variation of the format that they use. Some formats, like FCPXML, require third party utilities to translate the list, adding another variable. Round-tripping, such as going from NLE “A” (for offline) to Color Correction System “B” (for grading) and then to NLE “C” (for finishing), often involves several translations. Apart from effects, speed differences in native camera files can be a huge problem.

A common mixed frame rate situation in the edit is combining 23.98fps and 29.97fps footage. If both of these were intended to run in real-time, then it’s usually OK. However, if the footage was recorded with the intent to overcrank for slomo (59.94 or 29.97 native for a timebase of 23.98) then you start to run into issues. As long as the camera properly flags the file, so that every application plays it at the proper timebase (slowed), then things are fine. This isn’t true of DSLRs, where you might shoot 720p/59.94 for use as slomo in a 1080p/29.97 or 23.98 sequence. With these files, my recommendation is to alter the speed of the file first, before using it inside the NLE. One way to do this is to use Apple Cinema Tools (part of the defunct Final Cut Studio package, but can still be found). You can batch-conform a set of 59.94fps files to play natively at 23.98fps in very short order. This should be done BEFORE adding any timecode with QtChange. Remember that any audio will have its sample rate shifted, which I’ve found to be a problem with FCP X. Therefore, when you do this, also strip off the audio tracks using QtChange. They play slow anyway and so are useless in most cases where you want overcranked, slow motion files.

Audio in your NLE

The last point to understand is that not all NLEs deal with audio tracks in the same fashion. Often camera files are recorded with multiple mono audio sources, such as a boom and a lav mic on channels 1 and 2. These may be interpreted either as stereo or as dual mono, depending on the NLE. Premiere Pro CC in particular sees these as stereo when imported. If you edit them to the timeline as a single stereo track, you will not be able to correct this in the sequence afterwards by panning. Therefore, it’s important to remember to first set-up your camera files with a dual mono channel assignment before making the first edit. This same issue crops up when round-tripping files through Resolve. It may not properly handle audio, depending on how it interprets these files, so be careful.

These steps add a bit more time at the front end of any given edit, but are guaranteed to give you a better editing experience on complex projects. The results will be easier interchange between applications and more reliable relinking. Finally, when you revisit a project a year or more down the road, everything should pop back up, right where you left it.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Camerama 2015

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The design of a modern digital video camera comes down to the physics of the sensor and shutter, the software to control colorimetry and smart industrial design to optimize the ergonomics for the operator. Couple that with a powerful internal processor and recording mechanism and you are on your way. Although not exactly easy, these traits no longer require skills that are limited to the traditional camera manufacturers. As a result, innovative new cameras have been popping up from many unlikely sources.

df0715_cionThe newest of these is AJA, which delivered the biggest surprise of NAB 2014 in the form of their CION 4K/UltraHD/2K/HD digital camera. Capitalizing on a trend started by ARRI, the CION records directly to the edit-ready Apple ProRes format, using AJA Pak solid state media. The CION features a 4K APS-C sized CMOS sensor with a global shutter to eliminate rolling-shutter artifacts. AJA claims 12 stops of dynamic range and uses a PL mount for lenses designed for Super 35mm. The CION is also capable of outputting AJA camera raw at frame rates up to 120fps.  It can send out 4K or UHD video from its four 3G-SDI outputs to the AJA Corvid Ultra for replay and center extraction during live events.

df0715_alexaThe darling of the film and high-end television world continues to be ARRI Digital with its line of ALEXA cameras. These now include the Classic, XT, XT Plus, XT M and XT Studio configurations. They vary based on features and sensor size. The Classic cameras have a maximum active sensor photosite size of 2880 x 2160, while the XT models go as high as 3414 x 2198. Another difference is that the XT models allow in-camera recording of ARRIRAW media. The ALEXA introduced ProRes recording and all current XT models permit Apple ProRes and Avid DNxHD recording.

df0715_amiraThe ALEXA has been joined by the newer, lighter AMIRA, which is targeted at documentary-style shooting with smaller crews. The AMIRA is tiered into three versions, with the Premium model offering 2K recording in all ProRes flavors at up to 200fps. ARRI has added 4K capabilities to both the ALEXA and AMIRA line by utilizing the full sensor size using their Open Gate mode. In the Amira, this 3.4K image is internally scaled by a factor of 1.2 to record a UHD file at up to 60fps to its in-camera CFast 2.0 cards. The ALEXA uses a similar technique, but only records the 3.4K signal in-camera, with scaling to be done later in post.

df0715_alexa65To leapfrog the competition, ARRI also introduced its ALEXA 65, which is available through the ARRI Rental division. This camera is a scaled up version of the ALEXA XT and uses a sensor that is larger than a 5-perf 65mm film frame. That’s an Open Gate resolution of 6560 x 3102 photosites. The signal is captured as uncompressed ARRIRAW. Currently the media is recorded on ALEXA XR Capture drives at a maximum frame rate of 27fps.

df0715_bmd_cc_rear_lBlackmagic Design had been the most unexpected camera developer a few years ago, but has since grown its DSLR-style camera line into four models: Studio, Production 4K, Cinema and Pocket Cinema. These vary in cosmetic style and size, which formats they are able to record and the lens mounts they use. df0715_bmdpocketThe Pocket Cinema Camera is essentially a digital equivalent of a Super 16mm film camera, but in a point-and-shoot, small camera form factor. The Cinema and Production 4K cameras feature a larger, Super 35mm sensor. Each of these three incorporate ProRes and/or CinemaDNG raw recording. The Studio Camera is designed as a live production camera. It features a larger viewfinder, housing, accessories and connections designed to integrate this camera into a television studio or remote truck environment. There is an HD and a 4K version.

df0715_ursaThe biggest Blackmagic news was the introduction of the URSA. Compared to the smaller form factors of the other Blackmagic Design cameras, the URSA is literally a “bear” of a camera. It is a rugged 4K camera built around the idea of user-interchangeable parts. You can get EF, PL and broadcast lens mounts, but you can also operate it without a lens as a standalone recording device. It’s designed for UltraHD (3840 x 2160), but can record up to 4,000 pixels wide in raw. Recording formats include CinemaDNG raw (uncompressed and 3:1 compressed), as well as Apple ProRes, with speeds up to 80fps. There are two large displays on both sides of the camera, which can be used for monitoring and operating controls. It has a 10” fold-out viewfinder and a built-in liquid cooling system. As part of the modular design, users can replace mounts and even the sensor in the field.

df0715_c300Canon was the most successful company out of the gate when the industry adopted HD-video-capable DSLR cameras as serious production tools. Canon has expanded these offerings with its Cinema EOS line of small production cameras, including the C100, C100 Mark II, C300 and C500, which all share a similar form factor. Also included in this line-up is the EOS-1D C, a 4K camera that retains its DSLR body. The C300 and C500 camera both use a Super 35mm sized sensor and come in EF or PL mount configurations. The C300 is limited to HD recording using the Canon XF codec. The C500 adds 2K and 4K (4096 cinema and 3840 UHD) recording capabilities, but this signal must be externally recorded using a device like the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q+. HD signals are recorded internally as Canon XF, just like the C300. The Canon EOS C100 and C100 Mark II share the design of the C300, except that they record to AVCHD instead of Canon XF. In addition, the Mark II can also record MP4 files. Both C100 models record to SD cards, whereas the C300/C500 cameras use CF cards. The Mark II features improved ergonomics over the base C100 model.

df0715_5dThe Canon EOS-1D C is included because it can record 4K video. Since it is also a still photography camera, the sensor is an 18MP full-frame sensor. When recording 4K video, it uses a Motion JPEG codec, but for HD, can also use the AVCHD codec. The big plus over the C500 is that the 1D C records 4K onboard to CF cards, so is better suited to hand-held work. The DSLR cameras that started the craze for Canon continue to be popular, including the EOS 5D Mark III and the new EOS 7D Mark II. Plus the consumer-oriented Rebel versions. All are outstanding still cameras. The 5D features a 22.3MP CMOS sensor and records HD video as H.264 MOV files to onboard CF cards. Thanks to the sensor size, the 5D is still popular for videographers who want extremely shallow depth-of-field shots from a handheld camera.

df0715_d16Digital Bolex has become a Kickstarter success story. These out-of-the-box thinkers coupled the magic of a venerable name from the film era with innovative design and marketing to produce the D16 Cinema Camera. Its form factor mimics older, smaller, handheld film camera designs, making it ideal for run-and-gun documentary production. It features a Super 16mm sized CCD sensor with a global shutter and claims 12 stops of dynamic range. The D16 records in 12-bit CinemaDNG raw to internal SSDs, but media is offloaded to CF cards or via USB3.0 for media interchange. The camera comes with a C-mount, but EF, MFT and PL lens mounts are available. Currently the resolutions include 2048 x 1152 (“S16mm mode”), 2048 x 1080 (“S16 EU”) and HD (“16mm mode”). The D16 records 23.98, 24 and 25fps frame rates, but variable rates up to 32fps in the S16mm mode are coming soon. To expand on the camera’s attractiveness, Digital Bolex also offers a line of accessories, including Kish/Bolex 16mm prime lens sets. These fixed aperture F4 lenses are C-mount for native use with the D16 camera. Digital Bolex also offers the D16 in an MFT mount configuration and in a monochrome version.

df0715_hero4The sheer versatility and disposable quality of GoPro cameras has made the HERO line a staple of many productions. The company continues to advance this product with the HERO4 Black and Silver models as their latest. These are both 4K cameras and have similar features, but if you want full video frame rates in 4K, then the HERO4 Black is the correct model. It will record up to 30fps in 4K, 50fps in 2.7K and 120fps in 1080p. As a photo camera, it uses a 12MP sensor and is capable of 30 frames a one second in burst mode and time-lapse intervals from .5 to 60 seconds. The video signal is recorded as an H264 file with a high-quality mode that’s up 60 Mb/s. MicrosSD card media is used. HERO cameras have been popular for extreme point-of-video shots and its waterproof housing is good for 40 meters. This new HERO4 series offers more manual control, new night time and low-light settings, and improved audio recording.

df0715_d810Nikon actually beat Canon to market with HD-capable DSLRs, but lost the momentum when Canon capitalized on the popularity of the 5D. Nevertheless, Nikon has its share of supportive videographers, thanks in part to the quantity of Nikon lenses in general use. The Nikon range of high-quality still photo and video-enabled cameras fall under Nikon’s D-series product family. The Nikon D800/800E camera has been updated to the D810. This is the camera of most interest to professional videographers. It’s a 36.3MP still photo camera that can also record 1920 x 1080 video in 24/30p modes internally and 60p externally. It can also record up to 9,999 images in a time-lapse sequence. A big plus for many is its optical viewfinder. It records H.264/MPEG-4 media to onboard CF cards. Other Nikon video cameras include the D4S, D610, D7100, D5300 and D3300.

df0715_varicamPanasonic used to own the commercial HD camera market with the original VariCam HD camera. They’ve now reimagined that brand in the new VariCam 35 and VariCam HS versions. The new VariCam uses a modular configuration with each of these two cameras using the same docking electronics back. In fact, a costumer can purchase one camera head and back and then only need to purchase the other head, thus owning both the 35 and the HS models for less than the total cost of two cameras. The VariCam 35 is a 4K camera with wide color gamut and wide dynamic range (14+ stops are claimed). It features a PL lens mount, records from 1 to 120fps and supports dual-recording. For example, you can simultaneously record a 4K log AVC-Intra master to the main recorder (expressP2 card) and 2K/HD Rec 709 AVC-Intra/AVC-Proxy/Apple ProRes to a second internal recorder (microP2 card) for offline editing. VariCam V-Raw camera raw media can be recorded to a separate Codex V-RAW recorder, which can be piggybacked onto the camera. The Panasonic VariCam HS is a 2/3” 3MOS broadcast/EFP camera capable of up to 240fps of continuous recording.  It supports the same dual-recording options as the VariCam 35 using AVC-Intra and/or Apple ProRes codecs, but is limited to HD recordings.

df0715_gh4With interest in DSLRs still in full swing, many users’ interest in Panasonic veers to the Lumix GH4. This camera records 4K cinema (4096) and 4K UHD (3840) sized images, as well as HD. It uses SD memory cards to record in MOV, MP4 or AVCHD formats. It features variable frame rates (up to 96fps), HDMI monitoring and a professional 4K audio/video interface unit. The latter is a dock the fits to the bottom of the camera. It includes XLR audio and SDI video connections with embedded audio and timecode.

RED Digital Cinema started the push for 4K cameras and camera raw video recording with the original RED One. That camera is now only available in refurbished models, as RED has advanced the technology with the EPIC and SCARLET. Both are modular camera designs that are offered with either the Dragon or the Mysterium-X sensor. The Dragon is a 6K, 19MP sensor with 16.5+ stops of claimed dynamic range. The Mysterium-X is a 5K, 14MP sensor that claims 13.5 stops, but up to 18 stops using RED’s HDRx (high dynamic range) technology. df0715_epicThe basic difference between the EPIC and the SCARLET, other than cost, is that the EPIC features more advanced internal processing and this computing power enables a wider range of features. For example, the EPIC can record up to 300fps at 2K, while the SCARLET tops out at 120fps at 1K. The EPIC is also sold in two configurations: EPIC-M, which is hand-assembled using machined parts, and the EPIC-X, which is a production-run camera. With the interest in 4K live production, RED has introduced its 4K Broadcast Module. Coupled with an EPIC camera, you could record a 6K file for archive, while simultaneously feeding a 4K and/or HD live signal for broadcast. RED is selling studio broadcast configurations complete with camera, modules and support accessories as broadcast-ready packages.

df0715_f65Sony has been quickly gaining ground in the 4K market. Its CineAlta line includes the F65, PMW-F55, PMW-F5, PMW-F3, NEX-FS700R and NEX-FS100. All are HD-capable and use Super 35mm sized image sensors, with the lower-end FS700R able to record 4K raw to an external recorder. At the highest end is the 20MP F65, which is designed for feature film production.df0715_f55 The camera is capable of 8K raw recording, as well as 4K, 2K and HD variations. Recordings must be made on a separate SR-R4 SR MASTER field recorder. For most users, the F55 is going to be the high-end camera for them if they purchase from Sony. It permits onboard recording in four formats: MPEG-2 HD, XAVC HD, SR File and XAVC 4K. With an external recorder, 4K and 2K raw recording is also available. High speeds up to 240fps (2K raw with the optional, external recorder) are possible. The F5 is the F55’s smaller sibling. It’s designed for onboard HD recording (MPEG-2 HD, XAVC HD, SR File). 4K and 2K recordings require an external recorder.

df0715_fs7The Sony camera that has caught everyone’s attention is the PXW-FS7. It’s designed as a lightweight, documentary-style camera with a form factor and rig that’s reminiscent of an Aaton 16mm film camera. It uses a Super 35mm sized sensor and delivers 4K resolution using onboard XAVC recording to XQD memory cards. XDCAM MPEG-2 HD recording (now) and ProRes (with a future upgrade) will also be possible. Also raw will be possible to an outboard recorder.

df0715_a7sSony has also not been left behind by the DSLR revolution. The A7s is an APS-C, full frame, mirrorless 12.2MP camera that’s optimized for 4K and low light. It can record up to 1080p/60 (or 720p/120) onboard (50Mbps XAVC S) or feed uncompressed HD and/or 4K (UHD) out via its HDMI port. It will record onboard audio and sports such pro features as Sony’s S-Log2 gamma profile.

With any overview, there’s plenty that we can’t cover. If you are in the market for a camera, remember many of these companies offer a slew of other cameras ranging from consumer to ENG/EFP offerings. I’ve only touched on the highlights. Plus there are others, like Grass Valley, Hitachi, Samsung and Ikegami that make great products in use around the world every day. Finally, with all the video-enabled smart phones and tablets, don’t be surprised if you are recording your next production with an iPhone or iPad!

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters