Video Technology 2020 – The Cloud

The “cloud” is merely a collection of physical data centers in multiple locations around the world – not much different than a small storage center you might have. Of course, they employ more advanced systems for power, redundancy, and security than you do. When you work with one of the companies marketing cloud-based editing or a review-and-approval service, like Frame.io or Wipster, they provide the user-facing interface, but are actually renting storage space from one of the big three cloud providers – Google, Amazon, or Microsoft.

There are three reasons that I’m skeptical about ubiquitous, cloud-based editing (with media at native resolutions) in the short term: upload speeds, cost, and security.

Speed

5G (fifth generation wireless) is the technology predicted to offer adequate speeds and low latency for native 4K (and higher) media. While 5G will be a great advancement for many things, it’s a short distance signal requiring more transmission spots than current wireless technology. Full coverage in most metro areas, let alone widespread geographical coverage worldwide, will take many years to fully deploy. Other than potential camera-to-cloud uploads of proxy media in the field, 5G won’t soon be the killer solution. Current technology still dictates that if you want the fastest possible upload speeds for large amounts of data, then you have to tap as close as possible to the internet’s backbone.

Cost

Cloud storage is cheap, but extensive upload and download times aren’t. Unfortunately modern video resolutions also result in huge amounts of data generated on every shoot. Uploading native 4K media for a week-long production is considerably more expensive than FedEx and overnight charges to ship drives. What about long term storage? Let’s say that all of your native media is in the cloud and you pay according to a monthly or annual subscription plan. But what if you want to stop? That media will have to be downloaded and stored locally, which will incur data rate charges, as well as your time to download everything.

Security

Think these sites are unequivocally secure? Look at any data hack at a major company. Security is such a concern in our business that most major movie studios won’t let their editors connect the computers to the internet. Many make these editors check their cell phones at the door. No matter how secure, it’s going to be a hard sell, except for limited slices of the production, such as cloud-based VFX rendering.

I do believe 2020 will be a year in which many will take advantage of some modes of long distance, cloud-based edit services using low-res proxy media. Increasingly some services will be used to move dailies and deliverables around the globe via the cloud. But that’s a big difference from cloud-based editing becoming the norm. One edit scenario many will experiment with is to store the edit project files in the cloud, but with the media mirrored locally at each edit site. This way only the lightweight files used for edit collaboration need be moved over the internet. Think of this as Google Docs for editing. Adobe already offers a version of this, but I suspect you’ll see others, including solutions for Final Cut Pro X. So while true cloud-based editing is not a near-term solution, bits and pieces will become increasingly commonplace.

Originally written for Creative Planet Network.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Video Technology 2020 – Apple and the PC Landscape

Apple enjoys a small fraction of the total computer market, yet has an oversized influence on video production and post. Look anywhere in our business and you’ll see a high percentage of Apple Mac computers and laptops in use by producers, DITs, editors, mixers, and colorists. This has influenced the development and deployment of certain technologies, such as optimization for Metal, Thunderbolt i/o, ProRes codecs, and more. This may irritate Windows users, but it’s something companies like Avid, Adobe, and others cannot ignore. Apple deprecates OpenGL, OpenCL, and CUDA in favor of Metal, and so, developers of software for Apple computers will follow suit so that their Mac-based customers enjoy a good experience.

Going into 2020, Apple is offering a better line-up of professional Mac products than it has in years. MacBook Pro laptops, iMacs and iMac Pros, and the new Mac Pro are clearly targeted at the professional customer. Add to this the Pro Display XDR and authorized third-party products available through Apple, like LumaForge Jellyfish storageBlackmagic and Sonnet eGPUs. Clearly Apple intends to offer an end-to-end hardware and software ecosystem designed to appeal to the pro video customer.

Apple’s prices can be a turn-off for some. Similar investments in a PC – especially custom configurations – may yield better performance in certain applications. Nevertheless, most former and present owners of Mac Pro “cheese grater” towers feel like they got their money’s worth and will at least have interest in the new Mac Pro. Same for MacBook Pro owners. So while these new machines may not move the needle for the larger consumer computer market, it will definitely keep current Mac users in the fold and prevent migration to Windows or Linux PCs. It also reinforces Apple’s interest in the professional market – not just video, but also animation, design, audio, science, and engineering.

The unknown will be the impact of Apple’s new Afterburner card for the Mac Pro. While accelerator cards have been offered by various manufacturers in the past, recent computing developments have focused on processor core counts and GPU technology. The Apple Afterburner is the first introduction for Apple of a new FPGA-based (programmable ASIC) hardware accelerator card. Designed for transcoding, it promises to increase stream counts with 4K and 8K raw and standard codecs in the Mac Pro. Once it’s out in the wild, we will have a better idea of who supports it (beyond Apple’s own software) and its real-world performance.

As Apple goes, so goes the rest of the industry. How will the PC world counter this? Will we see similar cards from HP or Dell? Or will NVIDIA respond with similar results using their GPUs? That’s unknown right now, but my guess is that it will take at least this next year for the rest of the world to respond with competing solutions.

Originally written for Creative Planet Network.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Every NLE is a Database

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has spawned many tribal arguments since its launch eight years ago. There have been plenty of debates about the pros and cons of its innovative design and editing model. One that I’ve heard a number of times is that FCPX is a relational database, while traditional editing applications are more like an Excel spreadsheet. I can see how the presentation of a bin in the list view format might convey that impression, but that doesn’t make it accurate. Spreadsheets are a grid of cells that are based on a combination of mathematical formulae, regardless of whether the info is text or numbers. All nonlinear editing applications (NLE) use a relational database to track media, although the type and format of this database will differ among brands. In all cases, these function altogether differently than how a spreadsheet functions.

It started with film

When all editing was done on film, the editors cut work print, which was a reversal copy printed from the camera negative. Edits made on the work print were eventually duplicated on the pristine negative by a negative cutter, based on a cut list. Determining where to cut and join the film segments together was based on a list of edit points corresponding to the source rolls of the film, plus a foot+frame count for specific edit points. The work print, which the editors could physically cut and splice as needed, was effectively an abstraction of – and stand-in for – the negative.

In order to enable the process, assistant editors (or in some cases, the editor) created a handwritten log, known as a codebook. This started with the dailies and included all the pertinent information, such as source roll, shoot days/dates, scenes/takes, director’s notes, editor’s notes, and so on. The codebook was a physical database that allowed an editor to know what the options were and where to find them.

During the videotape-editing era prior to NLEs, any sort of database for tracking source information was still manual. Only the cut list portion, known as the edit decision list, could be generated by the edit computer, based on the timecode values recorded on the tape. Timecode became the electronic equivalent of the foot+frame count of physical film.

Fast forward to the modern era with file-based camera acquisition and ubiquitous, inexpensive editing software. The file recorded by the camera is a container of sorts that holds essence (audio and video) and metadata (information about the essence). Some cameras generate a lot of metadata and others don’t. One example of this type of metadata that we all encounter is the information embedded into digital still photos, which can include location, lens data, and a ton more.

When clips are ingested/imported into your NLE – whether into a project, bin, folder, or an event – the NLE links to the essence of the media clips on the hard drive or camera card and brings in whatever clip metadata is understood by that application. In addition, the user can add and merge a lot more metadata derived from other sources, like the sound recorder, script supervisor notes, electronic script, and manually-added data.

The clip that you see in the bin/event/folder is an abstraction for the actual audio and video media, just like work print was for film editors. The bin/folder/event data entries are like the film editor’s codebook and are tracked in the internal database used by that application to cross-reference the clip with the actual stored media. Since a clip in the app’s browser is simply an abstraction, it can appear in multiple places at the same time – in various bins and sequences. The internal database makes sure that each of these instances of the clip all reference the same piece of media accurate down to the video frame or audio sample.

It doesn’t matter how the bin looks

The spreadsheet comparison is based on how bins have appeared in most NLEs, including Final Cut Pro “legacy,” Avid Media Composer, and others. Unfortunately that opinion is usually based on a narrow exposure to other NLEs. As I said, at the core, every NLE is a relational database. And so, there are other things that can be tracked and/or ways it can be displayed.

For instance, older Quantel edit systems displayed source information based on what we would consider a smart search view today. The entirety of the source material was not displayed in front of the editor, since it was a single-screen layout. Entering data into a search field would sift through and present clips matching the requested data.

Avid Media Composer systems also track media based on Script Integration (sometimes incorrectly referred to as ScriptSync, which is a separate Avid option). This is a graphical bin layout with the script text displayed on screen and clips linked to coverage of that scene. Media Composer and now Premiere Pro both permit a freeform clip view for a bin, in which the editor can freely rearrange the position of the clip thumbnails within the bin window. This visual juxtaposition by the user of clips conveys important information to the editor.

All NLEs have multiple ways to present the data and aren’t limited to a grid-style list view that resembles a spreadsheet or a grid of clip thumbnails. Enabling these alternate views takes a lot more than simply cross-referencing your bin and timelines against a set of edit points. That’s where databases come in and why every NLE is built around one.

How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?

My apologies to Firesign Theatre. A huge aspect of the Final Cut Pro X edit workflow is the use of keyword collections. You aren’t limited to being in just a single bin thanks to them. While this is a selling point for FCPX, it is also well within the capabilities of most NLEs.

Organizing your event (bin) media in FCPX can start by assigning keywords to each clip. Each new keyword used creates a keyword collection – sort of a “smart sub-bin.” As you assign one or more keywords to a clip, FCPX automatically sorts the clip into those corresponding keyword collections.  For example, let’s say you have a series of wide and close-up shots featuring both male and female actors. Clip 1 might be sorted into WIDE and MAN; Clip 2 into WIDE and WOMAN; Clip 3 into WOMAN and CLOSE-UP. So then the keyword collection for WIDE displays Clip 1 and Clip 2; MAN displays Clip 1; WOMAN displays Clip 2 and Clip 3; CLOSE-UP displays Clip 3.

Once this initial step is completed it enables the editor to view source clips in a more focused manner. Instead of wading through 100 clips in the event (bin) each time, the editor may only have to deal with 10 clips in the CLOSE-UP keyword collection. Or in any other collection. The beauty of FCPX’s interface design is the speed and fluidity with which this can be accomplished. This feature is one of the hallmarks of the application and no other NLE does it nearly as elegantly. In fact, FCPX tackles the challenge of narrowing down the browser options through three methods – ratings, keyword collections, and smart collection (described in this linked tutorial by Simon Ubsdell).

As elegantly as Final Cut tackles this task, that doesn’t mean that other NLEs can’t function in a similar manner. Within Premiere Pro, those exact same keywords can be assigned to the clips. Then simply create a set of search bins using those same keywords as search criteria. The result is the exact same type of distribution of clips into collections where multiple clips can appear in multiple bins at the same time. Likewise, the editor doesn’t need to go through the full set of clips in a bin, but can concentrate on the small handful in any given search bin. Media Composer also offers search functions, as well as, custom sift routines, which enable you to only display clips matching specific column details, like a custom keyword.

Most NLEs can only store one set of in/out edit marks on a clip within a bin at any given time. On the other hand, Final Cut Pro X offers range-based selection. Clips can retain multiple in/out selections at once. Nevertheless other NLE aren’t behind here either. The obvious solution that most editors use when this is needed is to create a subclip, which can be a duplicate of the entire clip or a portion from within a single clip. Need to pull multiple sections of the clip? Simply create multiple subclips. In effect, these are the same as range-based selections in Final Cut Pro X. Admittedly the FCPX method is more fluid and straightforward. Nevertheless, range-based selections are virtual subclips that are dynamically created by the editor; but unlike subclips, these can’t be moved separately to other events (bins). Two ways to tackle a very similar need.

The bottom line is that under the hood, all NLEs are still very much the same. Let me emphasize that I’m not arguing the superiority, speed, or elegance of one approach or tool over another. Every company has their own set of unique features that appeal to different types of editors. They are simply different methods to place information at your fingertips, get roadblocks out of the way, and thus to make editing more creative and enjoyable.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Mind your TCO

TCO = total cost of ownership.

When fans argue PCs versus Macs, the argument tends to only focus on the purchase price of the hardware. But owning a computer is also about the total operating cost or TCO over its lifespan. In the corporate world, IBM has already concluded Mac deployment has been cheaper for the IT Department. For video editors, a significant part of the equation is the software we run. Here, all things are not equal, since there are options for the Mac that aren’t available to PC users. Yes, I know that Avid, Adobe, and Blackmagic Design offer cross-platform tools, but this post is a thought exercise, so bear with me.

If you are a PC user, odds are that you will be using Adobe Creative Cloud software, which is only available in the form of a subscription. Sure, you could be using Media Composer or Edius, but likely it will be Premiere Pro and the rest of the Creative Cloud tools, such as Photoshop and After Effects. Avid offers both perpetual and subscription plans, but the perpetual licenses require an annual support renewal to stay current with the software. The operating cost between Avid and Adobe end up in a very similar place over time.

Mac users could use the same tools, of course, but they do have significant alternatives in non-subscription software, like Apple’s own Pro Applications. In addition, macOS includes additional productivity software that PC users would have to purchase at additional cost. The bottom line is that you have to factor in the cost of the subscription over the lifespan of the PC, which adds to its TCO*.

For this exercise, I selected two 15″ laptops – a Dell and a MacBook Pro. I configured each as close to the other as possible, with the exception that Dell only offers a 6-core CPU, whereas new MacBook Pros use 8-core chips. That comes to $2395 for the Dell and $3950 for the Apple – a pretty big difference. But now let’s add software tools.

For the PC’s suite of tools, I have included the full Adobe Creative Cloud bundle, along with a copy of Microsoft Office. Adobe’s current subscription rate for individuals comes to $636/year (when paid annually, up front). You would also have to add Microsoft Office to get Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. Even though Microsoft is moving to subscriptions, you can still buy Office outright. A home/small business license is $250.

You could, of course, make the same choices for the Mac, but that’s not the point of this exercise. I’m also not trying to make the argument that one set of tools is superior to the other. This post is strictly about comparing cost. If you decide to add alternative software to the Mac in order to parallel the Adobe Creative Cloud bundle, you would have to purchase Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor, and Logic Pro X. To cover Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign tasks, add Affinity Photo, Designer, and Publisher. You can decide for yourself whether or not macOS Photos is a viable substitute for Lightroom; but, for sake of argument, let’s add ON1 Photo RAW to our alternative software package. Some Adobe tools, like Character Animator, won’t have an equal, but that’s an application that most editors have probably never touched anyway. Of course, macOS comes with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, so no requirement to add Microsoft Office for the MacBook Pro. Total all of this together and the ballpark sum comes to $820. But you have purchased perpetual licenses and do not require annual subscription payments.

In the first year of ownership, PC users clearly have the edge. In fact, up until year three, the TCO is cheaper for PC owners. Odds are you’ll own your laptop longer than three years. I’m typing this on a mid-2014 15″ MacBook Pro, which is also my primary editing machine for any work I do at home. Once you cross into the fourth year and longer, the Mac is cheaper to own and operate, purely because of the differences in software license models.

Remember this is a simple thought exercise and you can mix and match software combinations any way you would like. These are worthwhile considerations when comparing products. It’s just not as simple as saying one hardware product is cheaper than the other, which is why a TCO analysis can be very important.

*Totals shown have been rounded for simplicity.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Minimalism versus Complexity in Post

The prevailing wisdom is that Apple might preview the next Mac Pro at its annual WWDC event coming in a couple of weeks. Then the real product would likely be available by the end of the year. It will be interesting to see what that brings, given that the current Mac Pro was released in 2013 with no refreshes in between. And older Mac Pro towers (mid-2009-2012) are still competitive (with upgrades) against the current run of Apple’s Mac product line.

Many professional users are hoping for a user-upgradeable/expandable machine, like the older towers. But that hasn’t been Apple’s design and engineering trend. MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iMacs, and iMac Pros are more sealed and non-upgradeable than their predecessors. The eGPU and eGPU Pro units manufactured by Blackmagic Design are, in fact, largely an Apple design with Apple engineering specifications intended to meet power, noise and heat parameters. As such, you can’t simply pop in a newer, faster GPU chip, as you can with GPU cards and the Sonnet eGPU devices.

What do we really need?

Setting emotions aside, the real question is whether such expandability is needed any longer. Over the years, I’ve designed, built, and worked in a number of linear edit suites, mixing rooms, and other environments that required a ton of outboard gear. The earliest nonlinear suites (even up until recently) were hardware-intensive. But is any of this needed any longer? My own home rig had been based on a mid-2009 Mac Pro tower. Over the years, I’ve increased RAM, swapped out three GPU cards, changed the stock hard drives for two SSDs and two 7200 RPM media drives (RAID-0), as well as added PCIe cards for eSATA/USB3 and Blackmagic Design monitor display. While at the time, each of those moves was justified, I do have to wonder whether that investment in money would have been better spent for computer model upgrades.

Today that same Mac Pro sits turned off next to my desk. While still current with most of the apps and the OS (not Mojave, though), it can’t accept Thunderbolt peripherals and a few apps, like Pixelmator Pro, won’t install, because they require Metal 2 (only available with newer hardware). So my home suite has shifted to a mid-2014 Mac Book Pro. In doing so, I have adopted the outboard modular solution over the cards-in-the-tower approach. This is largely possible today because small, compact computers – such as laptops – have become sufficiently powerful to deal with today’s video needs.

I like this solution because I can easily shift from location to home by simply plugging in one Thunderbolt cable linked to my OWC dock. The dock connects my audio interface, a few drives, and my primary 27″ Dell display. An additional plus is that I no longer have to sync my personal files and applications between my two machines (I prefer to avoid cloud services for personal documents). I bought a Rain Design laptop stand and a TwelveSouth BookArc, so that under normal use (with one display), the MBP tucks behind the Dell in clamshell mode sitting in the BookArc cradle. When I need a dual-display configuration, I simply bring out the Rain stand and open up the MBP next to the Dell.

Admittedly, this solution isn’t for everyone. If I never needed a mobile machine, I certainly wouldn’t buy a laptop. And if I needed heavy horsepower at home, such as for intensive After Effects work or grading 4K and 8K feature films, then I would probably go for a tower – maybe even one of the Puget Systems PCs that I reviewed. But most of what I do at home is standard editing with some grading, which nearly any machine can handle these days.

Frankly, if I were to start from scratch today, instead of the laptop, tower, and an iPad, I would be tempted to go with a fully-loaded 13″ MacBook Pro. For home, add the eGPU Pro, an LG 5K display, dock, audio i/o and speakers, and drives as needed. This makes for a lighter, yet capable editor in the field. When you get home, one Thunderbolt 3 cable from the eGPU Pro into the laptop would connect the whole system, including power to the MBP.

Of course, I like simple and sleek designs – Frank Lloyd Wright, Bauhaus, Dieter Rams, Scandinavian furniture, and so on. So the Jobs/Ive approach to industrial design does appeal to me. Fortunately, for the most part, my experience with Apple products has been a positive one. However, it’s often hard to make that work in a commercial post facility. After all, that’s where horsepower is needed. But does that necessarily mean lots of gear attached to our computers?

How does this apply to a post facility?

At the day job, I usually work in a suite with a 2013 Mac Pro. Since I do a lot of the Resolve work, along with editing, that Mac Pro cables up to two computer displays plus two grading displays (calibrated and client), a CalDigit dock, a Sonnet 10GigE adapter, a Promise RAID, a TimeMachine drive, the 1GigE house internet, and an audio interface. Needless to say, the intended simplicity of the Mac Pro design has resulted in a lot of spaghetti hanging off of the back. Clearly the wrong design for this type of installation.

Conversely, the same Mac Pro, in a mixing room might be a better fit – audio interface, video display, Thunderbolt RAID. Much less spaghetti. Our other edit stations are based around iMacs/iMac Pros with few additional peripherals. Since our clients do nearly all of their review-and-approval online, the need for a large, client-friendly suite has been eliminated. One room is all we need for that, along with giving the rest of the editors a good working environment.

Even the Mac Pro room could be simplified, if it weren’t for the need to run Resolve and Media Composer on occasion. For example, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X both send real video to an externally connected desktop display. If you have a reasonably accurate display, like a high-end consumer LED or OLED flat panel, then all editing and even some grading and graphic design can be handled without an additional, professional video display and hardware interface. Any room configured this way can easily be augmented with a roving 17″-34″ calibrated display and a mini-monitor device (AJA or BMD) for those ad hoc needs, like more intense grading sessions.

An interesting approach has been discussed by British editor Thomas Grove Carter, who cuts at London’s Trim, a commercial editorial shop. Since they are primarily doing the creative edit and not the finishing work, the suites can be simplified. For the most part, they only need to work with proxy or lighter-weight ProRes files. Thus, there are no heavy media requirements, as might be required with camera RAW or DPX image sequences. As he has discussed in interviews and podcasts (generally related to his use of Final Cut Pro X), Trim has been able to design edit rooms with a light hardware footprint. Often Trim’s editors are called upon to start editing on-site and then move back to Trim to continue the edit. So mobility is essential, which means the editors are often cutting with laptops. Moving from location or home to an edit suite at Trim is as simple as hooking up the laptop to a few cables. A large display for interface or video, plus fast, portable SSDs with all of the project’s media.

An installation built with this philosophy in mind can be further simplified through the use of a shared storage solution. Unlike in the past, when shared storage systems were complex, hard to install, and confusing to manage – today’s systems are designed with average users in mind. If you are moderately tech savvy, you can get a 10GigE system up and running without the need for an IT staff.

At the day-job shop, we are running two systems – QNAP and LumaForge Jellyfish Rack. We use both for different reasons, but either system by itself is good for nearly any installation – especially Premiere Pro shops. If you are principally an FCPX shop, then Jellyfish will be the better option for you. A single ethernet cable to each workstation from a central server ‘closet’ is all that’s required for a massive amount of media storage available to every editor. No more shuffling hard drives, except to load location footage. Remember that shared storage allows for a distributed workflow. You can set up a simple Mac mini bay for assistant editors and general media management without the need to commandeer an edit suite for basic tasks.

You don’t have to look far to see that the assumptions of the past few decades in computer development and post-production facility design aren’t entirely valid any longer. Client interactions have changed and computer capabilities have improved. The need for all the extra add-ons and do-dads we thought we had to have is no longer essential. It’s no longer the driver for the way in which computers have to be built today.

©2019 Oliver Peters

NAB Show 2019

This year the NAB Show seemed to emphasize its roots – the “B” in National Association of Broadcasters. Gone or barely visible were the fads of past years, such as stereoscopic 3D, 360-degree video, virtual/augmented reality, drones, etc. Not that these are gone – merely that they have refocused on the smaller segment of marketshare that reflects reality. There’s not much point in promoting stereo 3D at NAB if most of the industry goes ‘meh’.

Big exhibitors of the past, like Quantel, RED, Apple, and Autodesk, are gone from the floor. Quantel products remain as part of Grass Valley (now owned by Belden), which is the consolidation of Grass Valley Group, Quantel, Snell & Wilcox, and Philips. RED decided last year that small, camera-centric shows were better venues. Apple – well, they haven’t been on the main floor for years, but even this year, there was no off-site, Final Cut Pro X stealth presence in a hotel suite somewhere. Autodesk, which shifted to a subscription model a couple of years ago, had a demo suite in the nearby Renaissance Hotel, focusing on its hero product, Flame 2020. Smoke for Mac users – tough luck. It’s been over for years.

This was a nuts-and-bolts year, with many exhibits showing new infrastructure products. These appeal to larger customers, such as broadcasters and network facilities. Specifically the world is shifting to an IP-based infrastructure for signal routing, control, and transmission. This replaces copper and fiber wiring of the past, along with the devices (routers, video switchers, etc) at either end of the wire. Companies that might have appeared less relevant, like Grass Valley, are back in a strong sales position. Other companies, like Blackmagic Design, are being encouraged by their larger clients to fulfill those needs. And as ever, consolidation continues – this year VizRT acquired NewTek, who has been an early player in video-over-IP with their proprietary NDI protocol.

Adobe

The NAB season unofficially started with Adobe’s pre-NAB release of the CC2019 update. For editors and designers, the hallmarks of this update include a new, freeform bin window view and adjustable guides in Premiere Pro and content-aware, video fill in After Effects. These are solid additions in response to customer requests, which is something Adobe has focused on. A smaller, but no less important feature is Adobe’s ongoing effort to improve media performance on the Mac platform.

As in past years, their NAB booth was an opportunity to present these new features in-depth, as well as showcase speakers who use Adobe products for editing, sound, and design. Part of the editing team from the series Atlanta was on hand to discuss the team’s use of Premiere Pro and After Effects in their ‘editing crash pad’.

Avid

For many attendees, NAB actually kicked off on the weekend with Avid Connect, a gathering of Avid users (through the Avid Customer Association), featuring meet-and-greets, workshops, presentations, and ACA leadership committee meetings. While past product announcements at Connect have been subdued from the vantage of Media Composer editors, this year was a major surprise. Avid revealed its Media Composer 2019.5 update (scheduled for release the end of May). This came as part of a host of many updates. Most of these apply to companies that have invested in the full Avid ecosystem, including Nexis storage and Media Central asset management. While those are superb, they only apply to a small percentage of the market. Let’s not forget Avid’s huge presence in the audio world, thanks to the dominance of Pro Tools – now with Dolby ATMOS support. With the acquisition of Euphonix years back, Avid has become a significant player in the live and studio sound arena. Various examples of its S-series consoles in action were presented.

Since I focus on editing, let me discuss Media Composer a bit more. The 2019.5 refresh is the first major Media Composer overhaul in years. It started in secret last year. 2019.5 is the first iteration of the new UI, with more to be updated in coming releases. In short, the interface has been modernized and streamlined in ways to attract newer, younger users, without alienating established editors. Its panel design is similar to Adobe’s approach – i.e. interface panels can be docked, floated, stacked, or tabbed. Panels that you don’t want to see may be closed or simply slid to the side and hidden. Need to see a hidden panel again? Simply side it back open from the edge of the screen.

This isn’t just a new skin. Avid has overhauled the internal video pipeline, with 32-bit floating color and an uncompressed DNx codec. Project formats now support up to 16K. Avid is also compliant with the specs of the Netflix Post Alliance and the ACES logo program.

I found the new version very easy to use and a welcomed changed; however, it will require some adaptation if you’ve been using Media Composer for a long time. In a nod to the Media Composer heritage, the weightlifter (aka ‘liftman’) and scissors icons (for lift and extract edits) are back. Even though Media Composer 2019.5 is just in early beta testing, Avid felt good enough about it to use this version in its workshops, presentations, and stage demos.

One of the reasons to go to NAB is for the in-person presentations by top editors about their real-world experiences. No one can top Avid at this game, who can easily tap a host of Oscar, Emmy, BFTA, and Eddie award winners. The hallmark for many this year was the presentation at Avid Connect and/or at the show by the Oscar-winning picture and sound editing/mixing team for Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s hard not to gather a standing-room-only crowd when you close your talk with the Live Aid finale sequence played in kick-ass surround!

Blackmagic Design

Attendees and worldwide observers have come to expect a surprise NAB product announcement out of Grant Petty each year and he certainly didn’t disappoint this time. Before I get into that, there were quite a few products released, including for IP infrastructures, 8K production and post, and more. Blackmagic is a full spectrum video and audio manufacturer that long ago moved into the ‘big leagues’. This means that just like Avid or Grass Valley, they have to respond to pressure from large users to develop products designed around their specific workflow needs. In the BMD booth, many of those development fruits were on display, like the new Hyperdeck Extreme 8K HDR recorder and the ATEM Constellation 8K switcher.

The big reveal for editors was DaVinci Resolve 16. Blackmagic has steadily been moving into the editorial space with this all-in-one, edit/color/mix/effects/finishing application. If you have no business requirement for – or emotional attachment to – one of the other NLE brands, then Resolve (free) or Resolve Studio (paid) is an absolute no-brainer. Nothing can touch the combined power of Resolve’s feature set.

New for Resolve 16 is an additional editorial module called the Cut Page. At first blush, the design, layout, and operation are amazingly similar to Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. Blackmagic’s intent is to make a fast editor where you can start and end your project for a time-sensitive turnaround without the complexities of the Edit Page. However, it’s just another tool, so you could work entirely in the Cut Page, or start in the Cut Page and refine your timeline in the Edit Page, or skip the Cut Page all together. Resolve offers a buffet of post tools that are at your disposal.

While Resolve 16’s Cut Page does elicit a chuckle from experienced FCPX users, it offers some new twists. For example, there’s a two-level timeline view – the top section is the full-length timeline and the bottom section is the zoomed-in detail view. The intent is quick navigation without the need to constantly zoom in and out of long timelines. There’s also an automatic sync detection function. Let’s say you are cutting a two-camera show. Drop the A-camera clips onto the timeline and then go through your B-camera footage. Find a cut-away shot, mark in/out on the source, and edit. It will ‘automagically’ edit to the in-sync location on the timeline. I presume this is matched by either common sound or timecode. I’ll have to see how this works in practice, but it demos nicely. Changes to other aspects of Resolve were minor and evolutionary, except for one other notable feature. The Color Page added its own version of content-aware, video fill.

Another editorial product addition – tied to the theme of faster, more-efficient editing – was a new edit keyboard. Anyone who’s ever cut in the linear days – especially those who ran Sony BVE9000/9100 controllers – will feel very nostalgic. It’s a robust keyboard with a high-quality, integrated jog/shuttle knob. The feel is very much like controlling a tape deck in a linear system, with fast shuttle response and precise jogging. The precision is far better than any of the USB controllers, like a Contour Shuttle. Whether or not enough people will have interest in shelling out $1,025 for it awaits to be seen. It’s a great tool, but are you really faster with one, than with FCPX’s skimming and a standard keyboard and mouse?

Ironically, if you look around the Blackmagic Design booth there does seem to be a nostalgic homage to Sony hardware of the past. As I said, the edit keyboard is very close to a BVE9100 keyboard. Even the style of the control panel on the Hyperdecks – and the look of the name badges on those panels – is very much Sony’s style. As humans, this appeals to our desire for something other than the glass interfaces we’ve been dealing with for the past few years. Michael Cioni (Panavision, Light Iron) coined this as ‘tactile attraction’ in his excellent Faster Together Stage talk. It manifests itself not only in these type of control surfaces, but also in skeuomorphic designs applied to audio filter interfaces. Or in the emotion created in the viewer when a colorist adds film grain to digital footage.

Maybe Grant is right and these methods are really faster in a pressure-filled production environment. Or maybe this is simply an effort to appeal to emotion and nostalgia by Blackmagic’s designers. (Check out Grant Petty’s two-hour 2019 Product Overview for more in-depth information on Blackmagic Design’s new products.)

8K

I won’t spill a lot of words on 8K. Seems kind of silly when most delivery is HD and even SD in some places. A lot of today’s production is in 4K, but really only for future-proofing. But the industry has to sell newer and flashier items, so they’ve moved on to 8K pixel resolution (7680 x 4320). Much of this is driven by Japanese broadcast and manufacturer efforts, who are pushing into 8K. You can laugh or roll your eyes, but NAB had many examples of 8K production tools (cameras and recorders) and display systems. Of course, it’s NAB, making it hard to tell how many of these are only prototypes and not yet ready for actual production and delivery.

For now, it’s still a 4K game, with plenty of mainstream product. Not only cameras and NLEs, but items like AJA’s KiPro family. The KiPro Ultra Plus records up to four channels of HD or one channel of 4K in ProRes or DNx. The newest member of the family is the KiPro GO, which records up to four channels of HD (25Mbps H.264) onto removable USB media.

Of course, the industry never stops, so while we are working with HD and 4K, and looking at 8K, the developers are planning ahead for 16K. As I mentioned, Avid already has project presets built-in for 16K projects. Yikes!

HDR

HDR – or high dynamic range – is about where it was last year. There are basically four formats vying to become the final standard used in all production, post, and display systems. While there are several frontrunners and edicts from distributors to deliver HDR-compatible masters, there still is no clear path. In you shoot in log or camera raw with nearly any professional camera produced within the past decade, you have originated footage that is HDR-compatible. But none of the low-cost post solutions make this easy. Without the right monitoring environment, you are wasting your time. If anything, those waters are muddier this year. There were a number of HDR displays throughout the show, but there were also a few labelled as using HDR simulation. I saw a couple of those at TV Logic. Yes, they looked gorgeous and yes, they were receiving an HDR signal. I found out that the ‘simulation’ part of the description meant that the display was bright (up to 350 nits), but not bright enough to qualify as ‘true’ HDR (1,000 nits or higher).

As in past transitions, we are certainly going to have to rely on a some ‘glue’ products. For me, that’s AJA again. Through their relationship with Colorfront, AJA offers two FS-HDR products: the HDR Image Analyzer and the FS-HDR convertor. The latter was introduced last year as a real-time frame synchronizer and color convertor to go between SDR and HDR display standards.  The new Analyzer is designed to evaluate color space and gamut compliance. Just remember, no computer display can properly show you HDR, so if you need to post and delivery HDR, proper monitoring and analysis tools are essential.

Cameras

I’m not a cinematographer, but I do keep up with cameras. Nearly all of this year’s camera developments were evolutionary: new LF (large format sensor) cameras (ARRI), 4K camcorders (Sharp, JVC), a full-frame mirrorless DSLR from Nikon (with ProRes RAW recording coming in a future firmware update). Most of the developments were targeted towards live broadcast production, like sports and megachurches.  Ikegami had an 8K camera to show, but their real focus was on 4K and IP camera control.

RED, a big player in the cinema space, was only there in a smaller demo room, so you couldn’t easily compare their 8K imagery against others on the floor, but let’s not forget Sony and Panasonic. While ARRI has been a favorite, due to the ‘look’ of the Alexa, Sony (Venice) and Panasonic (Varicam and now EVA-1) are also well-respected digital cinema tools that create outstanding images. For example, Sony’s booth featured an amazing, theater-sized, LED 8K micro-pixel display system. Some of the sample material shown was of the Rio Carnival, shot with anamorphic lenses on a 6K full-frame Sony Venice camera. Simply stunning.

Finally, let’s not forget Canon’s line-up of cinema cameras, from the C100 to the C700FF. To complement these, Canon introduced their new line of Sumire Prime lenses at the show. The C300 has been a staple of documentary films, including the Oscar-winning film, Free Solo, which I had the pleasure of watching on the flight to Las Vegas. Sweaty palms the whole way. It must have looked awesome in IMAX!

(For more on RED, cameras, and lenses at NAB, check out this thread from DP Phil Holland.)

It’s a wrap

In short, NAB 2019 had plenty for everyone. This also included smaller markets, like products for education seminars. One of these that I ran across was Cinamaker. They were demonstrating a complete multi-camera set-up using four iPhones and an iPad. The iPhones are the cameras (additional iPhones can be used as isolated sound recorders) and the iPad is the ‘switcher/control room’. The set-up can be wired or wireless, but camera control, video switching, and recording is done at the iPad. This can generate the final product, or be transferred to a Mac (with the line cut and camera iso media, plus edit list) for re-editing/refinement in Final Cut Pro X. Not too shabby, given the market that Cinamaker is striving to address.

For those of us who like to use the NAB Show exhibit floor as a miniature yardstick for the industry, one of the trends to watch is what type of gear is used in the booths and press areas. Specifically, one NLE over another, or one hardware platform versus the other. On that front, I saw plenty of Premiere Pro, along with some Final Cut Pro X. Hardware-wise, it looked like Apple versus HP. Granted, PC vendors, like HP, often supply gear to use in the booths as a form of sponsorship, so take this with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I would guess that I saw more iMac Pros than any other single computer. For PCs, it was a mix of HP Z4, Z6, and Z8 workstations. HP and AMD were partner-sponsors of Avid Connect and they demoed very compelling set-ups with these Z-series units configured with AMD Radeon cards. These are very powerful workstations for editing, grading, mixing, and graphics.

©2019 Oliver Peters

The State of the NLE 2019

It’s a new year, but the doesn’t mean that the editing software landscape will change drastically in the coming months. For all intents and purpose, professional editing options boil down to four choices: Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro X, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. Yes, I know Vegas, Lightworks, Edius, and others are still out there, but those are far off on the radar by comparison (no offense meant to any happy practitioners of these tools). Naturally, since blogs are mainly about opinions, everything I say from here on is purely conjecture. Although it’s informed by my own experiences with these tools and my knowing many of the players involved on the respective product design and management teams – past and present.

Avid continues to be the go-to NLE in the feature film and episodic television world. That’s certainly a niche, but it’s a niche that determines the tools developed by designers for the broader scope of video editing. Apple officially noted two million users for Final Cut Pro X last year and I’m sure it’s likely to be at least 2.5M by now. Adobe claims Premiere Pro to be the most widely used NLE by a large margin. I have no reason to doubt that statement, but I have also never seen any actual stats. I’m sure through the Creative Cloud subscription mechanism Adobe not only knows how many Premiere Pro installations have been downloaded, but probably has a good idea as to actual usage (as opposed to simply downloading the software). Bringing up the rear in this quartet is Resolve. While certainly a dominant color correction application, I don’t yet see it as a key player in the creative editing (as opposed to finishing) space. With the stage set, let’s take a closer look.

Avid Media Composer

Editors who have moved away from Media Composer or who have never used it, like to throw shade on Avid and its marquee product. But loyal users – who include some of the biggest names in film editing – stick by it due in part to familiarity, but also its collaborative features and overall stability. As a result, the development pace and rate of change is somewhat slow compared with the other three. In spite of that, Avid is currently on a schedule of a solid, incremental update nearly every month – each of which chips away at a long feature request list. The most recent one dropped on December 31st. Making significant changes without destroying the things that people love is a difficult task. Development pace is also hindered by the fact that each one of these developers is also chasing changes in the operating system, particularly Apple and macOS. Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s two steps forward, one step back.

As editors, we focus on Media Composer, but Avid is a much bigger company than just that, with its fingers in sound, broadcast, storage, cloud, and media management. If you are a Pro Tools user, you are just as concerned about Avid’s commitment to you, as editors are to them. Like any large company, Avid must advance not just a single core product, but its ecosystem of products. Yet it still must advance the features in these products, because that’s what gets users’ attention. In an effort to improve its attraction to new users, Avid has introduced subscription plans and free versions to make it easier to get started. They now cover editing and sound needs with a lower cost-of-entry than ever before.

I started nonlinear editing with Avid and it will always hold a spot in my heart. Truth be told, I use it much less these days. However, I still maintain current versions for the occasional project need plus compatibility with incoming projects. I often find that Media Composer is the single best NLE for certain tasks, mainly because of Avid’s legacy with broadcast. This includes issues like proper treatment of interlaced media and closed captioning. So for many reasons, I don’t see Avid going away any time soon, but whether or not they can grow their base remains an unknown. Fortunately many film and media schools emphasize Avid when they teach editing. If you know Media Composer, it’s an easy jump to any other editing tool.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

The most widely used NLE? At least from what I can see around me, it’s the most used NLE in my market, including individual editors, corporate media departments, and broadcasters. Its attraction comes from a) the versatility in editing with a wide range of native media formats, and b) the similarity to – and viable replacement for – Final Cut Pro “legacy”. It picked up steam partly as a reaction to the Final Cut Pro X roll-out and users have generally been happy with that choice. While the shift by Adobe to a pure subscription model has been a roadblock for some (who stopped at CS6), it’s also been an advantage for others. I handle the software updates at a production company with nine edit systems and between the Adobe Creative Cloud and Apple Mac App Store applications, upgrades have never been easier.

A big criticism of Adobe has been Premiere’s stability. Of course, that’s based on forum reads, where people who have had problems will pipe up. Rarely does anyone ever post how uneventful their experience has been. I personally don’t find Premiere Pro to be any less stable than any other NLE or application. Nonetheless, working with a mix of oddball native media will certainly tax your system. Avid and Apple get around this by pushing optimized and proxy media. As such, editors reap the benefits of stability. And the same is true with Premiere. Working with consistent, optimized media formats (transcoded in advance) – or working with Adobe’s own proxies – results in a more stable project and a better editing experience.

Avid Media Composer is the dominant editing tool in major markets, but mainly in the long-form entertainment media space. Many of the top trailer and commercial edit shops in those same markets use Premiere Pro. Again, that goes back to the FCP7-to-Premiere Pro shift. Many of these companies had been using the old Final Cut rather than Media Composer. Since some of these top editors also cut features and documentaries, you’ll often see them use Premiere on the features that they cut, too. Once you get below the top tier of studio films and larger broadcast network TV shows, Premiere Pro has a much wider representation. That certainly is good news for Adobe and something for Avid to worry about.

Another criticism is that of Adobe’s development pace. Some users believed that moving to a subscription model would speed the development pace of new versions – independent of annual or semi-annual cycles. Yet cycles still persist – much to the disappointment of those users. This gets down to how software is actually developed, keeping up with OS changes, and to some degree, marketing cycles. For example, if there’s a big Photoshop update, then it’s possible that the marketing “wow” value of a large Premiere Pro update might be overshadowed and needs to wait. Not ideal, but that’s the way it is.

Just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean that users really want to constantly deal with automatic software updates that they have to keep track of. This is especially true with After Effects and Premiere Pro, where old project files often have to be updated once you update the application. And those updates are not backwards compatible. Personally, I’m happy to restrict that need to a couple of times a year.

Users have the fear that a manufacturer is going to end-of-life their favorite application at some point. For video users, this was made all too apparent by Apple and FCPX. Neither Apple nor Adobe has been exempt from killing off products that no longer fit their plans. Markets and user demands shift. Photography is an obvious example here. In recent years, smart phones have become the dominant photographic device, which has enabled cloud-syncing and storage of photos. Adobe and Apple have both shifted the focus for their photo products accordingly. If you follow any of the photo blogs, you’ll know there’s some concern that Adobe Lightroom Classic (the desktop version) will eventually give way completely to Lightroom CC (the cloud version). When a company names something as “classic”, you have to wonder how long it will be supported.

If we apply that logic to Premiere Pro, then the new Adobe Rush comes to mind. Rush is a simpler, nimbler, cross-platform/cross-device NLE targeted as users who produce video starting with their smart phone or tablet. Since there’s also a desktop version, one could certainly surmise that in the future Rush might replace Premiere Pro in the same way that FCPX replaced FCP7. Personally, I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Adobe treats certain software as core products. Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects are such products. Premiere Pro may or may not be viewed that way internally, but certainly more so now than ever in the past. Premiere Pro is being positioned as a “hub” application with connections to companion products, like Prelude and Audition. For now, Rush is simply an interesting offshoot to address a burgeoning market. It’s Adobe’s second NLE, not a replacement. But time will tell.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

Apple released Final Cut Pro X in the summer of 2011 – going on eight years now. It’s a versatile, professional tool that has improved greatly since that 2011 launch and gained a large and loyal fan base. Many FCPX users are also Premiere Pro users and the other way around. It can be used to cut nearly any type of project, but the interface design is different from the others, making it an acquired taste. Being a Mac-only product and developed within the same company that makes the hardware and OS, FCPX is optimized to run on Macs more so than any cross-platform product can be. For example, the fluidity of dealing with 4K ProRes media on even older Macs surpasses that of any other NLE.

Prognosticating Apple’s future plans is a fool’s errand. Some guesses have put the estimated lifespan of FCPX at 10 years, based in part on the lifespan of FCP “legacy”. I have no idea whether that’s true of not. Often when I read interviews with key Apple management (as well as off-the-record, casual discussions I’ve had with people I know on the inside), it seems like a company that actually has less of a concrete plan when it comes to “pro” users. Instead, it often appears to approach them with an attitude of “let’s throw something against the wall and see what sticks”. The 2013 Mac Pro is a striking example of this. It was clearly innovative and a stellar exhibit for Apple’s “think different” mantra. Yet it was a product that obviously was not designed by actually speaking with that product’s target user. Apple’s current “shunning” of Nvidia hardware seems like another example.

One has to ask whether a company so dominated by the iPhone is still agile enough to respond to the niche market of professional video editors. While Apple products (hardware and software) still appeal to creatives and video professionals, it seems like the focus with FCPX is towards the much broader sphere of pro video. Not TV shows and feature films (although that’s great when it comes) – or even high-end commercials and trailers – but rather the world of streaming channels, social media influencers, and traditional publishers who have shifted to an online media presence from a print legacy. These segments of the market have a broad range of needs. After all, so called “YouTube stars” shoot with everything from low-end cameras and smart phones all the way up to Alexas and REDs. Such users are equally professional in their need to deliver a quality product on a timetable and I believe that’s a part of the market that Apple seeks to address with FCPX.

If you are in the world of the more traditional post facility or production company, then those users listed above may be market segments that you don’t see or possibly even look down upon. I would theorize that among the more traditional sectors, FCPX may have largely made the inroads that it’s going to. Its use in films and TV shows (with the exception of certain high-profile, international examples) doesn’t seem to be growing, but I could be wrong. Maybe the marketing is just behind or it no longer has PR value. Regardless, I do see FCPX as continuing strong as a product. Even if it’s not your primary tool, it should be something in your toolkit. Apple’s moves to open up ProRes encoding and offering LumaForge and Blackmagic eGPU products in their online store are further examples that the pro customer (in whatever way you define “pro”) continues to have value to them. That’s a good thing for our industry.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

No one seems to match the development pace of Blackmagic Design. DaVinci Resolve underwent a wholesale transformation from a tool that was mainly a high-end color corrector into an all-purpose editing application. Add to this the fact that Blackmagic has acquired and integrated a number of companies, whose tools have been modernized and integrated into Resolve. Blackmagic now offers a post-production solution with some similarities to FCPX while retaining a traditional, track-based interface. It includes modes for advanced audio post (Fairlight) and visual effects (Fusion) that have been adapted from those acquisitions. Unlike past all-in-one applications, Resolve’s modal pages retain the design and workflow specific to the task at hand, rather than making them fit into the editing application’s interface design. All of this in a very short order and across three operating systems, thus making their pace the envy of the industry.

But a fast development pace doesn’t always translate into a winning product. In my experience each version update has been relatively solid. There are four ways to get Resolve (free and paid, Mac App Store and reseller). That makes it a no-brainer for anyone starting out in video editing, but who doesn’t have the specific requirement for one application over another. I have to wonder though, how many new users go deep into the product. If you only edit, there’s no real need to tap into the Fusion, Fairlight, or color correction pages. Do Resolve editors want to finish audio in Fairlight or would they rather hand off the audio post and mix to a specialist who will probably be using Pro Tools? The nice thing about Resolve is that you can go as deep as you like – or not – depending on your mindset, capabilities, and needs.

On the other hand, is the all-in-one approach better than the alternatives: Media Composer/Pro Tools, Premiere Pro/After Effects/Audition, or Final Cut Pro X/Motion/Logic Pro X? I don’t mean for the user, but rather the developer. Does the all-in-one solution give you the best product? The standalone version of Fusion is more full-featured than the Fusion page in Resolve. Fusion users are rightly concerned that the standalone will go away, leaving them with a smaller subset of those tools. I would argue that there are already unnecessary overlaps in effects and features between the pages. So are you really getting the best editor or is it being compromised by the all-in-one approach? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Resolve for me is a good color correction/grading application that can also work for my finishing needs (although I still prefer to edit in something else and roundtrip to/from Resolve). It’s also a great option for the casual editor who wants a free tool. Yet in spite of all its benefits, I believe Resolve will still be a distant fourth in the NLE world, at least for the next year.

The good news is that there are four great editing options in the lead and even more coming from behind. There are no bad choices and with a lower cost than ever, there’s no reason to limit your knowledge to only one. After all, the products that are on top now may be gone in a decade. So broaden your knowledge and define your skills by your craft – not your tools!

©2019 Oliver Peters