Will DaVinci Resolve 18 get you to switch?

DaVinci Resolve has been admired by users of other editing applications, because of the pace of Blackmagic Design’s development team. Many have considered a switch to Resolve. Since its announcement earlier this year, DaVinci Resolve fans and pros alike have been eagerly awaiting Resolve 18 to get out of public beta. It was recently released and I’ve been using it ever since for a range of color correction jobs.

DaVinci Resolve 18 is available in two versions: Resolve (free) or Resolve Studio (paid). These are free updates to existing customers. They can be downloaded/bought either from the Blackmagic Design website (Windows, Mac, Linux) or through the Apple Mac App Store (macOS only – Intel and M1). The free version of Resolve is missing only a few of the advanced features available in Resolve Studio. Due to App Store policies and sandboxing, there are also some differences between the Blackmagic and App Store installations. The Blackmagic website installations may be activated on up to two computers at the same time using a software activation code. The App Store versions will run on any Mac tied to your Apple ID.

(Click images to see an enlarged view.)

A little DaVinci Resolve history

If you are new to DaVinci Resolve, then here’s a quick recap. The application is an amalgam of the intellectual property and assets acquired by Blackmagic Design over several years from three different companies: DaVinci Systems, eyeon (Fusion), and Fairlight Instruments. Blackmagic Design built upon the core of DaVinci Resolve to develop an all-in-one, post production solution. The intent is to encompass an end-to-end workflow that integrates the specialized tasks of editing, color grading, visual effects, and post production sound all within a single application.

The interface character and toolset tied to each of these tasks is preserved using a page-style, modal user interface. In effect, you have separate tools, tied to a common media engine, which operate under the umbrella of a single application. Some pages are fluidly interoperable (like edit and Color) and others aren’t. For example, color nodes applied to clips in the Color page do not appear as nodes within the Fusion page. Color adjustments made to clips in a Fusion composition need to be done with Fusion’s separate color tools.

Blackmagic has expanded Resolve’s editing features – so much so that it’s a viable competitor to Avid Media Composer, Apple Final Cut Pro, and/or Adobe Premiere Pro. Resolve sports two editing modes: the Cut page (a Final Cut Pro-style interface for fast assembly editing) and the Edit page (a traditional track-based interface). The best way to work in Resolve is to adhere to its sequential, “left to right” workflow – just like the pages/modes are oriented. Start by ingesting in the Media page and then work your way through the tasks/pages until it’s time to export using the Deliver page.

Blackmagic Design offers a range of optional hardware panels for Resolve, including bespoke editing keyboards, color correction panels, and modular control surface configurations for Fairlight (sound mixing). Of course, there’s also Blackmagic’s UltraStudio, Intensity Pro, and DeckLink i/o hardware.

A new collaboration model through Blackmagic Cloud

The biggest news is that DaVinci Resolve 18 was redesigned for multi-user collaboration. Resolve projects are usually stored in a database on your local computer or a local drive, rather than as separate binary project files. Sharing projects in a multi-user environment requires a separate database server, which isn’t designed for remote editing. To simplify this and address remote work, Blackmagic Design established and hosts the new Blackmagic Cloud service.

As I touched on in my Cloud Store Mini review, anyone may sign up for a free Blackmagic Cloud account. When ready, the user creates a Library (database) on Cloud from within the Resolve UI. That user is the “owner” of the Library, which can contain multiple projects. The owner pays $5/library/month for each Library hosted on Blackmagic Cloud.

The Library owner can share a project with any other registered Blackmagic Cloud user. This collaboration model is similar to working in Media Composer and is based on bin locking. The first user to open a bin has read/write permission to that bin and any timelines contained in it. Other users opening the same timeline operate with read-only permission. Changes made by the user with write permission can then be updated by the read-only users on their systems.

Blackmagic Design only hosts the Library/project files and not any media, which stays local for each collaborator. The media syncing workflow is addressed through features of the Cloud Store storage products (see my review). Both collaboration via Blackmagic Cloud and the storage products are independent of each other. You can use either without needing the other. However, since Blackmagic Cloud is hosted “in the cloud” you do need an internet connection. 

There is some latency between the time a change is made by one user before it’s updated on the other users’ machines. In my tests, the collaborator needs to relink to the local media each time a shared project is accessed again. You can also move a project from Cloud back to your local computer as needed.

What else is new in DaVinci Resolve 18?

Aside from the new collaboration tools, DaVinci Resolve 18 also features a range of enhancements. Resolve 17 already introduced quite a few new features, which have been expanded upon in Resolve 18. The first of these is a new, simplified proxy workflow using the “prefer proxies” model. Native media handling has always been a strength of Resolve, especially with ProRes or Blackmagic RAW (BRAW) files. (Sorry, no support for Apple ProRes RAW.) But file sizes, codecs, and your hardware limitations can impede efficient editing. Therefore, working with proxy files may be the better option on some projects. When you are ready to deliver, then switch back to the camera originals for the final output.

The website installer for DaVinci Resolve Studio 18 includes the new Blackmagic Proxy Generator application. This automatically creates H.264, H.265, or ProRes proxy files using a watch folder. However, you can also create proxies internally from Resolve without using this app, or externally using Apple Compressor or Adobe Media Encoder. The trick is that proxy files must have matching names, lengths, timecode values, and audio channel configurations.

Proxy files should be rendered into a subfolder called “Proxy” located within each folder of original camera files. (Resolve and/or the Proxy Generator application do this automatically.) Then Resolve’s intelligent media management automatically detects and attaches the proxies to the original file. This makes linking easy and allows you to automatically toggle between the proxy and the original files.

Regarding other enhancements, the Color page didn’t see any huge new features, since tools like the Color Warper and HDR wheels were added in Resolve 17. However, there were some new items, including object replacement and enhanced tracking. But, I didn’t find the results to be as good as Adobe’s Content Aware Fill techniques.

Two additions worth mentioning are the Automatic Depth Map and Resolve FX Beauty effect. The beauty effect is a subtle skin smoothing tool. It’s nice, but quite frankly, too subtle. My preference in this type of tool would be Digital Anarchy’s Beauty Box or Boris FX’s Beauty Studio. However, Resolve does include other similar tools, like Face Refinement where you have more control.

Automatic Depth Map is more of a marquee feature. This is a pretty sophisticated process – analyzing depth separation in a moving image without the benefit of any lens metadata. It shows up as a Resolve FX in the Edit, Fusion, and the Color pages. Don’t use it in the Edit page, because you can’t do anything with it there. In the Color page, rather than apply it to a node, drag the effect into the node tree, where it creates its own node.

After brief clip analysis, the tool generates a mask, which you can use as a qualifier to isolate the foreground and background. Bear in mind this is for mild grading differences. Even though you might think of this for blurring a background, don’t do it! The mask is relatively broad. If you try to tighten the mask and use it to blur a background, you’ll get a result that looks like a Zoom call background. Instead, use it to subtly lighten or darken the foreground versus the background within a shot. Remember, the shot is moving, which can often lead to some chatter on the edges of the mask as the clip moves. So you’ll have to play with it to get the best result. Playback performance at Better Quality was poor on a 2017 iMac Pro. Use Faster while working and then switch to Better when you are ready to export or render.

Fusion

Complex visual effects and compositing are best done in the Fusion page. Fusion is both a component of Resolve, as well as a separate application offered by Blackmagic Design. It uses a node-based interface, but these nodes are separate and unrelated to the nodes in the Color page. Fusion features advanced tracking, particle effects, and a true 3D workspace that can work with 3D models. If you have any stereoscopic projects, then Fusion is the tool to use. The news for Fusion and the standalone Fusion Studio 18 application in this update focuses on GPU acceleration.

Before the acquisition by Blackmagic Design, eyeon offered several integrations of Fusion with NLEs like DPS Velocity and Avid Media Composer. The approach within Resolve is very similar to those – send a clip to Fusion for the effect, work with it inside the Fusion UI, and then it’s updated on the timeline as a Fusion clip. This is not unlike the Dynamic Link connection between Premiere Pro and After Effects, except that it all happens inside the same piece of software.

If you are used to working with a layer-style graphics application, like After Effects, Motion, or maybe HitFilm, then Fusion is going to feel foreign. It is a high-end visual effects tool, but might feel cumbersome to some when doing standard motion graphics. Yet for visual effects, the node-based approach is actually superior. There are plenty of good tutorials for Fusion, for any user ready to learn more about its visual effects power.

There are a few things to be aware of with Fusion. The image in the Fusion viewer and the output through UltraStudio to a monitor will be dark, as compared with that same image on the Edit page. Apparently this has been an ongoing user complaint and I have yet to find a color management setting that definitively solves this issue. There is also no way to “decompose” or “break apart” a Fusion composition on the timeline. You can reset the clip to a Fusion default status, but you cannot revert the timeline clip back to that camera file without it being part of a Fusion composition. Therefore, the best workaround is to copy the clip to a higher track before sending it to Fusion. That way you have both the Fusion composition and the original clip on the timeline.

In addition to visual effects, Fusion templates are also used for animated titles. These can be dropped onto a track in the Edit page and then modified in the inspector or the Fusion page. These Fusion titles function a lot like Apple’s Motion templates being used in Final Cut Pro.

Fairlight

Fairlight Instruments started with a popular digital audio workstation (Fairlight CMI) at the dawn of digital audio. After Blackmagic’s acquisition, the software portion of Fairlight was reimagined as a software module for audio post built into DaVinci Resolve. The Fairlight hardware and control surfaces were modularized. You can definitely run Fairlight in Resolve without any extra hardware. However, you can improve real-time performance on mixes with heavy track counts by adding the Fairlight Audio Core accelerator card. You can also configure one or more Blackmagic control surfaces into a large mixing console.

Taken as a whole, this makes the Fairlight ecosystem a very scalable product line in its own right that can appeal to audio post engineers and other audio production professionals. In other words, you can use the Fairlight portion of Resolve without ever using any of the video-centric pages. In that way, Resolve with Fairlight competes with Adobe Audition, Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro, and others. In fact, Fairlight is still the only professional DAW that’s actually integrated into an NLE.

Fairlight is designed as a DAW for broadcast and film with meter calibration based on broadcast standards. It comes with a free library of sound effects that can be downloaded from Blackmagic Design. The Fairlight page also includes an ADR workflow. DaVinci Resolve 18 expanded the Fairlight toolset. There’s new compatibility for FlexBus audio busing/routing with legacy projects. A lot of work has been put into Dolby Atmos support, including a binaural renderer, and an audio Space view of objects in relation to the room in 3D space.

On the other hand, if you are into music creation, then Fairlight lacks software instruments and music-specific plug-ins, like amp emulation. The MIDI support is focused on sound design. A musician would likely gravitate towards Logic Pro, Cubase, Luna, or Ableton Live. Nevertheless, Fairlight is still quite capable as a DAW for music mixes. Each track/fader integrates a channel strip for effects, plus built-in EQ and compression. Resolve comes with its own complement of Fairlight FX plug-ins, plus it supports third-party AU/VST plug-ins.

I decided to test that concept using some of the mixes from the myLEWITT music sessions. I stacked LEWITT’s multitrack recordings onto a blank Fairlight timeline, which automatically created new mono or stereo tracks, based on the file. I was able to add new busses (stem or submaster channels) for each instrument group and then route those busses to the output. It was easy to add effects and control levels by clip, by track, or by submaster.

Fairlight might not be my first choice if I were a music mixer, but I could easily produce a good mix with it. The result is a transparent, modern sound. If you prefer vintage, analog-style coloration, then you’ll need to add third-party plug-ins for that. Whether or not Fairlight fits the bill for music will depend on your taste as a mixer.

Conclusion

Once again, Blackmagic Design has added more power in the DaVinci Resolve 18 release. Going back to the start of this post – is this the version that will finally cause a paradigm shift away from the leading editing applications? In my opinion, that’s doubtful. As good as it is, the core editing model is probably not compelling enough to coax the majority of loyal users away from their favorite software. However, that doesn’t mean those same users won’t tap into some of Resolve’s tools for a variety of tasks.

There will undoubtedly be people who shift away from Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro and over to DaVinci Resolve. Maybe it’s for Resolve’s many features. Maybe they’re done with subscriptions. Maybe they no longer feel that Apple is serious. Whatever the reason, Resolve is a highly capable editing application. In fact, during the first quarter of this year I graded and finished a feature film that had been cut entirely in Resolve 17.

Software choices can be highly personal and intertwined with workflow, muscle memory, and other factors. Making a change often takes a big push. I suspect that many Resolve editors are new to editing, often because they got a copy when they bought one of the Blackmagic Design cameras. Resolve just happens to be the best application for editing BRAW files and that combo can attract new users.

DaVinci Resolve 18 is a versatile, yet very complex application. Even experienced users don’t tap into the bulk of what it offers. My advice to any new user is to start with a simple project. Begin in the Cut or Edit page, get comfortable, and ignore everything else. Then learn more over time as you expand the projects you work on and begin to master more of the toolkit. If you really want to dive into DaVinci Resolve, then check out the many free and paid tutorials from Blackmagic Design, Mixing Light, and Ripple Training. Resolve is one application where any user, regardless of experience, will benefit from training, even if it’s only a refresher.

I’ve embedded a lot of links throughout this post, so I hope you’ll take the time to check them out. They cover some of the enhancements that were introduced in earlier versions, the history of DaVinci Resolve, and links to the new features of DaVinci Resolve 18. Enjoy!

©2022 Oliver Peters

Generalists versus Specialists

“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a quote most are familiar with. But the complete quote “Jack of all trades, master of none, but oftentimes better than master of one” actually has quite the opposite perceived meaning. In the world of post production you have Jacks and Jills of all trades (generalists) and masters of one (specialists). While editors are certainly specialized in storytelling, I would consider them generalists when comparing their skillset to those of other specialists, such as visual effects artists, colorists, and audio engineers. Editors often touch on sound, effects, and color in a more general (often temp) way to get client approval. The others have to deliver the best, final results within a single discipline. Editors have to know the tools of editing, but not the nitty gritty of color correction or visual effects.

This is closely tied to the Pareto Principle, which most know as the 80/20 Rule. This principle states that 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes, but it’s been applied in various ways. When talking about software development, the 80/20 Rule predicts that 80% of the users are going to use 20% of the features, while only 20% of users will find a need for the other features. The software developer has to decide whether the target customer is the generalist (the 80% user) or the specialist (the 20% user). If the generalist is the target, then the challenge is to add some specialized features to service the advanced user without creating a bloated application that no one will use.

Applying these concepts to editing software development

When looking at NLEs, the first question to ask is, “Who is defined as a video editor today?” I would separate editors into three groups. One group would be the “I have to do it all” group, which generates most of what we see on local TV, corporate videos, YouTube, etc. These are multi-discipline generalists who have neither the time nor interest in dealing with highly specialized software. In the case of true one-man bands, the skill set also includes videography, plus location lighting and sound.

The “top end” – national and international commercials, TV series, and feature films – could be split into two groups: craft (aka film or offline) editors and finishing (aka online) editors. Craft editors are specialists in molding the story, but generalists when it comes to working software. Their technical skills don’t have to be the best, but they need to have a solid understanding of visual effects, sound, and color, so that they can create a presentable rough cut with temp elements. The finishing editor’s role is to take the final elements from sound, color, and the visual effects houses, and assemble the final deliverables. A key talent is quality control and attention to detail; therefore, they have no need to understand dedicated color, sound, or effects applications, unless they are also filling one of these roles.

My motivation for writing this post stemmed from an open letter to Tim Cook, which many editors have signed – myself included. Editors have long been fans of Apple products and many gravitated from Avid Media Composer to Apple Final Cut Pro 1-7. However, when Apple reimagined Final Cut and dropped Final Cut Studio in order to launch Final Cut Pro X many FCP fans were in shock. FCPX lacked a number of important features at first. A lot of these elements have since been added back, but that development pace hasn’t been fast enough for some, hence the letter. My wishlist for new features is quite small. I recognize Final Cut for what it is in the Apple ecosystem. But I would like to see Apple work to raise the visibility of Final Cut Pro within the broader editing community. That’s especially important when the decision of which editing application to use is often not made by editors.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve – the über-app for specialists

This brings me to Resolve. Editors point to Blackmagic’s aggressive development pace and the rich feature set. Resolve is often viewed as the greener pasture over the hill. I’m going to take a contrarian’s point of view. I’ve been using Resolve since it was introduced as Mac software and recently graded a feature film that was cut on Resolve by another editor.

Unfortunately, the experience was more problematic than I’ve had with grades roundtripped to Resolve from other NLEs. Its performance as an editor was quite slow when trying to move around in the timeline, replace shots, or trim clips. Resolve wouldn’t be my first NLE choice when compared to Premiere Pro, Media Composer, or Final Cut Pro. It’s a complex program by necessity. The color management alone is enough to trip up even experienced editors who aren’t intimately familiar with what the various settings do with the image.

DaVinci Resolve is an all-in-one application that integrates editing (2 different editing models), color correction (aka grading), Fusion visual effects, and the Fairlight DAW. Historically, all-in-ones have not had a great track record in the market. Other such über-apps would include Avid|DS and Autodesk Smoke. Avid pulled the plug on DS and Autodesk changed their business model for the Flame/Smoke/Lustre product family into subscription. Neither DS nor Smoke as a standalone application moved the needle for market share.

At its core, Resolve is a grading application with Fusion and Fairlight added in later. Color, effects, and audio mixing are all specialized skills and the software is designed so that each specialist if comfortable with the toolset presented on those pages/modes. I believe Blackmagic has been attempting to capitalize on Final Cut editor discontent and create the mythical “FCP8” or “FC Extreme” that many wanted. However, adding completely new and disparate functions to an application that at its core is designed around color correction can make it quite unwieldy. Beginning editors are never going to touch most of what Resolve has to offer and the specialists would rather have a dedicated specialized tool, like Nuke, After Effects, or Pro Tools.

Apple Final Cut Pro – reimagining modern workflows for generalists

Apple makes software for generalists. Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Photos, GarageBand, and iMovie are designed for that 80%. Apple also creates advanced software for the more demanding user under the ProApps banner (professional applications). This is still “generalist” software, but designed for more complex workflows. That’s where Final Cut Pro, Motion, Compressor, and Logic Pro fit.

Apple famously likes to “skate to where the puck will be” and having control over hardware, operating system, and software gives the teams special incite to develop software that is optimized for the hardware/OS combo. As a broad-based consumer goods company Apple also understands market trends. In the case of iPhones and digital photography it also plays a huge role in driving trends.

When Apple launched Final Cut Pro X the goal was an application designed for simplified, modernized workflows – even if “Hollywood” wasn’t quite ready. This meant walking away from the comprehensive “suite of tools” concept (Final Cut Studio). They chose to focus on a few applications that were better equipped for where the wider market of content creators was headed – yet, one that could still address more sophisticated needs, albeit in a different way.

This reimagining of Final Cut Pro had several aspects to it. One was to design an application that could easily be used on laptops and desktop systems and was adaptable to single and dual screen set-ups. It also introduced workflows based on metadata to improve edit efficiency. It was intended as a platform with third parties filling in the gaps. This means you need to augment FCP to cover a few common industry workflows. In short, FCP is designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of today’s “professionals” and not how one might have defined that term in the early 1990s, when nonlinear editing first took hold.

For a developer, it gets down to who the product is marketed towards and which new features to prioritize. Generalists are going to grow the market faster, hence a better return on development resources. The more complex an application becomes, the more likely it is to have bugs or break when the hardware or OS is updated. Quality assurance testing (QA) expands exponentially with complexity.

Final thoughts

Do my criticisms of Resolve mean that it’s a bad application? No, definitely not! It’s powerful in the right hands, especially if you work within its left-to-right workflow (edit -> Fusion -> color -> Fairlight). But, I don’t think it’s the ideal NLE for craft editing. The tools are designed for a collection of specialists. Blackmagic has been on this path for a rather long time now and seem to be at a fork in the road. Maybe they should step back, start from a clean slate, and develop a fresh, streamlined version of Resolve. Or, split it up into a set of individual, focused applications.

So, is Final Cut Pro the ideal editing platform? It’s definitely a great NLE for the true generalist. I’m a fan and use it when it’s the appropriate tool for the job. I like that it’s a fluid NLE with a responsive UI design. Nevertheless, it isn’t the best fit for many circumstances. I work in a market and with clients that are invested in Adobe Creative Cloud workflows. I have to exchange project files and make sure plug-ins are all compatible. I collaborate with other editors and more than one of us often touches these projects.

Premiere Pro is the dominant NLE for me in this environment. It also clicks with how my mind works and feels natural to me. Although you hear complaints from some, Premiere has been quite stable for me in all my years of use. Premiere Pro hits the sweet spot for advanced editors working on complex productions without becoming overly complex. Product updates over the past year have provided new features that I use every day. However, if I were in New York or Los Angeles, that answer would likely be Avid Media Composer, which is why Avid maintains such dominance in broadcast operations and feature film post.

In the end, there is no right or wrong answer. If you have the freedom to choose, then assess your skills. Where do you fall on the generalist/specialist spectrum? Pick the application that best meets your needs and fits your mindset.

For another direct comparison check out this previous post.

©2022 Oliver Peters