W.A.S.P.

A regrettable aspect of history and the march of time is that many interesting stories are buried or forgotten. We learn the bullet points of the past, but not the nuances that bring history alive. It’s a challenge that many documentarians seek to meet. While the WWII era is ripe with heroic tales, one unit was almost forgotten.

Women Airforce Service Pilots  (aka WASP)

As WWII ramped up, qualified male pilots were sent to European and Pacific combat, leaving a shortage of stateside pilots. The WASP unit was created as a civilian auxiliary  attached to the U. S. Army Air Forces, It was organized and managed by Jackie Cochran, an accomplished female aviator and entrepreneur. More than 25,000 women applied for the WASP, but only 1,830 were accepted into the program.

The WASP members engaged in military-style training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. They wore uniforms, and were given flight assignments by the military, yet they weren’t actually in the military. Their role was to handle all non-combat, military flight tasks within the states, including ferrying aircraft cross-country from factories to deployment bases, serve as test pilots, and handle training tasks like towing targets and mock strafing runs over combat trainees. During her service, the typical WASP would fly more types of aircraft than most male, military pilots. Sadly, 38 WASP died during training or active duty assignments.

Although WASP members joined with the promise of their unit becoming integrated into the regular military, that never happened. As the war wound down and male pilots returned home needing jobs, the WASP units were disbanded, due in part to Congressional and media resistance. Records were sealed and classified and the WASP were almost forgotten by history. Finally in the late 1970s President Carter signed legislation that recognized WASP members as veterans and authorized veterans benefits. In 2009 President Obama and the Congress awarded WASP members with the Congressional Gold Medal.

The documentary

Documentary filmmaker Jon Anderson set out over a decade ago to tell a complete story of the WASP in a feature-length film. Anderson, a history buff, had already produced and directed one documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen. So the WASP story was the next logical subject. The task was to interview as many living WASP to tell their story as possible. The goal was not just the historical facts, but also what it was like to be a WASP, along with some of the backstory details about Cochran and the unit’s formation. The result was W.A.S.P. – A Wartime Experiment in WoManpower.

Anderson accumulated a wealth of interviews, but with limited resources. This meant that interviews were recorded mostly on DV cameras in standard definition. However, as an instructor of documentary filmmaking at Valencia College, Anderson also utilized some of the film program’s resources in the production. This included a number of re-enactments – filmed with student crews, talent, and RED cameras. The initial capture and organization of footage was handled by a previous student of his using Final Cut Pro 7.

Technical issues

Jon asked me to join the project as co-editor after the bulk of interviews and re-enactments had been compiled. Several dilemmas faced me at the front end. The project was started in FCP7, which was now a zombie application. Should I move the project to Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, or Media Composer? After a bit of experimentation, the best translation of the work that had already been done was into Premiere Pro. Since we had a mix of SD and HD/4K content, what would be the best path forward – upconvert to HD or stay in standard def? HD seemed to be the best option for distribution possibilities, but that posed additional challenges.

Only portions of tapes were originally captured – not complete tapes. These were also captured with separated audio and video going to different capture folders (a feature of FCP “classic”). Timecode accuracy was questionable, so it would be nearly impossible to conform the current organized clips from the tapes at a higher resolution. But since it was captured as DV from DV tapes, there was no extra quality loss due to interim transcoding into a lower resolution file format.

Ultimately I opted to stick with what was on the drives as my starting point. Jon and I organized sequences and I was able to borrow a Blackmagic Teranex unit. I exported the various sequences between two computers through the Teranex, which handled the SD to HD conversion and de-interlacing of any interlaced footage. This left us with upscaled ProRes interviews that were 4×3 within a 16×9 HD sequence. Nearly all interviews were filmed against a black limbo background, so I then masked around each woman on camera. In addition, each was reframed to the left or right side, depending on where they faced. Now we could place them against another background – either true black, a graphic, or B-roll. Finally, all clips were graded using Lumetri within Premiere Pro. My home base for video post was TinMen – an Orlando creative production company.

Refining the story

With the technical details sorted out, it was time to refine the story. Like many docs, you end up with more possible storylines than will fit. It’s always a whittling process to reveal a story’s essence and to decide which items are best left out so that the rest remains clear. Interviews were bridged with voice-overs plus archival footage, photos, or re-enactments to fill in historical details. This went through numerous rounds of refinement with input from Jon and Rachel Becker Wright, the producer and co-editor on the film. Along the way Rachel was researching, locating, and licensing archival footage for B-roll. 

Once the bulk of the main storyline was assembled with proper voice-overs, re-enactments, and some B-roll, I turned the cut over to Rachel. She continued with Jon to refine the edit with graphics, music, and final B-roll. Sound post was handled by the audio production department at Valencia College. A nearly-final version of the 90-minute documentary was presented at a “friends and family” screening at the college.

Emmy®

Many readers know about the national Emmy® Awards handed out annually by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS). It may be less known that NATAS includes 19 regional chapters, which also award Emmys within their chapters. Awards are handed out for projects presented in that region, usually via local broadcast or streaming. Typically the project wins the award without additional craft categories. Anderson was able to submit a shortened version of the documentary for judging by the Suncoast regional chapter, which includes Florida, Puerto Rico, and parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia. I’m happy to say that W.A.S.P. – A Wartime Experiment in WoManpower won a 2020 regional Emmy, which included Jon Anderson, Rachel Becker Wright, Joe Stone (production designer), and myself.

Awards are nice, of course, but getting the story out about the courageous ladies of the WASP is far more important and I was happy to play a small part in that.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Project organization

Leading into the new year, it’s time to take a fresh look at a perennial subject. Whether you work as a solo editor or part of a team, having a plan for organizing your projects – along with a workflow for moving media though your system – will lead to success in being able to find and restore material when needed at a future date. For a day-to-day workflow, I rely on five standard applications: Post Haste, Hedge, Better Rename, DiskCatalogMaker, and Kyno. I work on Macs, but there are Windows versions or alternatives for each.

Proper project organization. Regardless of your NLE, it’s a good idea to create a project “silo” for each job on your hard drive, RAID, or networked storage (NAS). That’s a main folder for the job, with subfolders for the edit project files, footage, audio, graphics, documents, exports, etc. I use Post Haste to create a new set of project folders for each new project.

Post Haste uses default or custom templates that can include Adobe project files. This provides a common starting point for each new project based on a template that I’ve created. Using this template, Post Haste generates a new project folder with common subfolders. A template Premiere Pro project file with my custom bin structure is contained within the Post Haste template. When each new set of folders is created, this Premiere file is also copied.

In order to track productions, each job is assigned a number, which becomes part of the name structure assigned within Post Haste. The same name is applied to the Premiere Pro project file. Typically, the master folder (and Premiere project) for a new job created through Post Haste will be labelled according to this schema: 9999_CLIENT_PROJECT_DATE.

Dealing with source footage, aka rushes or dailies. The first thing you have to deal with on a new project is the source media. Most of the location shoots for my projects come back to me with around 1TB of media for a day’s worth of filming. That’s often from two or three cameras, recorded in a variety of codecs at 4K/UHD resolution and 23.98fps. Someone on location (DIT, producer, DP, other) has copied the camera cards to working SSDs, which will be reused on later productions. Hedge is used to copy the cards, in order to provide checksum copy verification.

I receive those SSDs and not the camera cards. The first step is to copy that media “as is” into the source footage subfolder for that project on the editing RAID or NAS. Once my copy is complete, those same SSDs are separately copied “as is” via Hedge to one or more Western Digital or Seagate portable drives. Theoretically, this is for a deep archive, which hopefully will never be needed. Once we have at least two copies of the media, these working SSDs can be reformatted for the next production. The back-up drives should be stored in a safe location on-premises or better yet, offsite.

Since video cameras don’t use a standard folder structure on the cards, the next step is to reorganize the copied media in the footage folder according to date, camera, and roll. This means ripping media files out of their various camera subfolders. Within the footage folder, my subfolder hierarchy becomes shoot date (MMDDYY), then camera (A-CAM, B-CAM, etc), and then camera roll (A001, A002, etc). Media is located within the roll subfolder. Double-system audio recordings go into a SOUND folder for that date and follow this same hierarchy for sound rolls. When this reorganization is complete, I delete the leftover camera subfolders, such as Private, DCIM, etc.

It may be necessary to rename or append prefixes to file names in order to end up with completely unique file names within this project. That’s where Better Rename comes in. This is a Finder-level batch renaming tool. If a camera generates default names on a card, such as IMG_001, IMG_002 and so on, then renaming becomes essential. I try to preserve the original name in order to be able to trace the file back to back-up drives if I absolutely have to. Therefore, it’s best to append a prefix. I base this on project, date, camera, and roll. As an example, if IMG_001 was shot as part of the Bahamas project on December 20th, recorded by E-camera on roll seven, then the appended file would be named BAH1220E07_IMG_001.

Some camera codecs, like those used by drones and GoPros, are a beast for many NLEs to deal with. Proxy media is one way or you can transcode only the offending files. If you choose to transcode these files, then Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder, or Resolve are the best go-to applications. Transcode at the native file size and resolution into an optimized codec, like ProRes. Maintain log color spaces, because these optimized files become the new “camera” files in your edit. I will add separate folders for ORIG (camera original media) and PRORES (my transcoded, optimized files) within each camera roll folder. Only the ProRes media is to be imported into the NLE for editing.

Back-up! Do not proceed to GO! Now that you’ve spent all of this effort reorganizing, renaming, and transcoding media, you first want a back-up the files before starting to edit. I like to back up media to raw, removable, enterprise-grade HGST or Seagate hard drives. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a variety of drive sizes ranging from 2TB to now 8TB. Larger capacities are available, but 8TB is a cost-effective and manageable capacity. When placed into a Thunderbolt or USB drive dock, these function like any other local hard drive. 

When you’ve completed dealing with the media from the shoot, simply copy the whole job folder to a drive. You can store multiple projects on the same drive, depending on their capacity. This is an easy overnight process with most jobs, so it won’t impact your edit time. The point is to back up the newly organized version of your raw media. Once completed, you will have three copies of the source footage – the “as is” copy, the version on your RAID or NAS, and this back-up on the raw drive. After the project has been completed and delivered, load up the back-up drive and copy everything else from this job to that drive. This provides a “clone” of the complete job on both your RAID/NAS and the back-up drive.

In order to keep these back-up drives straight, you’ll need a catalog. At home, I’ve accumulated 12 drives thus far. At work we’ve accumulated over 200. I’ve found the easiest way to deal with this is an application called DiskCatalogMaker. It scans the drive and stores the file information in a catalog document. Each drive entry mimics what you see in the Finder, including folders, files, sizes, dates, and so on. The catalog document is searchable, which is why job numbers become important. It’s a good idea to periodically mount and spin up these drives to maintain reliability. Once a year is a minimum.

If you have sufficient capacity on your RAID or NAS, then you don’t want to immediately delete jobs and media when the work is done. In our case, once a job has been fully backed up, the job folder is moved into a BACKED UP folder on the NAS. This way we know when a job has been backed up, yet it is still easily retrieved should the client come back with revisions. Plus, you still have three total copies of the source media.

Other back-ups. I’ve talked a lot about backing up camera media, but what about other files? Generally files like graphics are supplied, so these are also backed up elsewhere. Plus they will get backed up on the raw drive when the job is done.

I also use Dropbox for interim back-ups of project files. Since a Premiere Pro project file is light and doesn’t carry media, it’s easy to back up in the cloud. At work, at the end of each day, each editor copies in-progress Premiere files to a company Dropbox folder. The idea is that in the event of some catastrophe, you could get your project back from Dropbox and then use the backed up camera drives to rebuild an edit. In addition, we also export and copy Resolve projects to Dropbox, as well as the DiskCatalogMaker catalog documents.

Whenever possible, audio stems and textless masters are exported for each completed job. These are stored with the final masters. Often it’s easier to make revisions using these elements, than to dive back into a complex job after it’s been deeply archived. Our NAS contains a separate top-level folder for all finished masters, in addition to the master subfolder within each project. When a production is done, the master file is copied into this other folder, resulting in two sets of the master files on the NAS. And by “master” I generally mean a final ProRes file along with a high-quality MP4 file. The MP4 is most often what the client will use as their “master,” since so much of our work these days is for the web. Therefore, both NAS locations hold a ProRes and an MP4. That’s in addition to the masters stored on the raw, back-up drive.

Final, Final revised, no really, this one is Final. Let’s address file naming conventions. Every editor knows the “danger” of calling something Final. Clients love to make changes until they no longer can. I work on projects that have running changes as adjustments are made for use in new presentations. Calling any of these “Final” never works. Broadcast commercials are usually assigned definitive ISCI codes, but that’s rarely the case with non-broadcast projects. The process that works for us is simply to use version numbers and dates. This makes sense and is what software developers use.

We use this convention: CLIENT_PROJECTNAME_VERSION_DATE_MODIFIER. As an example, if you are editing a McDonald’s Big Mac :60 commercial, then a final version might be labelled “MCD_Big Mac 60_v13_122620.” A slight change on that same day would become “MCD_Big Mac 60_v14_122620.” We use the “modifier” to designate variations from the norm. Our default master files are formatted as 1080p at 23.98 with stereo audio. So a variation exported as 4K/UHD or 720p or with a 5.1 surround mix would have the added suffix of “_4K” or “_720p” or “_51MIX.”

Some projects go through many updates and it’s often hard to know when a client (working remotely) considers a version truly done. They are supposed to tell you that, but they often just don’t. You sort of know, because the changes stop coming and a presentation deadline has been met. Whenever that happens, we export a ProRes master file plus high-quality MP4 files. The client may come back a week later with some revisions. Then, new ProRes and MP4 files are generated. Since version numbers are maintained, the ProRes master files will also have different version numbers and dates and, therefore, you can differentiate one from the other. Both variations may be valid and in use by the client.

Asset management. The last piece of software that comes in handy for us is Kyno. This is a lightweight asset management tool that we use to scan and find media on our NAS. Our method of organization makes it relatively easy to find things just by working in the Finder. However, if you are looking for that one piece of footage and need to be able to identify it visually, then that’s where Kyno is helpful. It’s like Adobe Bridge on steroids. One can organize and sort using the usual database tools, but it also has a very cool “drill down” feature. If you want to browse media within a folder without stepping through a series of subfolders, simply enable “drill down” and you can directly browse all media that’s contained therein. Kyno also features robust transcode and “send to” features designed with NLEs in mind. Prep media for an edit or create proxies? Simply use Kyno as an alternative to other options.

Hopefully this recap has provided some new workflow pointers for 2021. Good luck!

©2021 Oliver Peters

Avid’s Hidden Gems

Avid Media Composer offers a few add-on options, but two are considered gems by the editors that rely on them. ScriptSync and PhraseFind are essential for many drama and documentary editors who wield Media Composer keyboards every day. I’ve written about these tools in the past, including how you can get similar functionality in other NLEs. New transcription services, like Simon Says, make them more viable than ever for the average editor.

Driven by the script

Avid’s script-based editing, also called script integration, builds a representation of the script supervisor’s lined script directly into the Avid Media Composer workflow and interface. While often referred to as ScriptSync, Avid’s script integration is actually not the same. Script-based editing and script bins are part of the core Media Composer system and does not cost extra.

The concept originated with the Cinedco Ediflex NLE and migrated to Avid. In the regular Media Composer system, preparing a script bin and aligning takes to that script is a manual process, often performed by assistant editors that are part of a larger editorial team. Because it is labor-intensive, most individual editors working on projects that aren’t major feature films or TV series avoid using this workflow.

Avid ScriptSync (a paid option) automates this script bin preparation process, by automatically aligning spoken words in a take to the text lines within the written script. It does this using speech recognition technology licensed from Nexidia. This technology is based on phonemes, the sounds that are combined to create spoken words. Clips can be imported (transcoded into Avid MediaFiles) or linked.

Through automatic analysis of the audio within a take, ScriptSync can correlate a line in the script to its relative position within that take or within multiple takes. Once clips have been properly aligned to the written dialogue, ScriptSync is largely out of the picture. And so, in Avid’s script-based editing, the editor can then click on a line of dialogue within the script bin and see all of the coverage for that line.

Script integration with non-scripted content

You might think, “Great, but I’m not cutting TV shows and films with a script.” If you work in documentaries or corporate videos built around lengthy interviews, then script integration may have little meaning – unless you have transcripts. Getting long interviews transcribed can be costly and/or time-consuming.  That’s where an automated transcription service like Simon Says comes in. There are certainly other, equally good services. However, Simon Says, offers export options tailored for each NLE, including Avid Media Composer.

With a transcription available on a fast turnaround, it becomes easy to import an interview transcript into a Media Composer script bin and align clips to it. ScriptSync takes care of the automatic alignment making script-based editing quick, easy, and painless – even for an individual editor without any assistants.

Finding that needle in the haystack

The second gem is PhraseFind, which builds upon the same Nexidia speech recognition technology. It’s a tool that’s even more essential for the documentary editor than script integration. PhraseFind (a paid option) is a phonetic search tool that analyzes the audio for clips within an Avid MediaFiles folder. Type in a word or phrase and PhraseFind will return a number of “hits” with varying degrees of accuracy.

The search is based on phonemes, so the results are based on words that “sound like” the search term. On one side this means that low-accuracy results may include unrelated finds that sound similar. On the other hand, you can enter a search word that is spelled differently or inaccurately, but as long as it still sounds the same, then useful results will be returned.

PhraseFind is very helpful in editing “Frankenbites.” Those are edits were sentences are ended in the middle, because a speaker went off on a tangent, or when different phrases are combined to complete a thought. Often you need to find a word that matches your edit point, but with the correct inflection, such as ending a sentence. PhraseFind is great for these types of searches, since your only alternative is scouring through multiple clips in search of a single word.

Working with the options

Script-based editing, ScriptSync, and PhraseFind are unique features that are only available in Avid Media Composer. No other NLE offers similar built-in features. Boris FX does offer Soundbite, which is a standalone equivalent to the PhraseFind technology licensed to them by Nexidia. It’s still available, but not actively promoted nor developed. Adobe had offered Story as a way to integrate script-based editing into Premiere Pro. That feature is no longer available. So today, if you want the accepted standard for script and phonetic editing features, then Media Composer is where it’s at.

These are separate add-on options. You can pick one or the other or both (or neither) depending on your needs and style of work. They are activated through Avid Link. If you own multiple seats of Media Composer, then you can purchase one license of ScriptSync and/or PhraseFind and float them between Media Composers via Avid Link activation. While these tools aren’t for everyone, they do offer a new component to how you work as an editor. Many who’ve adopted them have never looked back.

©2020, 2021 Oliver Peters

5 Easy FCPX Color Tricks

Color correction plug-ins are certainly fun to use, but Final Cut Pro X has plenty of horsepower on its own. There are also a number of features and techniques that often get overlooked. Here are five simple tricks you can use to enhance the look of your videos. (Click any image to see an enlarged view.)

Balance Color / Match Color

Final Cut has offered the ability to auto balance the color of a shot and to match two shots to each other since the early days. Balance color analyzes a shot and corrects it to a neutral tonality. This is typically a “best guess,” based on either an automatic overall adjustment or one focusing on white balance.

You can select all of the clips in your timeline and balance them in a single command. Most of the time, automatic will result in a pleasing enhancement of the image. The exception is when there’s no clear white reference in the shot, like a close-up on fire. In that case, you’d want to retain the orange/yellow qualities of the shot. The balance color results are not adjustable (other than to select between automatic or white balance), so consider it a first step to be further enhanced by the other color correction tools.

Match color is different in that it corrects the tonality of a selected clip to match another clip in the timeline. Park on the clip, select match color, skim to the clip used for the match, click on that frame for a preview, and then click Apply Match if you like the preview results. A common application might be to match A and B cameras to each other.

Match color can be used creatively, as well. For example, let’s say you want your clips to match the tonality of shots from a particular movie. A great resource for film reference frames is the Shotdeck website (free if you register as a beta user). Find and download a reference frame. Import the image file and edit it to the end of your timeline. Now use match color for a selected clip and skim to that reference film image on your timeline.

Obviously it won’t make a sunny daytime shot look exactly like a moody night shot from Bladerunner, but it will adopt the overall tonality as closely as possible. Once you’ve completed the match, delete the reference image from your timeline.

Blend modes

Timeline clips include blend mode attributes. The default is the normal mode, which can easily be changed to screen, overlay, soft light, and so on. Blend modes (also called composite and transfer modes) are commonly used by graphic artists and designers, but they are also useful in creating special looks for video.

To start, option-drag a clip above itself to create a duplicate as a connected clip. You now have two versions of that clip in perfect sync with each other. Adjust the blend mode of the connected clip. Let’s say you have a low-contrast clip. When you drag it above itself and change the top clip’s mode to soft light, it will instantly result in more contrast and saturation.

This same trick can be used to create stylish effects. For example, when you add a gaussian blur to the lower clip, the results are a dreamy image. Add a sharpening filter to the top clip and now you’ve added some localized contrast. Push it far enough and the results are almost cartoon-like.

You can use this trick on single clips or the entire sequence. Simply compound the sequence and then option-drag the compound up to create a duplicate, connected clip. Select the desired blend mode of the connected clip and tweak for your look.

Hue/Saturation Curves – Luma vs Sat

When you push color correction to an extreme, the black and white detail in the image becomes contaminated by the color shift introduced by your correction. You no longer have anything that’s true black or white in the frame. When a colorist is creatively adjusting a shot, they still want to end up with nearly pure black at the darkest part of the image and pure white at the brightest.

One way to achieve this is with the Luma vs Sat curve in the Hue/Saturation Curves tool. From left to right, the base line represents the brightness range from black to white. Pulling the curve up or down increases or decreases saturation at the brightness value corresponding to that point along the line. To reduce color saturation for black and white, add a control point inwards from each end of the line. Now drag the outer points down to decrease saturation. Drag the inner points more or less towards the center to adjust the roll-off from full saturation to zero saturation. The more gentle the slope of the curve, the smoother the roll-off with fewer potential artifacts. However, the trade-off is that you may lose too much saturation overall. So adjust to taste.

Orange and Teal

Filmmakers are enamored with the “orange-and-teal” look – skin tones tend to be warm (orange), while middle-range portions of the image take on a teal color cast. This is aided by proper lighting, costuming, and set design that is conducive to such a grade. For example, walls and furnishings that are neutral, black, gray, or dark in some way tend to be easier to swing towards the teal than a background of bright red walls.

Final Cut Pro X does include a color preset (Spring Sun) that mimics this look. You can also achieve it with any of Final Cut’s grading tools, such as the color wheels. First, use any color tool to establish a normal grade. Then apply color wheels for the look. The objective is to isolate skin tones from the rest of the image. Add an image mask for the wheels and use the HSL keyer. Use the color picker to select a skin tone. View the mask in black-and-white and adjust the HSL settings for a smooth key. It’s OK if the mask includes more than only the skin tones. The smoothness of the key is important.

Once you are happy with the key, go back to the image and grade inside of the mask. Push the midrange color wheel to the orange as needed. Or keep the skin tones neutral if you want to preserve a natural appearance. Change the mask toggle to outside and shift the midrange, shadows, and master towards teal. Finally, add the Luma vs Sat adjustment as described above to restore natural blacks and whites to the shadow and highlight areas.

LUTs

Color look-up tables – LUTs – are used to apply the proper color profile for cameras. Custom LUTs can also be used creatively to create and preserve preset looks such as stylized grades, film stock emulation, and more. Final Cut cannot export LUTs, however, it can import any LUT in the standard .cube format. The internet offers plenty of options to purchase custom, creative LUTs.

Let’s take a more DIY approach. Several third-party color correction plug-ins, including FilmConvert Nitrate and Color Finale 2 Pro, allow the user to export the grade done within that plug-in as a self-contained LUT. Maybe you want to preserve the grade for future use that doesn’t depend on having the plug-in. Or maybe you don’t own that plug-in, but can collaborate with an editor/colorist who does. In that example, send your selected shots or sequence to them for a grade. Then, instead of returning the files to you with the baked-in look, simply export the grades for these clips as LUTs.

Back on your system, apply the Custom LUT effect to each clip and import the corresponding LUT. Make sure the settings match your color space (Rec 709 across the board for Rec 709 libraries and projects). In the case of Color Finale 2 Pro and FilmConvert Nitrate, most aspects of the grade done within their panels will be reproduced. Certain non-grading features, such as film grain emulation will not be included in the LUT. Overall, if I’m looking for a perfect match (same shot to same shot), then I’ve had more accurate results using Color Finale 2 Pro. This method is a great way of creating and transferring custom looks in a non-destructive manner.

I hope these simple tips will give you some ideas on how you can get more out of Final Cut Pro X to create and apply your own special touches.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer 2020

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

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

The Media Composer heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overhauling Media Composer

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

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

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

Avid Media Composer 2020.10

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new user interface

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

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

Media Composer for Premiere and Final Cut editors

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

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

Getting started

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

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

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

Sequences

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

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

Effects

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

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

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

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

Trimming

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Pro Video Coalition.

©2020 Oliver Peters