Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.4

December finally delivered the much-anticipated simultaneous release of new versions of Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion, and Compressor – all on the same day as the iMac Pro officially went on sale. In the broader ecosystem, we also saw updates for macOS High Sierra, Logic Pro X, Pixelmator Pro, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve.

Final Cut Pro X (“ten”), version 10.4 is the fifth major release of Apple’s professional NLE in a little over six years. There are changes under the hood tied to technologies in High Sierra (macOS 10.13), which won’t get much press, but are very important in the development and operation of an application. This version will still run on a wide range of recent and older Macs. The minimum OS requirement is 10.12.4, but 10.13 or later is recommended. There are four new, marquee features in this release: advanced color correction tools, 360° editing, HDR (wide gamut) color space support, and HEVC/H.265 codec support for editing and encoding.

New advanced color tools

Final Cut Pro X was first launched with a color correction tool called the color board. It substituted sliders on a color swatch for the standard curves and color wheel controls that editors had been used to. While the color board was and is effective, as well as a bit deceptive in what you can accomplish, it was an instant turn-off for many. The lack of a more advanced color correction interface opened the field for third party color correction plug-in developers who came up with some great tools. With the release of FCPX 10.4, it’s hard for me to see why FCPX diehards would still buy a color correction plug-in. Yet, I have heard from at least one plug-in developer that their color corrector plug-in sales are staying stable. Clearly users want choice and that’s a good thing.

With this update, you’ve gained three new, native color tools, including color wheels, curves, and hue vs. saturation curves. All are elegantly designed, operate quite fluidly, and generally mimic what you can do in DaVinci Resolve. However, the color board didn’t go away however. There’s a preference setting for which of these four color tools is the default effect when first applying color correction (CMD+6).

Once you start color correcting, you can add more instances of any of these four tools in any combination. Final Cut Pro X sports robust performance, so you can apply several layers of correction to a clip and still have real-time playback without rendering. There are also additional keyboard commands to quickly step through effects or clips on your timeline. While not quite as fluid of a grading workflow as you’d have in a true color correction application, like Resolve, you can get pretty close with some experience. My biggest beef is that you are limited to the controls being locked within the inspector pane. You can’t move the controls around and there is no special color correction workspace. So for me, the ergonomics are poor. In my testing, I’ve also hit some flaws in how the processing is done (more on that in a future post). Ironically the color board actually seems to achieve more accurate correction than the color wheels.

There are a few quirks. Previously created presets for the color board will be converted into color preset effects, which now appear in the effects browser. This enables you to preview a color preset applied to a clip by skimming over the effect thumbnail. Unfortunately, I found this conversion didn’t always work. On a Sierra machine (10.12), the older presets were automatically converted after waiting a few minutes; however, nothing happened on a High Sierra machine (10.13). I eventually resorted to copying my converted effects presets from the Sierra Mac over to the High Sierra Mac. I suspect, that because the High Sierra update automatically reformats the internal SSD drive to the new Apple File System (APFS), this conversion process is somehow impeded. Of course, if you don’t already have any existing custom presets, then it’s not an issue.

(You can check out my previously-created color presets for instructions and downloads here.)

There is no control surface support yet, although future support for third party color correction controllers has been alluded to. It would be nice to see support for Tangent or Avid panels at the very least. There’s a new FCPXML version (1.7) that includes this new color metadata; however, it doesn’t seem to be imported into the newest version of Resolve. It’s possible that color metadata in the FCPXML file is only intended for FCPX-to-FCPX transfers and not round tripping to other applications.

360° editing

Let me say up front that this doesn’t hit my hot button. It’s an area where Apple is playing catch-up to Adobe. Quite frankly, for both of these companies, it only appeals to a small percentage of users. Not all 360° formats are supported. Your footage must be equirectangular (stitched panorama), in order that FCPX can properly correct its display. Nevertheless, if you do work on 360° productions, then FCPX provides you a nice tool kit.

You can set up your timeline sequence for monoscopic or stereoscopic 360° editing. Once set up, simply open a separate 360° viewer, side-by-side to the normal viewer. When you do this, you’ll see the uncorrected image on the right and the adjusted point-of-view image on the left. What’s really cool, is that you can play the timeline and actively navigate your view of the content within of the 360° viewer, without ever stopping playback. Plus I’m talking about 4K material here! Clearly the engineers have tweaked the performance and not just integrated a plug-in.

There are also a set of custom effects designed for seamless use on 360° images. For example, if you apply a standard blur, there will be a visible seam where the left and right edges meet. If you apply a 360° blur effect, then the image and effect are properly blended. If you want to get the full effect, just attach an HTC Vive VR headset to view clips in full 360°. Want to test this, but don’t have any footage? A quick web search will provide a ton of downloadable, equirectangular clips to play with.

Wide gamut / high dynamic range (HDR)

Apple is trying to establish leadership with the integration of workflows to support HDR editing. I suspect that their ultimate goal is proper HDR support for Apple TV 4K and the iPhone X. The state of HDR today is very confusing without any real standards. There’s DolbyVision and HDR10, an open standard. The latter leaves the actual implementation up to manufacturers, while Dolby licenses its technology with tight specs. The theoretical DolbyVision brightness standard is 10,000 nits (cd/m2), but their current target is only 4,000 nits. HDR10 caps at 1,000 nits. Current consumer TV sets run in the 300 to 500 nit range with none exceeding 1,000 nits. Finally, projected brightness in movie theaters is even lower.

To work in HDR within Final Cut Pro X, first set up the FCPX Library as wide instead of standard gamut. Then set the Project (sequence) to one of four standards: Rec 709 (standard dynamic range), Rec 2020, Rec 2020 PQ, or Rec 2020 HLG. The first Rec 2020 mode simply preserves the full dynamic range of log-encoded camera files when FCPX applies its LUTs. The PQ and HLG options are designed for DolbyVision and/or HDR10 mastering. HDR tools are provided to go between color spaces, such as mastering in Rec 2020 PQ and delivering in Rec 709 (consult Apple’s workflow document). However, it is only in the Rec 2020 PQ color space that the FCPX scope will display in nits, rather than IRE. When set to nits, the scale is 0 to 10,000 nits instead of 0 to 120 IRE.

To edit in one of these wide gamut color spaces, set your preferences to display HDR in raw values. Then Final Cut interacts with the color profile of the monitor through macOS to effectively dim the viewer image for this new color space. However, this technique is not applied to the filmstrips and thumbnail images in the browser, which will appear with blown out levels unless you manually override the colorspace setting for each clip. If your footage was shot with camera raw or log-encoding, using a RED, ARRI or similar camera, then you are ready to work in HDR today.

It’s critical to note that no current computer display or consumer flat panel will give you an accurate HDR image to grade by. This includes the new iMac Pro screens. You will need the proper AJA i/o hardware and a calibrated HDR display to see a proper HDR image. Even then, it’s still a question of which HDR levels you are trying to master to. For example, if you are using the scope in FCPX with a brightness level up to 10,000 nits, but your target display can only achieve 1,000 nits, then what good is the reading on the scope? We are still early in the HDR process, but I’m concerned that FCPX 10.4 will give users a false impression of what it really takes to do HDR properly.

HEVC / H.265

You can now import iMovie for iOS projects into FCPX 10.4.  Support for the H.265 (HEVC) codec has been added with this release, but you’ll need to be on High Sierra. If you shot video with an iPhone X and started organizing it in iMovie on the phone, then that video may have used the H.265 codec. Now you can bring that into FCPX to continue the job.

Going the other way will require Compressor encoding. HEVC is also the required format to send HDR material to the web. Apple is late to the game in H.265 support, as Sorenson and Adobe users have been able to do that for a while. I tested H.265 encoding of short clips in Compressor on my mid-2014 Retina MacBook Pro and it was extremely slow. There was no issue with H.264 encoding. The same H.265 test in Adobe Media Encoder – even when it was uprezzing a 1080p file to 4K – was significantly faster than Compressor.

Final thoughts

For current users. When you update to Final Cut Pro X 10.4, please remember that it will update each FCPX library file that you open afterwards. Although this has generally been harmless for most users, it’s best to follow some precautions. Zip your 10.3 (or earlier) version of the application and move that .zip file out of the applications folder before you update. Archive all of your existing Final Cut libraries. This way you can find your way back, in case of some type of failure.

Final Cut Pro X 10.4 is a solid upgrade that will have loyal FCPX users applauding. Overall, these new tools are useful and, as before, FCPX is a very fluid, enjoyable editing application. It slices through 4K content better than any other NLE on the Mac platform. If you like its editing paradigm, then nothing else comes close.

Unfortunately, Apple didn’t squash some long-standing bugs. For example, numerous users online are still complaining about the issue where browser text intermittently disappears. I do feel that there were missed opportunities. The functionality of audio lanes – a feature introduced in 10.3 as a way to get closer to track-style audio mixing – hasn’t been expanded. The hope for an enhanced, roles-based audio mixer has once again gone unanswered. On the other hand, the built-in audio plug-ins have been updated to those used by Logic Pro X and there’s a clean path to send your audio to Logic if you want to mix there.

I definitely welcome these updates. The new color tools make it a more powerful application to use for color grading, so I’m happy to see that Apple has been listening. Now, I hope that we’ll see some of the other needs addressed before another year passes us by.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017, 2018 Oliver Peters

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Downsizing

The bond between a film director and the editor is often a long-lasting one. The industry is full of pairings that continue film after film. One such duo is director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways) and editor Kevin Tent (Welcome to Me, Girl Interrupted, Election). Tent has edited every film that Payne directed, with the exception of Payne’s short film Paris, je t’aime. In fact, Payne also served as producer for Crash Pad, a film directed by Tent.

The latest Alexander Payne film to hit the cinemas is Downsizing, a sci-fi satire starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Kristen Wig. In the film, scientists discover human miniaturization as a way to combat overpopulation. Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wig) decide to give it a try, exchanging their average life in Omaha for Leisure Land, one of the ‘micro-communities’ sprouting up. Their modest $150,000 in personal assets will make them multimillionaires, so they take the plunge.

Sci-fi and satire

The sci-fi genre is a new approach for Payne, which is where I started my conversation with Kevin Tent. He explains, “The sci-fi theme is a departure for Alexander, but this is still very much an ‘Alexander Payne movie’. It’s still about the human experience. In the plot, shrinking is seen as a way to save the human race, but people get greedy. They can make themselves instantly rich, save money on food, medicine, and move into big ‘McMansions’. Human nature takes over, which makes the film funny and also thought-provoking. It covers a lot of ground and politics.”

“It’s easy to ask, why sci-fi,” Tent continues. “Alexander Payne is an artist who is always looking for ways to challenge himself. He co-wrote the script ten years ago, but it took this long to get it made. For one thing, Downsizing is more expensive than his past films. As an editor, I first looked at the cutting differently, because of working with the visual effects; but, I quickly realized that this film, like Alexander’s others, was about the characters and the story.  [Those are] still the most important elements of the movie. I had recently worked on The Audition, which was shot mostly with green screen – and a while back, The Golden Compass, which was a serious visual effects movie.  I had enough knowledge about the process to know one thing. These people can do anything! We had a terrific VFX team, headed by our creative guru, Jamie Price. ILM and Framestore did most of the visual effects.”

Digital production to aid the process

Alexander Payne shifted to digital acquisition with Nebraska and has followed suit with his latest, Downsizing. According to Tent, “Alexander shoots a lot of coverage, so he likes digital for that. It’s also easier to deal with when compositing visual effects. We had over 130 hours of total footage. Of course, a fairly good chunk was plates for VFX and 2nd unit footage. Most of the scenes were shot with single camera, but sometimes with multi-cam. Especially for some of the big speeches, which were covered with two and sometimes three cameras. We synced up the takes in the Avid, which makes it so easy to switch from camera to camera. Mindy Elliot is our amazing first assistant. She’s a total pro and a total joy to work with. She’s been running our cutting rooms since The Descendants. Angela Latimer was our second. She did 99% of the scripting [for Avid’s ScriptSync feature] and also helped cut early versions of Paul’s drug montage [scene in Downsizing]. Joe Carson was our VFX editor. I met him while working on Sponge Bob The Movie. I was one of the live action CGI editors on that film. Joe is awesome. He not only kept all of our visual effects organized, but he was also kept busy with the countless comps, morphs, and speed-ups that we tossed at him on a daily basis.”

Production wrapped in mid-August 2016 and then Tent started cutting with Payne right after Labor Day. Tent continues, “When I cut with Alexander, we basically start from scratch. I do create an editor’s cut during production, which we go back to for reference during our time together cutting, but it isn’t the starting point when I begin with Alexander. He’s a good editor, so when we work together, it’s really like having two editors in the room. We start watching dailies and start building scenes. We often look back at my editor’s cut and realize the scene or a part of it was better in that earlier version. Or maybe not. If there is something we like, we’ll put it back into the current cut.  We completed our first pass (kind of a director’s assembly) in January to show the studio. By early to mid-July we had a locked cut with about 80% of the completed VFX shots. The remainder trickled in afterwards. All together, that’s about ten or eleven months of cutting and finishing. Our DI/color grading was handled by the amazing Skip Kimball at Technicolor.”

Tools and tips

As a fellow editor, it’s always fun to talk about the tools and how to use them on a feature film project. Kevin Tent is a committed Avid Media Composer user. (Pacific Post provided the Avid systems used by the editing team.) According to Tent, “This was a huge project and Media Composer never had a problem with it.” One unique hallmark of Media Composer is Avid’s Script Integration. Notable within it is ScriptSync, Media Composer’s ability to automatically analyze waveforms and synchronize them – and, therefore, the associated clip – against text that has been input, like a film script. When correctly indexed, simply clicking on a line of dialogue in the on-screen script brings up all of the corresponding coverage. An ongoing licensing dispute limited its use to older versions of Media Composer, until the issue was finally resolved this year. That is great news for devotees of Avid’s powerful ScriptSync capability.

Many film editors swear by Avid’s Script Integration tools, yet some never use them at all. Was Tent a ScriptSync user? “Hell, ya!,” is his instant reply. “We stayed on Media Composer 7.0.6, because of the ScriptSync licensing issue, just so we could use it. I had Angela mark a lot of extra material and ad libs in addition to the scripted dialog. For example, an action like Paul opening a door or something like that. That would help, especially if they shot a lot of takes or resets within one bigger take, which tends to happen a lot when the shooting is on digital. There’s a massive party scene midway through the movie with people dancing, smoking pot, that kind of thing, and I asked Angela to add a ton of detail describing the scene. It made finding specific actions so quick. It’s also an especially great aid at re-cutting scenes when you are looking for alternate coverage.”

Another aid that editors like is to place scene cards on the wall. Typically these are 3”x5” note cards with written scene descriptions – one for each scene – that can be pinned to the wall in the order of the ongoing edit. Although Tent is also a proponent of these – a remnant practice from the old film days – his Downsizing cutting room didn’t have enough wall space to accommodate cards.

The Downsizing script clocked in a tad long and the first assembly that Payne and Tent cut was 2:45 (final length was 2:08). Obviously the team needed to do a bit of “downsizing” themselves. Tent explains, “The biggest lost scenes were bookending storyteller elements to open and close the film. There was an old caveman from far in the future telling a group of children about the events within the film and how once giants roamed the world. This story element was painful to lose, because it was very funny and effective emotionally. But it took an added three or four minutes to get to Matt Damon’s character and that hurt us.  The audience wants you to get to your main characters and understand what they’re seeing within a reasonable amount of time. Fortunately, Alexander hadn’t shot it yet as part of the main production. We previewed with storyboards, temp music, and voice over. While it was tough to lose it from the point of view of the script, we weren’t leaving produced material ‘on the cutting room floor’. Ultimately if you don’t know it was there, you won’t miss not having it.”

Downsizing opened in cinemas on December 21. Whether you are in it for the thought-provoking concepts or simply a lot of laughs and a wild ride, it’s a film to enjoy. Alexander Payne is bound to have another success on his hands.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

© 2017, 2018 Oliver Peters

Audio Splits and Stems in Premiere Pro Revisited

Creating multichannel, “split-track” master exports of your final sequences is something that should be a standard step in all of your productions. It’s often a deliverable requirement and having such a file makes later revisions or derivative projects much easier to produce. If you are a Final Cut Pro X user, the “audio lanes” feature makes it easy to organize and export sequences with isolated channels for dialogue, music, and effects. FCPX pros like to tweak the noses of other NLE users about how much easier it is in FCPX. While that’s more or less true – and, in fact, can be a lot deeper than simply a few aggregate channels – that doesn’t mean it’s particularly hard or less versatile in Premiere Pro.

Last year I wrote about how to set this up using Premiere submix tracks, which is a standard audio post workflow, common to most DAW and mix applications. Go back and read the article for more detail. But, what about sequences that are already edited, which didn’t start with a track configuration already set up with submix tracks and proper output routing? In fact, that’s quite easy, too, which brings me to today’s post.

Step 1 – Edit

Start out by editing as you always have, using your standard sequence presets. I’ve created a few custom presets that I normally use, based on the several standard formats I work in, like 1080p/23.976 and 1080p/29.97. These typically require stereo mixes, so my presets start with a minimum configuration of one picture track, two standard audio tracks, and stereo output. This is the starting point, but more video and audio tracks get added, as needed, during the course of editing.

Get into a habit of organizing your audio tracks. Typically this means dialogue and VO tracks towards the top (A1-A4), then sound effects (A5-A8), and finally music (A9-A12). Keep like audio types on their intended tracks. What you don’t want to do is mix different audio types onto the same track. For instance, don’t put sound effects onto tracks that you’ve designated for dialogue clips. Of course, the number of actual tracks needed for these audio types will vary with your projects. A simple VO+music sequence will only have two to four tracks, while dramatic entertainment pieces will have a lot more. Delete all empty audio tracks when you are ready to mix.

Mix for stereo output as you normally would. This means balancing components using keyframes and clip mixing. Then perform overall adjustments and “riding faders” in the track mixer. This is also where I add global effects, like compression for dialogue and limiting for the master mix.

Output your final mixed master file for delivery.

Step 2 – Multichannel DME sequences

The next step is to create or open a new multichannel DME (dialogue/music/effects) sequence. I’ve already created a custom preset, which you may download and install. It’s set up as 1080p/23.976, with two standard audio channels and three, pre-labelled stereo submix channels, but you can customize yours as needed. The master output is multichannel (8-channels), which is sufficient to cover stereo pairs for the final mix, plus isolated pairs for each of the three submixes – dialogue, music, and effects.

Next, copy-and-paste all clips from your final stereo sequence to the new multichannel sequence. If you have more than one track of picture and two tracks of audio, the new blank sequence will simply auto-populate more tracks once you paste the clips into it. The result should look the same, except with the additional three submix tracks at the bottom of your timeline. At this stage, the output of all tracks is still routed to the stereo master output and the submix tracks are bypassed.

Now open the track mixer panel and, from the pulldown output selector, switch each channel from master to its appropriate submix channel. Dialogue tracks to DIA, music tracks to MUS, and effects tracks to SFX. The sequence preset is already set up with proper output routing. All submixes go to output 1 and 2 (composite stereo mix), along with their isolated output – dialogue to 3 and 4, effects to 5 and 6, music to 7 and 8. As with your stereo mix, level adjustments and plug-in processing (compression, EQ, limiting, etc.) can be added to each of the submix channels.

Note: while not essential, multichannel, split-track master files are most useful when they are also textless. So, before outputting, I would recommend disabling all titles and lower third graphics in this sequence. The result is clean video – great for quick fixes later in the event of spelling errors or a title change.

Step 3 – Multichannel export

Now that the sequence is properly organized, you’ve got to export the multichannel sequence. I have created a mastering export preset, which you may also download. It works in the various Adobe CC apps, but is designed for Adobe Media Encoder workflows. This preset will match its output to the video size and frame rate of your sequence and master to a file with the ProRes4444 codec. The audio is set for eight output channels, configured as four stereo pairs – composite mix, plus three DME channels.

To test your exported file, simply reimport the multichannel file back into Premiere Pro and drop it onto a timeline. There you should see four independent stereo channels with audio organized according to the description above.

Presets

I have created a sequence and an export preset, which you may download here. I have only tested these on Mac systems, where they are installed into the Adobe folder contained within the user’s Documents folder. The sequence preset is placed into the Premiere Pro folder and the export preset into the Adobe Media Encoder folder. If you’ve updated the Adobe apps along the way, you will have a number of version subfolders. As of December 2017, the 12.0 subfolder is the correct location. Happy mixing!

©2017 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer | First

They’ve teased us for two years, but now it’s finally out. Avid Technology has released its free nonlinear editing application, Media Composer | First. This is not dumbed-down, teaser software, but rather a partially-restricted version of the full-fledged Media Composer software and built upon the same code. With that comes an inherent level of complexity, which Avid has sought to minimize for new users; however, you really do want to go through the tutorials before diving in.

It’s important to understand who the target user is. Avid didn’t set out to simply add another free, professional editing tool to an increasingly crowded market. Media Composer | First is intended as a functional starter tool for users who want to get their feet wet in the Avid ecosystem, but then eventually convert to the full-fledged, paid software. That’s been successful for Avid with Pro Tools | First. To sweeten the pot, you’ll also get 350 sound effects from Pro Sound Effects and 50 royalty-free music tracks from Sound Ideas (both sets are also free).

Diving in

To get Media Composer | First, you must set up an Avid master account, which is free. Existing customers can also get First, but the software cannot be co-installed on a computer with the full version. For example, I installed Media Composer | First on my laptop, because I have the full Media Composer application on my desktop. You must sign into the account and stay signed in for Media Composer | First to lunch and run. I did get it to work if I signed in, but then disconnected the internet. There was a disconnection prompt, but nevertheless, the application worked, saved, and exported properly. It doesn’t seem mandatory to be constantly connected to Avid over the internet. All project data is stored locally, so this is not a cloud application.

The managing of the account and future updates are handled through Application Manager, an Avid desktop utility. It’s not my favorite, as at times it’s unreliable, but it does work most of the time. Opening the installer .dmg file will take a long time to verify. This seems to be a general Avid quirk, so be patient. When you first open the application, you may get a disk drive write permissions error message. On macOS you normally set drive permissions for “system”, “wheel”, and “everyone”. Typically I have the last two set to “read only”, which works for every other application, except Avid’s. Therefore, if you want to store Avid media on your internal system hard drive, then “everyone” must be changed to “read & write”.

The guided tour

The Avid designers have tried to make the Media Composer | First interface easy to navigate for new users – especially those coming from other NLEs, where media and projects are managed differently than in Media Composer. Right at the launch screen you have the option to learn through online tutorials. These will be helpful even for experienced users who might try to “out-think” the software. The interface includes a number of text overlays to help you get started. For example, there is no place to set project settings. The first clip added to the first sequence sets the project settings from there on. So, don’t drop a 25fps clip onto the timeline as your first clip, if you intend to work in a 23.98fps project. These prompts are right in front of you, so if you follow their guidance, you’ll be OK.

The same holds true for importing media through the Source Browser. With Media Composer you either transcode a file, which turns it into Avid-managed media placed into the Avid MediaFiles folder, or simply link to the file. If you select link, then the file stays in place and it’s up to the user not to move or delete that file on the hard drive. Although the original Avid paradigm was to only manage media in its MediaFiles hard drive folders, the current versions handle linking just fine and act largely the same as other NLEs.

Options, restrictions, and limitations

Since this is a free application, a number of features have been restricted. There are three biggies. Tracks are limited to four video tracks and eight audio tracks. This is actually quite workable, however, I think a higher audio track count would have been advisable, because of how Avid handles stereo, mono, and multichannel files. On a side note, if you use the “collapse” function to nest video clips, it’s possible to vertically stack more than just four clips on the timeline.

The application is locked to a maximum project size of 1920×1080 (Rec. 709 color space only) and up to 59.94fps. Source files can be larger (such as 4K) and you can still use them on the timeline, but you’ll have to pan-and-scan, crop, or scale them. I hope future versions will permit at least UltraHD (4K) project sizes.

Finally, Media Composer | First projects cannot be interchanged with full fledged Media Composer projects. This means that you cannot start in Media Composer | First and then migrate your project to the paid version. Hopefully this gets fixed in a future update. If not, it will negatively impact students and indie producers using the application for any real work.

As expected, there are no 3D stereoscopic tools, ScriptSync (automatic speech-to-text/sync-to-script), PhraseFind (phonetic search engine), or Symphony (advanced color correction) options. One that surprised me, though, was the removable of the superior Spectramatte keyer. You are left with the truly terrible RGB keyer for blue/green-screen work.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of horsepower left. For example, FrameFlex to handle resizing and Timewarps for retiming clips, which is how 4K and off-speed frame rates are handled. Color correction (including scopes), multicam, IllusionFX, source setting color LUTs, Audiosuite, and Pro Tools-style audio track effects are also there. Transcoding allows for the use of a wide range of codecs, including ProRes on a Mac. 4K camera clips will be transcoded to 1080. However, exports are limited to Avid DNxHD and H.264 QuickTime files at up to 1920×1080. The only DNxHD export flavor is the 100Mbps variant (at 29.97, 80Mbps for 23.98), which is comparable to ProResLT. It’s good quality, but not at the highest mastering levels.

Conclusion

This is a really good first effect, no pun intended. As you might expect, it’s a little buggy for a first version. For example, I experienced a number of crashes while testing source LUTs. However, it was well-behaved during standard editing tasks. If Media Composer | First files can become compatible with the paid systems and the 1080 limit can be increased to UHD/4K, then Avid has a winner on its hands. Think of the film student who starts on First at home, but then finishes on the full version in the college’s computer lab. Or the indie producer/director who starts his or her own rough cut on First, but then takes it to an editor or facility to complete the process. These are ideal scenarios for First. I’ve cut tons of short and long form projects, including a few feature films, using a variety of NLEs. Nearly all of those could have been done using Media Composer | First. Yes, it’s free, but there’s enough power to get the job done and done well.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Suburbicon

George Clooney’s latest film, Suburbicon, originated over a decade ago as a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. Clooney picked it up when the Coens decided not to produce the film themselves. Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov (The Monuments Men, The Ides of March, Good Night, and Good Luck), rewrote it as taking place in the 1950s and added another story element. In the summer of 1957, the Myers, an African-American couple, moved into a largely white suburb in Levittown, Pennsylvania, setting off months of violent protests. The rewritten script interweaves the tale of the black family with that of their next-door neighbors, Gardner (Matt Damon) and Margaret (Julianne Moore). In fact, a documentary was produced about the historical events and shots from that documentary were used in Suburbicon.

Calibrating the tone

During the production and editing of the film, the overall tone was adjusted as a result of the actual, contemporary events occurring in the country. I spoke with the film’s editor, Stephen Mirrione (The Revenant, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Monuments Men) about this. Mirrione explains, “The movie is presented as over-the-top to exaggerate events as satire. In feeling that out, George started to tone down the silliness, based on surrounding events. The production was being filmed during the time of the US election last year, so the mood on the set changed. The real world was more over-the-top than imagined, so the film didn’t feel quite right. George started gravitating towards a more realistic style and we locked into that tone by the time the film moved into post.”

The production took place on the Warner Brothers lot in September 2016 with Mirrione and first assistant editor Patrick Smith cutting in parallel with the production. Mirrione continues, “I was cutting during this production period. George would come in on Saturdays to work with me and ‘recalibrate’ the cut. Naturally some scenes were lost in this process. They were funny scenes, but just didn’t fit the direction any longer. In January we moved to England for the rest of the post. Amal [Clooney, George’s wife] was pregnant at the time, so George and Amal wanted to be close to her family near London. We had done post there before and had a good relationship with vendors for sound post. The final sound mix was in the April/May time frame. We had an editing room set up close to George outside of London, but also others in Twickenham and at Pinewood Studios. This way I could move around to work with George on the cut, wherever he needed to be.”

Traveling light

Mirrione is used to working with a light footprint, so the need for mobility was no burden. He explains, “I’m accustomed to being very mobile. All the media was in the Avid DNxHD36 format on mobile drives. We had an Avid ISIS shared storage system in Twickenham, which was the hub for all of the media. Patrick would make sure all the drives were updated during production, so I was able to work completely with standalone drives. The Avid is a bit faster that way, although there’s a slight trade-off waiting for updated bins to be sent. I was using a ‘trash can’ [2013] Mac Pro plus AJA hardware, but I also used a laptop – mainly for reference – when we were in LA during the final steps of the process.” The intercontinental workflow also extended to color correction. According to Mirrione, “Stefan Sonnenfeld was our digital intermediate colorist and Company 3 [Co3] stored a back-up of all the original media. Through an arrangement with Deluxe, he was able to stream material to England for review, as well as from England to LA to show the DP [Robert Elswit].”

Music was critical to Suburbicon and scoring fell to Alexandre Desplat (The Secret Life of Pets, Florence Foster Jenkins, The Danish Girl). Mirrione explains their scoring process. “It was very important, as we built the temp score in the edit, to understand the tone and suspense of the film. George wanted a classic 1950s-style score. We tapped some Elmer Bernstein, Grifters, The Good Son, and other music for our initial style and direction. Peter Clarke was brought on as music editor to help round out the emotional beats. Once we finished the cut, Alexandre and George worked together to create a beautiful score. I love watching the scenes with that score, because his music makes the editing seem much more exciting and elegant.”

Suiting the edit tool to your needs

Stephen Mirrione typically uses Avid Media Composer to cut his films and Suburbicon is no exception. Unlike many film editors who rely on unique Avid features, like ScriptSync, Mirrione takes a more straightforward approach. He says, “We were using Media Composer 8. The way George shoots, there’s not a lot of improv or tons of takes. I prefer to just rely on PDFs of the script notes and placing descriptions into the bins. The infrastructure required for ScriptSync, like extra assistants, is not something I need. My usual method of organization is a bin for each day of dailies, organized in shooting order. If the director remembers something, it’s easy to find in a day bin. During the edit, I alternate my bin set-ups between the script view and the frame view.”

With a number of noted editors dabbling with other software, I wondered whether Mirrione has been tempted. He responds, “I view my approach as system-agnostic and have cut on Lightworks and the old Laser Pacific unit, among others. I don’t want to be dependent on one piece of software to define how I do my craft. But I keep coming back to Avid. For me it’s the trim mode. It takes me back to the way I cut film. I looked at Resolve, because it would be great to skip the roundtrip between applications. I had tested it, but felt it would be too steep a learning curve, and that would have impacted George’s experience as the director.”

In wrapping our conversation, Mirrione concluded with this take away from his Suburbicon experience. He explains, “In our first preview screening, it was inspiring to see how seriously the audience took to the film and the attachment they had to the characters. The audiences were surprised at how biting and relevant it is to today. The theme of the film is really talking about what can happen when people don’t speak out against racism and bullying. I’m so proud and lucky to have the opportunity to work with someone like George, who wants to do something meaningful.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

6 Below

From IMAX to stereo3D, theaters have invested in various technologies to entice viewers and increase ticket sales. With a tip of the hat to the past, Barco has developed a new ultrawide, 3-screen digital projection system, which is a similar concept to Cinerama film theaters from the 1950s. But modern 6K-capable digital cinema cameras make the new approach possible with stunning clarity. There are currently 40 Barco Escape theaters worldwide, with the company looking for opportunities to run films designed for this format.

Enter Scott Waugh, director (Act of Valor, Need for Speed) and co-founder of LA production company, Bandito Brothers. Waugh, who is always on the lookout for new technologies, was interested in developing the first full-length, feature film to take advantage of this 3-screen, 7:1 aspect ratio for the entire length of the film. But Waugh didn’t want to change how he intended to shoot the film strictly for these theaters, since the film would also be distributed to conventional theaters. This effectively meant that two films needed to come out of the post-production process – one formatted for the Barco Escape format and one for standard 4K theaters.

6 Below (written by Madison Turner) became the right vehicle. This is a true life survival story of Eric LaMarque (played by Josh Harnett), an ex-pro hockey player turned snowboarder with an addiction problem, who finds himself lost in the ice and snow of the California Sierra mountains for a week. To best tell this story, Waugh and company trekked an hour or more into the mountains above Sundance, Utah for the production.

To handle the post workflow and co-edit the film with Waugh, editor Vashi Nedomansky (That Which I Love Destroys Me, Sharknado 2, An American Carol) joined the team. Nedomansky, another veteran of Bandito Brothers who uses Adobe Premiere Pro as his axe of choice, has also helped set up Adobe-based editorial workflows for Deadpool and Gone Girl. Ironically, in earlier years Nedomansky had been a pro hockey player himself, before shifting to a career in film and video. In fact, he played against the real Eric LeMarque on the circuit.

Pushing the boundaries

The Barco Escape format projects three 2K DCPs to cover the total 6K width. To accommodate this, RED 6K cameras were used and post was done with native media at 6K in Adobe Premiere Pro CC. My first question to Nedomansky was this. Why stay native? Nedomansky says, “We had always been pushing the boundaries at Bandito Brothers. What can we get away with? It’s always a question of time, storage, money, and working with a small team. We had a small 4-person post team for 6 Below, located near Sundance. So there was interest in not losing time to transcoding.

After some testing, we settled on decked out Dell workstations, because these could tackle the 6K RED raw files natively.” Two Dell Precision 7910 towers (20-core, 128GB RAM) with Nvidia Quadro M6000 GPUs were set up for editing, along with a third, less beefy HP quad-core computer for the assistant editor and visual effects. All three were connected to shared storage using a 10GigE network. Mike McCarthy, post production supervisor for 6 Below, set up the system. To keep things stable, they were running Windows 7 and stayed on the same Adobe Creative Cloud version throughout the life of the production. Nedomansky continues, “We kept waiting for the 6K to not play, but it never stopped in the six weeks of time that we were up there. My first assembly was almost three hours long – all in a single timeline – and I was able to play it straight through without any skips or stuttering.”

There were other challenges along the way. Nedomansky explains, “Almost all of the film was done as single-camera and Josh has to carry it with his performance as the sole person on screen for much of the film. He has to go through a range of emotions and you can’t just turn that on and off between takes. So there were lots of long 10-minute takes to convey his deterioration within the hostile environmental conditions. The story is about a man lost in the wild, without much dialogue. The challenge is how to cut down these long takes without taking away from his performance. One solution was to go against the grain – using jump cuts to shorten long takes. But I wanted to look for the emotional changes or a physical act to motivate a jump cut in a way that would make it more organic. In one case, I took a 10-minute take down to 45 seconds.”

When you have a film where weather is a character, you hope that the weather will cooperate. Nedomansky adds, “One of our biggest concerns going in, was the weather. Production started in March – a time when there isn’t a lot of snow in Utah. Fortunately for us, a day before we were supposed to start shooting, they had the biggest ‘blizzard’ of the winter for four days. This saved us a lot of VFX time, because we didn’t have to create atmospherics, like snow in front of the lens. It was there naturally.”

Using the Creative Cloud tools to their fullest

6 Below features an extensive percentage of visual effects shots. Nedomansky says, “The film has 1500 shots with 205 of them as VFX shots. John Carr was the assistant editor and visual effects artist on the film and he did all of the work in After Effects and at 6K resolution, which is unusual for films. Some of the shots included ‘day for night’ where John had to add star plates for the sky. This meant rotoscoping behind Josh and the trees to add the plates. He also had to paint out crew footprints in the snow, along with the occasional dolly track or crew member in a shot. There were also some split screens done at 6K right in Premiere Pro.”

The post schedule involved six weeks on-set and then fourteen more weeks back in LA, for a 20-week total. After that, sound post and grading (done at Technicolor). The process to correctly format the film for both Barco and regular theaters almost constituted posting two films. The RED camera image is 6144 x 2592 pixels, Barco Escape 6144 x 864, and a 4K extraction 4096 x 2160. Nedomansky explains, “The Barco frame is thin and wide. It could use the full width, but not height, of the full 6K RED image. So, I had to do a lot of ‘animation’ to reposition the frame within the Barco format. For the 4K version, the framing would be adjusted accordingly. The film has about 1500 shots, but we didn’t use different takes for the two versions. I was able to do this all through reframing.”

In wrapping up our conversation, Nedomansky adds, “I played hockey against Eric and this added an extra layer of responsibility. He’s very much still alive today. Like any film of this type, it’s ‘based on’ the true story, but liberties are taken. I wanted to make sure that Eric would respect the result. Scott and I’ve done films that were heavy on action, but this film shows another directorial style – more personal and emotional with beautiful visuals. That’s also a departure for me and it’s very important for editors to have that option.”

6 Below was released on October 13 in cinemas.

Read Vashi’s own write-up of his post production workflow.

Images are courtesy of Vashi Visuals.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

SpeedScriber

Script-based video editing started with Ediflex. But, it really came into its own when Avid created script integration as a way to cut dialogue-driven stories, like feature films, in Media Composer. The key ingredient is a written script or a transcription of the spoken audio. This is easy with a feature that’s been acted according to defined script lines, but much harder with something freeform, like a documentary or news interview. In those projects, you first need a person or service to transcribe the audio into a written document – or simply cut without it and hunt around when you look for that one specific sentence.

Modern technology has come to the rescue in the form of artificial intelligence, which has enabled a number of transcription services to offer very fast turnaround times from audio upload to a transcribed, speech-to-text document. Several video developers have tapped into these resources to create new transcription services/applications, which can be tied into several of the popular NLE applications.

Transcription for the three “A” companies

One of these new products is SpeedScriber, a transcription application for macOS and its companion service developed by Digital Heaven, which was founded by veteran UK editor and plug-in developer Martin Baker. To start using SpeedScriber, install the free SpeedScriber application, which is available from the Apple Mac App Store. The next steps depend on whether you just want to create transcribed documents, captioning files, or script integration for Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, or Apple Final Cut Pro X.

If you just want a document, or plan to use Media Composer or FCPX, then no other tools are required. For Premiere Pro CC workflows, you’ll want to download an panel installer for macOS or Windows from the SpeedScriber website. This integrates as a standard Premiere Pro panel and permits you to import transcription files directly into Premiere Pro. The SpeedScriber application enables roundtripping to/from Final Cut using FCPXML.

First, let’s talk about the transcription itself. It should generally be clip-based and not from edited timelines, unless you just want to document a completed project or for captioning. When you launch SpeedScriber for the first time, you’ll need to create an account. This will include 15 minutes of free transcription time. The file length determines the time used. Billing for the service is based on time and is tiered, ranging from $.50/minute (30/60/120 minutes) down to $.37/minute (6,000 minutes). Minutes are pre-purchased and don’t expire.

Once your account is ready, drag-and-drop or point the application to the file to import. Disable any unwanted audio channels, so that the transcription is based on the best audio channel within the file. Even if all channels are equal, disable all but one of them. Set up the number of speakers and language format, such as British, Australian, or American English. According to Baker, support for five European languages will be added in version 1.1. The service will automatically determine when speakers change, such as between an interviewer and the subject. It’s hard for the system to determine this with great accuracy, so don’t expect these speaker changes to be perfect.

The transcription experience

Accuracy of the transcription can be extremely good, but it depends on the audio quality that you’ve supplied. A clean interview track – well mic’ed and in a quiet room – can be dead-on with only a few corrections needed. Slower speakers who enunciate well result in greater accuracy. On the other hand, having several speakers in a noisy environment, or a very fast speaker with a heavy accent, will require a lot of correction – enough so that manual transcription might be better in those cases.

Once SpeedScriber has completed its automatic transcription, you can play the file to proof it and make any corrections to the text that are required. It’s easy to type corrections to the transcription within the SpeedScriber text editing window. When done, you can export the text in a number of different formats. I ran a test clip of a clear-spoken woman with well-recorded audio. She had a slight southern drawl, but the result from SpeedScriber was excellent. It also did a good job of ignoring speech idiosyncrasies, such a frequent “ums”. This eight minute test clip only required about a dozen text corrections throughout.

If the objective is script integration into an NLE, then the process varies depending on brand. Typically such integration is clip-based, although multi-cam clips are supported. However, it’s tougher when you try to connect the transcription to a timeline. For example, I like to do cutdowns of interviews first, before transcribing, and that’s not really how ScreedScriber works best. In version 1.1, FCPX compound clips will be supported, so segments can be cut before transcription.

A clear set of tutorial videos are available in the support section of  the SpeedScriber website.

Integration with NLEs

Media Composer is easy, because it already has a Script Integration feature. Import the text file that was exported from SpeedScriber as a new script into Media Composer and link the video clip to it. If you purchased Avid’s ScriptSync, then you can automatically line up the clip to sentences within the script. This happens automatically thanks to ScriptSync’s speech analysis function. But if you didn’t purchase this add-on, simply add sync points manually.

With Premiere Pro, select the clip, open the SpeedScriber panel and from it, import the corresponding transcription. The text appears in the Speech Analysis section of that clip’s metadata display. It will actually be embedded into the media file so that the clip can be moved between projects complete with that clip’s transcription. You can view and use this text display to mark in/out by words for accurate script-based selections. When you import the script and link it to a multi-cam clip, synced clip, or sequence, text will show up as markers and can be viewed in the markers panel. Premiere Pro is the only integration that can easily update existing speech metadata or markers. So you can start editing with the raw transcript and then update it later when corrections have been made. However, when I tested transcriptions on an edited sequence instead of a clip, it locked up Premiere Pro, requiring a Force Quit. Fortunately, when I re-opened the recovered project, the markers were there as expected.

The most straight forward approach seems to be its use with Final Cut Pro X. According to Baker, “This is the first Digital Heaven product with broad appeal by supporting Avid and Premiere Pro. But FCPX has ended up having the deepest integration due to the ability to drag-and-drop the Library, which was introduced in 10.3. So with roundtripping, SpeedScriber rebuilds the clip’s timeline without any need to export. Another advantage of the roundtripping is that SpeedScriber can read the audio channel status from the dropped XML, which is important for getting the best accuracy.”

There’s a roundtrip procedure with FCPX, but even without it, simply export an FCPXML from SpeedScriber. Import that into your Final Cut Pro X Library. The clip will then show a number of keyword entries corresponding to line breaks. For each keyword entry, the browser notes field will display the associated text, making it easy to find any dialogue. Plus, these entries are already marked as selections. When clips are edited into the sequence (an FCPX Project), the timeline index enables these notes to be displayed under the Tags section.

SpeedScriber shows tremendous potential to accelerate the efficiency of many spoken-word projects, like documentaries. Half the battle is trying to figure out the story that you want to tell, so having the text right in front of you makes this job easier. Applying modern technology to this challenge is refreshing and the constantly improving accuracy of these systems makes it an easy consideration. SpeedScriber is one of those tools that not only gets you home earlier, but will give you the assurance that you can easily find that clip you are looking for in the proverbial haystack of clips.

©2017 Oliver Peters