Greater LUT Control with Koji Advance

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For folks who like to use film emulsion LUTs (look up tables), Koji Color has recently updated its product line with Koji Advance. Koji Color is a collaboration between Dale Grahnthe highly regarded film lab timer (the film equivalent of a colorist) behind many blockbusters – and plug-in developer Crumplepop. Other products have included an iPad application and an earlier version of the Koji Color plug-in. (Click on any image in this post for an expanded view.)

Typically LUT packages require camera patch LUT files (to correct for each manufacturer’s log encoding scheme) and the “look” file. Some LUT developers split these into two sets of LUTs, while others combine both into a single 3D LUT file. Koji combines their LUTs, so each file is specific to a camera manufacturer and film stock type. The original version of the Koji Color plug-in was designed for Apple Final Cut Pro X and came in the form of two products – Koji DSLR and Koji Log. The lower cost DSLR package used emulation presets designed for Rec709 video signals. The Log package cost a bit more and added files and presets to be used with log gamma encoding, like ARRI Log-C. The FCP X plug-in itself also allowed for control over shadow, mid, and highlight exposure, plus saturation and a Film Stock Mix slider. The Mix slider controlled the amount of the LUT plug-in that was mixed into the image.

df3715_ka_10_smKoji Advance has replaced both the DSLR and Log plug-ins and added more controls and film grain. It is now also compatible with Motion, Premiere Pro CC, and After Effects CC, along with Final Cut Pro X. Koji Color also sells Koji Studio, which is a package of technical versions of these same LUTs intended for facilities outputting to DCI-P3 colorspace. It includes all of the Advance features as part of the package.

df3715_ka_2_smAll packages include presets built around one black-and-white and five color print film stocks. These presets were based on research intended to faithfully reproduce the look of specific Fuji and Kodak print stocks as a medium. 2302 is a black-and-white stock. 2393 is considered by Grahn to be the best print film made. 2383 is similar, but warmer. The other three options are on the cooler side. S versions are more saturation, N versions are more neutral, and LC is low contrast. There is also a 2302 HC (high contract) black-and-white stock.

At this point, it’s important to understand that these LUTs are not designed as creative looks like you’ll find in many other LUT products on the market. The application of any of the LUTs adds the color character of that medium and forms a starting point for your color grade.

When you install Koji Advance, you can opt to install it into any or all of the available host applications. A folder of the Koji 3D LUT files in the .cube format is also installed to your desktop. These are available to be used with other applications that allow LUT files to be imported, like DaVinci Resolve, Avid Media Composer, or Autodesk Smoke. You can move or copy this folder to any location you like.

Fine-tuning the look

df3715_ka_3_smTo use Koji Advance, drop the plug-in effect onto your clip. The first two choices you need to make are the camera preset and film stock. Pick these from the pulldown menus at the top of the control panel. If your footage is from a specific camera encoding scheme, such as ARRI Log-C or RedLogFilm, select the matching choice. If it is already a Rec709 color profile, then select the generic Rec709 choice. Various DSLR camera types also have available options. The film stock selector lets you choose from a number of presets based on the six film stocks and their variants. The LC preset is a brighter version that is more conducive to downstream color correction, which may be added on top of the LUT filter. As before, there’s a Film Stock Mix slider to control how much of this look is being applied to the image.

df3715_ka_4_smThe next series of sliders in the panel turns Koji Advance into a full-on color correction plug-in. You can opt for automatic white balance or manual control. If you pick auto, the controls still let you adjust the image further. There’s a Kelvin-based color temperature slider to warm up or cool off the image. Next are the three lift/gamma/gain controls, which are similar to the exposure sliders in the previous version. These act much like level controls in other applications and plug-ins. Lift adjusts shadow/black levels. Gamma for midrange. Gain for highlights.

df3715_ka_6_smDensity is a film-style control that’s probably unfamiliar to most video operators. It effectively works like an offset control that moves the whole signal higher or lower as you look at the videoscope. Using the density control doesn’t affect saturation in the same way as changing a lift/shadow control. Something to keep in mind is that Lift and Gain will clip the image at 0% and 100% on the scope. Density can move the image into the overshoot and undershoot areas below 0 and above 100. This is actually a good thing, because it preserves the full dynamic range of the image during the processing pipeline; however, it needs be corrected before any broadcast output. Therefore, when you make extreme adjustments, it’s a good idea to use a broadcast safe filter on the final output.

df3715_ka_8_smSaturation controls the chroma level, but this is only true for the color of the image, not including the coloration caused by the LUT file itself. In other words, if a film stock preset is designed to increase blue in the image and is thus a cooler tone, cranking the saturation all the way down will not result in a true black-and-white image. It will still have a slight blue cast. Only the black-and-white presets will be truly black-and-white.

df3715_ka_7_smThe last three color controls are printer point sliders. Again, this is for film-style “color timing” (color correction). The controls work globally for the whole image, so there are no separate color controls for shadows, midtones, and highlights. It works a lot like a single-wheel color corrector. Colors are grouped according to their opposites with sliders for red/cyan, green/magenta, and blue/yellow. To use these controls effectively, it’s best to understand how they work by viewing a vectorscope. If you slide the red/cyan slider all the way to red, it doesn’t increase the intensity of only reds within the image. It shifts the balance of the whole image towards red. Look at the vectorscope and you’ll see the entire chroma signal slide towards the red vector. Same for the other colors.

I’ve seen a few online comments questioning why not put a color wheel here instead of sliders. Apart from the UI issue (especially with design limitations in FCP X), it’s effectively the same thing. Let’s say on a system with color wheels you want to shift the balance towards orange. That’s halfway between red and yellow on the vectorscope. In Koji Advance, you would simply adjust the sliders for more red and more yellow, which results in a combined orange look. Two different methods to achieve the same goal, but sliders offer the advantage of a numerical value, which is easier to repeat for consistent results.

df3715_ka_5_smThe last section, which is new for Koji Advance, is film grain. They’ve picked five stock choices ranging from finer to coarser grain. Since adding grain contaminates the image, the grain section includes three adjustment controls – Film Grain Contrast, Film Grain Saturation, and Film Grain Mix. These let you dial in how subtle the presence of grain is within your shot.

In use

I’ve used the Koji film emulsion looks on previous jobs and they add a nice touch when it’s appropriate. You have to view this as the equivalent to audio engineers working with digital and analog recording systems. Analog tape is said to sound warmer, but that’s because the medium adds its own sonic character to the recording. Many engineers will record digitally, but then use analog somewhere in the final stages. Or, they’ll use a plug-in that emulates the attributes and coloration that analog tape recording gives to the sound. Using a film stock emulation for the purpose of adding character is exactly the same thing. The Koji LUTs are subtle enough that you’ll use them more frequently than some of the other choices. The controls offered by the plug-in enable you to do the work all within Koji’s panel, if you choose.

That being said, LUTs should be used as part of the grading process, not to be the process by itself. Typically I use the Koji plug-in together with other color correction tools, so it’s important to see how it affects the signal when it is part of a stack of several plug-ins. In FCP X, Hawaiki Color is still one of my favorite color correction tools. I like the on-screen controls, the tools are comprehensive, and the results are very pleasing. As a test, I stacked the two filters – Hawaiki Color, then Koji Advance. This let me grade upstream of Koji and use the two filters interactively.

df3715_ka_9_smAn issue I ran into was one of signal clipping. Hawaiki Color also permits overshoot and undershoot, meaning that dark areas can be pushed below zero on the scope. Video can be crushed for extreme contrast. This caused some sparkling color artifacts once those extreme levels hit the Koji plug-in. However, this was easily solved, by selecting Legalize in the Hawaiki Color controls. If you do this with another filter that doesn’t have a “clip” or “legalize” option and you encounter the same issue, then use any filter that does level clipping, such as the Broadcast Safe filter. Place it between your color correction filter and the Koji Advance plug-in and these artifacts will disappear.

The Koji Advance plug-in performance seems fine on most systems and shots I’ve tested. It’s an easy plug-in to understand and use, and will quickly become a tool you’ll use on every production.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2015

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To reinforce the value of the Creative Cloud subscription, Adobe continues to improve its core video and design products, but is also expanding the implementation of mobile-to-desktop and cloud workflows. The Creative Cloud 2015 video products were previewed at NAB and released this summer.

Mobile-to-desktop

Incorporation of mobile products into the production pipeline has become an important theme for Adobe. For Premiere Pro CC users, this primarily involves two products: Premiere Clip and Adobe Hue CC. Premiere Clip is a lightweight video editor for smartphones. Shoot your video on your phone and start cutting. Now Premiere Pro allows you to import Premiere Clip projects so you can continue cutting there. Media assets and projects can be moved among systems via Creative Cloud Libraries, powered by Adobe CreativeSync. With a Creative Cloud subscription you can access your own library, as well as shared libraries created by other users.

df3015_AdobeHueCC_editAdobe Hue CC supports the new color workflow within Premiere Pro CC. This smartphone application was previewed at NAB under the code name “Project Candy”. It will analyze the color tonality of any photo in 3D color space on your smartphone and turn that into a 3D LUT (color look-up table). Adobe Hue CC displays this analysis in the form of floating color bubbles over the image. You can rotate the cloud of bubbles on your smartphone screen to change the relative values of the selected colors. When you’re happy with the choice, this is saved as a 3D LUT to your Creative Cloud Library. Back on your laptop or desktop in Premiere Pro CC, access this LUT through the Creative Cloud Library and apply it as a “look” using Adobe’s new color controls.

New color workflow

The most visible addition to Premiere Pro CC 2015 is the new Lumetri Color panel. If you are familiar with Adobe Lightroom or SpeedGrade CC, then you’ll instantly recognize the similarities. It combines several color grading functions into a single, multi-tabbed interface panel. These controls are accessible through either the standard Effect Control panel or the separate Lumetri Color panel. The best part is that you can keyframe all of the functions. With either control panel you get a set of task-specific color wheels and curves. When the color workspace is activated, the display automatically docks the Lumetri Color panel, along with a new set of high-resolution, real-time videoscopes brought over from SpeedGrade.

df3015_Premiere_LumetriPanel_CurvesHueSaturationThere are two points within Lumetri Color to introduce LUTs. For example, in the Basic Correction tab’s pulldown menu, you can add a log-to-rec709 color transform LUT. Then in the Creative tab’s pulldown, add a stylized look. Premiere Pro CC comes with a number color transform and custom look files created by Adobe and LookLabs (SpeedLooks). Some of these, like the SpeedLooks options, work in two steps for the best results. For instance, if you were applying the SpeedLooks Blue Ice creative LUT to an ARRI Alexa log-C file, you would also need to use the SpeedLooks profile for ARRI cameras. Both generic .cube and Adobe’s .look formats work, so if you’ve purchased other LUT collections, like Osiris, Rocket Rooster, SpeedLooks, Koji, or others, then these will work with Premiere Pro CC. I created a set of SpeedGrade Look files last May and these can be easily accessed and applied inside Premiere Pro from the new Lumetri Color panel.

Editorial enhancements

There are a number of improvements that editors will appreciate. Workspace selections are now grouped across the top of the viewers. They are still available as pulldowns, but by having them grouped across the top, it’s easy to change between layouts that have been organized for editing, color, effects, audio, etc. These presets can be customized according to your needs.

One new marquee effect is Morph Cut, which is intended to make jump cuts in interviews appear seamless. This transition is similar to the FluidMorph effect available in Avid Media Composer. Editors cutting talking-head corporate videos and documentaries are frequently challenged to assemble cogent soundbites from sentence fragments – the so-called “frankenbite”. The inevitable jump cuts in the interviewee’s video are either left to jump or are covered with B-roll cutaway shots. When you apply a Morph Cut transition, Adobe’s warp stabilizer technology is used to analyze the video and create new in-between frames for a seamless transition across the cut.

In actual practice Morph Cut isn’t a panacea for all situations. If the frame size and position matches, the person is largely in the exact same spot, and they paused mid-sentence at the cut, then Morph Cut works quite well. However, if the camera has reframed, the person has their head turned at either the out or in-point of the cut but not the other, or they are still quickly talking through the cut, then the result isn’t very pleasing. Morph Cut requires analysis before being applied, which can proceed in the background.

A few of the less obvious improvements include trimming and timeline scrolling. These came with prior versions, but are still worth noting. You can now loop the trim window and make trim adjustments, which are dynamically updated. You can also JKL-play the middle of the cut or either side of the cut in the trim window to make a direct “double-roller” or “single-roller” trim. The point at which you stop the playback is the point to which the cut is then updated. The timeline will scroll smoothly or page as you play, depending on your preference. Auto-selection of clips is new with Creative Cloud 2015. As you move through the timeline, the playhead auto-selects the clips that it is parked over, based on the enabled target tracks. This is a handy feature, but it’s always on, unless you deselect the target tracks containing your video clips.

Interoperability

df3015_AfterEffects_FaceTracker_DetailedTrackingAdobe’s strength has always been its interoperability among the applications. Dynamic and/or Direct Links to Adobe After Effects CC, Adobe Audition CC, Adobe Media Encoder CC, and SpeedGrade CC make it easy to use Premiere Pro CC as the central hub in your workflow. After Effects got a huge update with CC 2015. I won’t go into depth, since this is mainly a Premiere Pro review, however, for editors the most important thing is the performance bump. Playback in After Effects is now as easy as a spacebar tap. This will be in near real-time after caching, complete with audio. You can make dynamic changes without stopping playback. As you loop the playback, these changes are quickly re-cached. The bottom line for editors is that After Effects now finally becomes a more interactive tool that fits with the temperament and workflow of most editors.

It’s not new with this version, but another workflow improvement is Premiere Pro’s Render and Replace command. When you send a set of clips from Premiere Pro to After Effects using Dynamic Link, those clips are replaced with an After Effects composition on the timeline. Until rendered, the After Effects composition is always “live” and negatively affects Premiere Pro’s performance. If you have a lot of compositions in the timeline, it can become bogged down. With Render and Replace, the “live” composition is replaced with rendered, “flattened” media. You are no longer having to access dynamic After Effects compositions, thus returning real-time playback to normal. Thanks to Adobe’s linking, you can still choose to edit that rendered file, which automatically sends you back to the original After Effects composition.

Interoperability between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC has changed. Adobe had previously added Direct Link, which sends the Premiere Pro timeline to SpeedGrade. In the CC 2014 versions, color corrections applied in SpeedGrade show up as a Lumetri effect applied to the clip or adjustment layer when you send it back to Premiere Pro. The addition of the Lumetri Color panel in CC 2015 creates Lumetri Color effects in the Premiere Pro timeline, but these are not editable inside of SpeedGrade. The same is true going back to Premiere Pro.

The performance of SpeedGrade CC 2015 varies on my two Macs. It’s very sluggish when using the Direct Link path on the 2009 Mac Pro with a Sapphire 7950 graphics card. But when I run it on my Retina MacBook Pro with the built-in NVIDIA card, it’s an entirely different story. I don’t know if that’s an AMD versus NVIDIA issue, but whatever the reason, newer software runs best on newer hardware configurations. Yet, Premiere Pro seems about the same.

During the testing period, when I had installed CC 2015 preview versions alongside CC 2014 applications, SpeedGrade was extremely unstable on both Macs. Fortunately, now that the release versions are out, I’m glad that Adobe fixed these problems. It’s noteworthy that the CC 2015 update replaces all previous versions, so maybe they found that running multiple versions caused problems. It now works likes it’s supposed to. Nevertheless, with the Lumetri Color panel covering 90% of what nearly any editor would want, there seems less justification to use the SpeedGrade roundtrip, when you can get nearly everything done right inside Premiere Pro.

Other

df3015_CA_big_tracking_but_no_timelineSince After Effects is integral for many editors, a few more features are worth noting. New in CC 2015 is a Face Tracker. This is a simple mask based on identifying points on the face, like eyes, pupils, mouth and nose. The Face Tracker will follow the shot’s or person’s movement. It will even track exaggerated mouth movements without frame-by-frame adjustments. This is a very useful tool for locking an object to head movement or facial blurs to protect identity.

The Face Tracker ties into a new Adobe application – Adobe Character Animator. As the name implies, this is an application that enables you to create 2D character animation. Facial tracking technology can be used to animate the characters according to prerecorded tracking data, as well as to live, real-time tracking. For example, a webcam could be used to animate the characters live, complete with lip-sync. Animation passes can be recorded and edited for a complete production featuring multiple interactive characters.

This release has a number of large and small upgrades that will make editors and compositors quite happy. I like the direction Adobe has taken. It just reiterates that the designers are working hard to integrate user input and build upon the professional momentum that Adobe has earned to date.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

The FCP X – RED – Resolve Dance II

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Last October I wrote about the roundtrip workflow surrounding Final Cut Pro X and Resolve, particularly as it relates to working with RED camera files. This month I’ve been color grading a small, indie feature film shot with RED One cameras at 4K resolution. The timeline is 1080p. During the course of grading the film in DaVinci Resolve 11, I’ve encountered a number of issues in the roundtrip process. Here are some workflow steps that I’ve found to be successful.

Step 1 – For the edit, transcode the RED files into 1080p Apple ProRes Proxy QuickTime movies baking in camera color metadata and added burn-in data for clip name and timecode. Use either REDCINE-X Pro or DaVinci Resolve for the transcode.

Step 2 – Import the proxies and double-system audio (if used) into FCP X and sync within the application or use Sync-N-Link X. Ideally all cameras should record reference audio and timecode should match between the cameras and the sound recorder. Slates should also be used as a fall-back measure.

Step 3 – Edit in FCP X until you lock the cut. Prepare a duplicate sequence (Project) for grading. In that sequence, strip off (detach and remove) all audio. As an option, you can create a mix-down track for reference and attach it as a connected clip. Flatten the timeline down to the Primary Storyline where ever possible, so that Resolve only sees this as one track of video. Compound clips should be broken apart, effects should be removed, and titles removed. Audition clips should be finalized, but multicam clips are OK. Remove effects filters. Export an FCPXML (version 1.4 “previous”) list. You should also export a self-contained reference version of the sequence, which can be used to check the conform in Resolve.

Step 4 – Launch Resolve and make sure that the master project settings match that of your FCP X sequence. If it’s supposed to be 1920×1080 at 23.976 (23.98) fps, then make sure that’s set correctly. Resolve defaults to a frame rate of 24.0fps and that won’t work. Locate all of your camera original source media (RED camera files in this example) and add them to your media bin in the Media page. Import the FCPXML (1.4), but disable the setting to automatically load the media files in the import dialogue box. The FCPXML file will load and will relink to the RED files without issue if everything has gone correctly. The timeline may have a few clip conflicts, so look for the little indicator on the clip corner in the Edit window timeline. If there’s a clip conflict, you’ll be presented with several choices. Pick the correct one and that will correct the conflict.

Step 5 – At this point, you should verify that the files have conformed correctly by comparing against a self-contained reference file. Compound clips can still be altered in Resolve by using the Decompose function in the timeline. This will break apart the nested compound clips onto separate video tracks. In general, reframing done in the edit will translate, as will image rotation; however, flips and flops won’t. To flip and flop an image in FCP X requires a negative X or Y scale value (unless you used a filter), which Resolve cannot achieve. When you run across these in Resolve, reset the scale value in the Edit page inspector to normal from that clip. Then in the Color page use the horizontal or vertical flip functions that are part of the resizing controls. Once this is all straight, you can grade.

Step 6 option A – When grading is done, shift to the Deliver page. If your project is largely cuts-and-dissolves and you don’t anticipate further trimming or slipping of edit points in your NLE, then I would recommend exporting the timeline as a self-contained master file. You should do a complete quality check the exported media file to make sure there were no hiccups in the render. This file can then be brought back into any NLE and combined with the final mixed track to create the actual show master. In this case, there is no roundtrip procedure needed to get back into the NLE.

Step 6 option B – If you anticipate additional editing of the graded files – or you used transitions or other effects that are unique to your NLE – then you’ll need to use the roundtrip “return” solution. In the Deliver page, select the Final Cut Pro easy set-up roundtrip. This will render each clip as an individual file at the source or timeline resolution with a user-selected handle length added to the head and tail of each clip. Resolve will also write a corresponding FCPXML file (version 1.4). This file will retain the original transitions. For example, if you used FCP X’s light noise transition, it will show up as a dissolve in Resolve’s timeline. When you go back to FCP X, it will retain the proper transition information in the list, so you’ll get back the light noise transition effect.

Resolve generates this list with the assumption that the media files were rendered at source resolution and not timeline resolution. Therefore, even if your clips are now 1920×1080, the FCPXML represents these as 4K. When you import this new FCPXML back into FCP X, a spatial conform will be applied to “fit” the files into the 1920×1080 raster space of the timeline. Change this to “none” and the 1080 media files will be blown up to 4K. You can choose to simply live with this, leave it to “fit”, and render the files again on FCP X’s output – or follow the next step for a workaround.

Step 7 – Create a new Resolve project, making sure the frame rate and timeline format are correct, such as 1920×1080 at 23.976fps. Load the new media files that were exported from Resolve into the media pool. Now import the FCPXML that Resolve has generated (uncheck the selection to automatically import media files and uncheck sizing information). The media will now be conformed to the timeline. From the Edit page, export another FCPXML 1.4 for that timeline (no additional rendering is required). This FCPXML will be updated to match the media file info for the new files – namely size, track configuration, and frame rate.

At this stage, you will encounter a second serious flaw in the FCP X/Resolve/FCP X roundtrip process. Resolve 11 does not write a proper FCPXML file and leaves out certain critical asset information. You will encounter this if you move the media and lists between different machines, but not if all of the work is being done on a single workstation. The result will be a timeline that loads into FCP X with black clips (not the red “missing” icon). When you attempt to reconnect the media, FCP X will fail to relink and will issue an “incompatible files” error message. To fix the problem, either the colorist must have FCP X installed on the Resolve system or the editor must have Resolve 11 installed on the FCP X system. This last step is the one remaining workaround.

Step 8 option A – If FCP X is installed on the Resolve machine, import the FCPXML into FCP X and reconnect the media generated by Resolve. Then re-export a new FCPXML from FCP X. This new list and media can be moved to any other system. You can move the FCP X Library successfully, as well.

Step 8 option B – If Resolve is installed on the FCP X machine, then follow Step 7. The new FCPXML that you create there will load into FCP X, since you are on the same system.

That’s the state of things right now. Maybe some of these flaws will be fixed with Resolve 12, but I don’t know at this point. The FCPXML list format involves a bit of voodoo at times and this is one of those cases. The good news is that Resolve is very solid when it comes to relinking, which will save you. Good luck!

©2015 Oliver Peters

NLEs at NAB 2015

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NAB is the biggest toy store in our industry. As in years past, I’ve covered it for DV magazine, where you’ll find the expanded version. The following is the segment covering the four – soon to become five – most popular NLE vendors.

df2115_NAB2Editing options largely focused on the four “A” companies – Apple, Adobe, Avid and Autodesk. Apple wasn’t officially at the show, but held private press meetings at an area hotel. Consulting company FCPworks presented a series of workflow and case study sessions at the Renaissance Hotel next door to the South Hall. This coincided with Apple’s release of the updated versions of Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor. FCP X 10.2 includes a number of enhancements, but the most buzz went to the addition of a new 3D text engine for FCP X and Motion. Apple’s implementation is one of the easiest to use and best-looking in any application. The best part is that the performance is excellent. Two other big features fall more in line with user wish lists. These include built-in masking and changing the color correction tool into a standard effect filter. Compressor has now added a preset designed for iTunes submission. Although Apple still encourages users to go to iTunes though an approved third-party portal, this new preset makes it easier to create the proper file package necessary for delivery.

df2115_NAB1Adobe has the momentum as the next up-and-coming professional editing tool. At NAB Adobe was showing technology previews of the application features that will be released as part of a Creative Cloud subscription in the coming months. Premiere Pro CC now integrates more of SpeedGrade CC’s color correction capabilities through the addition of the Lumetri Color panel. This tabbed control integrates tools that are familiar from SpeedGrade, but also from Lightroom. Since Premiere already includes built-in masking and tracking, this means the editor is capable of doing very sophisticated color correction right inside of Premiere. Morph Cut is a new effect that everyone cutting interviews will love. The effect is designed to smoothly transition across jump cuts in a seamless manner. It uses advanced tracking and frame interpolation functions to build new “in-between” frames. After Effects adds an outstanding face tracker and improved previews. View design iterations, adjust composition properties, and even resize interface panels without halting composition playback. The face tracker locks onto specific points (pupils, mouth, nose), which enables accurate tracking when elements need to be composited onto an actor’s face.

Adobe is also good for out-of-the-box thinking on new technologies. Character Animator was demonstrated as a live animation tool. Using real-time facial tracking, such as from a laptop’s webcam, the animator could do live animation key framing of an on-screen cartoon character. Import a cartoon character as a layered Photoshop file as the starting point. When you move and talk, so does the character in real-time – all controlled by the tracking. Not only can you add the real-time animation, but certain animation functions are automatically applied, like a character’s breathing motion. Another interesting tool is Candy. This is a mobile app which analyses the tonal color scheme of photos stored on your mobile device. It creates a “look” file and stores it to your Creative Cloud library. This, in turn, can be synced with your copy of Premiere Pro CC and then applied as a color correction look to any video clip.

df2115_NAB3Avid ran the second annual Avid Connect event for members of their customer association in the weekend leading up to the NAB exhibition. Although this was the first show appearance of Media Composer 8.3.1 – Avid’s first move into true 4K editing – they did very little to promote it. That’s not to say there wasn’t any news. Several new products were announced, including the Avid Artist | DNxIO. Instead of developing their own 4K hardware, Avid opted to partner with Blackmagic Design. The DNxIO is essentially the same as the UltraStudio 4K Extreme, except with the addition of Avid’s DNxHR codec embedded into the unit. Only Avid will sell the Avid-branded version and will also provide any technical support. The DNxIO supports both PCIe or Thunderbolt host connections and can also be used for Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Apple FCP X and DaVinci Resolve running on the same workstation as Media Composer.

In an effort to attract new users to Media Composer, Avid also announced Media Composer | First. This is a free version with a reduced feature set. It’s intended as functional starter software from which users will hopefully transition to the full, paid application. However, it uses a “freemium” sales model, allowing users to extend functionality through add-on purchases. For example, Media Composer | First permits users to only store three active projects in the cloud. Additional storage for more projects can be purchased from Avid.

df2115_NAB5Autodesk’s NAB news was all about the 2016 versions of Flame, Maya and 3ds Max. Flame and Flame Premium customers gain new look development tools, including Lightbox – a GPU shader toolkit for 3D color correction – and Matchbox in the Action module. This applies fast Matchbox shaders to texture maps without leaving the 3D compositing scene. Maya 2016 received performance and ease-of-use enhancements. There are also new capabilities in Bifrost to help deliver realistic liquid simulations. 3ds Max 2016 gains a new, node-based creation graph, a new design workspace and template system, as well as other design enhancements. If you’ve been following Smoke, then this NAB was disappointing. Autodesk told me that an update is in the works, but development timing didn’t allow it to be ready in time for the show. I would presume we’ll hear something at IBC.

df2115_NAB4For editors, all eyes are on Blackmagic Design. DaVinci Resolve 12 was demonstrated, which is the first version that the company feels can compete as a full-fledged NLE. Last NAB, Resolve 11 was introduced as an online editor, but once it was out in the wild, most users found the real-time performance wasn’t up to par with other NLEs. Resolve 12 appears to have licked that issue, with a new audio engine and improved editing features. New in Resolve 12 is a multi-camera editing mode with the ability to sync angles by audio, timecode or in/out points. The new, high-performance audio engine was designed to greatly improve real-time playback, but also supports VST and AU audio plug-ins. Editors will also be able to export projects to ProTools using AAF.  Don’t forget that there are also updates to its color correction functions. Aside from interface and control enhancements, the most notable additions are a new keyer and a new perspective tracker. The latter will allow users to better track objects that move off-screen during the clip. Resolve 12 is scheduled to be released in July. Blackmagic acquired Fusion last year. It’s a node-based, compositing application, built on Windows. At the booth, Blackmagic previewed Fusion 8 on the Mac and announced that it will be available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Like Resolve, Fusion 8 will be offered in both a free and a paid version.

This post is an abbreviated overview written for CreativePlanetNetwork and Digital Video magazine. Click here for the full-length version to find out about more post news, as well as cameras, effects and other items presented at NAB.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Autodesk Smoke 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Fresh Dressed

df0515_frdress_2_smThe Sundance Film Festival is always a great event to showcase not just innovative dramas and comedies, but also new documentaries. This year brought good news for Adobe, because 21 of the documentaries to be shown were edited on Premiere Pro, which is more than double last year’s count. One such film is Fresh Dressed, which chronicles the history of hip-hop fashion from its birth in the Bronx during the 1970s to its evolution into a mainstream industry. It digs underneath the surface to look into other factors, like race and the societal context. Fresh Dressed was the first film written and directed by veteran producer Sacha Jenkins (Being Terry Kennedy, 50 Cent: The Power and the Money). The film features interviews with Pharrell Williams, Nas, Daymond John, Damon Dash, and Karl Kani, among others. It includes archival footage and some animation.

I recently spoke with Andrea B. Scott (Florence Arizona, A Place at the Table), who was brought in to complete the editing of the film to get it ready in time for Sundance submission. Scott explains, “Sacha and the team started shooting interviews in September of 2013. Initially there was another editor on board, who handled the first pass of cutting and organization of the project. I came to the film in May of 2014 after a basic assembly had been completed. This film was being produced by CNN and they recommended me. I definitely agree with the sentiment that editing is a lot like ‘writing with pictures’. It was my job to streamline the film and help craft the narrative, and bring Sacha’s vision to life as a moving story.”

df0515_frdress_1_smScott has worked on several documentaries before and has her own routine for learning the material. She says, “I usually start by watching the interviews through a couple of times, making notes with markers, and also by reading interview transcripts and highlighting certain passages. Then, I’ll pull selects to whittle down the interview to the parts that are most likely to be used in any given section. On Fresh Dressed, because I started with an assembly and needed to work quickly to get to a rough cut, I relied heavily on interview transcripts – going through the film section-by-section and interview-by-interview, and pulling selects – going back and forth from reading the transcript to watching the interview. Fresh Dressed involved about 30 interviews and totaled approximately 200 hours of raw footage. A lot of the archival search had already been done by the time I came on board, so I also had to watch through that footage and had a lot of good material to pull from.”

All film editing involves a working relationship between the editor and the director and Fresh Dressed was no exception. Scott continues, “It’s always a process of gaining the trust of the director. I come from the suburbs and I’m a bit younger than some of the crew, so it was a steep learning curve for me to understand the history of the hip-hop culture and fashion. It basically evolved from the urban gang culture of the 1970s, moved out from New York City, and went global from there. Inevitably, as the editor, you bring fresh eyes to the project and part of the editing process is to refine. The goal was to tell the story without voice-over, so we used the interviews to create that narrative thread. I put in a lot more archival material than was there before, which served to enliven the film with moments of nostalgia and infuse it with a fun energy. In a written script or book there can be a lot of side stories, which make sense on paper and are easy for the reader to follow and digest. But, the film we were making had to be more direct, with a linear timeline. Part of what I did was to strip away tangents that take you away from the main story.”df0515_frdress_3_sm

Scott’s touch also extended to the music. “The film was originally delivered to me with wall-to-wall music,” she explains. “I stripped out the music at first, so I could really think about story. Then I added temp score back in places to help steer the audience and underscore certain moments with another level of meaning.  In the end, we hired a talented composer, Tyler Strickland, to write the bulk of the score, and we also used some popular tracks from critical moments in the history of hip-hop.”

This was Scott’s first experience with Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Her prior experience had been with Apple Final Cut Pro (the “legacy” version). She found it to be a relatively easy transition. “The production company had already started the edit on Premiere Pro and so I continued with it. I welcomed being pushed to a new editing platform. It took about a week for me to get the hang of it. Since we were on a short deadline by that time, I simply ran it like I was used to running Final Cut. I really didn’t have the time to learn all of its nuances. I used the FCP keyboard settings, so everything felt natural to me. There’s a lot about Premiere Pro that I really like now. For example, the way it works with native media and using Adobe Media Encoder to export files.” The workstations were connected to shared storage, allowing the Scott to access material from any computer in the production office.

df0515_frdress_4_smEditors considering a shift to Premiere Pro CC sometimes question how its performance is with long-form project. Scott responds, “I was editing on an iMac and performance was fine. One tip I found that helps to speed up the loading of a large project is to discard old sequences. When I edit, I generally duplicate sequences and continue on those as I make changes. So on a large project you tend to build up a lot of sequences that way. While it’s good to save the past few versions in case you need to go back, you still have a lot of the oldest ones that simply aren’t ever needed again. These tend to slow down the speed of loading the project as all the media is relinked each time you launch it. By simply getting rid of a lot of these, you can improve performance.”

To handle the final stages of post, Scott exported an OMF file from Premiere Pro CC to be used by the audio mixer and and an XML file for the colorist. The final color correction of Fresh Dressed is being handled by Light of Day in New York. They will also complete the conform and recreate all moves on archival stills.

Scott concludes, “The film was, for the most part, made in New York, which makes sense, because Fresh Dressed really is a New York story at its heart.  Working on this film, I gained another level of love for New York, a deeper appreciation for all the many stories that start in this city, and for the deeper context that surrounds those individual stories.  Plus I had a lot of fun along the way.”

Read more about Fresh Dressed at Adobe’s Premiere Pro blog.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer Goes 4K

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters