Autodesk Smoke 2015


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 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


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

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

df0615_panthers_3_smDocumentaries covering subject matter that happens within a generation usually divides the audience between those who personally lived through the time period and those who’ve only read about it in history books. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one such film. If you are over 50, you are aware of the media coverage of the Black Panther Party and certainly have opinions and possibly misconceptions of who they were. If you are under 50, then you may have learned about them in history class, if which case, you may only know them by myth and legend. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The American Experience, Freedom Summer, Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) seeks to go beyond what you think you know with this new Sundance Film Festival documentary entry.

I spoke with the film’s editor, Aljernon Tunsil, as he was putting the finishing touches on the film to get it ready for Sundance presentation. Tunsil has worked his way up from assistant editor to editor and discussed the evolution in roles. “I started in a production company office, initially helping the assistant editor,” he says. “Over a period of seven or eight years, I worked my way up from assistant to a full-time editor. Along the way, I’ve had a number of mentors and learned to cut on both [Apple] Final Cut Pro and [Avid] Media Composer. These mentors were instrumental in my learning how to tell a story. I worked on a short with Stanley [Nelson] and that started our relationship of working together on films. I view my role as the ‘first audience’ for the film. The producer or director knows the story they want to make, but the editor helps to make sense of it for someone who doesn’t intimately know the material. My key job is to make sure that the narrative makes senses and that no one gets lost.”

df0615_panthers_2_smThe Black Panthers is told through a series of interviews (about 40 total subjects). Although a few notables, like Kathleen Cleaver, are featured, the chronicle of the rise and fall of the Panthers is largely told by lesser known party members, as well as FBI informants and police officers active in the events. The total post-production period took about 40 to 50 weeks. Tunsil explains, “Firelight Films (the production company) is very good at researching characters and finding old subjects for the interviews. They supplied me with a couple of hundred hours of footage. That’s a challenge to organize so that you know what you have. My process is to first watch all of that with the filmmakers and then to assemble the best of the interviews and best of the archival footage. Typically it takes six to ten weeks to get there and then another four to six weeks to get to a rough cut.”

Tunsil continues, “The typical working arrangement with Stanley is that he’ll take a day to review any changes I’ve made and then give me notes for any adjustments. As we were putting the film together, Stanley was still recording more interviews to fill in the gaps – trying to tie the story together without the need for a narrator. After that, it’s the usual process of streamlining the film. We could have made a ten-hour film, but, of course, not all of the stories would fit into the final two-hour version.”

df0615_panthers_5_smLike many documentary film editors, Tunsil prefers having interview transcripts, but acknowledged they don’t tell the whole story. He says, “One example is in the interview with former Panther member Wayne Pharr. He describes the police raid on the LA headquarters of the party and the ensuing shootout. When asked how he felt, he talks about his feeling of freedom, even though the event surrounding him was horrific. That feeling clearly comes across in the emotion on his face, which transcends the mere words in the transcript. You get to hear the story from the heart – not just the facts. Stories are what makes a documentary like this.”

As with many films about the 1960s and 1970s, The Black Panthers weaves into its fabric the music of the era. Tunsil says, “About 60% of the film was composed by Tom Phillips, but we also had about seven or eight period songs, like ‘Express Yourself’, which we used under [former Panther member] Bobby Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland. I used other pieces from Tom’s library as temp music, which we then gave to him for the feel. He’d compose something similar – or different, but in a better direction.”

df0615_panthers_6_smTunsil is a fervent Avid Media Composer editor, which he used for The Black Panthers. He explains, “I worked with Rebecca Sherwood as my associate editor and we were both using Media Composer version 7. We used a Facilis Terrablock for shared storage, but this was primarily used to transfer media between us, as we both had our own external drives with a mirrored set of media files. All the media was at the DNxHD 175 resolution. I like Avid’s special features such as PhraseFind, but overall, I feel that Media Composer is just better at letting me organize material than is Final Cut. I love Avid as an editing system, because it’s the most stable and makes the work easy. Editing is best when there’s a rhythm to the workflow and Media Composer is good for that. As for the stills, I did temporary moves with the Avid pan-and-zoom plug-in, but did the final moves in [Adobe] After Effects.”

df0615_panthers_1_smFor a documentary editor, part of the experience are the things you personally learn. Tunsil reflects, “I like the way Stanley and Firelight handle these stories. They don’t just tell it from the standpoint of the giants of history, but more from the point-of-view of the rank-and-file people. He’s trying to show the full dimension of the Panthers instead of the myth and iconography. It’s telling the history of the real people, which humanizes them. That’s a more down-to-earth, honest experience. For instance, I never knew that they had a communal living arrangement. By having the average members tell their stories, it makes it so much richer. Another example is the Fred Hampton story. He was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the party who was killed in a police shootout; but, there was no evidence of gunfire from inside the building that he was in. That’s a powerful scene, which resonates. One part of the film that I think is particularly well done is the explanation of how the party declined due to a split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. This was in part as a result of an internal misinformation campaign instigated by the FBI within the Panthers.”

df0615_panthers_4_smThroughout the process, the filmmakers ran a number of test screenings with diverse audiences, including industry professionals and non-professionals, people who knew the history and people who didn’t. Results from these screenings enabled Nelson and Tunsil to refine the film. To complete the film’s finishing, Firelight used New York editorial facility Framerunner. Tunsil continues, “Framerunner is doing the online using an Avid Symphony. To get ready, we simply consolidated the media to a single drive and then brought it there. They are handling all color correction, improving moves on stills and up-converting the standard definition archival footage.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Adobe Anywhere and Divine Access


Editors like the integration of Adobe’s software, especially Dynamic Link and Direct Link between creative applications. This sort of approach is applied to collaborative workflows with Adobe Anywhere, which permits multiple stakeholders, including editors, producers and directors, to access common media and productions from multiple, remote locations. One company that has invested in the Adobe Anywhere environment is G-Men Media of Venice, California, who installed it as their post production hub. By using Adobe Anywhere, Jeff Way (COO) and Clay Glendenning (CEO) sought to improve the efficiency of the filmmaking process for their productions. No science project – they have now tested the concept in the real world on several indie feature films.

Their latest film, Divine Access, produced by The Traveling Picture Show Company in association with G-Men Media, is a religious satire centering on reluctant prophet Jack Harriman. Forces both natural and supernatural lead Harriman down a road to redemption culminating in a final showdown with his long time foe, Reverend Guy Roy Davis. Steven Chester Prince (Boyhood, The Ringer, A Scanner Darkly) moves behind the camera as the film’s director. The entire film was shot in Austin, Texas during May of 2014, but the processing of dailies and all post production was handled back at the Venice facility. Way explains, “During principal photography we were able to utilize our Anywhere system to turn around dailies and rough cuts within hours after shooting. This reduced our turnaround time for review and approval, thus reducing budget line items. Using Anywhere enabled us to identify cuts and mark them as viable the same day, reducing the need for expensive pickup shoots later down the line.”

The production workflow

df0115_da_3_smDirector of Photography Julie Kirkwood (Hello I Must Be Going, Collaborator, Trek Nation) picked the ARRI ALEXA for this film and scenes were recorded as ProRes 4444 in 2K. An on-set data wrangler would back up the media to local hard drives and then a runner would take the media to a downtown upload site. The production company found an Austin location with 1GB upload speeds. This enabled them to upload 200GB of data in about 45 minutes. Most days only 50-80GB were uploaded at one time, since uploads happened several times throughout each day.

Way says, “We implemented a technical pipeline for the film that allowed us to remain flexible.  Adobe’s open API platform made this possible. During production we used an Amazon S3 instance in conjunction with Aspera to get the footage securely to our system and also act as a cloud back-up.” By uploading to Amazon and then downloading the media into their Anywhere system in Venice, G-Men now had secure, full-resolution media in redundant locations. Camera LUTs were also sent with the camera files, which could be added to the media for editorial purposes in Venice. Amazon will also provide a long-term archive of the 8TB of raw media for additional protection and redundancy. This Anywhere/Amazon/Aspera pipeline was supervised by software developer Matt Smith.

df0115_da_5_smBack in Venice, the download and ingest into the Anywhere server and storage was an automated process that Smith programmed. Glendenning explains, “It would automatically populate a bin named for that day with the incoming assets. Wells [Phinny, G-Men editorial assistant] would be able to grab from subfolders named ‘video’ and ‘audio’ to quickly organize clips into scene subfolders within the Anywhere production that he would create from that day’s callsheet. Wells did most of this work remotely from his home office a few miles away from the G-Men headquarters.” Footage was synced and logged for on-set review of dailies and on-set cuts the next day. Phinny effectively functioned as a remote DIT in a unique way.

Remote access in Austin to the Adobe Anywhere production for review was made possible through an iPad application. Way explains, “We had close contact with Wells via text message, phone and e-mail. The iPad access to Anywhere used a secure VPN connection over the Internet. We found that a 4G wireless data connection was sufficient to play the clips and cuts. On scenes where the director had concerns that there might not be enough coverage, the process enabled us to quickly see something. No time was lost to transcoding media or to exporting a viewable copy, which would be typical of the more traditional way of working.”

Creative editorial mixing Adobe Anywhere and Avid Media Composer

df0115_da_4_smOnce principal photography was completed, editing moved into the G-Men mothership. Instead of editing with Premiere Pro, however, Avid Media Composer was used. According to Way, “Our goal was to utilize the Anywhere system throughout as much of the production as possible. Although it would have been nice to use Premiere Pro for the creative edit, we believed going with an editor that shared our director’s creative vision was the best for the film. Kindra Marra [Scenic Route, Sassy Pants, Hick] preferred to cut in Media Composer. This gave us the opportunity to test how the system could adapt already existing Adobe productions.” G-Men has handled post on other productions where the editor worked remotely with an Anywhere production. In this case, since Marra lived close-by in Santa Monica, it was simpler just to set up the cutting room at their Venice facility. At the start of this phase, assistant editor Justin (J.T.) Billings joined the team.

Avid has added subscription pricing, so G-Men installed the Divine Access cutting room using a Mac Pro and “renting” the Media Composer 8 software for a few months. The Anywhere servers are integrated with a Facilis Technology TerraBlock shared storage network, which is compatible with most editing applications, including both Premiere Pro and Media Composer. The Mac Pro tower was wired into the TerraBlock SAN and was able to see the same ALEXA ProRes media as Anywhere. According to Billings, “Once all the media was on the TerraBlock drives, Marra was able to access these in the Media Composer project using Avid’s AMA-linking. This worked well and meant that no media had to be duplicated. The film was cut solely with AMA-linked media. External drives were also connected to the workstations for nightly back-ups as another layer of protection.”

Adobe Anywhere at the finish line

df0115_da_6_smOnce the cut was locked, an AAF composition for the edited sequence was sent from Media Composer to DaVinci Resolve 11, which was installed on an HP workstation at G-Men. This unit was also connected to the TerraBlock storage, so media instantly linked when the AAF file was imported. Freelance colorist Mark Todd Osborne graded the film on Resolve 11 and then exported a new AAF file corresponding to the rendered media, which now also existed on the SAN drives. This AAF composition was then re-imported into Media Composer.

Billings continues, “All of the original audio elements existed in the Media Composer project and there was no reason to bring them into Premiere Pro. By importing Resolve’s AAF back into Media Composer, we could then double-check the final timeline with audio and color corrected picture. From here, the audio and OMF files were exported for Pro Tools [sound editorial and the mix is being done out-of-house]. Reference video of the film for the mix could now use the graded images. A new AAF file for the graded timeline was also exported from Media Composer, which then went back into Premiere Pro and the Anywhere production. Once we get the mixed tracks back, these will be added to the Premiere Pro timeline. Final visual effects shots can also be loaded into Anywhere and then inserted into the Premiere Pro sequence. From here on, all further versions of Divine Access will be exported from Premiere Pro and Anywhere.”

Glendenning points out that, “To make sure the process went smoothly, we did have a veteran post production supervisor – Hank Braxtan – double check our workflow.  He and I have done a lot of work together over the years and has more than a decade of experience overseeing an Avid house. We made sure he was available whenever there were Avid-related technical questions from the editors.”

Way says, “Previously, on post production of [the indie film] Savageland, we were able to utilize Anywhere for full post production through to delivery. Divine Access has allowed us to take advantage of our system on both sides of the creative edit including principal photography and post finishing through to delivery. This gives us capabilities through entire productions. We have a strong mix of Apple and PC hardware and now we’ve proven that our Anywhere implementation is adaptable to a variety of different hardware and software configurations. Now it becomes a non-issue whether it’s Adobe, Avid or Resolve. It’s whatever the creative needs dictate; plus, we are happy to be able to use the fastest machines.”

Glendenning concludes, “Tight budget projects have tight deadlines and some producers have missed their deadlines because of post. We installed Adobe Anywhere and set up the ecosystem surrounding it because we feel this is a better way that can save time and money. I believe the strategy employed for Divine Access has been a great improvement over the usual methods. Using Adobe Anywhere really let us hit it out of the park.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters



Some films might be hard to believe if it weren’t for the fact that the stories are true. Such is the case with Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s largest studio film to date as a director. Unbroken tells the amazing true life story of Louis Zamperini, who participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and then went on to serve as a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific during World War II. The plane went down and Zamperini plus two other crew members (one of whom subsequently died) were adrift at sea for 47 days. They were picked up by the Japanese and spent two years in brutal prisoner-of-war camps until the war ended. Zamperini came home to a hero’s welcome, but struggled with what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. Through his wife, friends and attending a 1949 Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles, Zamperini was able to turn his life around by finding the path of forgiveness, including forgiving his former prison guards.df0315_unbroken_8_sm

Since Zamperini’s full life story could easily take up several films, Unbroken focuses on his early years culminating with his heroic return home. Jack O’Connell (300: Rise of an Empire, Starred Up) plays the lead role as Louis Zamperini. Jolie pulled in a “dream team” of creative professionals to help her realize the vision for the film, including Roger Deakins (Prisoners, Skyfall, True Grit) as director of photographer, Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Monuments Men) to compose the score and Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, No Country for Old Men) to polish the final draft of the screenplay.  ILM was the main visual effects house and rounding out this team were Tim Squyres (Life of Pi, Lust Caution, Syrianna) and William Goldenberg (The Imitation Game, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Argo) who co-edited Unbroken.

Australia to New York

df0315_unbroken_3_smThe film was shot entirely in Australia during a 67-day period starting in October 2013. The crew shot ARRIRAW on Alexa XT cameras and dailies were handled by EFILM in Sydney. Avid DNxHD 115 files were encoded and sent to New York via Aspera for the editors. Dailies for the studio were sent via the PIX system and to Roger Deakins using the eVue system.

Tim Squyres started with the project in October as well, but was based in New York, after spending the first week in Australia. According to Squyres, “This was mainly a single camera production, although about one-third of the film used two cameras. Any takes that used two cameras to cover the same action where grouped in the Avid. Angie and Roger were very deliberate in what they shot. They planned carefully, so there was a modest amount of footage.” While in New York, Squyres and his assistants used three Avid Media Composer 7 systems connected to Avid Isis shared storage. This grew to five stations when the production moved to the Universal lot in Los Angeles and eventually eight when William Goldenberg came on board.

df0315_unbroken_6_smDuring production Squyres was largely on his own to develop the first assembly of the film. He continues, “I really didn’t have extensive contact with Angie until after she got back to LA. After all, directing on location is a full-time job, plus there’s a big time zone difference. Before I was hired, I had a meeting with her to discuss some of the issues surrounding shooting in a wave tank, based on my experiences with Life of Pi. This was applicable to the section of Unbroken when they are lost at sea in a life raft. While they were in Australia, I’d send cut scenes and notes to her over PIX. Usually this would be a couple of versions of a scene. Sometimes I’d get feedback, but not always. This is pretty normal, since the main thing the director wants to know is if they have the coverage and to be alerted if there are potential problems.”

Editor interaction

The first assembly of the film was finished in February and Squyres continued to work with Jolie to hone and tighten the film. Squyres says, “This was my first time working with an actor/director. I really appreciated how much care she took with performances. That was very central to her focus. Even though there’s a lot of action in some of the scenes, it never loses sight of the characters. She’s also a very smart director and this film has hundreds of visual effects. She quickly picked up on how effects could be used to enhance a shot and how an effect, like CG water, needed to be tweaked to make it look realistic.”

df0315_unbroken_2_smWilliam Goldenberg joined the team in June and stayed with it until October 2014. This was Tim Squyres’ first time working with a co-editor and since the film was well past the first cut stage, the two handled their duties differently than two editors might on other films. Goldenberg explains, “Since I wasn’t on from the beginning, we didn’t split up the film between us, with one editor doing the action scenes and the other the drama. Instead, we both worked on everything very collaboratively. I guess I was brought in to be another set of eyes, since this was such a huge film. I’d review a section and tweak the cut and then run it by Tim. Then the two of us would work through the scene with Angie, kicking around ideas. She’s a very respectful person and wanted to make sure that everyone’s opinion was heard.” Squyres adds, “Each editor would push the other to make it better.”

This is usually the stage at which a film might be completely rearranged in the edit and deviate significantly from the script. That wasn’t the case with Unbroken. Goldenberg explains, “The movie is partly told through flashbacks, but these were scripted and not a construct created during editing. We experimented with rearranging some of the scenes, but in the end, they largely ended up back as they were scripted.”

The art of cutting dialogue scenes

df0315_unbroken_1_smBoth editors are experienced Media Composer users and one unique Avid tool used on Unbroken was Script Integration, often referred to as ScriptSync. This feature enables the editor to see the script as text in a bin with every take synced to the individual dialogue lines. Squyres says, “It had already been set up when I came on board to cut a previous film and was handy for me there to learn the footage. So I decided to try it on this film. Although handy, I didn’t find it essential for me, because of how I go through the dailies. I typically build a sequence out of pieces of each take, which gives me a set of ‘pulls’ – my favorite readings from each setup strung together in script order. Then I’ll cut at least two versions of a scene based on structure or emotion – for example, a sad version and an angry version. When I’ve cut the first version, I try not to repeat shots in building the second version. By using the same timeline and turning on dupe detection, it’s easy to see if you’ve repeated something. Assembling is about getting a good cut, but it’s also about learning all the options and getting used to the footage. By having a few versions of each scene, you are already prepared when the director wants to explore alternatives.”

Goldenberg approaches the raw footage in a similar fashion. He says, “I build up my initial sequences in a way that accomplishes the same thing that ScriptSync does. The sequence will have each line reading from each take in scene order going from wide to tight. This results in a long sequence for a scene, with each line repeated, but I can immediately see what all the coverage is for that scene. When a director wants to see alternates for any reading, I can go back to this sequence and then it’s easy to evaluate the performance options.”

Building up visual effects and the score

df0315_unbroken_5_smUnbroken includes approximately 1100 visual effects shots, ranging from water effects, composites and set extensions to invisible split screens used to adjust performance timing. Squyres explains, “Although the editing was very straightforward, we did a lot of temporary compositing. I would identify a shot and then my assistant would do the work in either Media Composer or After Effects. The spilt screens used for timing is a common example. We had dozens of those. On the pure CG shots, we had pre-vis clips in the timeline and then, as more and more polished versions of the effects came in, these would be replaced in the sequence.” Any temp editorial effects were redone in final form by one of the VFX suppliers or during the film’s digital intermediate finishing at EFILM in Hollywood.

In addition to temp effects, the editors also used temp music. Squyres explains, “At the beginning we used a lot of temp music pulled from other scores. This helps you understand what a scene is going to be, especially if it’s a scene designed for music. As we got farther into the cut, we started to receive some of Alexandre’s temp cues. These were recorded with synth samples, but still sounded great and gave you an good sense of the music. The final score was recorded using an orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, which really elevated the score beyond what you can get with samples.”

Finding the pace

In a performance-driven film, the editing is all about drama and pacing. Naturally Squires and Goldenberg have certain scenes that stand out to them. Squyres says, “A big scene in the film is when Louis meets the head guard for the first time. You have to set up that slow burn as they trade lines. Later in the film, there’s a second face-off, but now the dynamic between them is completely different. It’s a large, complex scene without spoken dialogue, so you have to get the pacing right, based on feel, not on the rhythm of the dialogue. The opening scene is an action air battle. It was shot in a very measured fashion, but you had to get the right balance between the story and the characters. You have to remember that the film is personal and you can’t lose sight of that.”

For Goldenberg, the raft sequence was the most difficult to get right. He says, “You want it to feel epic, but in reality – being lost at sea on a raft – there are long stretches of boredom and isolation, interrupted by some very scary moments. You have to find the right balance without the section feeling way too long.”

Both editors are fans of digital editing. Goldenberg puts it this way, “Avid lets you be wrong a lot of the time, because you can always make another version without physical constraints. I feel lucky, though, in having learned to work in the ‘think before you edit’ era. The result – more thinking – means you know where you are going when you start to cut a scene. You are satisfied that you know the footage well. I like to work in reels to keep the timeline from getting too cumbersome and I do keep old versions, in case I need to go back and compare or restore something.”

The film was produced with involvement by Louis Zamperini and his family, but unfortunately he died before the film was completed. Goldenberg sums it up, “It was a thrill. Louie was the type of person you hope your kids grow up to be. We were all proud to be part of telling the story for Louie.” The film opened its US release run on Christmas Day 2014.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters


Birdman-PosterIt’s rare, but exhilarating, when you watch a movie with a unique take on film’s visual language, without the crutch of extensive computer generated imagery. That’s precisely the beauty of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The film is directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams) and features a dynamic ensemble cast dominated by Michael Keaton’s lead performance as Riggan Thomson. While most films are constructed of intercutting master shots, two-shots and singles, Birdman is designed to look like a continuous, single take. While this has been done before in films, approximately 100 minutes out of the two-hour movie appear as a completely seamless composite of lengthy Steadicam and hand-held takes.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a movie star who rode to fame as the comic book super hero Birdman; but, it’s a role that he walked away from. Searching for contemporary relevance, Riggan has decided to mount a Broadway play, based on the real-life Raymond Carter short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film takes place entirely at the historic St. James Theater near Times Square and the surrounding area in New York. Principal photography occurred over a 30-day period, both at the real theater and Times Square, as well as at Kaufman Astoria Studios. The soundstage sets were for the backstage and dressing room portions of the theater. Throughout the film, Riggan struggles with the challenges of getting the play to opening day and dealing with his fellow cast members, but more notably confronting his super ego Birdman, seen in person and heard in voice-over. This is, of course, playing out in Riggan’s imagination. The film, like the play within the film, wrestles with the overall theme of the confusion between love and affection.

Bringing this ambitious vision to life fell heavily upon the skills of the director of photography and the editors. Emmanuel Lubezki, known as Chivo, served as DoP. He won the 2014 Cinematography Oscar for Gravity, a film that was also heralded for its long, seemingly continuous shots. Stephen Mirrione (The Monuments Men, Ocean’s Thirteen, Traffic) and Douglas Crise (Arbitrage, Deception, Babel) teamed up for the edit. Both editors had worked together before, as well as with the director. Mirrione started during the rehearsal process. At the time of production, Crise handled the editing in New York, while Mirrione, who was back LA at this time, was getting dailies and checking in on the cut as well as sending scenes back and forth with changes every day.

It starts with preparation

Stephen Mirrione explains, “When I first saw what they wanted to do, I was a bit skeptical that it could be pulled off successfully. Just one scene that didn’t work would ruin the whole film. Everything really had to align. One of the things that was considered, was to tape and edit all of the rehearsals. This was done about two months before the principal photography was set to start. The rehearsals were edited together, which allowed Alejandro to adjust the script, pacing and performances. We could see what would work and what wouldn’t. Before cameras even rolled, we had an assembly made up of the rehearsal footage and some of the table read. So, together with Alejandro, we could begin to gauge what the film would look and sound like, where a conversation was redundant, where the moves would be. It was like a pre-vis that you might create for a large-scale CGI or animated feature.”

Once production started in New York, Douglas Crise picked up the edit. Typically, the cast and crew would rehearse the first half of the day and then tape during the second half. ARRI ALEXA cameras were used. The media was sent to Technicolor, who would turn around color corrected Avid DNxHD36 dailies for the next day. The team of editors and assistants used Avid Media Composer systems. According to Crise, “I would check the previous day’s scenes and experiment to see how the edit points would ‘join’ together. You are having to make choices based on performance, but also how the camera work would edit together. Alejandro would have to commit to certain editorial decisions, because those choices would dictate where the shot would pick up on the next day. Stephen would check in on the progress during this period and then he picked up once the cut shifted to visual effects.”

Naturally the editing challenge was to make the scenes flow seamlessly in both a figurative and literal sense. “The big difference with this film was that we didn’t have the conventional places where one scene started and another ended. Every scene walks into the next one. Alejandro described it as going down a hill and not stopping. There wasn’t really a transition. The characters just keep moving on,” Crise says.

“I think we really anticipated a lot of the potential pitfalls and really prepared, but what we didn’t plan on were all the speed changes,” Mirrione adds. “At certain points, when the scene was not popping for us, if the tempo was a little off, we could actually dial up the pace or slow it down as need be without it being perceptible to the audience and that made a big difference.”

Score and syncopation

To help drive pace, much of the track uses a drum score composed and performed by Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez. In some scenes within the film, the camera also pans over to a drummer with a kit who just happens to be playing in an alley or even in a backstage hallway. Sanchez and Iñárritu went into a studio and recorded sixty improvised tracks based on the emotions that the film needed. Mirrione says, “Alejandro would explain the scene to the drummer in the studio and then he’d create it.” Crise continues, “Alejandro had all these drum recordings and he told me to pick six of my favorites. We cut those together so that he could have a track that the drummer could mimic when they shot that scene. He had the idea for the soundtrack from the very beginning and we had those samples cut in from the start, too.”

“And then Martín [Hernández, supervising sound editor] took it to another level. Once there was an first pass at the movie, with a lot of those drum tracks laid in as an outline, he spent a lot of time working with Alejandro, to strip layers away, add some in, trying a lot of different beats. Obviously, in every movie, music will have an impact on point of view and mood and tone. But with this, I think it was especially important, because the rhythm is so tied to the camera and you can’t make those kinds of cadence adjustments with as much flexibility as you can with cuts. We had to lean on the music a little more than normal at times, to push back or pull forward,” Mirrione says.

The invisible art

The technique of this seamless sequence of scenes really allows you to get into the head of Riggan more so than other films, but the editors are reserved in discussing the actual editing technique. Mirrione explains, “Editing is often called the ‘invisible art’. We shape scenes and performances on every film. There has been a lot of speculation over the internet about the exact number and length of shots. I can tell you it’s more than most people would guess. But we don’t want that to be the focus of the discussion. The process is still the same of affecting performance and pace. It’s just that the dynamic has been shifted, because much of the effort was front-loaded in the early days. Unlike other films, where the editing phase after the production is completed, focuses on shaping the story – on Birdman it was about fine-tuning.”

Crise continues, “Working on this film was a different process and a different way to come up with new ideas. It’s also important to know that most of the film was shot practically. Michael [Keaton] really is running through Times Square in his underwear. The shots are not comped together with green screen actors against CGI buildings.” There are quite a lot of visual effects used to enhance and augment the transitions from one shot to the next to make these seamless. On the other hand, when Riggan’s Birdman delusions come to life on screen, we also see more recognizable visual effects, such as a brief helicopter and creature battle playing out over the streets of New York.

Winking at the audience

The film is written as a black comedy with quite a few insider references. Clearly, the casting of Michael Keaton provides allusion to his real experiences in starting the Batman film franchise and in many ways the whole super hero film genre. However, there was also a conscious effort during rehearsals and tapings to adjust the dialogue in ways that kept these references as current as possible. Crise adds, “Ironically, in the scenes on the rooftop there was a billboard in the background behind Emma Stone and Edward Norton, with a reference to Tom Hanks. We felt that audiences would believe that we created it on purpose, when if fact it was a real billboard. It was changed in post, just to keep from appearing to be an insider reference that was too obvious.”

The considerations mandated during the edit by a seamless film presented other challenges, too. For example, simple concerns, like where to structure reel breaks and how to hand off shots for visual effects. Mirrione points out, “Simple tasks such as sending out shots for VFX, color correction, or even making changes for international distribution requirements were complicated by the fact that once we finished, there weren’t individual ‘shots’ to work with – just one long never ending strand.  It meant inventing new techniques along the way.  Steven Scott, the colorist, worked with Chivo at Technicolor LA to perfect all the color and lighting and had to track all of these changes across the entire span of the movie.  The same way we found places to hide stitches between shots, they had to hide these color transitions which are normally changed at the point of a cut from one shot to the next.”

In total, the film was in production and post for about a year, starting with rehearsals in early 2013. Birdman was mixed and completed by mid-February 2014. While it posed a technical and artistic challenge from the start, everything amazingly fell into place, highlighted by perfect choreography of cast, crew and the post production team. It will be interesting to see how Birdman fares during awards season, because it succeeds on so many levels.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork

©2014, 2015 Oliver Peters