The post FCP world

Just as the computer manufacturers discuss the post-PC world, I believe the film and video industry has entered the post-FCP world. For over a decade Apple has steadily gained NLE market share and set the standard with its Studio software configuration. In addition to the popularity of Final Cut Pro, DVD Studio Pro owned the DVD space for Mac-based authoring shops. The integration of Color launched new opportunities for entrepreneurial colorists. In spite of these gains, Apple tossed it all out and in June the industry changed.

The professional community of full-time film and TV editors and post facilities wanted a new software suite that expanded and enhanced the strengths of FCP 7 and the accompanying Studio bundle – not a completely new application that was Final Cut in name only. Regardless of whether you love or hate Final Cut Pro X, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it simply doesn’t fit into any established workflows. If you’ve structured your business around the Final Cut Studio ecosystem, then FCP X is a square peg in a round hole.

We all know that Apple is quick to abandon legacy technologies, but no one was prepared for a change quite this radical. Apple simply does not compete on features, yet that’s where a hypothetical FCP 8 would have headed. Had Apple actually done that, it no doubt would have kicked serious butt against Avid and Adobe, so the launch of FCP X is all the more puzzling to folks who rely on the “classic” version of FCP. In the name of innovation, Apple decided on a reboot as the way forward. One that included a completely different editing paradigm, which not only changed the way they decided editors should work, but also made it nearly impossible to integrate FCP X with anything else in the rest of the post world.

The Final Cut Pro X update

A few days ago, Apple released its first update to FCP X. In making the PR rounds Apple is trying to stress that they are listening to pro users and this update reinforces that. I’m not so sure. I do think Apple is listening to its pro customers and values them. I just don’t believe they are willing to make many (if any) concessions to users who disagree with the design direction Apple has taken. The FCP X launch was completely botched by an instant removal of FCP, FC Studio, FC Server and FCE from the market. New seats of FCP/Studio “classic” were made available again for a limited time – and FCP X can now be tested with a 30-day free trial – so, both are tacit attempts by Apple to rectify mistakes that the pro community vocalized loud and clear.

I don’t believe, though, that this update is a direct response to user demand. The new features include XML interchange, a public SDK for native camera plug-ins and the expansion of Roles into metadata-driven exports, such as for audio stems. These all seem to be the addition of elements that were unfinished at launch and were likely yanked out at the time. FCP X’s XML is an entirely new version and this feature is simply a hook for third party developers. Because FCP 7 is based on a track model and FCP X is based on a parent-child model, the two forms of XML have no commonality. Many users quickly tested XML interchange between FCP 7 and FCP X and were disappointed, because they don’t understand that Apple isn’t going to add this functionality. That’s there for developers like Assisted Editing, who is working on an FCP X to FCP 7 XML converter for timelines, i.e. Projects to Sequences.

The camera plug-in SDK will leave it up to the camera manufacturers to bring native files into FCP X. This is much the same as FCP 7 Log and Transfer or Avid AMA. Yet, it is my understanding that this doesn’t actually mean complete native support, but rather support if the codec is wrapped in a QuickTime wrapper. So, in the case of RED’s .r3d format, will an FCP X editor actually have access to the camera raw adjustments, like they do in Adobe or Avid applications?

Apple has announced that the next update (available in early 2012) will include multi-cam support and broadcast I/O. I’m sorry if I sound jaded, but I have to believe that these features have always been planned from the beginning. Multi-cam probably required further development and broadcast I/O most likely needed OS elements to be developed for AV Foundations (the under-the-hood media architecture of FCP X). Once developed, then AJA, Blackmagic Design and others can write the appropriate drivers for their hardware. After all, why would Apple design those really nice software scopes in FCP X, if the only visual output was via desktop video?

The last little tidbit to note in this update is that Apple has been touting the XML interchange with DaVinci Resolve and CatDV. I don’t know about others, but this seems rather ironic to me. That’s great as a solution going forward, but does little to appease owners who had their investment in Color or FC Server instantly wiped out. Paraphrasing a friend, “Isn’t that spitting on the grave?!”

Is it a game-change away from Apple?

The bottom line is that Apple clearly feels they are changing the game. Maybe so. All I know is that it has completely splintered the market in a way that the competition never could. However, it has also had a type of “negative halo” effect. Not only are users looking at the options beyond FCP – many are looking at options away from Apple hardware and software entirely. This didn’t just happen because of FCP X. It started with the poor support of Xsan, as well as the string of EOL decisions for Shake, Xserve RAID, Xserve and Final Cut Server. Some of these after only a few short years under the Apple banner. Rightfully so, it has many corporate buyers a bit skittish about long term Apple reliability as an enterprise supplier.

I understand such corporate reasoning, but I think the sort of decisions Apple has been making reflect the computing industry as a whole. There’s probably at last one more solid refresh coming for the Mac Pro towers, though odds are it will have fewer slots in favor of Thunderbolt. After that, who knows? Only iMacs and Mac Minis? Maybe so, but that’s likely to be a few years down the road, yet. If you look over the fence at Windows machines, you’ve got HP seeking to dump that operation, as well. Where will the power users turn for a workstation if both suppliers aren’t making them any longer? Dell, Boxx, 1Beyond or Lenovo? Will the industry return to the SGI model, where a high-end, specialized machine is the way to work with video at the facility level? These are all unknowns that probably won’t affect larger users for a number of years.

Testing the waters

The change caused by FCP X is parallel to other industry changes, which all add up to a big year or two of stirring the pot. Editors and facility owners are actively planning a move away from Final Cut. For many this is Adobe, since quite a few already own Premiere Pro as part of one of the bundles. For others, it’s a return to an old friend, Avid Media Composer. Both are on fast development paths these days, with Adobe on 64-bit before Apple and Avid getting there shortly.

Along with these NLE changes, the color correction landscape has also been radically altered. Apple could have owned the low cost color correction suite business, but they’ve been trumped by Blackmagic Design. DaVinci Resolve or Resolve Lite have became great alternatives if you want to move away from Color. I still love the way Color works, but you’d be nuts to build a new room or service based on it now. No slouch in color science, Adobe opted to purchase Iridas and appears to be ready to integrate a form of the highly-regarded SpeedGrade application into Creative Suite 6. Once this is done, Adobe will have completely overshadowed FCP X and replaced all of Final Cut Studio’s functions with components of Creative Suite.

The exit strategy

It seems like prudent editors and facility owners should be developing an exit strategy from FCP 7 and Final Cut Studio. Sure, these tools will continue to work, but support is gone and sooner or later various portions of the software will inevitably “break”. If you were on the fence about FCP X – waiting to see the direction that the next couple of updates would take the application – then I think Apple has now made that direction quite clear. If that’s not for you, then the next year should be a time of transition.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Pick the new NLE or Suite you want to use, learn it and start using it on projects.

2. Re-evaluate and revise your workflows. For instance, if you were a heavy plug-in user and did your finishing in FCP, but are now moving to Adobe, you may opt to use  After Effects instead, for all the finishing work. That will now become the primary host for your plug-ins.

3. You are going to continue to use Final Cut Studio for a while in tandem with the new solution, but start stripping done the elements you use. Streamline the selection of plug-ins, for example, and reduce FCP’s footprint on your system.

4. Any masters you create today for projects should be saved not only as finished files, but also as split-track, textless versions – probably as QuickTime files. This will make it easier to edit future revisions to legacy projects in your new solution, without the need to completely translate or rebuild old projects.

5. Preserve any edit lists and data in easily-opened formats, such as EDLs, XMLs, batch lists, spreadsheets, FileMaker Pro databases, etc.

6. Consolidate all of your ongoing projects to single folders, drives or other data locations. Avoid having contents spread all over the place. Automatic Duck Media Copy is one of the best tools for doing this with Media Composer or FCP 7.

© 2011 Oliver Peters

Video sweetening

Color grading for mood, style and story

Video “sweetening” is both a science and an art. To my way of thinking, Color correction is objective – evening out shot-to-shot consistency and adjusting for improper levels or color balance. Color grading is subjective – giving a movie, show or commercial a “look”. Grading ranges from the simple enhancement of what the director of photography gave you – all the way to completely “relighting” a scene to radically alter the original image. Whenever you grade a project, the look you establish should always be in keeping with the story and the mood the director is trying to achieve. Color provides the subliminal cues that lead the audience deeper into the story.

Under the best of circumstances, the colorist is working as an extension of the director of photography and both are on the same page as the director. Frequently the DP will sit in on the grading session; however, there are many cases – especially in low budget projects – where the DP is no longer involved at that stage. In those circumstances, it is up to the colorist to properly guide the director to the final visual style.

I’ve pulled some examples from two digital films that I graded – The Touch (directed by Jimmy Huckaby) and Scare Zone (directed by Jon Binkowski). The first was shot with a Sony F900 and graded with Final Cut Pro’s internal and third-party tools. The latter used two Sony EX cameras and was graded in Apple Color.

The Touch

This is a faith-oriented film, based on a true story about personal redemption tied to the creation of a local church’s women’s center. The story opens as our lead character is arrested and goes through police station booking. Since this was a small indie film, a real police station was used. This meant the actual, ugly fluorescent lighting – no fancy, stylized police stations, like on CSI. Since the point of this scene isn’t supposed to be pretty, the best way to grade it was to go with the flow. Don’t fight the fluorescent look, but go more gritty and more desaturated.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Once she’s released and picked up by her loser boyfriend, we are back outside in sunny Florida weather. Just stick with a nice exterior look.

Nearly at the bottom of her life, she’s in a hotel room on the verge of suicide. This was originally a very warm shot, thanks to the incandescents in the room. But I felt it should go cooler. It’s night – there’s a TV on casting bluish light on her – and in general, this is supposed to be a depressing scene. So we swung the shot cooler and again, more desaturated from the original.

The fledgling women’s center holds group counseling sessions in a living room environment. This should feel comfortable and inviting. Here we went warmer.

Our lead character is haunted by the evils of her past, including childhood molestation and a teen rape. This is shown in various flashback sequences marked by an obvious change in editorial treatment utilizing frenetic cutting and speed ramps – together with a different visual look. The flashbacks were graded differently using Magic Bullet Looks for a more stylized appearance, including highlight glows.

Our lead comes to her personal conversion through the church and again, the sanctuary should look warm, natural and inviting. Since the lens used on the F900 resulted in a very deep depth of field, we decided to enhance these wider shots using a tilt-and-shift lens effect in Magic Bullet Looks. The intent was to defocus the background slightly and draw the audience in towards our main character.

Scare Zone

As you’ve probably gathered, Scare Zone is a completely different sort of tale than The Touch. Scare Zone is a comedy-horror film based on a Halloween haunted house attraction, which I discussed in this earlier post. In this story, our ensemble cast are part-time employees who work as “scaractors” in the evening. But… They are being killed off by a real killer. Most of the action takes place in the attraction sets and gift shop, with a few excursions off property. As such, the lighting style was a mixed bag, showing the attraction with “work lights” only and with full “attraction lighting”. We also have scenes without lights, except what is supposed to be moonlight or street lamp lighting coming through leaks from the exterior windows. And, of course, there’s the theatrical make-up.

This example shows one of the attraction scenes with work lights as the slightly, off-kilter manager explains their individual roles.

(Click on any of these images to see an enlarged view.)

Here are several frames showing one of the actors in scenes with show lighting, work lights and at home.

These are several frames from the film’s attraction/action/montage segments showing scaractor activity under show lighting. In the last frame, one of our actresses gets attacked.

The gift shop has a more normal lighting appearance. Not as warm as the work light condition, but warmer than the attraction lighting. In order to soften the look of the Goth make-up on the close-ups of our lead actress, I used a very slight application of the FCP compound blur filter.

Naturally, as in any thriller, the audience is to be left guessing throughout most of the film about the identity of the real killer. In this scene one of the actresses is being follow by the possible killer. Or is he? It’s a dark part of the hallway in a “show lighting” scene. One of the little extras done here was to use two secondaries with vignettes to brighten each eye socket of the mask, so as to better see the whites of the character’s eyes.

A crowd of guests line up on the outside, waiting to get into the attraction. It’s supposed to look like a shopping mall parking lot at night with minimal exterior lighting.

And lastly, these frames are from some of the attack scenes during what is supposed to be pre-show or after-show lighting conditions. In the first frame, one of our actresses is being chased by the killer through the attraction hallways and appears to have been caught. Although the vignette was natural, I enhanced this shot to keep it from being so dark that you couldn’t make out the action. The last two frames show some unfortunate vandals who tried to trash the place over the night. This is supposed to be a “lights-off” scene, with the only light being from the outside through leaks. And their flashlights, of course. The last frame required the use of secondary correction to make the color of the stage blood appear more natural.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Markers are your friend

If you cut long-form projects, then markers in Apple Final Cut Pro or locators in Avid Media Composer are an essential tool. This is one of the subtle yet workflow-changing improvements Apple made in FCP7. The developers added the ripple feature to markers, which allows timeline markers to stay pegged with the relevant clip on the timeline as you insert of delete other clips. It’s a feature that had been in Media Composer since the beginning of locators, but was a welcome change to Final Cut.

In case you’ve never used markers in Final Cut Pro (come on, really?), you can add them to places on the timeline and add text for each marker. The text is displayed when you park on the frame where the marker was placed. You can also use difference colored markers for different purposes. Markers can also be assigned as chapter, compression or scoring markers and given a duration. A marker list can be exported as a tab delimited text document, which will open in most word processors or spreadsheet applications. This list will indicate comments, type, duration, color and timecode. Marker lists may be helpful as a reference for interviews in the absence of an actual transcript. Or they may be used to document notes for editorial changes.

I use markers a lot in unscripted projects made up of lengthy interviews. I’ll place all of a subject’s clips on a timeline and then listen to the comments. At each place where they start a new answer or train of thought, I’ll add a marker and enter text. This is usually a short synopsis, phrase or some key words for the sound bite at that point. I tend to use a single color for my timeline markers, but if the interviewee says something exceptional or profound or with more emotion than the rest, then I’ll use a different marker color. This way I can quickly scan the timeline and find the points with the preferred sound bites.

When done, I have a timeline full of markers. Right-clicking on the timeline’s timecode ruler bar brings up a contextual menu with all the marker text for that sequence. Click on any entry in this pop-up menu and you’ll jump to that location on the timeline. This menu is also a great way to quickly scan through all the comments when you start to feel that you may be leaving something important out in your refined cut.

Furthermore, the Find command (cmd-F) for the sequence lets you search by names and markers. Looking for a word you know you typed into a marker? Simply use Find in the sequence and it will take you to that spot. Of course, the more information you typed at the time, the better of a resource this becomes.

Once I’ve gone through this process, I will leave that sequence untouched. Instead, I’ll duplicate it and continue editing on that new sequence or I will copy-and-paste from that sequence to another. The point is to leave this first record intact, so that when you need to find a specific comment at a later stage in the edit, you can always refer back to this original timeline with all the markers and marker text.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Big SAN in a small pond

Workflows for the post boutique

Storage costs have come down as the industry transitions to file-based production, post and delivery. This has created a happy confluence where once out-of-reach shared storage solutions are now within the budget range of most small production companies, broadcasters and post facilities.

Shared storage networks for film and video editing originally came to market in the ‘90s through Avid MediaShare. This evolved into Avid Unity MediaNet and more recently Avid ISIS. The beauty of the system is complete collaboration among a group of editors, where all can be working within the exact same open project. To this day few NLEs has been able to achieve this, although there are effective FCP workflow solutions, as well as EditShare’s approach to Media Composer, Final Cut and Lightworks project sharing. The Avid Media Composer/NewsCutter+Unity/ISIS+Interplay combination is still the gold standard for editorial collaboration and media asset management.

On the small-shop side, Avid has aggressively lowered the price of their solutions, such as the cost-effective ISIS 5000 solution. They have also opened their storage to connect with Final Cut “client” workstations. Many small shops are FCP-centric and are looking at what the broader market has to offer. This frequently takes a “roll-your-own” approach with varying degrees of success. I’m going to focus my comments on Final Cut Pro-based facilities, since those are the ones doing the most experimentation with different collaborative network topologies.

Storage Area Network (SAN) types

Shared storage solutions are designed to permit multiple rooms (edit suites, audio studios, graphics, etc.) to connect to a common media network in order to access files from any room. The two basic types are file-level and volume-level systems.

As the name implies, in a file-level system, permission to read/write files is granular down to the individual file level. Storage is partitioned and organized as a single volume (a single virtual hard drive mounted on the desktop), to which all connected users have read/write access. The SAN administrative software functions as the “traffic cop” to prevent one user from accidentally overwriting another user’s files.

In a volume-level system, storage is divided into numerous volumes or partitions (organized by room or by project). Various read-only or read/write profiles are established in the controlling SAN software. Typically a user will have write authority in one room for only a single volume, but can mount the other storage volumes with read-only permission. Of course, various profiles can be established based on project needs, so a user can be assigned write authority to additional volumes when not in use by another editor.

SANs typically use Fibre Channel or 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10-Gig-E) for fast media data rates, but a SAN can also be built upon standard Gigabit Ethernet (Gig-E), especially when large data rates aren’t required. If you have over six rooms – or you need to work with multiple streams of online-quality media – then Fibre Channel is the best option. On the other hand, a shop with a handful of bays cutting with a low bandwidth resolution like OfflineRT or DV25 will probably be happy with a Gig-E system.

There’s a third approach made possible by Apple File-sharing Protocol, in which Ethernet can be used to access another machine’s local storage over a standard local area network (LAN). Although no SAN software is used in this configuration, AFP is robust enough to prevent disastrous media results. In its simplest form, such as two edit rooms working in tandem, one computer would have a locally-connected array. That could be accessed by the second system over the LAN. The danger is that if one system crashes, there’s no protection for the other, however that’s relatively low risk. This is actually a pretty easy and simple way for a film editor and assistant to collaborate on a low-budget feature film.

System configurations

In more advanced installations –  all SANs or any AFP configuration with more than two computers – the hardware units will consist of the local workstations, a central server, storage attached to the server, a Fibre Channel or Ethernet hardware switch, Fibre Channel or Ethernet cards installed in the client systems and cabling (copper or fiber optic). Gig-E systems would likely utilize the Ethernet connections already designed into the computer.

The largest, most advanced SANs for FCP environments commonly use Apple’s Xsan networking software. This would be used to establish a file-level system, capable of connecting a large number of users. For maximum robustness, installations have historically employed Apple Xserve computers running OS X Server as the system’s metadata controller (the “traffic cop”). Although OS X Server can also run on a Mac Pro or a Mac Mini, most enterprise customers have sought better alternatives for the discontinued Xserve.

One such answer might be Active Storage’s newly-announced ActiveSAN. It runs on the Linux OS in an “appliance” design. As an appliance, the server is designed around a single function – in this case, storage and running an Xsan system – instead of other possible server functions, like e-mail or website hosting. Unfortunately Xsan implementations have proven to be relatively “IT-intensive” and not well-suited for small facilities that don’t have access to knowledgeable local tech support. However, if you are a large enterprise connecting 100 Final Cut editors to 100TB of shared storage, few if any other systems are up to the task. An Xsan system is also appropriate for other large Mac-based enterprises, like a magazine publisher’s creative team.

At the other end of the spectrum are the AFP/Gig-E systems. These are a good match for small shops with a handful of connected systems, who want the least amount of future maintenance issues. A Mac Pro running standard OS X (not the Server version) functions as the “server”. The upside of this is that no SAN software license is involved, so there’s no additional cost for another client seat when a new system is added to the storage network. The downside is that you have to dedicate a workstation to the system as the de facto server to host the storage. It shouldn’t be used for editing or anything else, if you want the system to stay stable.

In between are the so-called SAN-in-a-can systems, which tend to offer the best approach for small editing boutiques. Examples include Avid ISIS 5000. Facilis Technology TerraBlock, iStorage Pro, Small Tree GraniteSTOR, CalDigit SuperShare, etc. Most units consist of a single chassis holding both the storage array and a self-contained server. The latter would be an “appliance”, consisting of a motherboard with an embedded OS, like Linux. It’s a “headless” server, so no monitor or OS controls to access, except possibly some front panel system controls. There’s no server to launch or OS to enter in the usual sense. SAN software, like Command Soft’s FibreJet, would be installed to partition volumes, manage the configuration and establish user profiles for mount/read/write configurations.

As a volume-level system, it’s easy to maintain and also easy when an administrator needs to organize the storage access around particular clients or projects. The increased cost of Fibre Channel hardware is offset by not needing a separate computer as the server/metadata controller. (Note: Some of these systems – like Avid ISIS – are based on Ethernet and not Fibre Channel.) However, as you add systems, you will have to pay for extra SAN licenses and Fibre Channel cards. This sets up a trade-off in cost versus the number of rooms when you compare a SAN-in-a-can system to an AFP deployment.

In actual practice

One approach that offers many benefits is to augment a volume-level SAN with an installation of Final Cut Server. This Apple software is an asset management solution that competes with CatDV and Avid Interplay. If you want the best asset management solution for FCP, then CatDV is it. Avid Interplay excels in a broadcast environment with Avid NLEs. Final Cut Server’s strength is with small shops that need both asset management and a robust database to track clip metadata. It not only makes media files searchable, but also provides a way to control media across multiple FCP projects.

I frequently work at one such facility and here is how it works. The network layout was designed by area systems integrator, PEI Graphic Technology. There are four edit suites running Final Cut Studio, which are all linked to a 32TB PEI SAN-Storm chassis (based on the iStorage Pro hardware). This includes a self-contained metadata controller/server appliance. The unit connects to a Fibre Channel switch, which is turn connects to the edit suite workstations. Command Soft FibreJet is installed as the SAN management software.

Apple Final Cut Server is installed on a separate Apple Xserve computer running OS X Server, which is also a connected as a Fibre Channel “client” to the SAN. Each edit suite is assigned its own 2TB “local” volume with read/write permission for working space on the SAN. The Xserve is assigned the largest portion of the SAN, which is used by Final Cut Server as its permanent location for writing files.

Day 1

When an editor start a session for the first time, a new FCP project is created locally on one of the workstations. Media is ingested via import, Log & Capture or Log & Transfer and ends up on the local volume of the SAN, which is assigned to that station. At the end of Day 1, the FCP project is uploaded to Final Cut Server (launched through a client applet installed on the workstation). Based on profiles established when Final Cut Server is initially configured, all media that appears within the FCP project is also automatically moved into Final Cut Server.

This consists of several processes. Media (such as ProRes HQ) is copied from the local volume to the Final Cut Server-controlled volume. A lower-resolution edit proxy file (such as ProRes Proxy), a low-resolution viewing proxy (H.264) and a thumbnail are created. You can set up a profile to delete the original file after the copying is complete, but it’s safer not to do that. This temporarily leaves two sets of media on the local and server volumes until you elect to delete the local media. The upload process can be done overnight.

You will typically edit with the high-res files. Low-res edit proxy files are created in case you want to export media in a lightweight format for off-site rough-cut editing. The H.264 files are used for media searches, previews and client reviews via the web.

Day 2

On Day 2 and each of the subsequent editing days, the editor starts by checking-out the FCP project from Final Cut Server. The check-out step copies the FCP project file from Final Cut Server to a local destination, such as the editing workstation’s desktop. Assuming all media files were successfully uploaded to Server the night before, all clips in the FCP browser are now linked to the media that’s on the Final Cut Server volume and not the local volume any more. Any new media added during the course of the day stays local during that day.

At the end of each editing day, the FCP project is checked back into Final Cut Server. As this stage, the editor can optionally add versioning information that becomes part of the asset information for the FCP project. Additionally, all FCP comments and descriptions made by the editor for master clips within FCP become part of the data assets of FC Server. Any media files that have been added to the project on these subsequent edit days are also uploaded to Final Cut Server as part of the check-in process.

Archiving can still be an issue with modern SAN systems, but Final Cut Server adds a level of control. You can move media to external storage, like raw eSATA drives or LTO tapes and then subsequently identify on-line and near-line media files. Proxy files stay of the system for review and searches and Final Cut Server will prompt editors to reload the high-res media from an archive, should a requested clip have been archived off of the Server volume.

Since this is a shared storage solution, all workstations can access the same high-res media files resident on Server volume (as well as the mounted partitions). Files located in a Final Cut Server search can be dragged-and-dropped into any open FCP project and used in that edit. When the project is uploaded or checked-in, Final Cut Server will know which files are already within its managed system and won’t duplicate those media files.

Although such a system isn’t for every facility, it does provide a level of automated media control that can turn basic FCP editing stations into a broader, enterprise-level system. The beauty of a solution like this is that Final Cut Server aggregates all project media into a single location, complete with asset management and search capability. This combines many of the benefits of an Xsan system, Avid Unity and Avid Interplay. Robust storage and a database at a price point lower than ever before.

© 2011 Oliver Peters


The software suite

The power of modern desktop editing solutions is often in the aggregate of the parts and not just the core editing application. Apple Final Cut Studio and Adobe CS5 Production Premium (or Master Collection) are certainly recognized as software suites, but this is also true of Avid Media Composer, especially when you add the Production Studio bundle of third party software. Dedicated, all-in-one editing/compositing tools are primarily the domain of more expensive tools, like Avid DS, Autodesk Smoke and Quantel eQ/iQ/Pablo.

When you dissect the three main desktop bundles, you find tools for editing, color grading, visual effects, motion graphics, encoding, DVD authoring and sound mixing. These break out in this fashion:

Avid – Media Composer (editing, color grading, sound mixing with RTAS plug-ins)

Avid FX and Boris BCC plug-ins (effects and compositing)

Marquee (motion graphics)

Sorenson Squeeze (encoding)

Avid DVD (Blu-ray, NTSC and PAL DVD authoring)

Extra: Avid “helper” applications, like EDL Manager, Film Scribe, MetaSync, etc.

Optional: ScriptSync and PhraseFind

Apple – Final Cut Pro (editing)

Color (color correction and grading)

Motion (effects and compositing/motion graphics)

Compressor (encoding and blu-ray authoring)

DVD Studio Pro (NTSC and PAL DVD authoring / HD-DVD authoring)

Soundtrack Pro (sound design, audio editing and mixing)

Extra: Cinema Tools, media content

Adobe – Premiere Pro (editing)

Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse (color correction and grading)

After Effects (effects and compositing/motion graphics)

Adobe Media Encoder (encoding)

Encore (Blu-ray, NTSC and PAL DVD authoring)

Soundbooth (sound design, audio editing and mixing)

Extra: Bridge, Dynamic Link, Device Central, Mocha tracker for AE, media content

I’m not going to argue the relative merits of one tool versus another. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of ways to complete a given job with great results using any of these toolkits. What’s more important is how well the collection works. How are the tools integrated and why does a manufacturer go down this route in the first place?

Marketing “the suite” versus “the brand”

If you look at the first issue, Adobe and Apple clearly market their packages as a studio suite, while Avid tends to position Media Composer as the main brand. This is a bit of a mistake, because it encourages a tendency to compare just the Media Composer editing application against the entire software collections of its competitors. As such, Media Composer – even at its current, vastly reduced price – is perceived as a lot more expensive than Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. Customers forget about the other software you get with the Avid solution, but clearly know they get a lot of bang-for-the-buck with Apple and Adobe. In reality the comparison and cost differential is a lot closer than many believe. It’s a double-edged sword. Media Composer is clearly Avid’s marquee brand, so how does Avid best market the fact there’s more to it?

Host control versus “the roundtrip”

In addition to focusing on Media Composer as the core, there is also a more technical issue. Media Composer actually does run as the host application. Tools like the BCC filters, Avid FX, the RTAS audio plug-ins and Marquee primarily work from inside Media Composer. Although you can create templates, the applications themselves won’t work with other editing solutions. They are not inherently standalone applications in their own right, like Motion or After Effects. The plus side of this is that all project metadata is stored in the central Media Composer project. You don’t have to worry about saving all the component project files for Avid FX or Marquee in order for them to stay editable. As such, they function more as plug-in than anything else.

In the case of Adobe and Apple, they have tied together individual applications, which operate in tandem with the host NLE, as well as separate standalone applications. Although Apple’s “roundtripping” and Adobe’s Dynamic Link are ways to integrate projects files into the host editor, this isn’t a perfect solution. For example, Motion projects (as opposed to rendered exports) in an FCP timeline frequently crash Final Cut. Neither company has a good audio roundtrip approach. You can “send to” the audio application, but you can only return a mixed and exported, “flattened” soundtrack. Clearly all of these solutions are evolving.

Pros and cons of studio software development

The biggest reason a manufacturer uses the software collection is for reasons of marketing and development cost. Look at Color. Apple acquired the technology of Final Touch and reintroduced it as Color within Final Cut Studio. All of a sudden, FCP editors gained a $25,000 color grading solution “for free”. Even if users never opened the interface, the addition of Color clearly sold more seats of Final Cut Pro.

Using this approach, product managers can often shield lower-performing applications from the ax. It’s widely accepted that including the less-popular Premiere Pro with the more-popular After Effects and Photoshop has helped justify further Premiere Pro development. This has been paying off for Adobe in better customer reception of Premiere Pro as a viable editing alternative. It’s hard to break out the revenue from an individual application within a collection of software. But the opposite situation is also true. Apple felt that LiveType and Motion offered redundant motion graphics capabilities. Why develop two apps? So, Apple dropped LiveType in order to focus R&D on Motion.

By keeping components of a software suite separate, it’s easier to develop each application. There is less chance of inducing new problems that might cascade throughout a larger all-in-one application. Large, integrated solutions are subject to feature creep and often become “bloatware”, necessitating a periodic ground-up rewrite of the application. It’s also easier to add or remove components based on customer requests and market research when the individual applications stay separate within the collection.

Adobe’s Audition provides another example. Audition is a full-featured DAW geared towards audio pros and it used to be part of the Creative Suite with Premiere Pro. Adobe felt that the limited focus of Soundbooth better suited the needs of video and web professionals and so swapped Audition out for Soundbooth as the audio application in its suite collections. Audition continues as a Windows-based, standalone digital audio workstation application competing with Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools. This year will see its return to the Mac platform (currently in public beta).

For all of these various reasons, most observers feel that it’s unlikely we’d ever see an all-inclusive “extreme” version of Final Cut Pro. Would we really want that? After all, finding a qualified Avid DS, Autodesk Smoke or Quantel iQ “artist” (editor) is pretty hard in most markets. Wishing for some massive end-all-be-all editing solution might sound good in principle, but be careful of what you wish for. It’s not necessarily the best idea in the real world. Not for the user and not for the developer.

©2011 Oliver Peters