What’s up with Final Cut’s Color Wheels?

Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.4 introduced new, advanced color correction tools to this editing application, including color wheels, curves, and hue vs. saturation curves. These are tools that users of other NLEs have enjoyed for some time – and, which were part of Final Cut Studio (FCP 7, Color). Like others, my first reaction was, “Super! They’ve added some nice advanced tools, which will improve the use of FCPX for higher-end users.” But, as I started to primarily use the Color Wheels with real correction work, I quickly realized that something wasn’t quite right in how they operated. Or at least, they didn’t work in a way that we’ve come to understand.

In trying to figure it out, I reached out to other industry pros and developers for their thoughts. Naturally this led to some spirited discussions at forums like those at Creative COW. However, other editors have noticed the same problems, so you can also find threads in the Facebook FCPX group and at FCP.co. It is certainly easy to characterize this as just another internet kerfuffle, surrounding Apple’s “think different” approaches to FCPX. But those arguments fall flat when you actually try to use the tools as intended.

The FCPX Color Wheels panel includes four wheels – Master, Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights. The puck in the center of each wheel is a hue offset control to push hues in the direction that you move the puck. The slider to the right of the wheel controls the brightness of that range. The left slider controls the saturation. One of the main issues is that when you adjust luminance using one of these controls, the affected range is too broad. Specifically, in the case of the Midtones control, as you adjust the luminance slider up or down, you are affecting most of the image and not just the midrange levels. This is not the way this type of control normally works in other tools, and in fact, it’s not how FCPX’s Color Board controls work either.

“What’s the big deal?” you might ask. Fair enough. I see two operational issues. The first is that to properly grade the image using the Color Wheels, you end up having to go back-and-forth a lot between wheels, to counteract the changes made by one control with another. The second is that using the Midtones slider tends to drive highlights above 100 IRE, where they will be clipped if any broadcast limiting is used. This doesn’t happen with other color tools, notably Apple’s own Color Board.

A lot of the discussion focuses on luma levels and specifically the Midtones slider, since it’s easy to see the issue there. However, other controls are also affected, but that’s too much to dissect in a single post. Throughout this post, be sure to click on the images to see the full view. I have presented various samples against each other and you will only get the full understanding if you open the thumbnail (which is small but also cropped) to the full image. I have compared the effect using five different tools – the Color Board, the Color Wheels, a color corrector plug-in that I built as a Motion template using Motion effects, Rubber Monkey Software FilmConvert (the wheels portion only), and finally, the Adobe Lumetri controls in Premiere Pro.

I am using three different test images – a black-to-white ramp, a test pattern, and a demo video image. The ramp without correction will appear as a diagonal line (0-100 IRE) on the scope, which makes it easy to analyze what’s happening. The video image has definite shadow and highlight areas, which lets us see how these controls work in the real world. For example, if you want to brighten the area of the shot where the man is in the shadows, but don’t want to make the highlights any brighter, this would normally be done using a Midtones control. Be aware that these various tools certainly aren’t calibrated the same way and some have a greater range of control than others. The weakest of these is FilmConvert’s wheels, since this plug-in has additional level controls in other parts of its interface.

Color science models

In the various forum threads, the argument is made that Apple is simply using a different color science method or a different weighing of some existing models. That’s certainly possible, since not all color correctors are built the same way. The most common approaches are Lift/Gamma/Gain and Shadows/Mids/Highlights. Be careful with naming. Just because something uses the terminology of Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights, does not mean that it also uses the SMH color science model. Many tools use the Lift/Gamma/Gain model, but in fact, call the controls shadows (Lift), mids (Gamma), and highlights (Gain). Another term you may run across is Set-up in some correction tools. This is typically used for control of shadows (equal to Lift), but can also function is an offset control that raises the level of the entire image. Avid Symphony employs this solution. Finally, both Symphony and Adobe SpeedGrade use what has been dubbed a 12-way color corrector. Each range is further subdivided into its own subset of shadows, mids, and highlights controls.

An LGG model provides broad control of shadows and highlights, with the midtones control working like a curve that covers the whole range, but with the largest effect in the middle. An SMH model normally divides the levels into three distinct, precisely overlapping ranges. This is much like a three-band audio equalizing filter. A number of the color correctors add a luma range control, which gives the user the ability to change how much of the image a specific range will affect. In other words, how broad is the control of the shadows, mids, or highlights control? This is like a Q control in an audio equalizer, where you change the shape of the envelope at a certain frequency.

Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks offers both color correction models with two different tools – the 4-way color corrector (SMH) and the Colorista color corrector (LGG). When you adjust the midrange control of their 4-way, the result is a graceful S-shaped curve to the levels on the waveform.

To study the effect of an LGG-based corrector, test the ramp. The shadows control (Lift) will raise or lower the dark areas of the image without changing the absolute highlights. The diagonal line of the ramp on the waveform essentially pivots, hinged at the 100 IRE point. Conversely, change the highlights control (Gain) pivots the line pinned to 0 IRE (at black). When you adjust the midtones control (Gamma), you create a curve to the line, which stays pinned at 0 and 100 IRE at either end. In this way you are effectively “expanding” or “compressing” the levels in the middle portion of your image without changing the position of your black or white points.

How the various color correction tools react

Looking at the luma control for the Midtones, two things are clear. First, all of these tools are using the LGG color science model. It’s not clear what the Color Wheels are using, but it isn’t SMH, as there is no bulge or S-curve visible in the scope. Second, the Color Wheels quickly drive the image levels into clipping, while the other tools generally keep black and while levels in place. In essence, the Midtones control affects the image more like a master or offset control would, than a typical mids or Gamma control. Yet, clearly Apple’s Color Board controls adhere to the standard LGG model. The concern, of course, is clipping. In the test image of the man walking on the village street, the sunlit building walls on the opposite side of the street will become overexposed and risk being clipped when the Color Wheels are used.

What about color? As a simple test, I next shifted the Midtones puck to the yellow. Bear in mind that the range of each of these controls is different, so you will see varying degrees of yellow intensity. Nevertheless, the way the control should work is that some pure black and white should be preserved at the top and bottom of the video levels. All of these tools maintain that, except for the Color Wheels. There, the entire image is yellow, effectively making the hue offset puck function more like a tint control.

One other issue to note, is that the Color Wheels offer an extraordinarily control range. The hue offset control RGB intensity values go from 0 (center of the wheel) to 1023. However, the puck icon can only go to the rim of the wheel, which it hits at about 200. With a mouse (or numerical entry), you can keep going well past the stop of the wheel icon – five times farther, in fact. The image not only becomes very yellow in this case, but you can easily lose the location of your control, since the GUI position in no longer relevant.

The working theory

The big question is why don’t the Color Wheels conform to established principles, when in fact, the Color Board controls do? Until there is some further clarification from Apple, one possible explanation is with HDR. FCPX 10.4 introduced High Dynamic Range (HDR) features. One of the various HDR standards is Rec. 2020 PQ. In that color space, the 0-100 IRE limitations of Rec. 709 are expanded to 0-10,000 nits. 0-100 nits is roughly the same brightness as we are used to with Rec. 709.

Looking at this image of the man walking along the street – where I’ve attempted to get a pleasing look with all of the tools – you’ll see that the Color Wheels in Rec. 709 don’t react correctly and will drive the highlights into a range to be clipped. However, in the bottom pane, which is the same image in Rec. 2020 PQ color space, the grade looks pretty normal. And, in practice, the Color Wheels controls work more or less the way I would have expected them to work. Yes, the same controls work differently in the different color spaces – properly in 2020 PQ and not in 709.

But why is that the case? I have no answer, but I do have a wild guess. Maybe, just maybe, the Color Wheels were designed for – or intended to only be used for – HDR work. Or maybe there’s conversion or recalibration of the controls that hasn’t taken place yet in this version. If the tool is only calibrated for HDR, then its range and weighing will be completely wrong for Rec. 709 video. If you increase the Midtones luma of the ramp in both Rec. 709 and Rec. 2020 PQ, you’ll see a similar curve. In fact, if you overlay a screen shot of each waveform, placing the full Rec. 709 scope image over the bottom portion of the Rec. 2020 PQ scale, you’ll notice that these sort of align up to about 100 IRE and nits. It’s as if one is simply a slice out of the other.

Regardless of why, this is something where I would hope Apple will provide a white paper or other demonstration of what the best practices will be for using this tool effectively. If it isn’t intentional, and actually is a mistake, then I presume a fix will be forthcoming. In either case, put in your feedback comments to Apple.

A word about HDR

Over the course of testing this tool and this theory, I’ve done a bit of testing with the HDR color spaces in FCPX. If you want to know more about HDR, I would encourage you to check out these contrary blog posts by Stu Maschwitz and Alexis Van Hurkman. I tend to side with Stu’s point-of-view and am not a big fan of HDR.

The way Apple has implemented these features in Final Cut Pro X 10.4 is to allow the user to set and override color spaces. If you set up your project to be Rec. 2020 PQ (and set preferences to “show HDR as raw values”), then the viewer and a/v output (direct from the Mac, not through a hardware i/o device) are effectively dimmed through the Mac’s color profile system. When you grade the image based on the 0-10,000 nits scale, you’ll end up seeing an image that looks pleasing and essentially the same as if you were working in Rec. 709. However – and I cannot over-emphasize this – you are not going to be able to produce an image that’s truly compatible with Dolby Vision and actually look correct as HDR, unless you have the correct AJA i/o hardware and a proper display. And by display, I mean a top-end Dolby, Canon, or Sony unit, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

As I understand the PQ specs, the bulk of the higher range is for the highlights that are normally constrained or clipped in our current video systems. However, that 10,000 nits scale is weighed, so that about 50% of the image value is in the first 100 nits, making it of comparable brightness to the current 100 IRE. The rest of that range is for brighter information, like specular highlights. You don’t necessarily get more brightness in the shadow detail. Therefore, if you are grading a shot in FCPX in a 2020 PQ color space and you only have the computer display to go by, you’ll grade by eye as much as by scope. This means that to get a pleasing image, you will end up making the average appearance of the image brighter than it really should be. When this is viewed on a real HDR monitor, it will be painfully bright. Having a higher-nits computer display, like on the iMac Pro (up to 500 nits), won’t make much difference, unless maybe, you crank the display brightness to its maximum (ouch!).  “Mine goes the 11!”

Right now, HDR is the wild, wild west. If you are smart, you’ll realize that you don’t know what you don’t know. While it’s nice to have these new features in FCPX, they can be very dangerous in the wrong hands.

But that’s another matter. Right now, I just hope Apple (or one of the usual suspects, like Ripple Training, LumaForge, or Larry Jordan) will come out with more elaboration on the Color Wheels.

©2018 Oliver Peters

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Putting Apple’s iMac Pro Through the Paces

At the end of December, Apple made good on the release of the new iMac Pro and started selling and shipping the new workstations. While this could be characterized as a stop-gap effort until the next generation of Mac Pro is produced, that doesn’t detract from the usefulness and power of this design in its own right. After all, the iMac line is the direct descendant in spirit and design of the original Macintosh. Underneath the sexy, all-in-one, space grey enclosure, the iMac Pro offers serious workstation performance.

I work mostly these days with a production company that produces and posts commercials, corporate videos, and entertainment programming. Our editing set-up consists of seven workstations, plus an auxiliary machine connected to a common QNAP shared storage network. These edit stations consisted of a mix of old and new Mac Pros and iMacs (connected via 10GigE), with a Mac Mini for the auxiliary (1GigE). It was time to upgrade the oldest machines, which led us to consider the iMac Pros. The company picked up three of them – replacing two Mac Pro towers and an older iMac. The new configuration is a mix of three, one-year-old Retina 5K iMacs (late 2015 model), a 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro, and three 2017 iMac Pros.

There are plenty of videos and articles on the web about how these machines perform; but, the testers often use artificial benchmarks or only Final Cut Pro X. This shop has a mix of NLEs (Adobe, Apple, Avid, Blackmagic Design), but our primary tool is Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2018. This gave me a chance to compare how these machines stacked up against each other in the kind of work we actually do. This comparison isn’t truly apples-to-apples, since the specs of the three different products are somewhat different from each other. Nevertheless, I feel that it’s a valid real-world assessment of the iMac Pros in a typical, modern post environment.

Why buy iMac Pros at all?

The question to address is why should someone purchase these machines? Let me say right off the bat, that if your main focus is 3D animation or heavy compositing using After Effects or other applications – and speed and performance are the most important factor – then don’t buy an Apple computer. Period. There are plenty of examples of Dell and HP workstations, along with high-end gaming PCs, that outperform any of the Macs. This is largely due to the availability of advanced NVidia GPUs for the PC, which simply aren’t an option for current Macs.

On the other hand, if you need a machine that’s solid and robust across a wide range of postproduction tasks – and you prefer the Mac operating ecosystem – then the iMac Pros are a good choice. Yes, the machine is pricy and you can buy cheaper gaming PCs and DIY workstations, but if you stick to the name brands, like Dell and HP, then the iMac Pros are competitively priced. In our case, a shift to PC would have also meant changing out all of the machines and not just three – therefore, even more expensive.

Naturally, the next thing is to compare price against the current 5K iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Apple’s base configuration of the iMac Pro uses an 8-core 3.2GHz Xeon W CPU, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, and the Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU (8GB memory) for $4,999. A comparably configured 2013 Mac Pro is $5,207 (with mouse and keyboard), but no display. Of course, it also has the dual D-700 GPUs. The 5K iMac in a similar configuration is $3,729. Note that we require 10GigE connectivity, which is built into the iMac Pros. Therefore, in a direct comparison, you would need to bump up the iMac and Mac Pro prices by about $500 for a Thunderbolt2-to-10GigE converter.

Comparing these numbers for similar machines, you’d spend more for the Mac Pro and less for the iMac. Yet, the iMac Pro uses newer processors and faster RAM, so it could be argued that it’s already better out of the gate in the base configuration than Apple’s former top-of-the-line product. It has more horsepower than the tricked-out iMac, so then it becomes a question of whether the cost difference is important to you for what you are getting.

Build quality

Needless to say, Apple has a focus on the quality and fit-and-finish of its products. The iMac Pro is no exception. Except for the space grey color, it looks like the regular 27” iMacs and just as nicely built. However, let me quibble a bit with a few things. First, the edges of the case and foot tend to be a bit sharp. It’s not a huge issue, but compared with an iPhone, iPad, or 2013 Mac Pro, the edges just not as smooth and rounded. Secondly, you get a wireless mouse and extended keyboard. Both have to be plugged in to charge. In the case of the mouse, the cable plugs in at the bottom, rendering it useless during charging. Truly a bad design. The wireless keyboard is the newer, flatter style, so you lose two USB ports that were on the previous plug-in extended keyboard. Personally, I prefer the features and feel of the previous keyboard, not to mention any scroll wheel mouse over the Magic Mouse. Of course, those are strictly items of personal taste.

With the iMac Pro, Apple is transitioning its workstations to Thunderbolt 3, using USB-C connectors. Previous Thunderbolt 2 ports have been problematic, because the cables easily disconnect. In fact, on our existing iMacs, it’s very easy to disconnect the Thunderbolt 2 cable that connects us to the shared storage network, simply by moving the iMac around to get to the ports on the back. The USB-C connectors feel more snug, so hopefully we will find that to be an improvement. If you need to get to the back of the iMac or iMac Pro frequently, in order to plug in drives, dongles, etc., then I would highly recommend one of the docks from CalDigit or OWC as a valuable accessory.

5K screen

Apple spends a lot of marketing hype on promoting their 5K Retina screens. The 27” screens have a raw pixel resolution of 5120×2880 pixels, but that’s not what you see in terms of image and user interface dimensions. To start with, the 5K iMacs and iMac Pros use the same screen resolution and the default display setting (middle scaled option) is 2560×1440 pixels. The top choice is 3200×1800. Of course, if you use that setting, everything becomes extremely small on screen.  Conversely, our 2013 Mac Pro is connected to a 27” Apple LED Cinema Display (non Retina). It’s top scaled resolution is also 2560×1440 pixels. Therefore, at the most useable settings, all of our workstations are set to the same resolution. Even if you scale the resolution up (images and UI get smaller), you are going to end up adjusting the size of the application interface and viewer window. While you might see different viewer size percentage numbers between the machines, the effective size on screen will be the same.

Retina is Apple’s marketing name for high pixel density. This is the equivalent of DPI (dots per inch) in print resolutions. According to a Macworld article, iPhones from 4 to 5s had a pixel density of 326ppi (pixels per inch), while iMacs have 218ppi. Apple converts a device’s display to Retina by doubling the horizontal and vertical pixel count. More pixels are applied to any given area on the screen, resulting in smoother text, smoother diagonal lines, and so on. That’s assuming an application’s interface is optimized for it. At the distance that the editors sit from a 27” display, there is simply little or no difference between the look of the 27” LED display and the 27” iMac Retina screens.

Upgradeability

Future-proofing and upgrades are the biggest negatives thrown at all-in-ones, particularly the iMac Pros. While the user can upgrade RAM in the standard iMacs, that’s not the case with iMac Pros. You can upgrade RAM in the future, but that must be done at a service facility, such as the Apple Store’s Genius service. This means that in three years, when you want the latest, greatest CPU, GPU, storage, etc., you won’t be able to swap out components. But is this really an issue? I’m sure Apple has user research numbers to justify their decisions. Plus, the thermal design of the iMac would make user upgrades difficult, unlike older mac Pro towers.

In my own experience on personal machines, as well as clients’ machines that I’ve helped maintain, I have upgraded storage, GPU cards, and RAM, but never the CPU. Although I do know others who have upgraded Xeon models on their Mac Pro towers. Part of the dichotomy is buying what you can afford now and upgrading later, versus stretching a bit up front and then not needing to upgrade later. My gut feeling is that Apple is pushing the latter approach.

If I tally up the cost of the upgrades that I’ve made after about three years, I would already be part of the way towards a newer, better machine anyway. Plus, if you are cutting HD and even 4K today, then just about any advanced machine will do the trick, making it less likely that you’ll need to do that upgrade within the foreseeable life of the machine. An argument can be made for either approach, but I really think that the vast majority of users – even professional users – never actually upgrade any of the internal hardware from that of the configuration as originally purchased.

Performance testing

We ultimately purchased machines that were the 10-core bump-up from the base configuration, feeling that this is the sweet spot (and is currently available) within the iMac Pro product line.

The new machine specs within the facility now look like this:

2013 Mac Pro – 3GHz 8-core Xeon/64GB RAM/dual D-500 GPUs/1TB SSD (Sierra)

2015 iMac – 4GHz 4-core Core i7/32GB RAM/AMD R9/3TB Fusion drive (Sierra)

2017 iMac Pro – 3GHz 10-core Xeon W/64GB RAM/Radeon Vega 64/1TB SSD (High Sierra)

As you can see, the tech specs of the new iMac Pros more closely match the 2013 Mac Pro than the year-old 5K iMacs. Of course, it’s not a perfect match for optimal benchmark testing, but close enough for a good read on how well the iMac Pro delivers in a real working environment.

Test 1 – BruceX

The BruceX test uses a 5K Final Cut Pro X timeline made up only of built-in titles and generators. The timeline is then rendered out to a ProRes file. This tests the pure application without any media and codec variables. It’s a bit of an artificial test and only applicable to FCPX performance, but still useful. The faster the export time, the better. (I have bolded the best results.)

2013 Mac Pro – 26.8 sec.

2015 iMac – 28.3 sec.

2017 iMac Pro – 14.4 sec.

Test 2 – media encoding

In my next test, I took a 4½-minute-long 1080p ProRes file and rendered it to a 4K/UHD (3840×2160) H.264 (1-pass CBR 20Mbps) file. Not only was it being encoded, but also scaled up to 4K in this process. I rendered from and to the desktop, to eliminate any variables from the QNAP system. Finally, I conducted the test using both Adobe Media Encoder (using OpenCL processing) and Apple Compressor.

Two noteworthy issues. The Compressor test was surprisingly slow on the Mac Pro. (I actually ran the Compressor test twice, just to be certain about the slowness of the Mac Pro.) The AME version kicked in the fans on the iMac.

Adobe Media Encoder

2013 Mac Pro – 6:13 min.

2015 iMac – 7:14 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 4:48 min.

 Compressor

2013 Mac Pro – 11:02 min.

2015 iMac – 2:20 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:19 min.

 Test 3 – editing timeline playback – multi-layered sequence

This was a difficult test designed to break during unrendered playback. The 40-second 1080p/23.98 sequence include six layers of resized 4K source media.

Layer 1 – DJI clips with dissolves between the clips

Layers 2-5 – 2D PIP ARRI Alexa clips (no LUTs); layer 5 had a Gaussian blur effect added

Layer 6 – native REDCODE RAW with minor color correction

The sequence was created in both Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro. Playback was tested with the media located on the QNAP volumes, as well as from the desktop (this should provide the best possible playback).

Playing back this sequence in Final Cut Pro X from the QNAP resulted is the video output largely choking on all of the machines. Playing it back in Premiere Pro from the QNAP was slightly better than in FCPX, with the 2017 iMac Pro performing best of all. It played, but was still choppy.

When I tested playback from the desktop, all three machines performed reasonably well using both Final Cut Pro X (“best performance”) and Premiere Pro (“1/2 resolution”). There were some frames dropped, although the iMac Pro played back more smoothly than the other two. In fact, in Premiere Pro, I was able to set the sequence to “full resolution” and get visually smooth playback, although the indicator light still noted dropped frames. Typically, as each staggered layer kicked in, performance tended to hiccup.

Test 4 – editing timeline playback – single-layer sequence

 This was a simpler test using a standard workflow. The 30-second 1080p/23.98 sequence included three Alexa clips (no LUTs) with dissolves between the clips. Each source file was 4K/UHD and had a “punch-in” and reposition within the HD frame. Each also included a slight, basic color correction. Playback was tested in Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro, as well as from the QNAP system and the desktop. Quality settings were increased to “best quality” in FCPX and “full resolution” in Premiere Pro.

My complex timeline in Test 3 appeared to perform better in Premiere Pro. In Test 4, the edge was with Final Cut Pro X. No frames were dropped with any of the three machines playing back either from the QNAP or the desktop, when testing in FCPX. In Premiere Pro, the 2017 iMac Pro was solid in both situations. The 2015 iMac was mostly smooth at “full” and completely smooth at “1/2”. Unfortunately, the 2013 Mac Pro seemed to be the worst of the three, dropping frames even at “1/2 resolution” at each dissolve within the timeline.

Test 5 – timeline renders (multi-layered sequence)

In this test, I took the complex sequence from Test 3 and exported it to a ProRes master file. I used the QNAP-connected versions of the Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X timelines and rendered the exports to the desktop. In FCPX, I used its default Share function. In Premiere Pro, I queued the export to Adobe Media Encoder set to process in OpenCL. This was one of the few tests in which the 2013 Mac Pro put in a faster time, although the iMac Pro was very close.

Rendering to ProRes – Premiere Pro (via Adobe Media Encoder)

2013 Mac Pro – 1:29 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:45 min.

Rendering to ProRes – Final Cut Pro X

2013 Mac Pro – 1:21 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:22 min.

Test 6 – Adobe After Effects – rendering composition

My final test was to see how well the iMac Pro performed in rendering out compositions from After Effects. This was a 1080p/23.98 15-second composition. The bottom layer was a JPEG still with a Color Finesse correction. On top of that were five 1080p ProResLT video clips that had been slomo’ed to fill the composition length. Each was scaled, cropped, and repositioned. Each was beveled with a layer style and had a stylized effect added to it. The topmost layer was a camera layer with all other layers set to 3D, so the clips could be repositioned in z-space. Using the camera, I added a slight rotation/perspective change over the life of the composition.

Rendering to ProRes – After Effects

2013 Mac Pro – 2:37 min.

2015 iMac – 2:15 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:03 min.

Conclusion

After all of this testing, one is left with the answer “it depends”. The 2013 Mac Pro has two GPUs, but not every application takes advantage of that. Some apps tax all the available cores, so more, but slower, cores are better. Others go for the maximum speed on fewer cores. All things considered, the iMac Pro performed at the top of these three machines. It was either the best or close/equal to the best. But, this is an incremental difference in the 10% to 30% range. But, of course some of these numbers will be meaningful and others won’t, depending on the apps used and a user’s storage situation.

I will say that installing these three machines was the easiest I’ve ever done, including connecting them to the 10GigE storage network. The majority of our apps come from Adobe Create Cloud, the Mac App Store, or FxFactory (for plug-ins). Except for a few other installers, there was largely no need to track down installers, activation information, etc. for a zillion small apps and plug-ins. This made it a breeze and is certainly part of the attraction of the Mac ecosystem. The iMac Pro’s all-in-one design limits the required peripherals, which also contributes to a faster installation. Naturally, I can’t tell anyone if this is the right machine for them, but so far, the investment does look like the correct choice for this shop’s needs.

Here are two additional impressions by working editors: Thomas Grove Carter and Ben Balser. Also a very comprehensive review from AppleInsider.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.4

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

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

New advanced color tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

360° editing

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

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

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

Wide gamut / high dynamic range (HDR)

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

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

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

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

HEVC / H.265

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017, 2018 Oliver Peters

Chromatic

Since its introduction six years ago, Apple Final Cut Pro X has only offered the Color Board as its color correction/grading tool. That’s in addition to some automatic correction features and stylized “look” effects. The Color Board interface is based on color swatches and puck sliders, instead of traditional color wheels, leaving many users pining for something else. To answer this need, several third-party, plug-in developers have created color corrector effects modules to fill the void. The newest of these is Chromatic from Coremelt – a veteran Final Cut plug-in developer.

The toolset

Chromatic is the most feature-rich color correction module currently available for FCPX. It offers four levels of color grading, including inside and/or outside of a mask, overall frame, and also a final output correction. When you first apply the Chromatic Grade effect to a clip, you’ll see controls appear within the FCPX inspector window. These are the final output adjustments. To access the full toolset, you need to click on the Grade icon, which launches a custom UI. Like other grading tools that require custom interfaces, Chromatic’s grading toolset opens as a floating window. This is necessitated by the FCPX architecture, which doesn’t give developers the ability to integrate custom interface panels, like you’ll find in Adobe applications. To work around this limitation, developers have come up with various ingenious solutions, including floating UI windows, HUDs (heads up displays), and viewer overlays. Chromatic uses all of these approaches.

The Chromatic toolset includes nine correction effects, which can be stacked in any order onto a clip. These include lift/gamma/gain sliders, lows/mids/highs color wheels, auto white balance, replace color, color balance/temperature/exposure/saturation, three types of curves (RGB, HSL, and Lab), and finally, color LUTs. As you use more tools on a clip, these will stack into the floating window like layers. Click on any of these tools within the window to access those specific controls. Drag tools up or down in this window to rearrange the order of operation of Chromatic’s color correction processes. The specific controls work and look a lot like similar functions within DaVinci Resolve. This is especially true of HSL Curves, where you can control Hue vs. Sat or Hue vs. Luma.

Masking with the power of Mocha

Corrections can be masked, in order to effect only specific regions of the image. If you select “overall”, then your correction will affect the entire image. But is you select “inside” or “outside” of the mask, then you can grade regions of the image independent of each other. Take, for example, a common, on-camera interview situation with a darkened face in front of a brightly exposed exterior window. Once you mask around the face, you can then apply different correction tools and values to the face, as opposed to the background window. Plus, you can still apply an overall grade to the image, as well as final output adjustment tweaks with the sliders in the inspector window. That’s a total of four processes, with a number of correction tools used in each process.

To provide masking, Coremelt has leveraged its other products, SliceX and TrackX. Chromatic uses the same licensed Mocha planar tracker for fast, excellent mask tracking. In our face example, should the talent move around within the frame, then simply use the tracker controls in the masking HUD to track the talent’s movement within the shot. Once tracked, the mask is locked onto the face.

Color look-up tables (LUTs)

When you purchase Chromatic, you’ll also get a LUT (color look-up table) browser and a default collection of looks. (More looks may be purchased from Coremelt.) The LUT browser is accessible within the grading window. I’m not a huge fan of LUTs, as these are most often a very subjective approach to a scene that simply doesn’t work with all footage equally well. All “bleach bypass” looks are not equal. Chromatic’s LUT browser also enables access to any other LUTs you might have installed on your system, regardless of where they came from, as long as they are in the .cube format.

LUTs get even more confusing with camera profiles, which are designed to expand flat-looking, log-encoded camera files into colorful Rec709 video. Under the best of circumstances these are mathematically correct LUTs developed by the camera manufacturer. These work as an inverse of the color transforms applied as the image is recorded. But in many cases, commonly available camera profile LUTs don’t come from the manufacturers themselves, but are actually reverse-engineered to function closely to the manufacturer’s own LUT. They will look good, but might not yield identical results to a true camera LUT.

In the case of FCPX, Apple has built in a number of licensed camera manufacturer LUTs for specific brands. These are usually auto-detected and applied to the footage without appearing as an effect in the inspector. So, for instance, with ARRI Alexa footage that was recorded as Log-C, FCPX automatically adds a LogC-to-Rec709 LUT. However, if you disable that and then subsequently add Chromatic’s LogC-to-Rec709 LUT, you’ll see quite a bit of difference in gamma levels. Apple actually uses two of these LUTs – a 2D and a 3D cube LUT. Current Alexa footage defaults to the 3D LUT, but if you change the inspector pulldown to the regular LogC LUT, you’ll see similar gamma levels to what Chromatic’s LUT shows. I’m not sure if the differences are because the LUT isn’t correct, or whether it’s an issue of where, within the color pipeline, the LUT is being inserted. My recommendation is to stick with the FCPX default camera profile LUTs and then use the Chromatic LUTs for creative looks.

In use

Chromatic is a 1.0 product and it’s not without some birthing issues. One that manifested itself is a clamping issue with 2013 Mac Pros. Apparently this depends on which model of AMD D-series GPU your machine has. On some machines with the D-500 chips, video will clamp at 0 and 100, regardless of whether or not clamping has been enabled in the plug-in. Coremelt is working on a fix, so contact them for support if you have this or other issues.

Overall, Chromatic is well-behaved as custom plug-ins go. Performance is good and rendering is fast. Remember that each tool you use on a clip is like adding an additional effects filters. Using all nine tools on a clip is like applying nine effects filters. Performance will depend on a lot of circumstances. For example, if you are working with 4K footage playing back from a fast NAS storage system, then it will take only a few applied tools before you start impacting performance. However, 1080p local media on a fast machine is much more forgiving, with very little performance impact during standard grading using a number of applied tools.

Coremelt has put a lot of work into Chromatic. To date, it’s the most comprehensive grading toolset available within Final Cut Pro X. It is like having a complete grading suite right inside of the Final Cut timeline. If you are serious about grading within the application and avoiding a roundtrip through DaVinci Resolve, then Chromatic is an essential plug-in tool to have.

©2017 Oliver Peters

A Conversation with Thomas Grove Carter

The NAB Show is a great place to see the next level of media hardware and software. Even better, it’s also a great place to meet old friends, make new ones, and pick up the tips and tricks of your craft through the numerous tutorials, seminars, and off-site events that accompany the show.

This year I had the chance to interview Thomas Grove Carter, an editor at Trim Editing, which is a London-based creative editorial shop. He appeared at several sessions to present his techniques for maximizing the power of Final Cut Pro X. These sessions were moderated by Apple and FCPWORKS.

Thomas Grove Carter has a number of high-profile projects on his reel, including work for Honda, Game of Thrones, Audi, and numerous music artists. Carter is a familiar name in the Final Cut Pro X editing community. He first came to prominence with Honda’s “The Other Side” long-form web commercial. In it, Carter juxtaposes parallel day and night driving scenarios covering the main actor – dad by day, undercover police officer by night. On the interactive website, you can toggle in-sync between the two versions. Thanks to FCPX’s way of connecting clips and the nature of its magnetic timeline, Carter could use this then-young application to build the commercial, as well as preview the interactivity for the client – all on a very tight deadline.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Carter in a semi-quiet corner of the NAB Press Room shortly after his Post Production World keynote session on Sunday evening.

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[Oliver Peters]: We first started hearing your name when Honda’s “The Other Side” long-form commercial hit the web. That fit ideally with Final Cut Pro X’s unique ability to connect clips above and below the primary storyline on the timeline. Was that something you came up with intuitively?

[Thomas Grove Carter]: I knew that Final Cut Pro X was going to be good for this interactive piece. As you’re playing back in FCPX you can enable and disable layers. This meant I could actually do a rough preview of what it’s going to look like. I knew that I was going to have these two layers of video, but I didn’t exactly know what it was going to be until the edit, so I started to assemble each story separately. Then at some point, once I had each narrative roughly built, I put them both together on the same timeline and started adding the sound. From then on I was able to play it ‘interactively’ right inside FCPX.  Back then, I split the day and night audio above and below the primary storyline. Today though, I’d probably assign a role for the day and a role for all of the night. Because, you can’t add audio-only above the primary storyline anymore. So that’s what I’d do to divide it out. All the audio and video still connects in exactly the same way – it just looks slightly different. Another great advantage of doing this in X was clip connections. For any given shot, there was the day and night version, and then, all the audio for the day and all the audio for the night. Just by grabbing the one clip in the primary and moving it or trimming it – everything for day and night – picture and audio – both would move together.

[OP]: Tell me a bit about your relationship with Trim Editing.

[TGC]: There are three partners, who are the most senior three editors. Then there are four or five other main editors and two or three junior editors, plus a number of assistants and runners.

It’s been running over 12 years and I joined the team just over 4 years ago.

[OP]: Are all of you using Final Cut Pro X?

[TGC]: Originally, before anyone started using Final Cut Pro X, we had a mix of Avid and Final Cut Pro 7. Then we began to move to Avid as we saw that Final Cut Pro 7 was not going to be improved. So I started to move to Avid, too. But, I was using Final Cut Pro X on my own personal projects. I began to use it on smaller jobs and one of the other editors said, “That’s cool, that thing you’re doing there.” And he started to try it out. Now we’re kind of at a point where most of the editors are on Final Cut Pro X. One is using Avid, so our assistants need to be able to work with both.

[OP]: Have you been able to convert the last hold-out?

[TGC]: He’s always been Avid. That’s what he uses. The company doesn’t dictate what we use to edit with. It’s all about making the best work. If I decided tomorrow that I wanted to cut in Avid or Premiere – it wouldn’t be an issue. Anyone can cut with anything they like.

[OP]: Any thoughts of going to Premiere?

[TGC]: We’ve fallen in love with the way FCPX works – the browser and the timeline. I think Premiere is good, because it feels very much like a continuation of where Final Cut Pro 7 was, which is why loads of people have moved to it. I understand that. It’s an easy move. But it’s the core way that X functions that I love. That stuff just isn’t in any other NLE. What I’ve found with everyone who has moved to it, including myself – there were always a few little hooks that keep people coming back, even if you don’t like the whole app initially. For me, the first thing I liked is how you can pull out the audio clips and things move out of the way automatically. And I always just thought ‘I can’t make this thing work, but that feature is cool’. And then I kept coming back to it and slowly fell I love with the rest of it. One of the other editors loved the way of making dynamic selects in the browser and said, “I’m going to do this job in X.” He’d select in the browser using favorites and rejects and he absolutely loved it. Loved the way it was so fluid with the thumbnails and he felt immersed in his rushes. Then he gets to the timeline. “Oh, I can’t make this work.” He sent it back to Final Cut Pro 7 and finished up there. He did that on two or three jobs, because it takes time to get comfortable with the timeline. It’s strange when you come from track-based. But once it clicks, it’s amazing.

[OP]: How do your assistant editors fit into the workflow?

[TGC]: Generally I go from one job to the next. It might be two weeks or a month and a quick turnaround. Occasionally there might be an overlap – like, the next job has already started shooting and I haven’t finished the last one off yet. So it might be that I need an assistant editor to load my stuff. Or maybe I have to move on to the next job and I’ve got an assistant doing final tweaks on the last one. It’s much simpler to load projects in X than it is in Avid and one thing I’ve heard in the industry is, “Oh, does that mean you’re going to fire a lot of assistants, because you don’t need them?” No! Of course, we’re going to employ them, but we’ll actually give them editing work to do whenever we can – not just grunt work. Let them do the cut-downs, versions, first assemblies. There’s more time now for them to be doing creative work.

We also try to promote from within. I was the first person who was hired from outside of the company. Almost all the other editors, apart from the partners, have been people who’ve moved up from within. Yes, we could be paying this assistant to be loading all our stuff and making QuickTimes. But if you can be paying the assistant and they can be doing another job, why wouldn’t you do that? It’s another revenue stream for the company. So it’s great to be able to get them up to a level where they can pick up work and build up their own reels and creative chops.

[OP]: Are you primarily working with proxy media?

[TGC]: Not ‘Final Cut Pro X proxy media’, but we use ProRes Proxy or  LT files, which are often transcoded by a DIT on set. They look great, but the post house always goes back to the camera originals for the grade. Sometimes if it’s a smaller job – a low budget music video, for example – I’ll get the ARRI files if they shooting ProRes and just take them into Final Cut straight away- just to get working quicker.

[OP]: Since you work in the area of high-end commercials, do you typically send out audio, color and effects to outside post facilities?

[TGC]: Sound and post work is finished off elsewhere. We work with all the big post facilities –  The Mill, Framestore, and MPC, for example. The directors we work with have their favorite colorists. They’re hiring them because they have the right eye, the right creative skills – not just because they can push the buttons. But we’re doing more and more in the offline now. Clients aren’t used to seeing things as ‘offline’ these days. They’re used to things looking slick. I do a lot of sound design, because it goes so hand in hand with the picture edit. Sometimes the picture doesn’t work without any of the sound, so I do quite a lot of it – get it sounding really great, but it will ultimately be remixed later. I might be working on a project for a month and the sound becomes a very integral creative element. And then the sound mixer only gets a day to pull it all together. They do a great job, but it’s really important to give them as much as we can to work with – to really set the creative direction of the audio.

[OP]: In your presentations, you’ve mentioned Trim’s light hardware footprint. How is the facility configured?

[TGC]: Well, we’ve got ‘cylinder’ Mac Pros, Retina iMacs, and more recently we’ve been trying out a few of the new MacBook Pros, alongside the LG 5K displays. I’ve actually been cutting with that set up a lot recently. I really like it, because I turn up at the suite with my laptop, plug two cables in and that’s it! One cable for the 5K display, power and audio. The second cable goes out to HDMI. It runs the client monitor (HD/4K TV) and a USB hub. It’s a really slick and flexible set up.

For storage, we’re currently using Samsung T3 SSD drives, which are so fast and light, they can handle most things we throw at them. It’s a really slick and flexible set up. But with a few potential feature films in the near future, we are looking again at shared storage. I think that’s an interesting area of the market these days. There are some really amazing new products, which don’t come from the same old vendors.

[OP]: How do clients react to this modular suite approach?

[TGC]: If were doing our jobs, clients shouldn’t really notice the tech were using to drive the edit. And people love the space we’ve created. We’ve got really nice rooms – none of our suites are small. Clients are looking at a 50″ to 60” TV, which is 4K in some of our suites. And we’ve got really great sound systems. So, in terms of what clients are seeing and hearing, it doesn’t get much better in an edit suite.

Sometimes directors will come by even when they’re not editing with us. They’ll come by and write their treatments and just hang out, which is really nice. There’s a lot of common space with areas to work and meet.

There’s a lot of art all over the place and when anyone sees a sign that has the word ‘trim’ in it – they buy it. It might be a street sign or a ‘trim something’ logo. So, you see these signs all over the building. It adds a really nice character to the place. When I joined the company, I wanted to bring something to it – and I love LEGO – so I built our logo using it. That’s mounted at our entrance now.

[OP]: There’s a certain mentality in working with agencies. How does Trim approach that?

[TGC]: We tend to focus on the directors. That’s where you develop the greatest relationships, which is where the best work comes from. Not that I dislike working with an agency, but you build a much closer creative bond with your directors.

One small way we help build a good working environment for directors and agencies is to all have lunch together, every single day. We have lunch rather than editing and eating at our desks. One of the great things about this is that directors get to meet other agencies and editors get to meet other directors. It’s really good to be able to socialize like that. It also helps build different relationships than what would ever happen if we we’re all locked away in a suite all day.

[OP]: At what point do you typically get involved with a job?

[TGC]: I’ll usually get pencilled on a job while the director is still pitching it. And then I’ll start work straight after the shoot. Occasional we’ll be on set, but only if it’s a really tight deadline. On that Honda job, that was a six-day shoot to make two, 2 1/2 minute films and then they needed to see it really soon after the shoot. So, I had to be on set. But typically I like not being on set, because when you’re on set you’re suddenly part of the, “Oh, this shot was amazing. It took us four hours to get in the pouring rain.” You’re invested in that baggage. Whereas, when you just view it coldly in the edit, you don’t know what happened on set. You can go, “This shot doesn’t work – let’s lose it.” That fresh vision is a great reason for the editor to be as far from a shoot as possible.

[OP]: One of the projects on your reel is a Games of Thrones promo. How did that job come your way?

[TGC]: That was actually a director I hadn’t worked with – but, just a director who wanted to work with me. He’d been trying to get me on a few jobs that I hadn’t been able to do. It was an outside director that HBO brought in to shoot. It wasn’t a trailer made of footage from the show. They brought in a commercials and music director to shoot the piece and he wanted to work with me. So, it came down like that and then I worked with him and HBO to bring it all together.

[OP]: Do you have any preferences for the types of projects you work on?

[TGC]: Things like the Audi commercial are really fun, because there’s a lot of sound design. A lot of commercials are heavily storyboarded, but it can often be more satisfying if the director has been a bit more loose in the filming. It might be a montage of different people doing activities, for example. And those can be quite fun, because the final thing – you’ve come up with it and you’ve created the narrative and the flow of it. I say that with hindsight, because they turn out to be the most creatively satisfying. But, the process can be much harder when you’re in the thick of it – because it’s on your shoulders and you haven’t got a really locked storyboard to fall back on. I’ll happily do really long hours and work really hard, if it’s a good bit of work – and, at the end of the day, I’ve worked with nice people.

[OP]: With Final Cut Pro X – anything that you’d like to see different?

[TGC]: Maybe collaboration is one thing that would be interesting to see if there’s a new and interesting take on it. Avid bin-locking is great, but actually when you boil it down, it’s quite a simple thing. It locks this bin, you can’t go in there. You can make a copy of it. That’s all it’s doing, but it’s simple and it works really well. All the cloud-based things I’ve seen so far – they’ve not really gotten me excited. I don’t feel like anyone has really nailed what that is yet. Everyone is just doing it because they can, not because it works really well, or is actually useful. I’d be interested to see if there’s something that can be done there.

In the timeline, I’d like to be able to look inside compound clips without stepping into them. I often use compound clips to combine sound effects or music stems. I’d like to be able to open them in context in the timeline and edit the contents inline with the master timeline. And I’d love some kind of dupe detection in the timeline. But otherwise, I’m really enjoying the new version.

Click this link to watch Thomas Grove Carter in action with FCPX at this year’s Las Vegas SuperMeet at NAB.

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I certainly appreciated the time Thomas Grove Carter spent with me to do this interview. Along with a few other interviews, it made for a better-than-average Vegas trip. As a side note, I recorded my interviews (for transcription only) on my iPad, with the aid of the Apogee MetaRecorder app. This works with iPhones and iPads and starts at free, however, you should spend the $4.99 in-app upgrade to be able to do anything useful with it. It can use the built-in mic and records full quality audio WAV files – and – it features a connection to FCPX with fcpxml. Finally, to aid in generating a text transcript, I used Digital Heaven’s SpeedScriber. Although still in beta, it worked well for what I needed. As with all audio-to-text transcription applications, there’s no such thing as perfect. I did need to do a fair amount of clean-up, however, that’s not uncommon.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X – Reflecting on Six Years

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Some personal musings…

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has passed its five-year mark – and by now nearly most of its sixth. Although it’s getting increasing respect from many corners of the professional editing community, there are still many that dismiss it, due to its deviation from standard editing software conventions. Like so many other things that are Apple, FCPX tends to be polarizing with a large cohort of both fanboys and haters.

For me software is a tool. I’ve been editing since the 70s and have used about 15 different linear and nonlinear systems on billable work during that time. More like 20 if you toss in color correction applications. Even more with tools where I’ve had a cursory exposure to (such as in product reviews), but haven’t used on real jobs. All of these tools are a love-hate relationship for me. I have to laugh when folks talk about FCPX bringing back fun to their editing experience. I hope that the projects I work on bring me fun. I don’t really care about the software itself. Software should just get out of the way and let me do my job.

These six years have been a bit of a personal journey with Final Cut Pro X after a number of years with the “classic” version. I’ve been using FCPX since it first came out on commercials, corporate videos, shorts and even an independent feature film. It’s not my primary NLE most of the time, because my clients have largely moved to Adobe Premiere Pro CC and ask me to be compatible with them. My FCPX work tends to be mixed in and around my Premiere Pro editing gigs. For instance, right now I’m simultaneously involved in two large corporate video jobs – one of which I’m cutting in Premiere Pro and the other in Final Cut Pro X. As these things go, it can be frustrating, because you always want some function, tool or effect that’s available in Application A while you’re working in Application B. However, it also provides a perspective on what’s good and bad about each and where real speed advantages exist.

I have to say that even after six years, Final Cut Pro X is still more of a crapshoot than any other editing tool that I’ve used. I love its organizing power and often start a job really liking it. However, the deeper I get into the job – and the larger the library becomes – and the more complex the sequences become – the more bogged down FCPX becomes. It’s also the most inconsistent across various Mac models. I’ve run it on older towers, new MacBook Pros, iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Of these experiences, the laptops seem to be the most optimized for FCPX.

Quite frankly, working with the “trash can” Mac Pros, at times I wonder if Apple has lost its mojo. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a sweet machine, but its horsepower leaves me underwhelmed. Given the right upgrades, a 2010 Mac Pro tower is still quite competitive against it. Couple that with intermittent corrupt renders and exports on Adobe applications – due to the D-series AMD GPUs – one really has to question Apple’s design compromises. On the other hand, working with recent and new MacBook Pros, it seems pretty obvious that this is where Apple’s focus has been. And in fact, that’s where Final Cut really shines. Run a complex project on a MacBook Pro versus an older tower and it’s truly a night-and-day experience. By comparison, the performance with Adobe and Avid on the same range of machines results in a much more graduated performance curve. Best might not be quite as good, but worst isn’t nearly as awful.

A lot is made of new versus old code in these competing applications. The running argument is that FCPX uses a sleek, new codebase, whereas Premiere Pro and Media Composer run on creaky old software. Yet Final Cut has been out publicly for six years, which means development started a few years before that. Hmmm, no longer quite so new. Yet, if you look at the recent changes from 10.2 to 10.3, it seems pretty clear that a lot more was changed than just cosmetics. The truth of the matter is that all three of these major applications are written in a way that modules of software can be added, removed or changed, without the need to start from scratch. Therefore, from a coding standpoint, Final Cut doesn’t have nearly the type of advantages that many think it has.

The big advantage that FCPX does have, is that Apple can optimize its performance for the holistic hardware and macOS software architecture of their own machines. As such, performance, render speeds, etc. aren’t strictly tied to only the CPU or the GPU. It’s what enables the new MacBook Pro to offer top-end performance, while still staying locked to 16GB of RAM. It seems to me, that this is also why the Core-series processors appear to be better performers than are the Xeon-series chips, when it comes to Final Cut, Motion and Compressor.

If you compare this to Premiere Pro, Adobe hits the GPUs much harder than does Apple, which is the reason behind the occasional corruptions on the “trash can” Macs with Adobe renders. If you were running the Adobe suite on a top-level PC with high-end Nvidia cards, performance would definitely shine over that of the Macs. This is largely due to leveraging the CUDA architecture of these Nvidia GPUs. With Apple’s shift to using only AMD and Intel GPUs, CUDA acceleration isn’t available on newer Macs. Under the current software versions of Adobe CC (at the time of this writing) and Sierra, you are tied to OpenCL or software-only rendering and cannot even use Apple’s Metal acceleration. This is a driver issue still being sorted out between Apple and Adobe. Metal is something that Apple tools take advantage of and is a way that they leverage the combined hardware power, without focusing solely on CPU or GPU acceleration.

All of this leads me back to a position of love-hate with any of these tools. I suspect that my attitude is more common than most folks who frequent Internet forum debates want to admit. The fanboy backlash is generally large. When I look at how I work and what gets the results, I usually prefer track-based systems to the FCPX approach. I tend to like Final Cut as a good rough-cut editing application, but less as a fine-cut tool. Maybe that’s just me. That being said, I’ve had plenty of experiences where FCPX quite simply is the better tool under the circumstance. On a recent on-site edit gig at CES, I had to cut some 4K ARRI ALEXA material on my two-year-old Retina MacBook Pro. Premiere Pro couldn’t hack it without stuttering playback, while FCPX was buttery smooth. Thus FCPX was the axe for me throughout this gig.

Likewise, in the PC vs. Mac hardware debates,  I may criticize some of Apple’s moves and long to work on a fire-breathing platform. But if push came to shove and I had to buy a new machine today, it would be either a Mac Pro “trash can” or a tricked-out iMac. I don’t do heavy 3D renders or elaborate visual effects – I edit and color correct. Therefore, the overall workflow, performance and “feel” of the Apple ecosystem is a better fit for me, even though at times performance might be middling.

Wrapping up this rambling post – it’s all about personal preference. I applaud Apple for making the changes in Final Cut Pro X that they did; however, a lot of things are still in need of improvement. Hopefully these will get addressed soon. If you are looking to use FCPX professionally, then my suggestion is to stick with only the newest machines and keep your productions small and light. Keep effects and filters to a minimum and you’ll be happiest with the results and the performance. Given the journey thus far, let’s see what the next six years will bring.

©2017 Oliver Peters

The wait is over – FCP X 10.3

df3116_fcpx1003_1_smAmidst the hoopla on Oct. 27th, when Apple introduced the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, the ProApps team also released updates to Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor. This was great news for fans, since Final Cut got a prime showcase slot in the event’s main stage presentation. Despite the point numbering, the bump from 10.2 to 10.3 is a full version change, just like in macOS, where 10.11 (El Capitan) to 10.12 (Sierra) is also a new version. This makes FCP X 10.3 the fourth iteration in the FCP X line and the eleventh under the Final Cut Pro brand. I’m a bit surprised that Apple didn’t drop the “X” from the name, though, seeing as it’s done that with macOS itself. And speaking of operating systems, this release requires 10.11.4 (El Capitan) or higher (Sierra).

If you already purchased the application in the past, then this update will be a free upgrade for you. There are numerous enhancements, but three features stand out among the changes: the new interface, the expanded use of roles for mixing, and support for a wider color gamut.

A new look for the user interface

The new user interface is darker and flatter. Although for my taste, it’s a bit too dark without any brightness sliders to customize the appearance. The dimensional style is gone, putting Final Cut Pro X in line with the aesthetics of iMovie and other Apple applications. Final Cut Pro X was already out of step with design trends at the time it was first released. Reskinning the application with this new appearance brings it in line with the rest of the design industry.

The engineers have added workspaces and rearranged where certain controls are, though generally, panels are in the same places as before. Workspaces can be customized, but not nearly to the level of Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. The most welcomed of these changes is that the inspector pane can be toggled to full height when needed. In reality, the inspector height isn’t changed. It’s the width of the timeline that changes and toggles between covering and revealing the full inspector panel.

There are other minor changes throughout 10.3, which make it a much better application. For example, if you like to work with a source/record, 2-up viewer display, then 10.3 now allows you to play a source clip from inside the event viewer.

Magnetic Timeline 2 and the expansion of roles

df3116_fcpx1003_2Apple did a lot of work to rejigger the way the timeline works and to expand the functionality of roles. It’s even being marketed as Magnetic Timeline 2. Up until now, the use of roles in Final Cut has been optional. With 10.3, it’s become the primary way to mix and organize connected clips within the timeline. Apple has resisted adding a true mixing panel, instead substituting the concept of audio lanes.

Let’s say that you assign the roles of dialogue, music or effects to your timeline audio clips. The timeline index panel lets you organize these clips into groups according to their assigned roles, which Apple calls audio lanes. If you click “show audio lanes”, the various connected clips rearrange vertical position in the timeline window to be grouped into their corresponding lanes, based on roles. Now you have three lanes of grouped clips: dialogue, effects, music. You can change timeline focus to individual roles – such as only dialogue – which will minimize the size of all the other roles (clips) in the window. These groups or lanes can also be soloed, so you just hear dialogue without the rest, for example.

There is no submix bus to globally control or filter groups of clips, like you have in Premiere Pro or most digital audio applications. The solution in FCP X 10.3 is to select all clips of the same role and create a compound clip. (Other NLEs refer to this as “nesting”.) By doing so, all of the dialogue, effects and music clips appear on the timeline as only three compound clips – one for each role. You can then apply audio filters or adjust the overall level of that role by applying them to the compound clip.

Unfortunately, if you have to go back and make adjustments to an individual clip, you’ll have to open up the compound clip in its own timeline. When you do that, you lose the context of the other clips. For example, tweaking a sound effect clip inside its compound clip, means that you would only hear the other surrounding effect clips, without dialogue and music or seeing the video. In addition, you won’t hear the result of filters or volume changes made at the top level of that compound clip. Nevertheless, it’s not as complex as it sounds and this is a viable solution, given the design approach Apple engineers have taken.

df3116_fcpx1003_3It does surprise me that they ended up with this solution, because it’s a very modal way of operating. This would seem to be an anathema to the intent of much of the rest of FCP X’s design. One has to wonder whether or not they’ve become boxed in my their own architecture. Naturally others will counter that this process is simplified due to the lack of track patching and submix matrices.

Wide color

The industry at large is embracing color standards that enable displays to reproduce more of the color spectrum, which the human eye can see. An under-the-hood change with FCP X is the embrace of wide gamut color. I think that calling it “wide color” dumbs down the actual standards, but I guess Apple wants to keep things in plain language. In any case, the interface is pretty clear on the actual specs.

Libraries can be set up for “standard color” (Rec. 601 for SD and Rec. 709 for HD) or “wide color” (Rec. 2020). The Projects (sequences) that you create within a Library can be either, as long as the Library was initially set up for wide gamut. You can also change the setting for a Project after the fact. Newer cameras that record in raw or log color space, like RED or ARRI models, are perfectly compatible with wide color (Rec. 2020) delivery, thanks to post-production color grading techniques. That is where this change comes into play.

For the most part you won’t see much difference in normal work, unless you really crank up the saturation. If you do this in the wide color gamut mode, you can get pretty extreme and the scopes will display an acceptable signal. However, if you then switch the Project setting to standard color, the high chroma areas will change to a somewhat duller appearance in the viewer and the scopes will show signal clipping. Most current television display systems don’t display wide gamut color, yet, so it’s not something most users need to worry about today. This is Apple’s way of future-proofing Final Cut and to pass the cleanest possible signal through the system.

A few more things

df3116_fcpx1003_4Numerous other useful tools were added in this version. For example, Flow – a morphing dissolve – for use in bridging jump cuts. Unlike Avid’s or Adobe’s variations, this transition works in real-time without analysis or rendering. This is because it morphs between two still frames. Each company’s approach has a slightly different appearance, but Flow definitely looks like an effect that will get a lot of use – especially with interview-driven productions. Other timeline enhancements include the ability to easily add and toggle audio fades. There’s simplified top and tail trimming. Now you can remove attributes and you can roll (trim) between adjacent, connected clips. Finally – a biggie for shared storage users – FCP X can now work with NAS systems that use the SMB protocol.

Working with it for over a week at the time I post this, the application has been quite stable, even on a production with over 2,000 4K clips. I wouldn’t recommend upgrading if you are in the middle of a production. The upgraded Libraries I tested did exhibit some flakiness, which weren’t there in freshly created Libraries. There’s also a technique to keep both 10.2 and 10.3 active on the same computer. Definitely trash your preferences before diving in.

So far, the plug-ins and Motion templates still work, but you’ll definitely need to check whether these vendors have issued updates designed for this release. This also goes for the third-party apps, like those from Intelligent Assistance, because 10.3 adds a new version of FCPXML. Both Intelligent Assistance and Blackmagic Design issued updates (for Resolve and Desktop Video) by the next day.

There are a few user interface bugs, but no show-stoppers. For instance, the application doesn’t appear to hold its last state upon close, especially when more than one Library is open. When you open it again the next time, the wrong Library may be selected or the wrong Project loaded in the timeline. It occasionally loses focus on the pane selected. This is an old bug that was there in previous versions. You are working in the timeline and all of a sudden nothing happens, because the application “forgot” which pane it’s supposed to have focus on. Clicking command-1 seems to fix this. Lastly, the audio meters window doesn’t work properly. If you resize it to be slimmer, the next time you launch FCP X, the meters panel is large again. That’s even if you updated the workspace with this smaller width. And then sometimes they don’t display audio until you close and reopen the audio meters window.

In this round of testing, I’ve had to move around Libraries with external media to different storage volumes. This requires media relinking. While it was ultimately successful, the time needed to relink was considerably longer than doing this same task in other NLEs.

My test units are all connected to Blackmagic Design i/o hardware, which seems to retard performance a bit. With a/v output turned off within the FCP X interface, clips play right away without stuttering when I hit the spacebar. With the a/v output on, I randomly get stuttering on clips when they start to play. It’s only a minor nuisance, so I just turn it off until I need to see the image on an external monitor. I’ve been told that AJA hardware performs better with FCP X, but I haven’t had a chance to test this myself. In any case, I don’t see this issue when running the same media through Premiere Pro on the exact same computer, storage and i/o hardware.

Final Cut Pro X 10.3 will definitely please most of its fans. There’s a lot of substance and improvement to be appreciated. It also feels like it’s performing better, but I haven’t had enough time with a real project yet to fully test that. Of course, the users who probe a bit deeper will point to plenty of items that are still missing (and available in products like Premiere Pro), such as better media relinking, more versatile replace edit functions and batch exporting.

For editors who’ve only given it a cursory look in the past or were swayed by the negative social media and press over the past five years, this would be the version to re-evaluate. Every new or improved item is targeted at the professional editor. Maybe it’s changed enough to dive in. On the other hand, if you’re an editor who’s given FCP X a fair and educated assessment and just not found it to your liking or suitable for your needs, then I doubt 10.3 will temp you. Regardless, this gives fans some reassurance about Apple’s commitment to professional users of their software – at least for another five years.

If you have the time, there are plenty of great tips here at the virtual Final Cut User Group.

The new Final Cut Pro X 10.3 user manual can be found here.

Click here for additional links highlighting features in this update.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters