Automatic Duck Xsend Motion

df1516_AD_1_sm

When Apple transitioned its Final Cut Pro product family from Final Cut Studio to Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5, and Compressor 4, it lost a number of features that editors really liked. Some of these “missing” features show up as consistent and reoccurring requests on various wish lists. One of the most popular is the roundtrip function that sent Final Cut Pro “classic” timelines over to Motion for further compositing. To many, it seemed like Motion had become relegated to being a fancy development tool for FCPX plug-ins, rather than what it is – a powerful, GPU-enabled compositor.

df1516_AD_2At last, that workflow hole has been plugged, thanks to Automatic Duck. Last year the father/son development team brought us a way to go from Final Cut Pro X to Adobe’s After Effects by way of the Automatic Duck Ximport AE bridge. This week at the FCP Exchange Workshop in Las Vegas, Wes Plate reveals the new Automatic Duck Xsend Motion. This tool leverages the power of the FCPX’s version of XML to move data from one application to the other. Thanks to FCPXML, it provides a bridge to send FCPX timelines, clips, or sections of timelines over to Motion 5.

df1516_AD_4Xsend Motion reads FCPXML exports or is able to process projects directly from the Final Cut Pro X Share menu. The Xsend menu enables a number of settings options, including whether to bring clips into Motion as individual clips or as what Automatic Duck has dubbed as “lanes”. When clips are left individual, then each clip is assigned a layer in Motion for a composition made up of a series of cascading layers. If you opt for lanes, then the Motion layers stay grouped in a similar representation to the FCPX project timeline. This way primary and secondary storylines and connected clips are properly configured. Xsend also interprets compound clips.

Automatic Duck is striving to correctly interpret all of the FCPX characteristics, including frame sizes, rates, cropping, and more. Since Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5 are essentially built upon the same engine, the translation will correctly interpret most built-in effects. However, it may or may not interpret custom Motion templates that individual users have created. In addition, they plan on being able to properly translate many of the effects in the FxFactory portfolio, which typically install into both FCPX and Motion.

df1516_AD_3While Xsend Motion and Ximport AE are primarily one-way trips, there is a mechanism to send the finished result back to Final Cut Pro X from Motion 5. The first and most obvious is simply to render the Motion composition as a flattened QuickTime movie and import that back into FCPX as new media. However, you can also publish the Motion composition as an FCPX Generator. This would then show up in the Generators portion of the Effects Palette as a custom generator effect.

Automatic Duck Xsend Motion will be officially released later this year. The price hasn’t been announced yet. Current Automatic Duck products (Automatic Duck Ximport AE and Automatic Duck Media Copy) are available through Red Giant.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

df1116_wtf_1_sm

As most readers know, “whiskey tango foxtrot” is the military way to communicate the letters WTF. Your imagination can fill in the rest. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the movie, is a dark comedy about the experiences of a female journalist in Afghanistan, based on Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Paramount Pictures tapped the writing/directing team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (Focus, Crazy, Stupid, Love., I Love You Phillip Morris) to tackle the film adaptation, starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alfred Molina.

df1116_wtf_2Glenn Ficarra explains the backstory, “When the military focus shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq there was a void in coverage. Barker was looking for a change in her life and volunteered to embed as a correspondent in Kabul. When she got there, she wasn’t quite ready for the high-adrenaline, partying lifestyle of many of the journalists. Most lived in dorms away from the general Afghan population. Since there weren’t that many females there, she found that there was a lot of interest in her.” This is the basis of both the book and the film – an Afghanistan story with a touch of Animal House and M*A*S*H.

Filming in Afghanistan would have been too dangerous, so production shifted to New Mexico, with Xavier Grobet (Focus, Enough Said, I Love You Phillip Morris) as the director of photography. The filmmakers also hired a female, Muslim journalist, Galereh Kiazand, as the second unit photographer to pick up B-roll in Kabul, which added to the authenticity. In addition, they also licensed stock shots originally filmed for The Kite Runner, but not used in that film. Ficarra adds, “We built two huge sets for Kabul and Kandahar, which were quite convincing, even to vets and Afghans who saw them.”

df1116_wtf_9With efficiencies realized during Focus, the team followed a similar course on this film. Ficarra explains, “We previously pulled the editing in-house. For Whiskey Tango Foxtrot we decided to do all the visual effects in-house, too. There are about 1,000 VFX shots in the film. It’s so great to simply bring on more artists as you need them and you only have to pay the crew. At its peak, we had about 20 Nuke artists working on shots. Doing it internally opens you up to more possibilities for minor effects that enhance shots. You would otherwise skip these if you were working with an outside effects house. We carried this approach into the filming as well. While traveling, it was great to quickly pick up a shot that you could use as B-roll. So our whole mentality has been very much like you work in film school.”

Adjusting the workflow for a new film

df1116_wtf_3The duo started production of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot on the heels of completing Focus. They brought along editor Jan Kovac, as well as use of Apple Final Cut Pro X for editing. This was the off-the-shelf version of Final Cut Pro X available to all customers at the time of the production – no special version or side build. Kovac explains what differed on this new film, “The biggest change was in camera formats. Instead of shooting [Apple] ProRes 4444, we switched to using the new ProRes 4444 XQ codec, which was deployed by ARRI on the ALEXAs. On Focus, we recorded ARRIRAW for the green screen shots. We did extensive testing with this XQ codec prior to production and it was perfect for even the green screen work. Most of the production was shot with two ALEXAs recording in a 2K theatrical format using the ProRes 4444 XQ codec.”

Light Iron provided a DIT on set who took the camera files, added a basic color LUT, synced production sound, and then generated viewing dailies, which were distributed to department heads on Apple iPads. The DIT also generated editorial files that were in the full 2K ProRes 4444 XQ resolution. Both the camera original files and the color-corrected editorial files were stored on a 160TB Accusys ExaSAN system back at the film’s post headquarters. Two Mac Minis served as metadata controllers. Kovac explains, “By always having the highest quality image to edit with, it meant that we could have the highest quality screenings at any given time. You always see the film in a state that is very close to the final product. Since visual effects were being handled in-house, it made sense to have the camera original files on the SAN. This way shots could quickly be pulled for VFX work, without the usual intermediate step of coordinating with the lab or post house that might otherwise store these files.”

df1116_wtf_6Another change was that audio was re-synced by the editing team. First assistant editor Kevin Bailey says, “The DIT would sync the production mix, but when it got here, I would sync up all the audio tracks using Sync-N-Link X. This syncs by timecode, making the process fast. I would group the cameras into multicam clips, but as many as 12 isolated audio tracks were also set up as separate angles. This way, Jan could easily switch between the production mix and individual mics. The only part that wasn’t as automatic was that the crew also used a Blackmagic Pocket Camera and a Sony A7 for some of the shots. The production was running at a true 24.0 fps frame rate, while these smaller cameras only shot 24 frames at a video rate of 23.98. These shots required adjustment and manual syncing. The reason for a true 24.0 frame rate was to make it easy to work with 48fps material. Sometimes the A-camera would run at 24fps while the B-camera ran at 48fps. Speeding up the B-camera by a 2X factor gets it into sync, without worrying about more complicated speed offsets.” In addition to these formats, the Afghanistan second unit footage was shot on a RED camera.

df1116_wtf_5Bailey is an experienced programmer who created the program Shot Notes X, which was used on this film. He continues, “Our script supervisor used Filemaker Pro, which exports a .csv file. Using Shot Notes X, I could combine the FCPXML from Final Cut with the .csv file and then generate a new FCPXML file. When imported back into Final Cut, the event would be updated to display scenes and takes, along with the script notes in the browser’s notes column. Common script codes would be used for close-ups, dolly shots, and so on. Filtering the list view by one of these codes in Final Cut would then display only the close-ups or only the dolly shots for easy access.” Bailey helped set up this pipeline during the first few weeks of production, at which point apprentice editor Esther Sokolow took over the dailies processing. Bailey shifted over to assist with sound and Sokolow later moved into a VFX editor role as one of several people doing temp VFX.

From trailer to home base

df1116_wtf_8During production in New Mexico, Kovac worked out of an editorial trailer equipped with a single Mac Pro and an 8TB G-Raid drive. There he was cutting using the proxy files that Final Cut Pro X can generate internally. During that 47-day period, Kovac was doing 90% of the editing. The amount of footage averaged about three hours and 40 minutes per day. In April, the unit moved back to home base in Los Angeles, where the team had two Mac Pro edit suites set up for the editors, as well as iMacs for the assistants.

John Requa and Glenn Ficarra are “hands-on” participants in the editing process. Kovac would cut in one room, while Ficarra and Requa would cut in the other. After the first preview, their collaboration slowly changed into a more traditional editor-director format. Even towards the end, Ficarra would still edit when he found time to do so. Post ended just before Christmas after a 35-week post schedule. Glenn Ficarra explains, “John and I have worked together for 30 years, so we are generally of one mind when we write, direct, or edit. Sometimes John would cut with me and I’d be the ‘fingers’ and other times he’d work with Jan. Or maybe I’d work with Jan and John would review and pick takes. So our process is very fluid.”

df1116_wtf_4The Whiskey Tango Foxtrot team worked deeper into temp sound and visual effects than before. Kovac explains, “Kevin is very comfortable with sound design during the edit. And he’s a good Nuke artist, too. While I was working on one reel, Kevin could work on a different reel adding in sound effects and creating monitor comps and screen replacements. A lot of this work was done inside of Final Cut using the SliceX and TrackX plug-ins from CoreMelt. We were able to work in a 5.1 surround project and did all of our temp mixes in 5.1.” The power of the plug-ins let more of the temp effects be done inside Final Cut  Pro X, resulting in a more efficient workflow with less need for roundtrips to other applications.

All media and render files were kept on the ExaSAN storage, but external of the Final Cut Pro X library files, thus keeping those small. The library files were stored on a separate NFS server (a Mac Mini using NFS Manager) with a separate FCPX library file for each reel of the film. This enabled the editors and assistants to all access any FCPX library file, as long as someone else wasn’t using it at that time. A shared iTunes library for temporary sound effects and music selections was stored on the SAN with all machines pointing to that location. From within Final Cut, any editor could browse the iTunes library for music and sound effects.

When it came time for sound and picture turnovers, X2Pro Audio Convert was used to pass audio to the sound design team as an AAF file. Light Iron’s Ian Vertovec handled final color correction on their Quantel Pablo Rio system. He was working off of camera original media, which Light Iron also stored at their facility after the production. Effects shots were sent over as DPX image sequences.

Thoughts on the cut

df1116_wtf_7The director’s cut for Whisky Tango Foxtrot ran about three hours, although the final length clocked in at 1:52:00 with credits. Kovac explains, “There were 167 scripted scenes in the original script, requiring a fair amount of trimming. Once you removed something it had consequences that rippled throughout. It took time to get it right. While it was a tougher film from that standpoint, it was easier, because no studio approval process was needed for the use of Final Cut Pro X. So it built upon the shoulders of Focus. Final Cut has proven itself as a valuable member of the NLE community. Naturally anything can be improved. For example, optical flow and auditions don’t work with multicam clips. Neither do the CoreMelt plug-ins.” Bailey adds, “For me the biggest selling point is the magnetic timeline. In areas where I would build up temp sound design, these would be the equivalent of ten tracks deep. It’s far easier to trim sections and have the audio follow along than in any other NLE.”

Glenn Ficarra wrapped up with these thoughts. He says, “A big step forward on this film was how we dealt with audio. We devised a method to keep as much as possible inside FCPX, for as long as possible – especially for screenings. This gave us more cutting time, which was nice. There was no need for any of the in-between turnovers I’ve gone through on other systems, just to prepare the movie for screenings. I like the robust third-party approach with Final Cut. It’s a small, tight-knit community. You can actually get in touch with a developer without going through a large corporation. I’d like to see Apple improve some features, like better match-back. I feel they’ve only scratched the surface with roles, so I’d like to see them develop that more.”

He concludes, “A lot of directors would like to cut for themselves, but find a tool like Avid impenetrable. It doesn’t have to be that way. My 12-year-old daughter is perfectly comfortable with Final Cut Pro X. Many of the current workflows stem from what was built up around film and we no longer work that way. Why adhere to the old film methods and rules? Filmmakers who are using new methods are those that aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They are willing to push the boundaries.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X Keyboard Tips

df0716_fcpxkeyboard_1_sm

As most editors know, customizing your NLE keyboard settings can improve efficiency in how you use that tool. Final Cut Pro X already gives you a large number of existing commands mapped to the keyboard, but, as with any NLE, they are not all in places that work best for every editor. Therefore, it’s preferable to customize the toolset for what will work best for you.

The choices among the basic keys plus the modifier keys are extensive, but interestingly the “F” or function keys are not already mapped. This leaves you fertile ground to add your own commands without changing the standard map. Of course, the number of function keys you have depends on your keyboard. The Apple extended keyboard (the one with the number keypad) has 19 function keys. The smaller Bluetooth keyboards only have 12.

In my case, I’ve decided to map a few useful tools to some of the F-keys, as well as the shifted-function positions. Most of these are interface-related, but not entirely. FCPX doesn’t let you create and save custom workspace layouts like FCP7 or Adobe Premiere Pro CC, however, there are a lot of interface panels that can be displayed or hidden depending on the task at hand. By mapping these tools to the function keys, you get nearly the same effect as swapping workspaces, because it reconfigures your screen layout at the click of a button. Unfortunately you still can’t move modules from where Apple has chosen to have them appear.

I work with dual screens more often than not in a fixed edit bay. This lets me get the most out of the various FCPX windows and modules. If you own both an Apple laptop and an iPad, the Duet Display app also enables you to pair the two devices into a dual display arrangement. This eliminates the need to drag along an external screen for location editing gigs. Therefore, you can still get the maximum benefit of these layouts.

Here are the commands I’ve currently mapped. These work for me and, of course, might change in the future as I tweak my workflow. You’ll note that a number of these commands already have existing keyboard locations, so mapping these to a function key is redundant. Quite true, but I find that placing these concisely into the F-key row makes switching between them easier and you’ll be more likely to use them as a result.

The basic F-key row (no modifier key):

F1 – Show Events on Second Display

F2 – Show/Hide Viewer on Second Display

F3 – Show/Hide Event Viewer

F4 – Show/Hide Inspector

F5 – Show/Hide Effects Browser

F6 – Show/Hide Timeline Index

F7 – Show/Hide Video Scopes

F8 – Replace from Start*

F9 – Replace from End*

*These last two selections are edit commands.

The F-key row plus the Shift modifier:

Shift-F1 – Clip Appearance: Waveforms Only

Shift-F2 – Clip Appearance: Large Waveforms

Shift-F3 – Clip Appearance: Waveforms and Filmstrips

Shift-F4 – Clip Appearance: Large Filmstrips

Shift-F5 – Clip Appearance: Filmstrips Only

Shift-F6 – Clip Appearance: Clip Labels Only

As you can see, I use the shifted function keys to switch between the various timeline appearance settings that are available from the lower right pop-up menu. It’s nice that once you adjust the size of the filmstrips or waveforms using the slider, that setting stays until changed. Therefore, you can go between a large waveform view and the thin clip label (aka “chiclet”) view, simply by switching between these function keystrokes.

Customized keyboard maps can be saved and recalled for easy access. You can also create more than one customized keyboard preset.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Producing a Short Mini-Doc with the AJA CION

df0516_CION4
AJA surprised the industry in 2014 when it rolled out its CION digital cinema 4K camera. Although not known as a camera manufacturer, it had been working on this product for over four years. Last year the company offered its Try CION promotion (ended in October), which loaned camera systems to qualified filmmakers. Even though this promotion is over, potential customers with a serious interest can still get extended demos of the camera through their regional AJA sales personnel. It was in this vein that I arranged a two-week loan of a camera unit for this review.

I’m a post guy and don’t typically write camera reviews; however, I’m no stranger to cameras either. I’ve spent a lot of time “shading” cameras (before that position was called a DIT) and have taken my turn as a studio and field camera operator. My interest in doing this review was to test the process. How easy was it to use the camera in actual production and how easy was the post workflow associated with it?

CION details

The AJA CION is a 4K digital camera that employs an APS-C CMOS sensor with a global shutter and both infrared-cut and optical low-pass filters. It can shoot in various frame sizes (from 1920×1080 up to 4096×2160) and frame rates (from 23.98 up 120fps). Sensor scaling rather than windowing/cropping is used, which means the lens size related to the image it produces is the same in 4K as in 2K or HD. In other words, a 50mm lens yields the same optical framing in all digital sizes.

df0516_CION_Chellee5The CION records in Apple ProRes (up to ProRes 4444) using a built-in Pak media recorder. Think of this as essentially an AJA KiPro built right into the camera. Since Pak media cards aren’t FAT32 formatted like CF or SD cards used by other cameras, you don’t run into a 4GB file-size limit that would cause clip-spanning.  You can also record AJA Raw externally (such as to an AJA KiPro Quad) over 3G-SDI or Thunderbolt. Video is linear without any log encoding schemes; but, there are a number of gamma profiles and color correction presets.

df0516_CION_prod_1It is designed as an open camera system, using standard connectors for HDMI, BNC, XLR, batteries, lens mounts, and accessories. CION uses a PL lens mount system, because that’s the most open and the best glass comes for that mounting system. When the AJA rep sent me the camera, it came ready to shoot and included a basic camera configuration, plus accessories, including some rods, an Ikan D5w monitor, a Zeiss Compact Prime 28mm lens, 512GB and 256GB solid-state Pak media cards, and a Pak media dock/reader. The only items not included – other than tripod, quick-release base plate, and head, of course – were camera batteries. The camera comes with a standard battery plate, as well as an AC power supply.

Learning the CION

The subject of this mini-doc was a friend of mine, Peter Taylor. He’s a talented luthier who builds and repairs electric and acoustic guitars and basses under his Chellee brand. He also designs and produces a custom line of electric guitar pedals. To pull this off, I partnered with the Valencia College Film Production Technology Program, with whom I’m edited a number of professional feature films and where I teach an annual editing workshop. I worked with Ray Bracero, a budding DP and former graduate of that program who helps there as an instructional assistant. This gave me the rest of the package I needed for the production, including more lenses, a B-camera for the interview, lighting, and sound gear.

Our production schedule was limited with only one day for the interview and B-roll shots in the shop. To augment this material, I added a second day of production with my son, Chris Peters, playing an original track that he composed as an underscore for the interview. Chris is an accomplished session musician and instructor who plays Chellee guitars.

df0516_CION_prod_2With the stage set, this provided about half a day for Ray and me to get familiar with the CION, plus two days of actual production, all within the same week. If AJA was correct in designing an easy-to-use cinematic camera, then this would be a pretty good test of that concept. Ray had never run a CION before, but was familiar with REDs, Canons, and other camera brands. Picking up the basic CION operation was simple. The menu is easier than other cameras. It uses the same structure as a KiPro, but there’s also an optional remote set-up, if you want a wireless connection to the CION from a laptop.

4K wasn’t warranted for this project, so everything was recorded in 2K (2048×1080) to be used in an HD 2.35:1 sequence (1920×817). This would give me some room to reframe in post. All sync sound shots would be 23.98fps and all B-roll would be in slow motion. The camera permits “overcranking”, meaning we shot at 59.94fps for playback at 23.98fps. The camera can go up to 120fps, but only when recording externally in AJA Raw. To keep it simple on this job, all recording was internal to the Pak media card – ProResHQ for the sync footage and ProRes 422 for the slow motion shots.

Production day(s)

The CION is largely a “what you see is what you get” camera. Don’t plan on extensive correction in post. What you see on the monitor is typically what you’ll get, so light and control your production set-up accordingly. It doesn’t have as wide of a dynamic range as an ARRI ALEXA for example. The bottom EI (exposure index) is 320 and that’s pretty much where you want to operate as a sweet spot. This is similar to the original RED One. This means that in bright exteriors, you’ll need filtering to knocking down the light. There’s also not much benefit in running with a high EI. The ALEXA, for instance, looks great at 800, but that setting didn’t seem to help the CION.

df0516_CION_Chellee13_smGamma profiles and color temperature settings didn’t really behave like I would have expected from other cameras. With our lighting, I would have expected a white balance of 3200 degrees Kelvin, however 4500 looked right to the eye and was, in fact, correct in post. The various gamma profiles didn’t help with clipping in the same way as Log-C does, so we ultimately stayed with Normal/Expanded. This shifts the midrange down to give you some protection for highlights. Unfortunately with CION, when highlights are clipped or blacks are crushed, that is actually how the signal is being recorded and these areas of the signal are not recoverable. The camera’s low end is very clean and there’s a meaty midrange. We discovered that you cannot monitor the video over SDI while recording 59.94-over-23.98 (slow motion). Fortunately HDMI does maintain a signal. All was good again, once we switched to the HDMI connection.

CION features a number of color correction presets. For Day 1 in the luthier shop, I used the Skin Tones preset. This is a normal color balance, which slightly desaturates the red-orange range, thus yielding more natural flesh tones. On Day 2 for the guitar performance, I switched to the Normal color correction preset. The guitar being played has a red sunburst paint finish and the Skin Tones preset pulled too much of the vibrance out of the guitar. Normal more closely represented what it actually looked like.

df0516_CION_Chellee4During the actual production, Ray used three Zeiss Super Speed Primes (35mm, 50mm, and 85mm) on the CION, plus a zoom on the Canon 5D B-camera. Since the locations were tight, he used an ARRI 650w light with diffusion for a key and bounced a second ARRI 150w light as the back light. The CION permits two channels of high-quality audio input (selectable line, mic, or +48v). I opted to wire straight into the camera, instead of using an external sound recorder. Lav and shotgun mics were directly connected to each channel for the interview. For the guitar performance, the amp was live-mic’ed into an Apogee audio interface (part of Chris’ recording system) and the output of that was patched into the CION at line level.df0516_CION_Chellee8

The real-time interview and performance material was recorded with the CION mounted on a tripod, but all slow motion B-roll shots were handheld. Since the camera had been rigged with a baseplate and rods, Ray opted to use the camera in that configuration instead of taking advantage of the nice shoulder pad on the CION. This gave him an easy grasp of the camera for “Dutch angles” and close working proximity to the subject. Although a bit cumbersome, the light weight of the CION made such quick changes possible.

Post production

df0516_CION_FCPX_2As an editor, I want a camera to make life easy in post, which brought me to Apple Final Cut Pro X for the finished video. Native ProRes, easy syncing of two-camera interviews, and simple-yet-powerful color correction makes FCPX a no-brainer. We recorded a little over three hours of material – 146 minutes on the CION, 37 minutes on the 5D and 11 minutes on a C500 (for two pick-up shots). All of the CION footage only consumed about 50% of the single 512GB Pak media card. Using the Pak media dock, transfer times were fast. While Pak media isn’t cheap, the cards are very robust and unless you are chewing through tons of 4K, you actually get a decent amount of recording time on them.

I only applied a minor amount of color correction on the CION footage. This was primarily to bring up the midrange due to the Normal/Expanded gamma profile, which naturally makes the recorded shot darker. The footage is very malleable without introducing the type of grain-like sensor noise artifacts that I see with other cameras using a similar amount of correction. Blacks stay true black and clean. Although my intention was not to match the 5D to the CION – I had planned on some stylized correction instead – in the end I matched it anyway, since I only used two shots. Surprisingly, I was able to get a successful match.

Final thoughts

df0516_CION_Chellee6The CION achieved the design goals AJA set for it. It is easy to use, ergonomic, and gets you a good image with the least amount of fuss. As with any camera, there are a few items I’d change. For example, the front monitoring connectors are too close to the handle. Occasionally you have to press record twice to make sure you are really recording. There’s venting on the top, which would seem to be an issue if you suddenly got caught in the rain. Overall, I was very happy with the results, but I think AJA still needs to tweak the color science a bit more.

In conjunction with FCPX for post, this camera/NLE combo rivals ARRI’s ALEXA and AMIRA for post production ease and efficiency. No transcoding. No performance hits due to taxing, native, long-GOP media. Proper file names and timecode. A truly professional set-up. At a starting point of $4,995, the AJA CION is a dynamite camera for the serious producer or filmmaker. The image is good and the workflow outstanding.

Click this link to see the final video on Vimeo.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters

Photo Phun 2015

df4315_pp15_52_sm

It’s holiday time again and a chance to take a break from serious talk about editing and the tools – sort of. I’ve done a version of this post for a few years. Usually I take a series of my photos and run them through Photoshop, Lightroom, or one of the other photography applications to create stylized treatments. This year, I figured, why not try it with Final Cut Pro X?

These images have all been processed in a custom FCP X timeline set to 2000 x 1500 pixels. I’ve used a wide range of filters, including some from the FxFactory partner family, Koji, the built-in FCP X effects, as well as my own Motion templates published over from Motion. Enjoy these as we go into the holiday season. See you in the new year!

Click any image to see a slideshow of these photos.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Automatic Duck Redux

df3915_ad_1_sm

Automatic Duck invented timeline translations between applications. Necessity is the mother of invention, leading Wes Plate, an Avid Media Composer editor who tackled compositing in Adobe After Effects, to team with his programmer father, Harry. The goal was to design a tool to get Avid timelines into After Effects compositions. Automatic Duck grew from this beginning to create a series of translation products that let editors seamlessly move timelines between a number of different hosts, including Media Composer, Pro Tools, After Effects, and Apple Final Cut Pro “classic”.

Four years ago Adobe licensed the IP for the original Automatic Duck Pro Import products, as well as brought the father/son team on board to develop tools for Adobe. Now they are back on their own and have decided to reboot Automatic Duck, which has been mothballed for the past four years. Seeing an opportunity in Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, the company has developed Ximport AE, a timeline translation tool to bring Final Cut Pro X projects (edited sequences) into After Effects. The team is no stranger to Final Cut Pro X’s new FCPXML format, since it was the first developer to create a companion utility that translated Final Cut Pro X 10.0 projects into Pro Tools sessions.

Knowing the market

df3915_ad_2First, let’s define the market. Who is Automatic Duck Ximport AE for? Editors who do most of their heavy lifting in Media Composer, Final Cut, or Premiere Pro might not see the attraction. On the flip side, though, there are quite a few editors for whom After Effects is the tool of choice for all effects and even finishing. For this group, the NLE is where they spend the least amount of time. They use an editing application for shot selection and assembly and then go straight to After Effects for everything else.

If you are a motion graphics designer who relies on After Effects, then your occasional need for an NLE might be best served by FCP X. The interface is fast and easy to master, compared with more traditional track-based edit software. Finally, if you are a dedicated FCP X editor, you no longer have a “send to Motion” function as in the old Final Cut Studio. This means you can’t send more than a single shot to Motion for treatment. Besides, After Effects may still be your preferred motion graphics application. Take all of these points into consideration and you’ll see that there’s a clear need to get a project from FCP X into After Effects – the industry’s dominant motion graphics application.

How it works

df3915_ad_4Automatic Duck Ximport AE is designed as a plug-in that’s installed into After Effects, including CS6 up through the current CC2015 version (and beyond). There are several other competing translation tools on the market, which convert between flavors of XML or from FCPXML into AE Scripts. Automatic Duck is the only one that integrates directly into the After Effects import menu. Ximport AE cuts out one middle step in the process and should provide for a more complete translation from FCP X into After Effects.

I’ve been beta testing the product for a few months and it certainly hits the mark for serious users. The steps are simple. Just cut your sequence in Final Cut Pro X and then export an FCPXML for that project (sequence). When you open After Effects, select File > Import > Automatic Duck Ximport AE. This opens a dialogue box with a few settings and it’s where you navigate to the correct FCPXML file. Settings include whether to let your clips cascade up or down in the After Effects timeline, as well as an option to create pre-comps from Final Cut’s secondary storylines. The question mark icon also launches the user guide.

In the timelines I’ve tested, the translation is quite good. Compound clips are packaged as pre-comps. The active angle of Multicam clips and the selected pick of Audition clips are translated. Alternate angles aren’t.  Generally transform, crop, opacity, and blend functions are supported, as are audio and video keyframes. A number of third party filters are accurately translated between applications, assuming that the same filter is installed into each host. At launch, these include selected plug-ins from Boris FX, Digital Anarchy, Noise Industries/FxFactory, PHYX, Red Giant, and Yanobox. Check the user guide for a detailed list with specific filters.

Some caveats

df3915_ad_3It’s worth noting, however, that just about all of the built-in FCP X filters are not translated into an equivalent filter in After Effects. For example, the color board metadata is included in the FCPXML, but there’s no way to read that info on the After Effects side. This is true even when there are filters that appear to be the same. For example, both hosts include a native Gaussian blur filter, yet that doesn’t get translated. On the other hand, if you apply a Flipped filter in FCP X, it will be correctly translated into the -100 transform scale value in After Effects. So again, read the user guide and do a little experimentation to see what works and what doesn’t in your projects. Whenever an effect is not supported, a note is made in the companion HTML file created at import. A marker is also placed on that clip in the After Effects timeline, naming the missing plug-in.

df3915_ad_6I tested a number of supported third-party products, staying mainly within the Red Giant family. Translation was good between the Magic Bullet tools, but not without issue. For example, Universe ToonIt Expressionist Noise was available in both hosts, yet the effect was not applied in the After Effect composition. That’s because at the time I tested this using a beta build, that specific Universe filter had not been included. This has since been corrected. Other effects, like Looks, Colorista III, Mojo, Universe Glow, and others worked flawlessly. According to Wes Plate, the plug-in has been architected in a way to easily add support for new effects plug-ins. The bottom line is that if you stay within the supported features, you will get the richest translation experience from FCP X into After Effects that’s currently available in the market.

Automatic Duck Media Copy 4.0

df3915_ad_5Along with Ximport AE, the company will also introduce Automatic Duck Media Copy 4.0. The original Media Copy grew out the need to collect, copy, and move sequences and their associated media. The original version worked for Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro “classic” sequences. It would read either the AAF or XML file and copy all associated media, plus the timeline edit info. This new folder could then be moved to another system for more editing or used as a back-up archive. Media Copy 4.0 has been updated to add FCPXML support. As before, it collects media and timeline files for use elsewhere. It does not trim or transcode the media, but you have the choice to copy media all into a single folder or to maintain a folder hierarchy matching the original paths within the newly created location. Media Copy works well as a standalone application or as a companion to Ximport AE. It supports Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro X, and Final Cut Pro 6/7.

With the reboot of Automatic Duck, they’ve decided to partner with Red Giant Software to provide marketing, sales, and customer support. Red Giant will offer Automatic Duck Ximport AE for $199 and Media Copy 4.0 for $99. If you still have need for Automatic Duck’s legacy products, the company is posting them again on their own website for free, with an optional “donate” button. These include Pro Import FCP, Pro Export FCP (for FCP 7 users), and Pro Import AE (for importing AAF and XML into AE CS 5.5 or earlier).

Regardless of which NLE you use, I’ve found Media Copy to be an essential tool, whether or not you work with effects or motion graphics. It’s great to see Automatic Duck update it, as well as launch their next great product, Ximport AE. Adobe After Effects will continue to be the ubiquitous compositing and motion graphics choice for most editors, so this marriage between Final Cut Pro X and After Effects make great sense.

For more, here’s a good interview with Wes Plate at Red Shark News.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Color Finale

df1115_cf_7_sm

When Apple launched Final Cut Pro X, one of the items that users missed from previous versions was the popular three-way color corrector. Most built-in color correction modules and plug-ins use the common color wheel method for changing color balance. It’s based on the principle that to reduce a certain color cast you push the wheel in the opposite direction of that color. This decreases the color you want to reduce by shifting the balance towards the colors that are on the opposite side of the wheel.

Apple replaced the color wheel model in FCP X with the color board – a set of tabs for exposure, saturation and color (tint or hue). In the color tab, which controls balance, you see a color swatch field divided into positive and negative halves. To decrease one color, you simply move the puck into the negative range for that color. Although this may be intuitive to users who don’t know anything about color theory, it’s contrary to how most other color tools work.

As a result, many FCP X editors have been on the lookout for good color correction plug-ins that use the more common three-way color wheel method. The complication is that the FCP X user interface is very restrictive for software developers, which limits the sort of custom controls they can use. The usual workaround – if they don’t utilize the space of the Inspector panel – is a of HUD (heads-up display) or an overlay on top of the viewer image. To date, plug-ins that offer color wheels have included Yanobox Moods, Red Giant Colorista III, FilmConvert, and Hawaiki Color. Some, like Ripple Tools RT Color Balance and Lawn Road Color Precision, use the Mac OS color picker in a way that functions as a color balance control.

Layer-based correction

df1115_cf_2_smThe newest color correction plug-in for Final Cut Pro X is Color Finale from Color Grading Central. This is a layer-based color corrector that combines four tools into a single filter. These include color wheels, curves, LUTs, and vectors. To solve the interface issue, Color Finale uses a floating panel that lives on top of the regular FCP X interface. When you apply the Color Finale filter to a clip and click Open in the Inspector window, the floating control panel is launched. You can move it around in case it obscures part of the regular FCP X interface. Within this panel you can select any of its four tools for as many layers as you like and rearrange them into any layer order. Each layer has a separate opacity control and the filter has an overall “mix” slider in the Inspector window. This lets you adjust the intensity of the complete filter or of individual layers.

df1115_cf_1_smThese four tools combine most of the functions offered by other individual filters into a single plug-in. The three-way color corrector works as expected with balance and level controls for shadow, mid-range, and highlight sections, plus a global saturation slider. The LUT control is like Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. Color Finale ships with several basic camera patch and creative look LUTs (same as with LUT Utility). These are installed into a standard Motion Templates directory for FCP X. You can add any .cube format LUT file to this folder and it will show up inside FCP X as one of Color Finale’s LUT options. The curves are unique among FCP X plug-ins, because these are true multi-point curves. Other curve tools are based on an s-curve, but not here. You can add numerous control points along any of the RGB or master curves and make precise adjustments. The vector tool is based on the six color vectors: red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow. You can adjust the luminance and saturation, as well as shift the hue, for each of these vectors.

df1115_cf_3_smIn a very, very loose sense, Color Finale is a bit like having Resolve inside FCP X and is most similar to FilmLight’s Baselight Editions color correction plug-in. You can easily mix and match tools as layers within the plug-in control panel. If you apply the Color Finale filter to multiple clips on the timeline, once you’ve opened the panel, you can move from clip to clip and add or adjust correction layers within this panel, as long as it stays open. If you’ve closed it, clicking Open in the Inspector will relaunch the control panel. Using “copy” and “paste attributes” enables you to copy-and-paste Color Finale effects from one clip to another. Unfortunately there is no way within the filter to split-screen the uncorrected and corrected image nor to store grades as presets. However, you can toggle individual layers on and off.

Impressions

df1115_cf_4_smAs with any tool, how the controls work for you is a very subjective thing. Most of the tools feel very good to me, but I have a few minor issues. For me, the range of the color wheels is too extreme. Once you get about 1/4 of the way out from the color wheel’s center, you’ve made a pretty large balance change. At the edges, the change is huge and unusable for anything other than a special effect. Therefore, I’d rather see finer granularity with less extreme change at the edges of the wheel – or the ability to exceed the limits of the wheel for a more extreme change.

df1115_cf_5_smI find the vectors very limiting for secondary adjustments, because you cannot select how wide the envelope is around that vector color. For instance, the red vector will affect a red coat, but not flesh tones that tend to fall into the orange range – and orange is not a true color vector. The developers feel that adhering to true vectors results in a cleaner image as opposed to an HSL model; however, HSL secondary correction (as in Colorista III or Avid Symphony) enables you to be more selective about the colors that you are grabbing for adjustment. I’ve also become used to having contrast, pivot, color temperature, and tint controls. These are a key feature of Adobe SpeedGrade and included with many other filters. Hopefully at some point these will also be added to Color Finale.

df1115_cf_6_sm

A few key features that would be nice to have are tracking, masking, and keying. These aren’t built into the current version, but might be added natively into later versions. However, with the introduction of FCP X 10.2, filters gain a built-in shape mask function courtesy of the host application. This means that Color Finale gets a shape mask that can be use as a form of “power windows”. In addition, if you’ve purchase ColorMelt’s SliceX/TrackX package, its masking and mocha-powered tracking function can be combined with Color Finale grading.

Most importantly, the developers have done a fine job of balancing correction quality with real-time performance. Stacking seven or eight layers of various tools inside Color Finale still leaves you with real-time playback of a sequence with unrendered clips. You would not get this performance if you stacked the same number of individual color correction filters onto a single FCP X clip. Render speeds, when you do choose to render, are fast.

For many, Color Finale will be the color corrector that Apple should have made. It works well and combines a fine set of tools into a single package. Since it works as any standard filter does, you can use it in conjunction with any other effect and with Final Cut’s built-in tools. For example, you can use FCP X’s log processing to correct Log-C gamma-encoded clips upstream of the filter. You can still add a vignette or key mask on top by using the regular FCP X color board tool. As an added bonus, Color Finale also installs and works with Motion 5. If you’re an editor that prefers to do your grading inside the NLE and skip troublesome roundtrips, then Color Finale is a good addition to your Final Cut Pro X toolkit.

Denver Riddle, the developer of Color Finale, has posted an excellent grading tutorial for how you can creatively use this tool with FCP X (click this link).

(Full disclosure: I was involved in the Color Finale beta team and participated in providing testing and feedback during the development phase.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters