The Nuances of Overcranking

The concept of overcranking and undercranking in the world of film and video production goes back to the origins of motion picture technology. The earliest film cameras required the camera operator to manually crank the film mechanism – they didn’t have internal motors. A good camera operator was partially judged by how constant of a frame rate they could maintain while cranking the film through the camera.

Prior to the introduction of sound, the correct frame rate was 18fps. If the camera was cranked faster than 18fps (overcranking), then the playback speed during projection was in slow motion. If the camera was cranked slower than 18fps (undercranking), the motion was sped up. With sound, the default frame rate shifted from 18 to 24fps. One by-product of this shift is that the projection of old B&W films gained that fast, jerky motion we often incorrectly attribute to “old time movies” today. That characteristic motion is because they are no longer played at their intended speeds.

While manual film cranking seems anachronistic in modern times, it had the benefit of in-camera, variable-speed capture – aka speed ramps. There are modern film cameras that include controlled mechanisms to still be able to do that today – in production, not in post.

Videotape recording

With the advent of videotape recording, the television industry was locked into constant recording speeds. Variable-speed recording wasn’t possible using tape transport mechanisms. Once color technology was established, the standard record, playback, and broadcast frame rates became 29.97fps and/or 25.0fps worldwide. Motion picture films captured at 24.0fps were transferred to video at the slightly slower rate of 23.976fps (23.98) in the US and converted to 29.97 by employing pulldown – a method to repeat certain frames according to a specific cadence. (I’ll skip the field versus frame, interlaced versus progressive scan discussion.)

Once we shifted to high definition, an additional frame rate category of 59.94fps was added to the mix. All of this was still pinned to physical videotape transports and constant frame rates. Slomo and fast speed effects required specialized videotape or disk pack recorders that could playback at variable speeds. A few disk recorders could record at different speeds, but in general, it was a post-production function.

File-based recording

Production shifted to in-camera, file-based recording. Post shifted to digital, computer-based, rather than electro-mechanical methods. The nexus of these two shifts is that the industry is no longer locked into a limited number of frame rates. So-called off-speed recording is now possible with nearly every professional production camera. All NLEs can handle multiple frame rates within the same timeline (albeit at a constant timeline frame rate).

Modern video displays, the web, and streaming delivery platforms enable viewers to view videos mastered at different frame rates, without being dependent on the broadcast transmission standard in their country or region. Common, possible system frame rates today include 23.98, 24.0, 25.0, 29.97, 30.0, 59.94, and 60.0fps. If you master in one of these, anyone around the world can see your video on a computer, smart phone, or tablet.

Record rate versus system/target rate

Since cameras can now record at different rates, it is imperative that the production team and the post team are on the same page. If the camera operator records everything at 29.97 (including sync sound), but the post is designed to be at 23.98, then the editor has four options. 1) Play the files as real-time (29.97 in a 23.98 sequence), which will cause frames to be dropped, resulting in some stuttering on motion. 2) Play the footage at the slowed speed, so that there is a one-to-one relationship of frames, which doesn’t work for sync sound. 3) Go through a frame rate conversion before editing starts, which will result in blended and/or dropped frames. 4) Change the sequence setting to 29.97, which may or may not be acceptable for final delivery.

Professional production cameras allow the operator to set both the system or target frame rate, in addition to the actual recording rate. These may be called different names in the menus, but the concepts are the same. The system or target rate is the base frame rate at which this file will be edited and/or played. The record rate is the frame rate at which images are exposed. When the record rate is higher than the target rate, you are effectively overcranking. That is, you are recording slow motion in-camera.

(Note: from here on I will use simplified instead of integer numbers in this post.) A record rate of 48fps and a target rate of 24fps results in an automatic 50% slow motion playback speed in post, with a one-to-one frame relationship (no duplicated or blended frames). Conversely, a record rate of 12fps with a target rate of 24fps results in playback that is fast motion at 200%. That’s the basis for hyperlapse/timelapse footage.

The good news is that professional production cameras embed the pertinent metadata into the file so that editing and player software automatically knows what to do. Import an ARRI Alexa file that was recorded at 120fps with a target rate of 24fps (23.98/23.976) into Final Cut Pro X or Premiere Pro and it will automatically playback in slow motion. The browser will identify the correct target rate and the clip’s timecode will be based on that same rate.

The bad news as that many cameras used in production today are consumer products or at best “prosumer” cameras. They are relatively “dumb” when it comes to such settings and metadata. Record 30fps on a Canon 5D or Sony A7S and you get 30fps playback. If you are cutting that into a 24fps (23.98) sequence, you will have to decide how to treat it. If the use is for non-sound-sync B-roll footage, then altering the frame rate (making it play slow motion) is fine. In many cases, like drone shots and handheld footage, that will be an intentional choice. The slower footage helps to smooth out the vibration introduced by using such a lightweight camera.

The worst recordings are those made with iPhone, iPads, or similar devices. These use variable-bit-rate codecs and variable-frame-rate recordings, making them especially difficult in post. For example, an iPhone recording at 30.0fps isn’t exactly at that speed. It wobbles around that rate – sometimes slightly slower and something faster. My recommendation for that type of footage is to always transcode to an optimized format before editing. If you must shoot with one of these devices, you really need to invest in the FiLMiC Pro application, which will give you a certain level of professional control over the iPhone/iPad camera.

Transcode

Time and storage permitting, I generally recommend transcoding consumer/prosumer formats into professional, optimized editing formats, like Avid DNxHD/HR or Apple ProRes. If you are dealing with speed differences, then set your file conversion to change the frame rate. In our 30 over 24 example (29.97 record/23.98 target), the new footage will be slowed accordingly with matching timecode. Recognize that any embedded audio will also be slowed, which changes its sample rate. If this is just for B-roll and cutaways, then no problem, because you aren’t using that audio. However, one quirk of Final Cut Pro X is that even when silent, the altered sample rate of the audio on the clip can induce strange sound artifacts upon export. So in FCPX, make sure to detach and delete audio from any such clip on your timeline.

Interpret footage

This may have a different name in any given application, but interpret footage is a function to make the application think that the file should be played at a different rate than it was recorded at. You may find this in your NLE, but also in your encoding software. Plus, there are apps that can re-write the QuickTime header information without transcoding the file. Then that file shows up at the desired rate inside of the NLE. In the case of FCPX, the same potential audio issues can arise as described above if you go this route.

In an NLE like Premiere or Resolve, it’s possible to bring in 30-frame files into a 24-frame project. Then highlight these clips in the browser and modify the frame rate. Instant fix, right? Well, not so fast. While I use this in some cases myself, it comes with some caveats. Interpreting footage often results in mismatched clip linking when you are using the internal proxy workflow. The proxy and full-res files don’t sync up to each other. Likewise, in a roundtrip with Resolve, file relinking in Resolve will be incorrect. It may result in not being able to relink these files at all, because the timecode that Resolve looks for falls outside of the boundaries of the file. So use this function with caution.

Speed adjustments

There’s a rub when work with standard speed changes (not frame rate offsets). Many editors simply apply an arbitrary speed based on what looks right to them. Unfortunately this introduces issues like skipping frames. To perfectly apply slow or fast motion to a clip, you MUST stick to simple multiples of that rate, much like traditional film post. A 200% speed increase is a proper multiple. 150% is not. The former means you are playing every other frame from a clip for smooth action. The latter results in only one fourth of the frames being eliminated in playback, leaving you with some unevenness in the movement. 

Naturally there are times when you simply want the speed you picked, even if it’s something like 177%. That’s when you have to play with the interpolation options of your NLE. Typically these include frame duplication, frame blending, and optical flow. All will give you different looks. When it comes to optical flow, some NLEs handle this better than others. Optical flow “creates” new  in-between frames. In the best case it can truly look like a shot was captured at that native frame rate. However, the computation is tricky and may often lead to unwanted image artifacts.

If you use Resolve for a color correction roundtrip, changes in motion interpolation in Resolve are pointless, unless the final export of the timeline is from Resolve. If clips go back to your NLE for finishing, then it will be that software which determines the quality of motion effects. Twixtor is a plug-in that many editors use when they need even more refined control over motion effects.

Doing the math

Now that I’ve discussed interpreting footage and the ways to deal with standard speed changes, let’s look at how best to handle off-speed clips. The proper workflow in most NLEs is to import the footage at its native frame rate. Then, when you cut the clip into the sequence, alter the speed to the proper rate for frames to play one-to-one (no blended, duplicate, or skipped frames). Final Cut Pro X handles this in the best manner, because it provides an automatic speed adjustment command. This not only makes the correct speed change, but also takes care of any potential audio sample rate issues. With other NLEs, like Premiere Pro, you will have to work out the math manually. 

The easiest way to get a value that yields clean frames (one-to-one frame rate) is to simply divide the timeline frame rate by the clip frame rate. The answer is the percentage to apply to the clip’s speed in the timeline. Simple numbers yield the same math results as integer numbers. If you are in a 23.98 timeline and have 29.97 clips, then 24 divided by 30 equals .8 – i.e. 80% slow motion speed. A 59.94fps clip is 40%. A 25fps clip is 96%.

Going in the other direction, if you are editing in a 29.97 timeline and add a 23.98 clip, the NLE will normally add a pulldown cadence (duplicated frames). If you want this to be one-to-one, if will have to be sped up. But the calculation is the same. 30 divided by 24 results in a 125% speed adjustment. And so on.

Understanding the nuances of frame rates and following these simple guidelines will give you a better finished product. It’s the kind of polish that will make your videos stand out from those of your fellow editors.

© 2019 Oliver Peters

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Edit Collaboration and Best Practices

There are many workflows that involve collaboration, with multiple editors and designers working on the same large project or group of projects. Let me say up front that if you want the best possible collaborative experience with multiple editors, then work with Avid Media Composer. Full stop. I have worked both sides of the equation and without a doubt, Media Composer connected to Avid Unity/Isis/Nexis shared storage is simply not matched by Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, or any other editing software/storage/cloud combination. Everything else is a compromise, which is why feature film and TV series editorial teams continue to select Avid solutions as their first choice.

In spite of that, there are many reasons to use other editing tools. I work most of the time in Adobe Premiere Pro CC and freelance at a shop with nine edit workstations connected to shared storage. We work mainly in Adobe Creative Cloud applications and our projects involve a lot of collaboration. Some of these are corporate videos that are frequently edited and revised by different editors. Some are entertainment shows, cut by a small editorial team focused on those shows. For some projects, Premiere Pro is the perfect tool. For others, we have to develop strategies to adapt Premiere to our workflow.

With that in mind, the following are tips and best practices that I’ll share for what has worked best for us over the past three years, while working on large projects with a team of editors. Although it applies to our work with Premiere Pro, the same would generally be true if we were working with Apple Final Cut Pro X instead.

Organization. We organize all projects into a specific folder structure, using a Post Haste template. All media files, like camera footage, audio, graphic elements, etc. go into common folders. Editors know where to look to find things. When new camera footage comes in, files are organized as “dailies” into specific folders by date, camera, and camera card. Non-pro formats, like GoPro and DSLR footage will be batch-renamed to reflect the project, date, and camera card. The objective is to have unique file names for each and every media file.

Optimized, transcoded, or proxy media. Depending on the performance and amount of media, you may need to do some prep work before even starting the edit process. Premiere and FCPX work well with some media formats and not with others. NAS/SAN storage is particularly taxing, especially once you get to resolutions greater than HD. If you want the most fluid experience in a shared workflow, then you will likely need to transcode proxy files from within the application. The reason to stay inside of FCPX or Premiere Pro is so that frame size offsets are properly tracked. Once proxies have been transcoded, it’s a simple matter of toggling between the proxy media (best playback performance) and full-resolution media (best image quality).

On the other hand, if you’d rather stick to full-resolution, native media, then some formats will have to be transcoded into “optimized” media. For instance, GoPro 4K footage is terrible to edit with natively. It should always be transcoded to ProRes or DNxHD before editing, if you don’t want to go the proxy route. This can be done inside or outside of the application and is an easy task with DaVinci Resolve, EditReady, Adobe Media Encoder, or Apple Compressor.

Finally, if you have image sequences from a drone or other source, forget trying to edit from these off of a network. Transcode them right away into some format of master movie file. I find Resolve to be the best tool for this. It’s fast and since these are often camera raw files, you can apply a base grade to them as a starting point for future color correction.

Break up your projects. Depending on the type and size of the job and number of editors working on it, you may choose to work in multiple Premiere projects. There may be a master file where all media is imported and initially organized. Then there may be multiple projects that are offshoots from this for component parts. In a corporate environment, it could be several different videos cut from a single, larger set of media. In a feature film, there could be different Premiere projects for each reel of the film.

Since Premiere Pro employs project locking, any project opened by one editor can also be opened in a read-only mode by other editors. Editors can have multiple Premiere projects open at one time. Thus, it’s simple to bring in elements from one project into another, even while they are all open. This workflow mimics Avid’s bin-locking strategy.

It helps to keep project files streamlined as progress on the production extends over time. You want to keep the number of sequences in any given project small. Periodically duplicate your project(s), strip out old sequences from the current project, and archive the older project files.

As a general note, while working to build the creative story edits – i.e. “offline editing” – you will want to keep plug-in filter effects to a minimum. In fact, it’s generally a good idea to keep the plug-in selection on each system small, so that all workstations in this shared environment are able to have the same set of installed plug-ins. The same is true of fonts.

Finishing stages of post. There are generally two paths in the finishing, aka “online editing” stage. Either all final color correction and assembly of effects is completed within Premiere Pro, or there is a roundtrip through a color correction application, like Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. The same holds true for audio, where a separate sound editor/designer/mixer may handle the finishing touches in Avid Pro Tools.

To accomplish an easy roundtrip with Resolve, create a sequence with all color correction and effects removed. Flatten the video to a single track (if possible), and remove the audio or do a simple stereo mixdown for reference. Ideally, media with mixed frame rates should be addressed as slow motion in the edited sequence. Avoid modifying the frame rate through any sort of “interpret” function within the application. Export an XML or AAF and send that and the associated media to Resolve. When color correction is complete, you can render the entire timeline at the sequence resolution as a single master file.

Conversely, if you want to send it back to Premiere Pro for final assembly and to complete the roundtrip, then render individual clips at their source resolution with handles of one to two seconds. Back in Premiere, re-apply titles, insert completed visual effects, and add any missing plug-in effects.

With audio post, there will be no roundtrip of elements, since the mixer will deliver a completed mixed stereo or surround track. This should be imported into Premiere (or Resolve if the final master is created in Resolve) and married back to the final video sequence. The mixer should also supply “stems” – the individual dialogue, music, and sound effects (D/M/E) submix tracks.

Mastering. Final sequences should be exported in a master file format (ProRes, DNxHD/HR, uncompressed) in at least two forms: 1) master with final mix and titles, and 2) textless submaster with split-track audio (multiple channels containing the D/M/E stems). All of these files are stored within the same job-based folder structure outlined at the top. It is quite common that future revisions will be made using the textless submaster rather than re-opening the full project, or that it may be used as source material in another edit.

Another aspect of finishing the project is media consolidation. This means taking the final sequence and generating a new project file from it. That file contained only those elements from the sequence, along with a copy of the media used, where each file has been trimmed to the portion within the sequence (plus handles). This is the Project Manager function in Premiere Pro. Unfortunately, Premiere is not consistently good at this task. Some formats will be properly trimmed, while others will be copied in their entirety. That’s OK for a :10 take, but a bummer when it’s a 30-minute interview.

The good news is that if you went through the Resolve roundtrip workflow and rendered individual clips, then effectively Resolve has already done media consolidation as a byproduct. In addition, if your source media is 4K, but you only finished in HD, the Resolve renders will be 4K. If in the future, you need to deliver the same master in 4K, everything is already set. Of course, that assumes that you didn’t do a lot of “punching in” and reframing in your edit sequence.

Cloud-based services. Often collaboration requires a distributed team, when not everyone is under one roof. While Adobe does offer cloud-based team editing methods, this doesn’t really work when editors are on different Creative Cloud accounts or when the collaboration is between an editor and a graphic designer/animator/VFX artist working in non-Adobe tools. In that case the old standbys have been Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive. Syncing is easy and relatively reliable. However, these are really just designed for sharing assets. But when this involves a couple of editors and each has a local, mirrored set of media, then simple sharing/syncing of only small project files makes for a working collaborative method.

Frame.io is the newbie here, with updated extension tools designed for in-application workspace panels within Final Cut Pro X, After Effects, and Premiere Pro. While they tout the ease of moving full-resolution media into their cloud, including camera files, I really wouldn’t recommend doing that. It’s simply not very practical on must projects. But for sharing cuts using a standard review-and-approach workflow, Frame.io definitely hits most of the buttons.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Editing and Music Composition

Editing and Music Composition

A nip is in the air and snow is falling in some regions. All signs of Fall and Winter soon to come. The sights, smells, and sounds of the season will be all around us. Festive events. Holiday celebrations. Joy. But no other season is so associated with memorable music to put us in the mood. That makes this a perfect time to talk about how video and film editing has intrinsic similarities with musical composition.

Fellow editor Simon Ubsdell has a lot of thoughts on the subject – perfect for one of my rare guest blog posts. Simon is Creative Director of Tokyo Productions, a London-based post-production shop specializing in trailers. Simon is multi-talented with experience in music, audio post, editing, and software development.

Grab a cup of holiday cheer and sit back for this enlightening read.

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Simon Ubsdell – Editing and Music Composition

There is a quote attributed to several different musicians, including Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk, which goes: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture“. It sounds good and it seems superficially plausible, but I think it’s wrong on two levels. Firstly, a good choreographer would probably say that it’s perfectly possible to use dance to say something interesting about architecture and a good architect might well say that they could design a building that said something about dance. But I think it’s also unhelpful to imply that one art form can’t tell us useful things about another. We can learn invaluable lessons both from the similarities and the differences, particularly if we focus on process rather than the end result.

Instead, here’s Ingmar Bergman: “I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.

Bergman is certainly not the only filmmaker to have made this observation and I think everyone can recognise the essential truth of it. However, what I want to consider here is not so much what film and music have in common as art forms, but rather whether the process of music composition can teach us anything useful about the process of film editing. As an editor who also composes music, I have found thinking about this to be useful in both directions.

In films you’ll often see a composer sitting down at a piano and laboriously writing a score one note after another. He bangs around until he finds one note and then he scribbles it into the manuscript; then he bangs around looking for the next one. Music composition is made to look like a sequential process where each individual note is decided upon (with some difficulty usually!) before moving on to the next. The reality is of course that music composition doesn’t work this way at all. So I’d like to look at some of the ways that one does actually go about writing a piece of music and how the same principles might apply to how we edit films. Because music is such a vast subject, I’m going to limit myself largely to the concepts of classical music composition, but the same overall ideas apply to whatever kind of music you might be writing in whatever genre.

What both music and film have in common is that they unfold over time: they are experienced sequentially. So the biggest question that both the composer and the editor need to address is how to organise the material across time, and to do that we need to think about structure.

Musical Structure

From the Baroque period onwards and even before, composers have drawn on a very specific set of musical structures around which to build their compositions. 

The Canon (as in Pachelbel’s famous example) is the repetition of the same theme over and over again with added ornamentation that becomes increasingly more elaborate. The Minuet and Trio is an A/B/A sandwich in which a theme is repeated (Minuet), but with a contrasting middle section (Trio). The Rondo is a repeated theme that alternates with multiple contrasting sections, in other words A/B/A/C/A/D, etc. The Theme and Variations sets out a basic theme and follows it with a series of elaborations in different keys, tempi, time signatures, and so on. 

Sonata Form, widely used for the opening movements of most symphonic works, is a much more sophisticated scheme, that starts by setting out two contrasting themes (the “1st and 2nd Subjects”) in two different keys (the “Exposition”), before moving into an extended section where those ideas undergo numerous changes and augmentations and key modulations (the “Development Section”), before returning to the original themes, both now in the home key of the piece (the “Recapitulation Section”), often leading to a final epilogue called the “Coda”. 

In all these cases the structure is built out of thematic and other contrasts, and contrast is a word I’m going to be coming back to repeatedly here, because it goes to the core of where music composition and editing come together.

Now the point of using musical structures of this kind is that the listener can form an idea of how the piece is unfolding even when hearing it for the first time. They provide a map that helps you orientate yourself within the music, so it doesn’t come across as just some kind of confused and arbitrary ramble across terrain that’s hard to read. Music that doesn’t come with signposts is not easy to listen to with concentration, precisely because you don’t know where you are. (Of course, the humble pop song illustrates this, too. We can all recognise where the verse ends and the chorus begins and the chorus repetitions give us clear anchor points that help us understand the structure. The difference with the kind of classical music I’m talking about is that a pop song doesn’t have to sustain itself for more than a few minutes, whereas some symphonies last well over an hour and that means structure becomes vastly more important.) 

What structure does is effectively twofold: on the one hand it gives us a sense of comprehensibility, predictability, even familiarity; and on the other hand it allows the composer to surprise us by diverging from what is expected. The second part obviously follows from the first. If we don’t know where we are, then we don’t know what to expect and everything is a constant surprise. And that means nothing is a surprise. We need familiarity and comprehensibility in order to be able to be surprised by the surprises when they come. Conversely, music that is wholly without surprises gets dull very quickly. Just as quickly as music that is all surprise, because again it offers us no anchor points. 

Editing Structure

So what comparisons can we draw with editing in terms of structure? Just as with our fictional movie “composer” sitting at the piano picking out one note after another, so you’ll find that many newcomers to editing believe that that’s how you put together a film. Starting at the beginning, you take your first shot and lay it down, and then you go looking for your next shot and you add that, and then the next one and the next one. Of course, you can build a film this way, but what you are likely to end up with is a shapeless ramble rather than something that’s going to hold the viewer’s attention. It will be the equivalent of a piece of music that has no structural markers and doesn’t give us the clues we need to understand where we are and where we are going. Without those cues the viewer quickly gets lost and we lose concentration. Not understanding the structure means we can’t fully engage with the film.

So how do we go about creating structure in our editing? Music has an inherently much more formal character, so in many ways the composer has an easier job, but I’d suggest that many of the same principles apply.

Light and Shade in Music

Music has so many easy to use options to help define structure. We have tempo – how fast or slow the music is at any one point. Rhythm – the manner in which accented notes are grouped with non-accented notes. Pitch – how high or low the musical sounds are. Dynamics – how loud or soft the music is, and how soft becomes loud and vice versa. Key – how far we have moved harmonically from the dominant key of the piece. Mode – whether we are experiencing the bright optimism of a major key or the sombre darkness of a minor key (yes, that’s a huge over-simplification!). Harmony – whether we are moving from the tension of dissonance to the resolution of consonance, or vice versa.

All of these options allow for contrasts – faster/slower, brighter/darker, etc. It’s out of those contrasts that we can build structure. For example, we can set out our theme in a bright, shiny major key with a sprightly rhythm and tempo, and then move into a slow minor key variation shrouded in mystery and suspense. It’s from those contrasts that we grasp the musical structure. And of course moving through those contrasts becomes a journey. We’re not fixed in one place, but instead we’re moving from light to dark, from peaceful to agitated, from tension to resolution, and so on. Music satisfies and nourishes and delights and surprises us, because it takes us on those journeys and because it is structured so that we experience change.

Light and Shade in Editing

So what are the editing equivalents? Let’s start with the easiest scenario and that’s where we are cutting with music. Because music has the properties we’ve discussed above, we can leverage those to give our films the same contrasts. We can change the pace and the mood simply by changing the pace and mood of the music we use. That’s easy and obvious, but very often overlooked. Far too many music-driven pieces are remorselessly monotonous, relying far too heavily for far too long on music of the same pace and mood. That very quickly dissipates the viewer’s engagement for the reasons we have talked about. Instead of feeling as though we are going on a journey of contrasts, we are stuck in one repetitive loop and it’s dull – and that means we stop caring and listening and watching. Instead of underscoring where the film is going, it effectively tells us that the film is going nowhere, except in circles.

(Editing Tip: So here’s a suggestion: if you’re cutting with pre-composed music, don’t let that music dictate the shape of your film. Instead cut the music so it works for you. Make sure you have changes of pace and intensity, changes of key and mode, that work to enhance the moments that are important for your film. Kill the music, or change it, or cut it so that it’s driving towards the moments that really matter. Master it and don’t let it master you. Far too often we see music that steamrolls through everything, obliterating meaning, flattening out the message – music that fails to point up what’s important and de-emphasise what is not. Be in control of your structure and don’t let anything dictate what you are doing, unless it’s the fundamental meaning you are trying to convey.

Footnote: Obviously what I’ve said here about music applies to the soundtrack generally. Sound is one of the strongest structural markers we have as editors. It builds tension and relaxation, it tells us where moments begin and end, it guides us through the shape of the film in a way that’s even more important than the pictures.)

And that brings me to a really important general point. Too many films feel like they are going in circles, because they haven’t given enough thought to when and how the narrative information is delivered. So many film-makers think it’s important to tell us everything as quickly as possible right up front.They’re desperate to make sure they’ve got their message across right here right now in its entirety. And then they simply end up recycling stuff we already know and that we care about less and less with each repetition. It’s a bit like a composer piling all his themes and all their variations into the first few bars (a total, unapproachable cacophony) and then being left with nothing new to say for the rest of the piece.

A far better approach is to break your narrative down into a series of key revelations and delay each one as long as you dare. Narrative revelations are your key structural points and you must cherish them and nurture them and give them all the love you can and they will repay you with enhanced audience engagement. Whatever you do, don’t throw them away unthinkingly and too soon. Every narrative revelation marks a way station on the viewer’s journey, and those way stations are every bit as crucial and valuable as their musical equivalents. They are the map of the journey. They are why we care. They are the hooks that make us re-engage.

Tension and Relaxation

This point about re-engagement is important too and its brings me back to music. Music that is non-stop tension is exhausting to listen to, just as music that is non-stop relaxation quickly becomes dull. As we’ve discussed, good music moves between tension and relaxation the whole time at both the small and the large scale, and that alternation creates and underpins structure. We feel the relaxation, because it has been preceded by tension and vice versa.

And the exact same principle applies to editing. We want the viewer to experience alternating tension and relaxation, moments of calm and moments of frenzied activity, moments where we are absorbing lots of information and moments where we have time to digest it. (Remember, Bergman talking about “inhalation and exhalation”.) Tension/relaxation applies at every level of editing, from the micro-level of the individual cuts to the macro level of whole scenes and whole sequences. 

As viewers we understand very well that a sudden burst of drama after a period of quiet is going to be all the more striking and effective. Conversely we know about the effect of getting our breath back in the calms that come after narrative storms. That’s at the level of sequences, but even within scenes, we know that they work best when the mood and pace are not constant, when they have corners and changes of pace, and their own moments of tension and relaxation. Again it’s those changes that keep us engaged. Constant tension and its opposite, constant relaxation, have the opposite effect. They quickly end up alienating us. The fact is we watch films, because we want to experience that varied journey – those changes between tension and relaxation.

Even at the level of the cut, this same principle applies. I was recently asked by a fellow editor to comment on a flashy piece of cutting that was relentlessly fast, with no shot even as long as half a second. Despite the fact that the piece was only a couple of minutes long, it felt monotonous very quickly – I’d say after barely 20 seconds. Whereas of course, if there had been even just a few well-judged changes of pace, each one of those would have hooked me back in and re-engaged my attention. It’s not about variety for variety’s sake, it’s about variety for structure’s sake.

The French have an expression: “reculer pour mieux sauter“, which roughly means taking a step back so you can jump further, and I think that’s a good analogy for this process. Slower shots in the context of a sequence of faster shots act like “springs”. When faster shots hit slower shots, it’s as if they apply tension to the spring, so that when the spring is released the next sequence of faster shots feels faster and more exciting. It’s the manipulation of that tension of alternating pace that creates exciting visceral cutting, not just relentlessly fast cutting in its own right.

Many great editors build tension by progressively increasing the pace of the cutting, with each shot getting incrementally shorter than the last. We may not be aware of that directly as viewers, but we definitely sense the “accelerated heartbeat” effect. The obvious point to make is that acceleration depends on having started slow, and deceleration depends on having increased the pace. Editing effects are built out of contrasts. It’s the contrasts that create the push/pull effect on the viewer and bring about engagement.

(Editing Tip: It’s not strictly relevant to this piece, but I wanted to say a few words on the subject of cutting to music. Many editors seem to think it’s good practice to cut on the downbeats of the music track and that’s about as far as they ever get. Let’s look at why this strategy is flawed. If our music track has a typical four beats to the bar, the four beats have the following strengths: the first, the downbeat, is the dominant beat; the third beat (often the beat where the snare hits) is the second strongest beat; then the fourth beat (the upbeat); and finally the second beat, the weakest of the four.

Cutting on the downbeat creates a pull of inertia, because of its weight. If you’re only ever cutting on that beat, then you’re actually creating a drag on the flow of your edit. If you cut on the downbeat and the third beat, you create a kind of stodgy marching rhythm that’s also lacking in fluid forward movement. Cutting on the upbeat, however, because it’s an “offbeat”, actually helps to propel you forward towards the downbeat. What you’re effectively doing is setting up a kind of cross-rhythm between our pictures and your music, and that has a really strong energy and flow. But again the trick is to employ variety and contrast. Imagine a drummer playing the exact same pattern in each bar: that would get monotonous very quickly, so what the drummer actually does is to throw in disruptions to the pattern that build the forward energy. He will, for example, de-emphasise the downbeat by exaggerating the snare, or he will even shift where the downbeat happens, and add accents that destabilise the four-square underlying structure. And all that adds to the energy and the sense of forward movement. And that’s the exact principle we should be aiming for when cutting to music.

There’s one other crucial, but often overlooked, aspect to this: making your cut happen on a beat is far less effective than making a specific moment in the action happen on a beat. That creates a much stronger sense of forward-directed energy and a much more satisfying effect of synchronisation overall. But that’s not to say you should only ever cut this way. Again variety is everything, but always with a view to what is going to work best to propel the sequence forward, rather than let it get dragged back. Unless, of course, dragging back on the forward motion is exactly what you want for a particular moment in your film, in which case, that’s the way to go.)

Building Blocks

You will remember that our fictional composer sits down at the piano and picks out his composition note by note. The implicit assumption there is that individual notes are the building blocks of a piece of music. But that’s not how composers work. The very smallest building block for a composer is the motif – a set of notes that exists as a tiny seed out of which much larger musical ideas are encouraged to grow. The operas of Wagner, despite notoriously being many hours long, are built entirely out of short motifs that grow through musical development to truly massive proportions. You might be tempted to think that a motif is the same thing as a riff, but riffs are merely repetitive patterns, whereas motifs contain within them the DNA for vast organic structures and the motifs themselves can typically grow other motifs.

Wagner is, of course, more of a exception than a rule and other composers work with building blocks on a larger scale than the simple motif. The smallest unit is typically something we call a phrase, which might be several bars long. And then again one would seldom think of a phrase in isolation, since it only really exists as part of larger thematic whole. If we look at this famous opening to Mozart’s 40th Symphony we can see that he starts with a two bar phrase that rises on the last note, that is answered by a phrase that descends back down from that note. The first phrase is then revisited along with its answering phrase – both shifted one step lower. 

But that resulting eight bars is only half of the complete theme, while the complete 1st Subject is 42 two bars long. So what is Mozart’s basic building block here? It most certainly isn’t a note, or even a phrase. In this case it’s something much more like a combination of a rhythm pattern (da-da-Da) and a note pattern (a falling interval of two adjacent notes). But built into that is a clear sense of how those patterns are able to evolve to create the theme. In other words, it’s complicated.

The fundamental point is that notes on their own are nothing; they are inert; they have no meaning. It’s only when they form sequences that they start to become music.

The reason I wanted to highlight this point is that I think it too gives us a useful insight into the editing process. The layperson tends to think of the single shot as being the basic building block, but just as single notes on their own are inert, so the single shot on its own (typically, unless it’s an elaborate developing shot) is lacking in meaning. It’s when we build shots into sequences that they start to take on life. It’s the dynamic, dialectical interplay of shots that creates shape and meaning and audience engagement. And that means it’s much more helpful to think of shot sequences as the basic building blocks. It’s as sequences that shots acquire the potential to create structure. Shots on their own do not have that quality. So it pays to have an editing strategy that is geared towards the creation and concatenation of “sequence modules”, rather than simply a sifting of individual shots. That’s a huge subject that I won’t go into in any more detail here, but which I’ve written about elsewhere.

Horizontal and Vertical Composition

Although the balance keeps shifting down the ages, music is both horizontal and vertical and exists in a tension between those aspects. Melody is horizontal – a string of notes that flows left to right across the page. Harmony is vertical – a set of notes that coexist in time. But these two concepts are not in complete opposition. Counterpoint is what happens when two or more melodies combine vertically to create harmony. The fugue is one of the most advanced expressions of that concept, but there are many others. It’s a truly fascinating, unresolved question that runs throughout the history of music, with harmony sometimes in the ascendant and sometimes melody.

Melody typically has its own structure, most frequently seen in terms of groups of four bars, or multiples of four bars. It tends to have shapes that we instinctively understand even when hearing it for the first time. Harmony, too, has a temporal structure, even though we more typically think of it as static and vertical. Vertical harmonies tend to suggest a horizontal direction of travel, again based on the notion of tension and relaxation, with dissonance resolving towards consonance. Harmonies typically point to where they are planning to go, although of course, just as with melody, the reason they appeal to us so much is that they can lead us to anticipate one thing and then deliver a surprise twist.

In editing we mostly consider only melody, in other words, how one shot flows into another. But there is also a vertical, harmonic component. It’s only occasionally that we layer our pictures to combine them vertically (see footnote). But we do it almost all the time with sound – layering sound components to add richness and complexity. I suppose one way of looking at this would be to think of pictures as the horizontal melody and the soundtrack as the vertical harmony, or counterpoint.

One obvious way in which we can approach this is to vary the vertical depth to increase and decrease tension. A sound texture that is uniformly dense quickly becomes tiresome. But if we think in terms of alternating moments where the sound is thickly layered and moments where it thins out, then we can again increase and decrease tension and relaxation.

(Footnote: One famous example of vertical picture layering comes in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen is reading Kurz’ letter while the boat drives upstream towards the waiting horror. Coppola layers up gliding images of the boat’s passage in dissolves that are so long they are more like superimpositions – conveying the sense of the hypnotic, awful, disorientating journey into the unknowable. But again contrast is the key here, because punctuating that vertical layering, Coppola interjects sharp cuts that hit us full in the face: suspended corpses, the burning helicopter in the branches of a tree. The key thing to notice is the counterpoint between the hard cuts and the flowing dissolves/superimpositions. The dissolves lull us into an eery fugue-like state, while the cuts repeatedly jolt us out of it to bring us face to face with the horror. The point is that they both work together to draw us inexorably towards the climax. The cuts work, because of the dissolves, and the dissolves work because of the cuts.)

Moments

The moments that we remember in both music and films are those points where something changes suddenly and dramatically. They are the magical effects that take your breath away. There is an incredibly famous cut in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia that is a perfect case in point. Claude Rains (Mr. Dryden) and Peter O’Toole (Lawrence) have been having a lively discussion about whether Lawrence really understands how brutal and unforgiving the desert is going to be. O’Toole insists that “it’s going to be fun”. He holds up a lighted match, and we cut to a close-up as he blows it out. On the sound of him blowing, we cut to an almost unimaginably wide shot of the desert as the sun rises almost imperceptibly slowly in what feels like complete silence. The sudden contrast of the shot size, the sudden absence of sound, the abruptness of cutting on the audio of blowing out the match – all of these make this one of the most memorable moments in film history. And of course, it’s a big narrative moment too. It’s not just clever, it has meaning. 

Or take another famous moment, this time from music. Beethoven’s massive Choral Symphony, the Ninth, is best known for its famous final movement, the Ode to Joy, based on Schiller’s poem of the same name. The finale follows on from a slow movement of celestial tranquillity and beauty, but it doesn’t launch immediately into the music that everyone knows so well. Instead there is a sequence built on the most incredible dissonance, which Wagner referred to as “the terror fanfare”. Beethoven has the massed ranks of the orchestra blast out a phenomenally powerful fortissimo chord that stacks up all seven notes of the D minor harmonic scale. It’s as if we are hearing the foul demons of hatred and division being sent screeching back to the depths of hell. And as the echoes of that terrifying sound are still dying away, we suddenly hear the solo baritone, the first time in nearly an hour of music that we have heard a human voice: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne“, “Friends, let us not hear these sounds”. And so begins that unforgettable ode to the brotherhood of all mankind.

The point about both the Lawrence of Arabia moment and the Beethoven moment is that in each case, they form giant pivots upon which the whole work turns. The Lawrence moment shows us one crazy Englishman pitting himself against the limitless desert. The Beethoven moment gives us one lone voice stilling the forces of darkness and calling out for something better, something to unite us all. These are not mere stylistic tricks, they are fundamental structural moments that demand our attention and engage us with what each work is really about.

I’m not suggesting that everything we cut is going to have moments on this kind of epic scale, but the principle is one we can always benefit from thinking about and building into our work. When we’re planning our edit, it pays to ask ourselves where we are going to make these big turning points and what we can do with all the means at our disposal to make them memorable and attention-engaging. Our best, most important stuff needs to be reserved for these pivotal moments and we need to do everything we can to do it justice. And the best way of doing that, as Beethoven and David Lean both show us, is to make everything stop.

When the Music Stops

Arguably the greatest composer ever has one of my favourite ever quotes about music: “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Mozart saw that the most magical and profound moments in music are when the music stops. The absence of music is what makes music. To me that is one of the most profound insights in art.

From an editing point of view, that works, too. We need to understand the importance of not cutting, of not having sound, of not filling every gap, of creating breaths and pauses and beats, of not rushing onto the next thing, of allowing moments to resonate into nothingness, of stepping away and letting a moment simply be.

The temptation in editing is always to fill every moment with something. It’s a temptation we need to resist wherever we can. Our films will be infinitely better for it. Because it’s in those moments that the magic happens.

Composing and Editing with Structure

I hope by now you’ll agree with me about the fundamental importance of structure in editing. So let’s come back to our original image of the composer hammering out his piece of music note by note, and our novice editor laying out his film shot by shot.

It should be obvious that a composer needs to pre-visualise the structure of the piece before starting to think about the individual notes. At every level of the structure he needs to have thought about where the structural changes might happen – both on a large and small scale. He needs to plan the work in outline: where the key changes are going to happen, where the tempo shifts from fast to slow or slow to fast, where the tension escalates and where it subsides, where the whole orchestra is playing as one and where we hear just one solitary solo line. 

It goes without saying that very few composers have ever plotted out an entire work in detail and then stuck rigidly to the plan. But that’s not the point. The plan is just a plan until a better one comes along. The joy of composition is that it throws up its own unexpected surprises, ideas that grow organically out of other ideas and mushroom into something bigger, better and more complex than the composer could envisage when starting out. But those ideas don’t just shoot off at random. They train themselves around the trelliswork of the original structure. 

As I’ve mentioned, classical composers have it easy, because they can build upon pre-conceived structures like Sonata Form and the rest.  As editors we don’t have access to the same wealth of ready-built conventions, but we do have a few. 

One of the structures that we very frequently call upon is the famous three-act structure. It works not only for narrative, but for pretty much any kind of film you can think of. The three-act structure does in fact have a lot in common with Sonata Form. Act One is the Exposition, where we set out the themes to be addressed. Act Two is the Development Section, where the themes start to get complicated and we unravel the problems and questions that they pose. And Act Three is the Recapitulation (and Coda), where we finally resolve the themes set out in Act One. Almost anything you cut at whatever length can benefit from being thought of in these structural terms: a) set out your theme or themes; b) develop your themes and explore their complexities; c) resolve your themes (or at least point to ways in which they might be resolved). And make sure your audience is aware of how those sections break down. As an editor who has spent a lot of my working life cutting movie trailers, I know that every experienced trailer editor deploys three-act structure pretty much all the time and works it very hard indeed.

 Of course, scripted drama comes into the cutting room with its own prebuilt structure, but the script is by no means necessarily the structural blueprint for the finished film. Thinking about how to structure what was actually shot (as against what was on the page) is still vitally important. The originally conceived architecture might well not actually function as it was planned, so we can’t simply rely on that to deliver a film that will engage as it should. The principles that we’ve discussed of large scale composition, of pace, of contrast, of rhythm, and so on are all going to be useful in building a structure that works for the finished film.

Other kinds of filmmaking rely heavily on structural planning in the cutting room and a huge amount of work can go into building the base architecture. And it really helps if we think of that structural planning as more than simply shifting inert blocks into a functional whole. If we take inspiration from the musical concepts described here, we can create films that breathe a far more dynamic structural rhythm, that become journeys through darkness and light, through tension and relaxation, between calm and storm, journeys that engage and inspire.

Conclusion

Obviously this is just an overview of what is in reality a huge subject, but what I want to stress is that it really pays to be open to thinking about the processes of editing from different perspectives. Music, as a time-based art form, has so many useful lessons to draw from, both in terms of large scale architecture and small scale rhythms, dynamics, colours, and more. And those lessons can help us to make much more precise, refined and considered decisions about editing practice, whatever we are cutting.

– Simon Ubsdell

For more of Simon’s thoughts on editing, check out his blog post Bricklayers and Sculptors.

© 2018 Simon Ubsdell, Oliver Peters

Viva Las Vegas – NAB 2018

As more and more folks get all of their information through internet sources, the running question is whether or not trade shows still have value. A show like the annual NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show in Las Vegas is both fun and grueling, typified by sensory overload and folks in business attire with sneakers. Although some announcements are made before the exhibits officially open – and nearly all are pretty widely known before the week ends – there still is nothing quite like being there in person.

For some, other shows have taken the place of NAB. The annual HPA Tech Retreat in the Palm Springs area is a gathering of technical specialists, researchers, and creatives that many consider the TED Talks for our industry. For others, the Cine Gear Expo in LA is the prime showcase for grip, lighting, and camera offerings. RED Camera has focused on Cine Gear instead of NAB for the last couple of years. And then, of course, there’s IBC in Amsterdam – the more humane version of NAB in a more pleasant setting. But for me, NAB is still the main event.

First of all, the NAB Show isn’t merely about the exhibit floor at the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center. Actual NAB members can attend various sessions and workshops related to broadcasting and regulations. There are countless sidebar events specific to various parts of the industry. For editors that includes Avid Connect – a two-day series of Avid presentations in the weekend leading into NAB; Post Production World – a series of workshops, training sessions, and presentations managed by Future Media Concepts; as well as a number of keynote presentations and artist gatherings, including SuperMeet, FCPexchange, and the FCPX Guru Gathering. These are places where you’ll rub shoulders with some well-known editors, colorists, artists, and mixers, learn about new technologies like HDR (high dynamic range imagery), and occasionally see some new product features from vendors who might not officially be on the show floor with a booth, like Apple.

One of the biggest benefits I find in going to NAB is simply walking the floor, checking out the companies and products who might not get a lot of attention. These newcomers often have the most innovative technologies and it’s these new things that you find, which were never on the radar prior to that week.

The second benefit is connection. I meet up again in person with friends that I’ve made over the years – both other users, as well as vendors. Often it’s a chance to meet people that you might only know through the internet (forums, blogs, etc.) and to get to know them just a bit better. A bit more of that might make the internet more friendly, too!

Here are some of my random thoughts and observations from Las Vegas.

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Editing hardware and software – four As and a B

Apple uncharacteristically pre-announced their new features just prior to the show, culminating with App Store availability on Monday when the NAB exhibits opened. This includes new Final Cut Pro X/Motion/Compressor updates and the official number of 2.5 million FCPX users. That’s a growth of 500,000 users in 2017, the biggest year to date for Final Cut. The key new feature in FCPX is a captioning function to author, edit, and export both closed and embedded (open) captions. There aren’t many great solutions for captioning and the best to date have been expensive. I found that the Apple approach was now the best and easiest to use that I’ve seen. It’s well-designed and should save time and money for those who need to create captions for their productions – even if you are using another brand of NLE. Best of all, if you own FCPX, you already have that feature. When you don’t have a script to start out, then manual or automatic transcription is required as a starting point. There is now a tie-in between Speedscriber (also updated this week) and FCPX that will expedite the speech-to-text function.

The second part of Apple’s announcement was the introduction of a new camera raw codec family – ProResRAW and ProResRAW HQ. These are acquisition codecs designed to record the raw sensor data from Bayer-pattern sensors (prior to debayering the signal into RGB information) and make that available in post, just like RED’s REDCODE RAW or CinemaDNG. Since this is an acquisition codec and NOT a post or intermediate codec, it requires a partnership on the production side of the equation. Initially this includes Atomos and DJI. Atomos supplies an external recorder, which can record the raw output from various cameras that offer the ability to record raw data externally. This currently includes their Shogun Inferno and Sumo 19 models. As this is camera-specific, Atomos must then create the correct profile by camera to remap that sensor data into ProResRAW. At the show, this included several Canon, Sony, and Panasonic cameras. DJI does this in-camera on the Inspire 2.

The advantage with FCPX, is that ProResRAW is optimized for post, thus allowing for more streams in real-time. ProResRAW data rates (variable) fall between that of ProRes and ProResHQ, while the less compressed ProResRAW HQ rates are between ProRes HQ and ProRes 4444. It’s very early with this new codec, so additional camera and post vendors will likely add ProResRAW support over the coming year. It is currently unknown whether or not any other NLEs can support ProResRAW decode and playback yet.

As always, the Avid booth was quite crowded and, from what I heard, Avid Connect was well attended with enthused Avid users. The Avid offerings are quite broad and hard to encapsulate into any single blog post. Most, these days, are very enterprise-centric. But this year, with a new CEO at the helm, Avid’s creative tools have been reorganized into three strata – First, standard, and Ultimate. This applies to Sibelius, Pro Tools, and Media Composer. In the case of Media Composer, there’s Media Composer | First – a fully functioning free version, with minimal restrictions; Media Composer; and Media Composer | Ultimate – includes all options, such as PhraseFind, ScriptSync, NewsCutter, and Symphony. The big difference is that project sharing has been decoupled from Media Composer. This means that if you get the “standard” version (just named Media Composer) it will not be enabled for collaboration on a shared storage network. That will require Media Composer | Ultimate. So Media Composer (standard) is designed for the individual editor. There is also a new subscription pricing structure, which places Media Composer at about the same annual cost as Adobe Premiere Pro CC (single app license). The push is clearly towards subscription, however, you can still purchase and/or maintain support for perpetual licenses, but it’s a little harder to find that info on Avid’s store website.

Though not as big news, Avid is also launching the Avid DNxID capture/export unit. It is custom-designed by Blackmagic Design for Avid and uses a small form factor. It was created for file-base acquisition, supports 4K, and includes embedded DNx codecs for onboard encoding. Connections are via component analog, HDMI, as well as an SD card slot.

The traffic around Adobe’s booth was thick the entire week. The booth featured interesting demos that were front and center in the middle of one of the South Hall’s main thoroughfares, generally creating a bit of a bottleneck. The newest Creative Cloud updates had preceded the show, but were certainly new to anyone not already using the Adobe apps. Big news for Premiere Pro users was the addition of automatic ducking that was brought over from Audition, and a new shot matching function within the Lumetri color panel. Both are examples of Adobe’s use of their Sensei AI technology. Not to be left out, Audition can now also directly open sequences from Premiere Pro. Character Animator had been in beta form, but is now a full-fledged CC product. And for puppet control Adobe also introduced the Advanced Puppet Engine for After Effects. This is a deformation tool to better bend, twist, and control elements.

Of course when it comes to NLEs, the biggest buzz has been over Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve 15. The company has an extensive track record of buying up older products whose companies weren’t doing so well, reinvigorating the design, reducing the cost, and breathing new life into them – often to a new, wider customer base. This is no more evident than Resolve, which has now grown from a leading color correction system to a powerful, all-in-one edit/mix/effects/color solution. We had previously seen the integration of the Fairlight audio mixing engine. This year Fusion visual effects were added. As before, each one of these disparate tools appears on its own page with a specific UI optimized for that task.

A number of folks have quipped that someone had finally resurrected Avid DS. Although all-in-ones like DS and Smoke haven’t been hugely successful in the past, Resolve’s price point is considerably more attractive. The Fusion integration means that you now have a subset of Fusion running inside of Resolve. This is a node-based compositor, which makes it easy for a Resolve user to understand, since it, too, already uses nodes in the color page. At least for now, Blackmagic Design intends to also maintain a standalone version of Fusion, which will offer more functions for visual effects compositing. Resolve also gained new editorial features, including tabbed sequences, a pancake timeline view, captioning, and improvements in the Fairlight audio page.

Other Blackmagic Design news includes updates to their various mini-converters, updates to the Cintel Scanner, and the announcement of a 4K Pocket Cinema Camera (due in September). They have also redesigned and modularized the Fairlight console mixing panels. These are now more cost-effective to manufacture and can be combined in various configurations.

This was the year for a number of milestone anniversaries, such as the 100th for Panasonic and the 25th for AJA. There were a lot of new product announcements at the AJA booth, but a big one was the push for more OpenGear-compatible cards. OpenGear is an open source hardware rack standard that was developed by Ross and embraced by many manufacturers. You can purchase any OpenGear version of a manufacturer’s product and then mix and match a variety of OpenGear cards into any OpenGear rack enclosure. AJA’s cards also offer Dashboard support, which is a software tool to configure and control the cards. There are new KONA SDI and HDMI cards, HDR support in the IO 4K Plus, and HDR capture and playback with the KiPro Ultra Plus.

HDR

It’s fair to say that we are all learning about HDR, but from what I observed on the floor, AJA is one of the only companies with a number of hardware product offerings that will allow you to handle HDR. This is thanks to their partnership with ColorFront, who is handling the color science in these products. This includes the FS | HDR – an up/down/cross, SDR/HDR synchronizer/converter. It also includes support for the Tangent Element Kb panel. The FS | HDR was a tech preview last year, but a product now. This year the tech preview product is the HDR Image Analyzer, which offers waveform and histogram monitoring at up to 4K/60fps.

Speaking of HDR (high dynamic range) and SDR (standard dynamic range), I had a chance to sit in on Robbie Carman’s (colorist at DC Color, Mixing Light) Post Production World HDR overview. Carman has graded numerous HDR projects and from his HDR presentation – coupled with exhibits on the floor – it’s quite clear that HDR is the wild, wild west right now. There is much confusion about color space and dynamic range, not to mention what current hardware is capable of versus the maximums expressed in the tech standards. For example, the BT 2020 spec doesn’t inherently mean that the image is HDR. Or the fact that you must be working in 4K to also have HDR and the set must accept the HDMI 2.0 standard.

High dynamic range grading absolutely requires HDR-compatible hardware, such as the proper i/o device and a display with the ability to receive metadata that turns on and sets its target HDR values. This means investing in a device like AJA’s IO 4K Plus or Blackmagic’s UltraStudio 4K Extreme 3. It also means purchasing a true grading monitor costing tens of thousands of dollars, like one from Sony, Canon, or Flanders. You CANNOT properly grade HDR based on the image of ANY computer display. So while the latest version of FCPX can handle HDR, and an iMac Pro screen features a high nits rating, you cannot rely on this screen to see proper HDR.

LG was a sponsor of the show and LG displays were visible in many of the exhibits. Many of their newest products qualify at the minimum HDR spec, but for the most part, the images shown on the floor were simply bright and not HDR – no matter what the sales reps in the booths were saying.

One interesting fact that Carman pointed out was that HDR displays cannot be driven across the full screen at the highest value. You cannot display a full screen of white at 1,000 nits on a 1,000 nits display without causing damage. Therefore, automatic gain adjustments are used in the set’s electronics to dim the screen. Only a smaller percentage of the image (20% maybe?) can be driven at full value before dimming occurs. Another point Carman made was that standard lift/gamma/gain controls may be too coarse to grade HDR images with finesse. His preference is to use Resolve’s log grading controls, because you can make more precise adjustments to highlight and shadow values.

Cameras

I’m not a camera guy, but there was notable camera news at the show. Many folks really like the Panasonic colorimetry for which the Varicam products are known. For people who want a full-featured camera in a small form factor, look no further than the Panasonics AU-EVA-1. It’s a 4K, Super35, handheld cinema camera featuring dual ISOs. Panasonic claims 14 stops of latitude. It will take EF lenses and can output camera raw data. When paired with an Atmos recorder it will be able to record ProResRAW.

Another new camera is Canon’s EOS C700 FF. This is a new full-frame model in both EF and PL lens mount versions. As with the standard C700, this is a 4K, Super35 cinema camera that records ProRes or X-AVC at up to 4K resolution onboard to CFast cards. The full-frame sensor offers higher resolution and a shallower depth of field.

Storage

Storage is of interest to many. As costs come down, collaboration is easier than ever. The direct-attached vendors, like G-Tech, LaCie, OWC, Promise, and others were all there with new products. So were the traditional shared storage vendors like Avid, Facilis, Tiger, 1 Beyond, and EditShare. But three of the newer companies had my interest.

In my editing day job, I work extensively with QNAP, which currently offers the best price/performance ratio of any system. It’s reliable, cost-effective, and provides reasonable JKL response cutting HD media with Premiere Pro in a shared editing installation. But it’s not the most responsive and it struggles with 4K media, in spite of plenty of bandwidth  – especially when the editors are all banging away. This has me looking at both Lumaforge and OpenDrives.

Lumaforge is known to many of the Final Cut Pro X editors, because the developers have optimized the system for FCPX and have had early successes with many key installations. Since then they have also pushed into more Premiere-based installations. Because these units are engineered for video-centric facilities, as opposed to data-centric, they promise a better shared storage, video editing experience.

Likewise, OpenDrives made its name as the provider for high-profile film and TV projects cut on Premiere Pro. Last year they came to the show with their highest performance, all-SSD systems. These units are pricey and, therefore, don’t have a broad appeal. This year they brought a few of the systems that are more applicable to a broader user base. These include spinning disk and hybrid products. All are truly optimized for Premiere Pro.

The cloud

In other storage news, “the cloud” garners a ton of interest. The biggest vendors are Microsoft, Google, IBM, and Amazon. While each of these offers relatively easy ways to use cloud-based services for back-up and archiving, if you want a full cloud-based installation for all of your media needs, then actual off-the-shelf solutions are not readily available. The truth of the matter is that each of these companies offers APIs, which are then handed off to other vendors – often for totally custom solutions.

Avid and Sony seem to have the most complete offerings, with Sony Ci being the best one-size-fits-all answer for customer-facing services. Of course, if review-and-approval is your only need, then Frame.io leads and will have new features rolled out during the year. IBM/Aspera is a great option for standard archiving, because fast Aspera up and down transfers are included. You get your choice of IBM or other (Google, Amazon, etc.) cloud storage. They even offer a trial period using IBM storage for 30 days at up to 100GB free. Backblaze is a competing archive solution with many partnering applications. For example, you can tie it in with Archiware’s P5 Suite of tools for back-up, archiving, and server synchronization to the cloud.

Naturally, when you talk of the “cloud”, many people interpret that to mean software that runs in the cloud – SaaS (software as a service). In most cases, that is nowhere close to happening. However, the exception is The Foundry, which was showing Athera, a suite of its virtualized applications, like Nuke, running on the Google Cloud Platform. They demo’ed it running inside the Chrome browser, thanks to this partnership with Google. The Foundry had a pod in the Google partners pavilion.

In short, you can connect to the internet with a laptop, activate a license of the tool or tools that you need, and then all media, processing, and rendering is handled in the cloud, using Google’s services and hardware. Since all of this happens on Google’s servers, only an updated UI image needs to be pushed back to the connected computer’s display. This concept is ideal for the visual effects world, where the work is generally done on an individual shot basis without a lot of media being moved in real-time. The target is the Nuke-centric shop that may need to add on a few freelancers quickly, and who may or may not be able to work on-premises.

Interesting newcomers

As I mentioned at the beginning, part of the joy of NAB is discovering the small vendors who seek out NAB to make their mark. One example this year is Lumberjack Systems, a venture by Philip Hodgetts and Greg Clarke of Intelligent Assistance. They were in the Lumaforge suite demonstrating Lumberjack Builder, which is a text-based NLE. In the simplest of explanations, your transcription or scripted text is connected to media. As you re-arrange or trim the text, the associated picture is edited accordingly. Newly-written text for voiceovers turns into spoken word media courtesy of the computer’s internal audio system and system voice. Once your text-based rough cut is complete, an FCPXML is sent to Final Cut Pro X, for further finesse and final editing.

Another new vendor I encountered was Quine, co-founded by Norwegian DoP Grunleik Groven. Their QuineBox IoT device attaches to the back of a camera, where it can record and upload “conformable” dailies (ProRes, DNxHD) to your SAN, as well as proxies to the cloud via its internal wi-fi system. Script notes can also be incorporated. The unit has already been battle-test on the Netflix/NRK production of “Norsemen”.

Closing thoughts

It’s always interesting to see, year over year, which companies are not at the show. This isn’t necessarily indicative of a company’s health, but can signal a change in their direction or that of the industry. Sometimes companies opt for smaller suites at an area hotel in lieu of the show floor (Autodesk). Or they are a smaller part of a reseller or partner’s booth (RED). But often, they are simply gone. For instance, in past years drones were all the rage, with a lot of different manufacturers exhibiting. DJI has largely captured that market for both vehicles and camera systems. While there were a few other drone vendors besides DJI, GoPro and Freefly weren’t at the show at all.

Another surprise change for me was the absence of SAM (Snell Advanced Media) – the hybrid company formed out of Snell & Wilcox and Quantel. SAM products are now part of Grass Valley, which, in turn, is owned by Belden (the cable manufacturer). Separate Snell products appear to have been absorbed into the broader Grass Valley product line. Quantel’s Go and Rio editors continue in Grass Valley’s editing line, alongside Edius – as simple, middle, and advanced NLE products. A bit sad actually. And very ironic. Here we are in the world of software and file-based video, but the company that still has money to make acquisitions is the one with a heavy investment in copper (I know, not just copper, but you get the point).

Speaking of “putting a fork in it”, I would have to say that stereo 3D and 360 VR are pretty much dead in the film and video space. I understand that there is a market – potentially quite large – in gaming, education, simulation, engineering, training, etc. But for more traditional entertainment projects, it’s just not there. Vendors were down to a few, and even though the leading NLEs have ways of working with 360 VR projects, the image quality still looks awful. When you view a 4K image within even the best goggles, the qualitative experience is like watching a 1970s-era TV set from a few inches away. For now, it continues to be a novelty looking for a reason to exist.

A few final points… It’s always fun to see what computers were being used in the booths. Apple is again a clear winner, with plenty of MacBook Pros and iMac Pros all over the LVCC when used for any sort of creative products or demos. eGPUs are of interest, with Sonnet being the main vendor. However, eGPUs are not a solution that solves every problem. For example, you will see more benefit by adding an eGPU to a lesser-powered machine, like a 13” MacBook Pro than one with more horsepower, like an iMac Pro. Each eGPU takes one Thunderbolt 3 bus, so realistically, you are likely to only add one additional eGPU to a computer. None of the NLE vendors could really tell me how much of a boost their application would have with an eGPU. Finally, if you are looking for some great-looking, large, OLED displays that are pretty darned accurate and won’t break the bank, then LG is the place to look.

©2018 Oliver Peters

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.

There is no way to really quantify actual editing playback performance and resolution by any numerical factor. However, it is interesting to look at the aggregate of the six tests that could be quantified. When you compare the cumulative totals of just the iMac Pro and the iMac, the Pro came out 48% faster. Compared to the 2013 Mac Pro, it was 85% faster. The iMac Pro’s performance against the totals of the slowest machines (either iMac or Mac Pro depending on the test), showed it being a whopping 113% faster – more than twice as fast. But it only bested the fastest set by 20%. Naturally, such comparisons are more curiosity than anything else. 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.

(Updated 6/22/18)

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

©2018 Oliver Peters

A Light Footprint

When I started video editing, the norm was an edit suite with three large quadraplex (2”) videotape recorders, video switcher, audio mixer, B&W graphics camera(s) for titles, and a computer-assisted, timecode-based edit controller. This was generally considered  an “online edit suite”, but in many markets, this was both “offline” (creative cutting) and “online” (finishing). Not too long thereafter, digital effects (ADO, NEC, Quantel) and character generators (Chyron, Aston, 3M) joined the repertoire. 2” quad eventually gave way to 1” VTRs and those, in turn, were replaced by digital – D1, D2, and finally Digital Betacam. A few facilities with money and clientele migrated to HD versions of these million dollar rooms.

Towards the midpoint in the lifespan for this way of working, nonlinear editing took hold. After a few different contenders had their day in the sun, the world largely settled in with Avid and/or Media 100 rooms. While a lower cost commitment than the large online bays of the day, these nonlinear edit bays (NLE) still required custom-configured Macs, a fair amount of external storage, along with proprietary hardware and monitoring to see a high-quality video image. Though crude at first, NLEs eventually proved capable of handling all the video needs, including HD-quality projects and even higher resolutions today.

The trend towards smaller

As technology advanced, computers because faster and more powerful, storage capacities increased, and software that required custom hardware evolved to work in a software-only mode. Today, it’s possible to operate with a fraction of the cost, equipment, and hassle of just a few years ago, let along a room from the mid-70s. As a result, when designing or installing a new room, it’s important to question the assumptions about what makes a good edit bay configuration.

For example, today I frequently work in rooms running newer iMacs, 2013 Mac Pros, and even MacBook Pro laptops. These are all perfectly capable of running Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, and other applications, without the need for additional hardware. In my interview with Thomas Grove Carter, he mentioned often working off of his laptop with a connected external drive for media. And that’s at Trim, a high-end London commercial editing boutique.

In my own home edit room, I recently set aside my older Mac Pro tower in favor of working entirely with my 2015 MacBook Pro. No more need to keep two machines synced up and the MBP is zippier in all respects. With the exception of some heavy-duty rendering (infrequent), I don’t miss using the tower. I run the laptop with an external Dell display and have configured my editing application workspaces around a single screen. The laptop is closed and parked in a BookArc stand tucked behind the Dell. But I also bought a Rain stand for those times when I need the MBP open and functioning as a second display.

Reduce your editing footprint

I find more and more editors working in similar configurations. For example, one of my clients is a production company with seven networked (NAS storage) workstations. Most of these are iMacs with few other connected peripherals. The main room has a 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro and a bit more gear, since this is the “hero” room for clients. If you are looking to downsize your editing environment, here are some pointers.

While you can work strictly from a laptop, I prefer to build it up for a better experience. Essential for me is a Thunderbolt dock. Check out OWC or CalDigit for two of the best options. This lets you connect the computer to the dock and then everything else connects to that dock. One Thunderbolt cable to the laptop, plus power for the computer, leaving you with a clean installation with an easy-to-move computer. From the dock, I’m running a Presonus Audiobox USB audio interface (to a Mackie mixer and speakers), a TimeMachine drive, a G-Tech media drive, and the Dell display. If I were to buy something different today, I would use the Mackie Onyx Blackjack interface instead of the Presonus/Mackie mixer combo. The Blackjack is an all-in-one solution.

Expand your peripherals as needed

At the production company’s hero room, we have the extra need to drive some video monitors for color correction and client viewing. That room is similarly configured as above, except with a Mac Pro and connection to a QNAP shared storage solution. The latter connects over 10Gb/s Ethernet via a Sonnet Thunderbolt/Ethernet adapter.

When we initially installed the room, video to the displays was handled by a Blackmagic Design UltraStudio device. However, we had a lot of playback performance issues with the UltraStudio, especially when using FCPX. After some experimenting, we realized that both Premiere Pro and FCPX can send a fullscreen, [generally] color-accurate signal to the wall-mounted flat panel using only HDMI and no other video i/o hardware. We ended up connecting the HDMI from the dock to the display and that’s the standard working routine when we are cutting in either Premiere Pro or Final Cut.

The rub for us is DaVinci Resolve. You must use some type of Blackmagic Design hardware product in order to get fullscreen video to a display when in Resolve. Therefore, the Ultrastudio’s HDMI port connects to the second HDMI input of the large client display and SDI feeds a separate TV Logic broadcast monitor. This is for more accurate color rendition while grading. With Media Composer, there were no performance issues, but the audio and video signal wants to go through the same device. So, if we edit Avid, then the signal chain goes through the UltraStudio, as well.

All of this means that in today’s world, you can work as lightly as you like. Laptop-only – no problem. iMac with some peripherals – no problem. A fancy, client-oriented room – still less hassle and cost than just a few short years ago. Load it up with extra control surfaces or stay light with a keyboard, mouse, or tablet. It all works today – pretty much as advertised. Gone are the days when you absolutely need to drop a small fortune to edit high-quality video. You just have to know what you are doing and understand the trade-offs as they arise.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Premiere Pro Workflow Tips

When you are editing on projects that only you touch, your working practices can be as messy as you want them to be. However, if you work on projects that need to be interchanged with others down the line, or you’re in a collaborative editing environment, good operating practices are essential. This starts at the moment you first receive the media and carries through until the project has been completed, delivered, and archived.

Any editor who’s worked with Avid Media Composer in a shared storage situation knows that it’s pretty rock solid and takes measures to assure proper media relinking and management. Adobe Premiere Pro is very powerful, but much more freeform. Therefore, the responsibility of proper media management and editor discipline falls to the user. I’ve covered some of these points in other posts, but it’s good to revisit workflow habits.

Folder templates. I like to have things neat and one way to assure that is with project folder templates. You can use a tool like Post Haste to automatically generate a new set of folders for each new production – or you can simply design your own set of folders as a template layout and copy those for each new job. Since I’m working mainly in Premiere Pro these days, my folder template includes a Premiere Pro template project, too. This gives me an easy starting point that has been tailored for the kinds of narrative/interview projects that I’m working on. Simply rename the root folder and the project for the new production (or let Post Haste do that for you). My layout includes folders for projects, graphics, audio, documents, exports, and raw media. I spend most of my time working at a multi-suite facility connected to a NAS shared storage system. There, the folders end up on the NAS volume and are accessible to all editors.

Media preparation. When the crew comes back from the shoot, the first priority is to back-up their files to an archive drive and then copy the files again to the storage used for editing – in my case a NAS volume. If we follow the folder layout described above, then those files get copied to the production dailies or raw media (whatever you called it) folder. Because Premiere Pro is very fluid and forgiving with all types of codecs, formats, and naming conventions, it’s easy to get sloppy and skip the next steps. DON’T. The most important thing for proper media linking is to have consistent locations and unique file names. If you don’t, then future relinking, moving the project into an application like Resolve for color correction/finishing, or other process may lead to not linking to the correct file.

Premiere Pro works better when ALL of the media is in a single common format, like DNxHD/HR or ProRes. However, for most productions, the transcoding time involved would be unacceptable. A large production will often shoot with multiple camera formats (Alexa, RED, DSLRs, GoPros, drones, etc.) and generate several cards worth of media each day. My recommendation is to leave the professional format files alone (like RED or Alexa), but transcode the oddball clips, like DJI cameras. Many of these prosumer formats place the media into various folder structures or hide them inside a package container format. I will generally move these outside of this structure so they are easily accessible at the Finder level. Media from the cameras should be arranged in a folder hierarchy of Date, Camera, and Card. Coordinate with the DIT and you’ll often get the media already organized in this manner. Transcode files as needed and delete the originals if you like (as long as they’ve been backed up first).

Unfortunately these prosumer cameras often use repeated, rather than unique, file names. Every card starts over with clip number 0001. That’s why we need to rename these files. You can usually skip renaming professional format files. It’s optional. Renaming Alexa files is fine, but avoid renaming RED or P2 files. However, definitely rename DSLR, GoPro, and DJI clips. When renaming clips I use an app called Better Rename on the Mac, but any batch renaming utility will do. Follow a consistent naming convention. Mine is a descriptive abbreviation, month/day, camera, and card. So a shoot in Palermo on July 22, using the B camera, recorded on card 4, becomes PAL0722B04_. This is appended in front of the camera-generated clip name, so then clip number 0057 becomes PAL0722B04_0057. You don’t need the year, because the folder location, general project info, or the embedded file info will tell you that.

A quick word on renaming. Stick with universal alphanumeric conventions in both the files and the folder names. Avoid symbols, emojis, etc. Otherwise, some systems will not be able to read the files. Don’t get overly lengthy in your names. Stick with upper and lower case letters, numbers, dashes, underscores, and spaces. Then you’ll be fine.

Project location. Premiere Pro has several basic file types that it generates with each project. These include the project file itself, Auto-saved project files, renders, media cache files and audio peak (.pek) files. Some of these are created in the background as new media is imported into the project. You can choose to store these anywhere you like on the system, although there are optimal locations.

Working on a NAS, there is no problem in letting the project file, Auto-saves, and renders stay on the NAS in the same section of the NAS as all of your other media. I do this because it’s easy to back-up the whole job at the end of the line and have everything in one place. However, you don’t want all the small, application-generated cache files to be there. While it’s an option in preferences, it is highly recommended to have these media cache files go to the internal hard drive of the workstation or a separate, external local drive. The reason is that there are a lot of these small files and that traffic on the NAS will tend to bog down the overall performance. So set them to be local (the default).

The downside of doing this is that when another editor opens the Premiere Pro project on a different computer, these files have to be regenerated on that new system. The project will react sluggishly until this background process is complete. While this is a bit of a drag, it’s what Adobe recommends to keep the system operating well.

One other cache setting to be mindful of is the automatic delete option. A recent Premiere Pro problem cropped up when users noticed that original media was disappearing from their drives. Although this was a definite bug, the situation mainly affected users who had set Media cache to be with their original media files and had enabled automatic deletion. You are better off to keep the default location, but change the deletion setting to manual. You’ll have to occasional clean your caches manually, but this is preferable to losing your original content.

Premiere Pro project locking. A recent addition to Premiere Pro is project locking. This came about because of Team Projects, which are cloud-only shared project files. However, in many environments, facilities do not want their projects in the cloud. Yet, they can still take advantage of this feature. When project locking is enabled in Premiere Pro (every user on the system must do this), the application opens a temporary .prlock next to the project file. This is intended to prevent other users from opening the same project and overwriting the original editor’s work and/or revisions.

Unfortunately, this only works correctly when you open a project from the launch window. Do not open the project by double-clicking the project file itself in order to launch Premiere Pro and that project. If you open through the launch window, then Premiere Pro will prevents you from opening a locked project file. However, if you open through the Finder, then the locking system is circumvented, causing crashes and potentially lost work.

Project layout templates.  Like folder layouts, I’m fond of using a template for my Premiere Pro projects, too. This way all projects have a consistent starting point, which is good when working with several editors collaboratively. You can certainly create multiple templates depending on the nature and specs of the job, e.g. commercials, narrative, 23.98, 29.97, etc. As with the folder layout, I’ll often use a leading underscore with a name to sort an item to the top of a list, or start the name with a “z” to sort it to the bottom. A lot of my work is interview-driven with supportive B-roll footage. Most of the time I’m cutting in 23.98fps. So, that’s the example shown here.

My normal routine is to import the camera files (using Premiere Pro’s internal Media Browser) according to the date/camera/card organization described earlier. Then I’ll review the footage and rearrange the clips. Interview files go into an interview sources bin. I will add sub-bins in the B-roll section for general categories. As I review footage, I’ll move clips into their appropriate area, until the date/camera/card bins are empty and can be deleted from the project. Interviews will be grouped as multi-cam clips and edited to a single sequence for each person. This sequence gets moved into the Interview Edits sub-bin and becomes the source for any clips from this interview. I do a few other things before starting to edit, but that’s for another time and another post.

Working as a team. There are lots of ways to work collaboratively, so the concept doesn’t mean the same thing in every type of job. Sometimes it requires different people working on the same job. Other times it means several editors may access a common pool of media, but working in their own discrete projects. In any case, Premiere does not allow the same sort of flexibility that Media Composer or Final Cut Pro editors enjoy. You cannot have two or more editors working inside the same project file. You cannot open more than one project at a time. This mean Premiere Pro editors need to think through their workflows in order to effectively share projects.

There are different strategies to employ. The easiest is to use the standard “save as” function to create alternate versions of a project. This is also useful to keep project bloat low. As you edit a long time on a project, you build up a lot of old “in progress” sequences. After a while, it’s best to save a copy and delete the older sequences. But the best way is to organize a structure to follow.

As an example, let’s say a travel-style show covers several locations in an episode. Several editors and an assistant are working on it. The assistant would create a master project with all the footage imported and organized, interviews grouped/synced, and so on. At this point each editor takes a different location to cut that segment. There are two options. The first is to duplicate the project file for each location. Open each one up and delete the content that’s not for that location. The second option is to create a new project for each location and them import media from the master project using Media Browser. This is Adobe’s built-in module that enables the editor to access files, bins, and sequences from inside other Premiere Pro projects. When these are imported, there is no dynamic linking between the two projects. The two sets of files/sequences are independent of each other.

Next, each editors cuts their own piece, resulting in a final sequence for each segment. Back in the master project, each edited sequence can be imported – again, using Media Browser –  for the purposes of the final show build and tweaks. Since all of the media is common, no additional media files will be imported. Another option is to create a new final project and then import each sequence into it (using Media Browser). This will import the sequences and any associated media films. Then use the segment sequences to build the final show sequence and tweak as needed.

There are plenty of ways to use Premiere Pro and maintain editing versatility within a shared storage situation. You just have to follow a few rules for “best practices” so that everyone will “play nice” and have a successful experience.

Click here to download a folder template and enclosed Premiere Pro template project.

©2017 Oliver Peters