Producing a Short Mini-Doc with the AJA CION

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

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

CION details

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

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

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

Learning the CION

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

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

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

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

Production day(s)

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

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

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

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

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

Post production

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

Click this link to see the final video on Vimeo.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters

Photo Phun 2015

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

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

Click any image to see a slideshow of these photos.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Building FCP X Effects – Update

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A few weeks ago I built and posted a small FCP X color correction effect using the Motion template process. While I have no intention of digging deeper into plug-in design, it’s an interesting experiment into understanding how you can use the power of Motion and Final Cut Pro X to develop custom effects, transitions, and generators. In this process, I’ve done a bit of tweaking, created a few more effects, and gotten a better understanding of how it all works. If you download the updated effects, there are a total of three filters (Motion templates) – a color corrector, a levels filter and a DVE.

Color science

In going through this exercise, a few things have been brought to my attention. First of all, filters are not totally transparent. If you apply my color correction filter, you’ll see slight changes in the videoscopes even when each tab is at its default. This doesn’t really matter since you are applying a correction anyway; but if it annoys you, then simply uncheck the item you aren’t using, like brightness or contrast.

df2615_fcpxfilterupdate_3Secondly, the exact same filter in FCP X may or may not use the same color science as the Motion version, even though they are called the same thing. Specifically this is the case with the Hue/Saturation filter. My template uses the one from Motion, of course. The FCP X Hue/Sat filter uses a color model in which saturation is held constant and luma (a composite of RGB) varies. The Motion version holds luma constant and allows saturation to vary.

The quickest way to test this is with a solid red generator. Apply the FCP X Hue/Sat filter and rotate the hue control. Set the scopes to display an RGB parade, vectorscope, and the waveform set to luma. As you rotate the hue around the dial, you’ll notice that the color dot stays neatly in the boxes of the vectorscope and moves in a straight, diagonal line from vector to vector. The RGB parade will show a perfect combination of red, blue, and green values to achieve the correct RMBCGY coordinates. However, the waveform luma levels will move up and down with large changes.

Now compare this to the hue control in the Hue/Sat filter included in my template. This is from Motion. As you rotate the hue control around the dial, the saturation value moves in what seems to be an erratic fashion around the vectorscope; but, the luma display changes very little. If you apply this same test to real footage, instead of a generated background color, you’ll get perceptually better results with Motion’s Hue/Sat filter than with the FCP X version. In most cases, either approach is acceptable, since for the purposes of color correction, you will likely only move the dial a few degrees left or right from the default of zero. Hue changes in color grading should be very subtle.

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Expanding filter features

After I built this first Motion template, I decided to poke around some more inside Motion to see if it offered other filters that had value for color correction. And as a matter of fact, it does. Motion includes a very nice Levels filter. It includes sliders for RGB as a group, as well as individual settings for red, green, and blue. Each group is broken down into sliders for black in/out, white in/out, and gamma. Then there’s an overall mix value. That a total of 21 sliders, not counting opacity, which I didn’t publish in my template. Therefore, you have fairly large control over grading using only the Levels filter.

df2615_fcpxfilterupdate_4I thought about building it into the earlier Oliver Color filter I had created, but ran into some obvious design issues. When you build these effects, it’s important to think through the order of clicking publish on the parameters that you want to appear inside of FCP X. This sequence will determine where these values appear in the stack of controls in the FCP X inspector. In other words, even though I placed this Levels filter ahead of Color Balance within Motion, the fact that I clicked publish after these other values had already been published, meant that these new controls would be placed to the bottom of my stack once this was displayed in FCP X. The way to correct this is to first unpublish everything and then select publish for each parameter in the order that you want it to appear.

A huge interface design concern is just how cluttered you do or don’t want your effect controls to be inside of FCP X. This was a key design issue when FCP X was created. You’ll notice that Apple’s built-in FCP X effects have a minimalist approach to the number of sliders available for each filter. Adding Levels into my Color filter template meant adding 21 more sliders to an interface that already combined a number of parameters for each of the other components. Going through this exercise makes it clear why Apple took the design approach they did and why other developers have resorted to various workarounds, such as floating controls, HUDs, and other solutions. The decision for me was simply to create a separate Oliver Levels filter that could be used separately, as needed.

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More value from color presets 

An interesting discovery I made was how Color Board presets can be used in FCP X 10.2. When you choose a preset from the Color Board’s pulldown menu, you can access these settings as you always have. The downside is that you can’t preview a setting like you can other effects in the effects palette. You have to apply a preset from the Color Board to see what it will look like with your image.df2615_fcpxfilterupdate_5

FCP X 10.2 adds the ability to save filter presets. Since color correction using the Color Board has now been turned into a standard filter, you can save color presets as an effects preset. This means that if you have a number of Color Board presets (the built-in FCP X settings, mine, or any custom ones you’ve created) simply apply the color preset and then save that color correction filter setting as a new effects preset. When you do this you get a choice of what category to save it into. You can create your own, such as My Color Presets. Now these presets will show up in that category inside the effects palette. When you skim over the preset icon, your image will be previewed with that color correction value applied.

Although these presets appear in the same palette as other Motion templates, the effects presets themselves are stored in a different place. They are located in the OS X user library under Application Support/ProApps/Effects Presets. For example, I created 40 Color Board presets that can all be turned into Effects Presets visible within the Effects palette. I’m not going to post them that way, but if you feel ambitious, I would invite you to download the Color Board presets and make your own effects presets out of them.

All of this is a great way to experiment and see how you can use the resources Apple has provided to personalize a system tailored to your own post needs.

Click here to download the Motion template effects.

Click here to download updated and additional Motion template effects (FCP X 10.2.1 or later).

Click here to download the Color Board presets.

For some additional resources for free plug-ins, check out Ripple Training, Alex4D and FxFactory.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Building a Free FCP X Color Correction Filter

df2315_opcolor_1One nice aspect of the symbiotic relationship between Final Cut Pro X and Motion is that Motion can be used to create effects, transitions, titles and generators for use in FCP X. These are Motion Templates and they form the basis for the creation of nearly all third-party effects filters, both paid and free. This means that if you learn a bit about Motion, you can create your own custom effects or make modifications to the existing ones supplied with FCP X. This has become very easy to do in the newest versions (FCP X 10.2.1 and Motion 5.2.1).

I decided to build a color correction filter that covered most of the standard adjustments you need with the usual types of footage. There are certainly a number of really good color correction/grading filters already on the market for FCP X. Apple’s own color board works well and with 10.2 has been broken out as a normal effects filter. However, a lot of folks don’t like its tab/puck/swatch interface and would still rather work with sliders or color wheels. So as an experiment, I built my own color correction filter for use with FCP X – and you may download here and use it for free as well.

df2315_opcolor_4_smLet me point out that I am no Motion power user. I have nowhere near the skills of Mark Spencer, Simon Ubsdell or Alex Gollner when it comes to using Motion to its fullest. So all I’ve done is combine existing Motion filters into a single combined filter with zero modifications. But that’s the whole point and why this function has so much potential. A couple of these individual filters already exist singly within FCP X, but Motion has a lot more to choose from. Once you launch Motion, the starting point is to open a new Final Cut Effects project from the Motion project browser. This will default to a blank composition ready to have things added to it. Since I was creating a color correction filter, all I needed to do was select the existing Motion filters to use from the Library browser and drag-and-drop the choices into the composition.

df2315_opcolor_5I decided to combine Brightness, Contrast, Color Balance, Hue/Saturation and Tint, which were also stacked in that exact order. The next step in the process was to determine the state of the filter when you apply it and which parameters and sliders to publish. Items that are published, such as a slider, will show up in the inspector in FCP X and can be adjusted by the editor. In my case, I decided to publish every parameter in the stack. To publish, simply click on the right side edge of each parameter line and you’ll find a pulldown selection that includes a publish/unpublish toggle. Note that the order in which you click the publish commands will determine the order of how these commands are stacked when they show up inside FCP X. To make the most sense, I followed a straight sequence order, top to bottom.

df2315_opcolor_3_smYou can also determine the starting state when you first apply or preview the effect.  For example, whether a button starts out enabled or disabled. In the case of this filter, I’ve enabled everything and left it at a neutral or default value, with the exception of Tint. This starts in the ‘off’ position, because I didn’t want a color cast to be applied when you first add the filter to a clip. Once everything is set-up, you simply save the effect to a desired location in the Motion Templates folder. You can subsequently open the Motion project from there to modify the effect. When it’s saved again, the changes are updated to the filter in FCP X.

If you’ve downloaded my effects filter, unzip the file and follow the Read Me document. I’ve created an “Oliver FX” category and this complete folder should be placed into the User/Movies/Motion Templates/Effects folder on your hard drive.df2315_opcolor_2

Applying the filter inside Final Cut Pro X is the same as any of the other effects options. It has the added benefit that all parameters can be keyframed. The Color Balance portion works like a 3-way color corrector, except that it uses the OS color picker wheels in lieu of a true 3-color-wheel interface. As a combination of native filters, performance is good without taxing the machine.

UPDATE (12 June 2015) : I have added one addition filter into the download file. The second filter is called “Oliver DVE” and designed to give you a full set of transform controls that include XYZ rotation. It comes from the transform control set included with Motion. This provides you with the equivalent of a 2.5D DVE, which is not available in the default control set of FCP X.

UPDATE 2 (15 June 2015) : These filters are not backward compatible. They will work in FCP X 10.1.2 and Motion 5.1.2 and forward (hopefully), but not in earlier versions. That’s due to technology changes between these versions. If you downloaded these prior to June 15, for FCP X 10.1.2 or 10.1.4 and they aren’t working, please download again. I have modified the files to work in FCP X 10.1.2 and later. Thank you.

Download the free “Oliver Color” and “Oliver DVE” filters here. My previously-created, free FCP X color board presets may be found here.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Photo Phun 2014

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I’m back again this year with another post about stylizing photography. Thanks to Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription model, the interest in alternatives to Photoshop has increased.

One application I ran across this year was Pixlr, which has been picked up by Autodesk. Free PC and Mac versions are available at their website and through the Mac App Store. You may then opt to extend it with a subscription. However, there’s plenty of power in the free version if your main interest is basic image correction (color adjustments, cropping, reframing). Of course, given the interest in stylizing photos with filters – the “Instagram” look – Pixlr features a number of menu options for effects, overlays and image styles. These are based on in-app downloads, so as you pick a category, the necessary files are downloaded and installed in the background to populate the selection, thus creating a library of elements to work with.

Below are a set of images processed with the free version of Pixlr. I’ve used many of these photo examples before, so if you check out the previous Photo Phun posts, you’ll be able to compare some of the same photos, but with different looks and styles. Click on any image below for a slideshow.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! See you in the new year!

©2014 Oliver Peters