Audio Tools Update

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Most video editors can get by with the audio editing tools that are built into their NLE. But if you want that extra audio finesse, then you really need some dedicated audio applications and plug-ins. 2014 is closing out nicely with new offerings from Sony Creative Software and iZotope.

Sony Creative Software – Sound Forge Expands

df_audiotools_1Sony’s software arm – known for Acid, Vegas and Sound Forge, to name a few – has expanded its Mac audio offerings. Although Sony’s audio applications have traditionally been Windows-based, Sony previously ventured into the Mac ecosystem with its 1.0 version of Sound Forge Pro for the Mac. This year version 2.0 was released, which includes more features, power and support for 64-bit plug-ins. All Sound Forge Mac versions are architected for OS X and not simply a port from Windows.

As before, Sound Forge Pro continues to be a file-based editor and not a multi-track DAW designed for mixing. It supports high-resolution files up to 24-bit/192 kHz. Although file-based, it can handle up to 32-channel files and is capable of recording, as well as editing and mastering. The Pro version includes a number of Sony and iZotope plug-ins designed for mastering (EQ, reverb, multi-band compressor, limiter, imager and exciter), post processing (sample rate and bit depth conversion) and restore/repair (declicker, denoiser and declipper).

A new addition is the inclusion of the iZotope Nectar Elements plug-in. The Nectar series is a channel strip, all-in-one filter that combines a number of the processes that a recording engineer would place in the signal chain when recording vocals. However, it can still be used on music and mixed tracks without issue. Nectar Elements is the “lite” version of the full Nectar filter and is being bundled with a number of the Sony applications, including Vegas Pro. Another included filter is the Zplane élastique Pro time stretch and pitch shift plug-in.

df_audiotools_2The Convrt batch tool – a freestanding utility for mass file conversions – comes with Sound Forge Pro Mac 2. Load your files, set up the script and the rest is automated. If you purchase Sound Forge Pro as part of the Audio Mastering Bundle, you also get SpectraLayers Pro 2, an audio spectrum editing tool. Even without it, Sound Forge Pro Mac 2 now enables data interoperability between it and SpectraLayers Pro 2.

Loudness compliance is of big concern to broadcasters, so Sound Forge Pro Mac 2 now includes CALM Act compliant metering. Unfortunately, the read-out is by numbers and meters without the visual eye candy of an Insight or Radar-style meter; however, it does provide true peak values.

Mid-year, Sony also released Sound Forge for the Mac App Store. It doesn’t have all of the bell-and-whistles as the Pro version and due to the App Store’s sandboxing policies has other minor differences. Convrt and the iZotope plug-ins are not included; however, most of everything else is. Both versions support 64-bit AU and VST plug-ins. Both include real-time previewing. Both have generally the same tech specs. One extra that comes with Sound Forge is Wave Hammer, Sony’s own mastering compressor. It is not included in the Pro version. Lastly, both versions come with a large amount of downloadable sound effects content, which is available to users as a separate download, once they’ve registered the software.

There are a lot of audio tools on the market, but I find Sound Forge or Sound Forge Pro Mac 2 to be definite must-haves for the video editor serious about audio. The Sound Forge interface is clean and customizable and the operation is very intuitive. With nearly every spot I cut in FCP X, I’ll bounce the mix out to Sound Forge Pro for a mastering pass. Same if I need to modify a TV mix for a radio spot.

iZotope – Nectar

df_audiotools_4iZotope is one of the top audio plug-in developers and you’ll find their products bundled with a number of applications, including those from Sony and Adobe. One cool plug-in is the Nectar product, which is marketed in three versions: Nectar 2, Nectar Elements and Nectar Production Suite. These are compatible with most audio and video hosts that support AAX (Pro Tools), RTAS/AudioSuite, VST and AU plug-ins.

Nectar 2 is an all-in-one plug-in that combines eleven tools: plate reverb, pitch, FX, delay, de-esser, saturation, compressors, gate, EQ and limiter. It functions a lot like a very sophisticated channel strip in a mixing console, except with a lot more processes. Although designed with vocal recording in mind, it can easily be used for music and/or mastering. The interface presents you with an overview and easy controls for all tools, but then you can open each individual tool for more precise adjustments. It includes over 150 presets. You can switch between tracking and mixing modes for low-latency processing.

Nectar Elements is a reduced-feature version of Nectar 2. The controls tend to be more specific for vocal recording and the needs of home enthusiasts. On the other side is Nectar 2 Production Suite, which bundles the filter with a Pitch Editor and Breath Control plug-in for Nectar 2.

iZotope – RX 4

df_audiotools_5The biggest iZotope news is the release of the RX 4 audio repair and enhancement tool – the latest in iZotope’s RX series. RX 4 comes in a standard and advanced version and both include the RX 4 standalone application, as well as a set of RX 4 plug-ins that are compatible with a wide range of hosts. Built-in tools include declip, declick, hum removal, denoise, spectral repair, deconstruct (advanced), dereverb (advanced), leveler (advanced), EQ match (advanced), ambience match (advanced), time & pitch (advanced), loudness (advanced), gain, EQ, channel operations, resample and dither. Most, but not all of these, are also installed as RX 4 real-time plug-ins. Third-party plug-ins can also be accessed and used in the standalone RX 4 application. The breadth of what RX 4 offers makes it the biggest gun in the arsenal of most dialogue editors and sound designers, who are tasked with cleaning up challenging location recordings.

df_audiotools_3A powerful, new feature is RX Connect, which is a special “conduit” plug-in. It sets up a roundtrip between your host audio application and the RX 4 standalone application. For example, if you edit in Pro Tools, Audition or Sound Forge, highlight a range or a set of audio clips and select the RX Connect plug-in. (Where and how you select it will differ with each application). This opens an RX 4 window where you choose to send the selection to the RX 4 application. There you can process the clip as needed and send it back to the host application. In this way, you can use the individual effects as real-time plug-ins inside your audio host, or use the advanced processing power of the standalone application via the RX Connect roundtrip.

df_audiotools_6In addition to loudness processing, RX 4 Advanced also includes the Insight metering suite. This is iZotope’s extensive set of audio analysis and metering tools. It can be used for troubleshooting or to assure broadcast loudness compliance. Two other Advanced tools – EQ Match and Ambiance Match are ideal for the dialogue editor. EQ Match is exactly what the name implies. Here you send both a reference clip and a clip to be processed to the RX 4 application. The second clip is then analyzed and “matched” to the sonic qualities of the first. A common video editing practice is to cut out unwanted audio in your dialogue tracks, such as director’s cues, background noises, etc. This leaves gaps of silence in your track that need to be filled with ambient sound. In Ambiance Match, RX 4 samples areas of background sound between the spoken dialogue and creates a sound print from the quiet areas. RX 4 uses this to fill in gaps “automagically” between clips.

Finally, the standalone RX 4 application comes with built-in batch processing. There, you can set up a series of processing steps and the output location, naming and file formats. Add a set of files, apply the batch steps and process the files. iZotope’s RX 4 repair suite is a unique tool that is hard to beat when struggling with difficult audio that you want to make pristine. It’s a product that keeps getting better and, with the addition of the new RX Connect plug-in, provides better interoperability than ever before.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork

©2014 Oliver Peters

Color LUTs for the Film Aesthetic

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Newer cameras offer the ability to record in log gamma profiles. Those manufactured by Sony, ARRI and Canon have become popular, and with them, so have a new class of color correction filters used by editors. Color look-up tables, known as LUTs, have long been used to convert one color space to another, but now are increasingly used for creative purposes, including film stock emulation. A number of companies offer inexpensive plug-ins to import and apply common 3D color LUTs within most NLEs, grading software and compositors.

While many of these developers include their own film look LUTs, it is also easy to create your own LUTs that are compatible with these plug-ins. A commonly used LUT format is .cube, which can easily be generated by a knowledgable editor using DaVinci Resolve, AMIRA Color Tool or FilmConvert, to name a few.

Most LUTs are created with a particular color space in mind, which means you actually need two LUTs. The first, known as a camera profile patch, adjusts for a specific model of camera and that manufacturer’s log values. The second LUT provides the desired “look”. Depending on the company, you may have a single filter that combines the look with the camera patch or you may have to apply two separate filters. LUTs are a starting point, so you will still have to color correct (grade) the shots to get the right look. Often in a chain of filters, you will want the LUT as the last effect and do all of your grading ahead of that filter. This way you aren’t trying to recover highlights or shadow detail that might have been compressed by the LUT values.

Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility

df_lut_2a_smThe LUT Utility has become a “go to” tool for Final Cut Pro X editors who want to use LUTs. It installs with eleven basic LUTs, which include a number of camera log to Rec 709 patches, as well as several film looks for Fuji, Kodak, 2 Strip and 3 Strip emulation. LUT Utility installs as a Motion template and also appears as a System Preferences pane. You may use this pane to install additional LUTs, however, you can also install them by placing the LUT file into the correct Motion template folder. Since it uses LUTs in the .cube format, any application that generates a 3D LUT in that format can be used to create a new LUT that is compatible with LUT Utility. When you apply a LUT Utility filter to a clip or an adjustment layer inside FCP X, the inspector pane for the filter gives you access to all recognized LUTs through a pulldown menu. The only control is a slider to adjust the amount of the LUT that is applied.

Color Grading Central also has a partnership with visionColor to bundle the Osiris film emulation filters separately or together with LUT Utility. The Osiris set includes nine film emulations that cover a number of stocks and stylized looks. They are provided in the .cube format. Although both the Color Grading Central and Osiris filters are offered for FCP X, it’s worth noting that the LUTs themselves are compatible with Avid Media Composer, Adobe Creative Cloud, Autodesk Smoke and DaVinci Resolve. One thing to be careful of in FCP X, is that Apple also includes its own log processing for various cameras, such as the ARRI ALEXA, and often applies this automatically. When you apply a LUT to log footage in FCP X, make sure you are not double-processing the image. Either use a LUT designed for Rec 709 imagery, or set the FCP X log processing for the clip to “none”, when using a LUT designed for log color space.

In addition to Osiris, visionColor and Color Grading Central developed the ImpulZ LUT series. ImpulZ comes in a Basic, Pro and Ultimate set of LUTs, based on the camera profiles you typically need to work with. It covers a mixture of stock brands and types, including negative print and still film stocks. The Ultimate collection includes about 1950 different LUT files. In addition to camera profiles, these LUTs also cover four gamma profiles, including film contrast, film print, VisionSpace and Cineon Log (Ultimate only). The VisionSpace profile is their own flatter curve that is more conducive to further grading.

Koji Color

df_lut_2b_smAnother LUT package just released for Final Cut Pro X – but also compatible with other applications – is Koji Color. This is a partnership between noted color timer Dale Grahn (Predator, Saving Private Ryan, Dracula) and plug-in developer Crumplepop. This partnership previously resulted in the Dale Grahn Color iPad app. Unlike many other film emulation packages that attempt to apply a very stylized look, Koji Color, is design to provide an accurate emulation of a number of popular print stocks.

As implied by the name (Koji appears to be a mash-up of “Kodak” and “Fuji”), three key stocks from each brand are covered, including Kodak 2383, 2393, 2302 (B&W) and Fuji 3514, 3521, 3523. Each print stock has specific contrast and color characteristics, which these LUTs seek to duplicate. In FCP X, you select and apply the correct version of the filter based on camera type. Then from the inspector, select the film stock. There are extra skiers to tweak saturation and exposure (overall, hi, mid, shadow). This helps you dial in the look more precisely.

Koji Color comes in three product packages. The basic Koji DSLR is a set of filters that you would apply to standard HD cameras running in the video and not log mode. The output format is Rec 709 video. If you shoot with a lot of log profile cameras, then you’ll want Koji Log, which also includes Koji DSLR. This package includes the same LUTs, but with filters that have built-in camera patches for each of the various camera models that shoot log. Again, the output format is Rec 709.

The most expensive bundle is Koji Studio, which also includes the other two packages. The main difference is that Studio also supports output in the DCI-P3 color space. This is intended for digital intermediate color correction, which goes beyond the needs of most video editors.

SpeedLooks

df_lut_3_smLookLabs is the development side of Canadian post facility Jump Studios. As an outgrowth of their work for clients and shows, the team developed a set of film looks, which they branded under the name SpeedLooks. If you use Adobe Creative Cloud, then you know that SpeedLooks comes bundled for use in Adobe Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC. Like the other film emulation LUTs, SpeedLooks are based on certain film stocks, but LookLabs decided to make their offerings more stylized. There are specific bundles covering different approaches to color, including Clean, Blue, Gold and others.

SpeedLooks come in both .cube and Adobe’s .look formats, so you are not limited to only using these with Adobe products. LookLabs took a slightly different approach to cameras, by designing their looks based on the starting point of their own virtual log space. This way they can adjust for the differences in the log spaces of the various cameras. A camera patch converts the camera’s log or Rec 709 profile into LookLabs’ own log profile. When using SpeedLooks, you should first apply a camera profile patch as one filter and then the desired look filter as another.

If you use Premiere Pro CC, all you need to do is apply the Lumetri color correction effect. A standard OS dialogue opens to let you navigate to the right LUT file. Need to change LUTs? Simply click the set-up icon in the effect control window and select a different file. If you use SpeedGrade CC, then you apply the camera patch at the lowest level and the film look LUT at the highest level, with primary and secondary grading layers in between. LookLabs also offers a version of SpeedLooks for editors. This lower-cost package supplies the same film look LUTs, but intended for cameras that are already in the Rec 709 color space. All of these filters can be used in a number of applications, as well as in FCP X through Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility.

Like all of these companies, LookLabs has taken time to research how to design LUTs that match the response of film. One area that they take pride in is the faithful reproduction of skin tones. The point is to skew the color in wide ranges, without resulting in unnatural skin tones. Another area is in highlight and shadow detail. LUTs are created by applying curve values to the image that compress the highlight and shadow portion of the signal. By altering the RGB values of the curve points, you get color in addition to contrast changes. With SpeedLooks, as highlights are pushed to the top and shadows to the bottom, there is still a level of detail that’s retained. Images aren’t harshly clipped or crushed, which leaves you with a more filmic response that rolls off in either direction.

FilmConvert

df_lut_4_smFilmConvert (an arm of Rubber Monkey Software) is now in the 2.0 version of its popular film emulation application and plug-ins. You may purchase it as a standalone tool or as filters for popular NLEs. Unlike the others that use a common LUT format, like .cube, FilmConvert does all of its action internally. The plug-ins not only provide film emulation, but are also full-fledged, 3-way color correction filters. In fact, you could use a FilmConvert filter as the sole grading tool for all of your work. FilmConvert filters are available for Adobe, Avid, Final Cut and in the OFX format for Resolve, Vegas and Scratch. The Resolve version doesn’t include the 3-way color correction function.

You may keep your setting generic or select specific camera models. If you don’t have that camera profile installed, the filter will prompt you to download the appropriate camera file from their website. Once installed, you are good to go. FilmConvert offers a wide range of stock types for emulation. These include more brands, but also still photo stocks, such as Polaroid. The FilmConvert emulations are based on color negative film (or slide transparencies) and not release print stocks, like those of Koji Color.

In addition to grading and emulating certain stocks, FilmConvert lets you apply grain in a variety of sizes. From the control pane, dial in the amount of the film color, curve and grain, which is separate from the adjustments made with the 3-way color correction tool. New in this updated version is that you can generate a 3D LUT from your custom look. In doing so, you can create a .cube file ready for application elsewhere. This file will carry the color information, though not the grain. The standalone version is a more complete grading environment, complete with XML roundtrips and accelerated rendering.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork

©2014, 2015 Oliver Peters

Birdman

Birdman-PosterIt’s rare, but exhilarating, when you watch a movie with a unique take on film’s visual language, without the crutch of extensive computer generated imagery. That’s precisely the beauty of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The film is directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams) and features a dynamic ensemble cast dominated by Michael Keaton’s lead performance as Riggan Thomson. While most films are constructed of intercutting master shots, two-shots and singles, Birdman is designed to look like a continuous, single take. While this has been done before in films, approximately 100 minutes out of the two-hour movie appear as a completely seamless composite of lengthy Steadicam and hand-held takes.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a movie star who rode to fame as the comic book super hero Birdman; but, it’s a role that he walked away from. Searching for contemporary relevance, Riggan has decided to mount a Broadway play, based on the real-life Raymond Carter short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film takes place entirely at the historic St. James Theater near Times Square and the surrounding area in New York. Principal photography occurred over a 30-day period, both at the real theater and Times Square, as well as at Kaufman Astoria Studios. The soundstage sets were for the backstage and dressing room portions of the theater. Throughout the film, Riggan struggles with the challenges of getting the play to opening day and dealing with his fellow cast members, but more notably confronting his super ego Birdman, seen in person and heard in voice-over. This is, of course, playing out in Riggan’s imagination. The film, like the play within the film, wrestles with the overall theme of the confusion between love and affection.

Bringing this ambitious vision to life fell heavily upon the skills of the director of photography and the editors. Emmanuel Lubezki, known as Chivo, served as DoP. He won the 2014 Cinematography Oscar for Gravity, a film that was also heralded for its long, seemingly continuous shots. Stephen Mirrione (The Monuments Men, Ocean’s Thirteen, Traffic) and Douglas Crise (Arbitrage, Deception, Babel) teamed up for the edit. Both editors had worked together before, as well as with the director. Mirrione started during the rehearsal process. At the time of production, Crise handled the editing in New York, while Mirrione, who was back LA at this time, was getting dailies and checking in on the cut as well as sending scenes back and forth with changes every day.

It starts with preparation

Stephen Mirrione explains, “When I first saw what they wanted to do, I was a bit skeptical that it could be pulled off successfully. Just one scene that didn’t work would ruin the whole film. Everything really had to align. One of the things that was considered, was to tape and edit all of the rehearsals. This was done about two months before the principal photography was set to start. The rehearsals were edited together, which allowed Alejandro to adjust the script, pacing and performances. We could see what would work and what wouldn’t. Before cameras even rolled, we had an assembly made up of the rehearsal footage and some of the table read. So, together with Alejandro, we could begin to gauge what the film would look and sound like, where a conversation was redundant, where the moves would be. It was like a pre-vis that you might create for a large-scale CGI or animated feature.”

Once production started in New York, Douglas Crise picked up the edit. Typically, the cast and crew would rehearse the first half of the day and then tape during the second half. ARRI ALEXA cameras were used. The media was sent to Technicolor, who would turn around color corrected Avid DNxHD36 dailies for the next day. The team of editors and assistants used Avid Media Composer systems. According to Crise, “I would check the previous day’s scenes and experiment to see how the edit points would ‘join’ together. You are having to make choices based on performance, but also how the camera work would edit together. Alejandro would have to commit to certain editorial decisions, because those choices would dictate where the shot would pick up on the next day. Stephen would check in on the progress during this period and then he picked up once the cut shifted to visual effects.”

Naturally the editing challenge was to make the scenes flow seamlessly in both a figurative and literal sense. “The big difference with this film was that we didn’t have the conventional places where one scene started and another ended. Every scene walks into the next one. Alejandro described it as going down a hill and not stopping. There wasn’t really a transition. The characters just keep moving on,” Crise says.

“I think we really anticipated a lot of the potential pitfalls and really prepared, but what we didn’t plan on were all the speed changes,” Mirrione adds. “At certain points, when the scene was not popping for us, if the tempo was a little off, we could actually dial up the pace or slow it down as need be without it being perceptible to the audience and that made a big difference.”

Score and syncopation

To help drive pace, much of the track uses a drum score composed and performed by Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez. In some scenes within the film, the camera also pans over to a drummer with a kit who just happens to be playing in an alley or even in a backstage hallway. Sanchez and Iñárritu went into a studio and recorded sixty improvised tracks based on the emotions that the film needed. Mirrione says, “Alejandro would explain the scene to the drummer in the studio and then he’d create it.” Crise continues, “Alejandro had all these drum recordings and he told me to pick six of my favorites. We cut those together so that he could have a track that the drummer could mimic when they shot that scene. He had the idea for the soundtrack from the very beginning and we had those samples cut in from the start, too.”

“And then Martín [Hernández, supervising sound editor] took it to another level. Once there was an first pass at the movie, with a lot of those drum tracks laid in as an outline, he spent a lot of time working with Alejandro, to strip layers away, add some in, trying a lot of different beats. Obviously, in every movie, music will have an impact on point of view and mood and tone. But with this, I think it was especially important, because the rhythm is so tied to the camera and you can’t make those kinds of cadence adjustments with as much flexibility as you can with cuts. We had to lean on the music a little more than normal at times, to push back or pull forward,” Mirrione says.

The invisible art

The technique of this seamless sequence of scenes really allows you to get into the head of Riggan more so than other films, but the editors are reserved in discussing the actual editing technique. Mirrione explains, “Editing is often called the ‘invisible art’. We shape scenes and performances on every film. There has been a lot of speculation over the internet about the exact number and length of shots. I can tell you it’s more than most people would guess. But we don’t want that to be the focus of the discussion. The process is still the same of affecting performance and pace. It’s just that the dynamic has been shifted, because much of the effort was front-loaded in the early days. Unlike other films, where the editing phase after the production is completed, focuses on shaping the story – on Birdman it was about fine-tuning.”

Crise continues, “Working on this film was a different process and a different way to come up with new ideas. It’s also important to know that most of the film was shot practically. Michael [Keaton] really is running through Times Square in his underwear. The shots are not comped together with green screen actors against CGI buildings.” There are quite a lot of visual effects used to enhance and augment the transitions from one shot to the next to make these seamless. On the other hand, when Riggan’s Birdman delusions come to life on screen, we also see more recognizable visual effects, such as a brief helicopter and creature battle playing out over the streets of New York.

Winking at the audience

The film is written as a black comedy with quite a few insider references. Clearly, the casting of Michael Keaton provides allusion to his real experiences in starting the Batman film franchise and in many ways the whole super hero film genre. However, there was also a conscious effort during rehearsals and tapings to adjust the dialogue in ways that kept these references as current as possible. Crise adds, “Ironically, in the scenes on the rooftop there was a billboard in the background behind Emma Stone and Edward Norton, with a reference to Tom Hanks. We felt that audiences would believe that we created it on purpose, when if fact it was a real billboard. It was changed in post, just to keep from appearing to be an insider reference that was too obvious.”

The considerations mandated during the edit by a seamless film presented other challenges, too. For example, simple concerns, like where to structure reel breaks and how to hand off shots for visual effects. Mirrione points out, “Simple tasks such as sending out shots for VFX, color correction, or even making changes for international distribution requirements were complicated by the fact that once we finished, there weren’t individual ‘shots’ to work with – just one long never ending strand.  It meant inventing new techniques along the way.  Steven Scott, the colorist, worked with Chivo at Technicolor LA to perfect all the color and lighting and had to track all of these changes across the entire span of the movie.  The same way we found places to hide stitches between shots, they had to hide these color transitions which are normally changed at the point of a cut from one shot to the next.”

In total, the film was in production and post for about a year, starting with rehearsals in early 2013. Birdman was mixed and completed by mid-February 2014. While it posed a technical and artistic challenge from the start, everything amazingly fell into place, highlighted by perfect choreography of cast, crew and the post production team. It will be interesting to see how Birdman fares during awards season, because it succeeds on so many levels.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork

©2014, 2015 Oliver Peters

Metrics

With the rollover to another year, it’s fun to take time to assess what sort of response this blog is having. I have heard from many of you who find it a useful resource, which is always good to know. So I thought I’d share some numbers with my readers.

I started this blog in March 2008 with two objectives: 1) to have a place to park some of my trade publication writings – so they have some additional exposure, and b) to add some thoughts, tips and ideas that might not otherwise find their way into an official industry trade magazine. To that aim, I’ve also included articles that I wrote prior to 2008, as they still have relevance today. It’s my way of giving back to an industry that I enjoy and in which I’ve had a level of success. Not counting this one, I’ve posted 355 articles to date. Over the years, the audience for this blog has grown. As of Christmas Day 2014, it’s had 3,160,605 total views. There are 805 regular followers. The best ever single day was May 27, 2014 with 30,957 views.

Like any publication, the interest that readers express – by the ongoing popularity of certain posts – says a lot about the readers themselves. For example, the top post has been 12 Tips for Better Film Editing (122,705 views). This has been followed by combinations of the various comparison stories (NLE, color correction software, etc.), DSLR stories, and color grading tips. Of the latter, the most popular has been Color Grading Effects Demystified (58,943 views). After that the FCP X Color Board Presets (30,016) and SpeedGrade Looks (26,123) posts have rounded out the top. Speaking of the presets and looks articles, these included free downloads. The FCP X color board presets have been downloaded 8,010 times, followed by the free SpeedGrade .look files at 5,893 downloads. Other downloads are also popular, including the film budgets (1,107) and a combination of the three edit suite design articles (over 1,000 combined).

I also post a number of links to pertinent content on Vimeo from time to time. Two links have stood on top. The first is the Yarra Valley Wine commercial, which was tied to my tips about using DLSRs in post. This remains a popular topic. Second most is the Blackmagic Cinema Camera grading study.

For those of you new to this blog, I would really encourage you to check out the Categories listed on the side. Click on any of these, like “tips and tricks” or “Final Cut Pro X” and you’ll see a summary of all the articles that I’ve written which relate. Some of my favorite stories are my interviews with top editors and filmmakers. These are fun reads where you can pick up tips from some of the best. Simply click on the “Film Stories” page at the top for a summary of these interviews.

Remember that if you landed on my blog, because the page was linked from another site, it may or may not be the most updated information I’ve written on that topic. So please check the other links within this blog to get the most recent information. Often my methodology evolves over time as the technology changes.

Now that we are in a new year, it’s time to get back at it.  Nose to the grindstone and all that stuff. Read on and drop me a line if you have questions or just to let me know how you find the blog. Thanks for reading!

©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

Stocking Stuffers 2014

df_stuff14_1_smAs we head toward the end of the year, it’s time to look again at a few items you can use to spruce up your edit bay.

Let’s start at the computer. The “tube” Mac Pro has been out for nearly a year, but many will still be trying to get the most life out of their existing Mac Pro “tower”. I wrote about this awhile back, so this is a bit of a recap. More RAM, an internal SSD and an upgraded GPU card are the best starting points. OWC and Crucial are your best choices for RAM and solid state drives. If you want to bump up your GPU, then the Sapphire 7950 (Note: I have run into issues with some of these cards, where the spacer screws are too tall, requiring you to install the card in slot 2) and/or Nvidia GTX 680 Mac Edition cards are popular choices. However, these will only give you an incremental boost if you’ve already been running an ATI 5870 or Nvidia Quadro 4000 display card. df_stuff14_2_smIf you have the dough and want some solid horsepower, then go for the Nvidia Quadro K5000 card for the Mac. To expand your audio monitoring, look at Mackie mixers, KRK speakers and the PreSonus Audiobox USB interface. Naturally there are many video monitor options, but assuming you have an AJA or Blackmagic Design interface, FSI would be my choice. HP Dreamcolor is also a good option when connecting directly to the computer.

The video plug-in market is prolific, with plenty of packages and/or individual filters from FxFactory, Boris, GenArts, FCP Effects, Crumplepop, Red Giant and others. I like the Universe package from df_stuff14_3_smRed Giant, because it supports FCP X, Motion, Premiere Pro and After Effects. Red Giant continues to expand the package, including some very nice new premium effects. If you are a Media Composer user, then you might want to look into the upgrade from Avid FX to Boris Red. Naturally, you can’t go wrong with FxFactory, especially if you use FCP X. There’s a wide range of options with the ability to purchase single filters – all centrally managed through the FxFactory application.

df_stuff14_4_smFor audio, the go-to filter companies are iZotope, Waves and Focusrite to name a few. iZotope released some nice tools in its RX4 package – a state-of-the-art repair and restoration suite. If you just want a suite of EQ and compression tools, then Nectar Elements or Nectar 2 are the best all-in-one collections of audio filters. While most editors do their audio editing/mastering within their NLE, some need a bit more. Along with a 2.0 bump for Sound Forge Pro Mac, Sony Creative Software also released a standard version of Sound Forge through the Mac App Store.

df_stuff14_5_smIn the color correction world, there’s been a lot of development in film emulation look-up tables (LUTs). These can be used in most NLEs and grading applications. If that’s for you, check out ImpulZ and Osiris from Color Grading Central (LUT Utility required with FCP X), Koji Color or the new SpeedLooks 4 (from LookLabs). Each package offers a selection of Fuji and Kodak emulations, as well as other stylized looks. These packages feature LUT files in the .cube and/or .look (Adobe) LUT file formats and, thus, are compatible with most applications. If you want film emulation that also includes 3-way grading tools and adjustable film grain, your best choice is FilmConvert 2.0.

df_stuff14_6_smAnother category that is expanding covers the range of tools used to prep media from the camera prior to the edit. This had been something only for DITs and on-set “data wranglers”, but many videographers are increasingly using such tools on everyday productions. These now offer on-set features that benefit all file-based recordings. Pomfort Silverstack, ShotPut Pro, Redcine-X Pro and Adobe Prelude have been joined by new tools. To start, there’s Offload and EditReady, which are two very specific tools. Offload simply copies and verifies camera-card media to two target drives. EditReady is a simple drag-and-drop batch convertor to transcode media files. These join QtChange (a utility to batch-add timecode and reel IDs to media files) and Better Rename (a Finder renaming utility) in my book, as the best single-purpose production applications.

df_stuff14_7_smIf you want more in one tool, then there’s Bulletproof, which has now been joined in the market by Sony Creative Software’s Catalyst Browse and Prepare. Bulletproof features media offload, organization, color correction and transcoding. I like it, but my only beef is that it doesn’t properly handle timecode data, when present. Catalyst Browse is free and similar to Canon’s camera utility. It’s designed to read and work with media from any Sony camera. Catalyst Prepare is the paid version with an expanded feature set. It supports media from other camera manufacturers, including Canon and GoPro.

df_stuff14_8_smFinally, many folks are looking for alternative to Adobe Photoshop. I’m a fan of Pixelmator, but this has been joined by Pixlr and Mischief. All three are available from the Mac App Store. Pixlr is free, but can be expanded through subscription. In its basic form, Pixlr is a stylizing application that is like a very, very “lite” version of Photoshop; however, it includes some very nice image processing filters. Mischief is a drawing application designed to work with drawing tablets, although a mouse will work, too.

©2014 Oliver Peters

DaVinci Resolve 11

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With the release of DaVinci Resolve 11, Blackmagic Design has firmly moved into the ranks of nonlinear editing. In addition to a redesigned logo and splash screen, Resolve 11 sports more editorial tools than ever before. Now for the first time it is worthy for consideration as your NLE of choice. I have covered previous releases of Resolve, so I’ll only briefly touch on color correction in this article.

As before, DaVinci Resolve 11 comes in four versions: Resolve Lite (free), Resolve Software ($995), Resolve (with the control surface for $29,995) and the Linux configuration. Both free and paid versions support a variety of third-party control surfaces, with the most popular being the Avid Artist Color and the Tangent Devices Element panels. Resolve Lite supports output up to UltraHD (3840 x 2160). It includes most of the features of the paid software, except collaboration, stereo 3D and noise reduction. Although you can operate Resolve without any third-party i/o hardware, if you want external monitoring or output to tape, you’ll need to purchase one of Blackmagic Design’s PCIe capture cards or Thunderbolt i/o devices.

Color Match

df_resolve11_2_smThe interface is divided into four modules: media, edit, color and deliver. All color correction occurs in the color module. Here you’ll find a wealth of grading tools, including camera raw settings, color wheels, primary sliders and more. Color Match is a new correction tool. If you included a color chart when you shot your footage, Resolve can use the image of that chart to set an automatic correction for the color balance of the scene.

Color Match features three template settings for charts, including X-Rite ColorChecker, Datacolor SpyderCheckr and DSC Labs OneShot. If you used one of these charts and it’s in your footage, then select the appropriate set of color swatches in the Color Match menu. Next, select the Color Chart grid from the viewer tools, which opens an overlay for that chart. Corner-pin the overlay so that the grid lines up over the color swatches in the image and hit the Match button. Resolve will instantly adjust its curves to correct the color balance of the shot, so that the chart in the image matches the template for that chart in Resolve. Now you can copy this grade and apply it to the rest of the shots within that same set-up.

Although this isn’t a one-shot fix, it’s intended to give you a good starting point for your grade. While this feature demos really well and is certainly a whizz-bang attention-getter, it has the most value for novice users or for DITs who need to get a quick grade for dailies while on location.

Editing

df_resolve11_3_smThe biggest spark of interest I’ve seen for Resolve 11 is due to the editing tools. As an NLE, it’s somewhat of a mash-up between Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Pro X. It copies a lot of X’s design aesthetic and even some features, like clip skimming in the media bins; yet, it is clearly track-based. For editors who like a lot of FCP X, but are put off by Apple’s trackless, magnetic timeline, Resolve 11 becomes a very tantalizing, cross-platform alternative.

Resolve 11’s edit module most closely aligns with Final Cut Pro 7, although there is no multi-cam feature, yet. The keyboard commands mirror the FCP 7 set, as do menu options and much of the working style. One big improvement is a very advanced trim mode, which offers good asymmetrical trimming. If you start a project from the beginning in Resolve 11, you can easily import media, organize clips into bins/folders, add logging information and, in general, do all of the nuts-and-bolts things you do in every editing application.

The interface uses a modal design and supports dual and single monitor configurations. Although there are numerous panels and windows that can be opened as needed, the general layout is fixed. Certain functions are restricted to the edit module and others to the color module. For example, transition effects, titles and generators would be added and adjusted in the edit module, while working with a standard timeline. Color correction and other image effects are reserved for the color module, which uses a node-based hierarchy. Resizing and repositioning can be done in either.

Resolve includes an inspector pane on the right side of the timeline viewer that is much like that of FCP X. Here you’ll find composite, transform, cropping, retiming and scaling controls. If you select a transition, then its adjustment controls appear in the inspector panel. Resolve supports the OpenFX video plug-in architecture. Third-party transitions will show up in the edit mode’s OpenFX library, while the filters only show up when you are in the color mode. Like FCP X, inspector controls are limited to sliders, color pickers and numerical entry, with no allowance for custom third-party plug-in interfaces.

My biggest beef is performance. Resolve 11 is optimized to pass the highest quality images through its pipeline, which seems to impede real-time playback, even with ungraded footage. In other NLEs, hitting play or the space bar brings you to full-speed, real-time playback in a fraction of a second. In Resolve it takes a few seconds, which is clearly evident in its dropped-frame indicator. Even with proper real-time playback, video motion does not look as smooth and fluid in the viewer as I would expect. There are a number of factors that affect this, including drive performance (high-performance storage is good), GPU performance (one or more high-end cards are desirable) and age of the machine (a new top-of-the-line system is ideal). Resolve is also not as gracious with a wide range of native media types as some of the other NLEs.

df_resolve11_4_smColor grades will affect performance. What if you start grading in the color mode and bounce back into the edit mode? This has the same impact on the computer as applying several filters in a traditional NLE. Add a stack of effects on most NLEs and playback performance through those clips is often terrible until you render. To mitigate this issue, Resolve includes smart caching, which is a similar sort of background render as that of FCP X. The software renders clips with a grade or an effect applied anytime the machine is idle.

Audio in Resolve 11 is still in the very early stages. There is no audio plug-in architecture. Hopefully Blackmagic will add AU and/or VST support down the road. Having multiple audio tracks also hurts system performance. Complex audio in the timeline quickly choked my system. Having even a few tracks caused the audio to drop out during playback. Resolve employs a similar track design to Adobe Premiere Pro. This means adaptive tracks, where a single timeline track can contain one mono channel, two stereo channels or multiple surround channels. This is an interesting design, but it seems to impact round-tripping between other applications. For example, I’ve exported multi-channel timelines via XML. In this process, when I brought that timeline into FCP 7 or Premiere Pro, these tracks only showed up as mono tracks with one channel of audio.

Roundtrips

df_resolve11_6_smWhere Resolve 11 really shines is in its roundtrip capabilities. It can take media and edit list formats from a range of systems, then let you process the media and finally output a new set of media files and corresponding lists. EDL, AAF, XML and FCPXML formats are supported, making Resolve 11 one of the better cross-application conversion tools. For instance, you can edit in FCP X, conform and grade in Resolve 11 and then output that in a compatible format to finish in the same or different NLE, such as Media Composer, Smoke, Premiere Pro, etc. Of course, with Resolve 11, you could simply finish in Resolve and output final deliverables from right within the application. That’s clearly the design goal Blackmagic had in mind.

Personally, I still prefer to use the roundtrip method, but there are a few wrinkles in this process. I have already mentioned audio issues. Another is resizing, such as FCP X’s “spatial conform” and Premiere Pro’s “scale to frame size”. These are automatic timeline functions to fit oversized images into smaller timeline frames, such as putting 4K media into a 1080 timeline. This feature automatically down-scales the source image so that either horizontal or vertical dimensions match. Unfortunately some of this information gets lost in the translation between applications.

df_resolve11_8_smI recently ran into this on two jobs with 4K RED media and Resolve 11. The first was a project cut in FCP X. The roundtrip went fine, but when the newly rendered 1080 media was back in FCP X, the application still thought it needed to enable spatial conform, which had been used in the offline edit. Disabling spatial conform caused FCP X to blow up the 1080 media 200%. The simple fix was just to leave spatial conform on and let FCP X render this media on export. There were no visible issues that I could detect.

The second was a music video project that the director had cut on Premiere Pro CC2014. There was extensive reframing and repositioning throughout. Importing this timeline into Resolve 11 was a complete disaster and would have meant rebuilding all of this work to reframe images. Ultimately I opted to use SpeedGrade CC2014 on this particular job, since it correctly translated the Premiere Pro timeline via Adobe’s Direct Link feature.

As a general rule, I would recommend that if you know you are going outside of the application, do not use any of these automatic resizing tools in the offline NLE. Instead, manually set the scale and position values, because Resolve does an excellent job of interpreting these parameters when set during the offline edit.

OpenFX

df_resolve11_5_smBlackmagic added the OpenFX architecture with Resolve 10, but now that Resolve 11 is out, new developers are joining the party. On my test system I installed both the FilmConvert 2.0 plug-in and the Boris Continuum Complete 9 package. The filters are accessed in the color modules and are applied to nodes, just like other grading functions. Although other host versions of the FilmConvert filter include color wheels within the filter’s control panel, they are excluded in the OpenFX version. You do get the camera and film emulsion presets. This is my favorite film emulation and grain plug-in and it makes a suitable complement to Resolve.

Boris FX’s BCC 9 for Resolve includes most of the same filters as for other hosts, including the new FX Browser. You can launch it from inside the Resolve interface, but when I tried to use it, the browser crashed the application. I’m running the public beta of 11.1, so that could be part of it. Otherwise, the filters themselves worked fine. So, if you need to add a glow, cartoon effect or spray paint noise to a shot, you can do so from inside Resolve with BCC 9.

OpenFX filters installed for other applications also show up in Resolve. I discovered this during my review of the HP Z1G2 workstation. Sony Vegas Pro 13 was installed, which also uses OpenFX. The NewBlueFX filters that were installed for Vegas also showed up in Resolve 11 on that machine.

A key point to remember it to apply OpenFX filters in a separate node. If you need to change the filter, simply delete the node and create a new one for a different filter. That way you won’t lose any of the correction applied to the clip.

Collaboration

df_resolve11_7_smResolve 11 enables collaboration among multiple users on the same project. This requires a paid version of Resolve 11 for each collaborator, a network and a shared DaVinci Resolve database. To test this feature, I enlisted the help of colorist and trainer Patrick Inhofer (Tao of Color, Mixing Light). Patrick set up a simple ethernet network between a Mac Pro and a MacBook Pro, each running a paid version of Resolve 11. You have to set up a shared project and open both Resolve seats in the collaboration mode. Once both systems are open with the same project, then it is possible to work interactively.

This is not like two or more Avid Media Composers running in a Unity-style sharing configuration. Rather, this approach is intended for an editor and a colorist to be able to simultaneously work on one timeline at the same time. One person is the “owner” of the project, while anyone else is a “collaborator”. In this model, the “owner” has control of the editing timeline and the “collaborator” is the colorist working in the color module. You could also have a third collaborator logging metadata for clips.

df_resolve11_9_smIn the collaboration mode, a bell-shaped alert icon is added to the lower left corner of the interface. Whenever the colorist adds or changes a correction on one or more clips and publishes his changes, the editor receives an alert to update the clips. When the update is made, the colorist’s changes become visible on the clips in the editor’s timeline. If the editor makes editorial changes to the timeline, such as trimming, adding or deleting clips, then he or she must save the project. Once saved, the colorist can reload the project to see these updates.

As long as you follow these procedures, things work well; however, in our tests, when we went the other direction, updates didn’t happen correctly. For example, color changes made by the editor or timeline edits made by the colorist, did not show up as expected on the other person’s system. Collaboration worked well, once we both got the hang of it, but the feature does feel like a 1.0 version. Updating changes worked, but you can also reject a change by choosing “revert”. This is supposed to take the clip back to the previous grade. Instead, it dropped the grade entirely and went back to an un-corrected version of the clip with all nodes removed.

DaVinci Resolve 11 is a powerful new version of this best-in-class color grading application. Although you might not edit a project from start-to-finish in Resolve, you certainly could. For now, Blackmagic Design is positioning Resolve as an NLE designed for finishing. Edit your creative cut in Media Composer, Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro – mix in Logic Pro X, Pro Tools or Audition – and then bring them all together in Resolve 11. As we all know, clients like to tweak the cut until the very end. Now the grading environment can enjoy more interactivity than ever before.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters