Autodesk Smoke 2015

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After NAB last year, Autodesk released Smoke 2015 – their Mac-based editing application. This version also marked Autodesk’s shift from perpetual licenses to a subscription model for Smoke. Any new Smoke users must subscribe for an active license, with monthly, quarterly, and annual plans available. In order to attract new users, Autodesk also introduced a free student license, which is active for three years. This is part of a companywide initiative to make all Autodesk software available to students worldwide.

df1015_smoke_2_smI wrote an in-depth review of Smoke 2013 two years ago. This was the first major optimization (after the introduction of Smoke 2011 for the Mac) to convert Smoke from the look and feel of its Irix and Linux roots into a predominantly Mac-oriented application. Much of Smoke 2015’s interface and operational style remains unchanged from that previous version. In the intervening two years, Autodesk has decided that Smoke and Flame no longer need to remain 100% compatible or locked into the same development cycle. Each product has evolved from a core toolset, but more and more is being designed for a specific audience and user need. Smoke 2015 is targeted at editors who want a strong compositor, but are most comfortable with track-based NLEs that run on Macs. This new release is even more Mac-friendly with improved performance on Mac hardware, including the new Mac Pros, iMacs and Retina MacBook Pros.

df1015_smoke_3_smThe hallmark of working with visual effects inside Smoke is the integration of a node-base compositing tool. That can also be the most daunting part of the learning curve for new users. Building on the 2013 version, Smoke 2015 has increased the amount of effects control that you can perform in the timeline, without touching any nodes. It uses a “ribbon” of common effects that can be applied to a clip and adjusted without ever leaving the timeline display. These consist of 14 effects modules that include most of the text, transform/DVE, color correction, and speed change effects commonly used by editors. For instance, you can apply a color correction to a clip or an adjustment layer, and then alter the look by numerical entry (keypad or mouse slider). You get a lot of correction control right within this ribbon, including access to master/highlight/mids/shadows and RGB/red/green/blue parameters. If you want more control with color wheels, then simply enter the effect editor to switch to that layout for the selected clip.

Smoke had included a third-party effects API (Sparks), but other than GenArts, never had many takers among the development community interested in rewriting their Sparks Linux plug-ins (originally developed for Flame and Smoke on Linux) into Mac versions for Smoke on the Mac. Not many users bought the ones that were available. As a result, Autodesk has moved away from this API for Smoke, even though the effects tab is still there. Instead, Autodesk engineers filled in the gaps through additional effects that now come with Smoke. The bottom line is that although there’s a Sparks tab in the ribbon, it’s a legacy item with no functionality without third-party plug-ins.

df1015_smoke_5_smSmoke has undergone a big performance improvement since its original Mac introduction. In the past, you could usually only play a timeline clip in real-time, when the clip had no more than a single effect applied to it. Add more effects and rendering was needed. Now it’s possible to apply several effects to a clip and still play through it without rendering. This is based on my testing on a 2009 8-core Mac Pro with 28GB of RAM and an ATI 5870 GPU card. To enable new users to adapt more quickly to complex composites and to add effects not supplied by third parties, Smoke 2015 includes a number of presets. For example, if you add a lens flare, there’s a wide range of preset styles accessible from a pulldown menu. When you set up a chromakey, you can start with a preset selection of nodes, designed to be a good starting point. Autodesk also added 3D camera tracking into Smoke 2015, which had been previously developed for Flame.

In an effort to position Smoke as a finishing tool that works well with Apple Final Cut Pro X, Autodesk has improved the compatibility with FCPXML lists generated from that application. While this works reasonably well, I did have problems relinking to clips with frame rates that differed from the main sequence rate. For example, 60fps clips from a Canon 5D that were cut into a 23.98fps timeline and slowed, did not properly relink when I imported the sequence into Smoke.

df1015_smoke_6_smOverall, Smoke 2015 is a good upgrade. With a subscription you get updates as they come out. Unfortunately, this process is not as easy as it is with Apple, Adobe, or even Avid products. My software went from SP1 (service pack) to SP2. When I tried to download SP2, I could only find SP3. I tried this version, but it was incompatible, because that was designed for legacy perpetual license owners. I finally got SP2 installed, but only through the help of tech support. On the plus side, I’ve found Autodesk’s support personnel to be very helpful and knowledgeable, when I’ve needed them.

Smoke does not support dual-display systems in the same way as its competitors. You can run the broadcast monitoring signal to a second display, which gives you full-screen video or a duplicate of the node tree in some modes; but, the user interface is not configurable across two screens like other NLEs. Smoke also accesses media differently than other NLEs, which conflicts with some of the Mac’s internal networking functions. I typically run with my internal Mac OS X firewall set to block all connections. This works fine with all creative applications, except Smoke. Set that way, all of the media is unlinked. Rather than reconfigure my settings to run Smoke (since my main use is for demo purposes), I simply turn off the internal firewall before launching Smoke.

df1015_smoke_4_smThe long-term success of the subscription software business model among creative applications is still an unknown. Adobe and Autodesk are primarily on the vanguard – with Avid offering it only as one option. Among users, it’s still a love/hate thing. It will take a few years yet to see whether or not it’s the right move. Nevertheless, if you have the business to justify the cost and want to stay current with a top-notch editor/compositor, then a Smoke subscription might be right for you. If you are serious about Smoke 2015, then I would highly recommend Alexis Van Hurkman’s book, “Autodesk Smoke Essentials”, which may be purchased through the Autodesk website, as well as from Amazon.com. It’s the ideal quick start guide for users committed to learning Smoke.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Fresh Dressed

df0515_frdress_2_smThe Sundance Film Festival is always a great event to showcase not just innovative dramas and comedies, but also new documentaries. This year brought good news for Adobe, because 21 of the documentaries to be shown were edited on Premiere Pro, which is more than double last year’s count. One such film is Fresh Dressed, which chronicles the history of hip-hop fashion from its birth in the Bronx during the 1970s to its evolution into a mainstream industry. It digs underneath the surface to look into other factors, like race and the societal context. Fresh Dressed was the first film written and directed by veteran producer Sacha Jenkins (Being Terry Kennedy, 50 Cent: The Power and the Money). The film features interviews with Pharrell Williams, Nas, Daymond John, Damon Dash, and Karl Kani, among others. It includes archival footage and some animation.

I recently spoke with Andrea B. Scott (Florence Arizona, A Place at the Table), who was brought in to complete the editing of the film to get it ready in time for Sundance submission. Scott explains, “Sacha and the team started shooting interviews in September of 2013. Initially there was another editor on board, who handled the first pass of cutting and organization of the project. I came to the film in May of 2014 after a basic assembly had been completed. This film was being produced by CNN and they recommended me. I definitely agree with the sentiment that editing is a lot like ‘writing with pictures’. It was my job to streamline the film and help craft the narrative, and bring Sacha’s vision to life as a moving story.”

df0515_frdress_1_smScott has worked on several documentaries before and has her own routine for learning the material. She says, “I usually start by watching the interviews through a couple of times, making notes with markers, and also by reading interview transcripts and highlighting certain passages. Then, I’ll pull selects to whittle down the interview to the parts that are most likely to be used in any given section. On Fresh Dressed, because I started with an assembly and needed to work quickly to get to a rough cut, I relied heavily on interview transcripts – going through the film section-by-section and interview-by-interview, and pulling selects – going back and forth from reading the transcript to watching the interview. Fresh Dressed involved about 30 interviews and totaled approximately 200 hours of raw footage. A lot of the archival search had already been done by the time I came on board, so I also had to watch through that footage and had a lot of good material to pull from.”

All film editing involves a working relationship between the editor and the director and Fresh Dressed was no exception. Scott continues, “It’s always a process of gaining the trust of the director. I come from the suburbs and I’m a bit younger than some of the crew, so it was a steep learning curve for me to understand the history of the hip-hop culture and fashion. It basically evolved from the urban gang culture of the 1970s, moved out from New York City, and went global from there. Inevitably, as the editor, you bring fresh eyes to the project and part of the editing process is to refine. The goal was to tell the story without voice-over, so we used the interviews to create that narrative thread. I put in a lot more archival material than was there before, which served to enliven the film with moments of nostalgia and infuse it with a fun energy. In a written script or book there can be a lot of side stories, which make sense on paper and are easy for the reader to follow and digest. But, the film we were making had to be more direct, with a linear timeline. Part of what I did was to strip away tangents that take you away from the main story.”df0515_frdress_3_sm

Scott’s touch also extended to the music. “The film was originally delivered to me with wall-to-wall music,” she explains. “I stripped out the music at first, so I could really think about story. Then I added temp score back in places to help steer the audience and underscore certain moments with another level of meaning.  In the end, we hired a talented composer, Tyler Strickland, to write the bulk of the score, and we also used some popular tracks from critical moments in the history of hip-hop.”

This was Scott’s first experience with Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Her prior experience had been with Apple Final Cut Pro (the “legacy” version). She found it to be a relatively easy transition. “The production company had already started the edit on Premiere Pro and so I continued with it. I welcomed being pushed to a new editing platform. It took about a week for me to get the hang of it. Since we were on a short deadline by that time, I simply ran it like I was used to running Final Cut. I really didn’t have the time to learn all of its nuances. I used the FCP keyboard settings, so everything felt natural to me. There’s a lot about Premiere Pro that I really like now. For example, the way it works with native media and using Adobe Media Encoder to export files.” The workstations were connected to shared storage, allowing the Scott to access material from any computer in the production office.

df0515_frdress_4_smEditors considering a shift to Premiere Pro CC sometimes question how its performance is with long-form project. Scott responds, “I was editing on an iMac and performance was fine. One tip I found that helps to speed up the loading of a large project is to discard old sequences. When I edit, I generally duplicate sequences and continue on those as I make changes. So on a large project you tend to build up a lot of sequences that way. While it’s good to save the past few versions in case you need to go back, you still have a lot of the oldest ones that simply aren’t ever needed again. These tend to slow down the speed of loading the project as all the media is relinked each time you launch it. By simply getting rid of a lot of these, you can improve performance.”

To handle the final stages of post, Scott exported an OMF file from Premiere Pro CC to be used by the audio mixer and and an XML file for the colorist. The final color correction of Fresh Dressed is being handled by Light of Day in New York. They will also complete the conform and recreate all moves on archival stills.

Scott concludes, “The film was, for the most part, made in New York, which makes sense, because Fresh Dressed really is a New York story at its heart.  Working on this film, I gained another level of love for New York, a deeper appreciation for all the many stories that start in this city, and for the deeper context that surrounds those individual stories.  Plus I had a lot of fun along the way.”

Read more about Fresh Dressed at Adobe’s Premiere Pro blog.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

FCP X Grading Strategy

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I’ve expounded on ways to tackle color grading in numerous posts. Recently in “Understanding SpeedGrade” I explained a workflow combining color grading tools with LUTs to create custom looks. In this post, I’m going to follow a similar process for FCP X users. (Note: This post was written before the release of FCP X 10.2. However, the fundamental items I discuss herein haven’t changed with the update. The main differences are that the Color Board has become a standard color correction effect and that all effects filters now have built-in masking.)

The approach I’m taking is using a creative LUT to define the overall look and then color correct individual clips for consistency.  A creative LUT should only be considered as spice, not as the main course. You can’t rely solely on the creative LUT for your shot. There is no “easy” button when grading shots on a timeline. In this example, I’m using one of the SpeedLooks LUTs from LookLabs. They offer a variety of styles from clean to stylized. To use any third-party LUT with FCP X, you have to use some plug-in that reads and applies LUTs as an effects filter. I use Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. Any .cube formatted LUT copied into its folder (located in the Motion Templates folder) will show up as a pulldown option when LUT Utility is applied to a clip in FCP X. (Click images to enlarge.)

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_11_smSpeedLooks LUTs are based on log or Rec 709 color space. If you have log footage and it has already been corrected to Rec 709, then you could simply use one of the Rec 709 versions. However, if you want to get the most out of their looks, then it’s best to shoot log and use a log-based LUT. Since log values vary among camera manufacturers, LookLabs designed their LUTs around a universal log value used within their LUT curves. To properly use one of their looks requires two stages of LUTs. The first stage is a camera patch, which shifts the video (by camera type) into LookLabs’ intermediate log space. They even include a patch for generic Rec 709 video. Once the first LUT has been applied, you may add the second LUT for the desired look. df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_12_smIn our grading strategy, the grading filters and/or tools are sandwiched between the first LUT (camera patch) and the second LUT (creative look).

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_2Step 1. For this example, I’m using ARRI Alexa footage that was encoded with a log-C gamma profile. FCP X has built-in LUT processing to convert these clips into Rec 709 color space. Disable that in the inspector for all clips. df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_3Assuming you have installed the LUTs into the correct template folder, apply LUT Utility to the first clip. From the pulldown menu select a camera patch LUT appropriate for the camera (in this case, Alexa log-C). Now copy-and-paste-attributes for just this filter to all clips on the timeline (assuming all clips use the same camera and gamma profile).df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_10

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_4Step 2. Add your preferred color correction effect to the clip. It will be stacked after the LUT Utility filter. I’m using Color Grade from Lawn Road’s Color Precision group. I like it because the controls are fast and I’ve grown fond of using exposure/contrast/temperature/tint controls in this type of grading. I could just as easily use one of the color wheel, color correction filters (Color Finale, Moods, Hawaiki Color, Colorista III) or even the FCP X Color Board. If the camera clips are reasonably consistent, the creative LUT you select is going to define the tonality of shadows and highlights, so there’s no reason to get carried away with big color balance changes in this grade.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_9Note: At this stage, you can copy-and-paste the Color Grade filter to all other clips or wait until later when you’ve actually started to make adjustments. If all shots are different, you might at well copy-and-paste now to have the filter in place with default starting values. If it’s a situation where you want to match the same cameras cutting back and forth – like A and B cameras in an interview – then you might opt to grade the first few clips and then copy-and-paste for the rest.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_5Step 4. Next it’s time to apply the creative LUT. Since you want to apply a single LUT across all clips, you’ll want to apply a blank, adjustment layer title effect as a connected clip. You can produce your own using Motion or download one of the free ones from the internet. The length of the adjustment layer should span the length of your timeline. To this title clip, add LUT Utility and select the desired SpeedLooks LUT (or any other you’ve added) from the pulldown menu. In this example, I used one of their Clean Kodak looks.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_7_smStep 5. I generally apply a slight vignette to most of my graded clips. This  is used to subtly darken the edge of the frame. FCP X won’t let you do this using a shape mask within the Color Board setting of a blank title, like the adjustment layer. (Note: This was corrected in 10.2. It is now possible to add a mask and color correction adjustment within an adjustment layer.) You will need to add a specific Vignette effect as another connected title. I’m using the Ripple Training RT Vignette in this example. Adjust the vignette’s size, shape, and darkening to taste. The RT Vignette lets you also blur of the edges and mix in an overall sepia toning to the clip as added features. I wouldn’t use these features as part of a standard vignette effect, but in some cases they might be appropriate.

df1715_fcpx_clrstrat_8_smStep 6. Finally! You’ve arrived. Now it’s time to do the real grade. Simply go clip by clip and only adjust the values of the Color Grade filter until you get the right look. Depending on the original shot and the way the LUT is being applied, part of what you are doing in this pass is adjusting the grade so that it looks optimum through the curves of the LUT. Generally you are working with smaller adjustments than without the LUT, since the creative LUT is doing most of the work to set your look.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer Goes 4K

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Avid Technology entered 2015 with a bang. The company closed out 2014 with the release of its Media Composer version 8.3 software, the first to enable higher resolution editing, including 2K, UHD and 4K projects. On January 16th of this year, Avid celebrated its relisting on the NASDAQ exchange by ringing the opening bell. Finally – as in most years – the Academy Awards nominee field is dominated by films that used either Media Composer and/or Pro Tools during the post-production process.

In a software landscape quickly shifting to rental (subscription) business models, Avid now offers the most flexible price model. Media Composer | Software may be purchased, rented, or managed through a floating licensing. If you purchase a perpetual license (you own the software), then an annually-renewed support contract gives you phone support and continued software updates. Opt out of the contract and you’ll still own the software you bought – you just lose any updates to newer software.

You can purchase other optional add-ons, like Symphony for advanced color correction. Unfortunately there’s still no resolution to the impasse between Avid and Nexidia. If you purchased ScriptSync or PhraseFind in the past, which rely on IP from Nexidia, then you can’t upgrade to version 8 or higher software and use those options. On the other hand, if you own an older version, such as Media Composer 7, and need to edit a project that requires a higher version, you can simply pick up a software subscription for the few months. This would let you run the latest software version for the time that it will take to complete that project.

df0915_avidmc83_1_smThe jump from Media Composer | Software 8.2 to 8.3 might seem minor, but in fact this was a huge update for Avid editors. It ushered in new, high-resolution project settings and capabilities, but also added a resolution-independent Avid codec – DNxHR. Not merely just the ability to edit in 4K, Media Composer now addresses most of the different 4K options that cover the TV and cinema variations, as well as new color spaces and frame rates. Need to edit 4K DCI Flat (3996×2160) at 48fps in DCI-P3 color space? Version 8.3 makes it possible. Although Avid introduced high-resolution editing in its flagship software much later than its competitors, it comes to the table with a well-designed upgrade that attempts to address the nuances of modern post.

df0915_avidmc83_2_smAnother new feature is LUT support. Media Composer has allowed users to add LUTs to source media for awhile now, but 8.3 adds a new LUT filter. Apply this to a top video track on your timeline and you can then add a user-supplied, film emulation (or any other type) look to all of your footage. There’s a new Proxy setting designed for work with high-resolution media. For example, switch your project settings to 1/4 or 1/16 resolution for better performance while editing with large files. Switch Proxy off and you are ready to render and output at full quality. As Media Composer becomes more capable of functioning as a finishing system, it has gained DPX image sequence file export via the Avid Image Sequencer, as well as export to Apple ProRes 4444 (Mac only).

df0915_avidmc83_4_smThis new high resolution architecture requires that the software increasingly shed itself of any remaining 32-bit parts in order to be compatible with modern versions of the Mac and Windows operating systems. Avid’s Title Tool still exists for legacy SD and HD projects, but higher resolutions will use NewBlue Titler Pro, which is included with Media Composer. It can, of course, also be used for all other titling.

There are plenty of new, but smaller features for the editor, such as a “quick filter” in the bin. Use it to quickly filter items to match the bin view to correspond with your filter text entry. The Avid “helper” applications of EDL Manager and FilmScribe have now been integrated inside Media Composer as the List Tool. This may be used to generate EDLs, Cut Lists and Change Lists.

df0915_avidmc83_3_smAvid is also a maker of video i/o hardware – Mojo DX and Nitris DX. While these will work to monitor higher resolution projects as downscaled HD, they won’t be updated to display native 4K output, for instance. Avid has qualifying AJA and Blackmagic Design hardware for use as 4K i/o. It is currently also qualifying BlueFish 444. If you work with a 4K computer display connected to your workstation, then the Full Screen mode enables 4K preview monitoring.

Avid Media Composer | Software version 8.3 is just the beginning of Avid’s entry into the high-resolution post-production niche. Throughout 2015, updates will further refine and enhance these new capabilities and expand high-resolution to other Avid products and solutions. Initial user feedback is that 8.3 is reasonably stable and performs well, which is good news for the high-end film and television world that continues to rely on Avid for post-production tools and solutions.

(Full disclosure: I have participated in the Avid Customer Association and chaired the Video Subcommittee of the Products and Solutions Council. This council provides user feedback to Avid product management to aid in future product development.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Filmmaking is Team Art

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One of the sad byproducts of the circle of life is that relatives, friends and colleagues precede you to that great film production in the sky. As you get older, that sadly increases in frequency. In the recent past I’ve seen my parents go. They meant a lot to me and the way they faced life’s challenges has always been an inspiration to me. But that’s a post for another time. Each passing of a friend hits you just a little harder.

This past weekend Florida lost a true legend in the business – Ralph R. Clemente. He was the program director and professor for the Film Production Technology program at Valencia College – a unique film production program that he crafted together with the then Dean, Rick Rietveld. The program grew out of a grant program sponsored by the Walt Disney Company, followed by Universal Studios in the heady “Hollywood East” days of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Central Florida. This program eventually became a formal certificate program under Valencia’s wing.

Ralph was born in Germany at the end of World War II and made his way into acting and then later into filmmaking. His family emigrated to the United States and, after many years, he ended up in south Florida teaching film production at the University of Miami. Valencia recruited him to set up the program in Orlando and, as they say, the rest is history. Unlike many other college film programs that are geared towards turning out auteurs, Valencia’s program has always targeted developing the working stiffs of the film industry – DPs, gaffers, grips, editors, production managers, and so on.

df1815_ralph_2While other film programs produce student films as their bread-and-butter, Valencia’s program was structured from the beginning as a partnership with professional filmmakers. Under Ralph’s guidance over several decades, the program has produced 47 feature films in productions that paired key working crew members with student staffs. This mentorship structure usually breaks down into a student/pro split of about 60/40. In these productions, students worked alongside talented pros, but were also exposed to legendary actors and actresses – including Julie Harris, Mickey Rooney, Sally Kellerman, Ed Begley, Jr., Charles Nelson Reilly, and many others – and leading directors, like George Romero, Robert Wise and Reza Badiyi.

For many students the training they received in Ralph’s University of Miami and/or Valencia College programs paid off well. Alumni include many working professionals in Florida, Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles. This includes folks working at every crew position, as well as some who have made it up the ladder to become noted directors and production managers in their own right.

I’ve had the good fortune to edit four of the films produced through the program, including two directed by Ralph. The last of these is still in post production. I’ve also provided other post production services on numerous other films produced through the program. Even when Ralph wasn’t the director, they still benefitted from his guiding hand and assistance to the producers and directors of those projects.

As a filmmaker, Ralph always valued the collaborative side of the art and craft. He was fond of considering it a “team art” and not the dictatorial vision of only one person. He imbued this feeling to his students and practiced it as a director. In our editor/director relationship, I always found him to be open to ideas, but he was also the kind of director who’d often need to “sleep on it”. This frequently resulted in creative inspiration that tended to solve the challenges the next day.

df1815_ralph_3Several aspects get less attention in the various online memorial comments I’ve seen. Ralph – a Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran – had a soft spot in his heart for the plight of many of his fellow veterans and sometimes found ways to build those stories into his scripts as a way of honoring his comrades. When classes weren’t tied up with specific film projects, Ralph also involved them in the production of numerous pro bono videos for various charities, such as the Coalition for the Homeless. This was not only his way of giving back, but also teaching students that film production had the potential to do good in ways that were more important than box office success.

What most who knew him will remember is that Ralph was the consummate people-person. He was very gifted at navigating the triad of college politics, mentoring students, and professional filmmaking. He was an experienced “schmoozer” – in the best sense of the word. He could manage to get the necessary resources to get the job done. Students and friends called him “the humble Bavarian” – thanks to his heritage and southern-tinged, Schwarzenegger-like accent. Many were fond of mimicking his casual accented greeting of “Howya doin’, howya doin’?”. All meant only as a compliment and never received with offense. But funny remembrances aside, there was no more passionate avocate for Florida filmmaking than Ralph. He loved the stories of his adopted state and the quaint little towns that time passed by, which still made for great film locations. His efforts included tireless lobbying to legislators for the benefit of the film community, such as the state film incentive program.

df1815_ralph_4Ralph’s passing came too suddenly due to illness, but he died doing what he loved, with active projects still in production. His time on this Earth left its mark with countless students who are now working film and television pros. All consider him a friend and mentor that set them on the path of their career. For those of us who worked with him on many projects and regarded him as a friend, his passing leaves a big void in the community that will be hard to fill. If there’s a Director’s Guild in Heaven, his card is waiting.

Ralph, my friend, rest in peace.

(Photo credits: Christian Saab, Brian Osmon, Valencia College, Mike Acevedo)

©2015 Oliver Peters

Focus

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Every once in awhile a movie comes along that has the potential to change how we in the film and video world work. Focus is one such movie. It’s a romantic caper film in the vein of To Catch a Thief or the Oceans franchise. It stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie as master and novice con artists who become romantically involved. Focus was written and directed by the veteran team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) who decided to use some innovative, new approaches in this production.

Focus is a high-budget, studio picture shot in several cities, including New Orleans and Buenos Aires. It also happens to be the first studio feature film that was cut using Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. The production chose to shoot with ARRI Alexa cameras, but record to ProRes 4444, instead of ARRIRAW (except for some VFX shots). At its launch in 2011, Final Cut Pro X had received a negative reaction from many veteran editors, so this was a tough sell to Warner Bros execs. In order to get over that hurdle, the editorial team went through extensive testing of all of the typical processes involved in feature film post production. They had to prove that the tool was more than up to the task.

Proving the concept

df1515_focus_5_smMike Matzdorff, first assistant editor, explains, “Warner Bros wanted to make sure that there was a fallback if everything blew up. That ‘Plan B’ was to step back and cut in either [Apple] FCP 7 or [Avid] Media Composer. Getting projects from Final Cut Pro X into Media Composer was very clunky, because of all the steps – getting to FCP 7 and then Automatic Duck to Avid. Getting to FCP 7 was relatively solid, so we ran a ‘chase project’ in FCP 7 with dailies for the entire show. Every couple days we would import an XML and relink the media. Fortunately FCP X worked well and ‘Plan B’ was never needed.”

df1515_focus_8_smGlenn Ficarra adds, “The industry changes so quickly that it’s hard to follow the progress. The studio was going off of old information and once they saw that our approach would work and also save time and money, then they were completely onboard with our choice.” The editorial team also consulted with Sam Mestman of FCPworks to determine what software, other than FCP X, was required to satisfy all of the elements associated with post on a feature film.

df1515_focus_4_smThis was a new experience for editor Jan Kovac (Curb Your Enthusiasm), as Focus is his first Hollywood feature film. Kovac studied film in the Czech Republic and then editing at UCLA. He’s been in the LA post world for 20 years, which is where he met Ficarra and Requa. Kovac was ready to be part of the team and accept the challenge of using Final Cut Pro X on a studio feature. He explains, “I was eager to work with John and Glenn and prove that FCP X is a viable option. In fact, I was using FCP X for small file-based projects since the fall of 2012.”

Production and post on the go

df1515_focus_1_smFocus was shot in 61 days across two continents, during a three-month period. Kovac and three assistants (Mike Matzdorff, Andrew Wallace, Kimaree Long) worked from before principal photography started until the sound mix and final delivery of the feature – roughly from September 2013 until August 2014. The production shot 145 hours of footage, much of it multicam. Focus was shot in an anamorphic format as 2048 x 1536 ProRes 4444 files recorded directly to the Alexa’s onboard cards. On set the DIT used the Light Iron Outpost mobile system to process the files, by de-squeezing them and baking in CDL color information. The editors then received 2048 x 1152 color-corrected ProRes 4444 “dailies”, which were still encoded with a Log-C gamma profile. FCP X has the ability to internally add a Log-C LUT on-the-fly to correct the displayed image. Therefore, during the edit, the clips always looked close the final appearance. Ficarra says, “This was great, because when we went through the DI for the final grading, the look was very close to what was decided on set. You didn’t see something radically different in the edit, so you didn’t develop ‘temp love’ for a certain look”.

df1515_focus_6_smA number of third-party developers have created utilities that fill in gaps and one of these is Intelligent Assistance, which makes various workflow tools based on XML. The editors used a number of these, including Sync-N-Link X, which enabled them to sync double-system sound with common timecode in a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Only a little use of Sync-N-Link X was made on Focus, because the DIT was using the Light Iron system to sync dailies.) Script data can also be added to Final Cut Pro X clips as notes. On Focus, that had to be done manually by the assistants. This need to automate the process spurred Kevin Bailey (Kovac’s assistant on his current film) to develop Shot Notes X, an application that takes the script supervisor’s information and merges it with FCP X Events to add this metadata into the notes field.

During the months of post, Apple released several updates to Final Cut Pro X and the team was not shy about upgrading mid-project. Matzdorff explains, “The transition to 10.1 integrated Events and Projects into Libraries. To make sure there weren’t any hiccups, I maintained an additional FCP X ‘chase project’.  I ran an alternate world between 10.0.9 and 10.1. We had 52 days of dailies in one Library and I would bring cuts across to see how they linked up and what happened. The transition was a rough one, but we learned a lot, which really helped down the line.”

Managing the media

df1515_focus_2_smFinal Cut Pro X has the unique ability to internally transcode quarter-sized editorial proxy files in the ProRes Proxy format. The editor can easily toggle between original footage and editorial proxies and FCP X takes care of the math to make sure color, effects and sizing information tracks correctly between modes. Throughout the editing period, Kovac, Ficarro, and the assistants used both proxies and the de-sequeezed camera files as their source. According to Kovac, “In Buenos Aires I was working from a MacBook Pro laptop using the proxies. For security reasons, I would lock up the footage in a safe. By using proxies, which take up less drive space, a much smaller hard drive was required and that easily fit into the safe.”

df1515_focus_3_smBack at their home base in LA, four rooms were set up connected to XSAN shared storage. These systems included iMacs and a Mac Pro (“tube” version). All camera media and common source clips. like sound effects libraries. lived on the XSAN, while each workstation had a small SSD RAID for proxies and local FCP X Libraries. The XSAN included a single transfer Library so that edits could be moved among the rooms. Kovac and Ficarra shared roles as co-editors at this stage, collaborating on each other’s scenes. Kovac says, “This was very fluid going back and forth between Glenn and me. The process was a lot like sharing sequences with FCP 7. It’s always good to keep perspective, so each of us would review the other’s edited scenes and offer notes.” The other two systems was used by the assistants. Kovac continues, “The Libraries were broken down by reel and all iterations of sharing were used, including the XSAN or sneaker net.”

Setting up a film edit in FCP X

df1515_focus_9_smAs with any film, the key is organization and translating the script into a final product. Kovac explains his process with FCP X, “The assistants would group the multicam clips and ‘reject’ the clip ranges before ‘action’ and after ‘cut’. This hides any extraneous material so you only have to sort through useable clips. We used a separate Event for each scene. With Sam and Mike, we worked out a process to review clips based on line readings. The dialogue lines in the script were numbered and the assistants would place a marker and a range for every three lines of dialogue. These were assigned keywords, so that each triplet of dialogue lines would end up in a Keyword Collection. Within a scene Event, I would have Keyword Collections for L1-3, L4-6, and so on. I would also create Smart Collections for certain criteria – for instance, a certain type of shot or anything else I might designate.”

Everyone involved felt that FCP X made the edit go faster, but it still takes time to be creative. Ficarra continues, “The first assembly of the film according to the script was about three hours long. I call this the ‘kitchen sink’ cut. The first screening cut was about two-and-a-half hours. We had removed some scenes and lengthened others and showed it to a ‘friends and family’ audience. It actually didn’t play as well as we’d hoped. Then we added these scenes back in and shortened everything, which went over much better. We had intentionally shot alternate versions of scenes just to play around with them in the edit. FCP X is a great tool for that, because you can easily edit a number of iterations.”

Engineered for speed

df1515_focus_10_smWhile many veteran editors experienced in other systems might scoff at the claims that FCP X is a faster editor, Mike Matzdorff was willing to put a finer point on that for me. He says, “I find that because of the magnetic timeline, trimming is a lot faster. If you label roles extensively, it’s easier to sort out temporary from final elements or organize sound sources when you hand off audio for sound post. With multi-channel audio in an Avid, for example, you generally sync the clips using only the composite mix. That way you aren’t tying up a lot of tracks on the timeline for all of the source channels. If you have to replace a line with a clean isolated mic, you have to dig it out and make the edit. With FCP X, all of the audio channels are there and neatly tucked away until you need them. It’s a simple matter of expanding a clip and picking a different channel. That alone is a major improvement.”

Ficarra and Kovac are in complete agreement. Ficarra points out, “As an editor, I’m twice as fast on FCP X as on Avid. There’s less clicking. This is the only NLE that’s not trying to emulate some other model, like cutting on a flatbed. You are able to move faster on your impulses.” Kovac adds, “It keeps you in the zone.”

The final DI was handled by Light Iron, who conformed and graded Focus. The handoff was made using an EDL and an FCPXML, along with a QuickTime picture reference. Light Iron relinked to the original anamorphic camera masters and graded using a Quantel Rio unit.

Filling in the workflow gaps

A number of developers contributed to the success of FCP X on Focus. Having a tight relationship with the editing team let them tailor their solutions to the needs of the production. One of these developers, Philip Hodgetts (President, Intelligent Assistance) says, “One of the nice things about being a small software developer is that we can react to customer needs very quickly. During the production of Focus we received feature requests for all the tools we were providing – Sync-N-Link X, Change List X and Producer’s Best Friend. For example, Sync-N-Link X gained the ability to create multicam clips, in addition to synchronizing audio and video, as a result of a feature request from first assistant Mike Matzdorff.” This extended to Apple’s ProApps team, who also kept a close and helpful watch on the progress of Focus.

df1515_focus_11_smFor every film that challenges convention, a lot of curiosity is raised about the process. Industry insiders refer to the “Cold Mountain moment” – alluding to the use of FCP 3 by editor Walter Murch on the film, Cold Mountain. That milestone added high-end legitimacy for the earlier Final Cut among professional users. Gone Girl did that for Adobe Premiere Pro and now Focus has done that for a new Final Cut. But times are different and it’s hard to say what the true impact will be. Nevertheless, Focus provided the confidence for the team to continue on their next film in the same manner, tapping Final Cut Pro X once again. Change can be both scary and exciting, but as Glenn Ficarra says, “We like to shake things up. It’s fun to see the bemused comments wondering how we could ever pull it off with something like FCP X!”

For those that want to know more about the nuts and bolts of the post production workflow, Mike Matzdorff released “Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow”, an e-book that’s a step-by-step advanced guide based on the lessons learned on Focus. It’s available through iTunes and Kindle.

For some additional reading on the post production workflow of Focus, check out this Apple “in action” story, as well as Part 1 and Part 2 of FCP.co’s very in-depth coverage of how the team got it done. For a very in-depth understanding, make sure you watch the videos at PostPerspective.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Understanding SpeedGrade

df1615_sg_1How you handle color correction depends on your temperament and level of expertise. Some editors want to stay within the NLE, so that editorial adjustments are easily made after grading. Others prefer the roundtrip to a powerful external application. When Adobe added the Direct Link conduit between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC, they gave Premiere Pro editors the best of both worlds.

Displays

df1615_sg_4SpeedGrade is a standalone grading application that was initially designed around an SDI feed from the GPU to a second monitor for your external video. After the Adobe acquisition, Mercury Transmit was eventually added, so you can run SpeedGrade with one display, two computer displays, or a computer display plus a broadcast monitor. With a single display, the video viewer is integrated into the interface. At home, I use two computer displays, so by enabling a dual display layout, I get the SpeedGrade interface on one screen and the full-screen video viewer on the other. To do this you have to correctly offset the pixel dimensions and position for the secondary display in order to see it. Otherwise the image is hidden behind the interface.

Using Mercury Transmit, the viewer image is sent to an external monitor, but you’ll need an appropriate capture/monitoring card or device. AJA products seem to work fine. Some Blackmagic devices work and others don’t. When this works, you will lose the viewer from the interface, so it’s best to have the external display close – as in next to your interface monitor.

Timeline

df1615_sg_3When you use Direct Link, you are actually sending the Premiere Pro timeline to SpeedGrade. This means that edits and timeline video layers are determined by Premiere Pro and those editing functions are disabled in SpeedGrade. It IS the Premiere Pro timeline. This means certain formats that might not be natively supported by a standalone SpeedGrade project will be supported via the Direct Link path – as long as Premiere Pro natively supports them.

There is a symbiotic relationship between Premiere Pro and SpeedGrade. For example, I worked on a music video that was edited natively using RED camera media. The editor had done a lot of reframing from the native 4K media in the 1080 timeline. All of this geometry was correctly interpreted by SpeedGrade. When I compared the same sequence in Resolve (using an XML roundtrip), the geometry was all wrong. SpeedGrade doesn’t give you access to the camera raw settings for the .r3d media, but Premiere Pro does. So in this case, I adjusted the camera raw values by using the source settings control in Premiere Pro, which then carried those adjustments over to SpeedGrade.

df1615_sg_2Since the Premiere Pro timeline is the SpeedGrade timeline when you use Direct Link, you can add elements into the sequence from Premiere, in order to make them available in SpeedGrade. Let’s say you want to add a common edge vignette across all the clips of your sequence. Simply add an adjustment layer to a top track while in Premiere. This appears in your SpeedGrade timeline, enabling you to add a mask and correction within the adjustment layer clip. In addition, any video effects filters that you’ve applied in Premiere will show up in SpeedGrade. You don’t have access to the controls, but you will see the results interactively as you make color correction adjustments.

df1615_sg_17All SpeedGrade color correction values are applied to the clip as a single Lumetri effect when you send the timeline back to Premiere Pro. All grading layers are collapsed into a single composite effect per clip, which appears in the clip’s effect stack (in Premiere Pro) along with all other filters. In this way you can easily trim edit points without regard to the color correction. Traditional roundtrips render new media with baked-in color correction values. There, you can only work within the boundaries of the handles that you’ve added to the file upon rendering. df1615_sg_16Not so with Direct Link, since color correction is like any other effect applied to the original media. Any editorial changes you’ve made in Premiere Pro are reflected in SpeedGrade should you go back for tweaks, as long as you continue to use Direct Link.

12-way and more

df1615_sg_5Most editors are familiar with 3-way color correctors that have level and balance controls for shadows, midrange and highlights. Many refer to SpeedGrade’s color correction model as a 12-way color corrector. The grading interface features a 3-way (lift/gamma/gain) control for four ranges of correction: overall, shadows, midrange, and highlights. Each tab also adds control of contrast, pivot, color temperature, magenta (tint), and saturation. Since shadow, midrange, and highlight ranges overlap, you also have sliders that adjust the overlap thresholds between shadow and midrange and between the midrange and highlight areas.

df1615_sg_7Color correction is layer based – similar to Photoshop or After Effects. SpeedGrade features primary (“P”) , secondary (“S”) and filter layers (the “+” symbol). When you add layers, they are stacked from bottom to top and each layer includes an opacity control. As such, layers work much the same as rooms in Apple Color or nodes in DaVinci Resolve. You can create a multi-layered adjustment by using a series of stacked primary layers. Shape masks, like that for a vignette, should be applied to a primary layer. df1615_sg_10The mask may be normal or inverted so that the correction is applied either to the inside or the outside of the mask. Secondaries should be reserved for HSL keys. For instance, highlighting the skin tones of a face to adjust its color separately from the rest of the image. The filter layer (“+”) is where you’ll find a number of useful tools, including Photoshop-style creative effect filters, LUTs, and curves.

Working with grades

df1615_sg_13The application of color correction can be applied to a clip as either a master clip correction or just a clip correction (or both). When you grade using the default clip tab, then that color correction is only being applied to that single clip. If you grade in the master clip tab, then any color correction that you apply to that clip will also be applied to every other instance of that same media file elsewhere on the timeline. Theoretically, in a multicam edit – made up of four cameras with a single media file per camera – you could grade the entire timeline by simply color correcting the first clip for each of the four cameras as a master clip correction. All other clips would automatically inherit the same settings. Of course, that almost never works out quite as perfectly, therefore, you can grade a clip using both the master clip and the regular clip tabs. Use the master for a general setting and still use the regular clip tab to tweak each shot as needed.

df1615_sg_9Grades can be saved and recalled as Lumetri Looks, but typically these aren’t as useful in actual grading as standard copy-and-paste functions – a recent addition to SpeedGrade CC. Simply highlight one or more layers of a graded clip and press copy (cmd+c on a Mac). Then paste (cmd+v on a Mac) those to the target clip. These will be pasted in a stack on top of the default, blank primary correction that’s there on every clip. You can choose to use, ignore, or delete this extra primary layer.

SpeedGrade features a cool trick to facilitate shot matching. The timeline playhead can be broken out into multiple playheads, which will enable you to compare two or more shots in real-time on the viewer. This quick comparison lets you make adjustments to each to get a closer match in context with the surrounding shots.

A grading workflow

df1615_sg_14Everyone has their own approach to grading and these days there’s a lot of focus on camera and creative LUTs. My suggestions for prepping a Premiere Pro CC sequence for SpeedGrade CC go something like this.

df1615_sg_6Once, you are largely done with the editing, collapse all multicam clips and flatten the timeline as much as possible down to the bottom video layer. Add one or two video tracks with adjustment layers, depending on what you want to do in the grade. These should be above the last video layer. All graphics – like lower thirds – should be on tracks above the adjustment layer tracks. This is assuming that you don’t want to include these in the color correction. Now duplicate the sequence and delete the tracks with the graphics from the dupe. Send the dupe to SpeedGrade CC via Direct Link.

In SpeedGrade, ignore the first primary layer and add a filter layer (“+”) above it. Select a camera patch LUT. For example, an ARRI Log-C-to-Rec-709 LUT for Log-C gamma-encoded Alexa footage. Repeat this for every clip from the same camera type. If you intend to use a creative LUT, like one of the SpeedLooks from LookLabs, you’ll need one of their camera patches. This shifts the camera video into a unified gamma profile optimized for their creative LUTs. If all of the footage used in the timeline came from the same camera and used the same gamma profile, then in the case of SpeedLooks, you could apply the creative LUT to one the adjustment layer clips. This will apply that LUT to everything in the sequence.

df1615_sg_8Once you’ve applied input and output LUTs you can grade each clip as you’d like, using primary and secondary layers. Use filter layers for curves. Any order and any number of layers per clip is fine. Using this methodology all grading is happening between the camera patch LUT and the creative LUT added to the adjustment layer track. Finally, if you want a soft edge vignette on all clips, apply an edge mask to the default primary layer of the topmost adjustment layer clip. Adjust the size, shape, and softness of the mask. Darken the outside of the mask area. Done.df1615_sg_11

(Note that not every camera uses logarithmic gamma encoding, nor do you want to use LUTs on every project. These are the “icing on the cake”, NOT the “meat and potatoes” of grading. If your sequence is a standard correction without any stylized creative looks, then ignore the LUT procedures I described above.)

df1615_sg_15Now simply send your timeline back to Premiere Pro (the “Pr” button). Back in Premiere Pro CC, duplicate that sequence. Copy-and-paste the graphics tracks from the original sequence to the available blank tracks of the copy. When done, you’ll have three sequences: 1) non-color corrected with graphics, 2) color corrected without graphics, and 3) final with color correction and graphics. The beauty of the Direct Link path between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC is that you can easily go back and forth for changes without ever being locked in at any point in the process.

©2015 Oliver Peters