Viva Las Vegas – NAB 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Editing hardware and software – four As and a B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HDR

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

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

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

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

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

Cameras

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

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

Storage

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

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

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

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

The cloud

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

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

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

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

Interesting newcomers

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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

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

©2018 Oliver Peters

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Putting Apple’s iMac Pro Through the Paces

At the end of December, Apple made good on the release of the new iMac Pro and started selling and shipping the new workstations. While this could be characterized as a stop-gap effort until the next generation of Mac Pro is produced, that doesn’t detract from the usefulness and power of this design in its own right. After all, the iMac line is the direct descendant in spirit and design of the original Macintosh. Underneath the sexy, all-in-one, space grey enclosure, the iMac Pro offers serious workstation performance.

I work mostly these days with a production company that produces and posts commercials, corporate videos, and entertainment programming. Our editing set-up consists of seven workstations, plus an auxiliary machine connected to a common QNAP shared storage network. These edit stations consisted of a mix of old and new Mac Pros and iMacs (connected via 10GigE), with a Mac Mini for the auxiliary (1GigE). It was time to upgrade the oldest machines, which led us to consider the iMac Pros. The company picked up three of them – replacing two Mac Pro towers and an older iMac. The new configuration is a mix of three, one-year-old Retina 5K iMacs (late 2015 model), a 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro, and three 2017 iMac Pros.

There are plenty of videos and articles on the web about how these machines perform; but, the testers often use artificial benchmarks or only Final Cut Pro X. This shop has a mix of NLEs (Adobe, Apple, Avid, Blackmagic Design), but our primary tool is Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2018. This gave me a chance to compare how these machines stacked up against each other in the kind of work we actually do. This comparison isn’t truly apples-to-apples, since the specs of the three different products are somewhat different from each other. Nevertheless, I feel that it’s a valid real-world assessment of the iMac Pros in a typical, modern post environment.

Why buy iMac Pros at all?

The question to address is why should someone purchase these machines? Let me say right off the bat, that if your main focus is 3D animation or heavy compositing using After Effects or other applications – and speed and performance are the most important factor – then don’t buy an Apple computer. Period. There are plenty of examples of Dell and HP workstations, along with high-end gaming PCs, that outperform any of the Macs. This is largely due to the availability of advanced NVidia GPUs for the PC, which simply aren’t an option for current Macs.

On the other hand, if you need a machine that’s solid and robust across a wide range of postproduction tasks – and you prefer the Mac operating ecosystem – then the iMac Pros are a good choice. Yes, the machine is pricy and you can buy cheaper gaming PCs and DIY workstations, but if you stick to the name brands, like Dell and HP, then the iMac Pros are competitively priced. In our case, a shift to PC would have also meant changing out all of the machines and not just three – therefore, even more expensive.

Naturally, the next thing is to compare price against the current 5K iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Apple’s base configuration of the iMac Pro uses an 8-core 3.2GHz Xeon W CPU, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, and the Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU (8GB memory) for $4,999. A comparably configured 2013 Mac Pro is $5,207 (with mouse and keyboard), but no display. Of course, it also has the dual D-700 GPUs. The 5K iMac in a similar configuration is $3,729. Note that we require 10GigE connectivity, which is built into the iMac Pros. Therefore, in a direct comparison, you would need to bump up the iMac and Mac Pro prices by about $500 for a Thunderbolt2-to-10GigE converter.

Comparing these numbers for similar machines, you’d spend more for the Mac Pro and less for the iMac. Yet, the iMac Pro uses newer processors and faster RAM, so it could be argued that it’s already better out of the gate in the base configuration than Apple’s former top-of-the-line product. It has more horsepower than the tricked-out iMac, so then it becomes a question of whether the cost difference is important to you for what you are getting.

Build quality

Needless to say, Apple has a focus on the quality and fit-and-finish of its products. The iMac Pro is no exception. Except for the space grey color, it looks like the regular 27” iMacs and just as nicely built. However, let me quibble a bit with a few things. First, the edges of the case and foot tend to be a bit sharp. It’s not a huge issue, but compared with an iPhone, iPad, or 2013 Mac Pro, the edges just not as smooth and rounded. Secondly, you get a wireless mouse and extended keyboard. Both have to be plugged in to charge. In the case of the mouse, the cable plugs in at the bottom, rendering it useless during charging. Truly a bad design. The wireless keyboard is the newer, flatter style, so you lose two USB ports that were on the previous plug-in extended keyboard. Personally, I prefer the features and feel of the previous keyboard, not to mention any scroll wheel mouse over the Magic Mouse. Of course, those are strictly items of personal taste.

With the iMac Pro, Apple is transitioning its workstations to Thunderbolt 3, using USB-C connectors. Previous Thunderbolt 2 ports have been problematic, because the cables easily disconnect. In fact, on our existing iMacs, it’s very easy to disconnect the Thunderbolt 2 cable that connects us to the shared storage network, simply by moving the iMac around to get to the ports on the back. The USB-C connectors feel more snug, so hopefully we will find that to be an improvement. If you need to get to the back of the iMac or iMac Pro frequently, in order to plug in drives, dongles, etc., then I would highly recommend one of the docks from CalDigit or OWC as a valuable accessory.

5K screen

Apple spends a lot of marketing hype on promoting their 5K Retina screens. The 27” screens have a raw pixel resolution of 5120×2880 pixels, but that’s not what you see in terms of image and user interface dimensions. To start with, the 5K iMacs and iMac Pros use the same screen resolution and the default display setting (middle scaled option) is 2560×1440 pixels. The top choice is 3200×1800. Of course, if you use that setting, everything becomes extremely small on screen.  Conversely, our 2013 Mac Pro is connected to a 27” Apple LED Cinema Display (non Retina). It’s top scaled resolution is also 2560×1440 pixels. Therefore, at the most useable settings, all of our workstations are set to the same resolution. Even if you scale the resolution up (images and UI get smaller), you are going to end up adjusting the size of the application interface and viewer window. While you might see different viewer size percentage numbers between the machines, the effective size on screen will be the same.

Retina is Apple’s marketing name for high pixel density. This is the equivalent of DPI (dots per inch) in print resolutions. According to a Macworld article, iPhones from 4 to 5s had a pixel density of 326ppi (pixels per inch), while iMacs have 218ppi. Apple converts a device’s display to Retina by doubling the horizontal and vertical pixel count. More pixels are applied to any given area on the screen, resulting in smoother text, smoother diagonal lines, and so on. That’s assuming an application’s interface is optimized for it. At the distance that the editors sit from a 27” display, there is simply little or no difference between the look of the 27” LED display and the 27” iMac Retina screens.

Upgradeability

Future-proofing and upgrades are the biggest negatives thrown at all-in-ones, particularly the iMac Pros. While the user can upgrade RAM in the standard iMacs, that’s not the case with iMac Pros. You can upgrade RAM in the future, but that must be done at a service facility, such as the Apple Store’s Genius service. This means that in three years, when you want the latest, greatest CPU, GPU, storage, etc., you won’t be able to swap out components. But is this really an issue? I’m sure Apple has user research numbers to justify their decisions. Plus, the thermal design of the iMac would make user upgrades difficult, unlike older mac Pro towers.

In my own experience on personal machines, as well as clients’ machines that I’ve helped maintain, I have upgraded storage, GPU cards, and RAM, but never the CPU. Although I do know others who have upgraded Xeon models on their Mac Pro towers. Part of the dichotomy is buying what you can afford now and upgrading later, versus stretching a bit up front and then not needing to upgrade later. My gut feeling is that Apple is pushing the latter approach.

If I tally up the cost of the upgrades that I’ve made after about three years, I would already be part of the way towards a newer, better machine anyway. Plus, if you are cutting HD and even 4K today, then just about any advanced machine will do the trick, making it less likely that you’ll need to do that upgrade within the foreseeable life of the machine. An argument can be made for either approach, but I really think that the vast majority of users – even professional users – never actually upgrade any of the internal hardware from that of the configuration as originally purchased.

Performance testing

We ultimately purchased machines that were the 10-core bump-up from the base configuration, feeling that this is the sweet spot (and is currently available) within the iMac Pro product line.

The new machine specs within the facility now look like this:

2013 Mac Pro – 3GHz 8-core Xeon/64GB RAM/dual D-500 GPUs/1TB SSD (Sierra)

2015 iMac – 4GHz 4-core Core i7/32GB RAM/AMD R9/3TB Fusion drive (Sierra)

2017 iMac Pro – 3GHz 10-core Xeon W/64GB RAM/Radeon Vega 64/1TB SSD (High Sierra)

As you can see, the tech specs of the new iMac Pros more closely match the 2013 Mac Pro than the year-old 5K iMacs. Of course, it’s not a perfect match for optimal benchmark testing, but close enough for a good read on how well the iMac Pro delivers in a real working environment.

Test 1 – BruceX

The BruceX test uses a 5K Final Cut Pro X timeline made up only of built-in titles and generators. The timeline is then rendered out to a ProRes file. This tests the pure application without any media and codec variables. It’s a bit of an artificial test and only applicable to FCPX performance, but still useful. The faster the export time, the better. (I have bolded the best results.)

2013 Mac Pro – 26.8 sec.

2015 iMac – 28.3 sec.

2017 iMac Pro – 14.4 sec.

Test 2 – media encoding

In my next test, I took a 4½-minute-long 1080p ProRes file and rendered it to a 4K/UHD (3840×2160) H.264 (1-pass CBR 20Mbps) file. Not only was it being encoded, but also scaled up to 4K in this process. I rendered from and to the desktop, to eliminate any variables from the QNAP system. Finally, I conducted the test using both Adobe Media Encoder (using OpenCL processing) and Apple Compressor.

Two noteworthy issues. The Compressor test was surprisingly slow on the Mac Pro. (I actually ran the Compressor test twice, just to be certain about the slowness of the Mac Pro.) The AME version kicked in the fans on the iMac.

Adobe Media Encoder

2013 Mac Pro – 6:13 min.

2015 iMac – 7:14 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 4:48 min.

 Compressor

2013 Mac Pro – 11:02 min.

2015 iMac – 2:20 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:19 min.

 Test 3 – editing timeline playback – multi-layered sequence

This was a difficult test designed to break during unrendered playback. The 40-second 1080p/23.98 sequence include six layers of resized 4K source media.

Layer 1 – DJI clips with dissolves between the clips

Layers 2-5 – 2D PIP ARRI Alexa clips (no LUTs); layer 5 had a Gaussian blur effect added

Layer 6 – native REDCODE RAW with minor color correction

The sequence was created in both Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro. Playback was tested with the media located on the QNAP volumes, as well as from the desktop (this should provide the best possible playback).

Playing back this sequence in Final Cut Pro X from the QNAP resulted is the video output largely choking on all of the machines. Playing it back in Premiere Pro from the QNAP was slightly better than in FCPX, with the 2017 iMac Pro performing best of all. It played, but was still choppy.

When I tested playback from the desktop, all three machines performed reasonably well using both Final Cut Pro X (“best performance”) and Premiere Pro (“1/2 resolution”). There were some frames dropped, although the iMac Pro played back more smoothly than the other two. In fact, in Premiere Pro, I was able to set the sequence to “full resolution” and get visually smooth playback, although the indicator light still noted dropped frames. Typically, as each staggered layer kicked in, performance tended to hiccup.

Test 4 – editing timeline playback – single-layer sequence

 This was a simpler test using a standard workflow. The 30-second 1080p/23.98 sequence included three Alexa clips (no LUTs) with dissolves between the clips. Each source file was 4K/UHD and had a “punch-in” and reposition within the HD frame. Each also included a slight, basic color correction. Playback was tested in Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro, as well as from the QNAP system and the desktop. Quality settings were increased to “best quality” in FCPX and “full resolution” in Premiere Pro.

My complex timeline in Test 3 appeared to perform better in Premiere Pro. In Test 4, the edge was with Final Cut Pro X. No frames were dropped with any of the three machines playing back either from the QNAP or the desktop, when testing in FCPX. In Premiere Pro, the 2017 iMac Pro was solid in both situations. The 2015 iMac was mostly smooth at “full” and completely smooth at “1/2”. Unfortunately, the 2013 Mac Pro seemed to be the worst of the three, dropping frames even at “1/2 resolution” at each dissolve within the timeline.

Test 5 – timeline renders (multi-layered sequence)

In this test, I took the complex sequence from Test 3 and exported it to a ProRes master file. I used the QNAP-connected versions of the Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X timelines and rendered the exports to the desktop. In FCPX, I used its default Share function. In Premiere Pro, I queued the export to Adobe Media Encoder set to process in OpenCL. This was one of the few tests in which the 2013 Mac Pro put in a faster time, although the iMac Pro was very close.

Rendering to ProRes – Premiere Pro (via Adobe Media Encoder)

2013 Mac Pro – 1:29 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:45 min.

Rendering to ProRes – Final Cut Pro X

2013 Mac Pro – 1:21 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:22 min.

Test 6 – Adobe After Effects – rendering composition

My final test was to see how well the iMac Pro performed in rendering out compositions from After Effects. This was a 1080p/23.98 15-second composition. The bottom layer was a JPEG still with a Color Finesse correction. On top of that were five 1080p ProResLT video clips that had been slomo’ed to fill the composition length. Each was scaled, cropped, and repositioned. Each was beveled with a layer style and had a stylized effect added to it. The topmost layer was a camera layer with all other layers set to 3D, so the clips could be repositioned in z-space. Using the camera, I added a slight rotation/perspective change over the life of the composition.

Rendering to ProRes – After Effects

2013 Mac Pro – 2:37 min.

2015 iMac – 2:15 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:03 min.

Conclusion

After all of this testing, one is left with the answer “it depends”. The 2013 Mac Pro has two GPUs, but not every application takes advantage of that. Some apps tax all the available cores, so more, but slower, cores are better. Others go for the maximum speed on fewer cores. All things considered, the iMac Pro performed at the top of these three machines. It was either the best or close/equal to the best.

There is no way to really quantify actual editing playback performance and resolution by any numerical factor. However, it is interesting to look at the aggregate of the six tests that could be quantified. When you compare the cumulative totals of just the iMac Pro and the iMac, the Pro came out 48% faster. Compared to the 2013 Mac Pro, it was 85% faster. The iMac Pro’s performance against the totals of the slowest machines (either iMac or Mac Pro depending on the test), showed it being a whopping 113% faster – more than twice as fast. But it only bested the fastest set by 20%. Naturally, such comparisons are more curiosity than anything else. Some of these numbers will be meaningful and others won’t, depending on the apps used and a user’s storage situation.

I will say that installing these three machines was the easiest I’ve ever done, including connecting them to the 10GigE storage network. The majority of our apps come from Adobe Create Cloud, the Mac App Store, or FxFactory (for plug-ins). Except for a few other installers, there was largely no need to track down installers, activation information, etc. for a zillion small apps and plug-ins. This made it a breeze and is certainly part of the attraction of the Mac ecosystem. The iMac Pro’s all-in-one design limits the required peripherals, which also contributes to a faster installation. Naturally, I can’t tell anyone if this is the right machine for them, but so far, the investment does look like the correct choice for this shop’s needs.

(Updated 6/22/18)

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

©2018 Oliver Peters

Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.4

December finally delivered the much-anticipated simultaneous release of new versions of Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion, and Compressor – all on the same day as the iMac Pro officially went on sale. In the broader ecosystem, we also saw updates for macOS High Sierra, Logic Pro X, Pixelmator Pro, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve.

Final Cut Pro X (“ten”), version 10.4 is the fifth major release of Apple’s professional NLE in a little over six years. There are changes under the hood tied to technologies in High Sierra (macOS 10.13), which won’t get much press, but are very important in the development and operation of an application. This version will still run on a wide range of recent and older Macs. The minimum OS requirement is 10.12.4, but 10.13 or later is recommended. There are four new, marquee features in this release: advanced color correction tools, 360° editing, HDR (wide gamut) color space support, and HEVC/H.265 codec support for editing and encoding.

New advanced color tools

Final Cut Pro X was first launched with a color correction tool called the color board. It substituted sliders on a color swatch for the standard curves and color wheel controls that editors had been used to. While the color board was and is effective, as well as a bit deceptive in what you can accomplish, it was an instant turn-off for many. The lack of a more advanced color correction interface opened the field for third party color correction plug-in developers who came up with some great tools. With the release of FCPX 10.4, it’s hard for me to see why FCPX diehards would still buy a color correction plug-in. Yet, I have heard from at least one plug-in developer that their color corrector plug-in sales are staying stable. Clearly users want choice and that’s a good thing.

With this update, you’ve gained three new, native color tools, including color wheels, curves, and hue vs. saturation curves. All are elegantly designed, operate quite fluidly, and generally mimic what you can do in DaVinci Resolve. However, the color board didn’t go away however. There’s a preference setting for which of these four color tools is the default effect when first applying color correction (CMD+6).

Once you start color correcting, you can add more instances of any of these four tools in any combination. Final Cut Pro X sports robust performance, so you can apply several layers of correction to a clip and still have real-time playback without rendering. There are also additional keyboard commands to quickly step through effects or clips on your timeline. While not quite as fluid of a grading workflow as you’d have in a true color correction application, like Resolve, you can get pretty close with some experience. My biggest beef is that you are limited to the controls being locked within the inspector pane. You can’t move the controls around and there is no special color correction workspace. So for me, the ergonomics are poor. In my testing, I’ve also hit some flaws in how the processing is done (more on that in a future post). Ironically the color board actually seems to achieve more accurate correction than the color wheels.

There are a few quirks. Previously created presets for the color board will be converted into color preset effects, which now appear in the effects browser. This enables you to preview a color preset applied to a clip by skimming over the effect thumbnail. Unfortunately, I found this conversion didn’t always work. On a Sierra machine (10.12), the older presets were automatically converted after waiting a few minutes; however, nothing happened on a High Sierra machine (10.13). I eventually resorted to copying my converted effects presets from the Sierra Mac over to the High Sierra Mac. I suspect, that because the High Sierra update automatically reformats the internal SSD drive to the new Apple File System (APFS), this conversion process is somehow impeded. Of course, if you don’t already have any existing custom presets, then it’s not an issue.

(You can check out my previously-created color presets for instructions and downloads here.)

There is no control surface support yet, although future support for third party color correction controllers has been alluded to. It would be nice to see support for Tangent or Avid panels at the very least. There’s a new FCPXML version (1.7) that includes this new color metadata; however, it doesn’t seem to be imported into the newest version of Resolve. It’s possible that color metadata in the FCPXML file is only intended for FCPX-to-FCPX transfers and not round tripping to other applications.

360° editing

Let me say up front that this doesn’t hit my hot button. It’s an area where Apple is playing catch-up to Adobe. Quite frankly, for both of these companies, it only appeals to a small percentage of users. Not all 360° formats are supported. Your footage must be equirectangular (stitched panorama), in order that FCPX can properly correct its display. Nevertheless, if you do work on 360° productions, then FCPX provides you a nice tool kit.

You can set up your timeline sequence for monoscopic or stereoscopic 360° editing. Once set up, simply open a separate 360° viewer, side-by-side to the normal viewer. When you do this, you’ll see the uncorrected image on the right and the adjusted point-of-view image on the left. What’s really cool, is that you can play the timeline and actively navigate your view of the content within of the 360° viewer, without ever stopping playback. Plus I’m talking about 4K material here! Clearly the engineers have tweaked the performance and not just integrated a plug-in.

There are also a set of custom effects designed for seamless use on 360° images. For example, if you apply a standard blur, there will be a visible seam where the left and right edges meet. If you apply a 360° blur effect, then the image and effect are properly blended. If you want to get the full effect, just attach an HTC Vive VR headset to view clips in full 360°. Want to test this, but don’t have any footage? A quick web search will provide a ton of downloadable, equirectangular clips to play with.

Wide gamut / high dynamic range (HDR)

Apple is trying to establish leadership with the integration of workflows to support HDR editing. I suspect that their ultimate goal is proper HDR support for Apple TV 4K and the iPhone X. The state of HDR today is very confusing without any real standards. There’s DolbyVision and HDR10, an open standard. The latter leaves the actual implementation up to manufacturers, while Dolby licenses its technology with tight specs. The theoretical DolbyVision brightness standard is 10,000 nits (cd/m2), but their current target is only 4,000 nits. HDR10 caps at 1,000 nits. Current consumer TV sets run in the 300 to 500 nit range with none exceeding 1,000 nits. Finally, projected brightness in movie theaters is even lower.

To work in HDR within Final Cut Pro X, first set up the FCPX Library as wide instead of standard gamut. Then set the Project (sequence) to one of four standards: Rec 709 (standard dynamic range), Rec 2020, Rec 2020 PQ, or Rec 2020 HLG. The first Rec 2020 mode simply preserves the full dynamic range of log-encoded camera files when FCPX applies its LUTs. The PQ and HLG options are designed for DolbyVision and/or HDR10 mastering. HDR tools are provided to go between color spaces, such as mastering in Rec 2020 PQ and delivering in Rec 709 (consult Apple’s workflow document). However, it is only in the Rec 2020 PQ color space that the FCPX scope will display in nits, rather than IRE. When set to nits, the scale is 0 to 10,000 nits instead of 0 to 120 IRE.

To edit in one of these wide gamut color spaces, set your preferences to display HDR in raw values. Then Final Cut interacts with the color profile of the monitor through macOS to effectively dim the viewer image for this new color space. However, this technique is not applied to the filmstrips and thumbnail images in the browser, which will appear with blown out levels unless you manually override the colorspace setting for each clip. If your footage was shot with camera raw or log-encoding, using a RED, ARRI or similar camera, then you are ready to work in HDR today.

It’s critical to note that no current computer display or consumer flat panel will give you an accurate HDR image to grade by. This includes the new iMac Pro screens. You will need the proper AJA i/o hardware and a calibrated HDR display to see a proper HDR image. Even then, it’s still a question of which HDR levels you are trying to master to. For example, if you are using the scope in FCPX with a brightness level up to 10,000 nits, but your target display can only achieve 1,000 nits, then what good is the reading on the scope? We are still early in the HDR process, but I’m concerned that FCPX 10.4 will give users a false impression of what it really takes to do HDR properly.

HEVC / H.265

You can now import iMovie for iOS projects into FCPX 10.4.  Support for the H.265 (HEVC) codec has been added with this release, but you’ll need to be on High Sierra. If you shot video with an iPhone X and started organizing it in iMovie on the phone, then that video may have used the H.265 codec. Now you can bring that into FCPX to continue the job.

Going the other way will require Compressor encoding. HEVC is also the required format to send HDR material to the web. Apple is late to the game in H.265 support, as Sorenson and Adobe users have been able to do that for a while. I tested H.265 encoding of short clips in Compressor on my mid-2014 Retina MacBook Pro and it was extremely slow. There was no issue with H.264 encoding. The same H.265 test in Adobe Media Encoder – even when it was uprezzing a 1080p file to 4K – was significantly faster than Compressor.

Final thoughts

For current users. When you update to Final Cut Pro X 10.4, please remember that it will update each FCPX library file that you open afterwards. Although this has generally been harmless for most users, it’s best to follow some precautions. Zip your 10.3 (or earlier) version of the application and move that .zip file out of the applications folder before you update. Archive all of your existing Final Cut libraries. This way you can find your way back, in case of some type of failure.

Final Cut Pro X 10.4 is a solid upgrade that will have loyal FCPX users applauding. Overall, these new tools are useful and, as before, FCPX is a very fluid, enjoyable editing application. It slices through 4K content better than any other NLE on the Mac platform. If you like its editing paradigm, then nothing else comes close.

Unfortunately, Apple didn’t squash some long-standing bugs. For example, numerous users online are still complaining about the issue where browser text intermittently disappears. I do feel that there were missed opportunities. The functionality of audio lanes – a feature introduced in 10.3 as a way to get closer to track-style audio mixing – hasn’t been expanded. The hope for an enhanced, roles-based audio mixer has once again gone unanswered. On the other hand, the built-in audio plug-ins have been updated to those used by Logic Pro X and there’s a clean path to send your audio to Logic if you want to mix there.

I definitely welcome these updates. The new color tools make it a more powerful application to use for color grading, so I’m happy to see that Apple has been listening. Now, I hope that we’ll see some of the other needs addressed before another year passes us by.

©2017, 2018 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X – Reflecting on Six Years

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Some personal musings…

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has passed its five-year mark – and by now nearly most of its sixth. Although it’s getting increasing respect from many corners of the professional editing community, there are still many that dismiss it, due to its deviation from standard editing software conventions. Like so many other things that are Apple, FCPX tends to be polarizing with a large cohort of both fanboys and haters.

For me software is a tool. I’ve been editing since the 70s and have used about 15 different linear and nonlinear systems on billable work during that time. More like 20 if you toss in color correction applications. Even more with tools where I’ve had a cursory exposure to (such as in product reviews), but haven’t used on real jobs. All of these tools are a love-hate relationship for me. I have to laugh when folks talk about FCPX bringing back fun to their editing experience. I hope that the projects I work on bring me fun. I don’t really care about the software itself. Software should just get out of the way and let me do my job.

These six years have been a bit of a personal journey with Final Cut Pro X after a number of years with the “classic” version. I’ve been using FCPX since it first came out on commercials, corporate videos, shorts and even an independent feature film. It’s not my primary NLE most of the time, because my clients have largely moved to Adobe Premiere Pro CC and ask me to be compatible with them. My FCPX work tends to be mixed in and around my Premiere Pro editing gigs. For instance, right now I’m simultaneously involved in two large corporate video jobs – one of which I’m cutting in Premiere Pro and the other in Final Cut Pro X. As these things go, it can be frustrating, because you always want some function, tool or effect that’s available in Application A while you’re working in Application B. However, it also provides a perspective on what’s good and bad about each and where real speed advantages exist.

I have to say that even after six years, Final Cut Pro X is still more of a crapshoot than any other editing tool that I’ve used. I love its organizing power and often start a job really liking it. However, the deeper I get into the job – and the larger the library becomes – and the more complex the sequences become – the more bogged down FCPX becomes. It’s also the most inconsistent across various Mac models. I’ve run it on older towers, new MacBook Pros, iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Of these experiences, the laptops seem to be the most optimized for FCPX.

Quite frankly, working with the “trash can” Mac Pros, at times I wonder if Apple has lost its mojo. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a sweet machine, but its horsepower leaves me underwhelmed. Given the right upgrades, a 2010 Mac Pro tower is still quite competitive against it. Couple that with intermittent corrupt renders and exports on Adobe applications – due to the D-series AMD GPUs – one really has to question Apple’s design compromises. On the other hand, working with recent and new MacBook Pros, it seems pretty obvious that this is where Apple’s focus has been. And in fact, that’s where Final Cut really shines. Run a complex project on a MacBook Pro versus an older tower and it’s truly a night-and-day experience. By comparison, the performance with Adobe and Avid on the same range of machines results in a much more graduated performance curve. Best might not be quite as good, but worst isn’t nearly as awful.

A lot is made of new versus old code in these competing applications. The running argument is that FCPX uses a sleek, new codebase, whereas Premiere Pro and Media Composer run on creaky old software. Yet Final Cut has been out publicly for six years, which means development started a few years before that. Hmmm, no longer quite so new. Yet, if you look at the recent changes from 10.2 to 10.3, it seems pretty clear that a lot more was changed than just cosmetics. The truth of the matter is that all three of these major applications are written in a way that modules of software can be added, removed or changed, without the need to start from scratch. Therefore, from a coding standpoint, Final Cut doesn’t have nearly the type of advantages that many think it has.

The big advantage that FCPX does have, is that Apple can optimize its performance for the holistic hardware and macOS software architecture of their own machines. As such, performance, render speeds, etc. aren’t strictly tied to only the CPU or the GPU. It’s what enables the new MacBook Pro to offer top-end performance, while still staying locked to 16GB of RAM. It seems to me, that this is also why the Core-series processors appear to be better performers than are the Xeon-series chips, when it comes to Final Cut, Motion and Compressor.

If you compare this to Premiere Pro, Adobe hits the GPUs much harder than does Apple, which is the reason behind the occasional corruptions on the “trash can” Macs with Adobe renders. If you were running the Adobe suite on a top-level PC with high-end Nvidia cards, performance would definitely shine over that of the Macs. This is largely due to leveraging the CUDA architecture of these Nvidia GPUs. With Apple’s shift to using only AMD and Intel GPUs, CUDA acceleration isn’t available on newer Macs. Under the current software versions of Adobe CC (at the time of this writing) and Sierra, you are tied to OpenCL or software-only rendering and cannot even use Apple’s Metal acceleration. This is a driver issue still being sorted out between Apple and Adobe. Metal is something that Apple tools take advantage of and is a way that they leverage the combined hardware power, without focusing solely on CPU or GPU acceleration.

All of this leads me back to a position of love-hate with any of these tools. I suspect that my attitude is more common than most folks who frequent Internet forum debates want to admit. The fanboy backlash is generally large. When I look at how I work and what gets the results, I usually prefer track-based systems to the FCPX approach. I tend to like Final Cut as a good rough-cut editing application, but less as a fine-cut tool. Maybe that’s just me. That being said, I’ve had plenty of experiences where FCPX quite simply is the better tool under the circumstance. On a recent on-site edit gig at CES, I had to cut some 4K ARRI ALEXA material on my two-year-old Retina MacBook Pro. Premiere Pro couldn’t hack it without stuttering playback, while FCPX was buttery smooth. Thus FCPX was the axe for me throughout this gig.

Likewise, in the PC vs. Mac hardware debates,  I may criticize some of Apple’s moves and long to work on a fire-breathing platform. But if push came to shove and I had to buy a new machine today, it would be either a Mac Pro “trash can” or a tricked-out iMac. I don’t do heavy 3D renders or elaborate visual effects – I edit and color correct. Therefore, the overall workflow, performance and “feel” of the Apple ecosystem is a better fit for me, even though at times performance might be middling.

Wrapping up this rambling post – it’s all about personal preference. I applaud Apple for making the changes in Final Cut Pro X that they did; however, a lot of things are still in need of improvement. Hopefully these will get addressed soon. If you are looking to use FCPX professionally, then my suggestion is to stick with only the newest machines and keep your productions small and light. Keep effects and filters to a minimum and you’ll be happiest with the results and the performance. Given the journey thus far, let’s see what the next six years will bring.

©2017 Oliver Peters

The wait is over – FCP X 10.3

df3116_fcpx1003_1_smAmidst the hoopla on Oct. 27th, when Apple introduced the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, the ProApps team also released updates to Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor. This was great news for fans, since Final Cut got a prime showcase slot in the event’s main stage presentation. Despite the point numbering, the bump from 10.2 to 10.3 is a full version change, just like in macOS, where 10.11 (El Capitan) to 10.12 (Sierra) is also a new version. This makes FCP X 10.3 the fourth iteration in the FCP X line and the eleventh under the Final Cut Pro brand. I’m a bit surprised that Apple didn’t drop the “X” from the name, though, seeing as it’s done that with macOS itself. And speaking of operating systems, this release requires 10.11.4 (El Capitan) or higher (Sierra).

If you already purchased the application in the past, then this update will be a free upgrade for you. There are numerous enhancements, but three features stand out among the changes: the new interface, the expanded use of roles for mixing, and support for a wider color gamut.

A new look for the user interface

The new user interface is darker and flatter. Although for my taste, it’s a bit too dark without any brightness sliders to customize the appearance. The dimensional style is gone, putting Final Cut Pro X in line with the aesthetics of iMovie and other Apple applications. Final Cut Pro X was already out of step with design trends at the time it was first released. Reskinning the application with this new appearance brings it in line with the rest of the design industry.

The engineers have added workspaces and rearranged where certain controls are, though generally, panels are in the same places as before. Workspaces can be customized, but not nearly to the level of Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. The most welcomed of these changes is that the inspector pane can be toggled to full height when needed. In reality, the inspector height isn’t changed. It’s the width of the timeline that changes and toggles between covering and revealing the full inspector panel.

There are other minor changes throughout 10.3, which make it a much better application. For example, if you like to work with a source/record, 2-up viewer display, then 10.3 now allows you to play a source clip from inside the event viewer.

Magnetic Timeline 2 and the expansion of roles

df3116_fcpx1003_2Apple did a lot of work to rejigger the way the timeline works and to expand the functionality of roles. It’s even being marketed as Magnetic Timeline 2. Up until now, the use of roles in Final Cut has been optional. With 10.3, it’s become the primary way to mix and organize connected clips within the timeline. Apple has resisted adding a true mixing panel, instead substituting the concept of audio lanes.

Let’s say that you assign the roles of dialogue, music or effects to your timeline audio clips. The timeline index panel lets you organize these clips into groups according to their assigned roles, which Apple calls audio lanes. If you click “show audio lanes”, the various connected clips rearrange vertical position in the timeline window to be grouped into their corresponding lanes, based on roles. Now you have three lanes of grouped clips: dialogue, effects, music. You can change timeline focus to individual roles – such as only dialogue – which will minimize the size of all the other roles (clips) in the window. These groups or lanes can also be soloed, so you just hear dialogue without the rest, for example.

There is no submix bus to globally control or filter groups of clips, like you have in Premiere Pro or most digital audio applications. The solution in FCP X 10.3 is to select all clips of the same role and create a compound clip. (Other NLEs refer to this as “nesting”.) By doing so, all of the dialogue, effects and music clips appear on the timeline as only three compound clips – one for each role. You can then apply audio filters or adjust the overall level of that role by applying them to the compound clip.

Unfortunately, if you have to go back and make adjustments to an individual clip, you’ll have to open up the compound clip in its own timeline. When you do that, you lose the context of the other clips. For example, tweaking a sound effect clip inside its compound clip, means that you would only hear the other surrounding effect clips, without dialogue and music or seeing the video. In addition, you won’t hear the result of filters or volume changes made at the top level of that compound clip. Nevertheless, it’s not as complex as it sounds and this is a viable solution, given the design approach Apple engineers have taken.

df3116_fcpx1003_3It does surprise me that they ended up with this solution, because it’s a very modal way of operating. This would seem to be an anathema to the intent of much of the rest of FCP X’s design. One has to wonder whether or not they’ve become boxed in my their own architecture. Naturally others will counter that this process is simplified due to the lack of track patching and submix matrices.

Wide color

The industry at large is embracing color standards that enable displays to reproduce more of the color spectrum, which the human eye can see. An under-the-hood change with FCP X is the embrace of wide gamut color. I think that calling it “wide color” dumbs down the actual standards, but I guess Apple wants to keep things in plain language. In any case, the interface is pretty clear on the actual specs.

Libraries can be set up for “standard color” (Rec. 601 for SD and Rec. 709 for HD) or “wide color” (Rec. 2020). The Projects (sequences) that you create within a Library can be either, as long as the Library was initially set up for wide gamut. You can also change the setting for a Project after the fact. Newer cameras that record in raw or log color space, like RED or ARRI models, are perfectly compatible with wide color (Rec. 2020) delivery, thanks to post-production color grading techniques. That is where this change comes into play.

For the most part you won’t see much difference in normal work, unless you really crank up the saturation. If you do this in the wide color gamut mode, you can get pretty extreme and the scopes will display an acceptable signal. However, if you then switch the Project setting to standard color, the high chroma areas will change to a somewhat duller appearance in the viewer and the scopes will show signal clipping. Most current television display systems don’t display wide gamut color, yet, so it’s not something most users need to worry about today. This is Apple’s way of future-proofing Final Cut and to pass the cleanest possible signal through the system.

A few more things

df3116_fcpx1003_4Numerous other useful tools were added in this version. For example, Flow – a morphing dissolve – for use in bridging jump cuts. Unlike Avid’s or Adobe’s variations, this transition works in real-time without analysis or rendering. This is because it morphs between two still frames. Each company’s approach has a slightly different appearance, but Flow definitely looks like an effect that will get a lot of use – especially with interview-driven productions. Other timeline enhancements include the ability to easily add and toggle audio fades. There’s simplified top and tail trimming. Now you can remove attributes and you can roll (trim) between adjacent, connected clips. Finally – a biggie for shared storage users – FCP X can now work with NAS systems that use the SMB protocol.

Working with it for over a week at the time I post this, the application has been quite stable, even on a production with over 2,000 4K clips. I wouldn’t recommend upgrading if you are in the middle of a production. The upgraded Libraries I tested did exhibit some flakiness, which weren’t there in freshly created Libraries. There’s also a technique to keep both 10.2 and 10.3 active on the same computer. Definitely trash your preferences before diving in.

So far, the plug-ins and Motion templates still work, but you’ll definitely need to check whether these vendors have issued updates designed for this release. This also goes for the third-party apps, like those from Intelligent Assistance, because 10.3 adds a new version of FCPXML. Both Intelligent Assistance and Blackmagic Design issued updates (for Resolve and Desktop Video) by the next day.

There are a few user interface bugs, but no show-stoppers. For instance, the application doesn’t appear to hold its last state upon close, especially when more than one Library is open. When you open it again the next time, the wrong Library may be selected or the wrong Project loaded in the timeline. It occasionally loses focus on the pane selected. This is an old bug that was there in previous versions. You are working in the timeline and all of a sudden nothing happens, because the application “forgot” which pane it’s supposed to have focus on. Clicking command-1 seems to fix this. Lastly, the audio meters window doesn’t work properly. If you resize it to be slimmer, the next time you launch FCP X, the meters panel is large again. That’s even if you updated the workspace with this smaller width. And then sometimes they don’t display audio until you close and reopen the audio meters window.

In this round of testing, I’ve had to move around Libraries with external media to different storage volumes. This requires media relinking. While it was ultimately successful, the time needed to relink was considerably longer than doing this same task in other NLEs.

My test units are all connected to Blackmagic Design i/o hardware, which seems to retard performance a bit. With a/v output turned off within the FCP X interface, clips play right away without stuttering when I hit the spacebar. With the a/v output on, I randomly get stuttering on clips when they start to play. It’s only a minor nuisance, so I just turn it off until I need to see the image on an external monitor. I’ve been told that AJA hardware performs better with FCP X, but I haven’t had a chance to test this myself. In any case, I don’t see this issue when running the same media through Premiere Pro on the exact same computer, storage and i/o hardware.

Final Cut Pro X 10.3 will definitely please most of its fans. There’s a lot of substance and improvement to be appreciated. It also feels like it’s performing better, but I haven’t had enough time with a real project yet to fully test that. Of course, the users who probe a bit deeper will point to plenty of items that are still missing (and available in products like Premiere Pro), such as better media relinking, more versatile replace edit functions and batch exporting.

For editors who’ve only given it a cursory look in the past or were swayed by the negative social media and press over the past five years, this would be the version to re-evaluate. Every new or improved item is targeted at the professional editor. Maybe it’s changed enough to dive in. On the other hand, if you’re an editor who’s given FCP X a fair and educated assessment and just not found it to your liking or suitable for your needs, then I doubt 10.3 will temp you. Regardless, this gives fans some reassurance about Apple’s commitment to professional users of their software – at least for another five years.

If you have the time, there are plenty of great tips here at the virtual Final Cut User Group.

The new Final Cut Pro X 10.3 user manual can be found here.

Click here for additional links highlighting features in this update.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters

Easy 4K Workflow

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In the last post I questioned the visual value of 4K. However, it’s inevitable that more and more distributors will be asking for 4K deliverables, so you might as well start planning how you are going to achieve that. There are certainly plenty of demos showing how easy it is to edit 4K content and they use iPhone video for the demo material. The reality is that such footage is crap and should only be used when it’s the only camera available. At the low end, there are plenty of cameras to choose from that work with highly-compressed 4K images and yet, yield great results. The Blackmagic Design URSA Mini, Sony FS7 and Canon C300 Mark II come to mind. Bump up to something in a more cinema-style package and you are looking at a Sony F55, RED, ARRI or even the AJA CION.

df1816_easy_4k_1While many cameras record to various proprietary compressed codecs, having a common media codec is the most ideal. Typically this means Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD/HR. Some cameras and standalone monitor/recorders can natively generate media in these formats. In other circumstances, it requires an interim transcode before editing. This is where system throughput becomes a big issue. For example, if you want to work with native 4K material as ProRes 4444, you are going to need fast drives. On my home Mac Pro tower, I have two internal 7200RPM spinning drives for media striped as RAID-0. In addition to these and the boot drive, I also have another internal SSD media drive. When I checked their relative performance with the AJA System Test utility, these clocked at 161 write /168 read for the RAID-0 stripe and 257/266 for the single SSD. That’s good enough for approximately 27fps and 43fps respectively, if the media were large 3840 x 2160 (2160p) ProRes 4444 files. In other words, both drive units are adequate for a single stream of 2160p/23.98 as ProRes 4444, but would have a tougher time with two streams or more.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end with drive performance alone, because some NLEs handle real-time playback of 4K media better than do others. I’ve performed a number of tests with 4K files in Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Avid Media Composer and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. This has been on a number of different units, including a couple of Mac Pro towers, as well as a newer “trash can” Mac Pro. Plus, I’ve run tests with local drives, attached media RAIDs, and network-attached storage systems. What I’ve found is that as long as you have fast drive performance, then the bottleneck is the NLE.

Pretty much all of these choices can handle a single stream of 4K media without too much of an issue. However, when you stack up a second layer or track for a simple 2D PIP composite, generally the system struggles. In some cases, FCPX has performed better than the others, but not consistently.  The others all choked to varying degrees. When you limit it to a single stream of 4K video with associated audio, then FCPX performs more fluidly at a higher quality level than Media Composer or Premiere Pro, although Media Composer also performed well in some of the tests. My conclusion, for now, is that if you want to work with native 4K media in a client-involved session, and with the least amount of rendering, then FCPX is the clear winner – at least on the Mac platform. For many editors it will be the most viable choice.

Native workflow

The first big plus for Final Cut Pro X is how easily it works with native media that it’s compatible with. That’s one thing I don’t generally advocate on a large project like a show or feature film – opting instead to create “optimized” media first, either externally or within FCPX. Nevertheless, a lot of native codecs can be quite easy on the system. For example, one client cut an indie feature, using all native camera files from his Sony FS7. His Final Cut system was a tricked out iMac that was a couple of years old and a Promise Pegasus RAID array. Initially he cut the film from native 4K FS7 files to an FCPX 1080p timeline. I was doing the grading in Resolve, so I had him export a single, flattened movie file from the timeline as 1080p ProRes 4444. I brought this into Resolve, “bladed” the cuts to create edit points and applied my color correction. I exported a single ProRes 4444 master file, which he could import back into FCPX and marry with the post-production mix.

df1816_easy_4k_2Fast forward a year and the film distributor was inquiring whether they could easily produce a 4K master instead of a 1080 master. This turned out to be relatively simple. All my client had to do was change his FCPX project (timeline) settings to 4K, double-check the scaling for his clips and export a new 4K ProRes 4444 file of the timeline. In Resolve, I also changed the timeline setting to 4K and then relinked to the new 4K file. Voila! – all the cuts lined up and the previous grades all looked fine. Then I simply exported the graded 4K file to send back to the client.

In this example, even with a roundtrip to Resolve and a change from 1080p to 2160p, FCPX performed perfectly without much fuss. However, for many, you wouldn’t even need to go this far. Depending on how much you like to play and tweak during the color grade, there are plenty of ways to do this and stay totally inside FCPX. You could use tools like the Color Board, Hawaiki Color, Color Finale, or even some home-brew Motion effects, and achieve excellent results without ever leaving Final Cut Pro X.

As a reminder, Media Composer, Premiere Pro CC and Resolve are all capable of working with native media, including 4K.

Proxy workflow

df1816_easy_4k_4In addition to native 4K post, Apple engineers built an ingenious internal proxy workflow into Final Cut. Transcode the camera files in the background, flip a toggle, and work with the proxy files until you are ready to export a master. When you opt to transcode proxies, FCPX generates half-resolution, ProRes Proxy media corresponding to your original files. As an example, if your media consists of 2160p XAVC camera files, FCPX creates corresponding 1080p ProRes Proxy files. Even though the proxy media’s frame is 1/4th the size of the 4K original, FCPX takes care of handling the scaling math in the timeline between original and proxy media. The viewer display will also appear very close in quality, regardless of whether you have switched to original/optimized or proxy media. The majority of legacy A/V output cards, like a Blackmagic Design Decklink, are only capable of displaying SD and HD content to an external monitor. FCPX can send it the proper data so that a 4K timeline is displayed as a scaled 1080 output to your external video monitor.

Although proxies are small for a 4K project, these are still rather large to be moving around among multiple editors. It’s not an official part of the Final Cut operation, but you can replace these generated proxies with your own versions, with some caveats. Let’s say you have 3840 x 2160, log-gamma-encoded, 4K camera files. You would first need to have FCPX generate proxies. However, using an external application such as EditReady, Compressor, etc, you could transcode these camera files into small 960×540 ProRes Proxy media, complete with a LUT applied and timecode/clip name burnt in. Then find your Proxy Media folder, trash the FCPX-generated files and replace them with your own files. FCPX should properly relink to these and understand the correct relationship between the original and the proxy files. (This post explains the process in more detail.) There are several caveats. Clip name, frame rate, clip length, aspect ratio, and audio channel configurations must match. Otherwise you are good to go.df1816_easy_4k_3

The benefit to this solution is that you can freely edit with the proxies on a lightweight system, such as a MacBook Pro with a portable drive. When ready, move back to a beefier unit and storage, flip to original/optimized media, double-check all effects and color-correction on a good monitor, and then export the master files. It’s worth noting that this workflow is also potentially possible with Premiere Pro CC, because the new version to be introduced later this year will include a proxy editing workflow.

Naturally there is no single solution, but Final Cut Pro X makes this process far easier than any other tool that I use. If 4K is increasingly looming on the horizon for you, then FCPX is certainly worth a test run.

©2016 Oliver Peters

4K is kinda meh

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Lately I’ve done a lot of looking at 4K content. Not only was 4K all over the place at NAB in Las Vegas, but I’ve also had to provide some 4K deliverables on client projects. This has meant a much closer examination of the 4K image than in the past.

First, let’s define 4K. Typically the term 4K applies to either a “cinema” width of 4096 pixels or a broadcast width of 3840 pixels. The latter is also referred to as QuadHD, UltraHD or UHD and is a 2x multiple of the 1920-wide HD standard. For simplicity’s sake, in this article I’m going to be referring to 4K, but will generally mean the UHD version, i.e. 3840 x 2160 pixels, aka 2160p. While 4K (and greater) acquisition for an HD finish has been used for awhile in post, there are already demands for true 4K content. This vanguard is notably led by Netflix and Amazon, however, international distributors are also starting to request 4K masters, if they are available.

In my analysis of the images from various 4K (and higher) camera, it starts to become quite obvious that the 1:1 image in 4K really isn’t all that good. In fact, if you compared a blow-up from HD to 4K of that same image, it becomes very hard to distinguish the blow-up from the true 4K image. Why is that?

When you analyze a native 4K image, you become aware of the deficiencies in the image. These weren’t as obvious when that 4K original was down-sampled to an HD timeline and master. That’s because in the HD timeline you are seeing the benefit of oversampling, which results in a superb HD image. Here are some factors that become more obvious when you view the footage in its original size.

1. Most formats use a high-compression algorithm to squeeze the data into a smaller file size. In some cases compression artifacts start to become visible at the native size.

2. Many DPs like to shoot with vintage or otherwise “lower quality” lenses. This gives the image “character” and, in the words of one cinematographer that I worked with, “takes the curse off of the digital image.” That’s all fine, but again, viewed natively, you start to see the defects in the optics, like chromatic aberration in the corners, coloration of the image, and general softness.

3. Due to the nature of video viewfinders, run-and-gun production methods, and smaller crews, many operators do not nail the critical focus on a shot. That’s not too obvious when you down-convert the image; however, at 100% you notice that focus was on your talent’s ear and not their nose.

The interesting thing to me is that when you take a 4K (or greater) image, down-convert that to HD, and then up-convert it back to 4K, much of the image detail is retained. I’ve especially noticed this when high quality scalers are used for the conversion. For example, even the free version of DaVinci Resolve offers one of the best up-scalers on the market. Secondly, scaling for 1920 x 1080 to 3840 x 2160 is an even 2x multiple, so a) the amount you are zooming in isn’t all that much, and b) even numbered multiples give you better results than fractional values. In addition, Resolve also offers several scaling methods for sharper versus smoother results.

df1716_4k-native_16_smIn general, I feel that the most quality is retained when you start with 4K footage rather than HD, but that’s not a given. I’ve blown up ARRI ALEXA clips – that only ever existed as HD – up to 4K and the result was excellent. That has a lot to do with what ARRI is doing in their sensor and the general detail of the ALEXA image. Clearly that’s been proven time and time again in the theaters, where files recorded using ALEXAs with the footage in 2K, HD or 2.8K ARRIRAW have been blown up via 4K projection onto the large screen and the image is excellent.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you shouldn’t post in 4K if you have an easy workflow (see my post next week) to get there. What I am saying is that staying in 4K versus a 4K-HD-4K workflow won’t result in a dramatic difference in image quality, when you compare the two side-by-side at 100% pixel-for-pixel resolution. The samples below come from a variety of sources, including the blogs of John Brawley, Philip Bloom and OffHollywood Productions. In some cases the source images originated from pre-production cameras, so there may be image anomalies not found in actual shipping models of these cameras. Grades applied are mine.

View some of the examples below. Click on any of these images for the slide show. From there you can access the full size version of any of these comparisons.

©2016 Oliver Peters