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

More LUTs from IWLTBAP

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With more cameras shooting in some form of a log or flat color profile and more editing software being able to integrate color look-up tables (LUTs), numerous developers have designed their own LUT packages. Some, like Koji, strive to duplicate the colorimetry of certain film stocks, while others, such as SpeedLooks from LookLabs, create stylized “look” files that give you a range of creative color correction choices.

One new developer offering a package of easy to use LUTs is French filmmaker IWLTBAP. Through the website, you can pick up a comprehensive package of LUTs in the 32x32x32 .cube format, which are compatible with most modern editing and compositing software applications. If you edit in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, the Lumetri Color panel lets you browse and add any .cube LUTs you’ve saved on your hard drives. If you cut in Apple Final Cut Pro X, then the addition of a LUT plug-in, like Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility, enables you to add third-party LUTs to any clip on the timeline.df1316_iwltbap_4

I took these LUTs for a spin and like most LUT packages, they come in a groups. First you have Utility LUTs, which are designed to convert color spaces from log to Rec709 (the standard video color space) or in the opposite direction. These are organized by camera type, since not all manufacturers use the same logarithmic values. Then the color correction or “look” LUTs are grouped into Standard and Log versions.

The Standard LUTs are to be applied to images that are already in Rec709 color space, while the Log versions can be used as a one-step LUT to be applied to generic log images. For example, you could apply both a Log-to-Rec709 Utility LUT and a second LUT from the Standard group to achieve your result. Or simply apply the single Log version to that same clip and end up with similar results. The dual-LUT approach gives you more incremental control over the Log conversion based on camera models, whereas the single-step solution is designed for generic log images. However, both can yield the desired grade, depending on the clip. In addition to the paid LUT package, IWLTBAP offers two Bonus LUTs, which are available as a free download from the website.

df1316_iwltbap_2There are over 80 LUTs in each group and these are organized by color style and number. The numbers don’t really mean anything. In other words, they aren’t an attempt to mimic a film stock number. As you ascend in numbers, the next step is a more aggressive or somewhat different version of the previous. The key is the prefix and suffix for each. These LUT files carry a STD or LOG suffix so you know whether these are from the Log or Standard group. Then there’s a prefix: C for cold, H for hot, W for warm, F for film, and X for creative. Each style has several variations within that general look. For example, the LUT file labelled “F-9490-STD.cube” is a LUT with a filmic curve designed for a Rec709 image.

df1316_iwltbap_7When working with LUTs, it’s often hard to know what result you get until you try it. Then if you don’t like the look, you have to continue to slowly browse through your LUT files – applying each, one at a time – until you get the right look. Often that can lead to a lot of trial and error. The IWLTBAP package ships with lightweight Windows and Mac preview applications, however, the developer warns of some occasional instability on some machines. The easiest solution is to use their web-based LUT previewer. Simply upload a reference JPEG from your clip and then toggle through the LUTs to preview how those will affect the shot.

df1316_iwltbap_6I ran some tests on Blackmagic Design camera footage in both FCPX and Premiere Pro CC and got some really pleasing results. In the case of FCPX, if you use LUT Utility, you have to copy the .cube files into LUT Utility’s Motion Templates folder. This is found under Effects/CGC. Files stored there become visible in the LUT Utility pulldown menu. Note that only the first 50 or so files in that folder can be accessed, so be selective. If you apply two instances of the LUT Utility to a clip, then you can apply a Log-to-Rec709 conversion in the first and then the creative look LUT in the second. This plug-in has a mix slider, so you can adjust the intensity of the LUT to taste. As an effects plug-in, you can also place other effects, such as color correction in-between the two LUT Utility effects as part of that stack of effects. Doing this gives you nice control over color within FCPX with very little overhead on the application’s performance.

df1316_iwltbap_3If you are an FCPX user that has adopted Color Grading Central’s ColorFinale grading tool as your go-to color correction plug-in, then all of this LUT management within the application can be simply handled from the ColorFinale interface itself. Stack layers of LUTs and other color tools all inside the ColorFinale panel. LUT choices can be added or removed using the integrated LUT Manager and then relaunching FCPX to activate them as part of ColorFinale.

If you are a Premiere Pro CC editor, then the latest version was enhanced with the Lumetri Color panel. This control is organized as a stack of color modules, which include two entry points to add a LUT – in the Basic and the Creative tabs. In my testing of the new URSA footage, I applied a Log-to-Rec709 LUT for the URSA in Basic and then one the “look” LUTs, like the free Aspen standard version, in Creative. You still have all the other color control in the Lumetri panel to fine-tune these, including the intensity level of the LUT.

df1316_iwltbap_5LUTs are a creative tool that should be thought of as a stylistic choice. They aren’t an instant fix and shouldn’t be the only tool you use to color correct a clip. However, the LUTs from IWLTBAP provide a good selection of looks and moods that work well with a wide range of shots. Plus the package is very affordable and even more so if you get it after reading this blog! Readers who are interested can get 25% off of the retail price using the discount code DIGITALFILMS. Or by using this direct link.

Last but not least, check out the free, downloadable 4K film grain clip. It’s a ten second ProRes file that can be overlaid or blended to add grain to your shot.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Producing a Short Mini-Doc with the AJA CION

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

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

CION details

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

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

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

Learning the CION

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

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

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

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

Production day(s)

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

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

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

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

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

Post production

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

Click this link to see the final video on Vimeo.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters

Rampant Design Tools

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Many editors are on the constant journey for just the right, cool set of plug-ins. By doing so, they often lock themselves into a single host application and often even a single machine to which the plug-ins have been licensed. If that sounds familiar and you are looking for an alternative, then moving to a package of drag-and-drop effects is the way to go. One of the best developers for such effects is Rampant Design Tools.

df1215_rampant_3_smRampant was founded by veteran visual effects artist Sean Mullen, so the effects have been created from the standpoint of what actually works. The beauty of these drag-and-drop effects is that you can use them with any nonlinear editing or compositing application, regardless of whether this is on Mac or Windows. As long as the system is running QuickTime and includes a playback component for Apple ProRes codecs, you are ready. Since the actual effects are media files, they can be archived with the project and moved between systems, without any need to license a plug-in on another machine.

df1215_rampant_6_smThe Rampant Design Tools website offers a lot of options for how to purchase the effects, but their latest endeavor is Studio Essentials, Volume 1 and 2. These include paint effects, film grunge, distortion, flares, light transitions, fire, smoke, bokeh, snow, dust, and so much more. Nearly all of these elements originate from real and not synthetic footage, which Rampant has actually produced using RED cameras. The effects packages are available in 2K, 4K, and 5K resolutions. Even if you are only working in HD, you might still want a 4K package, because it permits you to reframe the effect to get a unique look, rather than by simply dropping in a stock effect “as is”. The elements are designed to be modular. For instance, you can build up layers of the distortion elements to create a different look. The files come as Apple ProRes 4444 media that works well when keyed or composited using blend modes. By combining, reframing, and adjusting blend modes, you avoid the rut of effects that can’t be modified or plug-in presets.

Rampant Drives

df1215_rampant_4_smThese collections are large enough, that delivering a 4K version of one of the Studio Essentials volumes would be unwieldy as DVD-ROMs or as a download. Instead, Rampant Design Tools sells these complete with their “Rampant Drives”. These are 4TB, USB 3.0 drives containing the complete volume. When you purchase the collection with this delivery option, you may select either Mac or PC formatting. Simply plug it in and start using the effects straight from the drive. Although there is no technical limitation to moving the files around on a SAN, simultaneous shared use is prohibited by the EULA. It states that the contents may only be used on one computer at any one time.

df1215_rampant_9_smAs there are a lot of effects in the contents of each volume, Rampant includes a PDF preview file for each set of effects. This is a quick starting point to decide which effects group to explore, without having to bring everything into your edit project at once. These PDFs can also be downloaded from the website, if you are trying to decide what to purchase. Effects may be purchased as part of a complete Studio Essentials volume or by individual categories in 2K, 4K or 5K sizes. That may still be a bit much for many users, so Rampant also offers a smaller set of HD effects for $29 each through its BudgetVFX companion site.

Pieces and Parts

df1215_rampant_2_smMost of the effects can be used as a single transition or overlay effect, but some in the Studio Essentials collections have been designed as toolkits. For example, there’s the Monster Toolkit, which is intended as a drag-and-drop creature kit. It contains over 1500 elements (stored as Photoshop files), made up of various body parts, such as eyes, ears, mouths, skin textures, and so on. The download size is a whopping 35.6 GB simply for that kit! One of the newest collections is a set of organic paint effects. This set includes 62 effects clips and features a wide range of real paint drip and splatter effects, which will easily blend with video using Overlay or Multiply modes.

df1215_rampant_8_smTo use the effects in an NLE, you would typically place the clip on a higher track above your main video. In FCP X this would be as a connected clip over the primary storyline. A transition effect would be positioned so that the meatiest part of the effect clip would be lined up over the cut to hide it. This is particularly true of lens flare and light blast transitions where the center of the clip often completely fills the screen. This technique has been used for years by After Effects compositors to add a transition between clips on separate layers.

Letting the effect control your video

df1215_rampant_7_smA particularly cool trick that Mullen has posted as one of his tutorials (youtube.com/user/RampantMedia) is how to have the effect actually modify the video beneath. This is an aspect of many plug-ins and something not often associated with stock effects clips. His example uses one of the glitch effect clips. Typically this would be an overlay above the video that would obscure the image, but not necessarily distort or bend it with the effect. If you composite in After Effects, however, you can use its tools to have one layer affect the other. This is accomplished by adding two effects to the base video layer: Stylize – Motion Tile and Distort – Displacement Map. Motion Tile is set to wrap the image as it is stretched and mirrored, so you don’t see black on the edges. Displacement Map is linked to the layer with the glitch effect clip. Displacement is based on channels, so that the lower video is displaced where the effect is visible and not displaced where the glitch clip is black. The last step is to set keyframes for the start and stop of the displacement, so that the video isn’t displaced when you want it to be normal. This trick also works for other effects, such as lens flares.

df1215_rampant_11_smThere are many stock effects vendors on the market. A quick internet search would pull up a page-full. However, most are still offering effects in older codecs or are limited to HD sizes at best. Many don’t offer a wide selection of effects. You might find some great lens flares from one company, but do they also offer fire effects? Quality, breadth of product offerings, and high-resolution is what sets Rampant Design Tools apart from these others. It’s a great way to add eye candy to any production with tools that give you total control in sculpting a unique look.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters