NLE as Post Production Hub

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As 2009 closed, I wrote a post about Final Cut Studio as the center of a boutique post production workflow. A lot has changed since then, but that approach is still valid and a number of companies can fill those shoes. In each case, rather than be the complete, self-contained tool, the editing application becomes the hub of the operation. Other applications surround it and the workflow tends to go from NLE to support tool and back for delivery. Here are a few solutions.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

df2316_prproNo current editing package comes as close to the role of the old Final Cut Studio as does Adobe’s Creative Cloud. You get nearly all of the creative tools under a single subscription and facilities with a team account can equip every room with the full complement of applications. When designed correctly, workflows in any room can shift from edit to effects to sound to color correction – according to the load. In a shared storage operation, projects can stay in a single bay for everything or shift from bay to bay based on operator speciality and talent.

While there are many tools in the Creative Cloud kit, the primary editor-specific applications are Premiere Pro CC, After Effects CC and Audition CC. It goes without saying that for most, Photoshop CC and Adobe Media Encoder are also givens. On the other hand, I don’t know too many folks using Prelude CC, so I can’t say what the future for this tool will be. Especially since the next version of Premiere Pro includes built-in proxy transcoding. Also, as more of SpeedGrade CC’s color correction tools make it into Premiere Pro, it’s clear to see that SpeedGrade itself is getting very little love. The low-cost market for outboard color correction software has largely been lost to DaVinci Resolve (free). For now, SpeedGrade is really “dead man walking”. I’d be surprised if it’s still around by mid-2017. That might also be the case for Prelude.

Many editors I know that are heavy into graphics and visual effects do most of that work in After Effects. With CC and Dynamic Link, there’s a natural connection between the Premiere Pro timeline and After Effects. A similar tie can exist between Premiere Pro and Audition. I find the latter to be a superb audio post application and, from my experience, provides the best transfer of a Premiere Pro timeline into any audio application. This connection is being further enhanced by the updates coming from Adobe this year.

Rounding out the package is Photoshop CC, of course. While most editors are not big Photoshop artists, it’s worth noting that this application also enables animated motion graphics. For example, if you want to create an animated lower third banner, it can be done completely inside of Photoshop without ever needing to step into After Effects. Drop the file onto a Premiere Pro timeline and it’s complete with animation and proper transparency values. Update the text in Photoshop and hit “save” – voila the graphic is instantly updated within Premiere Pro.

Given the breadth and quality of tools in the Creative Cloud kit, it’s possible to stay entirely within these options for all of a facility’s post needs. Of course, roundtrips to Resolve, Baselight, ProTools, etc. are still possible, but not required. Nevertheless, in this scenario I typically see everything starting and ending in Premiere Pro (with exports via AME), making the Adobe solution my first vote for the modern hub concept.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

df2316_fcpxApple walked away from the market for an all-inclusive studio package. Instead, it opted to offer more self-contained solutions that don’t have the same interoperability as before, nor that of the comparable Adobe solutions. To build up a similar toolkit, you would need Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor and Logic Pro X. An individual editor/owner would purchase these once and install these on as many machines as he or she owned. A business would have to buy each application for each separate machine. So a boutique facility would need a full set for each room or they would have to build rooms by specialty – edit, audio, graphics, etc.

Even with this combination, there are missing links when going from one application to another. These gaps have to be plugged by the various third-party productivity solutions, such as Clip Exporter, XtoCC, 7toX, Xsend Motion, X2Pro, EDL-X and others. These provide better conduits between Apple applications than Apple itself provides. For example, only through Automatic Duck Xsend Motion can you get an FCPX project (timeline) into Motion. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro Audio Convert provides a better path into Logic than the native route.

If you want the sort of color correction power available in Premiere Pro’s Lumetri Color panel, you’ll need more advanced color correction plug-ins, like Hawaiki Color or Color Finale. Since Apple doesn’t produce an equivalent to Photoshop, look to Pixelmator or Affinity Photo for a viable substitute. Although powerful, you still won’t get quite the same level of interoperability as between Photoshop and Premiere Pro.

Naturally, if your desire is to use non-Apple solutions for graphics and color correction, then similar rules apply as with Premiere Pro. For instance, roundtripping to Resolve for color correction is pretty solid using the FCPXML import/export function within Resolve. Prefer to use After Effects for your motion graphics instead of Motion? Then Automatic Duck Ximport AE on the After Effects side has your back.

Most of the tools are there for those users wishing to stay in an Apple-centric world, provided you add a lot of glue to patch over the missing elements. Since many of the plug-ins for FCPX (Motion templates) are superior to a lot of what’s out there, I do think that an FCPX-centric shop will likely choose to start and end in X (possibly with a Compressor export). Even when Resolve is used for color correction, I suspect the final touches will happen inside of Final Cut. It’s more of the Lego approach to the toolkit than the Adobe solution, yet I still see it functioning in much the same way.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

df2316_resolveIt’s hard to say what Blackmagic’s end goal is with Resolve. Clearly the world of color correction is changing. Every NLE developer is integrating quality color correction modules right inside of their editing application. So it seems only natural that Blackmagic is making Resolve into an all-in-one tool for no other reason than self-preservation. And by golly, they are doing a darn good job of it! Each version is better than the last. If you want a highly functional editor with world-class color correction tools for free, look no further than Resolve. Ingest, transcoded and/or native media editing, color correction, mastering and delivery – all there in Resolve.

There are two weak links – graphics and audio. On the latter front, the internal audio tools are good enough for many editors. However, Blackmagic realizes that specialty audio post is still the domain of the sound engineering world, which is made up predominantly of Avid Pro Tools shops. To make this easy, Resolve has built-in audio export functions to send the timeline to Pro Tools via AAF. There’s no roundtrip back, but you’d typically get composite mixed tracks back from the engineer to lay into the timeline.

To build on the momentum it started, Blackmagic Design acquired the assets of EyeOn’s Fusion software, which gives then a node-based compositor, suitable for visual effects and some motion graphics. This requires a different mindset than After Effects with Premiere Pro or Motion with Final Cut Pro X (when using Xsend Motion). You aren’t going to send a full sequence from Resolve to Fusion. Instead, the Connect plug-in links a single shot to Fusion, where it can be effected through series of nodes. The Connect plug-in provides a similar “conduit” function to that of Adobe’s Dynamic Link between Premiere Pro and After Effects, except that the return is a rendered clip instead of a live project file. To take advantage of this interoperability between Resolve and Fusion, you need the paid versions.

Just as in Apple’s case, there really is no Blackmagic-owned substitute for Photoshop or an equivalent application. You’ll just have to buy what matches your need. While it’s quite possible to build a shop around Resolve and Fusion (plus maybe Pro Tools and Photoshop), it’s more likely that Resolve’s integrated approach will appeal mainly to those folks looking for free tools. I don’t see too many advanced pros doing their creative cutting on Resolve (at least not yet). However, that being said, it’s pretty close, so I don’t want to slight the capabilities.

Where I see it shine is as a finishing or “online” NLE. Let’s say you perform the creative or “offline” edit in Premiere Pro, FCPX or Media Composer. This could even be three editors working on separate segments of a larger show – each on a different NLE. Each’s sequence goes to Resolve, where the timelines are imported, combined and relinked to the high-res media. The audio has gone via a parallel path to a Pro Tools mixer and graphics come in as individual clips, shots or files. Then all is combined inside Resolve, color corrected and delivered straight from Resolve. For many shops, that scenario is starting to look like the best of all worlds.

I tend to see Resolve as less of a hub than either Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X. Instead, I think it may take several possible positions: a) color correction and transcoding at the front end, b) color correction in the middle – i.e. the standard roundtrip, and/or c) the new “online editor” for final assembly, color correction, mastering and delivery.

Avid Media Composer

df2316_avidmcThis brings me to Avid Media Composer, the least integrated of the bunch. You can certainly build an operation based on Media Composer as the hub – as so many shops have. But there simply isn’t the silky smooth interoperability among tools like there is with Adobe or the dearly departed Final Cut Pro “classic”. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. You can add advanced color correction through the Symphony option, plus Avid Pro Tools in your mixing rooms. In an Avid-centric facility, rooms will definitely be task-oriented, rather than provide the ease of switching functions in the same suite based on load, as you can with Creative Cloud.

The best path right now is Media Composer to Pro Tools. Unfortunately it ends there. Like Blackmagic, Avid only offers two hero applications in the post space – Media Composer/Symphony and Pro Tools. They have graphics products, but those are designed and configured for news on-air operations. This means that effects and graphics are typically handled through After Effects, Boris RED or Fusion.

Boris RED runs as an integrated tool, which augments the Media Composer timeline. However, RED uses its own user interface. That operation is relatively seamless, since any “roundtrip” happens invisibly within Media Composer. Fusion can be integrated using the Connect plug-in, just like between Fusion and Resolve. Automatic Duck’s AAF import functions have been integrated directly into After Effects by Adobe. It’s easy to send a Media Composer timeline into After Effects as a one-way trip. In fact, that’s where this all started in the first place. Finally, there’s also a direct connection with Baselight Editions for Avid, if you add that as a “plug-in” within Media Composer. As with Boris RED, clips open up in the Baselight interface, which has now been enhanced with a smoother shot-to-shot workflow inside of Media Composer.

While a lot of shops still use Media Composer as the hub, this seems like a very old-school approach. Many editors still love this NLE for its creative editing prowess, but in today’s mixed-format, mixed-codec, file-based post world, Avid has struggled to keep Media Composer competitive with the other options. There’s certainly no reason Media Composer can’t be the center – with audio in Pro Tools, color correction in Resolve, and effects in After Effects. However, most newer editors simply don’t view it the same way as they do with Adobe or even Apple. Generally, it seems the best Avid path is to “offline” edit in Media Composer and then move to other tools for everything else.

So that’s post in 2016. Four good options with pros and cons to each. Sorry to slight the Lightworks, Vegas Pro, Smoke/Flame and Edius crowds, but I just don’t encounter them too often in my neck of the woods. In any case, there are plenty of options, even starting at free, which makes the editing world pretty exciting right now.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Greater LUT Control with Koji Advance

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For folks who like to use film emulsion LUTs (look up tables), Koji Color has recently updated its product line with Koji Advance. Koji Color is a collaboration between Dale Grahnthe highly regarded film lab timer (the film equivalent of a colorist) behind many blockbusters – and plug-in developer Crumplepop. Other products have included an iPad application and an earlier version of the Koji Color plug-in. (Click on any image in this post for an expanded view.)

Typically LUT packages require camera patch LUT files (to correct for each manufacturer’s log encoding scheme) and the “look” file. Some LUT developers split these into two sets of LUTs, while others combine both into a single 3D LUT file. Koji combines their LUTs, so each file is specific to a camera manufacturer and film stock type. The original version of the Koji Color plug-in was designed for Apple Final Cut Pro X and came in the form of two products – Koji DSLR and Koji Log. The lower cost DSLR package used emulation presets designed for Rec709 video signals. The Log package cost a bit more and added files and presets to be used with log gamma encoding, like ARRI Log-C. The FCP X plug-in itself also allowed for control over shadow, mid, and highlight exposure, plus saturation and a Film Stock Mix slider. The Mix slider controlled the amount of the LUT plug-in that was mixed into the image.

df3715_ka_10_smKoji Advance has replaced both the DSLR and Log plug-ins and added more controls and film grain. It is now also compatible with Motion, Premiere Pro CC, and After Effects CC, along with Final Cut Pro X. Koji Color also sells Koji Studio, which is a package of technical versions of these same LUTs intended for facilities outputting to DCI-P3 colorspace. It includes all of the Advance features as part of the package.

df3715_ka_2_smAll packages include presets built around one black-and-white and five color print film stocks. These presets were based on research intended to faithfully reproduce the look of specific Fuji and Kodak print stocks as a medium. 2302 is a black-and-white stock. 2393 is considered by Grahn to be the best print film made. 2383 is similar, but warmer. The other three options are on the cooler side. S versions are more saturation, N versions are more neutral, and LC is low contrast. There is also a 2302 HC (high contract) black-and-white stock.

At this point, it’s important to understand that these LUTs are not designed as creative looks like you’ll find in many other LUT products on the market. The application of any of the LUTs adds the color character of that medium and forms a starting point for your color grade.

When you install Koji Advance, you can opt to install it into any or all of the available host applications. A folder of the Koji 3D LUT files in the .cube format is also installed to your desktop. These are available to be used with other applications that allow LUT files to be imported, like DaVinci Resolve, Avid Media Composer, or Autodesk Smoke. You can move or copy this folder to any location you like.

Fine-tuning the look

df3715_ka_3_smTo use Koji Advance, drop the plug-in effect onto your clip. The first two choices you need to make are the camera preset and film stock. Pick these from the pulldown menus at the top of the control panel. If your footage is from a specific camera encoding scheme, such as ARRI Log-C or RedLogFilm, select the matching choice. If it is already a Rec709 color profile, then select the generic Rec709 choice. Various DSLR camera types also have available options. The film stock selector lets you choose from a number of presets based on the six film stocks and their variants. The LC preset is a brighter version that is more conducive to downstream color correction, which may be added on top of the LUT filter. As before, there’s a Film Stock Mix slider to control how much of this look is being applied to the image.

df3715_ka_4_smThe next series of sliders in the panel turns Koji Advance into a full-on color correction plug-in. You can opt for automatic white balance or manual control. If you pick auto, the controls still let you adjust the image further. There’s a Kelvin-based color temperature slider to warm up or cool off the image. Next are the three lift/gamma/gain controls, which are similar to the exposure sliders in the previous version. These act much like level controls in other applications and plug-ins. Lift adjusts shadow/black levels. Gamma for midrange. Gain for highlights.

df3715_ka_6_smDensity is a film-style control that’s probably unfamiliar to most video operators. It effectively works like an offset control that moves the whole signal higher or lower as you look at the videoscope. Using the density control doesn’t affect saturation in the same way as changing a lift/shadow control. Something to keep in mind is that Lift and Gain will clip the image at 0% and 100% on the scope. Density can move the image into the overshoot and undershoot areas below 0 and above 100. This is actually a good thing, because it preserves the full dynamic range of the image during the processing pipeline; however, it needs be corrected before any broadcast output. Therefore, when you make extreme adjustments, it’s a good idea to use a broadcast safe filter on the final output.

df3715_ka_8_smSaturation controls the chroma level, but this is only true for the color of the image, not including the coloration caused by the LUT file itself. In other words, if a film stock preset is designed to increase blue in the image and is thus a cooler tone, cranking the saturation all the way down will not result in a true black-and-white image. It will still have a slight blue cast. Only the black-and-white presets will be truly black-and-white.

df3715_ka_7_smThe last three color controls are printer point sliders. Again, this is for film-style “color timing” (color correction). The controls work globally for the whole image, so there are no separate color controls for shadows, midtones, and highlights. It works a lot like a single-wheel color corrector. Colors are grouped according to their opposites with sliders for red/cyan, green/magenta, and blue/yellow. To use these controls effectively, it’s best to understand how they work by viewing a vectorscope. If you slide the red/cyan slider all the way to red, it doesn’t increase the intensity of only reds within the image. It shifts the balance of the whole image towards red. Look at the vectorscope and you’ll see the entire chroma signal slide towards the red vector. Same for the other colors.

I’ve seen a few online comments questioning why not put a color wheel here instead of sliders. Apart from the UI issue (especially with design limitations in FCP X), it’s effectively the same thing. Let’s say on a system with color wheels you want to shift the balance towards orange. That’s halfway between red and yellow on the vectorscope. In Koji Advance, you would simply adjust the sliders for more red and more yellow, which results in a combined orange look. Two different methods to achieve the same goal, but sliders offer the advantage of a numerical value, which is easier to repeat for consistent results.

df3715_ka_5_smThe last section, which is new for Koji Advance, is film grain. They’ve picked five stock choices ranging from finer to coarser grain. Since adding grain contaminates the image, the grain section includes three adjustment controls – Film Grain Contrast, Film Grain Saturation, and Film Grain Mix. These let you dial in how subtle the presence of grain is within your shot.

In use

I’ve used the Koji film emulsion looks on previous jobs and they add a nice touch when it’s appropriate. You have to view this as the equivalent to audio engineers working with digital and analog recording systems. Analog tape is said to sound warmer, but that’s because the medium adds its own sonic character to the recording. Many engineers will record digitally, but then use analog somewhere in the final stages. Or, they’ll use a plug-in that emulates the attributes and coloration that analog tape recording gives to the sound. Using a film stock emulation for the purpose of adding character is exactly the same thing. The Koji LUTs are subtle enough that you’ll use them more frequently than some of the other choices. The controls offered by the plug-in enable you to do the work all within Koji’s panel, if you choose.

That being said, LUTs should be used as part of the grading process, not to be the process by itself. Typically I use the Koji plug-in together with other color correction tools, so it’s important to see how it affects the signal when it is part of a stack of several plug-ins. In FCP X, Hawaiki Color is still one of my favorite color correction tools. I like the on-screen controls, the tools are comprehensive, and the results are very pleasing. As a test, I stacked the two filters – Hawaiki Color, then Koji Advance. This let me grade upstream of Koji and use the two filters interactively.

df3715_ka_9_smAn issue I ran into was one of signal clipping. Hawaiki Color also permits overshoot and undershoot, meaning that dark areas can be pushed below zero on the scope. Video can be crushed for extreme contrast. This caused some sparkling color artifacts once those extreme levels hit the Koji plug-in. However, this was easily solved, by selecting Legalize in the Hawaiki Color controls. If you do this with another filter that doesn’t have a “clip” or “legalize” option and you encounter the same issue, then use any filter that does level clipping, such as the Broadcast Safe filter. Place it between your color correction filter and the Koji Advance plug-in and these artifacts will disappear.

The Koji Advance plug-in performance seems fine on most systems and shots I’ve tested. It’s an easy plug-in to understand and use, and will quickly become a tool you’ll use on every production.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 Oliver Peters

Using FCP X with Adobe CC

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While the “battle” rages on between the proponents of using either Apple Final Cut Pro X or Adobe Premiere Pro CC as the main edit axe, there is less disagreement about the other Adobe applications. Certainly many users like Motion, Aperture and Logic, but it’s pretty clear that most editors favor Adobe solutions over others. I have encountered very few power users of Motion, as compared with After Effects wizards – nor graphic designers who can get by without touching Illustrator or Photoshop. This post isn’t intended to change anyone’s opinion, but rather to offer a few pointers on how to productively use some of the Adobe Creative Cloud (or CS6) applications to complement your FCP X workflows. (Click images below for an expanded view.)

Photoshop

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For many editors, Adobe Photoshop is the title tool of choice. FCP X has some nice text tools, but Photoshop is significantly better – especially for logo creation. When you import a layered Photoshop file into FCP X, it comes in as a special layered graphics file. Layers can be adjusted, animated or disabled when you “open in timeline”. Photoshop layer effects, like a drop shadow, glow or emboss, do not show up correctly inside FCP X. If you drop the imported Photoshop file onto the timeline, it becomes a self-contained title clip. Although you cannot “open in editor” to modify the file, there is a workaround.

To re-edit the Photoshop file in Adobe Photoshop, select the clip in FCP X and “reveal in Finder”. From the Finder window open the file in Photoshop. Now you can make any changes you like. Once saved, the changes are updated in FCP X. There is one caveat that I’ve noticed. All changes that you make have to be made within the existing layers. New, additional layers do not update back inside FCP X. However, if you created layer effects and then merge that layer to bake in the effects, the update is successful in FCP X and the effects become visible.

This process is very imperfect because of FCP X’s interpretation of the Photoshop files. For example, layer alignment that matches in Photoshop may be misaligned in FCP X. All layers must have some content. You cannot create blank layers and later add content into them. When you do this, the updates will not be recognized in FCP X.

Audition

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Sound mixing is still a weak link in Final Cut Pro X. All mixing is clip-based without a proper mixing pane, like most other NLEs have. There are methods (X2Pro Audio Convert) to send the timeline audio to Pro Tools, but many editors don’t use Pro Tools. Likewise sending an FCPXML to Logic X works better than before, but why buy an extra application if you already own Adobe Audition? I tested a few options, like using X2Pro to get an AAF into Premiere Pro and then into Audition, but none of this worked. What does work is using XML.

First, duplicate the sequence and work from the copy for safety. Review your edited sequence in FCP X and detach/delete any unused audio elements, such as muted audio associated with connected clips that are used as video-only B-roll. Next, break apart any compound clips. I recommend detaching the desired audio, but that’s optional. Now export an FCPXML for that sequence. Open the FCPXML in the Xto7 application and save the audio tracks as a new XML file.

Launch Audition and import the new XML file. This will populate your multitrack mixing window with the sequence and clips. At this stage, all clips that were inside FCP X Libraries will be offline. Select these clips and use the “link media” command. The good news is that the dialogue window will allow you to see inside the Library file and let you navigate to the correct file. Unfortunately, the correct name match will not be bolded. Since these files are typically date/time-stamped, make sure to read the names carefully when you select the first clip. The rest will relink automatically. Note that level changes and fades that were made in FCP X do not come across into Audition.

Now you can mix the session. When done, export a stereo (or other) mixed master file. Import that into FCP X and attach as a connected clip to the head of your sequence. Make sure to delete, disable (make “invisible”) or mute all previous audio.

After Effects

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For many editors, Adobe After Effects is the finishing tool of choice – not just for graphics and effects, but also color correction and other embellishments. Thanks to the ClipExporter application, it’s easy to go from FCP X to After Effects.

Similar to the Audition step, I recommend detaching/deleting all audio. Some folks like to have audio inside After Effects, but most of the time it’s in the way for me. Break part all compound clips. You might as well remove any FCP X titles and effects filters/transitions, since these don’t translate into After Effects. Lastly, I recommend selecting all connected clips and using the “overwrite to storyline” command. This will place everything onto the primary storyline and result in a straightforward cascade of layers once inside After Effects.

Export an FCPXML file for the sequence. Open ClipExporter and select the AE conversion tab. Import the FCPXML file. An important feature is that ClipExporter supports FCP X’s retiming function, but only for AE exports. Now run ClipExporter and save the resultant After Effects script file.

Launch Adobe After Effects and from the File/Script pulldown menu, select the saved script file created by ClipExporter. The script will run and load the clips and a your sequence as a new composition. Each individual shot is stashed into its own mini-composition and these are then placed into a stack of layers for the timeline of the main AE composition. Should you need to trim/slip the media for a shot, all available media can be accessed and adjusted within the shot’s individual mini-comp. If a shot has been retimed in FCP X, those adjustments also appear in the mini-comp and not in the main composition.

Build your effects and render a flattened file with everything baked in. Import that file into FCP X and add it as a connected clip to the top of your sequence. Disable all other video clips.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Typemonkey

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One of the ways to extend functions in Adobe After Effects is through scripting. These are automated macros to quickly perform tasks you could do yourself. By using scripts the results can be built more quickly without manually performing tedious, repetitive commands. Developers can create advanced scripts to automate complex creative treatments. These are installed like plug-ins, but show up as a module under the Window pulldown menu. One such script unit is Typemonkey – a kinetic text generator.

Kinetic Text

df_typemonkey_5We’ve all seen this current design trend for TV spots and marketing videos. The copy is presented via animated words, which move into position on screen. The view shifts from one word to the next in sync with the announcer at the reading pace of the viewer. Creating a kinetic text layout is relatively straightforward and can easily be created by an editor using After Effects or Motion.

The starting point for kinetic text is a large layout of stacked words. These are arranged horizontally and vertically in a bigger-than-raster field. It’s like taking a variety of building blocks and stacking them like a building. This word design can be created as a layered Photoshop document or as a series of layers in After Effects or Motion – one word per layer. To add energy and pace, you would next offset the timing of each layer and add an entry animation to the word on that layer, so that it flys, fades, rotates or types into visibility.

df_typemonkey_4Once this layout is created, the entire stack of layers is viewed with a 3D camera, which in turn is animated to create the moves from one word to the next as they appear inside the raster of your composition. This brings them full screen for a moment as the reader follows the context of this text. While this process is very easy once you understand it, the time it takes to build it can be quite long. In addition, a paragraph of words will result in a lengthy series of After Effects layers in your timeline pane.

Automating the process

df_typemonkey_2

Where Typemonkey enters the picture is to streamline the process and reduce or even eliminate the manual steps. Once installed, you open the Typemonkey interface module from the Window menu. Set the starting font from After Effects’ normal text control pane, paste or type your text into the Typemonkey window and press the “Do it!” button. At this point Typemonkey operates as a macro to automatically build the layers, the moves and the 3D camera animation. The final result is a timeline that shows the 3D camera layer with all word layers shied. Moves from word to word are evenly space for the length of the composition or selected work area with markers at each change. This builds a very nice composition with kinetic text in a matter of seconds.

df_typemonkey_7Naturally, most editors and designers will want to customize the defaults, so that every composition isn’t identical. This can be achieved through both the Typemonkey pane and AE’s standard layer effects. Sliding the markers in the composition timeline will change the animation pacing of the 3D camera’s move from word to word. This lets you hold longer on some words and move more quickly through others.

df_typemonkey_3The controls within the Typemonkey pane let you adjust some of the move styles and interpolations. You can also set up a series of colors, so that each word changes color as it cycles through the five palette choices. Through adjustments at both locations, designers can get quite a large range of variations from this single tool. The actual effects are performed using After Effects expressions, rather than keyframes, so you cannot easily make individual changes to the internal moves. However, you can certainly add your own keyframed transform effects on top of what Typemonkey creates.

Typemonkey is a low cost tool that will pay for itself in the time saved on a single job. Obviously its use is specific to kinetic text creative treatments, but used sparingly and with taste, it’s a look that will bring your motion graphics up a notch.

©2013 Oliver Peters

After Effects for the Finish

df_AE-finish

Many editors view Adobe After Effects as a great motion graphics tool or a reasonably powerful compositor. It’s a great “Swiss Army knife” for all things in post. I use it all the time to add or remove cadence going between 24fps and 30fps formats, as well as to perform high-quality SD-HD up/down/cross-conversions. Want a great credit roll? Create a long Photoshop document with names and titles, drop it into an After Effects composition of the desired length, add two keyframes, render and Bob’s your uncle! Needless to say After Effects is one of those indispensable Adobe tools for many editors, regardless of the editing software that they use.

As a compositor it’s powerful, as well, although the serious VFX folks tend to gravitate to Flame, Nuke, Shake, Fusion or other apps. As compositing software goes, applications tend to be split between tracks and nodes, with After Effects in the former category. In a stricter view, though, After Effects uses layers rather than tracks. It’s like Photoshop in that sense, where each new clip goes onto a new video layer – except that these layers are set against time. This gives it a cosmetic similarity to NLE tracks. Each layer can be masked, adjusted in 2D and 3D space and have filter effects applied to it. Layers can be connected in parent-child relationships. Null layers can be added, which are technically “blank” layers to which other layers are linked. By manipulating the null layer, the others are all changed accordingly. Like Photoshop, there are adjustment layers often used for filter or graphic elements, like vignettes. These affect the look of all the other layers that are underneath.

What many don’t realize is that quite a few editors use After Effects as their complete editorial finishing tool. Maybe it’s because After Effects is so versatile or maybe because these editors came from a graphics and design background, but I’ve run across quite a few cases, where the NLE was used to build a very basic timeline and then everything else was done in After Effects. This approach has also been popularized by Stu Maschwitz in his The DV Rebel’s Guide. There are several ways to get from an NLE into After Effects. Media Composer and Final Cut “legacy” editors can use Automatic Duck. If you prefer FCP X, then ClipExporter is the path into AE. Premiere Pro offers a “live” connection between the two applications using Dynamic Link, but you can also just copy-and-paste Premiere Pro timeline clips into a new AE composition. If all else fails, the easiest method is simply to export a self-contained media file and bring that into an AE comp. Use the “split layer” command to slice the single clip at the cuts, in order to place each shot onto its own layer.

Just to be clear, nearly everything that can be done this way – using After Effects for finishing – could also be done using Apple Motion or Boris RED. It’s just that I haven’t run into many folks doing the same thing with those applications, but I have run into plenty using After Effects. In any case, Motion has a lot going for it and of the alternatives to After Effects, it offers the most bang for the least bucks. Of these three, it’s probably the easiest tool for new users and is incredibly powerful, when those same users is ready for more.

Doing a complete finish in After Effects or Motion isn’t necessarily my cup-of-tea, because I’m more comfortable within an NLE. Plus, if you have a lot of shots, that means a lot of layers. A quick-cut :30 commercial, could easily mean 20-40 layers. On the other hand, you have some great tools in After Effects – or that come bundled with it. Built-in, you’ve got text, paint, masking, tracking, blend modes, color correction, distortion, a puppet tool and more. It comes bundled with Cycore plug-ins, the Keylite keyer, the Mocha tracker and Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse grading tool. New with After Effects CC is a live link to Cinema 4D models and a bundled version of the Cinema 4D Lite application.

Thanks to AE’s ability to nest compositions within other compositions, it makes a great tool for broadcast versioning. For example, let’s say you create a separate comp for the end tag of a commercial. That tag comp might have several layers that can be turned on or off to create different variations to the commercial. The tag composition becomes the last layer within the comp for the complete commercial. Now once you are ready to render/export each version of the commercial, simply change the active layers in the end tag composition and it will be updated within the full composition for the commercial.

In May I was freelancing at a broadcast affiliate, where nearly every promo, commercial, billboard, show open or station ID went through this process. Editors who joined that team would be completely useless without an intermediate knowledge of After Effects – if nothing else, just to dive into past projects. I’ve run into this same scenario at other broadcast shops, as well. Cut the base spot. Export a file for After Effects where all the finesse happens. Render the comp and bring it back into the NLE for final broadcast formatting. Needless to say, Autodesk’s Smoke 2013 is trying to become the tool of choice for this niche, but that’s an uphill climb. Adobe’s price is better, the learning curve is easier and there’s a larger user base.

Although I like to finish inside my NLE, I have certainly been more than happy with the results I get in After Effects and there are few applications that work better with plug-ins. If you want to add that touch of art and design to the completion or your projects, then it’s worth taking a closer look at After Effects or Motion as more than just a tool to create motion graphics.

©2013 Oliver Peters

NAB 2012 – Adobe CS6, Smoke 2013, Thunderbolt and more

Get some coffee, sit back and take your time reading this post. I apologize for its length in advance, but there’s a lot of new hardware and software to talk about. I’m going to cover my impressions of NAB along with some “first looks” at Adobe Creative Suite 6, Smoke 2013 and Thunderbolt i/o devices. There’s even some FCP X news!

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Impressions of NAB 2012

I thought this year was going to be quiet and laid back. Boy, was I wrong! Once again Blackmagic Design stole the spotlight with democratized products. This year the buzz had to be the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. It delivers on the objective of the original RED Scarlet idea. It’s a $3K camera with 2.5K of resolution and 13 stops. I’ll leave the camera discussions to the camera guys, but suffice it to say that this camera was thought up with post in mind. That is – no new, proprietary codec. It uses ProRes, DNxHD or Cinema DNG (the Adobe raw format). It also includes a copy of Resolve and UltraScope with the purchase.

Along with that news was Blackmagic’s re-introduction of the Teranex processors. Prior to that company’s acquisition by Blackmagic Design, the top-of-the-line Teranex image processor loaded with options was around $90K. Now that Grant Petty’s wizards have had a go at it, the newest versions in a nicely re-designed form factor are $2K for 2D and $4K for 3D. Sweet. And if you think free (or close to it) stifles R&D, take a look at the new, cleaned-up DaVinci Resolve 9.0 interface. Great to see that the development continues.

You’ll note that there was a lot of buzz about 4K camera, but did you notice you need to record that image to something? Enter AJA – not with a camera – but, with the KiPro Mini Quad. That’s right – a 4K version of the Mini already designed with Canon’s C500 4K camera in mind. It records 4K ProRes 4444 files. AJA is also building its Thunderbolt portfolio with T-Tap, a monitoring-only Thunderbolt-to-SDI/HDMI output adapter under $250. More on Thunderbolt devices later in this post.

The NLE news was dominated by Adobe’s reveal of Creative Suite 6 (with Premiere Pro CS6) and Autodesk’s re-designed Smoke 2013. Avid’s news was mainly broadcast and storage-related, since Media Composer version 6 had been launched months before. Although that was old news to the post crowd, it was the first showing for the software at NAB. Nevertheless, to guarantee some buzz, Avid announced a short-term Symphony cross-grade deal that lasts into June. FCP (excluding X), Media Composer and Xpress Pro owners can move into Symphony for $999. If you are an Avid fan, this is a great deal and is probably the best bang-for-the-buck NLE available if you take advantage of the cross-grade.

An interesting sidebar is that both FilmLight and EyeOn are developing plug-in products for Avid software. FilmLight builds the Baselight color correction system, which was shown and recently released in plug-in form for FCP 7. Now they are expanding that to other hosts, including Nuke and Media Composer under the product name of Baselight Editions. EyeOn’s Fusion software is probably the best and fastest, feature film-grade compositor available on Windows. EyeOn is using Connection (a software bridge) to send Media Composer/Symphony or DS timeline clips to Fusion, which permits both applications to stay open. In theory, if you bought Symphony and added Baselight and Fusion, the combination becomes one of the most powerful NLEs on the market. All at under $5K with the current cross-grade!

Autodesk has been quite busy redesigning its Smoke NLE for the Mac platform. Smoke 2013 features a complete Mac-centric overhaul to turn it into an all-in-one “super editor” that still feels comfortable for editors coming from an FCP or Media Composer background. See my “first look” section below.

Quantel, who often gets lost in these desktop NLE discussions showed the software-only version of Pablo running on a tweaked PC. It uses four high-end NVIDIA cards for performance and there’s also a new, smaller Neo Nano control surface. Although pricing is lower, at $50K for the software alone, it’s still the premium brand.

There’s been plenty of talk about “editing in the cloud”, but in my opinion, there were three companies at the show with viable cloud solutions for post: Avid, Quantel and Aframe. In 2010 Avid presented a main stage technology preview that this year has started to come to fruition as Interplay Sphere. The user in the field is connected to his or her home base storage and servers over various public networks. The edit software is a version of the NewsCutter/Media Composer interface that can mix local full-res media with proxy media linked to full-res media at the remote site. When the edit is done, the sequence list is “published” to the server and local, full-res media uploaded back to the home base (trimmed clips only). The piece is conformed and rendered by the server at home. Seems like the branding line should be Replace your microwave truck with a Starbucks!

The company with a year of real experience “in the cloud” at the enterprise level is Quantel with Qtube. It’s a similar concept to Avid’s, but has the advantage of tying in multiple locations remotely. Media at the home base can also be searched and retrieved in formats that work for other NLEs, including Media Composer and Final Cut.

An exciting newcomer is Aframe. They are a British company founded by the former owner of Unit, one of Europe’s largest professional post facilities built around FCP and Xsan. Aframe is geared toward the needs of shows and production companies more so than broadcast infrastructures. The concept uses a “private cloud” (i.e. not Amazon servers) with an interface and user controls that feel a lot like a mash-up between Vimeo and Xprove. Full-res media can be uploaded in several ways, including via regional service centers located around the US. There’s full metadata support and the option to use Aframe’s contracted logging vendor if you don’t want to create metadata yourself. Editors cut with proxy media and then the full-res files are conformed via EDLs and downloaded when ready. Pricing plans are an attractive per-seat, monthly structure that start with a free, single seat account.

Apple doesn’t officially do trade shows anymore, but they were at NAB, flying under the radar. In a series of small, private meetings with professional customers and media, Apple was making their case for Final Cut Pro X. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the same can be said for re-building a dominant editing application from the ground up. Rather than simply put in the same features as the competition, Apple opted to take a fresh look, which has created much “Sturm und Drang” in the industry. Nevertheless, Apple was interested in pointing out the adoption by professional users and the fact that it has held an above-50% market share with new NLE seats sold to professional users during 2011. You can parse those numbers anyway you like, but they point to two facts: a) people aren’t changing systems as quickly as many vocal forum posts imply, and b) many users are buying FCP X and seeing if and how it might work in some or all of their operation.

FCP X has already enjoyed several quick updates in less than a year, thanks to the App Store mechanism. There’s a robust third-party developer community building around X. In fact, walking around the NAB floor, I saw at least a dozen or more booths that displayed FCP X in some fashion to demonstrate their own product or use it as an example of interoperability between their product and X. Off the top of my head, I saw or heard about FCP X at Autodesk, Quantel, AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, MOTU, Tools On Air, Dashwood and SONY – not to mention others, like resellers and storage vendors. SONY has announced the new XDCAM plug-ins for X and compatibility of its XDCAM Browser software. Dashwood Cinema Solutions was showing the only stereo3D package that’s ready for Final Cut Pro X. And of course, we can’t live without EDLs, so developer XMiL Workflow Tools (who wasn’t exhibiting at NAB) has also announced EDL-X, an FCP XML-to-EDL translator, expected to be in the App Store by May.

On the Apple front, the biggest news was another peek behind the curtain at some of the features to be included in the next FCP X update, coming later this year. These include multichannel audio editing tools, dual viewers, MXF plug-in support and RED camera support. There are no details beyond these bullet points, but you can expect a lot of other minor enhancements as part of this update.

“Dual viewers” may be thought of as “source/record” monitors – added by Apple, thanks to user feedback. Apple was careful to point out to me that they intended to do a bit more than just that with the concept. “RED support” also wasn’t defined, but my guess would be that it’s based on the current Import From Camera routine. I would imagine something like FCP 7’s native support of RED media through Log and Transfer, except better options for bringing in camera raw color metadata. Of course, that’s purely speculation on my part.

Now, sit back and we’ll run through some “first looks”.

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Adobe Creative Suite 6 – A First Look

Adobe charged into 2012 with a tailwind of two solid years of growth on the Mac platform and heavy customer anticipation for what it plans to offer in Creative Suite 6. The release of CS5 and CS5.5 were each strong in their own right and introduced such technologies as the Mercury Playback Engine for better real-time performance, but in 2011 Adobe clearly ramped up its focus on video professionals. They acquired the IRIDAS SpeedGrade technology and brought the developers of Automatic Duck on board. There have been a few sneak peeks on the web including a popular video posted by Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco editors, but the wait for CS6 ended with this year’s NAB.

Production Premium

Adobe’s video content creation tools may be purchased individually, through a Creative Cloud subscription or as part of the Master Collection and Production Premium bundles. Most editors will be interested in CS6 Production Premium, which includes Prelude, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Photoshop Extended, SpeedGrade, Audition, Encore, Adobe Media Encoder, Illustrator, Bridge and Flash Professional. Each of these applications has received an impressive list of new features and it would be impossible to touch on every one here, so look for a more in-depth review at a future date. I’ll quickly cover some of the highlights.

Prelude

As part of CS6, Adobe is introducing Prelude, a brand new product designed for footage acquisition, ingest/transcode, organization, review and metadata tagging. It’s intended to be used by production assistants or producers as an application to prepare the footage for an editor. Both Prelude and Premiere Pro now feature “hover scrubbing”, which is the ability to scan through footage quickly by moving the mouse over the clip thumbnail, which can be expanded as large as a mini-viewer. Clips can be marked, metadata added and rough cuts assembled, which in turn are sent to Premiere Pro. There is a dynamic reading of metadata between Prelude and Premiere Pro. Clip metadata changes made in one application are updated in the other, since the information is embedded into the clip itself. Although Prelude is included with the software collection for single users, it can be separately purchased in volume by enterprise customers, such as broadcasters and news organizations.

Premiere Pro

A lot of effort was put into the redesign of Premiere Pro. The user interface has been streamlined and commands and icons were adjusted to be more consistent with both Apple Final Cut Pro (“legacy” versions) and Avid Media Composer. Adobe took input from users who have come from both backgrounds and wanted to alter the UI in a way that was reasonably familiar. The new CS6 keyboard shortcuts borrow from each, but there are also full FCP and full MC preset options. Workspaces have been redesigned, but an editor can still call up CS5.5 workspace layouts with existing projects to ease the transition. A dockable timecode window has been added and Adobe has integrated a dynamic trimming function similar to that of Media Composer.

The changes are definitely more than cosmetic, though, as Adobe has set out to design a UI that never forces you to stop. This means you can now do live updates to effects and even open other applications without the timeline playback ever stopping. They added Mercury Playback acceleration support for some OpenCL cards and there’s a new Mercury Transmit feature for better third-party hardware i/o support across all of the video applications. Many new tools have been added, including a new multi-camera editor with an unlimited number of camera angles. Some more features have been brought over from After Effects, including adjustment layers and the Warp Stabilizer that was introduced with CS5.5. This year they’ve broken out the rolling shutter repair function as a separate tool. Use it for quick HDSLR camera correction without the need to engage the full Warp Stabilizer.

SpeedGrade

By adding a highly-regarded and established color grading tool, Adobe has strengthened the position of Production Premium as the primary application suite for video professionals. The current level of integration is a starting point, given the short development time that was possible since last September. Expect this to expand in future versions.

SpeedGrade works as both a standalone grading application, as well as a companion to the other applications. There’s a new “Send to SpeedGrade” timeline export operation in Premiere Pro. When you go into SpeedGrade this way, an intermediate set of uncompressed DPX files is first rendered as the source media to be used by SpeedGrade. Both applications support a wide range of native formats, but they aren’t all the same, so this approach offers the fewest issues for now, when working with mixed formats in a Premiere sequence. In addition, SpeedGrade can also import EDLs and relink media, which offers a second path from Premiere Pro into SpeedGrade. Finished, rendered media returns to Premiere as a single, flattened file with baked-in corrections.

As a color correction tool, SpeedGrade presents an easy workflow – enabling you to stack layers of grading onto a single clip, as well as across the entire timeline. There are dozens of included LUTs and looks presets, which may be used for creative grading or to correct various camera profiles. An added bonus is that both After Effects and Photoshop now support SpeedGrade Look files.

Audition

With CS5.5, Adobe traded out Soundbooth for a cross-platform version of Audition, Adobe’s full-featured DAW software. In CS6, that integration has been greatly improved. Audition now sports an interface more consistent with After Effects and Premiere, newly added Mackie and Avid Eucon control surface protocol support and mixing automation. The biggest feature demoed in the sneak peeks has been the new Automatic Speech Alignment tool. You can take overdubbed ADR lines and automatically align them for near-perfect sync to replace the on-camera dialogue. All of this is thanks to the technology behind Audition’s new real-time, high-quality audio stretching engine.

Audition also gains a number of functions specific to audio professionals. Audio CD mastering has been added back into the program and there’s a new pitch control spectral display. This can be used to alter the pitch of a singer, as well as a new way to create custom sound design. Buying Production Premium gives you access to 20GB of downloadable audio media (sound effects and music scores) formerly available only via the online link to Adobe’s Resource Central.

After Effects

Needless to say, After Effects is the Swiss Army knife of video post. From motion graphics to visual effects to simple format conversation, there’s very little that After Effects isn’t called upon to do. Naturally there’s plenty new in CS6. The buzz feature is a new 3D camera tracker, which uses a point cloud to tightly track an object that exhibits size, position, rotation and perspective changes. These are often very hard for traditional 2D point trackers to follow. For example, the hood of a car moving towards the camera at an angle.

Now for the first time in After Effects, you can build extruded 3D text and vector shapes using built-in tools. This includes surface material options and a full 3D ray tracer. In general, performance has been greatly improved through a better hand-off between RAM cache and disk cache. As with Premiere Pro, rolling shutter repair is now also available as a separate tool in After Effects.

Photoshop

Photoshop has probably had the most online sneak peeks of any of the new Adobe apps. It has been available as a public beta since mid-March. Photoshop, too, sports a new interface, but that’s probably the least noteworthy of the new features. These include impressive new content-aware fill functions, 3D LUT support (including SpeedGrade Look files) and better auto-correction. There’s better use of GPU horsepower, which means common tasks like Liquefy are accelerated.

Photoshop has offered the ability to work with video as a single file for several versions. With CS6 it gains expanded video editing capabilities, enabled by a new layer structure akin to that used in After Effects. Although Premiere Pro or After Effects users probably won’t do much with it, Adobe is quite cognizant that many of its photography customers are increasingly asked to deal with video – thanks, of course, to the HD-video-enabled DSLRs, like the Canon EOS series. By integrating video editing and layering tools into Photoshop, it allows these customers to deliver a basic video project while working inside an application environment where they are the most comfortable. Video editors gain the benefit of having it there if they want to use it. Some may, in fact, develop their own innovative techniques once they investigate what it can do for them.

Adobe Creative Suite 6 offers a wealth of new features, expanded technologies and a set of brand new tools. It’s one of Adobe’s largest releases ever and promises to attract new interest from video professionals.

Click here for updated price and availability information.

Click here for videos that explain CS6 features.

Plus, a nice set of tutorial videos here.

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Autodesk Smoke 2013 – A First Look

Thanks to the common Unix underpinnings of Linux and Mac OS X, Autodesk Media & Entertainment was able to bring its advanced Smoke editor to the Mac platform in December of 2009 as an unbundled software product. The $15K price tag was a huge drop from that of their standard, turnkey Linux Smoke workstations, but still hefty for the casual user. Nevertheless, thanks to an aggressive trial and academic policy, Autodesk was very successful in getting plenty of potential new users to download and test the product. In the time since the launch on the Mac, Autodesk has had a chance to learn what Mac-oriented editors want and adjust to the feedback from these early adopters.

Taking that user input to heart, Autodesk introduced the new Smoke 2013 at NAB. This is an improved version that is much more “Mac-like”. Best of all it’s now available for $3,495 plus an optional annual subscription fee for support and software updates. Although this is an even bigger price reduction, it places Smoke in line with Autodesk’s animation product family (Maya, Softimage, etc.) and in keeping with what most Mac users feel is reasonable for a premium post production tool. Smoke 2013 will ship in fall, but the new price took effect at NAB. Any new and existing customers on subscription will receive the update as part of their support. Tutorials and trial versions of Smoke 2013 are expected to be available over the summer.

More Mac-like

Autodesk was successful in attracting a lot of trial downloads, but realized that the biggest hurdle was the steep learning curve even expert Final Cut and Media Composer editors encountered. Previous Mac versions of Smoke featured a user interface and commands inherited from the Linux versions of Smoke and Flame, which were completely different from any Mac editing application. Just getting media into the system baffled many. With Smoke 2013, Autodesk has specifically targeted editors who come from an Apple Final Cut Pro and/or Avid Media Composer background. The interface uses a standard, track-based editing workflow to maintain the NLE environment that editors are comfortable with. There’s a familiar Mac OS X menu bar at the top and the application has adopted most of the common OS commands. In short, it’s been redesigned – but not “re-imagined” – to act like a Mac application is supposed to.

Smoke now features a tab structure to quickly switch between modes, like media access, editing, etc. The biggest new tool is the Media Hub. This is an intelligent media browser that lets you easily access any compatible media on any of your hard drives. It recognizes native media formats, as opposed to simply browsing all files in the Finder. Media support includes RED, ARRIRAW, ProRes, DNxHD, H.264, XDCAM, image sequences, LUTs and more. Media Hub is the place to locate and import files, including the ability to drag-and-drop media directly into your Smoke library, as well as from the Finder into Smoke. Settings for formats like RED (debayer, color, etc.) are maintained even when you drag from the Finder. Since Smoke is designed as a finishing tool, you can also import AAF, XML (FCP 7, FCP X, Premiere Pro) and EDL lists generated by offline editors.

ConnectFX

Beyond familiar commands and the Media Hub, the editing interface has been redesigned to be more visually appealing and for the easier application of effects. ConnectFX is a method to quickly apply and modify effects right in the timeline. Tabbed buttons let you change between modes, such as resizing, time warps, Sparks filter effects and color correction. When you choose to edit effects parameters, the interface opens a ribbon above the timeline where you can alter numerical settings or enter a more advanced effects editing interface. If you need more sophistication, then move to nodes using ConnectFX. Smoke is the only editor with a node-based compositor that works in 3D space. You get many of the tools that have been the hallmark of the premium Autodesk system products, such as effects process nodes, the Colour Warper, relighting, 3D tracking and more.

Smoke 2013 is positioned as an integrated editing and effects tool. According to Autodesk’s research, editors who use a mixture of several different tools to get the job done – from editing to effects to grading – often use up to seven different software applications. Smoke is intended as a “super editor” that places all of these tools and tasks into a single, comprehensive application with a cohesive interface. The design is intended to maximize the workflow as an editor moves from editing into finishing.

Lighter system requirements

Apple is changing the technology landscape with more powerful personal workstations, like the iMac, which doesn’t fit the traditional tower design. Thunderbolt adds advanced, high-bandwidth connectivity for i/o and storage in a single cable connection.

To take advantage of these changes, Smoke 2013 has been designed to run on this new breed of system. For example, it will work on a newer MacBook Pro or iMac, connected to fast Thunderbolt storage, like a Promise Pegasus RAID array. A key change has been in the render format used by Smoke. Up until now, intermediate renders have been to uncompressed RGB 4:4:4 DPX image sequence files. While this maintains maximum quality, it quickly eats storage space and is taxing on less powerful machines. Rendering to an uncompressed RGB format is generally overkill if your camera originals started as some highly-compressed format like XDCAM or H.264. Now Smoke 2013 offers the option to render to compressed formats, such as one of the Apple ProRes codecs.

Another welcomed change is the ability to use some of the newer Thunderbolt i/o devices. Smoke on a Mac Pro tower has been able to work with AJA KONA 3G cards, but with Smoke 2013, AJA’s new Io XT has been added to the mix. The Io XT is an external unit with most of the features and power of the KONA card. It connects in the Thunderbolt chain with storage and/or a secondary display and is the only current Thunderbolt i/o device with a loop-through connection. Thus it isn’t limited to being at the end of the chain.

While at NAB, I took a few minutes to see how comfortable this new version felt. I’ve been testing Smoke 2012 at home and quite frankly had some of the same issues other FCP and Media Composer editors have had. It has been a very deep program that required a lot of relearning before you could feel comfortable. When I sat down in front of Smoke 2013 in the NAB pod, I was able to quickly work through some effects without any assistance, primarily based on what seemed logical to me in a “standard” NLE approach. I’m not going to kid you, though. To do advanced effects still requires a learning curve, but editors do plenty of in-timeline effects that never require extensive compositing. When I compare doing this type of work in Smoke 2013 versus 2012, I’d say that the learning requirements have been cut by 60% to 75% with this new version. That’s how much the redesign improves things for beginners.

You can start from scratch editing a project strictly on Smoke 2013, but in case you are wondering, this really shouldn’t be viewed as a complete replacement for FCP 7. Instead, it’s the advanced product used to add the polish. As such, it becomes an ideal companion for a fast application used for creative cutting, like Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Media Composer.

Apple’s launch of Final Cut Pro X was a disruptive event that challenged conventional thinking. Autodesk Media & Entertainment’s launch of Smoke 2013 might not cause the same sort of uproar, but it brings a world-class finishing application to the Mac at a price that is attractive to many individual users and small boutiques.

Click here for videos and tutorials about Smoke.

Click here for Autodesk’s NAB videos.

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Thunderbolt I/O Devices – A First Look

Over the years media pros have seen data protocols come and go. Some, like Fibre Channel, are still current fixtures, while others, such as SCSI, have bitten the dust. The most exciting new technology is Thunderbolt, which is a merger of PCI Express and DisplayPort technologies co-developed by Intel and Apple. Started under the code name of Light Peak, the current implementation of Thunderbolt is a bi-directional protocol that passes power, video display signals and data transfer at up to 10Gbps of throughput in both directions. According to Apple, that’s up to twelve times faster than FireWire 800. It’s also faster than Fibre Channel, which tends to be the protocol of choice in larger facilities. Peripherals can access ten watts of power through Thunderbolt, too. Like SCSI and FireWire, Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained with special cables. Up to six devices can be connected in series, but certain devices have to be at the end of the chain. This is typically true when a PCIe-to-Thunderbolt adapter is used.

A single signal path can connect the computer to external storage, displays and capture devices, which provides editors with a powerful data protocol in a very small footprint. Thunderbolt technology is currently available in Apple iMac, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mini computers and is starting to become available on some Windows systems. It is not currently available as a built-in technology on Mac Pros, but you can bet that if there’s a replacement tower, Thunderbolt will be a key part of the engineering design.

By its nature, Thunderbolt dictates that peripheral devices are external units. All of the processing horsepower of a PCIe card, such as a KONA or Decklink, is built into the circuitry of an external device, which is connected via the Thunderbolt cable to the host computer. I tested three Thunderbolt capture/output devices for this review: AJA Io XT, Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 3D and Matrox MXO2 LE MAX. AJA added the monitoring-only T-Tap at NAB to join the Io XT in AJA’s Thunderbolt line-up. Blackmagic Design has developed four Thunderbolt units at difference price tiers. For smaller installations or mobile environments, the UltraStudio Express, Intensity Shuttle Thunderbolt or Intensity Extreme are viable solutions.

Matrox has taken a different approach by using an adapter. Any of its four MXO2 products – the standard MXO2, Mini, LE or Rack – can be used with either Thunderbolt or non-Thunderbolt workstations. Simply purchase the unit with a Thunderbolt adapter, PCIe card and/or Express 34 slot laptop card. The MXO2 product is the same and only the connection method differs for maximum flexibility. The fourth company making Thunderbolt capture devices is MOTU. Their HDX-SDI was not available in time for this review, but I did have a chance to play with one briefly on the NAB show floor.

Differentiating features

All three of the tested units include up/down/cross-conversion between SD and HD formats and perform in the same fashion as their non-Thunderbolt siblings. Each has pros and cons that will appeal to various users with differing needs. For instance, the AJA Io XT is the only device with a Thunderbolt pass-through connector. The other units have to be placed at the end of a Thunderbolt path. They all support SDI and HDMI capture and output, as well as RS-422 VTR control. Both the AJA and Blackmagic units support dual-link SDI for RGB 4:4:4 image capture and output. The Matrox and AJA units use a power supply connected via a four-pin XLR, which makes it possible to operate them in the field on battery power.

The need to work with legacy analog formats or monitoring could determine your choice. This capability represents the biggest practical difference among the three. Both the MXO2 LE and UltraStudio 3D support analog capture and output, while there’s only analog output from the Io XT. The MXO2 LE uses standard BNC and XLR analog connectors (two audio channels on the LE, but more with the MXO2 or Rack), but the other two require a cable harness with a myriad of small connectors. That harness is included with the Blackmagic unit, but with AJA, you need to purchase an optional DB-25 Tascam-style cable snake for up to eight channels of balanced analog audio.

One unique benefit of the Matrox products is the optional MAX chip for accelerated H.264 processing. In my case, I tested the MXO2 LE MAX, which includes the embedded chip. When this unit is connected to a Mac computer, Apple Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder, Avid Media Composer, Telestream Episode and QuickTime perform hardware-accelerated encodes of H.264 files using the Matrox presets.

Fitting into your layout

I ran the Io XT, UltraStudio 3D and MXO2 LE through their paces connected to a friend’s new, top-of-the-line Apple iMac. All three deliver uncompressed SD or HD video over the Thunderbolt cable to the workstation. Processing to convert this signal to an encoded ProRes or DNxHD format will depend on the CPU. In short, recording a codec like ProRes4444 will require a fast machine and drives. I haven’t specifically tested it, but I presume this task would definitely challenge a Mac Mini using only internal drives!

The test-bed iMac workstation was configured with a Promise Pegasus 6-drive RAID array. The iMac includes two Thunderbolt ports and the Pegasus array offers a pass-through, so I was able to test these units both directly connected to the iMac, as well as daisy-chained onto the Promise array. This system would still allow the connection of more Thunderbolt storage and/or a secondary computer monitor, such as Apple’s 27″ Thunderbolt Display. Most peripheral manufacturers do not automatically supply cables, so plan on purchasing extra Thunderbolt cables ($49 for a six-foot cable from Apple).

These units work with most of the current crop of Mac OS X-based NLEs; however, you may need to choose a specific driver or software set to match the NLE you plan to operate. For instance, AJA requires a separate additional driver to be installed for Premiere Pro or Media Composer, which is provided for maximum functionality with those applications. The same is true for Matrox and Media Composer. I ran tests with Final Cut Pro 7, X and Premiere Pro CS 5.5, but not Media Composer 6, although they do work fine with that application. Only the Blackmagic Design products, like the UltraStudio 3D, will work with DaVinci Resolve. In addition to drivers, the software installation includes application presets and utility applications. Each build includes a capture/output application, which lets you ingest and lay off files through the device, independent of any editing application.

Broadcast monitoring and FCP X

The biggest wild card right now is performance with Final Cut Pro X. Broadcast monitoring was a beta feature added in the 10.0.3 update. With the release of 10.0.4 and compatible drivers, most performance issues have stabilized and this is no longer considered beta. Separate FCP X-specific drivers may need to be installed depending on the device.

If you intend to work mainly with Final Cut Pro “legacy” or Premiere Pro, then all of these units work well. On the other hand, if you’ve taken the plunge for FCP X, I would recommend the Io XT. I never got the MXO2 LE MAX to work with FCP X (10.0.3) during the testing period and initially the UltraStudio 3D wouldn’t work either, until the later version 9.2 drivers that Blackmagic posted mid-March. Subsequent re-testing with 10.0.4 and checking these units at NAB, indicate that both the Blackmagic and Matrox units work well enough. There are still some issues when you play at fast-forward speeds, where the viewer and external monitor don’t stay in sync with each other. I also checked the MOTU HDX-SDI device with FCP X in their NAB booth. Performance seemed similar to that of Matrox and Blackmagic Design.

The Io XT was very fluid and tracked FCP X quite well as I skimmed through footage. FCP X does not permit control over playback settings, so you have to set that in the control panel application (AJA) or system preference pane (Blackmagic Design and Matrox) and relaunch FCP X after any change. The broadcast monitoring feature in FCP X does not add any new VTR control or ingest capability and it’s unlikely that it ever will. To ingest videotape footage for FCP X using Io XT or UltraStudio, you will have to use the separate installed capture utility (VTR Xchange or Media Express, respectively) and then import those files from the hard drive into FCP X. Going the other direction requires that you export a self-contained movie file and use the same utility to record that file onto tape. The Matrox FCP X drivers and software currently do not include this feature.

Finally, the image to the Panasonic professional monitor I was using in this bay matched the FCP X viewer image on the iMac screen using either the Io XT or UltraStudio 3D. That attests to Apple’s accuracy claims for its ColorSync technology.

Performance with the mainstream NLEs

Ironically the best overall performance was using the end-of-life Final Cut Pro 7. In fact, all three units were incredibly responsive on this iMac/Promise combo. For example, when you use a Mac Pro with any FireWire or PCIe-connected card or device, energetic scrubbing or playing files at fast-forward speeds will result in the screen display and the external output going quickly out of sync with each other. When I performed the same functions on the iMac, the on-screen and external output stayed in sync with each of these three units. No amount of violent scrubbing caused it to lose sync. The faster data throughput and Thunderbolt technology had enabled a more pleasant editing experience.

I ran these tests using both a direct run from the iMac’s second Thunderbolt port, as well as looped from the back of the Promise array. Neither connection seemed to make much difference in performance with ProRes and AVCHD footage. I believe that you get the most data throughput when you are not daisy-chaining devices, however, I doubt you’ll see much difference under standard editing operation.

The best experience with Premiere Pro was using the Matrox MXO2 LE MAX, although the experience with the AJA and Blackmagic Design devices was fine, too. This stands to reason, as Matrox has historically had a strong track record developing for Adobe systems with custom cards, such as the Axio board set. Matrox also installs a high-quality MPEG-2 I-frame codec for use as an intermediate preview codec. This is an alternative to the QuickTime codecs installed on the system.

Portions of this entry originally written for Digital Video Magazine.

©2012 Oliver Peters