Apple 2018 MacBook Pro

July was a good month for Apple power users, with the simultaneous release of Blackmagic Design’s eGPU and a refresh of Apple’s popular MacBook Pro line, including both 13″ and 15″ models. Although these new laptops retain the previous model’s form factor, they gained a bump-up in processors, RAM, and storage capacity.

Apple loaned me one of the Touch Bar space gray 15” models for this review. It came maxed out with the 8th generation 2.9 GHz 6-core Intel Core i9 CPU, 32GB DDR4 (faster) RAM, Radeon Pro 560X GPU, and a 2TB SSD. The price range on the 15″ model is pretty wide, due in part to the available SSD choices – from 256GB up to 4TB. Touch Bar 15” configurations start at $2,399 and can go all the way up to $6,699, once you spec the top upgrade for everything. My configuration was only $4,699 with the 2TB SSD. Of course, that’s before you add Apple Care (which I highly recommend for laptops) and any accessories.

Apple also released premium leather sleeves for both the 13″ and 15″ models in three colors ($199 for the 15″ size). They are pricey, of course, but not out of line with other branded, luxury products, like bags and watch bands. They fit the unit snuggly and protect it when you are out and about. In addition, they serve as a good pad on rough desk surfaces or when you have the MacBook Pro on your lap. Depending on the task you are performing, the bottom surface of the MacBook Pro can get warm, but nothing to be concerned about.

Before you point me to the nearest Windows gaming machine instead, let me mention that this review really isn’t a comparison against Windows laptops, but rather advances by Apple within the MacBook Pro line. But for context, I have owned six laptops to date – 3 PCs and 3 Macs. I shifted to Mac in order to have access to Final Cut Pro and have been happy with that move. The first 2 PCs developed stress fractures at the lid hinges before they were even a year old. The third, an HP, was solid, but after I gave it to my daughter, the power supply shorted. In addition, the hard drive became so corrupt (thank you Windows) that it wasn’t worth trying to recover. In short, my Mac laptop experience, like that of others, has been one of good value. MacBook Pros generally last years and if you use them for actual billable work (editing, DIT, sound design, etc.), then the investment will pay for itself.

This is the fastest and best laptop Apple has made. Apple engineering has nicely balanced power, size, weight, and battery life in a way that’s hard to counter. It is expensive, but if you try to find an equivalent PC, it is hard to actually find one with these exact same specs or components, until you get into gaming PCs. Those a) look pretty ugly, b) tend to be larger and heavier, with lower battery life, and c) cost about the same. There’s also the sales experience. Try to navigate nearly any PC-centric laptop supplier in an effort to customize the options and it tends to become an exercise in frustration. On the other hand, Apple makes it quite easy to buy and configure its machines with the options that you want.

I do have to mention that when these MacBook Pros first came out there was an issue of performance throttling, which was quickly addressed by Apple and fixed by a supplemental macOS release. That had already been installed on my unit, so no throttling issues that affected any of my performance tests.

Likewise, there have been debris complaints with the first run of the “butterfly” keys used in this and the previous version of these laptops. As other reviewers have stated when tear-downs have been done, Apple has added a membrane under the keys to help with sound dampening. Some reviewers have speculated that this also helps mitigate or even eliminate the debris issues. Whatever the reason, I liked typing on this keyboard and it did sound quieter to me. I tend to bang on keys, since I’m not a touch typist. The feel of a keyboard to a typist can be very subjective and in the course of a day, I tend to type on several vintages of Apple keyboards. In general, the keyboard on this newest MacBook Pro felt comfortable to me, when used for standard typing.

What did Apple bring new to the mix?

When Apple introduced the Touch Bar in 2016, I thought ‘meh’. But after these couple of weeks, I’ve really enjoyed it, especially when an application like Final Cut Pro X extends its controls to the Touch Bar. You can switch the Touch Bar preferences to only be function keys if you like. But having control strip options makes it quick to adjust screen brightness, volume, and so on. In the case of FCPX, you also get a mini-timeline view in some modes. Even QuickTime player calls up a small movie strip into the Touch Bar screen for the file being played.

These units also include Apple’s T2 security chip, which powers the fingerprint Touch ID and the newly added “Hey Siri” commands. The Retina screen on this laptop is gorgeous with up to 500 nits brightness and a wide color gamut. Another new addition is True Tone, which adjusts the display’s color temperature for the surrounding ambient light. That may become a more important selling point in the coming years. There is growing concern within the industry that blue light emitted from computer displays causes long-term eyesight damage. Generally, True Tone warms up the screen when under interior lighting, which reduces eye fatigue when you are working with a lot of white documents. But my recommendation is that editors, colorists, photographers, and designers turn this feature off when working on tasks that require color accuracy. Otherwise, the color balance of media will appear too warm (yellowish).

The 2018 15” MacBook Pro has four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports and a headphone jack. The four ports (two per side) are driven by two internal Thunderbolt 3 (40Gb/s) buses. It appears that’s one for each side, which means that plugging in two devices on one side will split the available Thunderbolt 3 bandwidth on that bus in half. Although, this doesn’t seem to be much of a factor during actual use. The internal bus routing does appear to be different from the previous model, in spite of what otherwise is more or less the same hardware configuration.

Gone are all other connections, so plan on purchasing an assortment of adapters to connect peripherals, such as those ubiquitous USB thumb drives or hardware dongles (license keys). I do wish that Apple had retained at least one standard USB port. Thunderbolt 3 supports power, so no separate MagSafe port is required either. (Power supply and cable are included.) One minor downside of this is that there is no indicator LED when a full battery charge is achieved, like we used to have on the MagSafe plug.

If connected to a Thunderbolt 3 device with an adequate power supply (e.g. the LG displays or the Blackmagic eGPU sold through Apple), then a single cable can both transfer data and power the laptop. One caveat is that Thunderbolt 3 doesn’t pass a video signal in the same way as Thunderbolt 2. You cannot simply add a Thunderbolt 3-to-Thunderbolt 2 adapter and connect a typical monitor’s MiniDisplayPort plug, as was possible with Thunderbolt 2 ports. External monitors without the correct connection will need to go through a dock or monitor adapter in order to pass a video signal. (This is also true for the iMac Pros.)

Many users have taken to relying on their MacBook Pros as the primary machine for their home or office, as well on the road. The upside of Thunderbolt connectively is that when you get back to the office, connecting a single Thunderbolt 3 cable to the rest of your suite peripherals (dock, display, eGPU, whatever) is all you need to get up and running. Simple and clean. Stick the laptop in a cradle in the clamshell mode or on a laptop stand, connect the cable, and you now have a powerful desktop machine. MacBook Pros have gained enough power in recent years that – unless your demands are heavy – they can easily service your editing, photography, and graphic needs.

Is it time to upgrade?

I own a mid-2014 15” MacBook Pro (the last series with an NVIDIA GPU), which I purchased in early 2015. Three years is often a good interval for most professional users to plan on a computer refresh, so I decided to compare the two. To start with, the new 2018 machine boots faster and apps also open faster. It’s even slightly smaller and thinner than the mid-2014 model. Both have fast SSDs, but the 2018 model is significantly faster (2645 MB/s write, 2722 MB/s read – Blackmagic Speed Test).

As with other reviews, I pulled an existing edit project for my test sequence. This timeline could be the same in Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, and Resolve – without effects unique to one specific software application. My timeline consisted of 4K Alexa ProResHQ files that had a LUT and were scaled into a 1080p sequence. A few 1080p B-roll shots were also part of this sequence. The only taxing effect was a reverse slomo 4K clip, using optical flow interpolation. Both machines handled 4K ProRes footage just fine at full resolution using various NLEs. Exports to ProRes and H.264 were approximately twice as fast from Final Cut Pro X on the newer MacBook Pro. The same exports from Premiere Pro were longer overall than from FCPX, but faster on the 2018 machine, as well (see the section at the end for performance by the numbers).

If you are a fan of Final Cut Pro X, this machine is one of the best to use it on, especially if you can store your media on the internal drive. However, as an equalizer of sorts, I also ran these same test projects from an external SSD connected via USB3. While fast (over 200+ MB/s read/write), it wasn’t nearly as fast as the internal SSDs. Nevertheless, performance didn’t really lag behind with either FCPX or Premiere Pro. However, the optical flow clip did pose some issues. It played smoothly at “best quality” in FCPX, but oddly stuttered in the “best performance” setting. It did not play well in Premiere Pro at either full or half resolution. I also believe it contributed to the slower export times evident with Premiere Pro.

I tested a second project made up of all 4K REDCODE raw footage, which was placed into a 4K timeline. The 2018 MacBook Pro played the individual files and edited sequences smoothly when set to “best performance” in FCPX or half resolution in Premiere Pro. However, bumping the settings up to full quality caused stuttering with either NLE.

My last test was the same DaVinci Resolve project that I’ve used for my eGPU “stress” tests. These are anamorphic 4K Alexa files in a 2K DCI timeline. I stripped off all of the added filters that I had applied for the test of the eGPU, leaving a typical editing timeline with only a LUT and basic correction. This sequence played smoothly without dropping frames, which bodes well for editors who are considering a shift to Resolve as their main NLE.

Speaking of the Blackmagic eGPU tests, I had one day of overlap between the loans of the MacBook Pro and the Blackmagic eGPU. DaVinci Resolve’s real-time playback performance and exports were improved by about a 2X factor with the eGPU connected to the 15” model. Naturally,  the 15” machine by itself was quite a bit faster than the 13” MacBook Pro, so the improvement with an eGPU attached wasn’t as dramatic of a margin as the test with the 13” demonstrated. Even with this powerhouse MacBook Pro, the Blackmagic eGPU still adds value as a general appliance, as well as providing Resolve acceleration.

A note on battery life. The spec claims about 10 hours, but that’s largely for simple use, like watching web movies or listening to iTunes. Most of these activities do not cause the graphics to switch over from the integrated Intel to the Radeon Pro GPU, which consumes more power. In my editing tests with the Radeon GPU constantly on – and most of the energy saving settings disabled – I got five to six hours of battery life. That’s even when an application like FCPX was open, but minimized, without any real activity being done on the laptop.

I also ran a “heavy load” test, which involved continually looping my sample 1080 timeline (with 4K source media) full screen at “best quality” in FCPX. This is obviously a worst case scenario, but the charge only lasted about two hours. In short, the battery capacity is very good for a laptop, but one can only expect so much. If you plan on a heavy workload for an extended period of time, stay plugged in.

The 2018 MacBook Pro is a solid update that creative professionals will certainly enjoy, both in the field and even as a desktop replacement. If you bought last year’s model, there’s little reason to refresh your computer, yet. But three years or more? Get out the credit card!

_________________________________________________

Performance by the numbers

Blackmagic Design eGPU test

DaVinci Resolve renders/exports
(using the same test sequence as used for my eGPU review)

13” 2018 MacBook Pro – internal Intel graphics only
Render at source resolution – 1fps
Render at timeline resolution – 4fps

13” 2018 MacBook Pro – with Blackmagic eGPU
Render at source resolution – 5.5fps
Render at timeline resolution – 17.5fps

15” 2018 MacBook Pro – internal Radeon graphics only
Render at source resolution – 2.5fps
Render at timeline resolution – 8fps

15” 2018 MacBook Pro – with Blackmagic eGPU
Render at source resolution – 5.5fps
Render at timeline resolution – 16fps

Standard performance tests – 2018 15” MacBook Pro vs. Mid-2014
(using editing test sequence – 4K ProResHQ media)

2018 export from FCPX to ProRes  :30
2018 export from FCPX to H.264 at 10Mbps  :57
2014 export from FCPX to ProRes  :57
2014 export from FCPX to H.264 at 10Mbps  1:42

2018 export from Premiere Pro to ProRes  2:59
2018 export from Premiere Pro to H.264 at 10Mbps  2:32
2014 export from Premiere Pro to ProRes  3:35
2014 export from Premiere Pro to H.264 at 10Mbps  3:25

2018 export from Resolve to ProRes :35
2018 export from Resolve to H.264 at 10Mbps  :35
(Mid-2014 MBP was not used in this test)

Originally written for RedSharkNews

©2018 Oliver Peters

Advertisements

Blackmagic Design eGPU

Power users have grown to rely on graphics processing units from AMD, Intel and Nvidia to accelerate a wide range of computational functions – from visual effect filters to gaming and 360VR, and even to bitcoin mining. Apple finally supports external GPUs, which can easily be added as plug-and-play devices without any hack. Blackmagic Design just released its own eGPU product for the Mac, which is sold exclusively through Apple ($699 USD). It requires macOS 10.13.6 or later, and a Thunderbolt 3 connection. (Thunderbolt 2, even with adapters, will not work.)

The Blackmagic eGPU features a sleek, aluminum enclosure that makes a fine piece of desk art. It’s of similar size and weight to a 2013 Mac Pro and is optimized for both cooling and low noise. The unit is built around the AMD Radeon Pro 580 GPU with 8GB of video memory. It delivers 5.5 teraflops of processing power and is the same GPU used in Apple’s top-end, 27” Retina 5K iMac.

Leveraging Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt 3 technology supports 40Gb/s of bandwidth, as well as power. The Blackmagic eGPU includes a beefy power supply that can also power and/or charge a connected MacBook Pro. There are two Thunderbolt 3 ports, four USB3.1 ports, and HDMI. Therefore, you can connect a Mac, two displays, plus various USB peripherals. It’s easy to think of it as an accelerator, but it is also an appliance that can be useful in other ways to extend the connectivity and performance of MacBook Pros. Competing products with the same Radeon 580 GPU may be a bit less expensive, but they don’t offer this level of connectivity.

Apple and Blackmagic both promote eGPUs as an add-on for laptops, but any Thunderbolt 3 Mac qualifies. I tested the Blackmagic eGPU with both a high-end iMac Pro and the base model 13” 2018 MacBook Pro with touch bar. This model of iMac Pro is configured with the more advanced Vega Pro 64 GPU (16GB VRAM). My main interest in including the iMac Pro was simply to see whether there would be enough performance boost to justify adding an eGPU to a Mac that is already Apple’s most powerful. Installation of the eGPU was simply a matter of plugging it in. A top menu icon appears on the Mac screen to let you know it’s there and so you can disconnect the unit while the Mac is powered up.

Pushing the boundaries through testing

My focus is editing and color correction and not gaming or VR. Therefore, I ran tests with and without the eGPU, using Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, and DaVinci Resolve (Resolve Studio 15 beta). Anamorphic ARRI Alexa ProRes 4444 camera files (2880×2160, native / 5760×2160 pixels, unsqueezed) were cut into 2K DCI (Resolve) and/or 4K DCI (FCPX, Premiere Pro) sequences. This meant that every clip got a Log-C LUT and color correction, as well as aspect ratio correction and scaling. In order to really stress the system, I added several GPU-accelerated effect filters, like glow, film grain, and so on. Finally, timed exports went back to ProRes 4444 – using the internal SSD for media and render files to avoid storage bottlenecks.

Not many applications take advantage of this newfound power, yet. Neither FCPX nor Premiere utilize the eGPU correctly or even at all. Premiere exports were actually slower using the eGPU. In my tests, only DaVinci Resolve gained measurable acceleration from the eGPU, which also held true for a competing eGPU that I compared.

If editing, grading or possibly location DIT work is your main interest, then consider the Blackmagic eGPU a good accessory for DaVinci Resolve running on a MacBook Pro. As a general rule, lesser-powered machines benefit more from eGPU acceleration than powerful ones, like the iMac Pro, with its already-powerful, built-in Vega Pro 64 GPU.

Performance by the numbers (iMac Pro only)

To provide some context, here are the results I got with the iMac Pro:

Resolve on iMac Pro (internal V64 chip) – NO eGPU – Auto GPU config

Playback of timeline at real-time 23.976 without frames dropping

Render at source resolution – average 11fps (slower than real-time)

Render at timeline resolution – average 33fps (faster than real-time)

Resolve on iMac Pro – with BMD eGPU (580 chip) – OpenCL

Playback of timeline at real-time 23.976 without frames dropping

Render at source resolution – average 11fps (slower than real-time)

Render at timeline resolution – average 37fps (faster than real-time)

Metal

Apple’s ability to work with eGPUs is enabled by Metal. This is their framework for addressing hardware components, like graphics and central processors. The industry has relied on other frameworks, including OpenGL, OpenCL and CUDA. The first two are open standards written for a wide range of hardware platforms, while CUDA is specific to Nvidia GPUs. Apple is deprecating all of these in favor of Metal (now Metal 2). With each coming OS update, these will become more and more “legacy” until presumably, at some point in the future, macOS may only support Metal.

Apple’s intention is to gain performance improvements by optimizing the code at a lower level “closer to the metal”. It is possible to do this when you only address a limited number of hardware options, which may explain why Apple has focused on using only AMD and Intel GPUs. The downside is that developers must write code that is proprietary to Apple computers. Metal is in part what gives Final Cut Pro X it’s smooth media handling and real-time performance. Both Premiere Pro and Resolve give you the option to select Metal, when installed on Macs.

In the tests that I ran, I presume FCPX only used Metal, since there is no option to select anything else. I did, however, test both Premiere Pro/Adobe Media Encoder and Resolve with both Metal and again with OpenCL specifically selected. I didn’t see much difference in render times with either setting in Premiere/AME. Resolve showed definite differences, with OpenCL the clear winner. For now, Resolve is still optimized for OpenCL over Metal.

Power for the on-the-go editor and colorist

The MacBook Pro is where the Blackmagic eGPU makes the most sense. It gives you better performance with faster exports, and adds badly-needed connectivity. My test Resolve sequence is a lot more stressful than I would normally create. It’s the sort of sequence I would never work with in the real world on a lower-end machine, like this 13” model. But, of course, I’m purposefully pushing it through a demanding task.

When I ran the test on the laptop without the eGPU connected, it would barely play at all. Exports at source resolution rendered at around 1fps. Once I added the Blackmagic eGPU, this sequence played in real-time, although the viewer would start to drop frames towards the end of each shot. Exports at the source resolution averaged 5.5fps. At timeline resolution (2K DCI) it rendered at up to 17fps, as opposed to 4fps without it. That’s over 4X improvement.

Everyone’s set of formats and use of color correction and filters are different. Nevertheless, once you add the Blackmagic eGPU to this MacBook Pro model, functionality in Resolve goes from insanely slow to definitely useable. If you intend to do reliable color correction using Resolve, then a Thunderbolt 3 UltraStudio HD Mini or 4K Extreme 3 is also required for proper video monitoring. Resolve doesn’t send video signals over HDMI, like Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X can.

It will be interesting to see if Blackmagic also offers a second eGPU model with the higher-end chip in the future. That would likely double the price of the unit. In the testing I’ve done with other eGPUs that used a version of the Vega 64 GPU, I’m not convinced that such a product would consistently deliver 2X more performance to justify the cost. This Blackmagic eGPU adds a healthy does of power and connectivity for current MacBook Pro users and that will only get better in the future.

I think it’s clear that Apple is looking towards eGPUs are a way to enhance the performance of its MacBook Pro line, without compromising design, battery life, and cooling. Cable up to an external device and you’ve gained back horsepower that wouldn’t be there in the standard machine. After all, you mainly need this power when you are in a fixed, rather than mobile, location. The Blackmagic eGPU is portable enough, so that as long as you have electrical power, you are good to go.

In his review of the 2018 MacBook Pro, Ars Technica writer Samuel Axon stated, “Apple is trying to push its own envelope with the CPU options it has included in the 2018 MacBook Pro, but it’s business as usual in terms of GPU performance. I believe that’s because Apple wants to wean pro users with serious graphics needs onto external GPUs. Those users need more power than a laptop can ever reasonably provide – especially one with a commitment to portability.”

I think that neatly sums it up, so it’s nice to see Blackmagic Design fill in the gaps.

UPDATE: The September 2018 release of Mojave has changed the behavior of Final Cut Pro X when an eGPU is connected. It is now possible to set a preference for whether the internal or external GPU is to be used with Final Cut Pro X.

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers 2017

It’s holiday time once again. For many editors that means it’s time to gift themselves with some new tools and toys to speed their workflows or just make the coming year more fun! Here are some products to consider.

Just like the tiny house craze, many editors are opting for their laptops as their main editing tool. I’ve done it for work that I cut when I’m not freelancing in other shops, simply because my MacBook Pro is a better machine than my old (but still reliable) 2009 Mac Pro tower. One less machine to deal with, which simplifies life. But to really make it feel like a desktop tool, you need some accessories along with an external display. For me, that boils down to a dock, a stand, and an audio interface. There are several stands for laptops. I bought both the Twelve South BookArc and the Rain Design mStand: the BookArc for when I just want to tuck the closed MacBook Pro out of the way in the clamshell mode and the mStand for when I need to use the laptop’s screen as a second display. Another option some editors like is the Vertical Dock from Henge Docks, which not only holds the MacBook Pro, but also offers some cable management.

The next hardware add-on for me is a USB audio interface. This is useful for any type of computer and may be used with or without other interfaces from Blackmagic Design or AJA. The simplest of these is the Mackie Onyx Blackjack, which combines interface and output monitor mixing into one package. This means no extra small mixer is required. USB input and analog audio output direct to a pair of powered speakers. But if you prefer a separate small mixer and only want a USB interface for input/output, then the PreSonus Audiobox USB or the Focusrite Scarlett series is the way to go.

Another ‘must have’ with any modern system is a Thunderbolt dock in order to expand the native port connectivity of your computer. There are several on the market but it’s hard to go wrong with either the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 2 or the OWC Thunderbolt 2 Dock. Make sure you double-check which version fits for your needs, depending on whether you have a Thunderbolt 2 or 3 connection and/or USB-C ports. I routinely use each of the CalDigit and OWC products. The choice simply depends on which one has the right combination of ports to fit your needs.

Drives are another issue. With a small system, you want small portable drives. While LaCie Rugged and G-Technology portable drives are popular choices, SSDs are the way to go when you need true, fast performance. A number of editors I’ve spoken to are partial to the Samsung Portable SSD T5 drives. These USB3.0-compatible drives aren’t the cheapest, but they are ultraportable and offer amazing read/write speeds. Another popular solution is to use raw (uncased) drives in a drive caddy/dock for archiving purposes. Since they are raw, you don’t pack for the extra packaging, power supply, and interface electronics with each, just to have it sit on the shelf. My favorite of these is the HGST Deckstar NAS series.

For many editors the software world is changing with free applications, subscription models, and online services. The most common use of the latter is for review-and-approval, along with posting demo clips and short films. Kollaborate.tv, Frame.io, Wipster.io, and Vimeo are the best known. There are plenty of options and even Vimeo Pro and Business plans offer a Frame/Wipster-style review-and-approval and collaboration service. Plus, there’s some transfer ability between these. For example, you can publish to a Vimeo account from your Frame account. Another expansion of the online world is in team workgroups. A popular solution is Slack, which is a workgroup-based messaging/communication service.

As more resources become available online, the benefits of large-scale computing horsepower are available to even single editors. One of the first of these new resources is cloud-based, speech-to-text transcription. A number of online services provide this functionality to any NLE. Products to check out include Scribeomatic (Coremelt), Transcriptive (Digital Anarchy), and Speedscriber (Digital Heaven). They each offer different pricing models and speech analysis engines. Some are still in beta, but one that’s already out is Speedscriber, which I’ve used and am quite happy with. Processing is fast and reasonably accurate, given a solid audio recording.

Naturally free tools make every user happy and the king of the hill is Blackmagic Design with DaVinci Resolve and Fusion. How can you go wrong with something this powerful and free with ongoing company product development? Even the paid versions with some more advanced features are low cost. However, at the very least the free version of Resolve should be in every editor’s toolkit, because it’s such a Swiss Army Knife application.

On the other hand, editors who have the need to learn Avid Media Composer, need look no further than the free Media Composer | First. Avid has tried ‘dumbed-down’ free editing apps before, but First is actually built off of the same code base as the full Media Composer software. Thus, skills translate and most of the core functions are available for you to use.

Many users are quite happy with the advantages of Adobe’s Creative Cloud software subscription model. Others prefer to own their software. If you work in video, then it’s easy to put together alternative software kits for editing, effects, audio, and encoding that don’t touch an Adobe product. Yet for most, the stumbling block is Photoshop – until now. Both Affinity Photo (Serif) and Pixelmator Pro are full-fledged graphic design and creation tools that rival Photoshop in features and quality. Each of these has its own strong points. Affinity Photo offers Mac and Windows versions, while Pixelmator Pro is Mac only, but taps more tightly into macOS functions.

If you work in the Final Cut Pro X world, several utilities are essential. These include SendToX and XtoCC from Intelligent Assistance, along with X2Pro Audio Convert from Marquis Broadcast. Marquis’ newest is Worx4 X – a media management tool. It takes your final sequence and creates a new FCPX library with consolidated (trimmed) media. No transcoding is involved, so the process is lighting fast. Although in some cases media is copied without being trimmed. This can reduce the media to be archived from TBs down to GBs. They also offer Worx4 Pro, which is designed for Premiere Pro CC users. This tool serves as a media tracking application, to let editors find all of the media used in a Premiere Pro project across multiple volumes.

Most editors love to indulge in plug-in packages. If you can only invest in a single, large plug-in package, then BorisFX’s Boris Continuum Complete 11 and/or their Sapphire 11 bundles are the way to go. These are industry-leading tools with wide host and platform support. Both feature mocha tracking integration and Continuum also includes the Primatte Studio chromakey technology.

If you want to go for a build-it-up-as-you-need-it approach – and you are strictly on the Mac – then FxFactory will be more to your liking. You can start with the free, basic platform or buy the Pro version, which includes FxFactory’s own plug-ins. Either way, FxFactory functions as a plug-in management tool. FxFactory’s numerous partner/developers provide their products through the FxFactory platform, which functions like an app store for plug-ins. You can pick and choose the plug-ins that you need when the time is right to purchase them. There are plenty of plug-ins to recommend, but I would start with any of the Crumplepop group, because they work well and provide specific useful functions. They also include the few audio plug-ins available via FxFactory. Another plug-in to check out is the Hawaiki Keyer 4. It installs into both the Apple and Adobe applications and far surpasses the built-in keying tools within these applications.

The Crumplepop FxFactory plug-ins now includes Koji Advance, which is a powerful film look tool. I like Koji a lot, but prefer FilmConvert from Rubber Monkey Software. To my eyes, it creates one of the more pleasing and accurate film emulations around and even adds a very good three-way color corrector. This opens as a floating window inside of FCPX, which is less obtrusive than some of the other color correction plug-ins for FCPX. It’s not just for film emulation – you can actually use it as the primary color corrector for an entire project.

I don’t want to forget audio plug-ins in this end-of-the-year roundup. Most editors don’t feel too comfortable with a ton of surgical audio filters, so let me stick to suggestions that are easy-to-use and very affordable. iZotope is a well-known audio developer and several of its products are perfect for video editors. These fall into repair, mixing, and mastering needs. These include the Nectar, Ozone, and RX bundles, along with the RX Loudness Control. The first three groups are designed to cover a wide range of needs and, like the BCC video plug-ins, are somewhat of an all-encompassing product offering. But if that’s a bit rich for the blood, then check out iZotope’s various Elements versions.

The iZotope RX Loudness Control is great for accurate loudness compliance, and best used with Avid or Adobe products. However, it is not real-time, because it uses analysis and adaptive processing. If you want something more straightforward and real-time, then check out the LUFS Meter from Klangfreund. It can be used for loudness control on individual tracks or the master output. It works with most of the NLEs and DAWs. A similar tool to this is Loudness Change from Videotoolshed.

Finally, let’s not forget the iOS world, which is increasingly becoming a viable production platform. For example, I’ve used my iPad in the last year to do location interview recordings. This is a market that audio powerhouse Apogee has also recognized. If you need a studio-quality hardware interface for an iPhone or iPad, then check out the Apogee ONE. In my case, I tapped the Apogee MetaRecorder iOS application for my iPad, which works with both Apogee products and the iPad’s built-in mic. It can be used in conjunction with FCPX workflows through the integration of metadata tagging for Keywords, Favorites, and Markers.

Have a great holiday season and happy editing in the coming year!

©2017 Oliver Peters

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve Panels

I started my editing career in the era of linear editing suites, where dedicated control panels ruled. CMX keyboards, Grass Valley switchers, ADOs – you name it. These enabled operational speed and experienced editors could drive these rooms like a virtuoso pianist. Much of that dexterity has been lost, thanks to the ubiquity of software-based user interfaces for applications running on general purpose computers and controlled by a mouse. But Grant Petty and Blackmagic Design have set out to change that. At the beginning of March, he introduced two new color correction control panels as companion tools to the company’s DaVinci Resolve editing and grading solution. According to Petty more people are using Resolve to edit than to color correct. By introducing these new panels, he hopes to get more of these users involved in the color correction side of Resolve.

Blackmagic Design now offers three DaVinci Resolve panels: Advanced ($29,995), Mini ($2,995) and Micro ($995). Obviously, the Advanced panel is for serious, dedicated color correction facilities with the traffic to support that investment. It’s a large, three-module console with four trackball/ring controls in the center section. The Mini and Micro panels are designed to be more portable than the Advanced panel. The Mini is essentially a three-trackball subset of the center section of the larger panel. The Micro is the trackball section of the Mini, without the Mini’s tilted backplane. If you are an editor who uses Resolve for color correction, but that’s less than 50% of your workload, then the Micro is probably the right panel for you. If you color correct more than 50%, then the Mini is the better bet. However, these panels are designed for more than just editors. If you work as a DIT (digital imaging technician) in the field or on-set, you most likely use Resolve, making these panels the perfect addition to your toolkit.

Taking the Mini for a spin

Blackmagic Design loaned me a Resolve Mini panel for about two weeks for this review. I have to say, it was love at first sight. These panels continue with Blackmagic’s modern industrial design style. This has earned them an international Design Team of the Year award from the Red Dot Awards last year. The Mini panel is a well-constructed metal console with precision trackballs, rings, knobs and buttons. (The panel also uses some high-impact plastic in its construction.) With packaging, it weighs 24 pounds, thus it’s more “transportable” than portable. If you want something to toss into a gig bag, then the Micro would be the panel to buy. The Mini is better for facility use; however, it’s easy enough to move between rooms as needed.

The smaller Micro is bus-powered over USB, but the Mini includes several connection and power options. Communications can be over ethernet or USB/USB-C. Power options include standard AC wall power, 12 volt 4-pin, or ethernet PoE. Like other Blackmagic Design products, you have to supply your own power chord, but the Mini does include a USB-to-USB-C adapter chord. To run the panel, you need to install Resolve Studio (paid) or Resolve (free), version 12.5.5 or later. And yes, these panels only work with Resolve. Connection is drop-dead easy. Just power it up and plug in the USB cable to any available USB port on your computer (or looped off of a connected device, like a monitor). Then select the panel in Resolve’s preferences. This ease of installation is refreshing, without any of the finickiness of other protocols, like EUCON. The one downside for editors is that this panel only controls the color mode of Resolve. There are no dedicated controls for editing, importing or exporting. So you won’t be able to shed the keyboard and mouse completely.

Everything at your fingertips

The main section of the panel includes three trackballs for hue control and rings for luminance control. Generally these correspond to shadow, mids and highlight ranges of the image. Across the top of this flat section are twelve knobs for additional color controls. Push in the knobs to reset their adjusted values. On the right are buttons to move through nodes, clips and stills, along with play/stop buttons. The slanted backplane of the Mini panel features two five-inch, high-resolution LCD menu/control displays, fifteen buttons on either side, eight soft keys across the top, and eight knobs under the displays. The buttons on the left select the portion of the interface that you need to deal with, like primary correction, tracking, sizing, blurs, etc. The buttons on the right are to add nodes, copy and paste, move through stills and keyframes, and toggle the computer display to a full screen viewer.

Resolve’s primary color correction window is pretty deep, requiring paging through different sections of the control window, such as primary bars, primary wheels, log, raw and more. There’s actually a fourth control wheel for offset in addition to lows, mids and highs. Much of this is exposed to the panel. For example, you can use the knobs to adjust the primary bars, while also moving the trackballs, which would normally adjust the primary wheels. Across the bottom of Resolve’s primary window are additional controls for contrast, saturation and more, which spread across two pages of that interface window. These controls are all active on the Mini by using the twelve knobs located above the trackballs. In some cases, you’ll need to change the part of the interface that appears on the two LCDs. This is enabled by the two arrow keys in the upper left corner of the panel. However, switching pages on the panel is required less often than when you only use the mouse with the interface.

The offset function (the fourth primary wheel and fourth trackball on the Advanced panel) can be accessed by selecting the offset key located above the middle trackball. In that mode, the left ring controls temperature, middle ring controls tint and right ring controls level. The right trackball controls color balance.

Resolve is built around controls that may or may not be present in other applications. For example, it is designed as a YRGB system, meaning you can gang level and color controls, but can also correct Y (luminance) lift/gamma/gain levels independent of color (RGB). In addition to standard three-wheel color corrections, you also have contrast/pivot control, as well as some photographic-style enhancements. These include color boost (like a vibrance control), mid detail (softens or sharpens the image), plus blurs. In you are using Resolve Studio, then temporal noise reduction is active. From what I can tell, this is the only control not active when using the panel with the free version of Resolve.

Resolve uses an elaborate curves system, which you would think would be difficult to implement with knobs and buttons. However, Blackmagic has done a wonderful job. The normal curve levels (ganged or independent channels) can be adjusted by six of the knobs under the LCD displays. These work at preset intervals of 0, 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100% along the curve path from dark to light. If you use hue curves, you start with one of six preset colors selected from the panel. Then an “input hue” knob lets you change the selected color left or right within its hue range, based on the last color knob selected. Custom curves also offer a YSFX tool. This is an adjustment to shrink and even invert the curve range. The extreme opposite setting results in a negative image.

There are plenty of other tools. Resolve has a powerful point-cloud tracker, which can also be accessed from the Mini. One handy feature is the ability to automatically add a node with a preset box or circle window. Once applied, then you adjust the window. Although you can step through keyframes, it still requires the mouse to add or delete keyframes. You also have to delete nodes via mouse and not from the panel. Some keys, like FX and User are available for future expansion.

In practice

I spent about a week with the panel, working on and off with some test projects. Needless to say, I enjoyed the process, but there are a few things I wish were different.  The Mini panel is really designed for full-time color grading. If you have a desk layout for editing, then there probably isn’t enough extra space to situate the Mini is an optimal location. For instance, if you wanted to place the panel between your keyboard and display, then the Micro would be a better option. There is no power switch, so the panel is always on. Fortunately, it’s fan-less and quiet, even when on. There are no illumination controls for the displays or the backlit keys. That’s fine in a normally lit room, but might be too bright for some, if you keep the light level very low in the suite.

I’d like to see more versatile transport control. Resolve supports faster-than-real-time playback and scrubbing, but the control panel only gives you 1X play in the forward or reverse directions. It would be nice to have better transport control from the panel. Resolve functions, like adding LUTs, can’t be handled from the panel. The controls to select HSL qualifiers for secondary color correction include eyedroppers, but you still need to use the mouse to graphically pick the right area of the screen. It would be nice if you could do this with the trackball. These are minor points and by no means deal breakers.

A dedicated color correction panel will not only make you a faster colorist – it will also make you a better one. More controls are front and center, which means you are likely to discover and use processes that you would otherwise miss if you simply relied on the mouse or a pen and tablet. You have two hands to control the panel. As with any other tactile task, such as audio mixing with a mixing board, your hands will soon know instinctively what to adjust without having to look at the panel. You can stay more focused on your video display and the scopes. Grading is not only faster, but it’s more intuitive.

Some are going to baulk at the price, no matter how reasonable these portable panels are. To place that into context, at $2,995, the Mini is still less expensive than a decked out Mac Pro or MacBook Pro, which might be your main editing/grading workstation. Plus they work with the free version of Resolve. So if color correction is part of your business model and Resolve is your color correction tool of choice, then either of these two DaVinci Resolve panels is easily justified. The more I’ve been using the Resolve Mini, the more I like it. It’s the Porsche of small grading control panels – solid, stylish and powerful.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

NLE as Post Production Hub

df2316_main_sm

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

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve 12

df3115_R12_1_sm
The industry has been eager to check out Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve 12. This “first look” is based on the initial build of the Resolve 12 public beta. A number of functions have not yet been enabled, so expect to see some changes in the product by the time you read this.

As with any public beta, the point is to get feedback and reap the benefit of crowdsourced quality testing, so be careful about using it on real jobs. That being said, so far I’ve found the public beta builds to be reasonably stable. I’ve had a chance to test the application on several different machines, including two 2009-2010 Mac Pro towers and a new 15” Retina MacBook Pro. Testing included a Sapphire 7950 and an Nvidia Quadro 4000 GPU, as well as the built-in Nvidia card on the laptop.

Blackmagic is no longer using the “Lite” name to identify the free version. The branding is now DaVinci Resolve 12 (free) and DaVinci Resolve 12 Studio ($995). The free version includes the majority of features and is limited to an output no larger that UltraHD 4K. The paid version adds advanced features, including stereoscopic functions, networked collaboration between users, multiple GPU support, and the ability to output at larger than UltraHD 4K frame sizes.

Blackmagic Design hardware products are required to output an analog or digital signal to an external video monitor or tape deck. If you are comfortable making color judgements based on the viewer image, then no hardware is require for operation and rendering. You can also hot rod your system with the DaVinci Control Surface ($29,995) or a number of supported third-party surfaces that are less costly.

Refreshing the user interface

df3115_R12_3DaVinci Resolve 12 ushers in a fresh user interface. Previous versions mimicked the style of Apple Final Cut Pro X, but the new UI is flatter with thinner fonts. It takes on the trendy design aesthetic employed in Windows 8/10 and Mac OS X/iOS. The background colors are a lighter grey with a faint blue cast to them. Although pleasing, I find that last part strange for a color correction application, where a true grey is considered the norm.

The interface has been optimized for single and dual-monitor systems, as well as higher-density displays, like Apple’s Retina. Resolve 12 is divided into four modes or pages: Media, Edit, Color, and Deliver. Software control panels can be opened or closed as needed, including videoscopes, media storage locations, mixers, audio meters, inspector, effects, and more. There are some interesting options to control whether or not a panel or window runs the full horizontal or vertical length of your display. However, there is no way to create a custom workspace by docking panels in different places and then saving that as your personal layout. Interface colors also can’t be personalized.

As before, timelines support sources with mixed formats and frame rates, however, the base timeline setting must match that of the project. This means you cannot have a 720p/59.94 and a 1080i/29.97 timeline within the same project. You can’t have multiple timelines open, but it’s easy to access different timelines in the same project quickly. You can also cut one timeline into another as a nested sequence. Such nests (as well as compound clips) can be decomposed in the timeline, leaving the original source clips to work with.

Resolve 12 no longer includes a separate section in the UI for timelines, as these are placed together with the source media in the Media Pool. One simple solution is to create a Bin for your edits and manually drag the timelines you’ve created into that Bin. Another option is to filter timelines into a Smart Bin by including some common element in the name. For example, you could append “seq” (for sequence) to the end of the name of each timeline. Set your filtering criteria to names that contain “seq” and then timelines will automatically show up in the Smart Bin that you’ve created for timelines.

Editing with Resolve 12

df3115_R12_4As a a nonlinear editing application (NLE), Resolve 12 is an interesting mash-up among several other NLEs, including Premiere Pro, FCP 7 and FCP X. There are new features clearly intended for editors, including multi-camera editing. You can now organize clips and timelines into custom bins, add metadata, assign sortable color flags and other metadata values, and automatically filter clips into Smart Bins. You can sync grouped clips (double-system sound) and multi-camera clips using in-points, timecode, or audio waveforms. The multi-cam editing routine is similar to other NLEs, where you drop a multi-cam clip onto your main timeline and then cut between camera angles.

Blackmagic placed a lot of attention on timeline trim functions. It’s now possible to do some very elaborate asymmetrical trims of multiple clips. Slip/slide trimming and split audio is all very easy and fluid. There is no trim window, so on-the-fly JKL trimming – a la Media Composer – isn’t possible. When you trim via the mouse or keyboard, you get a 2-up preview in the viewer and a 4-up display when slipping and sliding clips. You can access a curve editor in the timeline for transitions, which lets you control the transition acceleration. When you select source clips in the list view mode of the browser, you get a skimmable filmstrip of the selected clip, much like in FCP X.

Video effects are still based on OpenFX, so any third-party filters and transitions that offer OFX host support (FilmConvert, BorisFX, NewBlueFX, etc.) will show up in either the Edit page effects palette or the Color page, depending on whether the filter is something that requires a color correction node in order to be applied. Blackmagic also includes its own toolbox of effects and transitions, including the new Smoothcut transition. This is a morphing dissolve designed to smooth jumpcuts between edited soundbites from on-camera interviews. It is similar to Adobe’s Morph Cut or Avid’s FluidMorph, but seems to rely more heavily on GPU processing. Therefore, you don’t have to wait until a lengthy analysis pass is completed before you can review the results. As with all of these effects, real-world results vary with how closely the alignment is on both sides of the cut. It tends to work best with a duration of two to four frames.

Audio went through big changes in Resolve 12 to improve performance and to add features. VST and AU plug-ins are supported. Any that are installed on your system will show up in the audio effects palette. Effects can be applied to clips or tracks and there’s automation-style track mixing. The way audio tracks are implemented seems confusing to me – especially audio track patching. Tracks can be mono, stereo, 5.1, or adaptive, but there’s no indication in the timeline window as to what type of track it is. When you edit a multi-cam clip to the timeline and the source audio contains several channels, then it is no longer possible to break those clips apart or access individual channels from the timeline. Both Adobe and Apple use similar methods, but with a better approach in each’s implementation. Like in Premiere Pro, it is best to start out by properly setting the source audio channel configuration in the clip properties menu for each clip. You can access this in the Media page.

Other improvements

df3115_R12_5DaVinci Resolve 12 is not only about editing. Since Resolve is used a lot as a DIT tool to generate dailies, there’s a new capability in the Media page to apply color space changes and camera LUTs to a group of clips. If you shot log-encoded footage and apply a Rec709 LUT on the Media page, you’ll now see the corrected color throughout. The downside is that such LUTs are not visible on the Color page and can’t be removed in any of the color adjustment nodes.

The new blue and greenscreen 3D keyer is accessible on the Color page. It yields high-quality results and is aided by new, matte finesse controls, plus Resolve’s great masking and tracking capabilities. There’s also improved ACES support, better shot-matching between clips, and more.

Resolve 12 uses a central database to house all project files. This makes it harder to move files between users than with other NLEs. Previous versions let you export Resolve projects to move them to other systems, but now Resolve 12 adds copy, move, transcode, relink, and consolidate functions. Support for FCPXML (for projects offline-edited using FCP X) has been updated to the newest version of this format.

There had been a bug in how Resolve wrote FCPXML files, so going back into FCP X from Resolve exhibited relinking issues. This only occurred when importing on a different machine than where the files were generated. This bug appears to have been fixed in version 3 of the public beta build.

To include another tool for editors, Blackmagic added an AAF export to Pro Tools feature. I don’t have ProTools, so I wasn’t able to test the Pro Tools export properly. All audio clips are exported in .MXF format, which means many applications can’t play the audio. For example, when I imported the AAF into Apple Logic Pro X, the track sheet was blank. I have been able to send audio from Final Cut Pro X into Logic Pro X using X2Pro Audio Convert to create an AAF.

Performance

df3115_R12_2Real-time media performance is critical to a good editing experience. Resolve 12 is optimized for hardware using the PCIe 3.0 bus, which supports greater bandwidth. Older Mac Pro towers or Windows computers that use PCIe 2.0, are going to be challenged when loaded with PCIe cards. You see this mainly in the Edit page, because more things are going on in the interface on that page. Windows user with the newest hardware and Mac users who own new “trash can” Mac Pros will most likely have a better editing experience than owners of legacy machines.

I experienced choppy video being displayed in the viewer of the Edit page, even though output through the Decklink was fine. Ironically, viewer and video output were smooth on the other pages. After consulting with Blackmagic, the following recommendations gave me the performance I would expect out of an NLE: run in the single-screen layout, close the audio mixer panel, close the audio meters, and/or switch the video monitoring setting to 8-bit. Of these, the mixer suggestion made the biggest difference. The ability to create on-the-fly, low-resolution proxies for editing wasn’t enabled with the first few builds of the public beta. It was turned on in build three. This gives you similar results to that of other NLEs running in a half-resolution, quarter-resolution or “dynamic real-time” mode.

One common mistake that I see users make, when I read some of the internet forum posts, is that they load up the timeline clips with color correction nodes and still expect real-time editing performance. Physics hasn’t changed. Adding effects and color correction to clips is going to negatively impact playback. As a general rule, get all of your editing done first and then save your color correction until last. You’ll be a lot happier.

Final thoughts

Once the official Resolve 12 release rolls out, we’ll see where it finds a place as an editor. This release won’t sway editors who are currently happy with one of the other popular NLEs to switch to Resolve 12 as their main axe. However, I suspect it will increasingly become the finishing tool of choice – probably edging out Autodesk Smoke over time. Now that the editing tools and performance are there, it becomes the ideal application for final edit revisions, grading, and mastering. It can already combine lists and media from a range of creative editing systems.

The other element in this equation is Fusion, the node-based composting application they picked up from EyeOn. There’s already a connecting plug-in between it and NLE timelines that Avid has enjoyed. With a bit more development time, I could clearly see some integration between Resolve and Fusion. That might be why “Studio” is now part of the name change. Hmmm…

When Resolve 11 came out, it, too, was touted as an editor. My critical assessment was that it was a grading tool that could be used as an editor, but you wouldn’t want to. With Resolve 12, Blackmagic has produced an application that is both grading tool and an editor. I could easily see myself using it as my secondary NLE. There is certainly great synergy between Final Cut Pro X and Resolve. Why not have both in your arsenal?

The enticement of a free editing application to many new users is hard to resist. Not to mention that it is cross-platform and unfettered by a software subscription business model. Clearly the development pace by Blackmagic Design since they acquired the product has been impressive. This makes me believe that Resolve will find a new audience willing to use it as their primary creative tool for start-to-finish post production.

Click here for a look back at Resolve 11, which will give you an additional insight into some of Resolve’s feature set.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

DaVinci Resolve – 10 Tips to Improve Your Skills

df2215_resolvetips_main_sm

Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is one of the pre-eminent color correction applications – all the more amazing that it’s so accessible to any user. Even the free Lite version does nearly everything you’d want from any color grading software. If you have an understanding of how to use a 3-way color correction filter and you comprehend procedural nodes as a method of stacking corrections, then it’s easy to get proficient with Resolve, given a bit of serious seat time. The following tips are designed to help you get a little more comfortable with the nuances of Resolve. (Click on the images below for enhanced views.)

df2215_resolvetips_1_smPrimary sliders. Resolve gives you two ways to adjust primary color correction – color wheels and sliders. Most people gravitate to the wheels control panel, but the sliders panel is often faster and more precise. Adjustments made in either control will show up in the other. If you adjust color balance using the sliders, while monitoring the RGB parade display and/or the histogram on the video scopes, then it’s very easy to dial in perfect black and white balance for a shot. If the blue shadow portion looks too high on the RGB parade display, it means that the shadows of the image will look bluish. Simply move the blue lift slider lower to push the shadows closer to a true black. An added benefit of this panel is that the controls react to a wheeled mouse. This is great if you don’t have access to a control surface. Hover the mouse over the slider that you want to adjust and twirl the mouse wheel up or down to make your correction.

df2215_resolvetips_2_smGang/ungang curves. Given the propensity of cameras to record with log gamma profiles, you often find the need to apply an s-shaped luma curve during color correction. This shifts the low and high ranges of the image to expand the signal back to full levels, while retaining a “filmic” quality to that image. In the custom curves panel you’ll encounter a typical layout of four curves for luma and RGB. The default is for these to be ganged together. Adjust one and they all change. However, this means you are jacking around chroma levels when you might simply want to alter luma. Therefore, make sure to disable ganging before you start. Then adjust the luma curve. Only adjust the R, G or B curves if it’s beneficial to your look.

df2215_resolvetips_3_smHue/sat curves. If you toggle the curves pulldown menu, you’ll notice a number of other options, like hue vs. hue, hue vs. sat, and so on. These curve options let you grab a specific color and adjust its hue, saturation or brightness, without changing the tone of the entire image. When you sample a color, you end up with three points along the curve – the pin for the selected color and a range boundary pin on either side of that color. These boundary points determine the envelope of your selection. In other words, how broad of a range of hues that you want to affect for the selected color. Think of it as a comparable function to an audio EQ.

It is possible to select multiple points along the curve. Let’s say you want to lower the saturation of both bright yellows and bright blues within the frame. Choose the hue vs. sat curve and select points for both yellow and blue. Pulling these points down will lower the saturation of each of these colors using a single panel.

The hue vs. hue curve is beneficial for skin tones. A film that I’m currently grading features a Korean lead actress. Her skin tones normally skew towards yellow or green in many shots. The Caucasian and African American actors in the same shots appear with “normal” skin tones. By selecting the color that matches her flesh tones on the curve, I am able to shift the hues towards a value that is more in keeping with pleasing flesh tone colors. When used in combination with a mask, it’s possible to isolate this correction to just her part of the frame, so as not to affect the coloration of the other actors within the same shot.

df2215_resolvetips_4_smTracking/stabilization. Most folks know that Resolve has one of the best and fastest trackers of any application. Add an oval mask to someone’s face, so that you can brighten up just that isolated area. However, as the person moves within the shot, you have to adjust the mask to follow their face. This is where Resolve’s cloud-point tracker is a lifesaver. It’s fast and most of the time stays locked to the subject. The tracking window also enables stabilization. Use the pulldown menu to toggle from tracking to stabilization. This is a two-step process – first analyze and then stabilize. You can dial in an amount of smoothness, if you want to retain some of the camera drift for a more natural appearance to the shot.

df2215_resolvetips_5_smBlurs/masks/tracking. Resolve (including the free version) enables blurring of the image. This can be used in conjunction with a mask and with tracking, if you need to blur and track an object, like logos that need to be obscured in non-scripted TV shows. Using a blur with a vignette mask lets you create a dreamy effect. This is all possible without resorting to third-party filters or plug-ins.

df2215_resolvetips_6_smScene detection/slicing. There are three ways to get a show into Resolve: a) edit from scratch in Resolve; b) roundtrip from another NLE using FCPXML, XML, AAF or an EDL; or 3) export a flattened media file of your timeline from another NLE and import that master file into Resolve. This process is similar to when masters were output to tape, which in turn were graded in a DaVinci “tape-to-tape” color correction session. Resolve has the ability to analyze the file and determine edit points with reasonable accuracy. It will break up the files into individual master clips within your media pool. Unfortunately, these are viewed in the timeline as individual media clips with boundaries, thus making trimming difficult.

My preference is to place the clip onto a new timeline and then manually add splices at all edit points and dissolves. Since Resolve includes editing capabilities, you can trim, alter or add points in case of error or missed edits. This can be aided by importing a matching, blank XML or EDL and placing it onto a higher track, which then lets you quickly identify all edit points that you’ll need to create.

df2215_resolvetips_7_smAdd dissolves. In the example above, how do you handle video dissolves that exist in the master file? The solution (in the Resolve timeline) is to add an edit point at the midpoint of the dissolve that’s embedded within the media file. Next, add a new dissolve equal to the length of the existing dissolve in the video. This way, color correction for one shot will naturally dissolve to the color correction of the second shot. In effect, you aren’t dissolving video sources – only color correction values. This technique may also be used within a single shot if you have correction changes inside that shot. Although in the second case, adding correction keyframes in the Color page is normally a better solution. This might be the case if you are trying to counteract level changes within the shot, such as an in-camera iris change.

df2215_resolvetips_8_smNode strategy. Resolve allows you to store complex grades for shots – which will include as many nodes as required to build the look – at a single memory register. You can build up each adjustment in multiple nodes to create the look you desire, store it and then apply that grade to other shots in a single step. This is very useful; however, I tend to work a bit differently when going through a scene in a dramatic project.

I generally go through the scene in multiple “passes”. For instance, I’ll quickly go through each shot with a single node to properly balance the color and make the shots reasonably consistent with each other. Next, I’ll go back through and add a second node (no adjustment yet) for each shot. Once that’s done, I’ll go back to the head of the scene and in that second node make the correction to establish a look. I can now use a standard copy command (cmd-C on the Mac) to store those values for that single node. When I go to the next shot, the second node is already selected, so then I simply paste (cmd-V on the Mac) those values. Let’s say the scene is a two-person dialogue scene using two singles. Angle A is a slightly different color than Angle B. Set the second node adjustment for Angle A, copy, and then paste to each Angle A shot (leapfrogging the Angle B shots). Then repeat for the Angle B shots.

Lastly, I might want to add a vignette. Go back through the scene and add a third, blank node for each shot. Create the vignette in node three of the first shot, then copy and paste into each of the others. I can still adjust the darkness, softness and position of the vignette at each shot, as needed. It’s a bit of an assembly line process, but I find it’s a quick way to go through a scene and build up adjustments without getting fixated on a single shot. At any point, I can review the whole scene and get a better feel for the result of my corrections in the context of the entire scene.

df2215_resolvetips_9_smLUTs. Resolve enables the application of technical and creative LUTs (color look-up tables). While I find their use limited and should be applied selectively, it’s possible to add your own to the palette. Any .cube LUT file – whether you found it, bought it, or created your own – can be added to Resolve’s library of LUTs. On the Mac, the Resolve LUT folder is found in Library/Application Support/Blackmagic Design/DaVinci Resolve/LUT.

df2215_resolvetips_10_smExport with audio. You can export a single finished timeline or individual clips using the Deliver page. At the time of this post, Resolve 12 has yet to be released, but hopefully the audio export issues I’ve encountered have been completely fixed. In my experience using Resolve 11 with RED camera files, it has not been possible to accurately export a complete timeline and have the audio stay in sync. I haven’t found this to be the case with other camera formats, though. So if you are exporting a single master file, expect the potential need to bring the picture into another application or NLE, in order to marry it with your final mix. Resolve 11 and earlier are not really geared for audio – something which Resolve 12 promises to fix. I’ll have a review of Resolve 12 at some point in the future.

Hopefully these tips will give you a deeper dive into Resolve. For serious training, here are some resources to check out:

Color Grading Central

Explenite

FXPHD

Lynda

Mixing Light

Ripple Training

Tao of Color

©2015 Oliver Peters