COUP 53

The last century is littered with examples of European powers and the United States attempting to mold foreign governments in their own direction. In some cases, the view at the time may have seemed like these efforts would yield positive results. In others, self-interest or oil was the driving force. We have only to point to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 (think Lawrence of Arabia) to see the unintended consequences these policies have had in the middle east over the past 100+ years, including current politics.

In 1953, Britain’s spy agency MI6 and the United States’ CIA orchestrated a military coup in Iran that replaced the democratic prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, with the absolute monarchy headed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Although the CIA has acknowledged its involvement, MI6 never has. Filmmaker Taghi Amirani, an Iranian-British citizen, set out to tell the true story of the coup, known as Operation Ajax. Five years ago he elicited the help of noted film editor, Walter Murch. What was originally envisioned as a six month edit turned into a four yearlong odyssey of discovery and filmmaking that has become the feature documentary COUP 53.

COUP 53 was heavily researched by Amirani and leans on End of Empire, a documentary series produced by Britain’s Granada TV. That production started in 1983 and culminated in its UK broadcast in May of 1985. While this yielded plenty of interviews with first-hand accounts to pull from, one key omission was an interview with Norman Darbyshire, the MI6 Chief of Station for Iran. Darbyshire was the chief architect of the coup – the proverbial smoking gun. Yet he was inexplicably cut out of the final version of End of Empire, along with others’ references to him.

Amirani and Murch pulled back the filmmaking curtain as part of COUP 53. We discover along with Amirani the missing Darbyshire interview transcript, which adds an air of a whodunit to the film. Ultimately what sets COUP 53 apart was the good fortune to get Ralph Fiennes to portray Norman Darbyshire in that pivotal 1983 interview.

COUP 53 premiered last year at the Telluride Film Festival and then played other festivals until coronavirus closed such events down. In spite of rave reviews and packed screenings, the filmmakers thus far have failed to secure distribution. Most likely the usual distributors and streaming channels deem the subject matter to be politically toxic. Whatever the reason, the filmmakers opted to self-distribute, including a virtual cinema event with 100 cinemas on August 19th, the 67th anniversary of the coup.

Walter Murch is certainly no stranger to readers. Despite a long filmography, including working with documentary material, COUP 53 is only his second documentary feature film. (Particle Fever was the first.) This film posed another challenge for Murch, who is known for his willingness to try out different editing platforms. This was the first outing with Adobe Premiere Pro CC, his fifth major editing system. I had a chance to catch up with Walter Murch over the web from his home in London the day before the virtual cinema event. We discussed COUP 53, documentaries, and working with Premiere Pro.

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[Oliver Peters] You and I have emailed back-and-forth on the progress of this film for the past few years. It’s great to see it done. How long have you been working on this film?

[Walter Murch] We had to stop a number of times, because we ran out of money. That’s absolutely typical for this type of privately-financed documentary without a script. If you push together all of the time that I was actually standing at the table editing, it’s probably two years and nine months. Particle Fever – the documentary about the Higgs Boson – took longer than that.

My first day on the job was in June of 2015 and here we are talking about it in August of 2020. In between, I was teaching at the National Film School and at the London Film School. My wife is English and we have this place in London, so I’ve been here the whole time. Plus I have a contract for another book, which is a follow-on to In the Blink of an Eye. So that’s what occupies me when my scissors are in hiding.

[OP] Let’s start with Norman Darbyshire, who is key to the storyline. That’s still a bit of an enigma. He’s no longer alive, so we can’t ask him now. Did he originally want to give the 1983 interview and MI6 came in and said ‘no’ – or did he just have second thoughts? Or was it always supposed to be an off the record interview?

[WM] We don’t know. He had been forced into early retirement by the Thatcher government in 1979, so I think there was a little chip on his shoulder regarding his treatment. The full 14-page transcript has just been released by the National Security Archives in Washington, DC, including the excised material that the producers of the film were thinking about putting into the film.

If they didn’t shoot the material, why did they cut up the transcript as if it were going to be a production script? There was other circumstantial evidence that we weren’t able to include in the film that was pretty indicative that yes, they did shoot film. Reading between the lines, I would say that there was a version of the film where Norman Darbyshire was in it – probably not named as such – because that’s a sensitive topic. Sometime between the summer of 1983 and 1985 he was removed and other people were filmed to fill in the gaps. We know that for a fact.

[OP] As COUP 53 shows, the original interview cameraman clearly thought it was a good interview, but the researcher acts like maybe someone got to management and told them they couldn’t include this.

[WM] That makes sense given what we know about how secret services work. What I still don’t understand is why then was the Darbyshire transcript leaked to The Observer newspaper in 1985. A huge article was published the day before the program went out with all of this detail about Norman Darbyshire – not his name, but his words. And Stephen Meade – his CIA counterpart – who is named. Then when the program ran, there was nothing of him in it. So there was a huge discontinuity between what was published on Sunday and what people saw on Monday. And yet, there was no follow-up. There was nothing in the paper the next week, saying we made a mistake or anything.

I think eventually we will find out. A lot of the people are still alive. Donald Trelford, the editor of The Observer, who is still alive, wrote something a week ago in a local paper about what he thought happened. Alison [Rooper] – the original research assistant – said in a letter to The Observer that these are Norman Darbyshire’s words, and “I did the interview with him and this transcript is that interview.”

[OP] Please tell me a bit about working with the discovered footage from End of Empire.

[WM] End of Empire was a huge, fourteen-episode project that was produced over a three or four year period. It’s dealing with the social identity of Britain as an empire and how it’s over. The producer, Brian Lapping, gave all of the outtakes to the British Film Institute. It was a breakthrough to discover that they have all of this stuff. We petitioned the Institute and sure enough they had it. We were rubbing our hands together thinking that maybe Darbyshire’s interview was in there. But, of all of the interviews, that’s the one that’s not there.

Part of our deal with the BFI was that we would digitize this 16mm material for them. They had reconstituted everything. If there was a section that was used in the film, they replaced it with a reprint from the original film, so that you had the ability to not see any blank spots. Although there was a quality shift when you are looking at something used in the film, because it’s generations away from the original 16mm reversal film.

For instance, Stephen Meade’s interview is not in the 1985 film. Once Darbyshire was taken out, Meade was also taken out. Because it’s 16mm we can still see the grease pencil marks and splices for the sections that they wanted to use. When Meade talks about Darbyshire, he calls him Norman and when Darbyshire talks about Meade he calls him Stephen. So they’re a kind of double act, which is how they are in our film. Except that Darbyshire is Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Meade – who has also passed on – appears through his actual 1983 interview.

[OP] Between the old and new material, there was a ton of footage. Please explain your workflow for shaping this into a story.

[WM] Taghi is an inveterate shooter of everything. He started filming in 2014 and had accumulated about 40 hours by the time I joined in the following year. All of the scenes where you see him cutting transcripts up and sliding them together – that’s all happening as he was doing it. It’s not recreated at all. The moment he discovered the Darbyshire transcript is the actual instance it happened. By the end, when we added it all up, it was 532 hours of material.

Forgetting all of the creative aspects, how do you keep track of 532 hours of stuff? It’s a challenge. I used my Filemaker Pro database that I’ve been using since the mid-1980s on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Every film, I rewrite the software slightly to customize it for the film I’m on. I took frame-grabs of all the material so I had stacks and stacks of stills for every set-up.

By 2017 we’d assembled enough material to start on a structure. Using my cards, we spent about two weeks sitting and thinking ‘we could begin here and go there, and this is really good.’ Each time we’d do that, I’d write a little card. We had a stack of cards and started putting them up on the wall and moving them around. We finally had two blackboards of these colored cards with a start, middle, and end. Darbyshire wasn’t there yet. There was a big card with an X on it – the mysterious X. ‘We’re going to find something on this film that nobody has found before.’ That X was just there off to the side looking at us with an accusing glare. And sure enough that X became Norman Darbyshire.

At the end of 2017 I just buckled my seat belt and started assembling it all. I had a single timeline of all of the talking heads of our experts. It would swing from one person to another, which would set up a dialogue among themselves – each answering the other one’s question or commenting on a previous answer. Then a new question would be asked and we’d do the same thing. That was 4 1/2 hours long. Then I did all of the same thing for all of the archival material, arranging it chronologically. Where was the most interesting footage and the highest quality version of that? That was almost 4 hours long. Then I did the same thing with all of the Iranian interviews, and when I got it, all of the End of Empire material.

We had four, 4-hour timelines, each of them self-consistent. Putting on my Persian hat, I thought, ‘I’m weaving a rug!’ It was like weaving threads. I’d follow the talking heads for a while and then dive into some archive. From that into an Iranian interview and then some End of Empire material. Then back into some talking heads and a bit of Taghi doing some research. It took me about five months to do that work and it produced an 8 1/2 hour timeline.

We looked at that in June of 2018. What were we going to do with that? Is it a multi-part series? It could be, but Netflix didn’t show any interest. We were operating on a shoe string, which meant that the time was running out and we wanted to get it out there. So we decided to go for a feature-length film. It was right about that time that Ralph Fiennes agreed to be in the film. Once he agreed, that acted like a condenser. If you have Ralph Fiennes, things tend to gravitate around that performance. We filmed his scenes in October of 2018. I had roughed it out using the words of another actor who came in and read for us, along with stills of Ralph Fiennes as M. What an irony! Here’s a guy playing a real MI6 agent who overthrew a whole country, who plays M, the head of MI6, who dispatches James Bond to kill malefactors!

Ralph was recorded in an hour and a half in four takes at the Savoy Hotel – the location of the original 1983 interviews. At the time, he was acting in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra every evening. So he came in the late morning and had breakfast. By 1:30-ish we were set-up. We prayed for the right weather outside – not too sunny and not rainy. It was perfect. He came and had a little dialogue with the original cameraman about what Darbyshire was like. Then he sat down and entered the zone – a fascinating thing to see. There was a little grooming touch-up to knock off the shine and off we went.

Once we shot Ralph, we were a couple of months away from recording the music and then final color timing and the mix. We were done with a finished, showable version in March of 2019. It was shown to investors in San Francisco and at the TED conference in Vancouver. We got the usual kind of preview feedback and dove back in and squeezed another 20 minutes or so out of the film, which got it to its present length of just under two hours.

[OP] You have a lot of actual stills and some footage from 1953, but as with most historical documentaries, you also have re-enactments. Another unique touch was the paint effect used to treat these re-enactments to differentiate them stylistically from the interviews and archival footage.

[WM] As you know, 1953 is 50+ years before the invention of the smart phone. When coups like this happen today you get thousands of points-of-view. Everyone is photographing everything. That wasn’t the case in 1953. On the final day of the coup, there’s no cinematic material – only some stills. But we have the testimony of Mossadegh’s bodyguard on one side and the son of the general who replaced Mossadegh on the other, plus other people as well. That’s interesting up to a point, but it’s in a foreign language with subtitles, so we decided to go the animation path.

This particular technique was something Taghi’s brother suggested and we thought it was a great idea. It gets us out of the uncanny valley, in the sense that you know you’re not looking at reality and yet it’s visceral. The idea is that we are looking at what is going on in the head of the person telling us these stories. So it’s intentionally impressionistic. We were lucky to find Martyn Pick, the animator who does this kind of stuff. He’s Mr. Oil Paint Animation in London. He storyboarded it with us and did a couple of days of filming with soldiers doing the fight. Then he used that as the base for his rotoscoping.

[OP] Quite a few of the first-hand Iranian interviews are in Persian with subtitles. How did you tackle those?

[WM] I speak French and Italian, but not Persian. I knew I could do it, but it was a question of the time frame. So our workflow was that Taghi and I would screen the Iranian language dailies. He would point out the important points and I would take notes. Then Taghi would do a first pass on his workstation to get rid of the chaff. That’s what he would give to the translators. We would hire graduate students. Fateme Ahmadi, one of the associate producers on the film, is Iranian and she would also do translation. Anyone that was available would work on the additional workstation and add subtitling. That would then come to me and I would use that as raw material.

To cut my teeth on this, I tried using the interview with Hamid Admadi, the Iranian historical expert that was recorded in Berlin. Without translating it, I tried to cut it solely on body language and tonality. I just dove in and imagined, if he is saying ‘that’ then I’m thinking ‘this.’ I was kind of like the way they say people with aphasia are. They don’t understand the words, but they understand the mood. To amuse myself, I put subtitles on it, pretending that I knew what he was saying. I showed it to Taghi and he laughed, but said that in terms of the continuity of the Persian, it made perfect sense. The continuity of the dialogue and moods didn’t have any jumps for a Persian speaker. That was a way to tune myself into the rhythms of the Persian language. That’s almost half of what editing is – picking up the rhythm of how people say things – which is almost as important or even sometimes more important than the words they are using.

[OP] I noticed in the credits that you had three associate editors on the project.  Please tell me a bit about their involvement.

[WM] Dan [Farrell] worked on the film through the first three months and then a bit on the second section. He got a job offer to edit a whole film himself, which he absolutely should do. Zoe [Davis] came in to fill in for him and then after a while also had to leave. Evie [Evelyn Franks] came along and she was with us for the rest of the time. They all did a fantastic job, but Evie was on it the longest and was involved in all of the finishing of the film. She’s is still involved, handling all of the media material that we are sending out.

[OP] You are also known for your work as a sound designer and re-recording mixer, but I noticed someone else handled that for this film. What was you sound role on COUP 53?

[WM] I was busy in the cutting room, so I didn’t handle the final mix. But I was the music editor for the film, as well as the picture editor. Composer Robert Miller recorded the music in New York and sent a rough mixdown of his tracks. I would lay that onto my Premiere Pro sequence, rubber-banding the levels to the dialogue.

When he finally sent over the instrument stems – about 22 of them – I copied and pasted the levels from the mixdown onto each of those stems and then tweaked the individual levels to get the best out of every instrument. I made certain decisions about whether or not to use an instrument in the mix. So in a sense, I did mix the music on the film, because when it was delivered to Boom Post in London, where we completed the mix, all of the shaping that a music mixer does was already taken care of. It was a one-person mix and so Martin [Jensen] at Boom only had to get a good level for the music against the dialogue, place it in a 5.1 environment with the right equalization, and shape that up and down slightly. But he didn’t have to get into any of the stems.

[OP] I’d love to hear your thoughts on working with Premiere Pro over these several years. You’ve mentioned a number of workstations and additional personnel, so I would assume you had devised some type of a collaborative workflow. That is something that’s been an evolution for Adobe over this same time frame.

[WM] We had about 60TB of shared storage. Taghi, Evie Franks, and I each had workstations. Plus there was fourth station for people doing translations. The collaborative workflow was clunky at the beginning. The idea of shared spaces was not what it is now and not what I was used to from Avid, but I was willing to go with it.

Adobe introduced the basics of a more fluid shared workspace in early 2018 I think, and that began a six months’ rough ride, because there were a lot of bugs that came along  with that deep software shift. One of them was what I came to call ‘shrapnel.’ When I imported a cut from another workstation into my workstation, the software wouldn’t recognize all the related media clips, which were already there. So these duplicate files would be imported again, which I nicknamed ‘shrapnel.’ I created a bin just to stuff these clips in, because you couldn’t delete them without causing other problems.

Those bugs went away in the late summer of 2018. The ‘shrapnel’ disappeared along with other miscellaneous problems – and the back-and-forth between systems became very transparent. Things can always be improved, but from a hands-on point-of-view, I was very happy with how everything worked from August or September of 2018 through to the completion of the film.

We thought we might stay with Premiere Pro for the color timing, which is very good. But DaVinci Resolve was the system for the colorist that we wanted to get. We had to make some adjustments to go to Resolve and back to Premiere Pro. There were a couple of extra hurdles, but it all worked and there were no kludges. Same for the sound. The export for Pro Tools was very transparent.

[OP] A lot of what you’ve written and lectured about is the rhythm of editing – particularly dramatic films. How does that equate to a documentary?

[WM] Once you have the initial assembly – ours was 8 hours, Apocalypse Now was 6 hours, Cold Mountain was 5 1/2 hours – the jobs are not that different. You see that it’s too long by a lot. What can we get rid of? How can we condense it to make it more understandable, more emotional, clarify it, and get a rhythmic pulse to the whole film?

My approach is not to make a distinction at that point. You are dealing with facts and have to pay attention to the journalistic integrity of the film. On a fiction film you have to pay attention to the integrity of the story, so it’s similar. Getting to that point, however, is highly different, because the editor of an unscripted documentary is writing the story. You are an author of the film. What an author does is stare at a blank piece of paper and say, ‘what am I going to begin with?’ That is part of the process. I’m not writing words, necessarily, but I am writing. The adjectives and nouns and verbs that I use are the shots and sounds available to me.

I would occasionally compare the process for cutting an individual scene to churning butter. You take a bunch of milk – the dailies – and you put them into a churn – Premiere Pro – and you start agitating it. Could this go with that? No. Could this go with that? Maybe. Could this go? Yes! You start globbing things together and out of that butter churning process you’ve eventually got a big ball of butter in the churn and a lot of whey – buttermilk. In other words, the outtakes.

That’s essentially how I work. This is potentially a scene. Let me see what kind of scene it will turn into. You get a scene and then another and another. That’s when I go to the card system to see what order I can put these scenes in. That’s like writing a script. You’re not writing symbols on paper, you are taking real images and sound and grappling with them as if they are words themselves.

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Whether you are a student of history, filmmaking, or just love documentaries, COUP 53 is definitely worth the watch. It’s a study in how real secret services work. Along the way, the viewer is also exposed to the filmmaking process of discovery that goes into every well-crafted documentary.

Images from COUP 53 courtesy of Amirani Media and Adobe.

(Click on any image for an enlarged view.)

You can learn more about the film at COUP53.com.

For more, check out these interviews at Art of the Cut, CineMontage, and Forbes.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Dialogue Mixing Tips

 

Video is a visual medium, but the audio side of a project is as important – often more important – than the picture side. When story context is based on dialogue, then the story will make no sense if you can’t hear or understand that spoken information. In theatrical mixes, it’s common for a three person team of rerecording mixers to operate the console for the final mix. Their responsibilities are divided into dialogue, sound effects, and music. The dialogue mixer is usually the team lead, precisely because intelligible dialogue is paramount to a successful motion picture mix. For this reason, dialogue is also mixed as primarily mono coming from the center speaker in a 5.1 surround set-up.

A lot of my work includes documentary-style entertainment and corporate projects, which frequently lean on recorded interviews to tell the story. In many cases, sending the mix outside isn’t in the budget, which means that mix falls to me. You can mix in a DAW or in your NLE. Many video editors are intimidated by or unfamiliar with ProTools or Logic Pro X – or even the Fairlight page in DaVinci Resolve. Rest assured that every modern NLE is capable of turning out an excellent stereo mix for the purposes of TV, web, or mobile viewing. Given the right monitoring and acoustic environment, you can also turn out solid LCR or 5.1 surround mixes, adequate for TV viewing.

I have covered audio and mix tips in the past, especially when dealing with Premiere. The following are a few more pointers.

Original location recording

You typically have no control over the original sound recording. On many projects, the production team will have recorded double-system sound controlled by a separate location mixer (recordist). They generally use two microphones on the subject – a lav and an overhead shotgun/boom mic.

The lav will often be tucked under clothing to filter out ambient noise from the surrounding environment and to hide it from the camera. This will sound closer, but may also sound a bit muffled. There may also be occasional clothes rustle from the clothing rubbing against the mic as the speaker moves around. For these reasons I will generally select the shotgun as the microphone track to use. The speaker’s voice will sound better and the recording will tend to “breathe.” The downside is that you’ll also pick up more ambient noise, such as HVAC fans running in the background. Under the best of circumstances these will be present during quiet moments, but not too noticeable when the speaker is actually talking.

Processing

The first stage of any dialogue processing chain or workflow is noise reduction and gain correction. At the start of the project you have the opportunity to clean up any raw voice tracks. This is ideal, because it saves you from having to do that step later. In the double-system sound example, you have the ability to work with the isolated .wav file before syncing it within a multicam group or as a synchronized clip.

Most NLEs feature some audio noise reduction tools and you can certainly augment these with third party filters and standalone apps, like those from iZotope. However, this is generally a process I will handle in Adobe Audition, which can process single tracks, as well as multitrack sessions. Audition starts with a short noise print (select a short quiet section in the track) used as a reference for the sounds to be suppressed. Apply the processing and adjust settings if the dialogue starts sounding like the speaker is underwater. Leaving some background noise is preferable to over-processing the track.

Once the noise reduction is where you like it, apply gain correction. Audition features an automatic loudness match feature or you can manually adjust levels. The key is to get the overall track as loud as you can without clipping the loudest sections and without creating a compressed sound. You may wish to experiment with the order of these processes. For example, you may get better results adjusting gain first and then applying the noise reduction afterwards.

After both of these steps have been completed, bounce out (export) the track to create a new, processed copy of the original. Bring that into your NLE and combine it with the picture. From here on, anytime you cut to that clip, you will be using the synced, processed audio.

If you can’t go through such a pre-processing step in Audition or another DAW, then the noise reduction and correction must be handled within your NLE. Each of the top NLEs includes built-in noise reduction tools, but there are plenty of plug-in offerings from Waves, iZotope, Accusonus, and Crumplepop to name a few. In my opinion, such processing should be applied on the track (or audio role in FCPX) and not on the clip itself. However, raising or lowering the gain/volume of clips should be performed on the clip or in the clip mixer (Premiere Pro) first.

Track/audio role organization

Proper organization is key to an efficient mix. When a speaker is recorded multiple times or at different locations, then the quality or tone of those recordings will vary. Each situation may need to be adjusted differently in the final mix. You may also have several speakers interviewed at the same time in the same location. In that case, the same adjustments should work for all. Or maybe you only need to separate male from female speakers, based on voice characteristics.

In a track-based NLE like Media Composer, Resolve, Premiere Pro, or others, simply place each speaker onto a separate track so that effects processing can be specific for that speaker for the length of the program. In some cases, you will be able to group all of the speaker clips onto one or a few tracks. The point is to arrange VO, sync dialogue, sound effects, and music together as groups of tracks. Don’t intermingle voice, effects, or music clips onto the same tracks.

Once you have organized your clips in this manner, then you are ready for the final mix. Unfortunately this organization requires some extra steps in Final Cut Pro X, because it has no tracks. Audio clips in FCPX must be assigned specific audio roles, based on audio types, speaker names, or any other criteria. Such assignments should be applied immediately upon importing a clip. With proper audio role designations, the process can work quite smoothly. Without it, you are in a world of hurt.

Since FCPX has no traditional track mixer, the closest equivalent is to apply effects to audio lanes based on the assigned audio roles. For example, all clips designated as dialogue will have their audio grouped together into the dialogue lane. Your sequence (or just the audio) must first be compounded before you are able to apply effects to entire audio lanes. This effectively applies these same effects to all clips of a given audio role assignment. So think of audio lanes as the FCPX equivalent to audio tracks in Premiere, Media Composer, or Resolve.

The vocal chain

The objective is to get your dialogue tracks to sound consistent and stand out in the mix. To do this, I typically use a standard set of filter effects. Noise reduction processing is applied either through preprocessing (described above) or as the first plug-in filter applied to the track. After that, I will typically apply a de-esser and a plosive remover. The first reduces the sibilance of the spoken letter “s” and the latter reduces mic pops from the spoken letter “p.” As with all plug-ins, don’t get heavy-handed with the effect, because you want to maintain a natural sound.

You will want the audio – especially interviews – to have a consistent level throughout. This can be done manually by adjusting clip gain, either clip by clip, or by rubber banding volume levels within clips. You can also apply a track effect, like an automatic volume filter (Waves, Accusonus, Crumplepop, other). In some cases a compressor can do the trick. I like the various built-in plug-ins offered within Premiere and FCPX, but there are a ton of third-party options. I may also apply two compression effects – one to lightly level the volume changes, and the second to compress/limit the loudest peaks. Again, the key is to apply light adjustments, because I will also compress/limit the master output in addition to these track effects.

The last step is equalization. A parametric EQ is usually the best choice. The objective is to assure vocal clarity by accentuating certain frequencies. This will vary based on the sound quality of each speaker’s voice. This is why you often separate speakers onto their own tracks according to location, voice characteristics, and so on. In actual practice, only two to three tracks are usually needed for dialogue. For example, interviews may be consistent, but the voice-over recordings require a different touch.

Don’t get locked into the specific order of these effects. What I have presented in this post isn’t necessarily gospel for the hierarchical order in which to use them. For example, EQ and level adjusting filters might sound best when placed at different positions in this stack. A certain order might be better for one show, whereas a different order may be best the next time. Experiment and listen to get the best results!

©2020 Oliver Peters

VEGAS POST

If you are focused on Media Composer, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut Pro X, then it’s easy to forget that there are a number of other capable NLEs in the wild – especially for the Windows/PC platform. One of those is VEGAS Pro, which was originally developed by Sonic Foundry and came to market in 1999. At first VEGAS was a DAW, but video was quickly added, thus turning it into a competitive NLE. Over the years, the software development team moved to Sony (Sony Creative Software) and then to its new home, VEGAS Creative Software, owned by Magix, a German software company. Along with the VEGAS product line, Magix also handles the other creative apps from the Sonic Foundry/Sony family, including Acid and Sound Forge.

The VEGAS edit applications may be purchased in a number of versions and bundles, depending on your need and budget. Magix sent me VEGAS POST for this review, which bundles the latest VEGAS Pro 17 editing application with VEGAS Effects and VEGAS Image. The latter two apps were developed in conjunction with FX Home. VEGAS Effects shares technology with HitFilm Pro, while VEGAS Image shares a foundation with Imerge Pro. As a bundle, it’s similar to Adobe Premiere Pro grouped with After Effects and Photoshop.

VEGAS POST is available as a perpetual license or through subscription. Magix also offers other apps and add-ons, which are included with some of the other bundles or can be separately purchased. These include VEGAS DVD Architect, as well as plug-ins from Boris FX, and New Blue. Since I mainly work on Macs, Puget Systems loaned me one of their custom PCs for this review. More about Puget at the end.

First impressions

Technically this isn’t a first impression, because I’ve reviewed VEGAS a number of times in the past and my son had used VEGAS extensively for music recording and mixing years ago. But this is my first chance to look over the updated VEGAS Pro 17. To start with, this is an easy-to-use editing application that’s optimized for a Windows 10 workstation. It’s a 64-bit application that thoroughly takes advantage of the Windows media framework. If you are using NVIDIA or AMD graphics cards, then you also get the benefit of GPU acceleration for effects and some codecs, as well as for speeding up rendering.

If you’ve never worked with VEGAS and are used to NLEs like Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere Pro, then it will take a while to get comfortable with the user interface and workflow of VEGAS. In a very broad sense, the general editing concepts are much like Apple’s approach to iMovie and Final Cut Pro X, although VEGAS was there long before Apple developed their own take on things. VEGAS Pro 17 sports a modernized UI with a darker appearance and tabbed panels. The interface can be customized by undocking the tabs and moving panels. In addition to a fresher look, there are plenty of contextual “hamburger” menus throughout parts of the interface. I wish they had gone farther with this new interface design, but then I know how hard it is to change interfaces when you have a loyal fan base.

VEGAS claims to be faster than any other NLE. I would take that claim with a grain of salt, although it is fast and the interface is very responsive. It handles media well and thanks to the tight Windows integration, nearly any media file can be previewed from any location on your system and edited directly to the timeline. That’s without first importing these files into your project. Clips are treated as combined audio/video clips until you trim or ungroup them. VEGAS uses a very fluid form of hover scrubbing to skim through clips.

The editing workflow is more like working with an audio application than most video editing tools. So it’s oriented around a click-and-drag approach with direct timeline interaction. For example, you can trim clips while maintaining playback. If you drag a clip past the edge of another on the timeline, it will automatically create an audio and video crossfade in the overlap region between those two clips. This can be controlled by a preference setting. All timeline clips include audio and video fade handles. If you double-click a source clip in your project panel, it will automatically edit to the place in the timeline where your cursor is parked. Once you get used to the VEGAS way of editing, you can work quite quickly.

What’s new in VEGAS Pro 17

Thanks to Magix’s renewed support of the VEGAS Creative Software team, VEGAS Pro 17 sports over 30 new features. The biggest of these is nested timelines. VEGAS has always approached its project structure as being based on a single timeline. Working with multiple timelines required a workaround that involved opening multiple instances of the application. While nested or compound clips are pretty common in most other NLEs, this new feature in VEGAS takes a different approach.

To work with nested timelines, start by editing some clips together on the timeline, select them, and create and save a new nested timeline consisting of those selected clips. This nest is actually saved as a separate VEGAS project file. Multiple editors can work separately on each nest as its own VEGAS project. Changes made are then reflected back in the parent timeline. For instance, you might be editing a show and create three separate nested timelines for the show open, the body of the show, and the finale. Each segment could be edited as a self-contained project by a different editor. The three are then automatically combined and updated within the parent timeline. New tools on the bottom toolbar make it easy to navigate between the nested and parent timelines.

The next big feature is a unified color grading workspace. This combines all of the common grading tools like color wheels and curves into a single panel. Although VEGAS does not honor embedded camera LUTs, such as from an ARRI Amira, you can import and apply technical and creative LUTs from this grading workspace. VEGAS now also supports HLG HDR and the ACES 1.1 color standard. The tools worked well, but the controls have a rather coarse range when using a mouse. Holding down the CTL (control) key will give you a finer adjustment range.

Other features include planar tracking, optical flow slow motion, a warp flow (morph) transition, support for 8K files, integrated screen capture, a mesh warp effect, clip stabilization, and more. An offshoot of the warp transition is a new Smart Split edit function, which would commonly be used to shorten interview soundbites without a jump cut. Mark the in and out points within a lengthy timeline clip and perform the Smart Split command. In a single step, that section is trimmed out, the ends joined together, and a short warp flow transition is applied. You can see the effect in real time; however, the morph is between two still frames, rather than with continuous motion through the duration of the transition. Avid uses a similar effect in Media Composer.

Putting VEGAS Pro 17 through the paces

I used a mixture of media formats and projects to compare VEGAS Pro’s performance against Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve installed on the same PC. Most media was fine, although there’s no support for Blackmagic BRAW or Apple ProRes RAW. Standard ProRes media playback was good, except that VEGAS had issues with some 4K ProRes 4444 files from an ARRI Alexa LF camera. The other files that exhibited stuttering playback were the heavier 320Mb/s H.264 files from a Panasonic EVA1. The ProRes 4444 files played smoothly in Premiere Pro and Resolve, but only Resolve was fluid with the EVA1 files.

I also tested some older 4K REDCODE (.R3D) raw files. These open and play well in VEGAS, but the application does immediately start to generate some form of peak or proxy files upon import. However, you can cancel out of this file generation process and it doesn’t appear to affect the application or prevent you from playing the R3D. These were older RED One camera files, but judging by various forums comments that I’ve seen, newer RED camera files are not yet supported.

VEGAS supports several project exchange formats, including AAF and FCPXML. The latter is a specific interchange format exported by Final Cut Pro X. My AAF import from Premiere translated well, but the FCPXML import wasn’t successful. This doesn’t surprise me, because only Resolve – among the other editing apps – correctly supports FCPXML.

To claim to be fast, you also need speedy timeline exports. I was surprised to find that ProRes and DNxHD/HR formats were not available, even though other NLEs do offer these format options on Windows. It also wasn’t clear what the exact H.264 MP4 settings were. For consistency across the competing applications, I exported the same :90 test timeline from each using the Sony XDCAM HD422 50Mb/s MXF format. Export times were 1:20 for VEGAS Pro and 1:08 for Premiere Pro. But Resolve smoked them both with a zippy 28 seconds.

This PC was configured with an AMD rather than Intel CPU. It’s quite possible that VEGAS Pro or Premiere Pro may have faired better if I had been running the same test using an Intel Xeon or Core i9 processor. Nevertheless, media performance with VEGAS Pro is good, assuming you are working with formats for which VEGAS Pro is optimized.

I didn’t do much testing with either VEGAS Effects or VEGAS Image, but the combination does offer similarities to Adobe’s integration. You can send a clip on the timeline to VEGAS Effects for compositing, further image editing, or adding one of the many plug-in effects. When you save that change in VEGAS Effects, the clip is replaced in the VEGAS Pro timeline by a nest, which is a self-contained VEGAS project file. This method effectively gives you the same sort of dynamic link between the applications as you have between Premiere Pro and After Effects.

Conclusion

VEGAS Pro 17 continues to be a solid editor for the user who prefers Windows. It’s got a lot going for it, but it’s different than most other NLEs. The typical user is going to be the independent video professional who doesn’t regularly need to exchange project files or work with a mix of other freelance editors. That’s very similar to the situation with Final Cut Pro X among Apple users. Nevertheless, variety is good and that’s what VEGAS fans like about the application. So it’s a good thing that Magix sees value in supporting ongoing development.

A word about the Puget Systems PC

This review was made possible thanks in part to the help of Puget Systems. While Puget has benchmarked plenty of creative applications and has a good handle on how to optimize a PC configuration specific to your needs, they hadn’t ever tested the VEGAS products. In my consultation with them it was decided to configure a custom PC workstation optimized for Adobe applications. At retail, this would be a $5,000 system.

The workstation is a very quiet and cool tower built into a Fractal Design case. It was configured with an AMD Ryzen 9 16-core CPU, 64GB RAM, and an RTX 2080 Ti XC (11GB) GPU. Hard drives are the key to good media performance. We configured this with two Samsung 1TB M.2 SSDs – one of which was my main media drive for these tests. The SSD drives clocked in at about 2600 MB/s (write)/2900-3100 MB/s (read). Of course, the case and power supply support plenty of internal hardware and media expansion, along with numerous USB ports. While not cheap, this workstation is certainly more bang-for-the-buck than an equivalent HP or Apple workstation.

Part of the pleasure of dealing with the company is the personalized touch that Puget Systems’ customers enjoy when buying a new system. There’s a consultation call up front to nail down the specs and configuration that’s best for each customer. They are now extending that with Puget Systems Lab Services. This is an independent hardware consultation service, intended for people who need hardware advice, regardless of whether or not they are purchasing one of the custom Puget Systems PCs.

Originally written for Pro Video Coalition.

©2020 Oliver Peters

The Missing Mac

High-end Mac users waited six years for Apple to release its successor to the cylindrical 2013 Mac Pro. That’s a unit that was derided by some and was ideal for others. Its unique shape earned the nickname of the “trash can.” Love it or hate it that Mac Pro lacked the ability to expand and grow with the times. Nevertheless, many are still in daily service and being used to crank out great wok.

The 2019 Mac Pro revitalized Apple’s tower configuration – dubbed the “cheese grater” design. If you want expandability, this one has it in spades. But at a premium price that puts it way above the cost of a decked out 2013 Mac Pro. Unfortunately for many users, this leaves a gap in the product line – both in features and in price range.

If you want a powerful Mac in the $3,000 – $5,000 range without a built-in display, then there is none. I really like the top-spec versions of the iMac and iMac Pro, but if I already own a display, would like to only use an Apple XDR, or want an LG, Dell, Asus, etc, then I’m stuck. Naturally one approach would be to buy a 16″ MacBook Pro and dock it to an external display, using the MacBook Pro as a second display or in the clamshell configuration. I’ve discussed that in various posts and it’s one way nimble editing shops like Trim in London tend to work.

Another option would be the Mac Mini, which is closest to the unit that best fits this void. It recently got a slight bump up in specs, but it’s missing 8-core CPU options and an advanced graphics card. The best 6-core configuration might actually be a serviceable computer, but I would imagine effects requiring GPU acceleration will be hampered by the Intel UHD 630 built-in graphics. The Mini does tick a lot of the boxes, including wi-fi, Bluetooth, four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, HDMI 2.0, two USB 3.0 ports, plus Ethernet and headphone jacks.

I’ve tested both the previous Mac Mini iteration (with and w/o eGPU) and the latest 16″ MacBook Pro. Both were capable Macs, but the 16″ truly shines. I find it hard to believe that Apple couldn’t have created a Mac Mini with the same electronics as the loaded 16″ MacBook Pro. After all, once you remove the better speaker system, keyboard, and battery from the lower case of the laptop, you have about the same amount of “guts” as that of the Mac Mini. I think you could make the same calculation with the iMac electronics. Even if the Mini case needed to be a bit taller, I don’t see why this wouldn’t be technically possible.

Here’s a hypothetical Mac Mini spec (similar to the MacBook Pro) that could be a true sweet spot:

  • 2.4GHz 8-core, 9th-generation Intel Core i9 processor (or faster)
  • 64GB 2666MHz DD4 memory
  • AMD Radeon Pro 5600M GPU with 8GB HBM2 memory
  • 1TB SSD storage (or higher – up to 8TB)
  • 10 Gigabit Ethernet

Such a configuration would likely be in the range of $3,000 – $5,000 based on the BTO options of the current Mini, iMac, and MacBook Pro. Of course, if you bump the internal SSD from 1TB to the higher capacities, the total price will go up. In my opinion, it should be easy for Apple to supply such a version without significant re-engineering. I recognize that if you went with a Xeon-based configuration, like the iMac Pros, then the task would be a bit more challenging, in part due to power demands and airflow. Naturally, an even higher-spec’ed Mac like this in the $5,000 – $10,000 range would also be appealing, but that would likely be a bridge too far for Apple.

What I ultimately want is a reasonably powerful Mac without being forced to also purchase an Apple display as this isn’t always the best option. But I want that without spending as much as on a car to get there. I understand that such a unit wouldn’t have the ability to add more cards, but then neither do the iMacs and MacBook Pros. So I really don’t see this as a huge issue. I feel that this configuration would be an instant success with many editors. Plug in the display and storage of your choice and Bob’s your uncle.

I’m not optimistic. Maybe Apple has run the calculation that such a version would rob sales from the 2019 Mac Pro or iMac Pros. Or maybe they simply view the Mini as fitting into a narrow range of server and home computing use cases. Whatever the reason, it seems clear to me that there is a huge gap in the product line that could be served by a Mac Mini with specs such as these.

On the other hand, Apple’s virtual WWDC is just around the corner, so we can always hope!

©2020 Oliver Peters

Paul McCartney’s “Who Cares”

Paul McCartney hasn’t been the type of rock star to rest on his past. Many McCartney-related projects have embraced new technologies, such as the 360VR. The music video for Who Cares – McCartney’s musical answer to bullying – was filmed in both 16mm and 65mm film. And it was edited using Final Cut Pro X.

Who Cares features Paul McCartney and actress Emma Stone in a stylized, surreal song and dance number filmed in 65mm, which is bookended by a reality-based 16mm segment. The video was directed by Brantley Gutierrez, choreographed by Ryan Heffington, and produced through LA production company Subtractive.

Gutierrez has collaborated for over 14 years with Santa Monica-based editor Ryan P. Adams on a range of projects, including commercials, concerts, and music videos. Adams also did a stint with Nitro Circus, cutting action sports documentaries for NBC and NBCSN. In that time he’s used the various NLEs, including Premiere Pro, Media Composer, and Final Cut Pro 7. But it was the demands of concert videos that really brought about his shift to Final Cut Pro X.

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[OP] Please tell me a bit about what style you were aiming for in Who Cares. Why the choice to shoot in both 16mm and 65mm film?

[Brantley Gutierrez] In this video, I was going for an homage to vaudevillian theater acts and old Beatles-style psychedelia. My background is working with a lot of photography. I was working in film labs when I was pretty young. So my DP and friend, Linus Sandgren, suggested film and had the idea, “What if we shot 65mm?” I was open to it, but it came down to asking the folks at Kodak. They’re the ones that made that happen for us, because they saw it as an opportunity to try out their new Ektachrome 16mm motion film stock.

They facilitated us getting the 65mm at a very reasonable price and getting the unreleased Ektachrome 16mm film. The reason for the two stocks was the separation of the reality of the opening scene – kind of grainy and hand-held – with the song portion. It was almost dreamlike in its own way. This was in contrast to the 65mm psychedelic part, which was all on crane, starkly lit, and with very controlled choreography. The Ektachrome had this hazy effect with its grain. We wanted something that would jump as you went between these worlds and 16 to 65 was about as big of a jump as we could get in film formats.

[OP] What challenges did you face with this combination of film stocks? Was it just a digital transfer and then you were only dealing with video files? Or was the process different than that?

[BG] The film went to London where they could process and scan the 65mm film. It actually went in with Star Wars. Lucafilm had all of the services tied up, but they were kind enough put our film in with The Rise of Skywalker and help us get it processed and scanned. But we had to wait a couple of extra days, so it was a bit of a nervous time. I have full faith in Linus, so I knew we had it. However, it’s a little strange these days to wait eight or nine days to see what you had shot.

We were a guinea pig for Kodak for the 16mm stock. When we got it back, it looked crazy! We were like, “Oh crap.” It looked like it had been cross-processed  – super grainy and super contrasty. It did have a cool look, but more like a Tony Scott style of craziness. When we showed it to Kodak they agreed that it didn’t look right. Then we had Tom Poole, our colorist at Company 3 in New York, rescan the 16mm and it looked beautiful.

[Ryan P. Adams] Ektachrome is a positive stock, which hasn’t been used in a while. So the person in London scanning it just wasn’t familiar with it.

[BG] They just didn’t have the right color profile built for that stock yet, since it hadn’t been released yet. Of course, someone with a more experienced eye would know that wasn’t correct.

[OP] How did this delay impact your editing?

[BG] It was originally scanned and we started cutting with the incorrect version. In the meantime, the film was being rescanned by Poole. He didn’t really have to do any additional color correction to it once he had rescanned it. This was probably our quickest color correction session for any music video – probably 15 minutes total.

[RPA] One of the amazing things I learned, is that all you have to do is give it some minor contrast and then it is done. What it does give you is perfect skin tones. Once we got the proper scan and sat in the color session, that’s what really jumped out.

[OP] So then, what was the workflow like with Final Cut Pro X?

[RPA] The scans came in as DPX files. Here at Subtractive, we took those into DaVinci Resolve and spit out ProRes 422 HQ QuickTime files to edit with. To make things easy for Company 3, we did the final conform in-house using Resolve. An FCPXML file was imported into Resolve, we linked back to the DPX files, and then sent a Resolve project file to Company 3 for the final grade. This way we could make sure everything was working. There were a few effects shots that came in and we set all of that up so Tom could just jump on it and grade. Since he’s in New York, the LA and New York locations for Company 3 worked through a remote, supervised grading session.

[OP] The video features a number of effects, especially speed effects. Were those shot in-camera or added in post?

[RPA] The speed effects were done in post. The surreal world was very well choreographed, which just plays out. We had a lot of fun with the opening sequence in figuring out the timing. Especially in the transitional moment where Emma is staring into the hypnotic wheel. We were able to mock up a lot of the effects that we wanted to do in Final Cut. We would freeze-frame these little characters called “the idiots” that would jump into Emma’s head. I would do a loose rotoscope in Final Cut and then get the motion down to figure out the timing. Our effects people then remade that in After Effects.

[OP] How involved was Paul McCartney in the edit and in review-and-approval?

[BG] I’ve know Paul for about 13 years and we have a good relationship. I feel lucky that he’s very trusting of me and goes along with ideas like this. The record label didn’t even know this video was happening until the day of production. It was clandestine in a lot of ways, but you can get away with that when it’s Paul McCartney. If I had tried that with some other artist, I would have been in trouble. But Paul just said, “We’re going to do it ourselves.”

We showed him the cut once we had picture lock, before final color. He called on the phone, “Great. I don’t have any notes. It’s cool. I love it and will sign off.” That was literally it for Paul. It’s one of the few music videos where there was no going back and forth between the management, the artist, and the record label. Once Paul signed off on it, the record label was fine with it.

[OP] How did you manage to get Emma Stone to be a part of this video?

[BG] Emma is a really close friend of mine. Independently of each other, we both know Paul. Their paths have crossed over the years. We’ve all hung out together and talked about wanting to do something. When Paul’s album came out, I hit them both up with the idea for the music video and they both said yes.

The hardest part of the whole process was getting schedules to align. We finally had an open date in October with only a week and a half to get ready. That’s not a lot of time when you have to build sets and arrange the choreography. It was a bit of a mad dash. The total time was about six weeks from prep through to color.

Because of the nature of this music video, we only filmed two takes for Paul’s performance to the song. I had timed out each set-up so that we knew how long each scene would be. The car sequence was going to be “x” amount of seconds, the camera sequence would be “x” amount, and so on. As a result, we were able to tackle the edit pretty quickly. Since we were shooting 65mm film, we only had two or three takes max of everything. We didn’t have to spend a lot of time looking through hours of footage – just pick the best take for each. It was very old school in that way, which was fun.

[OP] Ryan, what’s your approach to organizing a project like this in Final Cut Pro X?

[RPA] I labelled every set-up and then just picked the best take. The first pass was just a rough to see what was the best version of this video. Then there were a few moments that we could just put in later, like when the group of idiots sings, “Who cares.”

My usual approach is to lay in the sections of synced song segments to the timeline first. We’ll go through that first to find the best performance moments and cut those into the video, which is our baseline. Then I’ll build on top of that. I like to organize that in the timeline rather than the browser so that I can watch it play against the music. But I will keyword each individual set-up or scene.

I also work that way when I cut commercials. I can manage this for a :30 commercial. When it’s a much bigger project, that’s where the organization needs to be a little more detailed. I will always break things down to the individual set-ups so I can reference them quickly. If we are doing something like a concert film, that organization may be broken up by the multiple days of the event. A great feature of Final Cut Pro X is the skim tool and that you can look at clips like a filmstrip. It’s very easy to keyword the angles for a scene and quickly go through it.

[OP] Brantley, I’m sure you’ve sat over the shoulder of the editor in many sessions. From a director’s point of view, what do you think about working with Final Cut Pro X?

[BG] This particular project was pretty well laid out in my head and it didn’t have a lot of footage, so it was already streamlined. On more complex projects, like a multi-cam edit, FCPX is great for me, because I get to look at it like a moving contact sheet from photography. I get to see my choices and I really respond to that. That feels very intuitive and it blows me away that every system isn’t like that.

[OP] Ryan, what attracted you about Final Cut Pro X in order to use it whenever possible?

[RPA] I started with Final Cut Pro X when they added multi-cam. At that time we were doing more concert productions. We had a lot of photographers who would fill in on camera and Canon 5Ds were prevalent. I like to call them “trigger-happy filmers,” because they wouldn’t let it roll all the way through.

FCPX came up with the solution to sync cameras with the audio on the back end. So I could label each photographer’s clips. Each clip might only be a few seconds long. I could then build the concert by letting FCPX sync the clips to audio even without proper timecode. That’s when I jumped on, because FCPX solved a problem that was very painful in Final Cut Pro 7 and a lot of other editing systems. That was an interesting moment in time when photographic cameras could shoot video and we hired a lot of those shooters. Final Cut Pro X solved the problem in a very cool way and it helped me tremendously.

We did this Tom Petty music video, which really illustrates why Final Cut Pro X is a go-to tool. After Tom had passed, we had to take a lot of archival footage as part of a music video, called Gainesville, that we did for his boxed set. Brantley shot a lot of video around Tom’s hometown of Gainesville [Florida], but they also brought us a box with a massive amount of footage that we put into the system. A mix of old films and tapes, some of Tom’s personal footage, all this archival stuff. It gave the video a wonderful feeling.

[BG] It’s very nostalgic from the point of view of Tom and the band. A lot of it was stuff they had shot in their 20s and had a real home movie feel. I shot Super 8mm footage around Tom’s original home and places where they grew up to match that tone. I was trying to capture the love his hometown has for him.

[RPA] That’s a situation where FCPX blows the competition out of the water. It’s easy to use the strip view to hunt for those emotional moments. So the skimmer and the strip view were ways for us to cull all of this hodge-podge of footage for those moments and to hit beats and moments in the music for a song that had been unreleased at that time. We had one week to turn that around. It’s a complicated situation to look through box of footage on a very tight deadline and put a story to it and make it feel correct for the song. That’s where all of those tools in Final Cut shine. When I have to build a montage, that’s when I love Final Cut Pro X the most.

[OP] You’ve worked with the various NLEs. You know DaVinci Resolve and Blackmagic is working hard to make it the best all-in-one tool on the market. When you look at this type of application, what features would you love to see added to Final Cut Pro X?

[RPA] If I had a wishlist, I would love to see if FCPX could be scaled up for multiple seats and multiple editors. I wish some focus was being put on that. I still go to Resolve for color. I look at compositing as just mocking something up so we can figure out timing and what it is generally going to look like. However, I don’t see a situation currently where I do everything in the editor. To me, DaVinci Resolve is kind of like a Smoke system and I tip my hat to them.

I find that Final Cut still edits faster than a lot of other systems, but speed is not the most important thing. If you can do things quickly, then you can try more things out. That helps creatively. But I think that typically things take about as long from one system to the next. If an edit takes me a week in Adobe it still takes me a week in FCPX. But if I can try more things out creatively, then that’s beneficial to any project.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters