Producing a Short Mini-Doc with the AJA CION

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

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

CION details

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

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

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

Learning the CION

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

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

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

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

Production day(s)

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

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

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

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

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

Post production

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

Click this link to see the final video on Vimeo.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters

Photo Phun 2015

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It’s holiday time again and a chance to take a break from serious talk about editing and the tools – sort of. I’ve done a version of this post for a few years. Usually I take a series of my photos and run them through Photoshop, Lightroom, or one of the other photography applications to create stylized treatments. This year, I figured, why not try it with Final Cut Pro X?

These images have all been processed in a custom FCP X timeline set to 2000 x 1500 pixels. I’ve used a wide range of filters, including some from the FxFactory partner family, Koji, the built-in FCP X effects, as well as my own Motion templates published over from Motion. Enjoy these as we go into the holiday season. See you in the new year!

Click any image to see a slideshow of these photos.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Automatic Duck Redux

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Automatic Duck invented timeline translations between applications. Necessity is the mother of invention, leading Wes Plate, an Avid Media Composer editor who tackled compositing in Adobe After Effects, to team with his programmer father, Harry. The goal was to design a tool to get Avid timelines into After Effects compositions. Automatic Duck grew from this beginning to create a series of translation products that let editors seamlessly move timelines between a number of different hosts, including Media Composer, Pro Tools, After Effects, and Apple Final Cut Pro “classic”.

Four years ago Adobe licensed the IP for the original Automatic Duck Pro Import products, as well as brought the father/son team on board to develop tools for Adobe. Now they are back on their own and have decided to reboot Automatic Duck, which has been mothballed for the past four years. Seeing an opportunity in Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, the company has developed Ximport AE, a timeline translation tool to bring Final Cut Pro X projects (edited sequences) into After Effects. The team is no stranger to Final Cut Pro X’s new FCPXML format, since it was the first developer to create a companion utility that translated Final Cut Pro X 10.0 projects into Pro Tools sessions.

Knowing the market

df3915_ad_2First, let’s define the market. Who is Automatic Duck Ximport AE for? Editors who do most of their heavy lifting in Media Composer, Final Cut, or Premiere Pro might not see the attraction. On the flip side, though, there are quite a few editors for whom After Effects is the tool of choice for all effects and even finishing. For this group, the NLE is where they spend the least amount of time. They use an editing application for shot selection and assembly and then go straight to After Effects for everything else.

If you are a motion graphics designer who relies on After Effects, then your occasional need for an NLE might be best served by FCP X. The interface is fast and easy to master, compared with more traditional track-based edit software. Finally, if you are a dedicated FCP X editor, you no longer have a “send to Motion” function as in the old Final Cut Studio. This means you can’t send more than a single shot to Motion for treatment. Besides, After Effects may still be your preferred motion graphics application. Take all of these points into consideration and you’ll see that there’s a clear need to get a project from FCP X into After Effects – the industry’s dominant motion graphics application.

How it works

df3915_ad_4Automatic Duck Ximport AE is designed as a plug-in that’s installed into After Effects, including CS6 up through the current CC2015 version (and beyond). There are several other competing translation tools on the market, which convert between flavors of XML or from FCPXML into AE Scripts. Automatic Duck is the only one that integrates directly into the After Effects import menu. Ximport AE cuts out one middle step in the process and should provide for a more complete translation from FCP X into After Effects.

I’ve been beta testing the product for a few months and it certainly hits the mark for serious users. The steps are simple. Just cut your sequence in Final Cut Pro X and then export an FCPXML for that project (sequence). When you open After Effects, select File > Import > Automatic Duck Ximport AE. This opens a dialogue box with a few settings and it’s where you navigate to the correct FCPXML file. Settings include whether to let your clips cascade up or down in the After Effects timeline, as well as an option to create pre-comps from Final Cut’s secondary storylines. The question mark icon also launches the user guide.

In the timelines I’ve tested, the translation is quite good. Compound clips are packaged as pre-comps. The active angle of Multicam clips and the selected pick of Audition clips are translated. Alternate angles aren’t.  Generally transform, crop, opacity, and blend functions are supported, as are audio and video keyframes. A number of third party filters are accurately translated between applications, assuming that the same filter is installed into each host. At launch, these include selected plug-ins from Boris FX, Digital Anarchy, Noise Industries/FxFactory, PHYX, Red Giant, and Yanobox. Check the user guide for a detailed list with specific filters.

Some caveats

df3915_ad_3It’s worth noting, however, that just about all of the built-in FCP X filters are not translated into an equivalent filter in After Effects. For example, the color board metadata is included in the FCPXML, but there’s no way to read that info on the After Effects side. This is true even when there are filters that appear to be the same. For example, both hosts include a native Gaussian blur filter, yet that doesn’t get translated. On the other hand, if you apply a Flipped filter in FCP X, it will be correctly translated into the -100 transform scale value in After Effects. So again, read the user guide and do a little experimentation to see what works and what doesn’t in your projects. Whenever an effect is not supported, a note is made in the companion HTML file created at import. A marker is also placed on that clip in the After Effects timeline, naming the missing plug-in.

df3915_ad_6I tested a number of supported third-party products, staying mainly within the Red Giant family. Translation was good between the Magic Bullet tools, but not without issue. For example, Universe ToonIt Expressionist Noise was available in both hosts, yet the effect was not applied in the After Effect composition. That’s because at the time I tested this using a beta build, that specific Universe filter had not been included. This has since been corrected. Other effects, like Looks, Colorista III, Mojo, Universe Glow, and others worked flawlessly. According to Wes Plate, the plug-in has been architected in a way to easily add support for new effects plug-ins. The bottom line is that if you stay within the supported features, you will get the richest translation experience from FCP X into After Effects that’s currently available in the market.

Automatic Duck Media Copy 4.0

df3915_ad_5Along with Ximport AE, the company will also introduce Automatic Duck Media Copy 4.0. The original Media Copy grew out the need to collect, copy, and move sequences and their associated media. The original version worked for Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro “classic” sequences. It would read either the AAF or XML file and copy all associated media, plus the timeline edit info. This new folder could then be moved to another system for more editing or used as a back-up archive. Media Copy 4.0 has been updated to add FCPXML support. As before, it collects media and timeline files for use elsewhere. It does not trim or transcode the media, but you have the choice to copy media all into a single folder or to maintain a folder hierarchy matching the original paths within the newly created location. Media Copy works well as a standalone application or as a companion to Ximport AE. It supports Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro X, and Final Cut Pro 6/7.

With the reboot of Automatic Duck, they’ve decided to partner with Red Giant Software to provide marketing, sales, and customer support. Red Giant will offer Automatic Duck Ximport AE for $199 and Media Copy 4.0 for $99. If you still have need for Automatic Duck’s legacy products, the company is posting them again on their own website for free, with an optional “donate” button. These include Pro Import FCP, Pro Export FCP (for FCP 7 users), and Pro Import AE (for importing AAF and XML into AE CS 5.5 or earlier).

Regardless of which NLE you use, I’ve found Media Copy to be an essential tool, whether or not you work with effects or motion graphics. It’s great to see Automatic Duck update it, as well as launch their next great product, Ximport AE. Adobe After Effects will continue to be the ubiquitous compositing and motion graphics choice for most editors, so this marriage between Final Cut Pro X and After Effects make great sense.

For more, here’s a good interview with Wes Plate at Red Shark News.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Color Finale

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When Apple launched Final Cut Pro X, one of the items that users missed from previous versions was the popular three-way color corrector. Most built-in color correction modules and plug-ins use the common color wheel method for changing color balance. It’s based on the principle that to reduce a certain color cast you push the wheel in the opposite direction of that color. This decreases the color you want to reduce by shifting the balance towards the colors that are on the opposite side of the wheel.

Apple replaced the color wheel model in FCP X with the color board – a set of tabs for exposure, saturation and color (tint or hue). In the color tab, which controls balance, you see a color swatch field divided into positive and negative halves. To decrease one color, you simply move the puck into the negative range for that color. Although this may be intuitive to users who don’t know anything about color theory, it’s contrary to how most other color tools work.

As a result, many FCP X editors have been on the lookout for good color correction plug-ins that use the more common three-way color wheel method. The complication is that the FCP X user interface is very restrictive for software developers, which limits the sort of custom controls they can use. The usual workaround – if they don’t utilize the space of the Inspector panel – is a of HUD (heads-up display) or an overlay on top of the viewer image. To date, plug-ins that offer color wheels have included Yanobox Moods, Red Giant Colorista III, FilmConvert, and Hawaiki Color. Some, like Ripple Tools RT Color Balance and Lawn Road Color Precision, use the Mac OS color picker in a way that functions as a color balance control.

Layer-based correction

df1115_cf_2_smThe newest color correction plug-in for Final Cut Pro X is Color Finale from Color Grading Central. This is a layer-based color corrector that combines four tools into a single filter. These include color wheels, curves, LUTs, and vectors. To solve the interface issue, Color Finale uses a floating panel that lives on top of the regular FCP X interface. When you apply the Color Finale filter to a clip and click Open in the Inspector window, the floating control panel is launched. You can move it around in case it obscures part of the regular FCP X interface. Within this panel you can select any of its four tools for as many layers as you like and rearrange them into any layer order. Each layer has a separate opacity control and the filter has an overall “mix” slider in the Inspector window. This lets you adjust the intensity of the complete filter or of individual layers.

df1115_cf_1_smThese four tools combine most of the functions offered by other individual filters into a single plug-in. The three-way color corrector works as expected with balance and level controls for shadow, mid-range, and highlight sections, plus a global saturation slider. The LUT control is like Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility. Color Finale ships with several basic camera patch and creative look LUTs (same as with LUT Utility). These are installed into a standard Motion Templates directory for FCP X. You can add any .cube format LUT file to this folder and it will show up inside FCP X as one of Color Finale’s LUT options. The curves are unique among FCP X plug-ins, because these are true multi-point curves. Other curve tools are based on an s-curve, but not here. You can add numerous control points along any of the RGB or master curves and make precise adjustments. The vector tool is based on the six color vectors: red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow. You can adjust the luminance and saturation, as well as shift the hue, for each of these vectors.

df1115_cf_3_smIn a very, very loose sense, Color Finale is a bit like having Resolve inside FCP X and is most similar to FilmLight’s Baselight Editions color correction plug-in. You can easily mix and match tools as layers within the plug-in control panel. If you apply the Color Finale filter to multiple clips on the timeline, once you’ve opened the panel, you can move from clip to clip and add or adjust correction layers within this panel, as long as it stays open. If you’ve closed it, clicking Open in the Inspector will relaunch the control panel. Using “copy” and “paste attributes” enables you to copy-and-paste Color Finale effects from one clip to another. Unfortunately there is no way within the filter to split-screen the uncorrected and corrected image nor to store grades as presets. However, you can toggle individual layers on and off.

Impressions

df1115_cf_4_smAs with any tool, how the controls work for you is a very subjective thing. Most of the tools feel very good to me, but I have a few minor issues. For me, the range of the color wheels is too extreme. Once you get about 1/4 of the way out from the color wheel’s center, you’ve made a pretty large balance change. At the edges, the change is huge and unusable for anything other than a special effect. Therefore, I’d rather see finer granularity with less extreme change at the edges of the wheel – or the ability to exceed the limits of the wheel for a more extreme change.

df1115_cf_5_smI find the vectors very limiting for secondary adjustments, because you cannot select how wide the envelope is around that vector color. For instance, the red vector will affect a red coat, but not flesh tones that tend to fall into the orange range – and orange is not a true color vector. The developers feel that adhering to true vectors results in a cleaner image as opposed to an HSL model; however, HSL secondary correction (as in Colorista III or Avid Symphony) enables you to be more selective about the colors that you are grabbing for adjustment. I’ve also become used to having contrast, pivot, color temperature, and tint controls. These are a key feature of Adobe SpeedGrade and included with many other filters. Hopefully at some point these will also be added to Color Finale.

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A few key features that would be nice to have are tracking, masking, and keying. These aren’t built into the current version, but might be added natively into later versions. However, with the introduction of FCP X 10.2, filters gain a built-in shape mask function courtesy of the host application. This means that Color Finale gets a shape mask that can be use as a form of “power windows”. In addition, if you’ve purchase ColorMelt’s SliceX/TrackX package, its masking and mocha-powered tracking function can be combined with Color Finale grading.

Most importantly, the developers have done a fine job of balancing correction quality with real-time performance. Stacking seven or eight layers of various tools inside Color Finale still leaves you with real-time playback of a sequence with unrendered clips. You would not get this performance if you stacked the same number of individual color correction filters onto a single FCP X clip. Render speeds, when you do choose to render, are fast.

For many, Color Finale will be the color corrector that Apple should have made. It works well and combines a fine set of tools into a single package. Since it works as any standard filter does, you can use it in conjunction with any other effect and with Final Cut’s built-in tools. For example, you can use FCP X’s log processing to correct Log-C gamma-encoded clips upstream of the filter. You can still add a vignette or key mask on top by using the regular FCP X color board tool. As an added bonus, Color Finale also installs and works with Motion 5. If you’re an editor that prefers to do your grading inside the NLE and skip troublesome roundtrips, then Color Finale is a good addition to your Final Cut Pro X toolkit.

Denver Riddle, the developer of Color Finale, has posted an excellent grading tutorial for how you can creatively use this tool with FCP X (click this link).

(Full disclosure: I was involved in the Color Finale beta team and participated in providing testing and feedback during the development phase.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Greater LUT Control with Koji Advance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine-tuning the look

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In use

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

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

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

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

©2015 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X Organizing Tips

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Every nonlinear editing application is a database; however, Apple took this concept to a higher level when it launched Final Cut Pro X. One of its true strengths is making the organization of a mountain of media easier than ever. To get the best experience, an editor should approach the session holistically and not simply rely on FCP X to do all the heavy lifting.

At the start of every new production, I set up and work within a specific folder structure. You can use an application like Post Haste to create a folder layout, pick up some templates online, like those from FDPTraining, or simply create your own template. No matter how you get there, the main folder for that production should include subfolders for camera files, audio, graphics, other media, production documents, and projects. This last folder would include your FCP X library, as well as others, like any After Effects or Motion projects. The objective is to end up with everything that you accrue for this production in a single master folder that you can archive upon completion.

FCP X Libraries

df1415_organize_5It helps to understand the Final Cut Pro X Library structure. The Library is what would otherwise be called a project file, but in FCP X terminology an edited sequence is referred to as a Project, while the main session/production file is the Library. Unlike previous versions and other NLEs, the Library is not a closed, binary data file. It is a package file that you can open and peruse, by right-clicking the Library icon and using the “show package contents” command. In there you will find various binary files (labeled CurrentVersion.fcpevent) along with a number of media folders. This structure is similar to the way Avid Media Composer project folders are organized on a hard drive. Since FCP X allows you to store imported, proxy, transcoded, and rendered media within the Library package, the media folders can be filled with actual media used for this production. When you pick this option your Library will grow quite large, but is completely under the application’s control, thus making the media management quite robust.

df1415_organize_4Another option is to leave media files in their place. When this is selected the Library package’s media folders will contain aliases or shortcut links to the actual media files. These media files are located in one or more folders on your hard drive. In this case, your Library file will stay small and is easier to transfer between systems, since the actual audio and video files are externally located. I suggest spreading things out. For example, I’ll create my Library on one drive, the location of the autosaved back-up files on another, and my media on a third. This has the advantage of no single point of failure. If the Library files are located on a drive that is backed up via Time Machine or some other system-wide “cloud” back-up utility, you have even more redundancy and protection.

Following this practice, I typically do not place the Library file in the projects folder for the production, unless this is a RAID-5 (or better) drive array. If I don’t save it there during actual editing, then it is imperative to copy the Library into the project folder for archiving. The rub is that the package contains aliases, which certain software – particular LTO back-up software – does not like. My recommendation is to create a compressed archive (.zip) file for every project file (FCP X Library, AE project, Premiere Pro project, etc.) prior to the final archiving of that production. This will prevent conflicts caused by these aliases.

If you have set up a method of organization that saves Libraries into different folders for each production, it is still possible to have a single folder, which shows you all the Libraries on your drives. To do this, create a Smart Folder in the Finder and set up the criteria to filter for FCP X Libraries. Any Library will automatically be filtered into this folder with a shortcut. Clicking on any of these files will launch FCP X and open to that Library.

Getting started

df1415_organize_2The first level of organization is getting everything into the appropriate folders on the hard drive. Camera files are usually organized by shoot date/location, camera, and card/reel/roll. Mac OS lets you label files with color-coded Finder tags, which enables another level of organization for the editor. As an example, you might have three different on-camera speakers in a production. You could label clips for each with a colored tag. Another example, might be to label all “circle takes” picked by the director in the field with a tag.

The next step is to create a new FCP X Library. This is the equivalent of the FCP 7 project file. Typically you would use a single Library for an entire production, however, FCP X permits you to work with multiple open Libraries, just like you could have multiple projects open in FCP 7. In order to set up all external folder locations within FCP X, highlight the Library name and then in the Inspector panel choose “modify settings” for the storage locations listed in the Library Properties panel. Here you can designate whether media goes directly into the internal folders of the Library package or to other target folders that you assign. This step is similar to setting the Capture Scratch locations in FCP 7.

How to organize clips within FCP X

df1415_organize_8Final Cut Pro X organizes master source clips on three levels – Events, Keyword Collections, and Smart Collections. These are an equivalent to Bins in other NLEs, but don’t completely work in the same fashion. When clips are imported, they will go into a specific Event, which is closest in function to a Bin. It’s best to keep the number of Events low, since Keyword Collections work within an Event and not across multiple Events. I normally create individual Events for edited sequences, camera footage, audio, graphics, and a few more categories. Clips within an Event can be grouped in the browser display in different ways, such as by import date. This can be useful when you want to quickly find the last few files imported in a production that spans many days. Most of the time I set grouping and sorting to “none”.

df1415_organize_7To organize clips within an Event, use Keywords. Setting a Keyword for a clip – or a range within a clip – is comparable to creating subclips in FCP 7. When you add a Keyword, that clip or range will automatically be sorted into a Keyword Collection with a matching name. Keywords can be assigned to keyboard hot keys, which creates a very quick way to go through every clip and assign it into a variety of Keyword Collections. Clips can be assigned to more than one Collection. Again, this is equivalent to creating subclips and placing them into separate Bins.

On one set of commercials featuring company employees, I created Keyword Collections for each person, department, shoot date, store location, employees, managers, and general b-roll footage. This made it easy to derive spots that featured a diverse range of speakers. It also made it easy to locate a specific clip that the director or client might ask for, based on “I think Mary said that” or “It was shot at the Kansas City store”. Keyword Collections can be placed into folders. Collections for people by name went into one folder, Collections by location into another, and so on.

df1415_organize_3The beauty of Final Cut Pro X is that it works in tandem with any organization you’ve done in the Finder. If you spent the time to move clips into specific folders or you assigned color-coded Finder tags, then this information can be used when importing clips into FCP X. The import dialogue gives you the option to “leave files in place” and to use Finder folders and tags to automatically create corresponding Keyword Collections. Camera files that were organized into camera/date/card folders will automatically be placed into Keyword Collections that are organized in the same fashion. If you assigned clips with Mary, John, and Joe to have red, blue, and green tags for each person, then you’ll end up with those clips automatically placed into Keyword Collections named red, blue, and green. Once imported, simply rename the red, blue, and green Collections to Mary, John, and Joe.

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The third level of clip organization is Smart Collections. Use these to automatically filter clips based on the criteria that you set. With the release of FCP X version 10.2, Smart Collections have been moved from the Event level (10.1.4 or earlier) to the Library level – meaning that filtering can occur across multiple Events within the Library. By default, new Libraries are created with several preset Smart Collections that can be used, deleted, or modified. Here’s an example of how to use these. When you sync double-system sound clips or multiple cameras, new grouped clips are created – Synchronized Clips and Multicam Clips. These will appear in the Event along with all the other source files, which can be unwieldy. To focus strictly on these new grouped clips, create a Smart Collection with the criteria set by type to include these two categories. Then, as new grouped clips are created, they will automatically be filtered into this Smart Collection, thus reducing clutter for the editor.

Playing nice with others

df1415_organize_9Final Cut Pro X was designed around a new paradigm, so it tends to live in its own world. Most professional editors have the need for a higher level of interoperability with other applications and with outside vendors. To aid in these functions, you’ll need to turn to third party applications from a handful of vendors that have focused on workflow productivity utilities for FCP X. These include Intelligent Assistance/Assisted Editing, XMiL, Spherico, Marquis Broadcast, and Thomas Szabo. Their utilities make it possible to go between FCP X and the outside world, through list formats like AAF, EDL, and XML.

df1415_organize_11Final Cut’s only form of decision list exchange is FCPXML, which is a distinctly different data format than other forms of XML. Apple Logic Pro X, Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve and Autodesk Smoke can read it. Everything else requires a translated file and that’s where these independent developers come in. Once you use an application like XtoCC (formerly Xto7) from Intelligent Assistance to convert FCPXML to XML for an edited sequence, other possibilities are opened up. The translated XML file can now be brought into Adobe Premiere Pro or FCP 7. Or you can use other tools designed for FCP 7. For instance, I needed to generate a print-out of markers with comments and thumbnail images from a film, in order to hand off notes to the visual effects company. By bringing a converted XML file into Digital Heaven’s Final Print – originally designed with only the older Final Cut in mind – this became a doable task.

df1415_organize_13Thomas Szabo has concentrated on some of the media functions that are still lacking with FCP X. Need to get to After Effects or Nuke? The ClipExporter and ClipExporter2 applications fit the bill. His newest tool is PrimariesExporter. This utility uses FCPXML to enable batch exports of clips from a timeline, a series of single-frame exports based on markers, or a list of clip metadata. Intelligent Assistance offers the widest set of tools for FCP X, including Producer’s Best Friend. This tool enables editors to create a range of reports needed on most major jobs. It delivers them in spreadsheet format.

Understanding the thought processes behind FCP X and learning to use its powerful relational database will get you through complex projects in record time. Better yet, it gives you the confidence to know that no editorial stone was left unturned. For more information on advanced workflows and organization with Final Cut Pro X, check out FCPworks, MacBreak Studio (hosted by Pixel Corps), Larry Jordan, Lynda.com and Ripple Training.

For those that want to know more about the nuts and bolts of the post production workflow for feature films, check out Mike Matzdorff’s “Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow”, an iBook that’s a step-by-step advanced guide based on the lessons learned on Focus.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Building FCP X Effects – Update

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A few weeks ago I built and posted a small FCP X color correction effect using the Motion template process. While I have no intention of digging deeper into plug-in design, it’s an interesting experiment into understanding how you can use the power of Motion and Final Cut Pro X to develop custom effects, transitions, and generators. In this process, I’ve done a bit of tweaking, created a few more effects, and gotten a better understanding of how it all works. If you download the updated effects, there are a total of three filters (Motion templates) – a color corrector, a levels filter and a DVE.

Color science

In going through this exercise, a few things have been brought to my attention. First of all, filters are not totally transparent. If you apply my color correction filter, you’ll see slight changes in the videoscopes even when each tab is at its default. This doesn’t really matter since you are applying a correction anyway; but if it annoys you, then simply uncheck the item you aren’t using, like brightness or contrast.

df2615_fcpxfilterupdate_3Secondly, the exact same filter in FCP X may or may not use the same color science as the Motion version, even though they are called the same thing. Specifically this is the case with the Hue/Saturation filter. My template uses the one from Motion, of course. The FCP X Hue/Sat filter uses a color model in which saturation is held constant and luma (a composite of RGB) varies. The Motion version holds luma constant and allows saturation to vary.

The quickest way to test this is with a solid red generator. Apply the FCP X Hue/Sat filter and rotate the hue control. Set the scopes to display an RGB parade, vectorscope, and the waveform set to luma. As you rotate the hue around the dial, you’ll notice that the color dot stays neatly in the boxes of the vectorscope and moves in a straight, diagonal line from vector to vector. The RGB parade will show a perfect combination of red, blue, and green values to achieve the correct RMBCGY coordinates. However, the waveform luma levels will move up and down with large changes.

Now compare this to the hue control in the Hue/Sat filter included in my template. This is from Motion. As you rotate the hue control around the dial, the saturation value moves in what seems to be an erratic fashion around the vectorscope; but, the luma display changes very little. If you apply this same test to real footage, instead of a generated background color, you’ll get perceptually better results with Motion’s Hue/Sat filter than with the FCP X version. In most cases, either approach is acceptable, since for the purposes of color correction, you will likely only move the dial a few degrees left or right from the default of zero. Hue changes in color grading should be very subtle.

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Expanding filter features

After I built this first Motion template, I decided to poke around some more inside Motion to see if it offered other filters that had value for color correction. And as a matter of fact, it does. Motion includes a very nice Levels filter. It includes sliders for RGB as a group, as well as individual settings for red, green, and blue. Each group is broken down into sliders for black in/out, white in/out, and gamma. Then there’s an overall mix value. That a total of 21 sliders, not counting opacity, which I didn’t publish in my template. Therefore, you have fairly large control over grading using only the Levels filter.

df2615_fcpxfilterupdate_4I thought about building it into the earlier Oliver Color filter I had created, but ran into some obvious design issues. When you build these effects, it’s important to think through the order of clicking publish on the parameters that you want to appear inside of FCP X. This sequence will determine where these values appear in the stack of controls in the FCP X inspector. In other words, even though I placed this Levels filter ahead of Color Balance within Motion, the fact that I clicked publish after these other values had already been published, meant that these new controls would be placed to the bottom of my stack once this was displayed in FCP X. The way to correct this is to first unpublish everything and then select publish for each parameter in the order that you want it to appear.

A huge interface design concern is just how cluttered you do or don’t want your effect controls to be inside of FCP X. This was a key design issue when FCP X was created. You’ll notice that Apple’s built-in FCP X effects have a minimalist approach to the number of sliders available for each filter. Adding Levels into my Color filter template meant adding 21 more sliders to an interface that already combined a number of parameters for each of the other components. Going through this exercise makes it clear why Apple took the design approach they did and why other developers have resorted to various workarounds, such as floating controls, HUDs, and other solutions. The decision for me was simply to create a separate Oliver Levels filter that could be used separately, as needed.

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More value from color presets 

An interesting discovery I made was how Color Board presets can be used in FCP X 10.2. When you choose a preset from the Color Board’s pulldown menu, you can access these settings as you always have. The downside is that you can’t preview a setting like you can other effects in the effects palette. You have to apply a preset from the Color Board to see what it will look like with your image.df2615_fcpxfilterupdate_5

FCP X 10.2 adds the ability to save filter presets. Since color correction using the Color Board has now been turned into a standard filter, you can save color presets as an effects preset. This means that if you have a number of Color Board presets (the built-in FCP X settings, mine, or any custom ones you’ve created) simply apply the color preset and then save that color correction filter setting as a new effects preset. When you do this you get a choice of what category to save it into. You can create your own, such as My Color Presets. Now these presets will show up in that category inside the effects palette. When you skim over the preset icon, your image will be previewed with that color correction value applied.

Although these presets appear in the same palette as other Motion templates, the effects presets themselves are stored in a different place. They are located in the OS X user library under Application Support/ProApps/Effects Presets. For example, I created 40 Color Board presets that can all be turned into Effects Presets visible within the Effects palette. I’m not going to post them that way, but if you feel ambitious, I would invite you to download the Color Board presets and make your own effects presets out of them.

All of this is a great way to experiment and see how you can use the resources Apple has provided to personalize a system tailored to your own post needs.

Click here to download the Motion template effects.

Click here to download updated and additional Motion template effects (FCP X 10.2.1 or later).

Click here to download the Color Board presets.

For some additional resources for free plug-ins, check out Ripple Training, Alex4D and FxFactory.

©2015 Oliver Peters