Chromatic

Since its introduction six years ago, Apple Final Cut Pro X has only offered the Color Board as its color correction/grading tool. That’s in addition to some automatic correction features and stylized “look” effects. The Color Board interface is based on color swatches and puck sliders, instead of traditional color wheels, leaving many users pining for something else. To answer this need, several third-party, plug-in developers have created color corrector effects modules to fill the void. The newest of these is Chromatic from Coremelt – a veteran Final Cut plug-in developer.

The toolset

Chromatic is the most feature-rich color correction module currently available for FCPX. It offers four levels of color grading, including inside and/or outside of a mask, overall frame, and also a final output correction. When you first apply the Chromatic Grade effect to a clip, you’ll see controls appear within the FCPX inspector window. These are the final output adjustments. To access the full toolset, you need to click on the Grade icon, which launches a custom UI. Like other grading tools that require custom interfaces, Chromatic’s grading toolset opens as a floating window. This is necessitated by the FCPX architecture, which doesn’t give developers the ability to integrate custom interface panels, like you’ll find in Adobe applications. To work around this limitation, developers have come up with various ingenious solutions, including floating UI windows, HUDs (heads up displays), and viewer overlays. Chromatic uses all of these approaches.

The Chromatic toolset includes nine correction effects, which can be stacked in any order onto a clip. These include lift/gamma/gain sliders, lows/mids/highs color wheels, auto white balance, replace color, color balance/temperature/exposure/saturation, three types of curves (RGB, HSL, and Lab), and finally, color LUTs. As you use more tools on a clip, these will stack into the floating window like layers. Click on any of these tools within the window to access those specific controls. Drag tools up or down in this window to rearrange the order of operation of Chromatic’s color correction processes. The specific controls work and look a lot like similar functions within DaVinci Resolve. This is especially true of HSL Curves, where you can control Hue vs. Sat or Hue vs. Luma.

Masking with the power of Mocha

Corrections can be masked, in order to effect only specific regions of the image. If you select “overall”, then your correction will affect the entire image. But is you select “inside” or “outside” of the mask, then you can grade regions of the image independent of each other. Take, for example, a common, on-camera interview situation with a darkened face in front of a brightly exposed exterior window. Once you mask around the face, you can then apply different correction tools and values to the face, as opposed to the background window. Plus, you can still apply an overall grade to the image, as well as final output adjustment tweaks with the sliders in the inspector window. That’s a total of four processes, with a number of correction tools used in each process.

To provide masking, Coremelt has leveraged its other products, SliceX and TrackX. Chromatic uses the same licensed Mocha planar tracker for fast, excellent mask tracking. In our face example, should the talent move around within the frame, then simply use the tracker controls in the masking HUD to track the talent’s movement within the shot. Once tracked, the mask is locked onto the face.

Color look-up tables (LUTs)

When you purchase Chromatic, you’ll also get a LUT (color look-up table) browser and a default collection of looks. (More looks may be purchased from Coremelt.) The LUT browser is accessible within the grading window. I’m not a huge fan of LUTs, as these are most often a very subjective approach to a scene that simply doesn’t work with all footage equally well. All “bleach bypass” looks are not equal. Chromatic’s LUT browser also enables access to any other LUTs you might have installed on your system, regardless of where they came from, as long as they are in the .cube format.

LUTs get even more confusing with camera profiles, which are designed to expand flat-looking, log-encoded camera files into colorful Rec709 video. Under the best of circumstances these are mathematically correct LUTs developed by the camera manufacturer. These work as an inverse of the color transforms applied as the image is recorded. But in many cases, commonly available camera profile LUTs don’t come from the manufacturers themselves, but are actually reverse-engineered to function closely to the manufacturer’s own LUT. They will look good, but might not yield identical results to a true camera LUT.

In the case of FCPX, Apple has built in a number of licensed camera manufacturer LUTs for specific brands. These are usually auto-detected and applied to the footage without appearing as an effect in the inspector. So, for instance, with ARRI Alexa footage that was recorded as Log-C, FCPX automatically adds a LogC-to-Rec709 LUT. However, if you disable that and then subsequently add Chromatic’s LogC-to-Rec709 LUT, you’ll see quite a bit of difference in gamma levels. Apple actually uses two of these LUTs – a 2D and a 3D cube LUT. Current Alexa footage defaults to the 3D LUT, but if you change the inspector pulldown to the regular LogC LUT, you’ll see similar gamma levels to what Chromatic’s LUT shows. I’m not sure if the differences are because the LUT isn’t correct, or whether it’s an issue of where, within the color pipeline, the LUT is being inserted. My recommendation is to stick with the FCPX default camera profile LUTs and then use the Chromatic LUTs for creative looks.

In use

Chromatic is a 1.0 product and it’s not without some birthing issues. One that manifested itself is a clamping issue with 2013 Mac Pros. Apparently this depends on which model of AMD D-series GPU your machine has. On some machines with the D-500 chips, video will clamp at 0 and 100, regardless of whether or not clamping has been enabled in the plug-in. Coremelt is working on a fix, so contact them for support if you have this or other issues.

Overall, Chromatic is well-behaved as custom plug-ins go. Performance is good and rendering is fast. Remember that each tool you use on a clip is like adding an additional effects filters. Using all nine tools on a clip is like applying nine effects filters. Performance will depend on a lot of circumstances. For example, if you are working with 4K footage playing back from a fast NAS storage system, then it will take only a few applied tools before you start impacting performance. However, 1080p local media on a fast machine is much more forgiving, with very little performance impact during standard grading using a number of applied tools.

Coremelt has put a lot of work into Chromatic. To date, it’s the most comprehensive grading toolset available within Final Cut Pro X. It is like having a complete grading suite right inside of the Final Cut timeline. If you are serious about grading within the application and avoiding a roundtrip through DaVinci Resolve, then Chromatic is an essential plug-in tool to have.

©2017 Oliver Peters

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Spice with Templates

One way in which Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has altered editing styles is through the use of effects built as Motion templates, using the common engine shared with Apple Motion. There are a number of developers marketing effects templates, but the biggest batch can be found at the Fxfactory website. A regular development partner is idustrial Revolution, the brainchild of editor (and owner of FCP.co) Peter Wiggins. Wiggins offers a number of different effects packages, but the group marketed under the XEffects brand includes various templates that are designed to take the drudgery out of post, more so than just being eye-catching visual effects plug-ins.

XEffects includes several packages designed to be compatible with the look of certain styles of production, such as news, sports, and social media. These packages are only for FCP X and come with modifiable, preset moves, so you don’t have to build complex title and video moves through a lot of keyframe building. The latest is XEffects Viral Video, which is a set of moves, text, and banners that fit in with the style used today for trendy videos. The basic gist of these effects covers sliding or moving banners with titles and templates that have been created to conform to both 16:9 and square video projects. In addition, there are a set of plug-ins to create simple automatic moves on images, which is helpful in animating still photos. Naturally several title templates can be used together to create a stacked graphic design.

Another company addressing this market is Rampant Design Tools with a series of effects templates for both Apple Final Cut X and Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Their Premiere Pro templates include both effects presets and template projects. The effects presets can be imported into Premiere and become part of your arsenal of presets. For example, if you what to have text slide in from the side, blurred, and then resolve itself when it comes to rest – there’s a preset for that. Since these are presets, they are lightweight, as no extra media is involved.

The true templates are actually separate Premiere Pro template projects. Typically these are very complex, layered, and nested timelines that allow you to create very complex effects without the use of traditional plug-ins. These projects are designed to easily guide you where to place your video, so no real compositing knowledge is needed. Rampant has done the hard part for you. As with any Premiere Pro project, you can import the final effects sequence into your active project, so there’s no need to touch the template project itself. However, these template projects do include media and aren’t as lightweight as the presets, so be mindful of your available hard drive space.

For Final Cut Pro X, Rampant has done much the same, creating both a set of installable Motion template effects, like vignette or grain, as well as more complex FCP X Libraries designed for easy and automatic use. As with the Premiere products, some of these Libraries contain media and are larger than others, so be mindful of your space.

Both of these approaches offer new options in the effects market. These developers give you plug-in style effects without actually coding a specific plug-in. This makes for faster development and less concern that a host application version change will break the plug-in. As with any of these new breed of effects, the cost is much lower than in the past and effects can be purchase a la carte, which enables you to tailor your editor’s tool bag to your immediate needs.

©2017 Oliver Peters

A Conversation with Thomas Grove Carter

The NAB Show is a great place to see the next level of media hardware and software. Even better, it’s also a great place to meet old friends, make new ones, and pick up the tips and tricks of your craft through the numerous tutorials, seminars, and off-site events that accompany the show.

This year I had the chance to interview Thomas Grove Carter, an editor at Trim Editing, which is a London-based creative editorial shop. He appeared at several sessions to present his techniques for maximizing the power of Final Cut Pro X. These sessions were moderated by Apple and FCPWORKS.

Thomas Grove Carter has a number of high-profile projects on his reel, including work for Honda, Game of Thrones, Audi, and numerous music artists. Carter is a familiar name in the Final Cut Pro X editing community. He first came to prominence with Honda’s “The Other Side” long-form web commercial. In it, Carter juxtaposes parallel day and night driving scenarios covering the main actor – dad by day, undercover police officer by night. On the interactive website, you can toggle in-sync between the two versions. Thanks to FCPX’s way of connecting clips and the nature of its magnetic timeline, Carter could use this then-young application to build the commercial, as well as preview the interactivity for the client – all on a very tight deadline.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Carter in a semi-quiet corner of the NAB Press Room shortly after his Post Production World keynote session on Sunday evening.

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[Oliver Peters]: We first started hearing your name when Honda’s “The Other Side” long-form commercial hit the web. That fit ideally with Final Cut Pro X’s unique ability to connect clips above and below the primary storyline on the timeline. Was that something you came up with intuitively?

[Thomas Grove Carter]: I knew that Final Cut Pro X was going to be good for this interactive piece. As you’re playing back in FCPX you can enable and disable layers. This meant I could actually do a rough preview of what it’s going to look like. I knew that I was going to have these two layers of video, but I didn’t exactly know what it was going to be until the edit, so I started to assemble each story separately. Then at some point, once I had each narrative roughly built, I put them both together on the same timeline and started adding the sound. From then on I was able to play it ‘interactively’ right inside FCPX.  Back then, I split the day and night audio above and below the primary storyline. Today though, I’d probably assign a role for the day and a role for all of the night. Because, you can’t add audio-only above the primary storyline anymore. So that’s what I’d do to divide it out. All the audio and video still connects in exactly the same way – it just looks slightly different. Another great advantage of doing this in X was clip connections. For any given shot, there was the day and night version, and then, all the audio for the day and all the audio for the night. Just by grabbing the one clip in the primary and moving it or trimming it – everything for day and night – picture and audio – both would move together.

[OP]: Tell me a bit about your relationship with Trim Editing.

[TGC]: There are three partners, who are the most senior three editors. Then there are four or five other main editors and two or three junior editors, plus a number of assistants and runners.

It’s been running over 12 years and I joined the team just over 4 years ago.

[OP]: Are all of you using Final Cut Pro X?

[TGC]: Originally, before anyone started using Final Cut Pro X, we had a mix of Avid and Final Cut Pro 7. Then we began to move to Avid as we saw that Final Cut Pro 7 was not going to be improved. So I started to move to Avid, too. But, I was using Final Cut Pro X on my own personal projects. I began to use it on smaller jobs and one of the other editors said, “That’s cool, that thing you’re doing there.” And he started to try it out. Now we’re kind of at a point where most of the editors are on Final Cut Pro X. One is using Avid, so our assistants need to be able to work with both.

[OP]: Have you been able to convert the last hold-out?

[TGC]: He’s always been Avid. That’s what he uses. The company doesn’t dictate what we use to edit with. It’s all about making the best work. If I decided tomorrow that I wanted to cut in Avid or Premiere – it wouldn’t be an issue. Anyone can cut with anything they like.

[OP]: Any thoughts of going to Premiere?

[TGC]: We’ve fallen in love with the way FCPX works – the browser and the timeline. I think Premiere is good, because it feels very much like a continuation of where Final Cut Pro 7 was, which is why loads of people have moved to it. I understand that. It’s an easy move. But it’s the core way that X functions that I love. That stuff just isn’t in any other NLE. What I’ve found with everyone who has moved to it, including myself – there were always a few little hooks that keep people coming back, even if you don’t like the whole app initially. For me, the first thing I liked is how you can pull out the audio clips and things move out of the way automatically. And I always just thought ‘I can’t make this thing work, but that feature is cool’. And then I kept coming back to it and slowly fell I love with the rest of it. One of the other editors loved the way of making dynamic selects in the browser and said, “I’m going to do this job in X.” He’d select in the browser using favorites and rejects and he absolutely loved it. Loved the way it was so fluid with the thumbnails and he felt immersed in his rushes. Then he gets to the timeline. “Oh, I can’t make this work.” He sent it back to Final Cut Pro 7 and finished up there. He did that on two or three jobs, because it takes time to get comfortable with the timeline. It’s strange when you come from track-based. But once it clicks, it’s amazing.

[OP]: How do your assistant editors fit into the workflow?

[TGC]: Generally I go from one job to the next. It might be two weeks or a month and a quick turnaround. Occasionally there might be an overlap – like, the next job has already started shooting and I haven’t finished the last one off yet. So it might be that I need an assistant editor to load my stuff. Or maybe I have to move on to the next job and I’ve got an assistant doing final tweaks on the last one. It’s much simpler to load projects in X than it is in Avid and one thing I’ve heard in the industry is, “Oh, does that mean you’re going to fire a lot of assistants, because you don’t need them?” No! Of course, we’re going to employ them, but we’ll actually give them editing work to do whenever we can – not just grunt work. Let them do the cut-downs, versions, first assemblies. There’s more time now for them to be doing creative work.

We also try to promote from within. I was the first person who was hired from outside of the company. Almost all the other editors, apart from the partners, have been people who’ve moved up from within. Yes, we could be paying this assistant to be loading all our stuff and making QuickTimes. But if you can be paying the assistant and they can be doing another job, why wouldn’t you do that? It’s another revenue stream for the company. So it’s great to be able to get them up to a level where they can pick up work and build up their own reels and creative chops.

[OP]: Are you primarily working with proxy media?

[TGC]: Not ‘Final Cut Pro X proxy media’, but we use ProRes Proxy or  LT files, which are often transcoded by a DIT on set. They look great, but the post house always goes back to the camera originals for the grade. Sometimes if it’s a smaller job – a low budget music video, for example – I’ll get the ARRI files if they shooting ProRes and just take them into Final Cut straight away- just to get working quicker.

[OP]: Since you work in the area of high-end commercials, do you typically send out audio, color and effects to outside post facilities?

[TGC]: Sound and post work is finished off elsewhere. We work with all the big post facilities –  The Mill, Framestore, and MPC, for example. The directors we work with have their favorite colorists. They’re hiring them because they have the right eye, the right creative skills – not just because they can push the buttons. But we’re doing more and more in the offline now. Clients aren’t used to seeing things as ‘offline’ these days. They’re used to things looking slick. I do a lot of sound design, because it goes so hand in hand with the picture edit. Sometimes the picture doesn’t work without any of the sound, so I do quite a lot of it – get it sounding really great, but it will ultimately be remixed later. I might be working on a project for a month and the sound becomes a very integral creative element. And then the sound mixer only gets a day to pull it all together. They do a great job, but it’s really important to give them as much as we can to work with – to really set the creative direction of the audio.

[OP]: In your presentations, you’ve mentioned Trim’s light hardware footprint. How is the facility configured?

[TGC]: Well, we’ve got ‘cylinder’ Mac Pros, Retina iMacs, and more recently we’ve been trying out a few of the new MacBook Pros, alongside the LG 5K displays. I’ve actually been cutting with that set up a lot recently. I really like it, because I turn up at the suite with my laptop, plug two cables in and that’s it! One cable for the 5K display, power and audio. The second cable goes out to HDMI. It runs the client monitor (HD/4K TV) and a USB hub. It’s a really slick and flexible set up.

For storage, we’re currently using Samsung T3 SSD drives, which are so fast and light, they can handle most things we throw at them. It’s a really slick and flexible set up. But with a few potential feature films in the near future, we are looking again at shared storage. I think that’s an interesting area of the market these days. There are some really amazing new products, which don’t come from the same old vendors.

[OP]: How do clients react to this modular suite approach?

[TGC]: If were doing our jobs, clients shouldn’t really notice the tech were using to drive the edit. And people love the space we’ve created. We’ve got really nice rooms – none of our suites are small. Clients are looking at a 50″ to 60” TV, which is 4K in some of our suites. And we’ve got really great sound systems. So, in terms of what clients are seeing and hearing, it doesn’t get much better in an edit suite.

Sometimes directors will come by even when they’re not editing with us. They’ll come by and write their treatments and just hang out, which is really nice. There’s a lot of common space with areas to work and meet.

There’s a lot of art all over the place and when anyone sees a sign that has the word ‘trim’ in it – they buy it. It might be a street sign or a ‘trim something’ logo. So, you see these signs all over the building. It adds a really nice character to the place. When I joined the company, I wanted to bring something to it – and I love LEGO – so I built our logo using it. That’s mounted at our entrance now.

[OP]: There’s a certain mentality in working with agencies. How does Trim approach that?

[TGC]: We tend to focus on the directors. That’s where you develop the greatest relationships, which is where the best work comes from. Not that I dislike working with an agency, but you build a much closer creative bond with your directors.

One small way we help build a good working environment for directors and agencies is to all have lunch together, every single day. We have lunch rather than editing and eating at our desks. One of the great things about this is that directors get to meet other agencies and editors get to meet other directors. It’s really good to be able to socialize like that. It also helps build different relationships than what would ever happen if we we’re all locked away in a suite all day.

[OP]: At what point do you typically get involved with a job?

[TGC]: I’ll usually get pencilled on a job while the director is still pitching it. And then I’ll start work straight after the shoot. Occasional we’ll be on set, but only if it’s a really tight deadline. On that Honda job, that was a six-day shoot to make two, 2 1/2 minute films and then they needed to see it really soon after the shoot. So, I had to be on set. But typically I like not being on set, because when you’re on set you’re suddenly part of the, “Oh, this shot was amazing. It took us four hours to get in the pouring rain.” You’re invested in that baggage. Whereas, when you just view it coldly in the edit, you don’t know what happened on set. You can go, “This shot doesn’t work – let’s lose it.” That fresh vision is a great reason for the editor to be as far from a shoot as possible.

[OP]: One of the projects on your reel is a Games of Thrones promo. How did that job come your way?

[TGC]: That was actually a director I hadn’t worked with – but, just a director who wanted to work with me. He’d been trying to get me on a few jobs that I hadn’t been able to do. It was an outside director that HBO brought in to shoot. It wasn’t a trailer made of footage from the show. They brought in a commercials and music director to shoot the piece and he wanted to work with me. So, it came down like that and then I worked with him and HBO to bring it all together.

[OP]: Do you have any preferences for the types of projects you work on?

[TGC]: Things like the Audi commercial are really fun, because there’s a lot of sound design. A lot of commercials are heavily storyboarded, but it can often be more satisfying if the director has been a bit more loose in the filming. It might be a montage of different people doing activities, for example. And those can be quite fun, because the final thing – you’ve come up with it and you’ve created the narrative and the flow of it. I say that with hindsight, because they turn out to be the most creatively satisfying. But, the process can be much harder when you’re in the thick of it – because it’s on your shoulders and you haven’t got a really locked storyboard to fall back on. I’ll happily do really long hours and work really hard, if it’s a good bit of work – and, at the end of the day, I’ve worked with nice people.

[OP]: With Final Cut Pro X – anything that you’d like to see different?

[TGC]: Maybe collaboration is one thing that would be interesting to see if there’s a new and interesting take on it. Avid bin-locking is great, but actually when you boil it down, it’s quite a simple thing. It locks this bin, you can’t go in there. You can make a copy of it. That’s all it’s doing, but it’s simple and it works really well. All the cloud-based things I’ve seen so far – they’ve not really gotten me excited. I don’t feel like anyone has really nailed what that is yet. Everyone is just doing it because they can, not because it works really well, or is actually useful. I’d be interested to see if there’s something that can be done there.

In the timeline, I’d like to be able to look inside compound clips without stepping into them. I often use compound clips to combine sound effects or music stems. I’d like to be able to open them in context in the timeline and edit the contents inline with the master timeline. And I’d love some kind of dupe detection in the timeline. But otherwise, I’m really enjoying the new version.

Click this link to watch Thomas Grove Carter in action with FCPX at this year’s Las Vegas SuperMeet at NAB.

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I certainly appreciated the time Thomas Grove Carter spent with me to do this interview. Along with a few other interviews, it made for a better-than-average Vegas trip. As a side note, I recorded my interviews (for transcription only) on my iPad, with the aid of the Apogee MetaRecorder app. This works with iPhones and iPads and starts at free, however, you should spend the $4.99 in-app upgrade to be able to do anything useful with it. It can use the built-in mic and records full quality audio WAV files – and – it features a connection to FCPX with fcpxml. Finally, to aid in generating a text transcript, I used Digital Heaven’s SpeedScriber. Although still in beta, it worked well for what I needed. As with all audio-to-text transcription applications, there’s no such thing as perfect. I did need to do a fair amount of clean-up, however, that’s not uncommon.

©2017 Oliver Peters

CrumplePop and FxFactory

If you edit with Final Cut Pro – either the classic and/or new version – then you are familiar with two of its long-running plug-in developers. Namely, FxFactory (Noise Industries) and CrumplePop. Last year the two companies joined forced to bring the first audio plug-ins to the FxFactory plug-in platform. CrumplePop has since expanded its offerings through FxFactory to include a total of six audio and video products. These are AudioDenoise, EchoRemover, VideoDenoise, AutoWhiteBalance, EasyTracker, and BetterStabilizer.

Like much of the eclectic mix of products curated through FxFactory, the CrumplePop effects work on a mix of Apple and Adobe products (macOS only). You’ll have to check the info for each specific plug-in to make sure it works with your application needs. These are listed on the FxFactory site, however, this list isn’t always complete. For example, an effect that is listed for Premiere Pro may also work in After Effects or Audition (in the case of audio). While most are cross-application compatible, the EasyTracker effect only works in Final Cut Pro X. On the other hand, the audio filters work in the editing applications, but also Audition, Logic Pro X, and even GarageBand. As with all of the FxFactory effects, you can download a trial through the FxFactory application and see for yourself, whether or not to buy.

I’ve tested several of these effects and they are simple to apply and adjust. The controls are minimal, but simplicity doesn’t mean lack of power. Naturally, whenever you compare any given effect or filter from company A versus company B, you can never definitively say which is the best one. Some of these functions, like stabilization, are also available within the host application itself. Ultimately the best results are often dependent on the individual clip. In other words, results will be better with one tool or the other, depending on the challenges presented in any given clip. Regardless, the tools are easy to use and usually provide good results.

In my testing, a couple of the CrumplePop filters proved very useful to me. EchoRemover is a solid, go-to, “fix it” filter for location and studio interviews, voice overs, and other types of dialogue. Often those recordings have a touch of “boominess” to the sound, because of the room ambience. EchoRemover did the trick on my trouble clip. The default setting was a bit heavy-handed, but after a few tweaks, I had the clean track I was looking for.

EasyStabilizer is designed to tame shaky and handheld camera footage. There are several starting parameters to choose from, such as “handheld walking”, which determine the analysis to be done on the clip. One test shot had the camera operator with a DSLR moving around a group of people at a construction site in a semi-circle, which is a tough shot to stabilize. Comparing the results to the built-in tools didn’t leave any clear winner in my mind. Both results were good, but not without some, subtle motion artifacts.

I also tested EasyTracker, which is designed for only Final Cut Pro X. I presume that’s because Premiere Pro and After Effects already both offer good tracking. Or maybe there’s something in the apps that makes this effect harder to develop. In any case, EasyTracker gives you two methods: point and planar. Point tracking is ideal for when you want to pin an object to something that moves in the frame. Planar is designed for tracking flat objects, like inserting a screen into phone or monitor. When 3D is enabled, the pinned object will scale in size as the tracked object gets larger in the frame. UPDATE: I had posted earlier that the foreground video seemed to only work with static images, like graphic logos, but that was incorrect. The good folks at CrumplePop pointed me to one of their tutorials. The trick is that you first have to make a compound clip of the foreground clip and then it works fine with a moving foreground and background image.

Like other FxFactory effects, you only buy the filter you want, without a huge investment in a large plug-in package, where many of the options might go unused. It’s nice to see FxFactory add audio filters, which expands its versatility and usefulness within the greater Final Cut Pro X (and Premiere Pro) ecosystem.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Digital Anarchy Samurai Sharpen

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Editors often face the dilemma of dealing with less-than-perfect footage. Focus is the bane of this challenge, where you have the ideal shot, but the operator missed the optimal focus, leaving a useable, albeit soft, image. Editing and compositing apps offer a number of built-in and third-party sharpen and unsharp mask filters that can be employed as a fix. While you can’t really fix the focus issue, you can sharpen the image so that it is perceived by the viewer as being better in focus. All of these filters work on the concept of localized contrast. This means that any dark-to-light edge transition within the image is enhanced and contrast in that area is increased. The dark area is darkened and the brighter part enhanced. This creates a halo effect, which can become quite visible as you increase the amount of sharpening, but also quite obnoxious when you push the amount to its full range. A little bit improves the image – a lot creates an electric, stylized effect.

One of the better sharpening filters on the market is Digital Anarchy’s Samurai Sharpen, which is available for Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC. (According to their website, Avid and OpenFX plug-ins are in development and coming soon.) What makes Samurai Sharpen different is that it includes sophisticated masking in order to restrict the part of the image to be sharpened. For example, on a facial close-up, you can enhance the sharpness of eyes without also pushing the skin texture by an unflattering amount. Yet, you still have plenty of control to push the image into a “look”. For example, the photographic trend these days seems to be photos with an obvious over-sharpened look for dramatic appeal. If you want subtle or if you want to stylize the image, both are achievable with Samurai Sharpen.df0717_sam_2_sm

Click any of the example images to see an enlarged view. In these comparisons, pay attention to not only the eyes, but also lips and strands of hair, as these are also affected by sharpening. (Image courtesy of Blackmagic Design.)

df0717_sam_4_smThe effect controls are divided into three groups – Sharpen, Mask and Blend. The top three sharpen controls are similar to most other filters. Amount is self-explanatory, radius adjusts the size of the localized contrast halo, and edge mask strength controls the mask that determines what is or isn’t sharpened. The edge mask strength range markings might seem counter-intuitive, though. All the way to the left (0) means that you haven’t increased the mask strength, therefore, more of the image is being sharpened. In our facial close-up example, more texture (like the skin) and noise (background) would be sharpened. If you crank the slider all the way to the right (50), you have increased the mask strength, thus less of the image is being sharpened. For the face, this means the eyes and eyelashes are sharpened, but the skin stays smooth. The handy “show sharpening” toggle renders a quick hi-con image (mask) of the area being sharpened.

df0717_sam_3_smThe real power of Samurai Sharpen is in the Mask Group. You have two controls each for shadow and highlights, as well as an on/off toggle to enable shadow and/or highlight masking. These four sliders function like a curves control, enabling you to broaden or restrict the range of dark or light portions of the image that will be affected by the sharpening. Enabling and adjusting the shadow mask controls lets you eliminate darker background portions of the image from being sharpened. You don’t want these areas sharpened, because it would result in a noisier appearance. The mask can also be blurred in order to feather the fall-off between sharpened and unprocessed portions of the image. Finally, there’s a layer mask control in this group, which shows up a bit differently between the Adobe apps and FCPX. Essentially it allows you to use another source to define your sharpening mask.

df0717_sam_5_smThe last section is the Blend Group. This offers slider adjustments for the opacity of the shadow and highlight masks created in the Mask Group section. GPU acceleration results in an effect that is quick to apply and adjust, along with good playback performance.

While there are many free sharpening tools on the market, Digital Anarchy’s Samurai Sharpen is worth the extra for the quality and control it offers. Along with Beauty Box and Flicker Free, they offer a nice repertoire of image enhancement tools.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X – Reflecting on Six Years

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Some personal musings…

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has passed its five-year mark – and by now nearly most of its sixth. Although it’s getting increasing respect from many corners of the professional editing community, there are still many that dismiss it, due to its deviation from standard editing software conventions. Like so many other things that are Apple, FCPX tends to be polarizing with a large cohort of both fanboys and haters.

For me software is a tool. I’ve been editing since the 70s and have used about 15 different linear and nonlinear systems on billable work during that time. More like 20 if you toss in color correction applications. Even more with tools where I’ve had a cursory exposure to (such as in product reviews), but haven’t used on real jobs. All of these tools are a love-hate relationship for me. I have to laugh when folks talk about FCPX bringing back fun to their editing experience. I hope that the projects I work on bring me fun. I don’t really care about the software itself. Software should just get out of the way and let me do my job.

These six years have been a bit of a personal journey with Final Cut Pro X after a number of years with the “classic” version. I’ve been using FCPX since it first came out on commercials, corporate videos, shorts and even an independent feature film. It’s not my primary NLE most of the time, because my clients have largely moved to Adobe Premiere Pro CC and ask me to be compatible with them. My FCPX work tends to be mixed in and around my Premiere Pro editing gigs. For instance, right now I’m simultaneously involved in two large corporate video jobs – one of which I’m cutting in Premiere Pro and the other in Final Cut Pro X. As these things go, it can be frustrating, because you always want some function, tool or effect that’s available in Application A while you’re working in Application B. However, it also provides a perspective on what’s good and bad about each and where real speed advantages exist.

I have to say that even after six years, Final Cut Pro X is still more of a crapshoot than any other editing tool that I’ve used. I love its organizing power and often start a job really liking it. However, the deeper I get into the job – and the larger the library becomes – and the more complex the sequences become – the more bogged down FCPX becomes. It’s also the most inconsistent across various Mac models. I’ve run it on older towers, new MacBook Pros, iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Of these experiences, the laptops seem to be the most optimized for FCPX.

Quite frankly, working with the “trash can” Mac Pros, at times I wonder if Apple has lost its mojo. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a sweet machine, but its horsepower leaves me underwhelmed. Given the right upgrades, a 2010 Mac Pro tower is still quite competitive against it. Couple that with intermittent corrupt renders and exports on Adobe applications – due to the D-series AMD GPUs – one really has to question Apple’s design compromises. On the other hand, working with recent and new MacBook Pros, it seems pretty obvious that this is where Apple’s focus has been. And in fact, that’s where Final Cut really shines. Run a complex project on a MacBook Pro versus an older tower and it’s truly a night-and-day experience. By comparison, the performance with Adobe and Avid on the same range of machines results in a much more graduated performance curve. Best might not be quite as good, but worst isn’t nearly as awful.

A lot is made of new versus old code in these competing applications. The running argument is that FCPX uses a sleek, new codebase, whereas Premiere Pro and Media Composer run on creaky old software. Yet Final Cut has been out publicly for six years, which means development started a few years before that. Hmmm, no longer quite so new. Yet, if you look at the recent changes from 10.2 to 10.3, it seems pretty clear that a lot more was changed than just cosmetics. The truth of the matter is that all three of these major applications are written in a way that modules of software can be added, removed or changed, without the need to start from scratch. Therefore, from a coding standpoint, Final Cut doesn’t have nearly the type of advantages that many think it has.

The big advantage that FCPX does have, is that Apple can optimize its performance for the holistic hardware and macOS software architecture of their own machines. As such, performance, render speeds, etc. aren’t strictly tied to only the CPU or the GPU. It’s what enables the new MacBook Pro to offer top-end performance, while still staying locked to 16GB of RAM. It seems to me, that this is also why the Core-series processors appear to be better performers than are the Xeon-series chips, when it comes to Final Cut, Motion and Compressor.

If you compare this to Premiere Pro, Adobe hits the GPUs much harder than does Apple, which is the reason behind the occasional corruptions on the “trash can” Macs with Adobe renders. If you were running the Adobe suite on a top-level PC with high-end Nvidia cards, performance would definitely shine over that of the Macs. This is largely due to leveraging the CUDA architecture of these Nvidia GPUs. With Apple’s shift to using only AMD and Intel GPUs, CUDA acceleration isn’t available on newer Macs. Under the current software versions of Adobe CC (at the time of this writing) and Sierra, you are tied to OpenCL or software-only rendering and cannot even use Apple’s Metal acceleration. This is a driver issue still being sorted out between Apple and Adobe. Metal is something that Apple tools take advantage of and is a way that they leverage the combined hardware power, without focusing solely on CPU or GPU acceleration.

All of this leads me back to a position of love-hate with any of these tools. I suspect that my attitude is more common than most folks who frequent Internet forum debates want to admit. The fanboy backlash is generally large. When I look at how I work and what gets the results, I usually prefer track-based systems to the FCPX approach. I tend to like Final Cut as a good rough-cut editing application, but less as a fine-cut tool. Maybe that’s just me. That being said, I’ve had plenty of experiences where FCPX quite simply is the better tool under the circumstance. On a recent on-site edit gig at CES, I had to cut some 4K ARRI ALEXA material on my two-year-old Retina MacBook Pro. Premiere Pro couldn’t hack it without stuttering playback, while FCPX was buttery smooth. Thus FCPX was the axe for me throughout this gig.

Likewise, in the PC vs. Mac hardware debates,  I may criticize some of Apple’s moves and long to work on a fire-breathing platform. But if push came to shove and I had to buy a new machine today, it would be either a Mac Pro “trash can” or a tricked-out iMac. I don’t do heavy 3D renders or elaborate visual effects – I edit and color correct. Therefore, the overall workflow, performance and “feel” of the Apple ecosystem is a better fit for me, even though at times performance might be middling.

Wrapping up this rambling post – it’s all about personal preference. I applaud Apple for making the changes in Final Cut Pro X that they did; however, a lot of things are still in need of improvement. Hopefully these will get addressed soon. If you are looking to use FCPX professionally, then my suggestion is to stick with only the newest machines and keep your productions small and light. Keep effects and filters to a minimum and you’ll be happiest with the results and the performance. Given the journey thus far, let’s see what the next six years will bring.

©2017 Oliver Peters

The wait is over – FCP X 10.3

df3116_fcpx1003_1_smAmidst the hoopla on Oct. 27th, when Apple introduced the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, the ProApps team also released updates to Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor. This was great news for fans, since Final Cut got a prime showcase slot in the event’s main stage presentation. Despite the point numbering, the bump from 10.2 to 10.3 is a full version change, just like in macOS, where 10.11 (El Capitan) to 10.12 (Sierra) is also a new version. This makes FCP X 10.3 the fourth iteration in the FCP X line and the eleventh under the Final Cut Pro brand. I’m a bit surprised that Apple didn’t drop the “X” from the name, though, seeing as it’s done that with macOS itself. And speaking of operating systems, this release requires 10.11.4 (El Capitan) or higher (Sierra).

If you already purchased the application in the past, then this update will be a free upgrade for you. There are numerous enhancements, but three features stand out among the changes: the new interface, the expanded use of roles for mixing, and support for a wider color gamut.

A new look for the user interface

The new user interface is darker and flatter. Although for my taste, it’s a bit too dark without any brightness sliders to customize the appearance. The dimensional style is gone, putting Final Cut Pro X in line with the aesthetics of iMovie and other Apple applications. Final Cut Pro X was already out of step with design trends at the time it was first released. Reskinning the application with this new appearance brings it in line with the rest of the design industry.

The engineers have added workspaces and rearranged where certain controls are, though generally, panels are in the same places as before. Workspaces can be customized, but not nearly to the level of Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. The most welcomed of these changes is that the inspector pane can be toggled to full height when needed. In reality, the inspector height isn’t changed. It’s the width of the timeline that changes and toggles between covering and revealing the full inspector panel.

There are other minor changes throughout 10.3, which make it a much better application. For example, if you like to work with a source/record, 2-up viewer display, then 10.3 now allows you to play a source clip from inside the event viewer.

Magnetic Timeline 2 and the expansion of roles

df3116_fcpx1003_2Apple did a lot of work to rejigger the way the timeline works and to expand the functionality of roles. It’s even being marketed as Magnetic Timeline 2. Up until now, the use of roles in Final Cut has been optional. With 10.3, it’s become the primary way to mix and organize connected clips within the timeline. Apple has resisted adding a true mixing panel, instead substituting the concept of audio lanes.

Let’s say that you assign the roles of dialogue, music or effects to your timeline audio clips. The timeline index panel lets you organize these clips into groups according to their assigned roles, which Apple calls audio lanes. If you click “show audio lanes”, the various connected clips rearrange vertical position in the timeline window to be grouped into their corresponding lanes, based on roles. Now you have three lanes of grouped clips: dialogue, effects, music. You can change timeline focus to individual roles – such as only dialogue – which will minimize the size of all the other roles (clips) in the window. These groups or lanes can also be soloed, so you just hear dialogue without the rest, for example.

There is no submix bus to globally control or filter groups of clips, like you have in Premiere Pro or most digital audio applications. The solution in FCP X 10.3 is to select all clips of the same role and create a compound clip. (Other NLEs refer to this as “nesting”.) By doing so, all of the dialogue, effects and music clips appear on the timeline as only three compound clips – one for each role. You can then apply audio filters or adjust the overall level of that role by applying them to the compound clip.

Unfortunately, if you have to go back and make adjustments to an individual clip, you’ll have to open up the compound clip in its own timeline. When you do that, you lose the context of the other clips. For example, tweaking a sound effect clip inside its compound clip, means that you would only hear the other surrounding effect clips, without dialogue and music or seeing the video. In addition, you won’t hear the result of filters or volume changes made at the top level of that compound clip. Nevertheless, it’s not as complex as it sounds and this is a viable solution, given the design approach Apple engineers have taken.

df3116_fcpx1003_3It does surprise me that they ended up with this solution, because it’s a very modal way of operating. This would seem to be an anathema to the intent of much of the rest of FCP X’s design. One has to wonder whether or not they’ve become boxed in my their own architecture. Naturally others will counter that this process is simplified due to the lack of track patching and submix matrices.

Wide color

The industry at large is embracing color standards that enable displays to reproduce more of the color spectrum, which the human eye can see. An under-the-hood change with FCP X is the embrace of wide gamut color. I think that calling it “wide color” dumbs down the actual standards, but I guess Apple wants to keep things in plain language. In any case, the interface is pretty clear on the actual specs.

Libraries can be set up for “standard color” (Rec. 601 for SD and Rec. 709 for HD) or “wide color” (Rec. 2020). The Projects (sequences) that you create within a Library can be either, as long as the Library was initially set up for wide gamut. You can also change the setting for a Project after the fact. Newer cameras that record in raw or log color space, like RED or ARRI models, are perfectly compatible with wide color (Rec. 2020) delivery, thanks to post-production color grading techniques. That is where this change comes into play.

For the most part you won’t see much difference in normal work, unless you really crank up the saturation. If you do this in the wide color gamut mode, you can get pretty extreme and the scopes will display an acceptable signal. However, if you then switch the Project setting to standard color, the high chroma areas will change to a somewhat duller appearance in the viewer and the scopes will show signal clipping. Most current television display systems don’t display wide gamut color, yet, so it’s not something most users need to worry about today. This is Apple’s way of future-proofing Final Cut and to pass the cleanest possible signal through the system.

A few more things

df3116_fcpx1003_4Numerous other useful tools were added in this version. For example, Flow – a morphing dissolve – for use in bridging jump cuts. Unlike Avid’s or Adobe’s variations, this transition works in real-time without analysis or rendering. This is because it morphs between two still frames. Each company’s approach has a slightly different appearance, but Flow definitely looks like an effect that will get a lot of use – especially with interview-driven productions. Other timeline enhancements include the ability to easily add and toggle audio fades. There’s simplified top and tail trimming. Now you can remove attributes and you can roll (trim) between adjacent, connected clips. Finally – a biggie for shared storage users – FCP X can now work with NAS systems that use the SMB protocol.

Working with it for over a week at the time I post this, the application has been quite stable, even on a production with over 2,000 4K clips. I wouldn’t recommend upgrading if you are in the middle of a production. The upgraded Libraries I tested did exhibit some flakiness, which weren’t there in freshly created Libraries. There’s also a technique to keep both 10.2 and 10.3 active on the same computer. Definitely trash your preferences before diving in.

So far, the plug-ins and Motion templates still work, but you’ll definitely need to check whether these vendors have issued updates designed for this release. This also goes for the third-party apps, like those from Intelligent Assistance, because 10.3 adds a new version of FCPXML. Both Intelligent Assistance and Blackmagic Design issued updates (for Resolve and Desktop Video) by the next day.

There are a few user interface bugs, but no show-stoppers. For instance, the application doesn’t appear to hold its last state upon close, especially when more than one Library is open. When you open it again the next time, the wrong Library may be selected or the wrong Project loaded in the timeline. It occasionally loses focus on the pane selected. This is an old bug that was there in previous versions. You are working in the timeline and all of a sudden nothing happens, because the application “forgot” which pane it’s supposed to have focus on. Clicking command-1 seems to fix this. Lastly, the audio meters window doesn’t work properly. If you resize it to be slimmer, the next time you launch FCP X, the meters panel is large again. That’s even if you updated the workspace with this smaller width. And then sometimes they don’t display audio until you close and reopen the audio meters window.

In this round of testing, I’ve had to move around Libraries with external media to different storage volumes. This requires media relinking. While it was ultimately successful, the time needed to relink was considerably longer than doing this same task in other NLEs.

My test units are all connected to Blackmagic Design i/o hardware, which seems to retard performance a bit. With a/v output turned off within the FCP X interface, clips play right away without stuttering when I hit the spacebar. With the a/v output on, I randomly get stuttering on clips when they start to play. It’s only a minor nuisance, so I just turn it off until I need to see the image on an external monitor. I’ve been told that AJA hardware performs better with FCP X, but I haven’t had a chance to test this myself. In any case, I don’t see this issue when running the same media through Premiere Pro on the exact same computer, storage and i/o hardware.

Final Cut Pro X 10.3 will definitely please most of its fans. There’s a lot of substance and improvement to be appreciated. It also feels like it’s performing better, but I haven’t had enough time with a real project yet to fully test that. Of course, the users who probe a bit deeper will point to plenty of items that are still missing (and available in products like Premiere Pro), such as better media relinking, more versatile replace edit functions and batch exporting.

For editors who’ve only given it a cursory look in the past or were swayed by the negative social media and press over the past five years, this would be the version to re-evaluate. Every new or improved item is targeted at the professional editor. Maybe it’s changed enough to dive in. On the other hand, if you’re an editor who’s given FCP X a fair and educated assessment and just not found it to your liking or suitable for your needs, then I doubt 10.3 will temp you. Regardless, this gives fans some reassurance about Apple’s commitment to professional users of their software – at least for another five years.

If you have the time, there are plenty of great tips here at the virtual Final Cut User Group.

The new Final Cut Pro X 10.3 user manual can be found here.

Click here for additional links highlighting features in this update.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters