Building that Zoom Look

COVID-19 has altered our lives in many ways, but it has also changed our visual language. Video conference calls didn’t start with this pandemic, but by now Skype, Zoom, WebEx, Blue Jeans, and other services have become part of our daily lives – both as participants and as viewers. We use these for communicating with friends, distance learning, entertainment, and remote corporate meetings. Not only has video conferencing become an accepted production and broadcast method, but the “video conference look” is now a familiar entertainment style for all of us.

Many of these productions are actually live. Through elaborate and clever production techniques they can indeed achieve a quality level that’s better than the average Zoom call. However, in many cases, the video conference appearance with multiple participants on screen, was actually created own post, precisely because that aesthetic is now instantly recognizable to all of us. The actual interaction might have happened over Zoom, but full-frame video was simultaneously captured. This enables an editor to polish the overall production and rebuild the multi-screen images where appropriate without being tied to the highly-compressed, composite Zoom feed.

Building multi-screen composites in post can be time-consuming, which is where templates come in handy. Apple Final Cut Pro X offers a perfect solution for editing this style of project. There are a number of paid and/or free video conference-style Motion templates on the market. Enterprising editors can also build their own templates using Apple Motion. A nice free offering is idustrial revolution’s XEffects Video Conference – a toolkit of effects templates to easily build 4-up, 9-up, and 16-up displays.

If you need something more involved, then check out Video Walls 2 from developer Luca Visual FX, which can be purchased and installed through the FxFactory platform. This Motion template includes a series of 15 FCPX generators that cover a range of video wall and video conference styles.

The templates use image drop wells for videos and stills, which are arranged into a grid or row with adjustable borders and drop shadows. Some of the generators permit circles as well as rectangles with adjustable rounded corners. Positioning may be controlled to re-arrange the grid pattern and even overlap the panes. These generators include build-in animation effects along with keyframeable parameters.

If you want to mimic a video conference call, there’s also a dedicated generator for a Zoom-style menu bar that appears at the bottom of the screen. Border highlights around an image well may be changed as you edit to maintain the illusion that the highlight color syncs to whichever speaker in the group is talking at any given time..

Overall I found these temples easy to use and adjust. The one thing to be mindful of is that if you build up a video wall of 20+ video clips, this is like 20+ layers of video. Therefore, large video walls will require some horsepower. However, it was possible to do this on my mid-2014 MacBook Pro, albeit a bit more slowly. The good news is that all of this happens within the generator, so there’s only one clip on the timeline. You may also stack multiple instances of these templates if you need to have more images on-screen at once. Or if you want to add the menu bar template on top of a video conference template.

There’s no telling how long the pseudo-Zoom look will be in vogue. However, Video Walls 2 gives you enough variety that it should have legs beyond our current “work from home” mode.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Dialogue Mixing Tips

 

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

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

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

Original location recording

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

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

Processing

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

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

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

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

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

Track/audio role organization

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

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

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

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

The vocal chain

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

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

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

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

©2020 Oliver Peters

FilmConvert Nitrate

When it comes to film emulation software and plug-ins, FilmConvert is the popular choice for many editors. It was one of the earliest tools for film stock emulation in digital editing workflows. It not only provides excellent film looks, but also functions as a primary color correction tool in its own right. FilmConvert has now been updated into FilmConvert Nitrate – a name that’s a tip of the hat to the chemical composition of early film stocks.

The basics of film emulation with Nitrate

FilmConvert Nitrate uses built-in looks based on 19 film stocks. These include a variety of motion and still photo negative and positive stocks, ranging from Kodak and Fuji to Polaroid and Ilford. Each stock preset includes built-in film grain based on 6K film scans. Unlike other plug-ins that simply add a grain overlay, FilmConvert calculates and integrates grain based on the underlying color of the image. Whenever you apply a film stock style, a matching grain preset, which changes with each stock choice, is automatically added. The grain amount and texture can be changed or you can dial the settings back to zero if you simply want a clean image.

These film stock emulations are not simply LUTs applied to the image. In order to work its magic, FilmConvert Nitrate starts with a camera profile. Custom profiles have been built for different camera makes and models and these work inside the plug-in. This allows the software to tailor the film stock to the color science of the selected camera for more accurate picture styles. When you select a specific camera from the pulldown menu instead of the FilmConvert default, you’ll be prompted to download any camera pack that hasn’t already been installed. Free camera profile packs are available from the FilmConvert website and currently cover most of the major brands, including ARRI, Sony, Blackmagic, Canon, Panasonic, and more. You don’t have to download all of the packs at first and can add new camera packs at any time as your productions require it.

New features in FilmConvert Nitrate include Cineon log emulation, curves, and more advanced grain controls. The Cineon-to-print option appears whenever you apply FilmConvert Nitrate to a log clip, such as from an ARRI Alexa recorded in Log-C. This option enables greater control over image contrast and saturation. Remember to first remove any automatic or manually-applied LUTs, otherwise the log conversion will be doubled.

Taking FilmConvert Nitrate for a spin

As with my other color reviews, I’ve tested a variety of stock media from various cameras. This time I added a clip from Philip Bloom’s Sony FX9 test. The clip was recorded with that camera’s S-Cinetone profile, which is based on Sony’s Venice color. It looks quite nice to begin with, but of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tweak it! Other clips included ARRI Alexa log and Blackmagic BRAW files.

In Final Cut Pro X, apply the FilmConvert Nitrate plug-in to a clip and launch the floating control panel from the inspector. In Premiere, all of the controls are normally exposed in the effects controls panel. The plug-in starts with a default preset applied, so next select the camera manufacturer, model, and profile. If you haven’t already installed that specific camera pack, you’ll be prompted to download and install it. Once that’s done, simply select the film stock and adjust the settings to taste. Non-log profiles present you with film chroma and luma sliders. Log profiles change those sliders into film color and Cineon-to-print film emulation.

Multiple panes in the panel expand to reveal the grain response and primary color controls. Grading adjustments include exposure/temperature/tint, low/mid/high color wheels, and saturation. As you move the temperature and tint sliders left or right, the slider bar shows the color for the direction in which you are moving that control. That’s a nice UI touch. In addition, there are RGB curves (which can be split by color) and a levels control. Overall, this plug-in plays nice with Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro. It’s responsive and real-time playback performance is typically not impacted.

It is common in other film emulation filters to include grain as an overlay effect. Adjusting the filter with and without grain often results in a large difference in level. Since Nitrate’s grain is a built-in part of the preset, you won’t get an unexpected level change as you apply more grain. In addition to grain presets for film stocks from 8mm to 35mm Full Frame, you can adjust grain luminance, saturation, and size. You can also soften the picture under the grain, which might be something you’d want to do for a more convincing 8mm emulation. One unique feature is a separate response curve for grain, allowing you to adjust the grain brightness levels for lows, mids, and highs. In order to properly judge the amount of grain you apply, set Final Cut Pro X’s playback setting to Better Quality.

For a nice trick, apply two instances of Nitrate to a clip. On the first one, set the camera profile to a motion film negative stock, like Kodak 5207 Vision 3. Then apply a second instance with the default preset, but select a still photo positive stock, like Fuji Astia 100. Finally, tweak the color settings to get the most pleasing look. At this point, however, you will need to render for smooth playback. The result is designed to mimic a true film process where you would shoot a negative stock and then print it to a photograph or release print.

FilmConvert Nitrate supports the ability to export your settings as a 3D LUT (.cube) file, which will carry the color information, although not the grain. To test the transparency of this workflow, I exported my custom Nitrate setting as a LUT. Next, I removed the plug-in effect from the clip and added the Custom LUT effect back to it. This was linked to the new LUT that I had just exported. When I compared the clip with the Nitrate setting versus just the LUT, they were very close with only a minor level difference between. This is a great way to move a look between systems or into other applications without having FilmConvert Nitrate installed in all of them.

Wrap-up

Any color correction effect – especially film emulation styles – are highly subjective, so no single filter is going to be a perfect match for everyone’s taste. FilmConvert Nitrate advances the original FilmConvert plug-in with an updated interface, built around a venerable set of film stock choices. This makes it a good choice if you want to nail the look of film. There’s plenty you can tweak to fine-tune the look, not to mention a wide variety of specific camera profiles. Even Apple iPhones are covered.

FilmConvert Nitrate is available for Final Cut Pro X 10.4.8 and Motion running under macOS 10.13.6 or later. It is also available for Premiere Pro/After Effects, DaVinci Resolve, and Media Composer on both macOS and Windows 10. The plug-in can be purchased for individual applications or as a bundle that covers all of the NLEs. If you already own FilmConvert, then the company has upgrade offers to switch to FilmConvert Nitrate.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Color Finale 2.1 Update

 

Color grading roundtrips are messy and prone to errors. Most editors want high-quality solutions that keep them within their favorite editing application. Color Trix launched the revamped Color Finale 2 this past December with the goal of building Final Cut Pro X into a competitive, professional grading environment. In keeping to that goal, Color Trix just released Color Finale 2.1 – the first major update since the December launch. Color Finale 2.1 is a free upgrade to Color Finale 2 owners and adds several new features, including inside/outside mask grading, an image mask, a new smoothness function, and the ability to copy and paste masks between layers. (Right-click images to see enlarged view.)

Grading with inside/outside masks

Color Finale 2 launched with trackable, spline masks that could be added to any group or layer. But in version 2.0, grading occurred either inside or outside of the mask, but not both. The new version 2.1 feature allows a mask to be applied to a group, which then becomes the parent mask. Grading would then be done within that mask. If you want to also grade the area outside of that mask, simply apply a new group inside the first group. Then add a new mask that is an invert of the parent mask. Now you can add new layers to grade the area outside of the same mask.

In the example image, I first applied a mask around the model at the beach and color corrected her. Then I applied a new group with an inverted mask to adjust for the sky. In that group I could add additional masking, such as an edge mask to create a gradient. The parent mask around the model maintains that the sky gradient is applied behind her rather than in the foreground. Once you get used to this grouping strategy with inside and outside masks, you can achieve some very complex results.

Image masks

The second major addition is that of image masks. This is a monochrome version of the image in which the dark-to-light contrast range acts as a qualifier or matte source to restrict the correction being applied to the image. The mask controls include black and white level sliders, blurring, and the ability to invert the mask. Wherever you see a light area in the mask is where that color correction will be applied. This enables a number of grading tricks that are also popular in photography, including split-toning and localized contrast control.

Simply put, split-toning divides the image according to darks and lights (based on the image mask) and enables you to apply a different correction to each. This can be as extreme as a duotone look or something a bit more normal, yet still stylized.

In the duotone example, I first removed saturation from the original clip to create a black-and-white image. Then, the boxer’s image mask divides the range so that I could apply red and blue tinting for the duotone look.

In the second example, the image mask enabled me to create glowing highlights on the model’s face, while pushing the mids and shadows back for a stylistic appearance.

Another use for an image mask can be for localized contrast control. This technique allows me to isolate regions of the image and grade them separately. For example, if I want to only correct the shadow areas of the image, I can apply an image mask, invert it (so that dark areas are light in the mask), and then apply grading within just the dark areas of the image – as determined by the mask.

Smoothness

Color Finale 2 included a sharpness slider. New in version 2.1 is the ability to go in the opposite direction to soften the image, simply by moving the slider left into negative values. This slider controls the high frequency detail of the overall image – positive values increase that detail, while negative values decrease it.

Since this is an overall effect, it can’t be masked within the layers panel. If you wanted to apply it just to a person’s face, like other “beauty” filters, then that can be achieved by using Final Cut Pro X’s built-in effects masks. This way a similar result can be reached while staying within the Color Finale workflow.

One last addition to version 2.1 is that Final Cut Pro X’s hotkeys now stay active while the Color Finale layers panel is open. Color Trix has stated that they plan more upgrades and options over the next nine months, so look for more ahead. Color finale 2.1 is already a powerful grading tool for nearly any level of user. Nevertheless, more features will certainly be music to the ears of advanced users who prefer to stay within Final Cut Pro X to finish and deliver their projects. Stay tuned.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Chasing the Elusive Film Look

Ever since we started shooting dramatic content on video, directors have pushed to achieve the cinematic qualities of film. Sometimes that’s through lens selection, lighting, or frame rate, but more often it falls on the shoulders of the editor or colorist to make that video look like film. Yet, many things contribute to how we perceive the “look of film.” It’s not a single effect, but rather the combination of careful set design, costuming, lighting, lenses, camera color science, and color correction in post.

As editors, we have control over the last ingredient, which brings me to LUTs and plug-ins. A number of these claim to offer looks based on certain film emulsions. I’m not talking about stylized color presets, but the subtle characteristics of film’s color and texture. But what does that really mean? A projected theatrical film is the product of four different stocks within that chain – original camera negative, interpositive print, internegative, and the release print. Conversely, a digital project shot on film and then scanned to a file only involves one film stock. So it doesn’t really mean much to say you are copying the look of film emulsion, without really understanding the desired effect.

My favorite film plug-in is Koji Advance, which is distributed through the FxFactory platform. Koji was developed between Crumplepop and noted film timer, Dale Grahn. A film timer is the film lab’s equivalent to a digital colorist. Grahn selected several color and black-and-white film stocks as the basis for the Koji film looks and film grain emulation. Then Crumplepop’s developers expanded those options with neutral, saturated, and low contrast versions of each film stock and included camera-based conversions from log or Rec 709 color spaces. This is all wrapped into a versatile color correction plug-in with controls for temperature/tint, lift/gamma/gain/density (low, mid, high, master), saturation, and color correction sliders. (Click an image to see an expanded view.)

This post isn’t a review of the Koji Advance plug-in, but rather how to use such a filter effectively within an NLE like Final Cut Pro X (or Premiere Pro and After Effects, as well). In fact, these tips can also be used with other similar film look plug-ins. Koji can be used as your primary color correction tool, applying and adjusting it on each clip. But I really see it as icing on the cake and so will take a different approach.

1. Base grade/shot matching. The first thing you want to do in any color correction session is to match your shots within the sequence. It’s best to establish a base grade before you dive into certain stylized looks. Set the correct brightness and contrast and then adjust for proper balance and color tone. For these examples, I’ve edited a timeline consisting of a series of random FilmSupply stock footage clips. These clips cover a mix of cameras and color spaces. Before I do anything, I have to grade these to look consistent.

Since these are not all from the same set-up, there will naturally be some variances. A magic hour shot can never be corrected to be identical to a sunny exterior or an office shot. Variations are OK, as long as general levels are good and the tone feels right. Final Cut Pro X features a solid color correction tool set that is aided by the comparison view. That makes it easy to match a shot to the clip before and after it in the timeline.

2. Adding the film look. Once you have an evenly graded sequence of shots, add an adjustment layer. I will typically apply the Koji filter, an instance of Hue/Sat Curves, and a broadcast-safe limiter into that layer.

Within the Koji filter, select generic Rec 709 as the camera format and then the desired film stock. Each selection will have different effects on the color, brightness, and contrast of the clips. Pick the one closest to your intended effect. If you also want film grain, then select a stock choice for grain and adjust the saturation, contrast, and mix percentage for that grain. It’s best to view grain playing back at close to your target screen size with Final Cut set to Better Quality. Making grain judgements in a small viewer or in Better Performance mode can be deceiving. Grain should be subtle, unless you are going for a grunge look.

The addition of any of these film emulsion effects will impact the look of your base grade; therefore, you may need to tweak the color settings with the Koji controls. Remember, you are going for an overall look. In many cases, your primary grade might look nice and punchy – perfect for TV commercials. But that style may feel too saturated for a convincing film look of a drama. That’s where the Hue/Sat Curves tool comes in. Select LUMA vs SAT and bring down the low end to taste. You want to end up with pure blacks (at the darkest point) and a slight decrease in shadow-area saturation.

3. Readjust shots for your final grade. The application of a film effect is not transparent and the Koji filter will tend to affect the look of some clips more than others. This means that you’ll need to go back and make slight adjustments to some of the clips in your sequence. Tweak the clip color correction settings applied in the first step so that you optimize each clip’s final appearance through the Koji plug-in.

4. Other options. Remember that Koji or similar plug-ins offer different options – so don’t be afraid to experiment. Want film noir? Try a black-and-white film stock, but remember to also turn down the grain saturation.

You aren’t going for a stylized color correction treatment with these tips. What you are trying to achieve is a look that is more akin to that of a film print. The point of adding a film filter on top is to create a blend across all of your clips – a type of visual “glue.” Since filters like this and the adjustment layer as a whole have opacity settings, is easy to go full bore with the look or simply add a hint to taste. Subtlety is the key.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters