Audio mixing strategy, part 1

Modern nonlinear editors have good tools for mixing audio within the application, but often it makes more sense to send the mix to a DAW (digital audio workstation) application, like Pro Tools, Logic or Soundtrack Pro. Whether you stay within the NLE or mix elsewhere, you generally want to end up with a mixed track, as well as a set of “split track stems”. I’ll confine the discussion to stereo tracks, but understand that if you are working on a 5.1 surround project, the track complexity increases accordingly.

The concept of “stems” means that you will do a submix for components of your composite mix. Typically you would produce stems for dialogue, sound effects and music. This means a “pre-mixed” stereo AIFF or WAVE file for each of these components. When you place these three stereo pairs onto a timeline, the six tracks at a zero level setting should correctly sum to equal a finished stereo composite mix. By muting any of these pairs, you can derive other versions, such as an M&E (music+effects minus dialogue) or a D&E (dialogue+effects minus music) mix. Maintaining a “split-track, superless” master (without text/graphics and with audio stems) will give you maximum flexibility for future revisions, without starting from scratch.

A recent project that I edited for the Yarra Valley winemakers was cut in Avid Media Composer 5, but mixed in Apple Soundtrack Pro. I could have mixed this in Media Composer, but I felt that a DAW would give me better control. Since I don’t have Pro Tools, Soundtrack Pro became the logical tool to use.

I’ve had no luck directly importing Avid AAF or OMF files into Soundtrack Pro, so I would recommend two options:

a)    Export an AAF and then use Automatic Duck Pro Import FCP to bring those tracks into Final Cut Pro. Then “send to” Soundtrack Pro for the mix.

b)   Export individual tracks as AIFF audio files. Import those directly into Soundtrack Pro or into FCP and then “send to” Soundtrack Pro.

For this spot, I used option B. First, I checker-boarded my dialogue and sound effects tracks in Media Composer and extended each clip ten frames to add handles. This way I had some extra media for better audio edits and cross fades as needed in Soundtrack Pro. Next, I exported individual tracks as AIFF files. These were then imported into Final Cut Pro, where I re-assembled my audio-only timeline. In FCP, I trimmed out the excess (blank portion) of each track to create individual clips again on these checker-boarded tracks. Finally, I sent this to Soundtrack Pro to create a new STP multi-track project.

Soundtrack Pro applies effects and filters onto a track rather than individual clips. Each track is analogous to a physical track on a multi-track audio recorder and a connected audio mixer; therefore, any processing must be applied to the entire track, rather than only a portion within that track. My spot was made up entirely of on-camera dialogue from winemakers in various locations and circumstances. For example, some of these were recorded on moving vehicles and needed some clean-up to be heard distinctly. So, the next thing to do was to create individual tracks for each speaking person.

In STP, I would add more tracks and move the specific clips up or down in the track layout, so that every time the same person spoke, that clip would appear on the same track. In doing so, I would re-establish the audio edits made in Media Composer, as well as clean up excess audio from my handles. DAWs offer the benefit of various cross fade slopes, so you can tailor the sound of your audio edits by the type of cross fade slope you pick for the incoming and outgoing media.

The process of moving dialogue clips around to individual tracks is often referred to as “splitting out the dialogue”. It’s the first step that a feature film dialogue editor does when preparing the dialogue tracks for the mix. Now you can concentrate on each individual speaking part and adjust the track volume and add any processing that you feel is appropriate for that speaker. Typically I will use EQ and some noise reduction filters. I’ve become quite fond of the Focusrite Scarlett Suite and used these filters quite a bit on the Yarra Valley spot.

Soundtrack Pro’s mixer and track sheet panes are divided into tracks, busses, submixes and a master. I added three stereo submixes (for dialogue, sound effects/ambiances and music) and a master. Each individual track was assigned to one of these submixes. The output of the submixes passed through the master for the final mix output. Since I adjusted each individual track to sound good on its own, the submix tracks were used to balance the levels of these three components against each other. I also added a compressor for the general sound quality onto the submix, as well as a hard limiter on the master to regulate spikes, which I set to -10dB.

By assigning individual dialogue, effects and music tracks to these three submixes, stems are created by default. Once the mix is done to your satisfaction, export a composite mix. Then mute two of the three submixes and export one of the stems. Repeat the process for the other two. Any effects that you’ve added to the master should be disabled whenever you export the stems, so that any overall limiting or processing is not applied to the stems. Once you’ve done this, you will have four stereo AIFF files – mix plus dialogue, sound effects and music stems.

I ended the Yarra Valley spot with a nine-way tag of winemakers and the logo. Seven of these winemakers each deliver a line, but it’s intended as a cacophony of sound rather than being distinguishable. I decided to build that in a separate project, so I could simply import it as a stereo element into the master project. All of the previous dialogue lines are centered as mono within a stereo mix, but I wanted to add some separation to all the voices in the tag.

To achieve this I took the seven voices and panned them to different positions within the stereo field. One voice is full left, one is full right, one is centered. The others are partially panned left or right at increments to fill up the stereo spectrum. I exported this tag as a stereo element, placed it at the right timecode location in my main mix and completed the export steps. Once done, the AIFF tracks for mix and stems were imported into Media Composer and aligned with the picture to complete the roundtrip.

Audio is a significant part of the editing experience. It’s something every editor should devote more time to, so they may learn the tools they already own. Doing so will give you a much better final product.

©2011 Oliver Peters


Demystifying Color Grading II

In previous posts on color correction and grading I’ve discussed how to use some of the built-in and third-party tools to stylize the look of your production. It never ceases to amaze me how many people assume color grading is just the click of a preset in Magic Bullet Looks or the click of the Auto-Balance function in a grading tool. In fact, grading is more than just fixing problems. It takes a bit of thought and effort to enhance an image creatively and tastefully. None of this is terribly difficult if you break correction down to its component parts.

Since this the start of a brand new year, I’ve decided to take another swipe at this fun subject. The objective here is to show how many different tools can be used to design interesting looks. Some are built-in, some are third-party, but free, while others cost, but aren’t terribly expensive. Everyone is probably aware of grading tools, like Apple Color, Magic Bullet Looks and Magic Bullet Colorista II. You may be less aware of the fine color correction tools already included in filter packages from GenArts, Coremelt, BorisFX and Noise Industries. So, this is a chance to see how various tools can be applied to give you something special.

As subject matter, I decided to play with the short film Convergence, filmed by UK Director Martin Scanlan and DoP Steve Lawes. This is one of the first video pieces produced with a pre-production model of the brand new Sony PMW-F3 camera. Scanlan was kind enough to post both the ungraded offline-edited version and the final color-graded version of Convergence on Vimeo. Further info is on their blog. They have graciously made the ungraded version available for download, so I pulled some examples from the 1920×1080 H264 file.

Please understand that the download is a conversion from the camera files, which I further converted back to ProResLT for grading. If you see some artifacts in the samples I’ve posted, they are in all likelihood a function of these various conversions for Internet travel. In addition, my grading is purely to demonstrate the possibilities and is not intended to be an example of how I would have actually graded this film. In fact, you’ll see similar shots with entirely different looks and quite frankly, a lot of this is heavy-handed simply for the sake of demonstration. The point is to use color grading to not only fix and even out shots, but also add subtle lighting and color changes in much the same way a photographer will burn and dodge still photographs.

The sample images below display the Final Cut Pro Canvas pane with the filters applied to the image, a Frame Viewer image without filters, plus a small snippet of the filter pane. Underneath each image is a brief description of the filters I’ve applied and why. Click on any image for an enlarged view, as well as the BEFORE and AFTER links to see larger versions of each.


The FCP 3-way Color Corrector was applied for the basic grade. To this I added two instances of the free Face Light filter to brighten both his face and his reflection in the window. The last filter is the free Vignette filter to darken the corners of the image. The combination of these two not only brightens the light on the face, but draws your focus to it. I probably use Face Light and Vignette more than any other third party filter when grading inside FCP.


The first filter added was the Sean Puckett FxAndy film emulation plug-in. It’s designed to mimic many negative and print film stocks. To this I added a Graeme Nattress Warm Diffusion filter. Between the two, I have taken out some of the green cast of the image, reduced saturation and pushed up the brightness of the highlights on her face. This caused the scarf to become very fluorescent, which I knocked by down using the FCP Color Corrector. When you use this or the FCP 3-way in the limit mode, it becomes an HSL keyer, just like in Color, Colorista II or DaVinci Resolve. I isolated the color of the scarf, thus creating a mask for the scarf. Then the corrector controls alters just the area inside or outside of that mask. In this case, I used it to separately adjust the color of the scarf.


One of my favorite all-in-one color grading plug-ins is DV Shade EasyLooks. It gives you 3-way color correction, diffusion, gradient, vignette and other tools all in a single plug-in. Here I’ve added a blue gradient, diffusion and a vignette with a single instance of the filter.


The GenArts Sapphire collection offers quite a few color correction/grading filters. I used the Sapphire Gamma correction filter to push up the overall level. When you do that with an image this dark, it invariably increases the video noise. To reduce that I applied Sapphire Grain Remove. The reason I used this instead of one of the various noise reduction filters is that Grain Remove tends to reduce the video noise without softening the skin texture of his face too greatly.


Luca Visual FX Stylizer is another comprehensive color grading tool. It can be used for some extreme looks, but when used more subtly, also works as an overall grading tool. In this example, I primarily increased contrast and removed some of the green cast from the image.


Back to the FCP 3-way Color Corrector for the initial grade. To this I added Luca Visual FX Vivid Touch for a bit more punch in the image.


This is a variation of the previous look. On this shot I used Magic Bullet Colorista II. This filter includes three correctors within one filter, plus masking, HSL keying and master curves. In addition to the overall correction, I used the secondary corrector’s keyer to isolate the skin tones of her face. With the face isolated by this mask, I could apply separate correction to brighten just the face without affecting the rest of the shot.


The Boris Continuum Complete 7 package includes BorisFX’s own take on a 3-way Color Grade filter. It permits masking combined with two levels of correction. In this example, I used an egg shape mask around his head and applied both inside and outside correction for the result.


Here’s a look that might be fun for a music video. I have applied the Magic Bullet Mojo filter, which was developed to balance skin tones against the rest of the image. It typically tends towards the so-called “blockbuster” look, using the trendy orange-and-teal grading of many feature films. To it, I have added the free CHV Silk & Fog filter, which softens her face by adding diffusion and glowing the highlights.


The FCP 3-way Color Corrector was used to balance the image – primarily pushing the balance more blue. Then I’ve added a BorisFX BCS Film Effect filter for more bloom and diffusion on the image.


I started by punching up the contrast using the Nattress Simple Curves filter and setting it to an S-curve configuration. The next filter is the Coremelt Secondary HSL Grader. I used it to shift the overall green-orange cast of the original image towards a more pinkish-neutral look. The last filter applied is the Coremelt Dewrinkler to soften her facial texture.


The primary grade was done using the FxFactory Heat filter. This was used to tint the image. Next I applied FxFactory Crush Color to stretch the contrast. Finally, I applied FxFactory Vibrance, which enhances color intensity, without simply increasing uniform saturation.


Back to DV Shade EasyLooks again for the primary grade and some diffusion. To this I added Luca Visual FX Regional Light in order to brighten the area of his face, as well as to add a slight tint within that area. The last step was to add the PHYX Techni2Color filter. This is one of the various Technicolor-style 2-strip filters. When used to extreme it can produce a somewhat unnatural look, since it’s intended to faithfully mimic the original Technicolor process. However, when applied more judicially, it can be used to subtly tint an image, as I did here to remove some of the overall green.


The basic grade was handled by the GenArts Sapphire HueSatBright filter. The next step was to apply Sapphire Hotspots to add bright glowing highlights. Again this caused the scarf to be pushed too far, so I used the FCP 3-way Color Corrector to limit and adjust the color range of only the scarf.


The built-in FCP Levels filter was the starting point to stretch the contrast. Then I added Magic Bullet Colorista (version 1) to isolate the area around his head and brighten and adjust the area within the mask. The third step was to apply Joe’s Soft Spot to blur the area surrounding him.


Magic Bullet Colorista II was used for the full correction. In addition to the overall grade, I used the secondary keyer to isolate and adjust skin tones separately from the rest of the image.


I started with Coremelt Luma S Curve for a basic midrange adjustment. To this added Joe’s Saturation & Colorize to adjust the hue and saturation of the overall image. Note that it’s a bit desaturated from the original. Next came the built-in FCP Brightness & Contrast filter to further brighten the image. The last step was to apply the free River Rock Studios Chromatic Glow filter, which I used to accentuate and whiten the highlights on their foreheads and faces.


The initial grade was done using the FCP 3-way Color Corrector. Then I added a second instance of the 3-way in the limit mode to isolate and brighten her face. The last filter was Joe’s Soft Gradients, which I used to darken the upper right-hand third of the frame. This filter uses blend modes, which varies the resulting looks you can achieve.


To punch up the overall brightness of the image, I started with GenArts Sapphire Gamma. Then I added two instances of the Face Light filter – one for each person. This brightened them even more in relation to the overall image. On top of this I applied the PHYX Haze Removal filter, which enhances the contrast and allows you to apply tinting to the scene according to taste. The last two filters were Joe’s Soft Gradients to darken the sky and Vignette to darken the four corners of the frame.


This shot is more “special effects” in style. I applied the GenArts Sapphire ZGlow to add an overall diffusion. Next was the PHYX Skin Light filter, which enhanced the brightness of lighted objects, like the London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament. The last filter was idustrial revolution Volumetrix2 to add even more glow to the lights and the moonlight poking through the clouds.


This shot strictly used the PHYX filters. PHYX Skin Light was used to brighten their faces. Since this filter enhances the lighting of bright objects against dark backgrounds, it also brightens the area behind our couple. Next I applied the PHYX BleachBypass filter to make the color adjustments. Unlike other bleach bypass plug-ins, the PHYX version gives you a wide range of adjustment and can be successfully used for corrections other than the characteristic skip-bleach look. The last filter in this stack was PHYX SelectiveSat to reduce some of the orange intensity of their skin tones.


Another all-PHYX adjustment, using the PHYX BleachBypass for the basic luma adjustment. Then the PHYX Techni2Color filter to shift the yellow-green cast to a more peach-toned tint. Lastly the PHYX DigitalMakeupKit to soften his skin texture.


These last two examples used Magic Bullet Looks. This first one applies the typical orange-teal, “blockbuster” style.


Another Magic Bullet Looks example with increased contrast and heavy diffusion.


Of course, I don’t want to leave Avid Media Composer out of this discussion, so here are a few examples showing similar approaches in that software. I have used a combination of the built-in color correction mode and filters from Boris FX, Magic Bullet and Sapphire.


I started with the internal color correction mode to get the basic adjustment for brightness and contrast. To this I’ve added two instances of the BCC Brightness/Contrast filter using its pixel chooser to isolate an oval around each people. This was used to brighten them up again the background. Finally, I added Sapphire Vignette to softly darken the edges of the frame.


The first few layers are several instances of the internal color correction mode in order to tweak the luma, contrast and color balance of the image. Then I added Magic Bullet Mojo to create a look for the skin tones and generally desaturate the other colors, not used for skin tones. On top is one more layer of the color corrector to add level-clipping on the highlight peaks.


This image is adjusted with a single filter – BCC Film Process. I simply applied its preset for blooming highlights.


This image was adjusted with only the GenArts Sapphire filters. First, I applied Sapphire HueSatBright for a basic correction. Next, I applied Sapphire Gamma to brighten the midrange values. Last was Sapphire SoftFocus to diffuse the image and soften her skin texture.


Similar to the previous image, this frame is adjusted with only the Boris FX BCC filters. First is BCC Color Correction for a basic luma and contrast adjustment. Next is BCC Color Balance to make the color balance “cooler” (i.e. more blue). On top of that is BCC Levels-Gamma to brighten the midrange. Then comes BCC Film Grain for a simulated grain effect. The topmost filter is BCC Glow to add a bit of diffused glow to the highlights in the image.


Still want to learn more about color grading? Here are a few quick links to other related posts on my blog.

Color Correction Effects Demystified

Color Grading in FCP

Glow as a Color Tool

Grading with Color Wheels

Magic Bullet Colorista II

Music Video Fun

PHYX Color

RED One and Magic Bullet Looks

©2011 Oliver Peters

Improving your FCP chops

It’s time for New Year’s resolutions. Hopefully one of yours will be to improve your editing efficiency. That can usually be accomplished by diving a little deeper to learn some of the tools that you might not use on a frequent basis. I’ll quickly cover a few highlights in Apple Final Cut Pro that might be useful to you.

Cover Flow – One of the advantages of FCP is to be able to use Mac OS as an extension of your editor. You can browse media clips in the OS and then simple drag or import selected movies into your project. Cover Flow is one of four ways to display folder contents, but it’s great for video clips, once the folder has buffered.

Source side color correction – FCP allows filters, such as color correction, to be applied to clips loaded into the Viewer. Once applied, a filter stays with the master clip unless removed. Every time you cut a clip with an embedded source effect into the sequence, the filter will have already been “pre-applied” to that clip in the timeline. It’s a great way to match camera angles in a multi-camera show, BEFORE grouping them into a multiclip.

QuickTime references as sources – QuickTime reference movies may be brought into an FCP project as a source. The QT reference contains no media, but is merely linked back to the media of other files. This is potentially dangerous in an FCP workflow, because the file location cannot be moved without disrupting the reference. Nevertheless, it can be useful if you are careful. For instance, I have used it with double-system-sound clips recorded using a Canon 5D and a Zoom H4n. I used PluralEyes to sync the dailies and then labeled the resulting sequences for the person on-camera. These newly synced sequences were then exported as reference files and re-imported into my project. These were now my source media for all on-camera dialogue clips – a process that worked well throughout the edit.

HD/SD Videoscopes – Be careful when you change between SD (NTSC/PAL) and HD sequences to make sure that your videoscopes change accordingly. The SD or HD designation will be displayed in the corner of the window. If it’s wrong – an SD scope for an HD timeline – the video levels displayed WILL NOT be correct. Usually FCP tracks this, but sometimes, you need to give it a jolt by first selecting the appropriate Easy Setup for what you want it to be, then exit and re-launch FCP.

Render all sequences – Here’s a quick short cut to rendering a batch of sequences. Close all open sequences first. Then highlight them in the FCP browser and choose the Sequence/Render All pulldown menu item.

Find Next / Find All – The timeline can be searched with the Cmd-F keystroke, which enables Find Next and Find All options with definable parameters. For example, depending on how you labeled your clips, it can be a great way to find all clips from a certain camera.

Batch Import – The FCP “batch import” function isn’t as obvious as in Avid Media Composer. It is primarily available for clips that were brought in via Log and Transfer, such as XDCAM, P2 or RED. If you have a number of P2 clips that are off-line and need to be re-ingested, simply select the clips and choose Batch Capture. The Log and Transfer window will open instead of Log and Capture. Mount the appropriate media and the rest takes care of itself.

Media manage to consolidate – Final Cut’s Media Manager is the much-maligned way to process your project at the end of the session. It can be used for both the transition from rough-cut to finishing, as well as to keep just the clips that were used in the final edit. The latter is equivalent to Media Composer’s “consolidate” feature. Select the sequence and right-click for Media Manager – choose Copy, define “handles” and create a new project. This will create a new FCP project with just the clips that were in the cut plus a bit of extra media (“handles”) on either side of each cut. In order for this to work properly, video clips must have reel and timecode information, otherwise the entire length of the clip will be copied.

Audio frame rates and speed – Final Cut deals with imported audio based on sample rates and it will adjust the imported audio sync based on the project frame rate. For example, if you change between a whole (24, 30, 60fps) and a fractional (23.98, 29.97, 59.94fps) frame rate project, FCP will get confused. Let’s say you typically work in NTSC (29.97), but now have a PAL (25) project. The same 48kHz AIFF file will be imported differently into an NTSC versus a PAL project. Typically it will be in sync and won’t require rendering in one, but not the other, of these two projects. That’s even though the AIFF has no embedded timecode and both sequences are set to an audio sampling rate of 48kHz. The trick to getting this right is to change your Easy Setup to the new target rate prior to importing the new audio. When changing from a fractional to a whole frame rate project, like NTSC to PAL, I follow this steps. Close all open projects. Pick a PAL-appropriate Easy Setup. Close FCP. Re-launch and start the new PAL project.

Timelapse – The HDSLR cameras like the Canon 5D and 7D have opened the door to new creative options, like in-camera, still photo timelapse and stop motion sequences. It’s best to deal with these outside of Final Cut, by converting them first to a QuickTime movie. After Effects, Compressor or QuickTime 7 are good options. I like QT7 because you can easily play around with various frame rates. Import an image sequence at a desired frame rate, such as 6fps; then export a rendered movie at 29.97 (or 23.98 or 25fps – depending on your project). Since you are using high-resolution stills, you have the added benefit of being able to add camera-style moves to the timelapse. I will often resize the images first to get them into a manageable size (such as 2500 pixels wide) before building the motion clip. It is possible to export a QuickTime reference file from QT7, import that into After Effects, Motion or Final Cut in order to add the camera moves. Then render and export the final clip, which now becomes the actual source for the edit session.

Speed Tool – Although some editors downplay the FCP7 release, it added a few features I constantly use. One of these is the revamped Speed Tool. The old way of working with speed ramps never made sense to me and I invariably edited these as successive variable-speed clips. The new Speed Tool makes in-timeline manipulation a pleasure. Simply open the Clip Keyframe bar (bottom left corner of the timeline window) to gain access to the Speed Tool controls. From there you can change the speed, add speed keyframes within the clip to vary the speed in segments, plus ramp the in and out points.

Track Tool – My FCP timelines are very much a scratch pad. The Track Tool is essential for moving later clips out of the way. Use the T key for a single track or Shift-T for all tracks past the cursor location. It’s a quick and easy way to move the back end of the sequence out of the way to create working space. Then close the gap when you are finished.

Attributes – The ability to copy, paste and/or remove clip attributes is one of the features than I enjoy most about Final Cut. I use it most with motion tab effects (size, position, crop, opacity, drop shadow) and filters. It’s an essential part of my workflow. I invariably use a lot of effects filters. This is the easiest way to set up a group of filters on a single clip and apply this “filter stack” to a series of subsequent clips without needing to go to a menu, bin or browser.

Playhead sync – FCP often invokes discussions about NLE modality. I happen to think that FCP actually is modal in some of its functions. One of these is playhead sync. When toggled to “open”, the timeline loads into the viewer, giving you direct access to sequence clip parameters like size, position, filters and color correction. As such, you can use it in much the same way as Media Composer’s Effects or Color Correction modes (or Toolsets). For example, if you wish to move along your timeline – adjusting color correction or filter settings as you go – simply switch the playhead sync to open and select the filters tab in the viewer. Now the parameters of each timeline clip are immediately available as you advance to that clip. No double-clicking required!

Extend – This is a fast trim function, which is designed much like Media Composer’s Extend. Simply highlight a cut (or the edge of a clip), move the cursor forward or backward to the frame you want the cut changed to and hit the E key. Voila – the cut has jumped to the cursor location and the clip ins/outs have changed accordingly.

Mix automation – If you are tired of rubber-banding keyframes, then why not use the mix automation? Click on the Record Audio Keyframes button in the Audio Mixer and then you will always be working in the “touch” automation mode. This means that if the timeline is playing, any move you make on a track fader is active and will write new audio level keyframes. The level will hold at the last keyframe written for the remainder of the track or clip; however, if there is an existing keyframe at the end, the level will gradually increase or decrease to match that point. Hardware control surfaces from Mackie, Avid/Euphonix, Frontier Designs, Presonus and others may be used to manipulate these virtual faders if you find mouse-mixing to be fatiguing.

Multiple transitions – The last cool FCP7 feature I’ll mention is the ability to add multiple transitions to a series of timeline clips in a single step. Select the range of clips to which you want to apply a common transition. Drag the transition from the Effects folder and hover over the selected clips, so that all (not just one) stay highlighted. Drop the transition and it will be applied to all the cuts surrounding this range of clips. I like to add small (:02 to :04) audio dissolves to all of my dialogue edits. This is a great way of doing that in a single step – saving a huge number of keystrokes.

As a reminder, the “What’s New” 2009 Ripple Training tutorials cover many of the new features added to Final Cut Studio and Final Cut Pro 7. Click here and here for some additional Final Cut Pro editing tips.

Hope this helps. Enjoy the New Year and happy cutting!

©2010 Oliver Peters

ARRI ALEXA post, part 2

Post Workflow – Apple Final Cut Pro

Posting ARRI ALEXA’s ProRes clips is going to follow many of the established workflows. The fact that it’s a new camera doesn’t really make much difference. The camera generates direct-to-edit ProRes media with embedded timecode and reel IDs. These are self-contained files without a folder hierarchy to mess you up, like with P2 or XDCAM. These media files are immediately ready to edit with most modern NLEs, including Apple Final Cut Pro 7, Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 and Avid Media Composer 5 (via AMA). Assuming that these camera clips are intended as the master files, then “best practices” for tapeless workflows need to be followed to archive and protect the media. These files are your “electronic negative”.

You could, of course, immediately edit natively with these clips, but instead, I’m going to lay out an offline-online workflow using ARRI ALEXA clips. Since these master clips might be ProRes 4444 or ProRes (HQ), many editors would rather deal with smaller proxy editing files during the creative, rough cutting phase of a project.

For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to assume that the files are recorded using the ALEXA Log C profile. This yields a low-contrast, “flat” image designed to preserve dynamic range and offer optimum grading latitude. It’s a wonderful alternative to true camera raw recording, but adds a few considerations for post.

Step 1. Clone your media files for protection. Standard archiving solutions include LTO data tape, redundant copies on hard drive or burning media to Blu-ray discs (BR-ROM). Here is also a step-by-step guide from Abel Cine Tech about how to offload the cards for FCP editing.

Step 2. Import the camera masters (ProRes HQ or ProRes 4444) into an FCP project.

Step 3. Drag-and-drop all of your clips to a new sequence. Apply Nick Shaw’s custom ALEXA LUTs to the timeline clips. This is an FxScript FCP plug-in with an optional burn-in window for text and timecode. Use the version of the filter that matches the exposure index to which the camera was set during recording. Now select all the clips in the timeline and drag them to a new, empty bin. This will create subclips with the embedded plug-in (LUT + burn-in).

Step 4. Set up a Batch Export of these subclips. Change the export settings to a different codec, such as ProRes 422 (Proxy), DVCPROHD or anamorphic DV. The exported clips will now become your editing proxy media.

Step 5. Create a new FCP project (optional) and import the folder of exported clips. These will become your working clips for the rough cut. These will have the LUT and burn-in data “baked” into the file.

Step 6. Edit as you normally would until the cut is approved and locked.

Step 7. When the cut is locked, create a new FCP project (optional) and copy the sequence for the locked cut to the new project. Make the sequence clips independent and reconnect the files to the original camera master media. Of course, these clips no longer have the LUT or burn-in applied. Change the sequence settings to match the desired final quality. Adjust any graphics, images and text as needed. Use “send to Color” to move the FCP timeline into Color for final grading.

Step 8. Follow a standard Color grading routine for the sequence. Since there is no corresponding Color LUT for ALEXA files, yet, you will have to establish the correct base look in Color before adding any additional grading. Once the grading is done, render and send back to FCP.

I would recommend, setting a basic conversion grade in Color’s Primary In room that can be applied to all clips. This corrects the Log C profile. Then use the Secondary windows as full-screen “adjustment layers” for all of your normal grading tasks. An alternate approach is to use the Auto Balance control in the Primary In room. I don’t usually think much of such automatics, but it seemed to do a  good job with the ALEXA Log C clips that I tested. Apply it first, which changes the lift/gamma/gain values in the Primary – Advanced tab. Then alter the Primary – Basic saturation value to 1.5. Now you have a good starting point and can still use the curves and hue offset controls (“color wheels”) in the Primary room as you normally would.

Click on the image for an enlarged view. (Alexa clip courtesy of ARRI.)

Remember, that you are not applying a true LUT, since the adjustments you are making – even the automatic ones – are based on the levels for the frame on which you are parked. If a shot moves from bright sun to shade, then setting Auto Balance for the bright sunlit segment will cause the shaded portion to have crushed blacks, as well as the other way around. Be prepared to tweak as needed.

ARRI Digital will soon post a page with a LUTs Generator, which might alter this workflow in the future. Also check out ARRI-specific products at GlueTools.

©2010 Oliver Peters

FCP Helpers

Apple Final Cut Pro is generally said to be an 80/20 application, trading off some niche features for a lower price. More often than not, this descriptor is meant in the negative. Avid editors using FCP frequently lament about media management, render files and so on when comparing FCP with Media Composer. Yet, the fact that Apple targets the sweet middle, has left the field open for high-end systems on the Mac, like Avid Symphony, Autodesk Smoke and now, Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. This means advanced systems are available for the tiny market segment that wants them, without the need for Apple to develop a similar application itself.

I tend to view this 80/20 scenario as an opportunity for innovation. Avid, Autodesk, Quantel and others largely handle R&D internally. Although they embrace some openness in the interchange of media and file formats, their core features are typically closed to outside development, unless there’s an applicable SDK or API. Final Cut Pro incorporates a number of open and extensible technologies often available through the OS itself, like XML, QuickTime, Apple Events, Core Image and others. Granted, these are typically Apple-specific and not actual ratified standards, but they do provide a wide open development field for small and large entrepreneurs alike.

These technologies provide a relatively easy path for programmers to create a mix of plug-ins, utilities and applications that augment the native power of FCP. I’ll be the first to admit that I like to have everything inside the application, but the sheer diversity of options exceeds what’s available in the competing systems. For example, if you want Avid-style media management or control of project preferences, there are several different developers who have such solutions. The beauty of this for the user is more control and customization over your system – sort of the “shade tree mechanic” approach to media.

Here is a concise list of most of the companies building useful tools to enhance your Final Cut environment. Unlike effects plug-ins, these solutions are designed to improve productivity, reliability, efficiency and generally make your FCP experience better.

Assisted Editing

Automatic Duck

AV3 Software / GET

Boris FX / XML Transfer / AAF Transfer

Boris FX / MyMusicSource

Digital Heaven

Digital Rebellion

Edit Groove

Edit Mule

Glue Tools

Post Haste

Singular Software / PluralEyes / DualEyes

Smart Sound



XMEdit / Traffic


Update: With this post, the DigitalFilms blog passed 500,000 views, since its launch in March 2008. I’m glad many of you have found it helpful! Thanks.

©2010 Oliver Peters

Solutions to Improve FCP’s Media Management II

Back in May, I wrote about FcpReconnect as one answer to Apple Final Cut Pro’s less-than-robust media management. In this entry, I’ll cover Matchback Magic, a handy application developed by Philip Hodgetts and Dr. Gregory Clarke of Intelligent Assistance to make FCP media bullet-proof. Through the Assisted Editing product line, they’ve developed a number of workflow tools that leverage the power of XML for Final Cut Pro users.

The essential media management differences between Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro stem from the fact that Avid cross-references media files with bin clips through a media database. You can rename clips, but not media and the database files keep everything straight. Matchback Magic was developed out of the need to make FCP media “operator safe” and in effect, to behave more like Avid media.


Matchback Magic is designed for an offline/online editing workflow. The creative editing phase uses proxy media and the final project is relinked to full-quality media for finishing and output. FCP handles this fairly well, but the process is prone to operator error, which can result in files not properly relinking at the end. The main reason for offline/online editing is so that you don’t have to deal with a lot of high-resolution files during the rough cut phase of the project. For instance, it might be an HD job, but cutting with DV25 media makes it possible to cut on a laptop without taxing the system.

Matchback Magic “protects” files against human error by “injecting” metadata from the full-quality master files into the proxy media files. Once that’s done, no matter what happens to the proxy media – change timecode, reel numbers, files names, etc. – Matchback Magic can conform an edit so that the final sequence frame-accurately matches the rough cut and media is properly relinked.

Real world test

I tested this out with the same Cheese Shop project as before. My master files are 1920×1080 ProResLT conversions from H.264 camera files that originated in a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Reel and timecode information was added using QtChange. These files were further encoded to a second set of anamorphic DV25 files to be used for offline editing. This is my starting point. All media handling at this stage has been outside of FCP, which is typical of a lot of file-based workflows, not just with HDSLR cameras. For example, if you used an AJA KiPro recorder or were supplied converted QuickTime camera masters from a videographer or a film lab, then this would follow the same methodology.

I originally ran into one small, but puzzling issue. Matchback Magic didn’t work correctly until I removed the file extensions (.mov) from both sets of media files. That’s easy to do with the R-Name batch utility, but it wasn’t the way it should work. It turns out that this was related to which metadata from the XML was used to determine file names. After some testing and discussions with the developers, they were able to make a quick modification to the application to correct this issue. An automatic online update to the application and everything was working as expected. No need to worry about the presence or absence of file extensions. One of the beauties of working with a small, but responsive software development company!

Here are the basic steps to follow.

Step 1 – Start a new FCP project and import the folder of full-quality files. Highlight that folder and export an XML file.

Step 2 – Open Matchback Magic. Import the XML file and the folder of matching proxy media. Press Add Matchback Protection. This will insert metadata from the full-quality files into the proxy files. When this step is done, there will be a new FCP project labeled Matchback Magic containing the folder of proxy clips. You may delete this project or rename the project and continue from there as your rough cut starting point. One way to verify that the proxy media has actually been altered is that the modification date will now read as the current date and time.

Step 3 – Edit as you normally would using the proxy media. At this point you may safely change not only the master clip names, but also the media file names. This could potentially be disastrous under normal FCP operations; hence, the beauty of Matchback Magic.

Step 4 – When the cut is locked, create a new, blank sequence with a preset that matches your final quality output. (This isn’t essential, but will save some steps.) Highlight both this blank sequence and the sequence representing the approved cut and export an XML file.

Step 5 – Open Matchback Magic, click the Conform tab, then Read Matchback Information. Open the XML file from Step 4. The information will be displayed in the spreadsheet-style window.

Step 6 – Click Conform Sequence, which takes you back to FCP and an Import XML dialogue window. Select Create New Project (from the pulldown) as the target for the conformed sequence. A new, single sequence will be linked to the full quality media files. As an added touch, the offline media will be on higher tracks of the same timeline. You may compare tracks to verify frame-accuracy between the rough cut and the conformed cut. Sequence clips will display the names (as added or changed during offline editing), while the actual media file names of the full-quality media will remain unchanged.

This is a very simplified workflow test that demonstrates the power of Matchback Magic. One of the beauties of FCP is how XML can be used to augment the application beyond its inherent design. Other features include the ability to track double-system audio and exporting ALE and Excel files. More of this can be seen in their demo video. The process is bullet proof and actually simpler than FCP’s own Media Manager.

The demo version of Matchback Magic can be used to inject protection information. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, you can use the demo to protect the files. If it turns out later that you need Matchback Magic to “save” you after all, simply buy and activate the software to enable the other steps.

©2010 Oliver Peters

RED Post – the Easy Way III

If you’ve read some of my past articles about RED, you know I’m not a huge fan of “native” editing using the camera raw files as source clips. I find that an offline/online workflow is still best for smoothly editing RED projects, yet it still retains access to the raw color data during the finishing process. Previously I discussed an easy workflow for Apple Final Cut Pro and Color users, but this isn’t the only solution. As you know, Avid Media Composer 5 and Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 have both integrated support for RED’s camera raw files. In this post, I’m going to discuss a couple of ways to use these tools in a non-native fashion.

Option A:  Avid Media Composer 5 offline-online RED workflow

Thanks to AMA and RED camera’s SDK, Media Composer 5 offers access to RED’s .R3D files. You can import camera files and adjust the source color settings from within the NLE’s interface. You can either edit directly from these files or transcode them to Avid media for a smoother and faster editing experience. Here is a short step-by-step explanation of a Media Composer-based workflow.

Step 1. Access/import RED .R3D files via AMA (Avid Media Access). Camera clips will open inside Media Composer bins, complete with camera metadata.

Step 2. If you want to change the levels/gamma/exposure/balance of the file by altering the camera raw data, then open the Source Settings for each clip and adjust the video.

Step 3. Adjust the clip framing by opening the bin Reformat column and set the option for each clip (center cut, letterboxed, etc.). Remember that your RED clips may have a 2:1 aspect ratio, but your Avid sequence will be either HD 16:9 or SD 16:9 / 4:3.

Step 4. Set the Media Creation render tab to a video resolution of DNxHD36 with a Debayer quality of “quarter”. Since the objective is a good rough cut – not “finishing” – this quality settings is more than adequate for editing and screening your creative edits.

Step 5. Transcode all source clips. This process runs at close to real-time on a fast machine. When transcoding is done, close all AMA bins and do not use them during the edit. You’ll edit with the transcoded media only.

Step 6. Edit as normal until you get an approved, “locked” picture.

Step 7. Now it’s time to switch to “finishing”. Move or hide all Avid media (the transcoded DNxHD36 clips) by taking them out of the Avid MediaFiles/MXF/1 folder(s) on your media hard drive(s). You could also delete them, but it’s safer not to do that unless you really have to. Best to simply move them into a relabeled folder. Once you’ve done this, your edited sequence will appear with all media off-line.

Step 8. Open the AMA bins (with the .R3D files) and relink the edited sequence to the AMA clips. Make sure the “Allow relinking of imported/AMA clips by Source File name” is NOT checked in the Relink dialogue window. When relinking is completed, the sequence will be repopulated with AMA media, which will be the native, camera raw .R3D files. If you want to change the raw color data at this point, you will need to change each source clip and then refresh the sequence to update the color for clips that appear within the timeline.

Step 9. Change the Media Creation settings to a higher video resolution (such as DNxHD 175 X) and a Debayer quality of “full”.

Step 10. Consolidate/transcode your sequence. This will create new Avid media clips at full quality that are only the length of the clips as they appear in the cut, plus handles. Since a transcode using a “full” Debayer setting will be EXTREMELY SLOW, make sure you set very short handle lengths. (Note: If you have a Red Rocket card installed, Avid supports hardware-assisted rendering to accelerate the transcoding of RED media.)

Step 11. Finish all effects and color grading within the NLE as you normally would.

Option B:  Apple FCP / Automatic Duck / Adobe CS5 workflow

You might be asking, why not just edit in Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro? The hitch is that Final Cut doesn’t support 4K files and Premiere Pro has a good native, but not a good offline-online workflow for RED files. FCP users clearly outnumber Premiere Pro users among professional film and video editors, however, both After Effects and Premiere Pro offer some interesting finishing options. In fact, a number of feature films have used both for all or part of the finishing process. A combination of Apple and Adobe tools creates some interesting scenarios for RED post. (Note: Automatic Duck Pro Import AE 5.0 is required.)

Step 1. Ingest your RED .R3D clips into Final Cut Pro using Log and Transfer. Set the preferences to use ProRes Proxy (NOT “native”). Set the color to “as shot”. This requires that the RED plug-in for FCS has been installed. (Refer to the previous article for a more in-depth explanation of this first step.) Please note that it is important to do this with the R3D files and not to start by simply dragging the in-camera-generated H, M or P QuickTime reference files into the FCP browser. Many RED users erroneously consider these to be “proxy” edit files. They are not. They are reference files at different resolutions/sizes that are linked to the R3D files and do not work correctly in this process.

Step 2. Edit normally in FCP until the cut is “locked”.

Step 3. Export an XML of your Final Cut sequence. I prefer using Automatic Duck’s free XML exporter and have had more reliable results with it, but the built-in FCP XML exporter will also work.

Step 4. Launch Adobe After Effects CS5. (Pro Import AE 5 works with CS3 and CS4, too, but you need to use an Adobe CS version compatible with native RED files.) Import the XML file using Pro Import AE 5. Make sure your Automatic Duck preferences are set to “Replace proxy footage with .R3D files.” The result will be an After Effects timeline with settings that match the Final Cut Pro sequence settings, except that all the clips will now be linked to the original camera files.

Step 5. Since the ProRes Proxy files were most likely 2K files, and the newly relinked camera files are the original 4K size, you will need to reset the scale value of each clip in the composition. This reframes the shot to fit inside the 2K frame, just as they did in FCP. Or you can creatively reframe the shots, since you have all the “bleed” of the full 4K frame. Alternatively, you can change the After Effects composition setting to match the 4K size.

At this point you could completely finish the project in After Effects, and there are a number of folks who would advocate that. From my point-of-view, After Effects is a compositing tool, rather than a DI or editing application. With the changes in Premiere Pro CS5, my druthers would be to get the media into that application. I’m only using After Effects as a conduit between Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro in this process.

You could go from After Effects to Premiere Pro via Adobe’s Dynamic Linking, but I’d rather not. That simply nests the After Effects composition as a single clip on the Premiere Pro timeline. I want the shots available as individual timeline clips, so follow these steps.

Step 6. Launch a new Premiere Pro CS5 project and select a new sequence setting from one of the RED presets, such as a 4K timeline.

Step 7. Highlight all of the .R3D clips in the After Effects composition and Copy.

Step 8. Switch to the Premiere Pro sequence window and Paste. All of the RED clips will now fill up the Premiere Pro sequence. At this point you should have a native 4K sequence with .R3D camera raw media. Corresponding master clips will show up in the Premiere Pro project window.

Step 9. To change the camera raw color settings of the .R3D files, open a clip from the project window and alter its source settings. These changes will automatically update that clip on the timeline.

Step 10. Finish effects and color grading as desired. If you are using this process with the intent of sending files to a DI house for film finishing, then your settings and any grading should be very neutral to allow for maximum latitude at the next stage.

Step 11. Export media. A big selling point of Premiere Pro CS5 to RED users is that it allows you to export DPX image sequences, in addition to all of the standard media options. DPX is the preferred format of most high-end DI solutions, like Quantel Pablo, Autodesk Lustre, etc. Premiere Pro CS5 is one of the few desktop solutions that enables an export of full-resolution 4K DPX files from the edited timeline.

OK, I’ve given you a lot to chew on. In three articles on RED post, I’ve covered quite a few ways to finish RED-acquired projects. Don’t get overwhelmed. Remember that you don’t have to use them all. Simply pick the one that’s best for you and have fun.

©2010 Oliver Peters