Hemingway & Gellhorn

Director Philip Kaufman has a talent for telling a good story against the backdrop of history. The Right Stuff (covering the start of the United States’ race into space) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague) made their marks, but now the latest, Hemingway & Gellhorn continues that streak.

Originally intended as a theatrical film, but ultimately completed as a made-for-HBO feature, Hemingway & Gellhorn chronicles the short and tempestuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman). The two met in 1936 in Key West, traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War and were married in 1940. They lived in Havana and after four years of a difficult relationship were divorced in 1945. During her 60-year career as a journalist, Gellhorn was recognized as being one of the best war correspondents of the last century. She covered nearly every conflict up until and including the U. S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

The film also paired another team – that of Kaufman and film editor Walter Murch – both of whom had last teamed up for The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I recently spoke with Walter Murch upon his return from the screening of Hemingway & Gellhorn at the Cannes Film Festival. Murch commented on the similarities of these projects, “I’ve always been attracted to the intersection of history and drama. I hadn’t worked with Phil since the 1980s, so I enjoyed tackling another film together, but I was also really interested in the subject matter. When we started, I really didn’t know that much about Martha Gellhorn. I had heard the name, but that was about it. Like most folks, I knew the legend and myth of Hemingway, but not really many of the details of him as a person.”

This has been Murch’s first project destined for TV, rather than theaters. He continued, “Although it’s an HBO film, we never treated it as anything other than a feature film, except that our total schedule, including shooting, was about six months long, instead of ten or more months. In fact, seeing the film in Cannes with an audience of 2,500 was very rewarding. It was the first time we had actually screened in front of a theatrical audience that large. During post, we had a few ‘friends and family’ screenings, but never anything with a formal preview audience. That’s, of course, standard procedure with the film studios. I’m not sure what HBO’s plans are for Hemingway & Gellhorn beyond the HBO channels. Often some of their films make it into theatrical distribution in countries where HBO doesn’t have a cable TV presence.”

Hemingway & Gellhorn was produced entirely in the San Francisco Bay area, even though it was a period film and none of the story takes place there. All visual effects were done by Tippett Studio, supervised by Christopher Morley, which included placing the actors into scenes using real archival footage. Murch explained, “We had done something similar in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The technology has greatly improved since then, and we were able to do things that would have been impossible in 1986. The archival film footage quality was vastly different from the ARRI ALEXA footage used for principal photography. The screenplay was conceived as alternating between grainless color and grainy monochrome scenes to juxtapose the intimate events in the lives of Hemingway and Gellhorn with their presence on the world stage at historical events. So it was always intended for effect, rather than trying to convince the audience that there was a completely continuous reality. As we got into editing, Phil started to play with color, using different tinting for the various locations. One place might be more yellow and another cool or green and so on. We were trying to be true to the reality of these people, but the film also has to be dramatic. Plus, Phil likes to have fun with the characters. There must be balance, so you have to find the right proportion for these elements.”

The task of finding the archival footage fell to Rob Bonz, who started a year before shooting. Murch explained, “An advantage you have today that we didn’t have in the ‘80s is YouTube. A lot of these clips exist on-line, so it’s easier to research what options you might have. Of course, then you have to find the highest quality version of what you’ve seen on-line. In the case of the events in Hemingway & Gellhorn, these took place all over the world, so Rob and his researchers were calling all kinds of sources, including film labs in Cuba, Spain and Russia that might still have some of these original nitrate materials.”

This was Walter Murch’s first experience working on a film recorded using an ARRI ALEXA. The production recorded 3K ARRIRAW files using the Codex recorder and then it was the editorial team’s responsibility to convert these files for various destinations, including ProResLT (1280 x 720) for the edit, H.264 for HBO review and DPX sequences for DI. Murch was quite happy with the ALEXA’s image. He said, “Since these were 3K frames we were able to really take advantage of the size for repositioning. I got so used to doing that with digital images, starting with Youth Without Youth, that it’s now just second nature. The ALEXA has great dynamic range and the image held up well to subtle zooms and frame divisions. Most repositionings and enlargements were on the order of 125% to 145%, but there’s one blow-up at 350% of normal.”

In addition to Bonz, the editorial team included Murch’s son Walter (first assistant editor) and David Cerf (apprentice). Walter Murch is a big proponent of using FileMaker Pro for his film editor’s code book and explained some of the changes on this film. “Dave really handled most of the FileMaker jiu-jitsu. It works well with XML, so we were able go back and forth between FileMaker Pro and Final Cut Pro 7 using XML. This time our script supervisor, Virginia McCarthy, was using ScriptE, which also does a handshake with FileMaker, so that her notes could be instantly integrated into our database. Then we could use this information to drive an action in Final Cut Pro – for instance, the assembly of dailies reels. FileMaker would organize the information about yesterday’s shooting, and then an XML out of that data would trigger an assembly in Final Cut, inserting graphics and text as needed in between shots. In the other direction, we would create visibility-disabled slugs on a dedicated video track, tagged with scene information about the clips in the video tracks below. Outputting XML from Final Cut would create an instantaneous continuity list with time markers in FileMaker.”

The way Walter Murch organizes his work is a good fit for Final Cut Pro 7, which he used on Hemingway & Gellhorn and continues to use on a current documentary project. In fact, at a Boston FCP user gathering, Murch showed one of the most elaborate screen grabs of an FCP timeline that you can imagine. He takes full advantage of the track structure to incorporate temporary sound effects and music cues, as well as updated final music and effects.

Another trick he mentioned to me was something he referred to as a QuickTime skin. Murch continued, “I edit with the complete movie on the timeline, not in reels, so I always have the full cut in front of me. I started using this simple QuickTime skin technique with Tetro. First, I export the timeline as a self-contained QuickTime file and then re-import the visual. This is placed on the upper-most video track, effectively hiding everything below. As such, it’s like a ‘skin’ that wraps the clips below it, so the computer doesn’t ‘see’ them when you scroll back and forth. The visual information is now all at one location on a hard drive, so the system isn’t bogged down with unrendered files and other clutter. When you make changes, then you ‘razor-blade’ through the QuickTime and pull back the skin, revealing the ‘internal organs’ (the clips that you want to revise) below – thus making the changes like a surgeon. Working this way also gives a quick visual overview of where you’ve made changes. You can instantly see where the skin has been ‘broken’ and how extensive the changes were. It’s the visual equivalent of a change list. After a couple of weeks of cutting, on average, I make a new QuickTime and start the process over.”

Walter Murch is currently working on a feature documentary about the Large Hadron Collider. Murch, in his many presentations and discussions on editing, considers the art part plumbing (knowing the workflow), part performance (instinctively feeling the rhythm and knowing, in a musical sense, when to cut) and part writing (building and then modifying the story through different combinations of picture and sound). Editing a documentary is certainly a great example of the editor as writer. His starting point is 300 hours of material following three theorists and three experimentalists over a four-year period, including the catastrophic failure of the accelerator nine days after it was turned on for the first time. Murch, who has always held a love and fascination for the sciences, is once again at that intersection of history and drama.

Click here to watch the trailer.

(And here’s a nice additional article from the New York Times.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

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NAB 2012 – Adobe CS6, Smoke 2013, Thunderbolt and more

Get some coffee, sit back and take your time reading this post. I apologize for its length in advance, but there’s a lot of new hardware and software to talk about. I’m going to cover my impressions of NAB along with some “first looks” at Adobe Creative Suite 6, Smoke 2013 and Thunderbolt i/o devices. There’s even some FCP X news!

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Impressions of NAB 2012

I thought this year was going to be quiet and laid back. Boy, was I wrong! Once again Blackmagic Design stole the spotlight with democratized products. This year the buzz had to be the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. It delivers on the objective of the original RED Scarlet idea. It’s a $3K camera with 2.5K of resolution and 13 stops. I’ll leave the camera discussions to the camera guys, but suffice it to say that this camera was thought up with post in mind. That is – no new, proprietary codec. It uses ProRes, DNxHD or Cinema DNG (the Adobe raw format). It also includes a copy of Resolve and UltraScope with the purchase.

Along with that news was Blackmagic’s re-introduction of the Teranex processors. Prior to that company’s acquisition by Blackmagic Design, the top-of-the-line Teranex image processor loaded with options was around $90K. Now that Grant Petty’s wizards have had a go at it, the newest versions in a nicely re-designed form factor are $2K for 2D and $4K for 3D. Sweet. And if you think free (or close to it) stifles R&D, take a look at the new, cleaned-up DaVinci Resolve 9.0 interface. Great to see that the development continues.

You’ll note that there was a lot of buzz about 4K camera, but did you notice you need to record that image to something? Enter AJA – not with a camera – but, with the KiPro Mini Quad. That’s right – a 4K version of the Mini already designed with Canon’s C500 4K camera in mind. It records 4K ProRes 4444 files. AJA is also building its Thunderbolt portfolio with T-Tap, a monitoring-only Thunderbolt-to-SDI/HDMI output adapter under $250. More on Thunderbolt devices later in this post.

The NLE news was dominated by Adobe’s reveal of Creative Suite 6 (with Premiere Pro CS6) and Autodesk’s re-designed Smoke 2013. Avid’s news was mainly broadcast and storage-related, since Media Composer version 6 had been launched months before. Although that was old news to the post crowd, it was the first showing for the software at NAB. Nevertheless, to guarantee some buzz, Avid announced a short-term Symphony cross-grade deal that lasts into June. FCP (excluding X), Media Composer and Xpress Pro owners can move into Symphony for $999. If you are an Avid fan, this is a great deal and is probably the best bang-for-the-buck NLE available if you take advantage of the cross-grade.

An interesting sidebar is that both FilmLight and EyeOn are developing plug-in products for Avid software. FilmLight builds the Baselight color correction system, which was shown and recently released in plug-in form for FCP 7. Now they are expanding that to other hosts, including Nuke and Media Composer under the product name of Baselight Editions. EyeOn’s Fusion software is probably the best and fastest, feature film-grade compositor available on Windows. EyeOn is using Connection (a software bridge) to send Media Composer/Symphony or DS timeline clips to Fusion, which permits both applications to stay open. In theory, if you bought Symphony and added Baselight and Fusion, the combination becomes one of the most powerful NLEs on the market. All at under $5K with the current cross-grade!

Autodesk has been quite busy redesigning its Smoke NLE for the Mac platform. Smoke 2013 features a complete Mac-centric overhaul to turn it into an all-in-one “super editor” that still feels comfortable for editors coming from an FCP or Media Composer background. See my “first look” section below.

Quantel, who often gets lost in these desktop NLE discussions showed the software-only version of Pablo running on a tweaked PC. It uses four high-end NVIDIA cards for performance and there’s also a new, smaller Neo Nano control surface. Although pricing is lower, at $50K for the software alone, it’s still the premium brand.

There’s been plenty of talk about “editing in the cloud”, but in my opinion, there were three companies at the show with viable cloud solutions for post: Avid, Quantel and Aframe. In 2010 Avid presented a main stage technology preview that this year has started to come to fruition as Interplay Sphere. The user in the field is connected to his or her home base storage and servers over various public networks. The edit software is a version of the NewsCutter/Media Composer interface that can mix local full-res media with proxy media linked to full-res media at the remote site. When the edit is done, the sequence list is “published” to the server and local, full-res media uploaded back to the home base (trimmed clips only). The piece is conformed and rendered by the server at home. Seems like the branding line should be Replace your microwave truck with a Starbucks!

The company with a year of real experience “in the cloud” at the enterprise level is Quantel with Qtube. It’s a similar concept to Avid’s, but has the advantage of tying in multiple locations remotely. Media at the home base can also be searched and retrieved in formats that work for other NLEs, including Media Composer and Final Cut.

An exciting newcomer is Aframe. They are a British company founded by the former owner of Unit, one of Europe’s largest professional post facilities built around FCP and Xsan. Aframe is geared toward the needs of shows and production companies more so than broadcast infrastructures. The concept uses a “private cloud” (i.e. not Amazon servers) with an interface and user controls that feel a lot like a mash-up between Vimeo and Xprove. Full-res media can be uploaded in several ways, including via regional service centers located around the US. There’s full metadata support and the option to use Aframe’s contracted logging vendor if you don’t want to create metadata yourself. Editors cut with proxy media and then the full-res files are conformed via EDLs and downloaded when ready. Pricing plans are an attractive per-seat, monthly structure that start with a free, single seat account.

Apple doesn’t officially do trade shows anymore, but they were at NAB, flying under the radar. In a series of small, private meetings with professional customers and media, Apple was making their case for Final Cut Pro X. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the same can be said for re-building a dominant editing application from the ground up. Rather than simply put in the same features as the competition, Apple opted to take a fresh look, which has created much “Sturm und Drang” in the industry. Nevertheless, Apple was interested in pointing out the adoption by professional users and the fact that it has held an above-50% market share with new NLE seats sold to professional users during 2011. You can parse those numbers anyway you like, but they point to two facts: a) people aren’t changing systems as quickly as many vocal forum posts imply, and b) many users are buying FCP X and seeing if and how it might work in some or all of their operation.

FCP X has already enjoyed several quick updates in less than a year, thanks to the App Store mechanism. There’s a robust third-party developer community building around X. In fact, walking around the NAB floor, I saw at least a dozen or more booths that displayed FCP X in some fashion to demonstrate their own product or use it as an example of interoperability between their product and X. Off the top of my head, I saw or heard about FCP X at Autodesk, Quantel, AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, MOTU, Tools On Air, Dashwood and SONY – not to mention others, like resellers and storage vendors. SONY has announced the new XDCAM plug-ins for X and compatibility of its XDCAM Browser software. Dashwood Cinema Solutions was showing the only stereo3D package that’s ready for Final Cut Pro X. And of course, we can’t live without EDLs, so developer XMiL Workflow Tools (who wasn’t exhibiting at NAB) has also announced EDL-X, an FCP XML-to-EDL translator, expected to be in the App Store by May.

On the Apple front, the biggest news was another peek behind the curtain at some of the features to be included in the next FCP X update, coming later this year. These include multichannel audio editing tools, dual viewers, MXF plug-in support and RED camera support. There are no details beyond these bullet points, but you can expect a lot of other minor enhancements as part of this update.

“Dual viewers” may be thought of as “source/record” monitors – added by Apple, thanks to user feedback. Apple was careful to point out to me that they intended to do a bit more than just that with the concept. “RED support” also wasn’t defined, but my guess would be that it’s based on the current Import From Camera routine. I would imagine something like FCP 7’s native support of RED media through Log and Transfer, except better options for bringing in camera raw color metadata. Of course, that’s purely speculation on my part.

Now, sit back and we’ll run through some “first looks”.

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Adobe Creative Suite 6 – A First Look

Adobe charged into 2012 with a tailwind of two solid years of growth on the Mac platform and heavy customer anticipation for what it plans to offer in Creative Suite 6. The release of CS5 and CS5.5 were each strong in their own right and introduced such technologies as the Mercury Playback Engine for better real-time performance, but in 2011 Adobe clearly ramped up its focus on video professionals. They acquired the IRIDAS SpeedGrade technology and brought the developers of Automatic Duck on board. There have been a few sneak peeks on the web including a popular video posted by Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco editors, but the wait for CS6 ended with this year’s NAB.

Production Premium

Adobe’s video content creation tools may be purchased individually, through a Creative Cloud subscription or as part of the Master Collection and Production Premium bundles. Most editors will be interested in CS6 Production Premium, which includes Prelude, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Photoshop Extended, SpeedGrade, Audition, Encore, Adobe Media Encoder, Illustrator, Bridge and Flash Professional. Each of these applications has received an impressive list of new features and it would be impossible to touch on every one here, so look for a more in-depth review at a future date. I’ll quickly cover some of the highlights.

Prelude

As part of CS6, Adobe is introducing Prelude, a brand new product designed for footage acquisition, ingest/transcode, organization, review and metadata tagging. It’s intended to be used by production assistants or producers as an application to prepare the footage for an editor. Both Prelude and Premiere Pro now feature “hover scrubbing”, which is the ability to scan through footage quickly by moving the mouse over the clip thumbnail, which can be expanded as large as a mini-viewer. Clips can be marked, metadata added and rough cuts assembled, which in turn are sent to Premiere Pro. There is a dynamic reading of metadata between Prelude and Premiere Pro. Clip metadata changes made in one application are updated in the other, since the information is embedded into the clip itself. Although Prelude is included with the software collection for single users, it can be separately purchased in volume by enterprise customers, such as broadcasters and news organizations.

Premiere Pro

A lot of effort was put into the redesign of Premiere Pro. The user interface has been streamlined and commands and icons were adjusted to be more consistent with both Apple Final Cut Pro (“legacy” versions) and Avid Media Composer. Adobe took input from users who have come from both backgrounds and wanted to alter the UI in a way that was reasonably familiar. The new CS6 keyboard shortcuts borrow from each, but there are also full FCP and full MC preset options. Workspaces have been redesigned, but an editor can still call up CS5.5 workspace layouts with existing projects to ease the transition. A dockable timecode window has been added and Adobe has integrated a dynamic trimming function similar to that of Media Composer.

The changes are definitely more than cosmetic, though, as Adobe has set out to design a UI that never forces you to stop. This means you can now do live updates to effects and even open other applications without the timeline playback ever stopping. They added Mercury Playback acceleration support for some OpenCL cards and there’s a new Mercury Transmit feature for better third-party hardware i/o support across all of the video applications. Many new tools have been added, including a new multi-camera editor with an unlimited number of camera angles. Some more features have been brought over from After Effects, including adjustment layers and the Warp Stabilizer that was introduced with CS5.5. This year they’ve broken out the rolling shutter repair function as a separate tool. Use it for quick HDSLR camera correction without the need to engage the full Warp Stabilizer.

SpeedGrade

By adding a highly-regarded and established color grading tool, Adobe has strengthened the position of Production Premium as the primary application suite for video professionals. The current level of integration is a starting point, given the short development time that was possible since last September. Expect this to expand in future versions.

SpeedGrade works as both a standalone grading application, as well as a companion to the other applications. There’s a new “Send to SpeedGrade” timeline export operation in Premiere Pro. When you go into SpeedGrade this way, an intermediate set of uncompressed DPX files is first rendered as the source media to be used by SpeedGrade. Both applications support a wide range of native formats, but they aren’t all the same, so this approach offers the fewest issues for now, when working with mixed formats in a Premiere sequence. In addition, SpeedGrade can also import EDLs and relink media, which offers a second path from Premiere Pro into SpeedGrade. Finished, rendered media returns to Premiere as a single, flattened file with baked-in corrections.

As a color correction tool, SpeedGrade presents an easy workflow – enabling you to stack layers of grading onto a single clip, as well as across the entire timeline. There are dozens of included LUTs and looks presets, which may be used for creative grading or to correct various camera profiles. An added bonus is that both After Effects and Photoshop now support SpeedGrade Look files.

Audition

With CS5.5, Adobe traded out Soundbooth for a cross-platform version of Audition, Adobe’s full-featured DAW software. In CS6, that integration has been greatly improved. Audition now sports an interface more consistent with After Effects and Premiere, newly added Mackie and Avid Eucon control surface protocol support and mixing automation. The biggest feature demoed in the sneak peeks has been the new Automatic Speech Alignment tool. You can take overdubbed ADR lines and automatically align them for near-perfect sync to replace the on-camera dialogue. All of this is thanks to the technology behind Audition’s new real-time, high-quality audio stretching engine.

Audition also gains a number of functions specific to audio professionals. Audio CD mastering has been added back into the program and there’s a new pitch control spectral display. This can be used to alter the pitch of a singer, as well as a new way to create custom sound design. Buying Production Premium gives you access to 20GB of downloadable audio media (sound effects and music scores) formerly available only via the online link to Adobe’s Resource Central.

After Effects

Needless to say, After Effects is the Swiss Army knife of video post. From motion graphics to visual effects to simple format conversation, there’s very little that After Effects isn’t called upon to do. Naturally there’s plenty new in CS6. The buzz feature is a new 3D camera tracker, which uses a point cloud to tightly track an object that exhibits size, position, rotation and perspective changes. These are often very hard for traditional 2D point trackers to follow. For example, the hood of a car moving towards the camera at an angle.

Now for the first time in After Effects, you can build extruded 3D text and vector shapes using built-in tools. This includes surface material options and a full 3D ray tracer. In general, performance has been greatly improved through a better hand-off between RAM cache and disk cache. As with Premiere Pro, rolling shutter repair is now also available as a separate tool in After Effects.

Photoshop

Photoshop has probably had the most online sneak peeks of any of the new Adobe apps. It has been available as a public beta since mid-March. Photoshop, too, sports a new interface, but that’s probably the least noteworthy of the new features. These include impressive new content-aware fill functions, 3D LUT support (including SpeedGrade Look files) and better auto-correction. There’s better use of GPU horsepower, which means common tasks like Liquefy are accelerated.

Photoshop has offered the ability to work with video as a single file for several versions. With CS6 it gains expanded video editing capabilities, enabled by a new layer structure akin to that used in After Effects. Although Premiere Pro or After Effects users probably won’t do much with it, Adobe is quite cognizant that many of its photography customers are increasingly asked to deal with video – thanks, of course, to the HD-video-enabled DSLRs, like the Canon EOS series. By integrating video editing and layering tools into Photoshop, it allows these customers to deliver a basic video project while working inside an application environment where they are the most comfortable. Video editors gain the benefit of having it there if they want to use it. Some may, in fact, develop their own innovative techniques once they investigate what it can do for them.

Adobe Creative Suite 6 offers a wealth of new features, expanded technologies and a set of brand new tools. It’s one of Adobe’s largest releases ever and promises to attract new interest from video professionals.

Click here for updated price and availability information.

Click here for videos that explain CS6 features.

Plus, a nice set of tutorial videos here.

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Autodesk Smoke 2013 – A First Look

Thanks to the common Unix underpinnings of Linux and Mac OS X, Autodesk Media & Entertainment was able to bring its advanced Smoke editor to the Mac platform in December of 2009 as an unbundled software product. The $15K price tag was a huge drop from that of their standard, turnkey Linux Smoke workstations, but still hefty for the casual user. Nevertheless, thanks to an aggressive trial and academic policy, Autodesk was very successful in getting plenty of potential new users to download and test the product. In the time since the launch on the Mac, Autodesk has had a chance to learn what Mac-oriented editors want and adjust to the feedback from these early adopters.

Taking that user input to heart, Autodesk introduced the new Smoke 2013 at NAB. This is an improved version that is much more “Mac-like”. Best of all it’s now available for $3,495 plus an optional annual subscription fee for support and software updates. Although this is an even bigger price reduction, it places Smoke in line with Autodesk’s animation product family (Maya, Softimage, etc.) and in keeping with what most Mac users feel is reasonable for a premium post production tool. Smoke 2013 will ship in fall, but the new price took effect at NAB. Any new and existing customers on subscription will receive the update as part of their support. Tutorials and trial versions of Smoke 2013 are expected to be available over the summer.

More Mac-like

Autodesk was successful in attracting a lot of trial downloads, but realized that the biggest hurdle was the steep learning curve even expert Final Cut and Media Composer editors encountered. Previous Mac versions of Smoke featured a user interface and commands inherited from the Linux versions of Smoke and Flame, which were completely different from any Mac editing application. Just getting media into the system baffled many. With Smoke 2013, Autodesk has specifically targeted editors who come from an Apple Final Cut Pro and/or Avid Media Composer background. The interface uses a standard, track-based editing workflow to maintain the NLE environment that editors are comfortable with. There’s a familiar Mac OS X menu bar at the top and the application has adopted most of the common OS commands. In short, it’s been redesigned – but not “re-imagined” – to act like a Mac application is supposed to.

Smoke now features a tab structure to quickly switch between modes, like media access, editing, etc. The biggest new tool is the Media Hub. This is an intelligent media browser that lets you easily access any compatible media on any of your hard drives. It recognizes native media formats, as opposed to simply browsing all files in the Finder. Media support includes RED, ARRIRAW, ProRes, DNxHD, H.264, XDCAM, image sequences, LUTs and more. Media Hub is the place to locate and import files, including the ability to drag-and-drop media directly into your Smoke library, as well as from the Finder into Smoke. Settings for formats like RED (debayer, color, etc.) are maintained even when you drag from the Finder. Since Smoke is designed as a finishing tool, you can also import AAF, XML (FCP 7, FCP X, Premiere Pro) and EDL lists generated by offline editors.

ConnectFX

Beyond familiar commands and the Media Hub, the editing interface has been redesigned to be more visually appealing and for the easier application of effects. ConnectFX is a method to quickly apply and modify effects right in the timeline. Tabbed buttons let you change between modes, such as resizing, time warps, Sparks filter effects and color correction. When you choose to edit effects parameters, the interface opens a ribbon above the timeline where you can alter numerical settings or enter a more advanced effects editing interface. If you need more sophistication, then move to nodes using ConnectFX. Smoke is the only editor with a node-based compositor that works in 3D space. You get many of the tools that have been the hallmark of the premium Autodesk system products, such as effects process nodes, the Colour Warper, relighting, 3D tracking and more.

Smoke 2013 is positioned as an integrated editing and effects tool. According to Autodesk’s research, editors who use a mixture of several different tools to get the job done – from editing to effects to grading – often use up to seven different software applications. Smoke is intended as a “super editor” that places all of these tools and tasks into a single, comprehensive application with a cohesive interface. The design is intended to maximize the workflow as an editor moves from editing into finishing.

Lighter system requirements

Apple is changing the technology landscape with more powerful personal workstations, like the iMac, which doesn’t fit the traditional tower design. Thunderbolt adds advanced, high-bandwidth connectivity for i/o and storage in a single cable connection.

To take advantage of these changes, Smoke 2013 has been designed to run on this new breed of system. For example, it will work on a newer MacBook Pro or iMac, connected to fast Thunderbolt storage, like a Promise Pegasus RAID array. A key change has been in the render format used by Smoke. Up until now, intermediate renders have been to uncompressed RGB 4:4:4 DPX image sequence files. While this maintains maximum quality, it quickly eats storage space and is taxing on less powerful machines. Rendering to an uncompressed RGB format is generally overkill if your camera originals started as some highly-compressed format like XDCAM or H.264. Now Smoke 2013 offers the option to render to compressed formats, such as one of the Apple ProRes codecs.

Another welcomed change is the ability to use some of the newer Thunderbolt i/o devices. Smoke on a Mac Pro tower has been able to work with AJA KONA 3G cards, but with Smoke 2013, AJA’s new Io XT has been added to the mix. The Io XT is an external unit with most of the features and power of the KONA card. It connects in the Thunderbolt chain with storage and/or a secondary display and is the only current Thunderbolt i/o device with a loop-through connection. Thus it isn’t limited to being at the end of the chain.

While at NAB, I took a few minutes to see how comfortable this new version felt. I’ve been testing Smoke 2012 at home and quite frankly had some of the same issues other FCP and Media Composer editors have had. It has been a very deep program that required a lot of relearning before you could feel comfortable. When I sat down in front of Smoke 2013 in the NAB pod, I was able to quickly work through some effects without any assistance, primarily based on what seemed logical to me in a “standard” NLE approach. I’m not going to kid you, though. To do advanced effects still requires a learning curve, but editors do plenty of in-timeline effects that never require extensive compositing. When I compare doing this type of work in Smoke 2013 versus 2012, I’d say that the learning requirements have been cut by 60% to 75% with this new version. That’s how much the redesign improves things for beginners.

You can start from scratch editing a project strictly on Smoke 2013, but in case you are wondering, this really shouldn’t be viewed as a complete replacement for FCP 7. Instead, it’s the advanced product used to add the polish. As such, it becomes an ideal companion for a fast application used for creative cutting, like Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Media Composer.

Apple’s launch of Final Cut Pro X was a disruptive event that challenged conventional thinking. Autodesk Media & Entertainment’s launch of Smoke 2013 might not cause the same sort of uproar, but it brings a world-class finishing application to the Mac at a price that is attractive to many individual users and small boutiques.

Click here for videos and tutorials about Smoke.

Click here for Autodesk’s NAB videos.

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Thunderbolt I/O Devices – A First Look

Over the years media pros have seen data protocols come and go. Some, like Fibre Channel, are still current fixtures, while others, such as SCSI, have bitten the dust. The most exciting new technology is Thunderbolt, which is a merger of PCI Express and DisplayPort technologies co-developed by Intel and Apple. Started under the code name of Light Peak, the current implementation of Thunderbolt is a bi-directional protocol that passes power, video display signals and data transfer at up to 10Gbps of throughput in both directions. According to Apple, that’s up to twelve times faster than FireWire 800. It’s also faster than Fibre Channel, which tends to be the protocol of choice in larger facilities. Peripherals can access ten watts of power through Thunderbolt, too. Like SCSI and FireWire, Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained with special cables. Up to six devices can be connected in series, but certain devices have to be at the end of the chain. This is typically true when a PCIe-to-Thunderbolt adapter is used.

A single signal path can connect the computer to external storage, displays and capture devices, which provides editors with a powerful data protocol in a very small footprint. Thunderbolt technology is currently available in Apple iMac, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mini computers and is starting to become available on some Windows systems. It is not currently available as a built-in technology on Mac Pros, but you can bet that if there’s a replacement tower, Thunderbolt will be a key part of the engineering design.

By its nature, Thunderbolt dictates that peripheral devices are external units. All of the processing horsepower of a PCIe card, such as a KONA or Decklink, is built into the circuitry of an external device, which is connected via the Thunderbolt cable to the host computer. I tested three Thunderbolt capture/output devices for this review: AJA Io XT, Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 3D and Matrox MXO2 LE MAX. AJA added the monitoring-only T-Tap at NAB to join the Io XT in AJA’s Thunderbolt line-up. Blackmagic Design has developed four Thunderbolt units at difference price tiers. For smaller installations or mobile environments, the UltraStudio Express, Intensity Shuttle Thunderbolt or Intensity Extreme are viable solutions.

Matrox has taken a different approach by using an adapter. Any of its four MXO2 products – the standard MXO2, Mini, LE or Rack – can be used with either Thunderbolt or non-Thunderbolt workstations. Simply purchase the unit with a Thunderbolt adapter, PCIe card and/or Express 34 slot laptop card. The MXO2 product is the same and only the connection method differs for maximum flexibility. The fourth company making Thunderbolt capture devices is MOTU. Their HDX-SDI was not available in time for this review, but I did have a chance to play with one briefly on the NAB show floor.

Differentiating features

All three of the tested units include up/down/cross-conversion between SD and HD formats and perform in the same fashion as their non-Thunderbolt siblings. Each has pros and cons that will appeal to various users with differing needs. For instance, the AJA Io XT is the only device with a Thunderbolt pass-through connector. The other units have to be placed at the end of a Thunderbolt path. They all support SDI and HDMI capture and output, as well as RS-422 VTR control. Both the AJA and Blackmagic units support dual-link SDI for RGB 4:4:4 image capture and output. The Matrox and AJA units use a power supply connected via a four-pin XLR, which makes it possible to operate them in the field on battery power.

The need to work with legacy analog formats or monitoring could determine your choice. This capability represents the biggest practical difference among the three. Both the MXO2 LE and UltraStudio 3D support analog capture and output, while there’s only analog output from the Io XT. The MXO2 LE uses standard BNC and XLR analog connectors (two audio channels on the LE, but more with the MXO2 or Rack), but the other two require a cable harness with a myriad of small connectors. That harness is included with the Blackmagic unit, but with AJA, you need to purchase an optional DB-25 Tascam-style cable snake for up to eight channels of balanced analog audio.

One unique benefit of the Matrox products is the optional MAX chip for accelerated H.264 processing. In my case, I tested the MXO2 LE MAX, which includes the embedded chip. When this unit is connected to a Mac computer, Apple Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder, Avid Media Composer, Telestream Episode and QuickTime perform hardware-accelerated encodes of H.264 files using the Matrox presets.

Fitting into your layout

I ran the Io XT, UltraStudio 3D and MXO2 LE through their paces connected to a friend’s new, top-of-the-line Apple iMac. All three deliver uncompressed SD or HD video over the Thunderbolt cable to the workstation. Processing to convert this signal to an encoded ProRes or DNxHD format will depend on the CPU. In short, recording a codec like ProRes4444 will require a fast machine and drives. I haven’t specifically tested it, but I presume this task would definitely challenge a Mac Mini using only internal drives!

The test-bed iMac workstation was configured with a Promise Pegasus 6-drive RAID array. The iMac includes two Thunderbolt ports and the Pegasus array offers a pass-through, so I was able to test these units both directly connected to the iMac, as well as daisy-chained onto the Promise array. This system would still allow the connection of more Thunderbolt storage and/or a secondary computer monitor, such as Apple’s 27″ Thunderbolt Display. Most peripheral manufacturers do not automatically supply cables, so plan on purchasing extra Thunderbolt cables ($49 for a six-foot cable from Apple).

These units work with most of the current crop of Mac OS X-based NLEs; however, you may need to choose a specific driver or software set to match the NLE you plan to operate. For instance, AJA requires a separate additional driver to be installed for Premiere Pro or Media Composer, which is provided for maximum functionality with those applications. The same is true for Matrox and Media Composer. I ran tests with Final Cut Pro 7, X and Premiere Pro CS 5.5, but not Media Composer 6, although they do work fine with that application. Only the Blackmagic Design products, like the UltraStudio 3D, will work with DaVinci Resolve. In addition to drivers, the software installation includes application presets and utility applications. Each build includes a capture/output application, which lets you ingest and lay off files through the device, independent of any editing application.

Broadcast monitoring and FCP X

The biggest wild card right now is performance with Final Cut Pro X. Broadcast monitoring was a beta feature added in the 10.0.3 update. With the release of 10.0.4 and compatible drivers, most performance issues have stabilized and this is no longer considered beta. Separate FCP X-specific drivers may need to be installed depending on the device.

If you intend to work mainly with Final Cut Pro “legacy” or Premiere Pro, then all of these units work well. On the other hand, if you’ve taken the plunge for FCP X, I would recommend the Io XT. I never got the MXO2 LE MAX to work with FCP X (10.0.3) during the testing period and initially the UltraStudio 3D wouldn’t work either, until the later version 9.2 drivers that Blackmagic posted mid-March. Subsequent re-testing with 10.0.4 and checking these units at NAB, indicate that both the Blackmagic and Matrox units work well enough. There are still some issues when you play at fast-forward speeds, where the viewer and external monitor don’t stay in sync with each other. I also checked the MOTU HDX-SDI device with FCP X in their NAB booth. Performance seemed similar to that of Matrox and Blackmagic Design.

The Io XT was very fluid and tracked FCP X quite well as I skimmed through footage. FCP X does not permit control over playback settings, so you have to set that in the control panel application (AJA) or system preference pane (Blackmagic Design and Matrox) and relaunch FCP X after any change. The broadcast monitoring feature in FCP X does not add any new VTR control or ingest capability and it’s unlikely that it ever will. To ingest videotape footage for FCP X using Io XT or UltraStudio, you will have to use the separate installed capture utility (VTR Xchange or Media Express, respectively) and then import those files from the hard drive into FCP X. Going the other direction requires that you export a self-contained movie file and use the same utility to record that file onto tape. The Matrox FCP X drivers and software currently do not include this feature.

Finally, the image to the Panasonic professional monitor I was using in this bay matched the FCP X viewer image on the iMac screen using either the Io XT or UltraStudio 3D. That attests to Apple’s accuracy claims for its ColorSync technology.

Performance with the mainstream NLEs

Ironically the best overall performance was using the end-of-life Final Cut Pro 7. In fact, all three units were incredibly responsive on this iMac/Promise combo. For example, when you use a Mac Pro with any FireWire or PCIe-connected card or device, energetic scrubbing or playing files at fast-forward speeds will result in the screen display and the external output going quickly out of sync with each other. When I performed the same functions on the iMac, the on-screen and external output stayed in sync with each of these three units. No amount of violent scrubbing caused it to lose sync. The faster data throughput and Thunderbolt technology had enabled a more pleasant editing experience.

I ran these tests using both a direct run from the iMac’s second Thunderbolt port, as well as looped from the back of the Promise array. Neither connection seemed to make much difference in performance with ProRes and AVCHD footage. I believe that you get the most data throughput when you are not daisy-chaining devices, however, I doubt you’ll see much difference under standard editing operation.

The best experience with Premiere Pro was using the Matrox MXO2 LE MAX, although the experience with the AJA and Blackmagic Design devices was fine, too. This stands to reason, as Matrox has historically had a strong track record developing for Adobe systems with custom cards, such as the Axio board set. Matrox also installs a high-quality MPEG-2 I-frame codec for use as an intermediate preview codec. This is an alternative to the QuickTime codecs installed on the system.

Portions of this entry originally written for Digital Video Magazine.

©2012 Oliver Peters

FCP X tools, Part 5 – filter suites

Ever since Red Giant Software introduced Magic Bullet Looks, a growing trend in effects packages has been filter suites. These install as plug-ins, which are built around presets that can be previewed and adjusted in a separate browser application launched from the filter interface. A representative frame has to be sent from the host application to the preset browser in order to preview the desired look or effect with your image instead of a template image. This was a missing element at the launch of Final Cut Pro X, but has been fixed with the 10.0.3 update. Two suite sets are currently available for FCP X – Magic Bullet Looks 2 and GenArts Sapphire Edge.

Magic Bullet Looks 2 may be purchased separately or as part of the Looks Suite and is available as a plug-in for a variety of hosts, including other NLEs, After Effects, Motion and photo applications, such as Photoshop, Aperture and Lightroom. In FCP X, you access the Magic Bullet Looks browser application through the on-screen overlay button. Once launched, controls are the same as when used with any of the other hosts. Looks itself is a collection of filters that mimic various tools used in production and post, such as diffusion from a lens filter or color correction used in post. A newly-added tool is Cosmo, which is a video noise cleaning effect that’s ideal for smoothing skin textures.

Looks are created by stringing together a chain of filters into a single effect. Any of these can be freely modified within the interface. A wealth of presets is installed with the plug-in. Any custom looks you’ve created yourself and saved are added to your library. Additional “guru” packages of presets may be purchased from Red Giant Software. Any preset look that has been installed or custom looks that you’ve created are available to other hosts, as well. For example, you could create a look in FCP X and have it available in After Effects, too. Once you build and apply a look and return to FCP X, you still have the ability to mask the area where the effect is visible from the effects control panel. Naturally, the look you’ve created can be copied and pasted to another clip without relaunching the custom browser interface.

A new competitor in the world of effects suites is GenArts with Sapphire Edge. The 10.0.3 update also enabled it to work with FCP X. Sapphire filters have always been extremely powerful, high-quality effects, but some users might find the control options daunting to dial in just the right effect. They are available for nearly every editing and compositing host, but tend to be among the pricier offerings in the market. These two factors led GenArts to develop Sapphire Edge, which is designed around presets selected via a preview browser. The effects collection is based on four Sapphire filter styles – Film Damage, Film Style, Lens Flare and TV Damage. The package installs plug-ins into both the effects and transitions palettes of FCP X. Edge is less expensive than a full set of Sapphire plug-ins, thus more in line with the price structure of FCP X itself.

The Sapphire Edge preview application is launched from the effects pane and like MB Looks, opens with the reference frame that you were parked on. Unlike MB Looks, you can only apply a preset look, but you can’t tweak it and save a new preset from inside the browser. Since there are a lot of presets with Edge, the preview browser lets you search by genre, mood or style. When you return to FCP X though, there are a number of sliders in the control pane to make adjustments to the application of the effect, which means you have latitude to customize it to your liking.

Purchasing Sapphire Edge includes a year’s subscription to FX Central, the GenArts online preset store. Edge installs a collection of over 350 presets, but additional monthly collections may be downloaded and installed with the FX Central subscription. I’m not really wild about this model, but it is one that GenArts is applying to other products, notably Sapphire 6. Frankly, I prefer working with the standard Sapphire 5 filters in After Effects over using the Edge browser in FCP X. On the plus side, the browser approach lets you quickly check out a lot of looks more quickly then you could ever do by tweaking sliders using the regular filter set. Two different approaches for different mindsets and the Sapphire Edge preset approach is a good fit for FCP X.

One notable missing developer in the FCP X effects suites mix is Digital Film Tools. Their Film Stocks, Photo Copy and Tiffen Dfx packages are superb and available in most of the hosts, except FCP X. I feel that the implementation of FxPlug in X is a bit flakey, so some filters show up in the X palette, even when they don’t yet work with X. On my system, PhotoCopy shows up in the effects palette, complete with preset options, but they don’t work in X.  The DFT filters use a separate browser application to preview, adjust and apply filters, just like MB Looks and Sapphire Edge, so I presume they have similar issues integrating into the FCP X effects architecture. Ironically some of these show up in Motion, but not FCP X. Although the performance in Motion is not terribly stable either. Maybe we’ll see that in a future update.

The good news is that we now have more options from some of the most popular suppliers, but the bad news is that performance is poor. All of the suite tools are taxing on the system and don’t particularly playback well in real-time without rendering. I also found some issues with interaction. For example, if you test out certain filters in Motion ahead of applying Magic Bullet Looks, it will fail to load. That can only be fixed with a relaunch of the app. As I’ve mentioned all along, Apple’s own built-in filters and the ones people have created as Motion template are the smoothest when left unrendered. I tend to treat these complex look effects as icing – best saved for last. I’m not big on using these as the sole place to do grading work. Tackle it that way and the rendering hit won’t be much of an issue.

UPDATE – The FCP X 10.0.4 version released on 4/10/12 “broke” MB Looks and Sapphire Edge. Both GenArts and Red Giant Software released updates on 4/13/12 to correct this issue. Please make sure you download the update if you run into any issues.

(Note: click on the images above to see enlarged views.)

©2012 Oliver Peters

FCP X tools, Part 3 – color grade effects

I’ve posted numerous entries about using various filters and tools to accomplish color correction and grading. I’ve also taken a look at how to use the color board in FCP X. Now it’s time to see what tools are out there if you just don’t feel comfortable with the color board.

Final Cut Pro X effects resources have been starting to quickly shore up. Noise Industries, GenArts, Red Giant and CoreMelt are some of the popular names who have been able to modify their FxPlug filters to work with FCP X, as well as Motion, FCP 7 and After Effects. In FCP X, filter parameters are built on slider controls, which has made it difficult to implement some of the popular filters used for color grading. With the latest updates, developers have been able to start taking advantage of user interface overlays to add controls for wheels and curves, which are important tools in working with color.

Noise Industries has been adding to its roster of partners and many of these have added welcome color grading features. Nattress and Sheffield are two that come from the early FCP days and FxScript development. The Nattress curves package and Sheffield Softworks Vintage and Looks Sweet 2 packages have been updated for FxPlug and are now available for all the supported FxFactory hosts, including FCP X. Looks Sweet 2 is a stylizing package that affects lighting and vibrancy in an image, while Vintage duplicates Technicolor processes.

Nattress Curves and Levels adds a badly-needed tool to FCP X. As the name implies, you have control over curves ranging from luma-only to full RGB. The adjustments can be made using sliders or the on-screen curves display. With the recent update the filters have been tweaked to work with video recorded in standard and well as log-adjusted gamma.

Two veteran FxFactory filter partners are PHYX and DVShade. The PHYX Color and PHYX Stylist packages offer easy control over a set of Technicolor, Bleach Bypass and other types of stylizing and lighting effects.

DVShade’s EasyLooks is an incredibly powerful filter that works entirely off of sliders. In addition to three-way color correction based on split-toning concepts, you can add diffusion, gradients, vignettes and more. The installation includes a set of presets for an easy starting point.

A new FxFactory tool from Yanobox is Moods, which is a color-wheel based grading filter. Like Nattress Curves, you have the option of displaying the controls overlay, complete with “help card” labels if you like. Grab a wheel and make balance, black-wash and brightness/exposure/gamma adjustments. You can start from scratch or apply one of the supplied presets.

The Red Giant Magic Bullet Looks Suite is generally installed for Looks (more on that in an upcoming post), but it also includes Mojo. That’s a separate filter based on the “orange and teal” feature film look. It’s simple to use and works just with sliders, Like some of the others, the installation adds a set of presets, too.

Last, but not least, is Tonalizer|VFX from Irudis. It comes in a PRO and Lite (free) version and works with FCP 7 and X, Motion 4 and 5 and Final Cut Express. It doesn’t run in After Effects or other NLEs, though. The PRO version includes a separate filter with built-in optimization for footage shot with HDSLRs using the Technicolor CineStyle camera profile. The design of Tonalizer|VFX is much like the slider controls in Adobe Lightroom and, in fact, Irudis markets it as offering photographic-style grading. Two big selling points are highlight and shadow recovery. It’s easy to use, works well and a big plus for FCP X is that it still plays well in real-time when left unrendered.

Below are a series of before and after images using some of these filters. Click on any image to see an enlarged view.

Tonalizer|VFX used to improve definition and vibrancy in the image.

Nattress Curves with a slight s-curve adjustment.

Nattress Curves RGB can be used to alter the balance of the image.

Yanobox Moods set to change the balance to a more sunset-like look.

Sheffield Softworks Looks Sweet 2 Super Glam filter to stylize the image.

Magic Bullet Mojo for the “blockbuster” look.

A combination of PHYX Color and Stylist filters for a bit of over-the-top punch.

Tonalizer|VFX used to improve  definition and vibrancy in the image.

DVShade EasyLooks for a cool, heavily saturated and tinted appearance.

©2012 Oliver Peters

FCP X tools, Part 2 – useful effects

Sometimes you just need effects to do the mundane functions that make life easier. Nothing for glitz or glamour – just effects that help you get through a session with fewer editorial gymnastic. I’d like to showcase just some of these effects for Final Cut Pro X.

When you look at the effects palette in FCP X, it’s clear that there are some glaring omissions. One of these is the fact that there is no way to add a drop shadow to a video clip, which had been a basic FCP “legacy” tool. Several users have created and published their own versions, which are available at various forums. One example is Octo, a masking tool. A good go-to site for such items is FCP Effects. They offer a Basic Drop Shadow effect as a free plug-in, as well as a number of other filters that are available for purchase. In addition to adding a shadow, the same Drop Shadow filter includes other image manipulation controls including position and rotation. Other plug-ins on their site include split screens, 3D perspectives, masks and more.

I work a lot with ARRI ALEXA footage, so the ability to convert the log-C camera profile video into standard Rec. 709 is important. I routinely use both the Nick Shaw Antler Post (FCP 7 only) and the Pomfort (FCP 7 and X) filters. Pomfort’s Alexa Look2Video filter applies a look-up table derived from the ALEXA log-C gamma curve to convert the flat camera files into full range, vibrant video. In addition to applying a default curve, the Pomfort filter also includes CDL-style grading controls to balance out power/slope/offset and printer light values of an image. So, for example, if the LUT-adjusted image still has a slightly green cast to it, you can tweak the sliders to your liking for a touch of subjective grading or to create custom looks. In addition to a LUT for ALEXA files, Pomfort also offers LUT filters for Technicolor’s CineStyle and Sony’s SLog gamma profiles.

Ever try to juggle the scale, position and crop values in FCP for a combined effect designed to highlight a portion within the image? You can often never get the results you want. Enter Digital Heaven’s DH_BoxX filter, which has been an FCP “legacy” staple for many years, but now updated for X. This straightforward filter eliminates the juggling act for basic picture-in-picture effects by combining scale, position and crop controls into one plug-in, as well as basing parameters on source and target space. Another useful filter is the DH_ReincarnationX filter. It’s the first FxPlug pixel correction filter for X. This tool enables you to “heal” bad sensor pixels from digital cameras, like HDSLRs. Simply highlight the bad pixel and DH_ReincarnationX fills in the defect from the surrounding pixels. Don’t forget DH_WideSafeX and DH_GridX – two free FCP effects updated for X. As their name implies, these are generators used for design layout and safe action/title checking, which are not covered by FCP X’s normal tools (such as the 14:9 area).

There are various split screen filters available for FCP X. One of the best is CrumplePop’s SplitScreen X, available now through Noise Industries’ FxFactory. It’s a set of FCP X generator effects giving you numerous combinations of split screen design layouts covering from two to nine images. Layouts can be in a grid pattern or with diagonal splits. Since the generator filter uses image wells for the clips, only a single clip appears on your timeline. Each image within the well can be adjusted for size, position and opacity. Images can be rotated as a group and the border/edge thickness between can be adjusted to taste.

Lastly, don’t forget that the FxFaxtory Pro package itself includes numerous effects that would fall into this category, including blurs, perspective effects and more.

©2012 Oliver Peters

FCP X tools, Part 1 – Transitions

For the next few blog posts, I’m going to discuss some of the options you have to pimp out Final Cut Pro X on your system. Although Apple threw a monkey wrench into the business model of most FCP developers last year, many have stepped up to the plate with innovative new offerings. The effects in FCP X and Motion 5 are based on FxPlug. Any effects inside FCP X are actually Motion 5 templates. Because FCP X optimization is required, not all FxPlug filters work in either application. In some cases, installed FxPlug filters will show up in the FCP X and Motion 5 browsers, but not work. In other cases, they may work in Motion 5, but not FCP X. This means developers have to create updated versions to have them work in FCP X.

Make sure if you purchase third-party plug-ins for FCP X that they do, in fact, actually work with FCP X. The good news is that many that do, have been designed to install and work in a range of hosts, including FCP 7, FCP X, Motion 5, After Effects and even Premiere Pro. Although I am writing these posts with FCP X in mind, remember that for many of these products, the same pointers apply to using them inside After Effects, unless otherwise stated.

Due to the nature of how effects in Motion 5 and FCP X work, there’s also a burgeoning crop of free effects designed by curious editors. This is a similar situation to many of the free FxScript filters created in the early days of Final Cut. Motion 5 effects can be tweaked and exported as an FCP X effect, so a number of developers have taken to creating and offering custom effects that fill in some of the gaps. These aren’t new filters, but rather modified versions and combinations of existing Motion 5 filters that come with the software. As these are built upon the underpinnings of the software, most are reasonably lightweight and will play in real-time or render quickly.

I’ve decided to write these next few FCP X posts based on types of tools, rather than individual products. So, you’ll see a company mentioned in more than one post, depending on whether I’m talking about transitions (as in this post), effects, grading, etc. Of course, I haven’t and won’t cover them all, as this is just meant to give you a sampling of the growing FCP X ecosystem.

Digital Heaven

Digital Heaven has long been known as a developer of Final Cut-related tools. Not just effects, but a range of productivity applications designed to improve the editing experience. With that in mind, their effects packages aren’t the all-encompassing set of effects offered by the bigger developers. Instead, they design individual effects to meet the common needs that editors face every day. Think of their effects and software as affordable, handy items to have in your toolkit. For FCP X they’ve created the Transitions Pack (FCP X only) – a set of six filters covering commonly used transitions. These include Flare, FrameRoll, LightFlash, LightRays, StretchPan and Shutter.

To apply an effect, simply drag-and-drop it on a cut. To make adjustments, highlight the transition and open the Inspector pane. There, a limited number parameters can be altered, such as angle, direction or whether a lens flare has a warm or cool color temperature. These effects have a nice, organic quality and play well in real-time (unrendered) as well as are easily skimmable on the timeline. It’s not a huge collection, but for a small investment, you get a nice set of transitions to bail you out of that spot when the client wants something other than a dissolve.

FxFactory

Noise Industries was the first developer to leverage the power of Apple’s Quartz Composer technology. The collection of partners under the FxFactory umbrella represents a truly eclectic set of tools, effects and transitions, ranging for basic filters to stereo 3D. Most of these effects run in all versions of FCP, Motion and After Effects, although you have control over that in the FxFactory application, which functions as a common platform for control and installation. Along with its partners, Noise Industries develops its own effects, which includes a useful set of transitions. The usual blur dissolves and flashes are all there, but for something a bit more unique, try some of the geometry-based transitions, like Accordion or Origami. Thanks to their tight FxPlug integration, most of the FxFactory transitions play well on most computers.

Boinx – FxTiles

The next few paragraphs will cover effects offered by some of Noise Industries’ partner developers. Their effects can be purchased and then serialized through the FxFactory application. The Boinx FxTiles transitions are two simple 3D shatter effects. The outgoing image shatters and then rebuilds as the next incoming image. Although that’s a very simple description, given their complexity, image particle effects has never been so smooth in the past as Boinx has been able to achieve.

idustrial revolution – Volumetrix, ParticleMetrix

idustrial revolution (also through Noise Industries) offers a series of volumetric lighting effects that perform as wipes. They can be applied to video, masks and titles. Volumetrix is a light-based package with settings for color, direction, glow parameters and more. ParticleMetrix uses a similar technique, except that particle effects are used. This can take the form of certain shapes (like text) that become a wipe element. Or the image can be broken up in a pixie dust effect. Each filter offers plenty of customizable parameters to create effects that don’t all look like a preset transition.

XEffects Tech Transitions

A different set of transitions, also developed by idustrial revolution is Tech Transitions. This is a set of transitions based on grids, wipes, repeated images and image zooms. The general feeling of these effects is more high-tech and offers a style somewhat reminiscent of the TV show 24.  Like others that are part of the FxFactory filter products, these play well in real-time.

Nattress Film Transitions

Noise Industries has been on a roll adding new partners. One is Nattress, who has ported a number of its popular effects to FxPlug and the FxFactory platform. These include a set of film transitions, including frame slip effects, film burns and film dissolves.

SUGARfx Punchline

Possibly the coolest new transition package from FxFactory is Punchline from SUGARfx. These effects employ montage-style transitions that use wipes and sliding colorized images. Some take the form of grids with multiple images pulled from the outgoing and incoming clips. These all have a very unique look, that would normally take a considerable amount of compositing to duplicate in any other fashion.

Luca Visual FX – Grunge Collection

The last set of transitions I’ll mention that are available via Noise Industries and FxFactory are part of the Grunge Collection from Luca Visual FX. The Collection includes filters, generators and transitions with light leaks, sprocket slips, film leaders and more. Sprocket Slip and Light Kit are the two packs available as FCP X transitions. Each package has a tons of options, with plenty of parameters that can be customized.

The Spocket Slip transitions play better when rendered, because most include some motion blur settings. There are various perf sizes and speed variations. Most of the effects involve seeing the perf  holes on the edge of the frame during the transition, which is a nice touch. The Light Kit transitions are based on simulated film burns with an accompanying wipe between images. I’ll cover some of the other Grunge Collection products in other posts. Although many packages offer similar effects, it’s hard to find one that offers such a range in this single genre, as does Luca’s Grunge Collection.

GenArts Sapphire Edge

Rounding out this entry is Sapphire Edge available from GenArts. Long held as the “gold standard” of effects, GenArts has sought to broaden its appeal through the lower cost Sapphire Edge package. It’s a preset-based effects tool that combines several of GenArts’ filters. The presets you own can be expanded via a subscription to their FxCentral website (first year included) and installation of Edge adds both the filter and transition effects. The latter includes a set of 14 basic transition styles, including flares, glow dissolves, TV channel changes, wipes and more.

Apply the effect in the same manner as the others. In the Inspector, certain parameters can be tweaked. If you want more options, click on the “load preset” button, which launches the external GenArts Preset Brower application. Different options are listed by genres, so you can search by type. For example, holiday-themed looks. The browser thumbnails will be populated with your images at the cut, so you can quickly see how each preset transition will actually look with your video. Load the one you like and exit back to FCP X. The timeline transition will automatically be updated to the preset you have chosen.

Sapphire Edge offers tons of options. If you like to quickly browse presets without having to fine-tune the effect yourself, Edge is the only browser-based tool available for transition effects in FCP X at this time. It doesn’t play quite as well in real-time as some of the others mentioned, so render for best results.

More on “utility effects” in the next post.

©2012 Oliver Peters

Rethinking NLE design II

Many experienced editors look at the interface design of Final Cut Pro X and seemingly freak out at the radical change in front of them. The truth is that if you dig a bit deeper, many of the underlying concepts aren’t that different from Media Composer, Premiere Pro or FCP “legacy” after all. Different nomenclature and a modified way of working, but still built upon familiar foundations – IF you look for them.

Events and Projects

I think Apple needlessly confused the issue by the labels it chose, but in a broad sense, FCP X Events = FCP 7 Bins and FCP X Projects = FCP 7 Sequences. Once you grasp that, things become a bit more familiar. In FCP 1-7 a project file contained all the metadata (clips, timecodes, edit decisions, notes, etc.) for a given program you were editing. The actual media was ingested to a project folder within the Capture Scratch folder or linked from other folders on your hard drives. With FCP X, the metadata that was contained within a single project file in the past, has been distributed among FCP X’s Events and Project folders on your hard drives.

This is actually similar to the approach Avid takes, where each bin within a project is actually a self-contained data file on your hard drive. In the case of Avid, media can be stored in a common (separate) Avid MediaFiles folder or linked via AMA to other locations on your drives. The FCP X approach is somewhat similar, in that imported media can be stored in an Events folder or it can be linked to other locations. In the case of the latter, aliases are stored in the Events folder, which point to the location of the actual media.

Most editors tend to create bins within their projects to store edited sequences, but the software doesn’t really require this. FCP “legacy” and Media Composer sequences can be inside any bin in the project. In the case of FCP X, edited sequences can be started and stored in either an Event or the Project browser. Think of the latter as being exactly the same as using a dedicated Bin to hold your edited sequences. It’s a separate folder on the hard drive and it’s a dedicated portion of the FCP X interface designed to create, duplicate and export your edits.

Collections

Editors each have routines for how to organize media and to filter selections from a mass of footage down to manageable smaller chunks of media that you finally want to work with. All the major editing applications have ways to sort and label clips based on editor review and selection. Media Composer has a “custom sift” function that will show/hide clips in a bin based on editor criteria. This concept – along with similar concepts used in Apple Aperture, Adobe Lightroom and Bridge – were built into FCP X. By using metadata tags, you have the functional equivalent of routines you’d follow in other NLEs, such as subclipping, “custom sift” or manually dragging selections into bins.

The timeline construct

Changes in the timeline have done the most to set the forum discussions blazing.  In a traditional, track-based interface, the editor has to manage track-patching, target track selection, snapping and a/v clip linking. For new users, these can be very confounding concepts. Apple has sought to simplify or eliminate these issues in the way timelines have been designed in FCP X.

The basic timeline unit in FCP X is the Primary Storyline, which forms the “spine” of a piece.  If you are familiar with editing soundbite-driven projects, like documentaries or news stories, then you are probably already working the way FCP X “thinks”. For example, many editors cut these pieces by building up the story with a string of soundbites – pictures on V1 and corresponding audio on A1/A2. This is commonly called building a “radio cut” or the “A-roll” first. To this, they’ll add “B-roll” cutaway shots onto V2.

With FCP X, the soundbites are edited together as the Primary Storyline and audio and video stay interleaved as part of the same clip. This is their way of keeping clips in sync. Cutaway shots are edited as Connected Clips that appear above the Primary Storyline. If they have audio (“nat sound”) then that normally stays with the clip (also interleaved) instead of being patched to A3/A4, as would be the case in other NLEs. By using this structure – accompanied by specific edit command key strokes – Apple has eliminated the need for separately toggling track settings as you edit. In theory, this means faster editing with less encumbrance introduced by the interface itself.

Not all editing styles match this simplified structure, so a deviation is the Secondary Storyline. Any Connected Clips that need to be grouped together – for example, a series of shots with transitions in between – can be converted into a Secondary Storyline. This permits editors to work in a track-like fashion, when it’s appropriate for a selection of shots.

Lastly, FCP X seems to rely heavily on Compound Clips to reduce complexity in the Project window. FCP “legacy” has always let you nest clips or sequences inside other sequences. Compound Clips are similar, although in practice, function a bit more like a Container in Avid DS or a Collapse in Avid Media Composer. Compound Clips can be created from scratch inside an Event or combined from shots within a Project (sequence or timeline) to organize a set of shots or an entire edited sequence.

Magnetism

FCP X editors find the Magnetic timeline either a boon or a hindrance. Think of the Magnetic timeline as working with Snapping and Linked Selections always on in FCP “legacy”. Or maybe a lot like working with Sync-locks on in Media Composer. Ironically, re-arranging clips in a timeline “magnetically” stems back to early NLE design – notably Avid Media Composer’s Heads and Heads/Tails timeline view. This is a feature that’s still there today, which allows you to re-order basic timelines, like a series of shots in a storyboard (no “connected clips”, of course).

When you move a clip around, all the attached Connected Clips stay slaved to it and move with it. Trimming a clip on the Primary Storyline expands or contracts the timeline duration as in any other NLE, except that all Connected Clips also move, maintaining their relationship to the clips to which they are attached. Think of this as the same as an asymmetrical trim in FCP 7 or placing an “add edit” across all tracks in Media Composer and trimming. The results are effectively the same.

Working with the Magnetic timeline enabled isn’t right in all situations, so there’s the Position tool. With it selected, “magnetism” is disabled and moving clips around on the timeline will either overwrite adjacent clips or leave gaps (“slugs” or “filler” media) between clips. Working in this mode is best when you like to use the timeline as a working scratch pad to develop your editing ideas.

Views, viewers and layouts

Media Composer and Final Cut (up until X), let the editor store custom views and interface layouts. That’s missing in X, though not completely gone. First, there’s no standard source/record, 2-up editing view (Viewer/Canvas), but if you work with two displays and place your Events on the left in the List view, then effectively the single remaining clip filmstrip becomes that second viewer for clip sources. Furthermore, we have now seen that a second viewer can be opened (such as the Angle Viewer for multicam editing). So, it’s not out of the question that Apple could add this in a future update. Although you can’t store custom display states, it is pretty easy to toggle tools on and off as needed, including scopes, the Inspector pane, effects palettes and so on.

If you have two displays, there are actually several working layouts you can use during your work day. My standard layout places Events on the left and Viewer/Project on the right; however, there are times when it makes sense to change this. If I’m fine-tuning shots and effects on the timeline and don’t need a lot of access to events, I’ll place a full-screen Viewer on the left and the Events/Project windows on the right. This let’s me stretch the Project window higher to take over most of the screen, while still keeping a large Viewer in front of me. I’d still like a second viewer and the ability to save custom window configurations, but for now this covers a lot of my needs.

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X is a work-in-progress that will likely improve over time. As you look deeper under the skin, you’ll find that it’s not as foreign as many seem to think. Once you understand these similarities, you’ll find a shorter learning curve ahead of you.

Click here for Part I.

©2012 Oliver Peters