It’s great… Until it isn’t

No, that picture at the top isn’t a map of Covid-19 hotspots. It’s the map of US users affected by this week’s Adobe sign-in outage. This past Wednesday (May 27th) affected users across all of Adobe’s various cloud products were unable to sign into their accounts – locking them out of using any installed Adobe products. But not every user – only those who needed to sign in to enable their applications.

Adobe products, like Creative Cloud, are paid on a monthly or prorated annual basis. You sign in one time to activate the account on that device and you are good to go until renewal time, as long as you stay signed into the cloud license manager application. In theory, you don’t need to be continually connected to the internet for the applications to function. However, once a month Adobe’s servers are pinged and you may be prompted to sign in again. So if Wednesday was your machine’s day to “phone home,” you haven’t used the apps in a while, or if you were signing in after having previously signed out, then your Adobe cloud manager application was unable to connect to the server and activate (or reactive) your software product(s). Just like that, a day of billable time flushed away.

Before you grab the torches and pitchforks, it may be useful to revisit the pros and cons of the various software licensing models.

Subscription

Quite a few companies have adopted the subscription – aka software as a service or SaaS – model. The argument is that you never actually own any software, regardless of the company or the application (read any EULA). Rather, you pay for the right to use it over a specified period of time – monthly, annually, or perpetually. Adobe decided to go all-in on subscription plans, arguing that the upfront costs were cheaper for the user, the plans offered a better ROI with access to many more Adobe products, and that this provided a predictable revenue stream to fuel more frequent product updates.

Generally, these points have been realized and the system works rather well most of the time. Yes, you can argue that over time you pay more for your CC subscription than in the old CS days (assuming you skipped a few CS updates). But if you are an active facility, production company, or independent contractor, then it’s a small monthly business expense, just like your internet or electric bill, which is easily absorbed against the work you are bringing in. The software cost has shifted from cap-ex to op-ex.

That is all true, unless you have no revenue coming in or are merely working with media as a hobby. In addition, once you stop subscribing, all past project files – whether that’s Premiere Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, In Design, etc – can no longer be opened until you renew.

Unfortunately, when you hit a day like Wednesday, all rational arguments go out the window.

The App Store model

If you are a Final Cut Pro X user, then Wednesday might have stirred the urge to say, “I told you so.” I get that. The App Store method of purchasing/installing/updating software works well. You only have to sign in for new purchases, new Mac installations, and occasionally for updates.

However, don’t be smug. Certain applications that Apple sees as a service, like News, occasionally prompt you to sign in with your Apple ID again before you can use that software. This is true even if you haven’t subscribed to any paid magazines or newspapers. In a scenario such as Adobe’s Wednesday outage, I can image that you would be just as locked out. Not necessarily from your creative apps, like FCPX, but rather certain software/services, such as News, iTunes, Music, etc. As someone who uses my iCloud e-mail account quite a lot through web browsers, I can’t count the number of times access has been hampered.

License managers

Similar to the App Store or Adobe Creative Cloud, some companies use license manager software that’s installed onto your machine. This is a common method for plug-in developers, such as FxFactory and Waves. It’s a way of centralizing the installation and authorization of that software.

FxFactory follows the App Store approach and includes purchasing and update features. Others, like Waves and Avid Link, are designed to activate and/or move licenses between machines, based on the company’s stored, online database of serial numbers. You typically do not need to stay online or be signed in unless making changes or updates, or your system has changed in some way, like a new OS installation. These work well, but aren’t bulletproof – as many Media Composer editors can attest.

Activation codes

One of the oldest methods is simply to provide the user with a serial number/activation code. Install the software and activate the license with the supplied code number. If you need to move the software to a different machine, then you will typically have to deactivate that application on the first machine and activate it again on the second machine. You only have to be connected to the company’s servers during these activation times. Some companies also offer offline methods for activation in the event you don’t have internet access.

Seems simple, right? Well, not necessarily. First of all, if you have a lot of software that uses this method, that’s a lot of serial numbers you will have to keep track of. Second, some companies only give you a limited number of times you can deactivate and reactivate the software. If that’s the case, you can’t really move the license back and forth between two machines every other week. If your motherboard dies with the software activated, you are likely going to have to jump through hoops to get the company to deactivate the number on their server in order to be able to activate it again on the repaired machine. That’s because the new motherboard IDs it as a completely different machine. Finally, even some of these companies require you to occasionally sign in or reactivate the software in order for you to continue being able to use it.

Hardware license key

Ah, the “dongle.” When Avid switched to software licensing, many Media Composer editors approached it with the attitude of “from my cold, dead hands.” And so, Avid still maintains hardware licensing for many Avid systems. Likewise, Blackmagic Design has also shipped dongles for DaVinci Resolve and Fusion. iLok devices, common among Pro Tools users, are another variant of this. Dongles, which are actually USB hardware keys, make it simple to move authorization between machines. That’s useful if you maintain a fleet of rental systems. No internet required. Just a USB port.

Unfortunately, dongles are subject to forgetfulness, loss, breakage, theft, and even counterfeiting. A friend reminded me that when Avid Symphony first came out and cost $100K for a system, dongle theft was a very real issue. That’s likely less the case now, because software is so cheap by comparison. I do know of film schools that extended their Media Composer dongles on a USB extension cable and then strung it to the inside of their Mac Pro. Lock the case for viable theft prevention.

Free

The Holy Grail – right? Or so many users believe. It’s the model Blackmagic uses for the standard versions of Resolve and Fusion. Many plug-in developers use the free model on a few plug-ins just to get you interested in their other paid products. Of course, the ease of making Motion Templates for Final Cut Pro X has create a homegrown hobbyist/developer market of free or extremely cheap effects and graphics templates.

Even though some commercial software is free, you are only granted the right to use it, not ownership. Often in exact for user data so that you can be marketed to in the future. As a business plan for a commercial developer, this model is only sustainable because of other revenue, like hardware sales. And in practice, even the Mac App Store model, with its “buy once” policy, is close to free when you own and personally control a number of Macs.

There are pros and cons to all of these models. They all work well until they don’t. When there’s a hiccup, roll with the punches, or contact support if it’s appropriate. With some luck, there will be a speedy resolution and you’ll be back up and running in no time.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Color Finale 2.1 Update

 

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

Grading with inside/outside masks

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

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

Image masks

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

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

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

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

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

Smoothness

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

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

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

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Color Finale 2.0

HDR, camera raw, and log profiles are an ever-increasing part of video acquisition, so post-production color correction has become an essential part of every project. Final Cut Pro X initially offered only basic color correction tools, which were quickly augmented by third party developers. One of the earliest was Color Finale – the brainchild of colorist/trainer Denver Riddle and ex-DI supervisor and color correction software designer Dmitry Lavrov. In the last year Lavrov created both Cinema Grade, now owned and run by Riddle, and Color Finale 2.0, owned and run by Lavrov himself under his own company, Color Trix Ltd. By focusing exclusively on the development of Color Finale 2.0, Lavrov can bring to market more advanced feature ideas, upgrades, and options with the intent of making Final Cut a professional grading solution.

For many, Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve and Fimlight’s Baselight systems set the standard for color correction and grading. So you might ask, why bother? But if you edit with Final Cut Pro X, then this requires a roundtrip between Final Cut and a dedicated grading suite or application. Roundtrips pose a few issues, including turnaround time, additional media rendering, and frequent translation errors with the edit and effects data between the edit and the grading application. The ideal situation is to never leave the editing application, but that requires more than just a few, simple color correction filters.

Over the course of eight years of Final Cut Pro X’s existence, the internal color tools have been improved and even more third-party color correction plug-ins have been developed. However, effective and fast color correction isn’t only about looks presets, LUTs, and filters. It’s about having a tool that is properly designed for a grading workflow. If you want to do advanced correction in FCPX with the least amount of clicking back-and-forth, then there are really only two options: Coremelt’s Chromatic and Color Finale.

This brings us to the end of 2019 and the release of Color Finale 2.0, which has been redesigned from the ground up as a new and improved version of the original. The update has been optimized for Metal and the newest color management, such as ACES. It comes in two versions – standard and Pro. Color Finale 2 Pro supports more features, such as Tangent panel control, ACES color space, group grading, mask tracking, and film grain emulation. Color Finale has been designed from the beginning as only a Final Cut Pro X plug-in. This focus means better optimization and a better user experience.

Primary color correction

Color Finale 2 is intended to give Final Cut users similar grading control to that of Resolve, Avid Symphony, or Adobe Premiere Pro’s Lumetri panel. It packs a lot of punch and honestly, there’s a lot more than I can easily cover with any depth here. The user interface is designed around two components: the FCPX Inspector controls and the floating Layers panel. The Inspector pane is a lot more than simply the place from which to launch the Layers panel. In fact, it’s a separate primary grading panel, not unlike the functions of the Basic tab within Adobe’s Lumetri panel.

The Inspector pane is where you control color management, along with exposure, contrast, pivot, temperature, tint, saturation, and sharpness. According to Lavrov, “Our Exposure tool is calibrated to real camera F-stop numbers. We’ve actually taken numerous images with the cameras and test charts shot at the different exposure settings and matched those to our slider control. Basically setting the Exposure slider to 1 means you’ve increased it by one stop up.”

There are also copy and paste buttons to transfer Color Finale settings between clips, false color indicators, and shot-matching based on standard color charts. Finally, there’s a Film Emulation tab, which is really a set of film grain controls. At the bottom is a mix slider to control the opacity value of the applied correction.

Layers

The real power of Color Finale 2 happens when you launch the Layers panel. This panel can be resized and positioned anywhere over the FCPX interface. It includes four tools: lift/gamma/gain color wheels/sliders (aka “telecine” controls), luma+RGB curves, six-vector secondary color, and hue/sat curves. This is rounded out by a looks preset browser. Each of these tools can be masked and the masks can be tracked within the image. Mask tracking is good, though not quite as fast as Resolve’s tracker (almost nothing is).

I suspect most users will spend the bulk of their time with color wheels, which can be toggled from wheels to sliders, depending on your preference. Of course, if you invested in a Tangent panel, then the physical trackballs control the color wheels. Another nice aspect of the lift/gamma/gain color tool is saturation management. You can adjust saturation for each of the three ranges. There is also a master saturation control with separate controls for shadow and highlight range restrictions. This means that you can increase overall saturation, but adjust the shadow or highlights range value so that more or less of the dark or light areas of the image are affected.

As you add tools, each stacks as a new layer within the panel. The resulting color correction is the sum of all of the layers. You can stack as many layers as you like and the same tool can be used more than once. Layers can be turned on and off to see how that correction affects the image. They can also be reordered and grouped into a folder. In fact, when you load a preset look, this is actually a group of tools set to generate that look. Finally, each layer has a blend control to set the opacity percentage and alter the blend mode – normal, add, multiply, etc – for different results.

Advanced features

Let me expand on a few of the advanced grading features, such as color management. You have control over four methods: 1) assume video (the default) – intended for regular Rec 709 video or log footage where FCPX has already applied a LUT (ARRI Alexa, for example); 2) assume log – pick this if you don’t know the camera type and Color Finale will apply a generic Rec 709 LUT correction; 3) use ACES; and 4) use input LUT – import a technical or custom LUT file that you wish to apply to a clip.

ACES is an advanced color management workflow designed for certain delivery specs, such as for Netflix originals. The intent of the ACES color space is to be an intermediate color space that can be compatible with different display systems, so that your grade will look the same on any of these displays. Ideally you want to select ACES if you are working within a complete ACES color pipeline; however, you can still apply it to shots for general grading even if you don’t have to provide an ACES-compliant master. To use it, you must select both the input LUT (typically a camera-specific technical LUT) and the target display color space, such as Rec 709 100 nits (for non-HDR TVs and monitors).

In order to facilitate a proper ACES workflow, Color Trix added the ability to import and export CDLs (color decisions lists). Currently this is more for testing purposes and is designed for compatibility between Final Cut and ACES-compliant grading systems, like Baselight. A CDL is essentially like an EDL (edit decision list), but with basic color correction information. This will translate to the lift/gamma/gain/saturation settings in Color Finale 2 Pro, but nothing more complex, such as curves, selective color, or masks.

Performance and workflow

Overall, I really liked how the various tools worked. Response was fast and I was able to get good grading results with a build-up of several layers. In addition, I prefer the ergonomics of a horizontal layout for color wheels versus the cluster of controls used by Apple’s built-in tool. I had tested the betas of both Color Finale 1.0 and now 2.0 and I remember that it originally took a while to dial in the RGB curves for the 1.0 release. In general, curves can be quite destructive, so if you don’t get the math right, you’ll see banding with very little change of a curve. That was fixed before 1.0 was ever released and the quality in 2.0 looks very good.

Color Finale 2.0 beta had an issue with color wheels. For some users (myself included) the image didn’t update in real-time as you moved the color wheel pucks with a mouse. This was fixed right after release with an update. So if you are experiencing that issue, make sure you have re-installed the update.

The difference between grading and simple clip-based color correction is workflow. That’s where a good colorist using a dedicated grading application will shine. Unfortunately the “apply color correction from one (two, three) clip(s) back” command in Final Cut Pro X can only be used with its own built-in correction. So if you intend to use Color Finale 2 for a full timeline of clips, then you have to develop a workflow to quickly apply the Color Finale or Color Finale Pro effect, without constantly dragging it from the effects browser to each individual clip.

One solution is to apply the effect to the first clip, copy that clip, select all the rest, and then apply “paste effects” or “paste attributes” to the rest of the clips in the timeline. As you move from clip to clip, the Color Finale effect is open in the Inspector so you can tweak settings and edit layers as needed. I have found that by using this method the layers panel often doesn’t stay open persistently. The second method is to designate the Color Finale or Pro effect as the default video effect and map “apply default effect” to a key. Using this second method, the panel stayed open in my testing when go through successive clips on the timeline. Documentation and tutorials are a bit light at the moment, so hopefully Color Trix will begin posting more tips-and-tricks information to their support page or YouTube channel.

One can only run a valid test of any plug-in by using it on a real project. As an example of what you can do with Color Finale 2, I’ve graded Philip Bloom’s 2013 “Hiding Place” short featuring actress Kate Loustau. This was shot on the London Eye in “stealth” mode using the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. Bloom made the ungraded cut available for non-commercial use. I’ve used it a number of times to test color correction applications. Click the link to see the video, which includes two different grading looks, achieved through Color Final 2 Pro.

Color Finale 2.0 is a huge improvement over the original, but it’s not a one-click solution. It’s designed as an advanced, yet easy to use color correction tool. I find the toolset and visual results similar to the old Apple Color. The graded images appear very natural, which is a good fit for my aesthetic. DaVinci Resolve is better for extreme “surgical” grading, but Color Finale 2.0 certainly covers at least 90% of most color correction needs and styles. If you want to stay entirely within the Final Cut Pro X environment and skip the roundtrips, then Color Finale 2 Pro should be part of your arsenal. It’s this sort of extensibility that FCPX users like about the approach Apple has taken. Having powerful tools, like Color Finale 2.0, from independent developers, like Color Trix, definitely validates the concept.

Check out the Color Finale website for the various purchase and upgrade plans, including add-ons, like the Ascend presets packages.

The article was originally written for FCPco.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Accusonus ERA4

It’s fair to say that most video editors, podcast producers, and audio enthusiasts don’t possess the level of intimate understanding of audio filters that a seasoned recording engineer does. Yet each still has the need to present the cleanest, most professional-sounding audio as part of their productions. Some software developers have sought to serve this market with plug-ins that combine the controls into a single knob or slider. The first of these was Waves Audio with their OneKnob series. Another company using the single-knob approach is a relative newcomer, Accusonus.

I first became aware of Accusonus through Avid. Media Composer license owners have been offered loyalty add-ons, such as plug-ins, which recently included the Accusonus ERA3 Voice Leveler plug-in. I found this to be a very useful tool and so when Accusonus offered to send the new ERA4 Bundle for my evaluation, I was more than happy to give the rest of the package a test run. ERA4 was released at the end of June in a Standard and Pro bundle along with discounted, introductory pricing, available until the end of July. You may also purchase each of these filters individually.

Audio plug-ins typically come in one of four formats: AU (Mac only), VST (Mac or Windows), VST3 (Mac or Windows), and AAX (for Avid Media Composer and Pro Tools). When you purchase audio filters, they don’t necessarily come in all flavors. Sometimes, plug-ins will be AU and VST/VST3, but leave out AAX. Or will only be for AAX. Or only AU. Accusonic plug-ins are installed as all four types on a Mac, which means that a single purchase covers most common DAWs and NLEs (check their site for supported hosts). For example, my Macs include Final Cut Pro X, Logic Pro X, Audition, Premiere Pro, and Media Composer. The ERA4 plug-ins work in all of these.

I ran into some issues with Resolve. The plug-ins worked fine on the Fairlight page of Resolve 16 Studio Beta. That’s on my home machine. However, the Macs at work are running the Mac App Store version of Resolve 15 Studio. There, only the VST versions could be applied and I had to re-enter each filter’s activation code and relaunch. I would conclude from this that Resolve is fine as a host, although there may be some conflicts in the Mac App Store version. That’s likely due to some differences between it and the software you download directly from Blackmagic Design.

Another benefit is that Accusonus permits each license key to be used on up to three machines. If a user has both a laptop and a desktop computer, the plug-in can be installed and activated on each without the need to swap authorizations through an online license server or move an iLok dongle between machines. The ERA4 installers include all of the tools in the bundle, even if you only purchased one. You can ignore the others, uninstall them, or test them out in a trial mode. The complete bundle is available and fully functional for a 14-day free trial.

ERA4 Bundles

I mentioned the Waves One Knob filters at the top, but there’s actually little overlap between these two offerings. The One Knob series is focused on EQ and compression tasks, whereas the ERA4 effects are designed for audio repair. As such, they fill a similar need as the iZotope’s RX series.

The ERA4 Standard bundle includes six audio plug-ins: Noise, Reverb, and Plosive Removers, De-Esser, De-Clipper, and the Voice Leveler. The Pro bundle adds two more: the more comprehensive De-Esser Pro and ERA-D, which is a combined noise and reverb filter for more advanced processing than the two individual filters. If you primarily work with well-recorded studio voice-overs or location dialogue, then most likely the Standard bundle will be all you need. However, the two extra filters in the Pro bundle come in handy with more problematic audio. Even productions with high values occasionally get stuck with recordings done in challenging environments and last-minute VOs done on iPhones. It’s certainly worth checking out the full package as a trial.

While Accusonus does use a single-control approach, but it’s a bit simplistic to say that you are tied to only one control knob. Some of the plug-ins do offer more depth so you can tailor your settings.  For instance, the Noise Remover filter offers five preset curves to determine the frequencies that are affected. Each filter includes additional controls for the task at hand.

In use

Accusonus ERA4 filters are designed to be easy to use and work well in real-time. When all I need to do is improve audio that isn’t a basket case, then the ERA filters at their default settings do a wonderful job. For example, a VO recording might require a combination of Voice Leveler (smooth out dynamics), De-Esser (reduce sibilance), and Plosive Remover (clean up popping “p” sounds). Using the default control level (40%) or even backing off a little improved the sound.

It was the more problematic audio where ERA4 was good, but not necessarily always the best tool. In one case I tested a very, heavily clipped VO recording. When I used ERA4 De-Clipper in Final Cut Pro X, I was able to get similar results to the same tool from iZotope RX6. However, doing the same comparison in Audition yielded different results. Audition is designed to preview an effect and then apply it. The RX plug-in at its extreme setting crackled in real-time playback, but yielded superior results compared with the ERA4 De-Clipper after the effect was applied (rendered). Unfortunately FCPX has no equivalent “apply,” “render and replace,” or audio bounce function, so audio has to stay real-time, which gives Accusonus a performance edge in FCPX. For most standard audio repair tasks, Accusonus’ plug-ins were equal or better than most other options, especially those built into the host application.

I started out talking about the Voice Leveler plug-in, because that’s an audio function I perform often, especially with voice-overs. It helps to make the VO stand out in the mix against music and sound effects. This is an intelligent compressor, which means it tries to bring up all audio and then compress peaks over a threshold. But learn the controls before diving in. For example, it includes a breath control. Engaging this will prevent the audio from pumping up in volume each time the announcer takes a breath. As with all of the ERA4 filters, there is a small, scrolling waveform in the plug-in’s control panel. Areas that were adjusted by the filter are highlighted, so you can see when it is active.

Voice Leveler is a good VO tool, but that type is one of the more subjective audio filters. Some editors or audio engineers compress, some limit, and others prefer to adjust levels only manually. My all-time favorite is Wave’s Vocal Rider. Unlike a compressor, it dynamically raises and lowers audio levels between two target points. To my ears, this method yields a more open sound than heavy compression. But when its normal MSRP is pretty expensive. I also like the Logic Pro X Compressor, which is available in Final Cut Pro X. It mimics various vintage compressors, like Focusrite Red or the DBX 160X. I feel that it’s one of the nicest sounding compressors, but is only available in the Apple pro apps. Adobe users – you are out of luck on that one.

From my point-of-view, the more tools the better. You never know when you might need one. The Accusonus ERA4 bundle offers a great toolset for anyone who has to turn around a good-sounding mix quickly. Each bundle is easy to install and activate and even easier to use. Operation is real-time, even when you stack several together. Accusonus’ current introductory price for the bundles is about what some individual plug-ins cost from competing companies, plus the 14-day trial is a great way to check them out. If you need to build up your audio toolbox, this is a solid set to start out with.

Check out Accusonus’ blog for tips on using the ERA plug-ins.

©2019 Oliver Peters

CoreMelt PaintX

When Apple launched Final Cut Pro X, it was with a decidedly simplified set of video effects. This was enhanced by the easy ability for users to create their own custom effects, using Apple Motion as a development platform. The result has been an entirely new ecosystem of low-cost, high-quality video effects. As attractive as that is, truly advanced visual effects still require knowledgeable plug-in developers who are able to work within the FCPX and macOS architecture in order to produce more powerful tools. For example, other built-in visual effects tools, such as Avid Media Composer’s Intraframe Paint or the Fusion page in DaVinci Resolve, simply aren’t within the scope of FCPX, nor what users can create on their own through Motion templates.

To fill that need, developers like CoreMelt have been designing a range of advanced visual effects tools for the Final Cut Pro market, including effects for tracking, color correction, stabilization, and more. Their newest release is PaintX, which adds a set of Photoshop-style tools to Final Cut Pro X. As with many of CoreMelt’s other offerings, PaintX includes planar tracking, thanks to the licensing of Mocha tracking technology.

To start, drop the PaintX effect onto a clip and then launch the custom interface. PaintX requires a better control layout than the standard FCPX user interface has been designed for. Once inside the PaintX interface window, you have a choice of ten brush functions, including paint color, change color, blur, smear, sharpen, warp, clone, add noise, heal, and erase. These functions cover a range of needs, from simple wire removal to beauty enhancements and even pseudo horror makeup effects. You have control over brush size, softness, aspect ratio, angle, and opacity. The various brushes also have specific controls for their related functions, such as the blur range for the blur brush. Effects are applied in layers and actions. Each stroke is an action and both remain editable. If you aren’t the most precise artist, then the erase brush comes in handy. Did you color a bit too far outside of the lines? Simply use the erase brush on that layer and trim back your excess.

Multiple brush effects can be applied to the same or different areas within the image, simply by adding a new layer for each effect. Once you’ve applied the first paint stroke, an additional brush control panel opens – allowing you to edit the brush parameters, after the fact. So, if your brush size was too large or not soft enough, simply alter those settings without the need to redo the effect. Each effect can be individually tracked in either direction. The Mocha tracker offers additional features, such as transform (scale/position) versus perspective tracking, along with the ability to copy and paste tracking data between brush layers.

As a Final Cut Pro X effect, PaintX works within the standard video pipeline. If you applied color correction upstream of your PaintX filter, then that grade is visible within the PaintX interface. But if the color correction is applied downstream of the PaintX effect, you won’t see it when you open the PaintX interface. However, that correction will still be uniformly applied to the clip, including the areas altered within the PaintX effect. If you’ve “punched into” a 4K clip on an HD timeline, when you open PaintX, you’ll still see the full 4K frame. Finally, you have additional FCPX control over the opacity and mix of the applied PaintX filter.

I found PaintX to be well-behaved even on a modest Mac, like my 3-year-old laptop. However, if you don’t have a beefy Mac, keep the effect simple. The more brush effects that you apply and track in a single clip, the slower the real-time response will become, especially on under-powered machines. These effects are GPU-intensive and paint strokes are really a particle system; therefore, simple, single-layer effects are the easiest on the machine. But, if you intend to do more complex effects like blurs and sharpens in multiple layers, then you will really want one of the more powerful Macs. Playback response is generally better, once you’ve saved the effect and exit back to Final Cut. I did run into one minor issue with the clone brush on a single isolated clip, while using a 2013 Mac Pro. CoreMelt told me there have been a few early bugs with certain GPUs and is looking into the anomaly I discovered. That model in particular has been notorious for GPU issues with video effects. (Update: CoreMelt sent me a new build, which has corrected this problem.)

Originally written for RedShark News

©2018 Oliver Peters