Bricklayers and Sculptors

One of the livelier hangouts on the internet for editors to kick around their thoughts is the Creative COW’s Apple Final Cut Pro X Debates forum. Part forum, part bar room brawl, it started as a place to discuss the relative merits (or not) of Apple’s FCP X. As such, the COW’s bosses allow a bit more latitude than in other forums. However, often threads derail into really thoughtful discussions about editing concepts.

Recently one of its frequent contributors, Simon Ubsdell, posted a thread called Bricklayers and Sculptors. In his words, “There are two different types of editors: Those who lay one shot after another like a bricklayer builds a wall. And those who discover the shape of their film by sculpting the raw material like a sculptor works with clay. These processes are not the same. There is no continuum that links these two approaches. They are diametrically opposed.”

Simon Ubsdell is the creative director, partner, and editor/mixer for London-based trailer shop Tokyo Productions. Ubsdell is also an experienced plug-in developer, having developed and/or co-developed the TKY, Tokyo, and Hawaiki effects plug-ins. But beyond that, Simon is one of the folks with whom I often have e-mail discussions regarding the state of editing today. We were both early adopters of FCP X who have since shifted almost completely to Adobe Premiere Pro. In keeping with the theme of his forum post, I asked him to share his ideas about how to organize an edit.

With Simon’s permission, the following are his thoughts on how best to organize editing projects in a way that keeps you immersed in the material and results in editing with greater assurance that you’ve make the best possible edit decisions.

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Simon Ubsdell – Bricklayers and Sculptors in practical terms

To avoid getting too general about this, let me describe a job I did this week. The producer came to us with a documentary that’s still shooting and only roughly “edited” into a very loose assembly – it’s the stories of five different women that will eventually be interweaved, but that hasn’t happened yet. As I say, extremely rough and unformed.

I grabbed all the source material and put it on a timeline. That showed me at a glance that there was about four hours of it in total. I put in markers to show where each woman’s material started and ended, which allowed me to see how much material I had for each of them. If I ever needed to go back to “everything”, it would make searching easier. (Not an essential step by any means.)

I duplicated that sequence five times to make sequences of all the material for each woman. Then I made duplicates of those duplicates and began removing everything I didn’t want. (At this point I am only looking for dialogue and “key sound”, not pictures which I will pick up in a separate set of passes.)

Working subtractively

From this point on I am working almost exclusively subtractively. A lot of people approach string-outs by adding clips from the browser – but here all my clips are already on the timeline and I am taking away anything I don’t want. This is for me the key part of the process because each edit is not a rough approximation, but a very precise “topping and tailing” of what I want to use. If you’re “editing in the Browser” (or in Bins), you’re simply not going to be making the kind of frame accurate edits that I am making every single time with this method.

The point to grasp here is that instead of “making bricks” for use later on, I am already editing in the strictest sense – making cuts that will stand up later on. I don’t have to select and then trim – I am doing both operations at the same time. I have my editing hat on, not an organizing hat. I am focused on a timeline that is going to form the basis of the final edit. I am already thinking editorially (in the sense of creative timeline-based editing) and not wasting any time merely thinking organizationally.

I should mention here that this is an iterative process – not just one pass through the material, but several. At certain points I will keep duplicates as I start to work on shorter versions. I won’t generally keep that many duplicates – usually just an intermediate “long version”, which has lost all the material I definitely don’t want. And by “definitely don’t want” I’m not talking about heads and tails that everybody throws away where the camera is being turned on or off or the crew are in shot – I am already making deep, fine-grained editorial and editing decisions that will be of immense value later on. I’m going straight to the edit point that I know I’ll want for my finished show. It’s not a provisional edit point – it’s a genuine editorial choice. From this point of view, the process of rejecting slates and tails is entirely irrelevant and pointless – a whole process that I sidestep entirely. I am cutting from one bit that I want to keep directly to the next bit I want to keep and I am doing so with fine-tuned precision. And because I am working subtractively I am actually incorporating several edit decisions in one – in other words, with one delete step I am both removing the tail from the outgoing clip and setting the start of the next clip.

Feeling the pacing and flow

Another key element here is that I can see how one clip flows into another – even if I am not going to be using those two clips side-by-side. I can already get a feel for the pacing. I can also start to see what might go where, so as part of this phase, I am moving things around as options start suggesting themselves. Because I am working in the timeline with actual edited material, those options present themselves very naturally – I’m getting offered creative choices for free. I can’t stress too strongly how relevant this part is. If I were simply sorting through material in a Browser/Bin, this process would not be happening or at least not happening in anything like the same way. The ability to reorder clips as the thought occurs to me and for this to be an actual editorial decision on a timeline is an incredibly useful thing and again a great timesaver. I don’t have to think about editorial decisions twice.

And another major benefit that is simply not available to Browser/Bin-based methods, is that I am constructing editorial chunks as I go. I’m taking this section from Clip A and putting it side-by-side with this other section from Clip A, which may come from earlier in the actual source, and perhaps adding a section from Clip B to the end and something from Clip C to the front. I am forming editorial units as I work through the material. And these are units that I can later use wholesale.

Another interesting spin-off is that I can very quickly spot “duplicate material”, by which I mean instances where the same information or sentiment is conveyed in more or less the same terms at different places in the source material. Because I am reviewing all of this on the timeline and because I am doing so iteratively, I can very quickly form an opinion as to which of the “duplicates” I want to use in my final edit.

Working towards the delivery target

Let’s step back and look at a further benefit of this method. Whatever your final film is, it will have the length that it needs to be – unless you’re Andy Warhol. You’re delivering a documentary for broadcast or theatrical distribution, or a short form promo or a trailer or TV spot. In each case you have a rough idea of what final length you need to arrive at. In my case, I knew that the piece needed to be around three minutes long. And that, of course, throws up a very obvious piece of arithmetic that it helps me to know. I had five stories to fit into those three minutes, which meant that the absolute maximum of dialogue that I would need would be just over 30 seconds from each story!  The best way of getting to those 30 seconds is obviously subtractively.

I know I need to get my timeline of each story down to something approaching this length. Because I’m not simply topping and tailing clips in the Browser, but actually sculpting them on the timeline (and forming them into editorial units, as described above), I can keep a very close eye on how this is coming along for each story strand. I have a continuous read-out of how well I am getting on with reducing the material down to the target length. By contrast, if I approach my final edit with 30 minutes of loosely selected source material to juggle, I’m going to spend a lot more time on editorial decisions that I could have successfully made earlier.

So the final stage of the process in this case was simply to combine and rearrange the pre-edited timelines into a final timeline – a process that is now incredibly fast and a lot of fun. I’ve narrowed the range of choices right down to the necessary minimum. A great deal of the editing has literally already been done, because I’ve been editing from the very first moment that I laid all the material on the original timeline containing all the source material for the project.

As you can see, the process has been essentially entirely subtractive throughout – a gradual whittling down of the four hours to something closer to three minutes. This is not to say there won’t be additive parts to the overall edit. Of course, I added music, SFX, and graphics, but from the perspective of the process as a whole, this is addition at the most trivial level.

Learning to tell the story in pictures

There is another layer of addition that I have left out and that’s what happens with the pictures. So far I’ve only mentioned what is happening with what is sometimes called the “radio edit”. In my case, I will perform the exact same (sometimes iterative) process of subtracting the shots I want to keep from the entirety of the source material – again, this is obviously happening on a timeline or timelines. The real delight of this method is to review all the “pictures” without reference to the sound, because in doing so you can get a real insight into how the story can be told pictorially. I will often review the pictures having very, very roughly laid up some of the music tracks that I have planned on using. It’s amazing how this lets you gauge both whether your music suits the material and conversely whether the pictures are the right ones for the way you are planning to tell the story.

This brings to me a key point I would make about how I personally work with this method and that’s that I plunge in and experiment even at the early stages of the project. For me, the key thing is to start to get a feel for how it’s all going to come together. This loose experimentation is a great way of approaching that. At some point in the experimentation something clicks and you can see the whole shape or at the very least get a feeling for what it’s all going to look like. The sooner that click happens, the better you can work, because now you are not simply randomly sorting material, you are working towards a picture you have in your head. For me, that’s the biggest benefit of working in the timeline from the very beginning. You’re getting immersed in the shape of the material rather than just its content and the immersion is what sparks the ideas. I’m not invoking some magical thinking here – I’m just talking about a method that’s proven itself time and time again to be the best and fastest way to unlock the doors of the edit.

Another benefit is that although one would expect this method to make it harder to collaborate, in fact the reverse is the case if each editor is conversant with the technique. You’re handing over vastly more useful creative edit information with this process than you could by any other means. What you’re effectively doing is “showing your workings” and not just handing over some versions. It means that the editor taking over from you can easily backtrack through your work and find new stuff and see the ideas that you didn’t end up including in the version(s) that you handed over. It’s an incredibly fast way for the new editor to get up to speed with the project without having to start from scratch by acquainting him or herself with where the useful material can be found.

Even on a more conventional level, I personally would far rather receive string-outs of selects than all the most carefully organized Browser/Bin info you care to throw at me. Obviously if I’m cutting a feature, I want to be able to find 323T14 instantly, but beyond that most basic level, I have no interest in digging through bins or keyword collections or whatever else you might be using, as that’s just going to slow me down.

Freeing yourself of the Browser/Bins

Another observation about this method is how it relates to the NLE interface. When I’m working with my string-outs, which is essentially 90% of the time, I am not ever looking at the Browser/Bins. Accordingly, in Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X, I can fully close down the Project/Browser windows/panes and avail myself of the extra screen real estate that gives me, which is not inconsiderable. The consequence of that is to make the timeline experience even more immersive and that’s exactly what I want. I want to be immersed in the details of what I’m doing in the timeline and I have no interest in any other distractions. Conversely, having to keep going back to Bins/Browser means shifting the focus of attention away from my work and breaking the all-important “flow” factor. I just don’t want any distractions from the fundamentally crucial process of moving from one clip to another in a timeline context. As soon as I am dragged away from that, there’s is a discontinuity in what I am doing.

The edit comes to shape organically

I find that there comes a point, if you work this way, when the subsequence you are working on organically starts to take on the shape of the finished edit and it’s something that happens without you having to consciously make it happen. It’s the method doing the work for you. This means that I never find myself starting a fresh sequence and adding to it from the subsequences and I think that has huge advantages. It reinforces my point that you are editing from the very first moment when you lay all your source material onto one timeline. That process leads without pause or interruption to the final edit through the gradual iterative subtraction.

I talked about how the iterative sifting process lets you see “duplicates”, that’s to say instances where the same idea is repeated in an alternative form – and that it helps you make the choice between the different options. Another aspect of this is that it helps you to identify what is strong and what is not so strong. If I were cutting corporates or skate videos this might be different, but for what I do, I need to be able to isolate the key “moments” in my material and find ways to promote those and make them work as powerfully as possible.

In a completely literal sense, when you’re cutting promos and trailers, you want to create an emotional, visceral connection to the material in the audience. You want to make them laugh or cry, you want to make them hold their breath in anticipation, or gasp in astonishment. You need to know how to craft the moments that will elicit the response you are looking for. I find that this method really helps me identify where those moments are going to come from and how to structure everything around them so as to build them as strongly as possible. The iterative sifting method means you can be very sure of what to go for and in what context it’s going to work the best. In other words, I keep coming back to the realization that this method is doing a lot of the creative work for you in a way that simply won’t happen with the alternatives. Even setting aside the manifest efficiency, it would be worth it for this alone.

There’s a huge amount more that I could say about this process, but I’ll leave it there for now. I’m not saying this method works equally well for all types of projects. It’s perhaps less suited to scripted drama, for instance, but even there it can work effectively with certain modifications. Like every method, every editor wants to tweak it to their own taste and inclinations. The one thing I have found to its advantage above all others is that it almost entirely circumvents the problem of “what shot do I lay down next?” Time and again I’ve seen Browser/Bin-focused editors get stuck in exactly this way and it can be a very real block.

– Simon Ubsdell

For an expanded version of this concept, check out Simon’s in-depth article at Creative COW. Click here to link.

For more creative editing tips, click on this link for Film Editor Techniques.

©2017 Oliver Peters

CrumplePop and FxFactory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2017 Oliver Peters

Five Came Back

We know them today as the iconic Hollywood directors who brought us such classic films as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, The African Queen, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – just to name a few. John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens also served their country on the ground in World War II, bringing its horrors and truth to the American people through film. In Netflix’s new three-part documentary series, based on Mark Harris’ best-selling book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, contemporary filmmakers explore the extraordinary story of how Hollywood changed World War II – and how World War II changed Hollywood, through the interwoven experiences of these five legendary filmmakers.

This documentary series features interviews with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan, who add their own perspectives on these efforts. “Film was an intoxicant from the early days of the silent movies,” says Spielberg in the opening moments of Five Came Back. “And early on, Hollywood realized that it had a tremendous tool or weapon for change, through cinema.” Adds Coppola, “Cinema in its purest form could be put in the service of propaganda. Hitler and his minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels understood the power of the cinema to move large populations toward your way of thinking.”

Five Came Back is directed by Laurent Bouzereau, written by Mark Harris and narrated by Meryl Streep. Bouzereau and his team gathered over 100 hours of archival and newsreel footage; watched over 40 documentaries and training films directed and produced by the five directors during the war; and studied 50 studio films and over 30 hours of outtakes and raw footage from their war films to bring this story to Netflix audiences. Says director Laurent Bouzereau, “These filmmakers, at that time, had a responsibility in that what they were putting into the world would be taken as truth. You can see a lot of echoes in what is happening today. It became clear as we were doing this series that the past was re-emerging in some ways, including the line we see that separates cinema that exists for entertainment and cinema that carries a message. And politics is more than ever a part of entertainment. I find it courageous of filmmakers then, as with artists today, to speak up for those who don’t have a platform.”

An editor’s medium

As every filmmaker knows, documentaries are truly an editor’s medium. Key to telling this story was Will Znidaric, the series editor. Znidaric spent the first sixteen years of his career as a commercial editor in New York City before heading to Los Angeles, in a move to become more involved in narrative projects and hone his craft. This move led to a chance to cut the documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Production and post for that film was handled by LA’s Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment, a division of the Rock Paper Scissors post facility. RPS is co-owned by Oscar-winning editor, Angus Wall (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Wall, along with Jason Sterman and Linda Carlson, was an executive producer on Winter of Fire for RPS. The connection was a positive experience, so when RPS got involved with Five Came Back, Wall tapped Znidaric as its editor. Much of the same post team worked on both of these documentaries.

I recently interviewed Will Znidaric about his experience editing Five Came Back. “I enjoyed working with Angus,” he explains. “We edited and finished at Rock Paper Scissors over a fifteen month period. They are structured to encourage creativity, which was great for me as a documentary editor. Narratively, this story has five main characters who are on five individual journeys. The canvas is civilization’s greatest conflict. You have to be clear about the war in order to explain their context. You have to be able to find the connections to weave a tapestry between all of these elements. This came together thanks to the flow and trust that was there with Laurent [Bouzereau, director]. The unsung hero is Adele Sparks, our archival producer, who had to find the footage and clear the rights. We were able to generally get rights to acquire the great majority of the footage on our wish list.”

Editing is paleontology

Znidaric continues, “In a documentary like this, editing is a lot like paleontology – you have to find the old bones and reconstruct something that’s alive. There was a lot of searching through newsreels of the day, which was interesting thematically. We all look at the past through the lens of history, but how was the average American processing the events of that world during that time? Of course, those events were unfolding in real time for them. It really makes you think about today’s films and how world events have an impact on them. We had about 100 hours of archival footage, plus studio films and interviews. For eight to nine months we had our storyboard wall with note cards for each of the films. As more footage came in, you could chart the growth through the cards.”

Five Came Back was constructed using three organizing principles: 1) the directors’ films before the war, 2) their documentaries during the war, and 3) their films after the war. According to Znidaric, “We wanted to see how the war affected their work after the war. The book was our guide for causality and order, so I was able to build the structure of the documentary before the contemporary directors were interviewed. I was able to do so with the initial interview with the author, Mark Harris. This way we were able to script an outline to follow. Interview footage of our actual subjects from a few decades ago were also key elements used to tell the story. In recording the modern directors, we wanted to give them space – they are masters – we just needed to make sure we got certain story beats. Their point of view is unique in the sense that they are providing their perspective on their heroes. At the beginning, we have one modern director talking about one of our subject directors. Then that opens up over the three hours, as each talks a little bit about all of these filmmakers.”

From Moviola to Premiere Pro

This was the first film that Znidaric had edited using Adobe Premiere Pro. He says, “During film school, I got to cut 16mm on the Moviola, but throughout my time in New York, I worked on [Avid] Media Composer and then later [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7. When Final Cut Pro X came out, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, so it was time to shift over to Premiere Pro. I’m completely sold on it. It was a dream to work with on this project. At Rock Paper Scissors, my associate editor James Long and I were set up in two suites. We had duplicate drives of media – not a SAN, which was just given to how the suites were wired. It worked out well for us, but forced us to be extremely diligent with how our media was organized and maintaining that throughout.” The suites were configured with 6-core 2013 Mac Pros, AJA IoXT boxes and Mackie Big Knob mixers for playback.

“All of the media was first transcoded to ProRes, which I believe is one of the reasons that the systems were rock solid during that whole time. There’s an exemplary engineering department at RPS, and they have a direct line to Adobe, so if there were any issues, they became the go-betweens. That way I could stay focused on the creative and not get bogged down with technical issues. Plus, James [Long] would generally handle issues of a technical nature. All told, it was very minimal. The project ran quite smoothly.” To stay on the safe side, the team did not update their versions of Premiere Pro during this time frame, opting to stick with Premiere Pro CC2015 for the duration. Because of the percentage of archival footage, Five Came Back was finished as HD and not in 4K, as are a number of other Netflix shows.

To handle Premiere Pro projects over the course of fifteen months, Znidaric and Long would transfer copies of the project files on a daily basis between the rooms. Znidaric continues, “There were sequences for individual ‘mini-stories’ inside the film. I would build these and then combine the stories. As the post progressed, we would delete some of the older sequences from the project files in order to keep them lean. Essentially we had a separate Premiere Pro project file for each day, therefore, at any time we could go back to an earlier project file to access an older sequence, if needed. We didn’t do much with the other Creative Cloud tools, since we had Elastic handling the graphics work. I would slug in raw stills or placeholder cards for maps and title cards. That way, again, I could stay focused on weaving the complex narrative tapestry.”

Elastic developed the main title and a stylistic look for the series while a52 handled color correction and finishing. Elastic and a52 are part of the Rock Paper Scissors group. Znidaric explains, “We had a lot of discussions about how to handle photos, stills, flyers, maps, dates and documents. The reality of filming under the stress of wartime and combat creates artifacts like scratches, film burn-outs and so on. These became part of our visual language. The objective was to create new graphics that would be true to the look and style of the archival footage.” The audio mix when out-of-house to Monkeyland, a Los Angeles audio post and mixing shop.

Five Came Back appealed to the film student side of the editor. Znidaric wrapped up our conversation with these thoughts. “The thrill is that you are learning as you go through the details. It’s mind-blowing and the series could easily have been ten hours long. We are trying to replicate a sense of discovery without the hindsight of today’s perspective. This was fun because it was like a graduate level film school. Most folks have seen some of the better known films, but many of these films aren’t as recognized these days. Going through them is a form of ‘cinematic forensics’. You find connections tied to the wartime experience that might not otherwise be as obvious. This is great for a film geek like me. Hopefully many viewers will rediscover some of these films by seeing this documentary series.”

The first episode of Five Came Back aired on Netflix on March 31. In conjunction with the launch of Five Came Back, Netflix will also present thirteen documentaries discussed in the series, including Ford’s The Battle of Midway, Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Huston’s Report from the Aleutians, Capra’s The Battle of Russia, Stevens’ Nazi Concentration Camps, and Stuart Heisler’s The Negro Soldier.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

A quarter-century for Premiere Pro

I don’t normally plug a manufacturer’s promotional marketing events, but this one seems especially noteworthy. At the end of last year, Adobe Premiere Pro hit its 25th anniversary. It launched in November 1991 as simply Premiere and has gone through numerous iterations – from Premiere to Premiere Pro, CS and now CC. Premiere Pro in all of its versions has always been a popular piece of software by the number of units in the field. However, it’s only been in recent years that this NLE has attracted the attention and respect of top tier editors. And along with that, a legion of editors who now consider it their “go to” editing application. So, this event seems too good not to pass along.

To commemorate this quarter-century milestone, Adobe is kicking off Premiere Pro’s 25th Anniversary today. Adobe is celebrating through a special contest with the help of Imagine Dragons. The Grammy-winning band has teamed up with Adobe to give fans and aspiring producers the chance to co-create a music video. In an industry first, Imagine Dragons is offering total access to the raw footage shot from their music video of Believer, which was posted on YouTube March 7. At this writing, it’s already garnered over seven million views.

Integrating these video clips, fans can cut their own version using Premiere Pro (and Creative Cloud) to enter Adobe’s Make the Cut contest. Entries will be judged by a panel of industry pros, including Angus Wall (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Kirk Baxter (The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl), Bill Fox (Straight Outta Compton, Hustle & FlowBand of Brothers), Matt Eastin (director for Believer), Vinnie Hobbs, an award-winning music video editor who has worked with Kendrick Lamar and Britney Spears, Imagine Dragons and Ann Lewnes (Adobe CMO).

The winner of the contest will claim a Grand Prize of $25,000. Adobe will also award bonus prizes of $1,000 each and a year-long Creative Cloud subscription in four special categories:

Fan Favorite: The most liked video by fans on the Adobe Creative Cloud Channel on YouTube.

Most Unexpected: No specific criteria, but knock their socks off.

Best Young Creator: The best up and coming editor under 25 years old.

Best Short Form: The most impressive video that’s 30-60 seconds long.

Finally, one special bonus prize of $2,500, a year-long subscription to Creative Cloud, and 25 Adobe Stock credits, will go to the cut with the best use of supplied Adobe Stock clips.

If you’re up for the challenge, head over to Adobe’s Make the Cut contest website for more details and to enter.

From the site: “Download exclusive, uncut music video footage and work with Adobe Premiere Pro CC to create your own edit of the video for their new hit song Believer. You’ll have 25 days to make your cut and show the world your editing chops—deadline is April 8th.” Good luck!

EDIT: The contest has closed and you can vote for a fan favorite among the Top 25 Finalists here.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Digital Anarchy Samurai Sharpen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2017 Oliver Peters

Audio Splits and Stems in Premiere Pro

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When TV shows and feature films are being mixed, the final deliverables usually include audio stems as separate audio files or married to a multi-channel video master file or tape. Stems are the isolated submix channels for dialogue, sound effects and music. These elements are typically called DME (dialogue, music, effects) stems or splits and a multi-channel master file that includes these is usually called a split-track submaster. These isolated tracks are normally at mix level, meaning that you can combine them and the sum should equal the same level and mix as the final composite mixed track.

The benefit of having such stems is that you can easily replace elements, like re-recording dialogue in a different language, without having to dive back into the original audio project. The simplest form is to have 3 stereo stem tracks (6 mono tracks) for left and right dialogue, sound effects and music. Obviously, if you have a 5.1 surround mix, you’ll end up with a lot more tracks. There are also other variations for sports or comedy shows. For example, sports shows often isolate the voice-over announcer material from an on-camera dialogue. Comedy shows may isolate the laugh track as a stem. In these cases, rather than 3 stereo DME stems, you might have 4 or more. In other cases, the music and effects stems are combined to end up with a single stereo M&E track (music and effects minus dialogue).

Although this is common practice for entertainment programming, it should also be common practice if you work in short films, corporate videos or commercials. Creating such split-track submasters at the time you finish your project can often save your bacon at some point down the line. I ran into this during the past week. df2916_audspltppro_1A large corporate client needed to replace the music tracks on 11 training videos. These videos were originally editing in 2010 using Final Cut Pro 7 and mixed in Pro Tools. Although it may have been possible to resurrect the old project files, doing so would have been problematic. However, in 2010, I had exported split-track submasters with the final picture and isolated stereo tracks for dialogue, sound effects and music. These have become the new source for our edit – now 6 years later. Since I am editing these in Premiere Pro CC, it is important to also create new split-track submasters, with the revised music tracks, should we ever need to do this again in the future.

Setting up a new Premiere Pro sequence 

I’m usually editing in either Final Cut Pro X or Premiere Pro CC these days. It’s easy to generate a multi-channel master file with isolated DME stems in FCP X, by using the Roles function. However, to do this, you need to make sure you properly assign the correct Roles from the get-go. Assuming that you’ve done this for dialogue, sound effects and music Roles on the source clips, then the stems become self-sorting upon export – based on how you route a Role to its corresponding export channel. When it comes to audio editing and mixing, I find Premiere Pro CC’s approach more to my liking. This process is relatively easy in Premiere, too; however, you have to set up a proper sequence designed for this type of audio work. That’s better than trying to sort it out at the end of the line.

df2916_audspltppro_4The first thing you’ll need to do is create a custom preset. By default, sequence presets are configured with a certain number of tracks routed to a stereo master output. This creates a 2-channel file on export. Start by changing the track configuration to multi-channel and set the number of output channels. My requirement is to end up with an 8-channel file that includes a stereo mix, plus stereo stems for isolated dialogue, sound effects and music. Next, add the number of tracks you need and assign them as “standard” for the regular tracks or “stereo submix” for the submix tracks.

df2916_audspltppro_2This is a simple example with 3 regular tracks and 3 submix tracks, because this was a simple project. A more complete project would have more regular tracks, depending on how much overlapping dialogue or sound effects or music you are working with on the timeline. For instance, some editors like to set up “zones” for types of audio. You might decide to have 24 timeline tracks, with 1-8 used for dialogue, 9-18 for sound effects and 17-24 for music. In this case, you would still only need 3 submix tracks for the aggregate of the dialogue, sound effects and music.

df2916_audspltppro_5Rename the submix tracks in the timeline. I’ve renamed Submix 1-3 as DIA, SFX and MUS for easy recognition. With Premiere Pro, you can mix audio in several different places, such as the clip mixer or the audio track mixer. Go to the audio track mixer and assign the channel output and routing. (Channel output can also be assigned in the sequence preset panel.) For each of the regular tracks, I’ve set the pulldown for routing to the corresponding submix track. Audio 1 to DIA, Audio 2 to SFX and Audio 3 to MUS. The 3 submix tracks are all routed to the Master output.

df2916_audspltppro_3The last step is to properly assign channel routing. With this sequence preset, master channels 1 and 2 will contain the full mix. First, when you export a 2-channel file as a master file or a review copy, by default only the first 2 output channels are used. So these will always get the mix without you having to change anything. Second, most of us tend to edit with stereo monitoring systems. Again, output channels 1 and 2 are the default, which means you’ll always be monitoring the full mix, unless you make changes or solo a track. Output channels 3-8 correspond to the stereo stems. Therefore, to enable this to happen automatically, you must assign the channel output in the following configuration: DIA (Submix 1) to 1-2 and 3-4, SFX (Submix 2) to 1-2 and 5-6, and MUS (Submix 3) to 1-2 and 7-8. The result is that everything goes to both the full mix, as well as the isolated stereo channel for each audio component – dialogue, sound effects and music.

Editing in the custom timeline

Once you’ve set up the timeline, the rest is easy. Edit any dialogue clips to track 1, sound effects to track 2 and music to track 3. In a more complex example, like the 24-track timeline I referred to earlier, you’d work in the “zones” that you had organized. If 1-8 are routed to the dialogue submix track, then you would edit dialogue clips only to tracks 1-8. Same for the corresponding sound effects and music tracks. Clips levels can still be adjusted as you normally would. But, by having submix tracks, you can adjust the level of all dialogue by moving the single, DIA submix fader in the audio track mixer. This can also be automated. If you want a common filter, like a compressor, added all of one stem – like a compressor across all sound effects – simply assign it from the pulldown within that submix channel strip.

Exporting the file

df2916_audspltppro_6The last step is exporting your spilt-track submaster file. If this isn’t correct, the rest was all for naught. The best formats to use are either a QuickTime ProRes file or one of the MXF OP1a choices. In the audio tab of the export settings panel, change the pulldown channel selection from Stereo to 8 channels. Now each of your timeline output channels will be exported as a separate mono track in the file. These correspond to your 4 stereo mix groups – the full mix plus stems. Now in one single, neat file, you have the final image and mix, along with the isolated stems that can facilitate easy changes down the road. Depending on the nature of the project, you might also want to export versions with and without titles for an extra level of future-proofing.

Reusing the file

df2916_audspltppro_7If you decide to use this exported submaster file at a later date as a source clip for a new edit, simply import it into Premiere Pro like any other form of media. However, because its channel structure will be read as 8 mono channels, you will need to modify the file using the Modify-Audio Channels contextual menu (right-click the clip). Change the clip channel format from Mono to Stereo, which turns your 8 mono channels back into the left and right sides of 4 stereo channels. You may then ignore the remaining “unassigned” clip channels. Do not change any of the check boxes.

Hopefully, by following this guide, you’ll find that creating timelines with stem tracks becomes second nature. It can sure help you years later, as I found out yet again this past week!

©2016 Oliver Peters

Swiss Army Man

df2716_swissarmymanWhen it comes to quirky movies, Swiss Army Man stands alone. Hank (Paul Dano) is a castaway on a deserted island at his wit’s end. In an act of final desperation, he’s about to hang himself, when he discovers Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a corpse that’s just washed up on shore. At this point the film diverges from the typical castaway/survival story into an absurdist comedy. Manny can talk and has “magical powers” that Hank uses to find his way back to civilization.

Swiss Army Man was conceived and directed by the writing and directing duo of Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert, who work under the moniker Daniels. This is their feature length film debut and was produced with Sundance in mind. The production company brought on Matthew Hannam to edit the film. Hannam (The OA, Enemy, James White) is a Canadian film and TV editor with numerous features and TV series under his belt. I recently spoke with Hannam about the post process on Swiss Army Man.

Hannam discussed the nature of the film. “It’s a very handmade film. We didn’t have a lot of time to edit and had to make quick decisions. I think that really helped us. This was the dozenth or so feature for me, so in a way I was the veteran. It was fun to work with these guys and experience their creative process. Swiss Army Man is a very cinematically-aware film, full of references to other famous films. You’re making a survival movie, but it’s very aware that other survival movies exist. This is also a very self-reflexive film and, in fact, the model is more like a romantic comedy than anything else. So I was a bit disappointed to see a number of the reviews focus solely on the gags in the film, particularly around Manny, the corpse. There’s more to it than that. It’s about a guy who wonders what it might be like had things been different. It’s a very special little film, because the story puts us inside of Hank’s head.”

Unlike the norm for most features, Hannam joined the team after the shooting had been completed. He says, “I came on board during the last few days of filming. They shot for something like 25 days. This was all single-camera work with Larkin Seiple (Cop Car, Bleed For This) as director of photography. They shot ARRI ALEXA XT with Cooke anamorphic lenses. It was shot ARRIRAW, but for the edit we had a special LUT applied to the dailies, so the footage was already beautiful. I got a drive in August and the film premiered at Sundance. That’s a very short post schedule, but our goal was always Sundance.”

Shifting to Adobe tools

Like many of this year’s Sundance films, Adobe Premiere Pro was the editing tool of choice. Hannam continues, “I’m primarily an Avid [Media Composer] editor and the Dans [Kwan and Sheinert] had been using [Apple] Final Cut Pro in the past for the shorts that they’ve edited themselves. They opted to go with Premiere on this film, as they thought it would be easiest to go back and forth with After Effects. We set up a ‘poor man’s’ shared storage with multiple systems that each had duplicate media on local drives. Then we’d use Dropbox to pass around project files and shared elements, like sound effects and temp VFX. While the operation wasn’t flawless – we did experience a few crashes – it got the job done.”

Swiss Army Man features quite a few visual effects shots and Hannam credits the co-directors’ music video background with making this a relatively easy task. He says, “The Dans are used to short turnarounds in their music video projects, so they knew how to integrate visual effects into the production in a way that made it easier for post. That’s also the beauty of working with Premiere Pro. There’s a seamless integration with After Effects. What’s amazing about Premiere is the quality of the built-in effects. You get effects that are actually useful in telling the story. I used the warp stabilizer and timewarp a lot. In some cases those effects made it possible to use shots in a way that was never possible before. The production company partnered with Method for visual effects and Company 3 [Co3] for color grading. However, about half of the effects were done in-house using After Effects. On a few shots, we actually ended up using After Effects’ stabilization after final assembly, because it was that much better than what was possible during the online assembly of the film.”

Another unique aspect of Swiss Army Man is its musical score. Hannam explains, “Due to the tight schedule, music scoring proceeded in parallel with the editing. The initial temp music pulled was quirky, but didn’t really match the nature of the story. Once we got the tone right with the temp tracks, scenes were passed on to the composers – Andy Hull and Robert McDowell – who Daniels met while making a video for their band Manchester Orchestra. The concept for the score was that it was all coming from inside of Hank’s head. Andy sang all the music as if Hank was humming his own score. They created new tracks for us and by the end we had almost no temp music in the edit. Once the edit was finalized, they worked with Paul [Dano] and Daniel [Radcliffe] to sing and record the parts themselves. Fortunately both are great singers, so the final a cappella score is actually the lead actors themselves.”

Structuring the edit

Matthew Hannam and I discussed his approach to editing scenes, especially with this foray into Premiere Pro. He responds, “When I’m on Media Composer, I’m a fan of ScriptSync. It’s a great way to know what coverage you have. There’s nothing like that in Premiere, although I did use the integrated Story app. This enables you to load the script into a tab for quick access. Usually my initial approach is to sit down and watch all the footage for the particular scene while I plan how I’m going to assemble it. The best way to know the footage is to work with it. You have to watch how the shoot progresses in the dailies. Listen to what the director says at the end of a take – or if he interrupts in the middle – and that will give you a good idea of the intention. Then I just start building the scene – often first from the middle. I’m looking for what is the central point of that scene and it often helps to build from the middle out.”

Although Hannam doesn’t use any tricks to organize his footage or create selects, he does use “KEM rolls”. This term stems from the KEM flatbed film editing table. In modern parlance, it means that the editor has strung out all the footage for a scene into a single timeline, making it easy to scrub through all the available footage quickly. He continues, “I’ll build a dailies reel and tuck it away in the bottom of the bin. It’s a great way to quickly see what footage you have available. When it’s time to revise a scene, it’s good to go back to the raw footage and see what options you have. It is a quick way to jog your memory about what was shot.”

A hybrid post workflow

Another integral member of the post team was assistant editor Kyle Gilbertson. He had worked with the co-directors previously and was the architect of the hybrid post workflow followed on this film. Gilbertson pulled all of the shots for VFX that were being handled in-house. Many of the more complicated montages were handled as effects sequences and the edit was rebuilt in DaVinci Resolve before re-assembly in After Effects. Hannam explains, “We had two stages of grading with [colorist] Sofie Borup at Co3. The first was to set looks and get an idea what the material was going to look like once finished. Then, once everything was complete, we combined all of the material for final grading and digital intermediate mastering. There was a real moment of truth when the 100 or so shots that Daniels did themselves were integrated into the final cut. Luckily it all came together fairly seamlessly.”

“Having finished the movie, I look back at it and I’m full of warm feelings. We kind of just dove into it as a big team. The two Dans, Kyle and I were in that room kind of just operating as a single unit. We shifted roles and kept everything very open. I believe the end product reflects that. It’s a film that took inspiration from everywhere and everyone. We were not setting out to be weird or gross. The idea was to break down an audience and make something that everyone could enjoy and be won over by. In the end, it feels like we really took a step forward with what was possible at home. We used the tools we had available to us and we made them work. It makes me excited that Adobe’s Creative Cloud software tools were enough to get a movie into 700 cinemas and win those boys the Sundance Directing prize. We’re at a point in post where you don’t need a lot of hardware. If you can figure out how to do it, you can probably make it yourself. That was our philosophy from start to finish on the movie.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2016 Oliver Peters