Putting Apple’s iMac Pro Through the Paces

At the end of December, Apple made good on the release of the new iMac Pro and started selling and shipping the new workstations. While this could be characterized as a stop-gap effort until the next generation of Mac Pro is produced, that doesn’t detract from the usefulness and power of this design in its own right. After all, the iMac line is the direct descendant in spirit and design of the original Macintosh. Underneath the sexy, all-in-one, space grey enclosure, the iMac Pro offers serious workstation performance.

I work mostly these days with a production company that produces and posts commercials, corporate videos, and entertainment programming. Our editing set-up consists of seven workstations, plus an auxiliary machine connected to a common QNAP shared storage network. These edit stations consisted of a mix of old and new Mac Pros and iMacs (connected via 10GigE), with a Mac Mini for the auxiliary (1GigE). It was time to upgrade the oldest machines, which led us to consider the iMac Pros. The company picked up three of them – replacing two Mac Pro towers and an older iMac. The new configuration is a mix of three, one-year-old Retina 5K iMacs (late 2015 model), a 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro, and three 2017 iMac Pros.

There are plenty of videos and articles on the web about how these machines perform; but, the testers often use artificial benchmarks or only Final Cut Pro X. This shop has a mix of NLEs (Adobe, Apple, Avid, Blackmagic Design), but our primary tool is Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2018. This gave me a chance to compare how these machines stacked up against each other in the kind of work we actually do. This comparison isn’t truly apples-to-apples, since the specs of the three different products are somewhat different from each other. Nevertheless, I feel that it’s a valid real-world assessment of the iMac Pros in a typical, modern post environment.

Why buy iMac Pros at all?

The question to address is why should someone purchase these machines? Let me say right off the bat, that if your main focus is 3D animation or heavy compositing using After Effects or other applications – and speed and performance are the most important factor – then don’t buy an Apple computer. Period. There are plenty of examples of Dell and HP workstations, along with high-end gaming PCs, that outperform any of the Macs. This is largely due to the availability of advanced NVidia GPUs for the PC, which simply aren’t an option for current Macs.

On the other hand, if you need a machine that’s solid and robust across a wide range of postproduction tasks – and you prefer the Mac operating ecosystem – then the iMac Pros are a good choice. Yes, the machine is pricy and you can buy cheaper gaming PCs and DIY workstations, but if you stick to the name brands, like Dell and HP, then the iMac Pros are competitively priced. In our case, a shift to PC would have also meant changing out all of the machines and not just three – therefore, even more expensive.

Naturally, the next thing is to compare price against the current 5K iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Apple’s base configuration of the iMac Pro uses an 8-core 3.2GHz Xeon W CPU, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, and the Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU (8GB memory) for $4,999. A comparably configured 2013 Mac Pro is $5,207 (with mouse and keyboard), but no display. Of course, it also has the dual D-700 GPUs. The 5K iMac in a similar configuration is $3,729. Note that we require 10GigE connectivity, which is built into the iMac Pros. Therefore, in a direct comparison, you would need to bump up the iMac and Mac Pro prices by about $500 for a Thunderbolt2-to-10GigE converter.

Comparing these numbers for similar machines, you’d spend more for the Mac Pro and less for the iMac. Yet, the iMac Pro uses newer processors and faster RAM, so it could be argued that it’s already better out of the gate in the base configuration than Apple’s former top-of-the-line product. It has more horsepower than the tricked-out iMac, so then it becomes a question of whether the cost difference is important to you for what you are getting.

Build quality

Needless to say, Apple has a focus on the quality and fit-and-finish of its products. The iMac Pro is no exception. Except for the space grey color, it looks like the regular 27” iMacs and just as nicely built. However, let me quibble a bit with a few things. First, the edges of the case and foot tend to be a bit sharp. It’s not a huge issue, but compared with an iPhone, iPad, or 2013 Mac Pro, the edges just not as smooth and rounded. Secondly, you get a wireless mouse and extended keyboard. Both have to be plugged in to charge. In the case of the mouse, the cable plugs in at the bottom, rendering it useless during charging. Truly a bad design. The wireless keyboard is the newer, flatter style, so you lose two USB ports that were on the previous plug-in extended keyboard. Personally, I prefer the features and feel of the previous keyboard, not to mention any scroll wheel mouse over the Magic Mouse. Of course, those are strictly items of personal taste.

With the iMac Pro, Apple is transitioning its workstations to Thunderbolt 3, using USB-C connectors. Previous Thunderbolt 2 ports have been problematic, because the cables easily disconnect. In fact, on our existing iMacs, it’s very easy to disconnect the Thunderbolt 2 cable that connects us to the shared storage network, simply by moving the iMac around to get to the ports on the back. The USB-C connectors feel more snug, so hopefully we will find that to be an improvement. If you need to get to the back of the iMac or iMac Pro frequently, in order to plug in drives, dongles, etc., then I would highly recommend one of the docks from CalDigit or OWC as a valuable accessory.

5K screen

Apple spends a lot of marketing hype on promoting their 5K Retina screens. The 27” screens have a raw pixel resolution of 5120×2880 pixels, but that’s not what you see in terms of image and user interface dimensions. To start with, the 5K iMacs and iMac Pros use the same screen resolution and the default display setting (middle scaled option) is 2560×1440 pixels. The top choice is 3200×1800. Of course, if you use that setting, everything becomes extremely small on screen.  Conversely, our 2013 Mac Pro is connected to a 27” Apple LED Cinema Display (non Retina). It’s top scaled resolution is also 2560×1440 pixels. Therefore, at the most useable settings, all of our workstations are set to the same resolution. Even if you scale the resolution up (images and UI get smaller), you are going to end up adjusting the size of the application interface and viewer window. While you might see different viewer size percentage numbers between the machines, the effective size on screen will be the same.

Retina is Apple’s marketing name for high pixel density. This is the equivalent of DPI (dots per inch) in print resolutions. According to a Macworld article, iPhones from 4 to 5s had a pixel density of 326ppi (pixels per inch), while iMacs have 218ppi. Apple converts a device’s display to Retina by doubling the horizontal and vertical pixel count. More pixels are applied to any given area on the screen, resulting in smoother text, smoother diagonal lines, and so on. That’s assuming an application’s interface is optimized for it. At the distance that the editors sit from a 27” display, there is simply little or no difference between the look of the 27” LED display and the 27” iMac Retina screens.

Upgradeability

Future-proofing and upgrades are the biggest negatives thrown at all-in-ones, particularly the iMac Pros. While the user can upgrade RAM in the standard iMacs, that’s not the case with iMac Pros. You can upgrade RAM in the future, but that must be done at a service facility, such as the Apple Store’s Genius service. This means that in three years, when you want the latest, greatest CPU, GPU, storage, etc., you won’t be able to swap out components. But is this really an issue? I’m sure Apple has user research numbers to justify their decisions. Plus, the thermal design of the iMac would make user upgrades difficult, unlike older mac Pro towers.

In my own experience on personal machines, as well as clients’ machines that I’ve helped maintain, I have upgraded storage, GPU cards, and RAM, but never the CPU. Although I do know others who have upgraded Xeon models on their Mac Pro towers. Part of the dichotomy is buying what you can afford now and upgrading later, versus stretching a bit up front and then not needing to upgrade later. My gut feeling is that Apple is pushing the latter approach.

If I tally up the cost of the upgrades that I’ve made after about three years, I would already be part of the way towards a newer, better machine anyway. Plus, if you are cutting HD and even 4K today, then just about any advanced machine will do the trick, making it less likely that you’ll need to do that upgrade within the foreseeable life of the machine. An argument can be made for either approach, but I really think that the vast majority of users – even professional users – never actually upgrade any of the internal hardware from that of the configuration as originally purchased.

Performance testing

We ultimately purchased machines that were the 10-core bump-up from the base configuration, feeling that this is the sweet spot (and is currently available) within the iMac Pro product line.

The new machine specs within the facility now look like this:

2013 Mac Pro – 3GHz 8-core Xeon/64GB RAM/dual D-500 GPUs/1TB SSD (Sierra)

2015 iMac – 4GHz 4-core Core i7/32GB RAM/AMD R9/3TB Fusion drive (Sierra)

2017 iMac Pro – 3GHz 10-core Xeon W/64GB RAM/Radeon Vega 64/1TB SSD (High Sierra)

As you can see, the tech specs of the new iMac Pros more closely match the 2013 Mac Pro than the year-old 5K iMacs. Of course, it’s not a perfect match for optimal benchmark testing, but close enough for a good read on how well the iMac Pro delivers in a real working environment.

Test 1 – BruceX

The BruceX test uses a 5K Final Cut Pro X timeline made up only of built-in titles and generators. The timeline is then rendered out to a ProRes file. This tests the pure application without any media and codec variables. It’s a bit of an artificial test and only applicable to FCPX performance, but still useful. The faster the export time, the better. (I have bolded the best results.)

2013 Mac Pro – 26.8 sec.

2015 iMac – 28.3 sec.

2017 iMac Pro – 14.4 sec.

Test 2 – media encoding

In my next test, I took a 4½-minute-long 1080p ProRes file and rendered it to a 4K/UHD (3840×2160) H.264 (1-pass CBR 20Mbps) file. Not only was it being encoded, but also scaled up to 4K in this process. I rendered from and to the desktop, to eliminate any variables from the QNAP system. Finally, I conducted the test using both Adobe Media Encoder (using OpenCL processing) and Apple Compressor.

Two noteworthy issues. The Compressor test was surprisingly slow on the Mac Pro. (I actually ran the Compressor test twice, just to be certain about the slowness of the Mac Pro.) The AME version kicked in the fans on the iMac.

Adobe Media Encoder

2013 Mac Pro – 6:13 min.

2015 iMac – 7:14 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 4:48 min.

 Compressor

2013 Mac Pro – 11:02 min.

2015 iMac – 2:20 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:19 min.

 Test 3 – editing timeline playback – multi-layered sequence

This was a difficult test designed to break during unrendered playback. The 40-second 1080p/23.98 sequence include six layers of resized 4K source media.

Layer 1 – DJI clips with dissolves between the clips

Layers 2-5 – 2D PIP ARRI Alexa clips (no LUTs); layer 5 had a Gaussian blur effect added

Layer 6 – native REDCODE RAW with minor color correction

The sequence was created in both Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro. Playback was tested with the media located on the QNAP volumes, as well as from the desktop (this should provide the best possible playback).

Playing back this sequence in Final Cut Pro X from the QNAP resulted is the video output largely choking on all of the machines. Playing it back in Premiere Pro from the QNAP was slightly better than in FCPX, with the 2017 iMac Pro performing best of all. It played, but was still choppy.

When I tested playback from the desktop, all three machines performed reasonably well using both Final Cut Pro X (“best performance”) and Premiere Pro (“1/2 resolution”). There were some frames dropped, although the iMac Pro played back more smoothly than the other two. In fact, in Premiere Pro, I was able to set the sequence to “full resolution” and get visually smooth playback, although the indicator light still noted dropped frames. Typically, as each staggered layer kicked in, performance tended to hiccup.

Test 4 – editing timeline playback – single-layer sequence

 This was a simpler test using a standard workflow. The 30-second 1080p/23.98 sequence included three Alexa clips (no LUTs) with dissolves between the clips. Each source file was 4K/UHD and had a “punch-in” and reposition within the HD frame. Each also included a slight, basic color correction. Playback was tested in Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro, as well as from the QNAP system and the desktop. Quality settings were increased to “best quality” in FCPX and “full resolution” in Premiere Pro.

My complex timeline in Test 3 appeared to perform better in Premiere Pro. In Test 4, the edge was with Final Cut Pro X. No frames were dropped with any of the three machines playing back either from the QNAP or the desktop, when testing in FCPX. In Premiere Pro, the 2017 iMac Pro was solid in both situations. The 2015 iMac was mostly smooth at “full” and completely smooth at “1/2”. Unfortunately, the 2013 Mac Pro seemed to be the worst of the three, dropping frames even at “1/2 resolution” at each dissolve within the timeline.

Test 5 – timeline renders (multi-layered sequence)

In this test, I took the complex sequence from Test 3 and exported it to a ProRes master file. I used the QNAP-connected versions of the Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X timelines and rendered the exports to the desktop. In FCPX, I used its default Share function. In Premiere Pro, I queued the export to Adobe Media Encoder set to process in OpenCL. This was one of the few tests in which the 2013 Mac Pro put in a faster time, although the iMac Pro was very close.

Rendering to ProRes – Premiere Pro (via Adobe Media Encoder)

2013 Mac Pro – 1:29 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:45 min.

Rendering to ProRes – Final Cut Pro X

2013 Mac Pro – 1:21 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:22 min.

Test 6 – Adobe After Effects – rendering composition

My final test was to see how well the iMac Pro performed in rendering out compositions from After Effects. This was a 1080p/23.98 15-second composition. The bottom layer was a JPEG still with a Color Finesse correction. On top of that were five 1080p ProResLT video clips that had been slomo’ed to fill the composition length. Each was scaled, cropped, and repositioned. Each was beveled with a layer style and had a stylized effect added to it. The topmost layer was a camera layer with all other layers set to 3D, so the clips could be repositioned in z-space. Using the camera, I added a slight rotation/perspective change over the life of the composition.

Rendering to ProRes – After Effects

2013 Mac Pro – 2:37 min.

2015 iMac – 2:15 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:03 min.

Conclusion

After all of this testing, one is left with the answer “it depends”. The 2013 Mac Pro has two GPUs, but not every application takes advantage of that. Some apps tax all the available cores, so more, but slower, cores are better. Others go for the maximum speed on fewer cores. All things considered, the iMac Pro performed at the top of these three machines. It was either the best or close/equal to the best. But, this is an incremental difference in the 10% to 30% range. But, of course some of these numbers will be meaningful and others won’t, depending on the apps used and a user’s storage situation.

I will say that installing these three machines was the easiest I’ve ever done, including connecting them to the 10GigE storage network. The majority of our apps come from Adobe Create Cloud, the Mac App Store, or FxFactory (for plug-ins). Except for a few other installers, there was largely no need to track down installers, activation information, etc. for a zillion small apps and plug-ins. This made it a breeze and is certainly part of the attraction of the Mac ecosystem. The iMac Pro’s all-in-one design limits the required peripherals, which also contributes to a faster installation. Naturally, I can’t tell anyone if this is the right machine for them, but so far, the investment does look like the correct choice for this shop’s needs.

Here are two additional impressions by working editors: Thomas Grove Carter and Ben Balser. Also a very comprehensive review from AppleInsider.

©2018 Oliver Peters

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Stocking Stuffers 2017

It’s holiday time once again. For many editors that means it’s time to gift themselves with some new tools and toys to speed their workflows or just make the coming year more fun! Here are some products to consider.

Just like the tiny house craze, many editors are opting for their laptops as their main editing tool. I’ve done it for work that I cut when I’m not freelancing in other shops, simply because my MacBook Pro is a better machine than my old (but still reliable) 2009 Mac Pro tower. One less machine to deal with, which simplifies life. But to really make it feel like a desktop tool, you need some accessories along with an external display. For me, that boils down to a dock, a stand, and an audio interface. There are several stands for laptops. I bought both the Twelve South BookArc and the Rain Design mStand: the BookArc for when I just want to tuck the closed MacBook Pro out of the way in the clamshell mode and the mStand for when I need to use the laptop’s screen as a second display. Another option some editors like is the Vertical Dock from Henge Docks, which not only holds the MacBook Pro, but also offers some cable management.

The next hardware add-on for me is a USB audio interface. This is useful for any type of computer and may be used with or without other interfaces from Blackmagic Design or AJA. The simplest of these is the Mackie Onyx Blackjack, which combines interface and output monitor mixing into one package. This means no extra small mixer is required. USB input and analog audio output direct to a pair of powered speakers. But if you prefer a separate small mixer and only want a USB interface for input/output, then the PreSonus Audiobox USB or the Focusrite Scarlett series is the way to go.

Another ‘must have’ with any modern system is a Thunderbolt dock in order to expand the native port connectivity of your computer. There are several on the market but it’s hard to go wrong with either the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 2 or the OWC Thunderbolt 2 Dock. Make sure you double-check which version fits for your needs, depending on whether you have a Thunderbolt 2 or 3 connection and/or USB-C ports. I routinely use each of the CalDigit and OWC products. The choice simply depends on which one has the right combination of ports to fit your needs.

Drives are another issue. With a small system, you want small portable drives. While LaCie Rugged and G-Technology portable drives are popular choices, SSDs are the way to go when you need true, fast performance. A number of editors I’ve spoken to are partial to the Samsung Portable SSD T5 drives. These USB3.0-compatible drives aren’t the cheapest, but they are ultraportable and offer amazing read/write speeds. Another popular solution is to use raw (uncased) drives in a drive caddy/dock for archiving purposes. Since they are raw, you don’t pack for the extra packaging, power supply, and interface electronics with each, just to have it sit on the shelf. My favorite of these is the HGST Deckstar NAS series.

For many editors the software world is changing with free applications, subscription models, and online services. The most common use of the latter is for review-and-approval, along with posting demo clips and short films. Kollaborate.tv, Frame.io, Wipster.io, and Vimeo are the best known. There are plenty of options and even Vimeo Pro and Business plans offer a Frame/Wipster-style review-and-approval and collaboration service. Plus, there’s some transfer ability between these. For example, you can publish to a Vimeo account from your Frame account. Another expansion of the online world is in team workgroups. A popular solution is Slack, which is a workgroup-based messaging/communication service.

As more resources become available online, the benefits of large-scale computing horsepower are available to even single editors. One of the first of these new resources is cloud-based, speech-to-text transcription. A number of online services provide this functionality to any NLE. Products to check out include Scribeomatic (Coremelt), Transcriptive (Digital Anarchy), and Speedscriber (Digital Heaven). They each offer different pricing models and speech analysis engines. Some are still in beta, but one that’s already out is Speedscriber, which I’ve used and am quite happy with. Processing is fast and reasonably accurate, given a solid audio recording.

Naturally free tools make every user happy and the king of the hill is Blackmagic Design with DaVinci Resolve and Fusion. How can you go wrong with something this powerful and free with ongoing company product development? Even the paid versions with some more advanced features are low cost. However, at the very least the free version of Resolve should be in every editor’s toolkit, because it’s such a Swiss Army Knife application.

On the other hand, editors who have the need to learn Avid Media Composer, need look no further than the free Media Composer | First. Avid has tried ‘dumbed-down’ free editing apps before, but First is actually built off of the same code base as the full Media Composer software. Thus, skills translate and most of the core functions are available for you to use.

Many users are quite happy with the advantages of Adobe’s Creative Cloud software subscription model. Others prefer to own their software. If you work in video, then it’s easy to put together alternative software kits for editing, effects, audio, and encoding that don’t touch an Adobe product. Yet for most, the stumbling block is Photoshop – until now. Both Affinity Photo (Serif) and Pixelmator Pro are full-fledged graphic design and creation tools that rival Photoshop in features and quality. Each of these has its own strong points. Affinity Photo offers Mac and Windows versions, while Pixelmator Pro is Mac only, but taps more tightly into macOS functions.

If you work in the Final Cut Pro X world, several utilities are essential. These include SendToX and XtoCC from Intelligent Assistance, along with X2Pro Audio Convert from Marquis Broadcast. Marquis’ newest is Worx4 X – a media management tool. It takes your final sequence and creates a new FCPX library with consolidated (trimmed) media. No transcoding is involved, so the process is lighting fast. Although in some cases media is copied without being trimmed. This can reduce the media to be archived from TBs down to GBs. They also offer Worx4 Pro, which is designed for Premiere Pro CC users. This tool serves as a media tracking application, to let editors find all of the media used in a Premiere Pro project across multiple volumes.

Most editors love to indulge in plug-in packages. If you can only invest in a single, large plug-in package, then BorisFX’s Boris Continuum Complete 11 and/or their Sapphire 11 bundles are the way to go. These are industry-leading tools with wide host and platform support. Both feature mocha tracking integration and Continuum also includes the Primatte Studio chromakey technology.

If you want to go for a build-it-up-as-you-need-it approach – and you are strictly on the Mac – then FxFactory will be more to your liking. You can start with the free, basic platform or buy the Pro version, which includes FxFactory’s own plug-ins. Either way, FxFactory functions as a plug-in management tool. FxFactory’s numerous partner/developers provide their products through the FxFactory platform, which functions like an app store for plug-ins. You can pick and choose the plug-ins that you need when the time is right to purchase them. There are plenty of plug-ins to recommend, but I would start with any of the Crumplepop group, because they work well and provide specific useful functions. They also include the few audio plug-ins available via FxFactory. Another plug-in to check out is the Hawaiki Keyer 4. It installs into both the Apple and Adobe applications and far surpasses the built-in keying tools within these applications.

The Crumplepop FxFactory plug-ins now includes Koji Advance, which is a powerful film look tool. I like Koji a lot, but prefer FilmConvert from Rubber Monkey Software. To my eyes, it creates one of the more pleasing and accurate film emulations around and even adds a very good three-way color corrector. This opens as a floating window inside of FCPX, which is less obtrusive than some of the other color correction plug-ins for FCPX. It’s not just for film emulation – you can actually use it as the primary color corrector for an entire project.

I don’t want to forget audio plug-ins in this end-of-the-year roundup. Most editors don’t feel too comfortable with a ton of surgical audio filters, so let me stick to suggestions that are easy-to-use and very affordable. iZotope is a well-known audio developer and several of its products are perfect for video editors. These fall into repair, mixing, and mastering needs. These include the Nectar, Ozone, and RX bundles, along with the RX Loudness Control. The first three groups are designed to cover a wide range of needs and, like the BCC video plug-ins, are somewhat of an all-encompassing product offering. But if that’s a bit rich for the blood, then check out iZotope’s various Elements versions.

The iZotope RX Loudness Control is great for accurate loudness compliance, and best used with Avid or Adobe products. However, it is not real-time, because it uses analysis and adaptive processing. If you want something more straightforward and real-time, then check out the LUFS Meter from Klangfreund. It can be used for loudness control on individual tracks or the master output. It works with most of the NLEs and DAWs. A similar tool to this is Loudness Change from Videotoolshed.

Finally, let’s not forget the iOS world, which is increasingly becoming a viable production platform. For example, I’ve used my iPad in the last year to do location interview recordings. This is a market that audio powerhouse Apogee has also recognized. If you need a studio-quality hardware interface for an iPhone or iPad, then check out the Apogee ONE. In my case, I tapped the Apogee MetaRecorder iOS application for my iPad, which works with both Apogee products and the iPad’s built-in mic. It can be used in conjunction with FCPX workflows through the integration of metadata tagging for Keywords, Favorites, and Markers.

Have a great holiday season and happy editing in the coming year!

©2017 Oliver Peters

Audio Splits and Stems in Premiere Pro Revisited

Creating multichannel, “split-track” master exports of your final sequences is something that should be a standard step in all of your productions. It’s often a deliverable requirement and having such a file makes later revisions or derivative projects much easier to produce. If you are a Final Cut Pro X user, the “audio lanes” feature makes it easy to organize and export sequences with isolated channels for dialogue, music, and effects. FCPX pros like to tweak the noses of other NLE users about how much easier it is in FCPX. While that’s more or less true – and, in fact, can be a lot deeper than simply a few aggregate channels – that doesn’t mean it’s particularly hard or less versatile in Premiere Pro.

Last year I wrote about how to set this up using Premiere submix tracks, which is a standard audio post workflow, common to most DAW and mix applications. Go back and read the article for more detail. But, what about sequences that are already edited, which didn’t start with a track configuration already set up with submix tracks and proper output routing? In fact, that’s quite easy, too, which brings me to today’s post.

Step 1 – Edit

Start out by editing as you always have, using your standard sequence presets. I’ve created a few custom presets that I normally use, based on the several standard formats I work in, like 1080p/23.976 and 1080p/29.97. These typically require stereo mixes, so my presets start with a minimum configuration of one picture track, two standard audio tracks, and stereo output. This is the starting point, but more video and audio tracks get added, as needed, during the course of editing.

Get into a habit of organizing your audio tracks. Typically this means dialogue and VO tracks towards the top (A1-A4), then sound effects (A5-A8), and finally music (A9-A12). Keep like audio types on their intended tracks. What you don’t want to do is mix different audio types onto the same track. For instance, don’t put sound effects onto tracks that you’ve designated for dialogue clips. Of course, the number of actual tracks needed for these audio types will vary with your projects. A simple VO+music sequence will only have two to four tracks, while dramatic entertainment pieces will have a lot more. Delete all empty audio tracks when you are ready to mix.

Mix for stereo output as you normally would. This means balancing components using keyframes and clip mixing. Then perform overall adjustments and “riding faders” in the track mixer. This is also where I add global effects, like compression for dialogue and limiting for the master mix.

Output your final mixed master file for delivery.

Step 2 – Multichannel DME sequences

The next step is to create or open a new multichannel DME (dialogue/music/effects) sequence. I’ve already created a custom preset, which you may download and install. It’s set up as 1080p/23.976, with two standard audio channels and three, pre-labelled stereo submix channels, but you can customize yours as needed. The master output is multichannel (8-channels), which is sufficient to cover stereo pairs for the final mix, plus isolated pairs for each of the three submixes – dialogue, music, and effects.

Next, copy-and-paste all clips from your final stereo sequence to the new multichannel sequence. If you have more than one track of picture and two tracks of audio, the new blank sequence will simply auto-populate more tracks once you paste the clips into it. The result should look the same, except with the additional three submix tracks at the bottom of your timeline. At this stage, the output of all tracks is still routed to the stereo master output and the submix tracks are bypassed.

Now open the track mixer panel and, from the pulldown output selector, switch each channel from master to its appropriate submix channel. Dialogue tracks to DIA, music tracks to MUS, and effects tracks to SFX. The sequence preset is already set up with proper output routing. All submixes go to output 1 and 2 (composite stereo mix), along with their isolated output – dialogue to 3 and 4, effects to 5 and 6, music to 7 and 8. As with your stereo mix, level adjustments and plug-in processing (compression, EQ, limiting, etc.) can be added to each of the submix channels.

Note: while not essential, multichannel, split-track master files are most useful when they are also textless. So, before outputting, I would recommend disabling all titles and lower third graphics in this sequence. The result is clean video – great for quick fixes later in the event of spelling errors or a title change.

Step 3 – Multichannel export

Now that the sequence is properly organized, you’ve got to export the multichannel sequence. I have created a mastering export preset, which you may also download. It works in the various Adobe CC apps, but is designed for Adobe Media Encoder workflows. This preset will match its output to the video size and frame rate of your sequence and master to a file with the ProRes4444 codec. The audio is set for eight output channels, configured as four stereo pairs – composite mix, plus three DME channels.

To test your exported file, simply reimport the multichannel file back into Premiere Pro and drop it onto a timeline. There you should see four independent stereo channels with audio organized according to the description above.

Presets

I have created a sequence and an export preset, which you may download here. I have only tested these on Mac systems, where they are installed into the Adobe folder contained within the user’s Documents folder. The sequence preset is placed into the Premiere Pro folder and the export preset into the Adobe Media Encoder folder. If you’ve updated the Adobe apps along the way, you will have a number of version subfolders. As of December 2017, the 12.0 subfolder is the correct location. Happy mixing!

©2017 Oliver Peters

Mindhunter

The investigation of crime is a film topic with which David Fincher is very familiar. He returns to this genre in the new Netflix series, Mindhunter, which is executive produced by Fincher and Charlize Theron. The series is the story of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and how it became an elite profiling team, known for investigating serial criminals. The TV series is based on the nonfiction book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, co-written by Mark Olshaker and John Douglas, a former agent in the unit who spent 25 years with the FBI. Agent Douglas interviewed scores of serial killers, including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Ed Gein, who dressed himself in his victims’ skin. The lead character in the series, Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) is based on Douglas. The series takes place in 1979 and centers on two FBI agents, who were among the first to interview imprisoned serial killers in order to learn how they think and apply that to other crimes. Mindhunter is about the origins of modern day criminal profiling.

As with other Fincher projects, he brought in much of the team that’s been with him through the various feature films, like Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Zodiac. It has also given a number in the team the opportunity to move up in their careers. I recently spoke with Tyler Nelson, one of the four series editors, who was given the opportunity to move from the assistant chair to that of a primary editor. Nelson explains, “I’ve been working with David Fincher for nearly 11 years, starting with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I started on that as an apprentice, but was bumped up to an assistant editor midway through. There was actually another series in the works for HBO called Videosyncrasy, which I was going to edit on. But that didn’t make it to air. So I’m glad that everyone had the faith in me to let me edit on this series. I cut the four episodes directed by Andrew Douglas and Asif Kapadia, while Kirk Baxter [editor on Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network] cut the four shows that David directed.”

Pushing the technology envelope

The Fincher post operation has a long history of trying new and innovative techniques, including their selection of editing tools. The editors cut this series using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Nelson and the other editors are no stranger to Premiere Pro, since Baxter had cut Gone Girl with it. Nelson says, “Of course, Kirk and I have been using it for years. One of the editors, Byron Smith, came over from House of Cards, which was being cut on [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7. So that was an easy transition for him. We are all fans of Adobe’s approach to the entertainment industry and were onboard with using it. In fact, we were running on beta software, which gave us the ability to offer feedback to Adobe on features that will hopefully make it into released products and benefit all Premiere users.”

Pushing the envelope is also a factor on the production side. The series was shot with custom versions of the RED Weapon camera. Shots were recorded at 6K resolution, but framed for a 5K extraction, leaving a lot of “padding” around the edges. This allowed room for reposition and stabilization, which is done a lot on Fincher’s projects. In fact, nearly all of the moving footage is stabilized. All camera footage is processed into EXR image sequences in addition to ProRes editing files for “offline” editing. These ProRes files also get an added camera LUT so everyone sees a good representation of the color correction during the editing process. One change from past projects was to bring color correction in-house. The final grade was handled by Eric Weidt on a FilmLight Baselight X unit, which was sourcing from the EXR files. The final Netflix deliverables are 4K/HDR masters. Pushing a lot of data through a facility requires robust hardware systems. The editors used 2013 (“trash can”) Mac Pros connected to an Open Drives shared storage system. This high-end storage system was initially developed as part of the Gone Girl workflow and uses storage modules populated with all SSD drives.

The feature film approach

Unlike most TV series, where there’s a definite schedule to deliver a new episode each week, Netflix releases all of their shows at once, which changes the dynamic of how episodes are handled in post. Nelson continues, “We were able to treat this like one long feature film. In essence, each episode is like a reel of a film. There are 10 episodes and each is 45 minutes to an hour long. We worked it as if it was an eight-and-a-half to nine hour long movie.” Skywalker Sound did all the sound post after a cut was locked. Nelson adds, “Most of the time we handed off locked cuts, but sometimes when you hear the cleaned up sound, it can highlight issues with the edit that you didn’t notice before. In some cases, we were able to go back into the edit and make some minor tweaks to make it flow better.”

As Adobe moves more into the world of dialogue-driven entertainment, a number of developers are coming up with speech-to-text solutions that are compatible with Premiere Pro. This potentially provides editors a function similar to Avid’s ScriptSync. Would something like this have been beneficial on Mindhunter, a series based on extended interviews? Nelson replies, “I like to work with the application the way it is. I try not to get too dependent on any feature that’s very specific or unique to only one piece of software. I don’t even customize my keyboard settings too much, just so it’s easier to move from one workstation to another that way. I like to work from sequences, so I don’t need a special layout for the bins or anything like that.”

“On Mindhunter we used the same ‘KEM roll’ system as on the films, which is a process that Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall [editor on Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network] prefer to work in,” Nelson continues. “All of the coverage for each scene set-up is broken up into ‘story beats’. In a 10 minute take for an interview, there might be 40 ‘beats’. These are all edited in the order of last take to first take, with any ‘starred’ takes at the head of the sequence. This way you will see all of the coverage, takes, and angles for a ‘beat’ before moving on to the group for the next ‘beat’. As you review the sequence, the really good sections of clips are moved up to video track two on the sequence. Then create a new sequence organized in story order from these selected clips and start building the scene. At any given time you can go back to the earlier sequences if the director asks to see something different than what’s in your scene cut. This method works with any NLE, so you don’t become locked into one and only one software tool.”

“Where Adobe’s approach is very helpful to us is with linked After Effects compositions,” explains Nelson. “We do a lot of invisible split screen effects and shot stabilization. Those clips are all put into After Effects comps using Dynamic Link, so that an assistant can go into After Effects and do the work. When it’s done, the completed comp just pops back into the timeline. Then ‘render and replace’ for smooth playback.”

The challenge

Certainly a series like this can be challenging for any editor, but how did Nelson take to it? He answers, “I found every interview scene to be challenging. You have an eight to 10 minute interview that needs to be interesting and compelling. Sometimes it takes two days to just get through looking at the footage for a scene like that. You start with ‘How am I going to do this?’ Somewhere along the line you get to the point where ‘This is totally working.’ And you don’t always know how you got to that point. It takes a long time approaching the footage in different ways until you can flesh it out. I really hope people enjoy the series. These are dramatizations, but real people actually did these terrible things. Certainly that creeps me out, but I really love this show and I hope people will see the craftsmanship that’s gone into Mindhunter and enjoy the series.”

In closing, Nelson offered these additional thoughts. “I’d gotten an education each and every day. Lots of editors haven’t figured it out until well into a long career. I’ve learned a lot being closer to the creative process. I’ve worked with David Fincher for almost 11 years. You think you are ready to edit, but it’s still a challenge. Many folks don’t get an opportunity like this and I don’t take that lightly. Everything that I’ve learned working with David has given me the tools and I feel fortunate that the producers had the confidence in me to let me cut on this amazing show.”

Click here for Scott Simmons’ interview from NAB 2018.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

6 Below

From IMAX to stereo3D, theaters have invested in various technologies to entice viewers and increase ticket sales. With a tip of the hat to the past, Barco has developed a new ultrawide, 3-screen digital projection system, which is a similar concept to Cinerama film theaters from the 1950s. But modern 6K-capable digital cinema cameras make the new approach possible with stunning clarity. There are currently 40 Barco Escape theaters worldwide, with the company looking for opportunities to run films designed for this format.

Enter Scott Waugh, director (Act of Valor, Need for Speed) and co-founder of LA production company, Bandito Brothers. Waugh, who is always on the lookout for new technologies, was interested in developing the first full-length, feature film to take advantage of this 3-screen, 7:1 aspect ratio for the entire length of the film. But Waugh didn’t want to change how he intended to shoot the film strictly for these theaters, since the film would also be distributed to conventional theaters. This effectively meant that two films needed to come out of the post-production process – one formatted for the Barco Escape format and one for standard 4K theaters.

6 Below (written by Madison Turner) became the right vehicle. This is a true life survival story of Eric LaMarque (played by Josh Harnett), an ex-pro hockey player turned snowboarder with an addiction problem, who finds himself lost in the ice and snow of the California Sierra mountains for a week. To best tell this story, Waugh and company trekked an hour or more into the mountains above Sundance, Utah for the production.

To handle the post workflow and co-edit the film with Waugh, editor Vashi Nedomansky (That Which I Love Destroys Me, Sharknado 2, An American Carol) joined the team. Nedomansky, another veteran of Bandito Brothers who uses Adobe Premiere Pro as his axe of choice, has also helped set up Adobe-based editorial workflows for Deadpool and Gone Girl. Ironically, in earlier years Nedomansky had been a pro hockey player himself, before shifting to a career in film and video. In fact, he played against the real Eric LeMarque on the circuit.

Pushing the boundaries

The Barco Escape format projects three 2K DCPs to cover the total 6K width. To accommodate this, RED 6K cameras were used and post was done with native media at 6K in Adobe Premiere Pro CC. My first question to Nedomansky was this. Why stay native? Nedomansky says, “We had always been pushing the boundaries at Bandito Brothers. What can we get away with? It’s always a question of time, storage, money, and working with a small team. We had a small 4-person post team for 6 Below, located near Sundance. So there was interest in not losing time to transcoding.

After some testing, we settled on decked out Dell workstations, because these could tackle the 6K RED raw files natively.” Two Dell Precision 7910 towers (20-core, 128GB RAM) with Nvidia Quadro M6000 GPUs were set up for editing, along with a third, less beefy HP quad-core computer for the assistant editor and visual effects. All three were connected to shared storage using a 10GigE network. Mike McCarthy, post production supervisor for 6 Below, set up the system. To keep things stable, they were running Windows 7 and stayed on the same Adobe Creative Cloud version throughout the life of the production. Nedomansky continues, “We kept waiting for the 6K to not play, but it never stopped in the six weeks of time that we were up there. My first assembly was almost three hours long – all in a single timeline – and I was able to play it straight through without any skips or stuttering.”

There were other challenges along the way. Nedomansky explains, “Almost all of the film was done as single-camera and Josh has to carry it with his performance as the sole person on screen for much of the film. He has to go through a range of emotions and you can’t just turn that on and off between takes. So there were lots of long 10-minute takes to convey his deterioration within the hostile environmental conditions. The story is about a man lost in the wild, without much dialogue. The challenge is how to cut down these long takes without taking away from his performance. One solution was to go against the grain – using jump cuts to shorten long takes. But I wanted to look for the emotional changes or a physical act to motivate a jump cut in a way that would make it more organic. In one case, I took a 10-minute take down to 45 seconds.”

When you have a film where weather is a character, you hope that the weather will cooperate. Nedomansky adds, “One of our biggest concerns going in, was the weather. Production started in March – a time when there isn’t a lot of snow in Utah. Fortunately for us, a day before we were supposed to start shooting, they had the biggest ‘blizzard’ of the winter for four days. This saved us a lot of VFX time, because we didn’t have to create atmospherics, like snow in front of the lens. It was there naturally.”

Using the Creative Cloud tools to their fullest

6 Below features an extensive percentage of visual effects shots. Nedomansky says, “The film has 1500 shots with 205 of them as VFX shots. John Carr was the assistant editor and visual effects artist on the film and he did all of the work in After Effects and at 6K resolution, which is unusual for films. Some of the shots included ‘day for night’ where John had to add star plates for the sky. This meant rotoscoping behind Josh and the trees to add the plates. He also had to paint out crew footprints in the snow, along with the occasional dolly track or crew member in a shot. There were also some split screens done at 6K right in Premiere Pro.”

The post schedule involved six weeks on-set and then fourteen more weeks back in LA, for a 20-week total. After that, sound post and grading (done at Technicolor). The process to correctly format the film for both Barco and regular theaters almost constituted posting two films. The RED camera image is 6144 x 2592 pixels, Barco Escape 6144 x 864, and a 4K extraction 4096 x 2160. Nedomansky explains, “The Barco frame is thin and wide. It could use the full width, but not height, of the full 6K RED image. So, I had to do a lot of ‘animation’ to reposition the frame within the Barco format. For the 4K version, the framing would be adjusted accordingly. The film has about 1500 shots, but we didn’t use different takes for the two versions. I was able to do this all through reframing.”

In wrapping up our conversation, Nedomansky adds, “I played hockey against Eric and this added an extra layer of responsibility. He’s very much still alive today. Like any film of this type, it’s ‘based on’ the true story, but liberties are taken. I wanted to make sure that Eric would respect the result. Scott and I’ve done films that were heavy on action, but this film shows another directorial style – more personal and emotional with beautiful visuals. That’s also a departure for me and it’s very important for editors to have that option.”

6 Below was released on October 13 in cinemas.

Read Vashi’s own write-up of his post production workflow.

Images are courtesy of Vashi Visuals.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Adobe’s Late-2017 Creative Cloud Updates

According to Cisco, 82% of internet traffic will be video by 2021. Adobe believes over 50% of that will be produced video and not just simple user content. This means producers will be expected to produce more – working faster and smarter. In the newest Creative Cloud update, Adobe has focused on just such workflow improvements. These were previewed at IBC and will be released later this year.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

With this release, Adobe has finally enabled the ability to have more than one project file open at the same time. You can move clips and sequences between open projects. In addition, projects can be locked by the user, making Premiere Pro the first NLE to enable multiple open projects and locking within a single application. In addition, Adobe has expanded project types to include both Team Projects (your project is in the cloud) and shared projects (your project is local). The latter is ideal for SAN/NAS environments and adds Avid-style collaboration.

Editors will enjoy specific timeline enhancements, like “close all gaps” and up to 16 label colors. The Essential Graphics panel gets some love with font filtering and a visual font preview window. Graphics templates will now include a minimum duration, so that these clips can be extended on the timeline, while leaving the fade-in and fade-out constant.

Adobe is doubling down on VR using its acquired Skybox technology. New are 19 immersive effects and transitions specific to VR projects. These are needed to properly seam wraparound edges when effects are added to VR clips. They are all GPU-only effects; however, as some VR clips can be 5K wide and larger, performance can be challenging. Nevertheless, Adobe reports decent performance with 6K VR clips at half-resolution on laptops like the HP z820 or the 2017 15” MacBook Pro. There is also an immersive playback viewer designed for HMDs (head mount displays). It will display the image along with the Premiere Pro timeline window.

Premiere Pro’s non-VR editing updates, including shared projects, are explained well by the reTooled blog (video here).

Adobe Audition

Audition is the place to finalize your Premiere Pro mix, so a new auto-ducking mix tool has been added. This is based on Sensei, Adobe’s umbrella name for its artificial intelligence technologies. To use auto-ducking, the editor simply has to adjust sensitivity, amount of reduction, and fades, and then let Audition do the rest. Under AI, it will detect pauses in the dialogue and adjust music volume accordingly.

Other Audition enhancements include a timeline timecode overlay for the video viewer, the ability to simultaneously adjust dual-sided fades on clips, and new record and punch-in preferences for ADR work (“looping”).

After Effects

Here’s another example of this focus on time-savings. After Effects gains a new start-up window to set-up the first composition. It also gains a keyboard command editor, and in this release, will add the same font previewing tools as Premiere Pro. The biggest new feature is an expansion of the expression controls. These will be tied to data files for the quick updating of template graphics. If you create a graphic – such as a map of the US with certain information displayed by colors for each state – and it’s based on a template tied to data, then changing the supporting data information will automatically update the graphic. Other enhancements include GPU acceleration for third-party plug-ins that use the Mercury Playback Engine.

Character Animator

This live-capture, cartoon animation tool finally comes out of beta. A new feature will be the adjustment of the responsiveness of the animation tracking. This will permit live animation to look more hand-drawn. Actions can now be triggered by MIDI control panels. Triggers are editable in the timeline with a waveform for better matching of lip-sync.

There’s plenty of good user news, too, including the the release of 6 Below, an ultra-wide film designed for the Barco three-screen format. It was edited by Vashi Nedomansky using Premiere Pro. Other Premiere Pro news includes the dramatic feature film, Only The Brave, edited by Bill Fox, and Coup 53, a documentary in post being cut by Walter Murch. Both of these noted editors have been using Premiere Pro.

For more in-depth info, check out these links for a solid overview of Adobe’s soon-to-come Creative Cloud application updates:

ProVideo Coalition – Scott Simmons

Premiere Bro blog

Adobe’s own Digital Video & Audio blog

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Customize Premiere Pro with Workspaces

Most days I find myself in front of Adobe Premiere Pro CC, both by choice and by the jobs I’m booked on. Yes, I know, for some it’s got bugs and flaws, but for me it’s generally well-behaved. Given the choices out there, Premiere Pro feels the most natural to me for an efficient editing workflow.

Part of what makes Premiere Pro work for me is the ability to customize and fine-tune the user interface layout for the way I like to work or the tasks at hand. This is made possible by Adobe’s use of panels for the various tools and windows within the interface. These panels can float or be docked, stacked, or tabbed in a wonderfully large range of configuration possibilities. The Adobe CC applications come with a set of preset workspaces, but these can be customized and augmented as needed. I won’t belabor this post with an in-depth explanation of workspaces, because there are three very good explanations over at PremiereBro. (Click these links for Post 1, Post 2, and Post 3). My discussion with Simon Ubsdell made me think the topic would make a good blog post here, too.

It all starts with displays

I started my NLE journey with Avid and in the early days, two screens (preferably of a matching size) were essential. Bins on the left with viewers and timeline on the right. However, in the intervening years, screen resolution has greatly increased and developers have made their UIs work on dual and single-screen configurations. Often today, two screens can actually be too much. For example, if you have two side-by-side 27” (or larger) displays, the distance from the far left to the far right is pretty large. This makes your view of the record window quite a bit off-center. To counter-balance this issue, in a number of set-ups, I’ve taken to working with two different sized displays: a centered 27”, plus a smaller 20” display to the left. Sometimes I’ll have a broadcast display to the right. The left and right displays are at an angle, which means that my main working palette – the viewers and timeline – are dead-center on the display in front of me.

I also work with a laptop from time to time, as well as do some jobs in Final Cut Pro X. Generally a laptop is going to be the only available display and FCPX is well-optimized for single-screen operation. As a result, I’ve started to play around with working entirely on a single display – only occasionally using the landscape of the secondary display on my left when really needed. The more I work this way, the more I find that I can work almost entirely on one screen, if that screen offers a decent resolution.

So in order to optimize my workflow, I’ve created a number of custom Premiere Pro workspaces to serve my needs. (Click any of these images to see the enlarged view.)

Edit layout 1

This is the classic two-screen layout. Bins on the left and dual-viewer/timeline on the right. I use this when I have a lot of footage and need to tab a number of bins or expand a bin to see plenty of list details or thumbnails.

Edit layout 2

This layout collapses the classic layout onto a single screen, with the project panel, viewers and timeline.

Edit layout 3

This layout is the one I use most often, because most of what I need is neatly grouped as a tab or a stack on the left and right sides of a single viewer window. Note that there are actually source and record viewers, but they are stacked behind each other. So if I load a clip or match frame from the timeline, the source viewer becomes foremost for me to work with. Do an edit or go back to the timeline and the viewer switches back to the record side.

By tabbing panels on the left side, I can select the panel needed at the time. There is a logical order to what is on the left or right side. For instance, scopes are left and Lumetri Color controls on the right – thus, both can be open. Or I can drag an effect from the right pane’s Effects palette onto the Effects Control panel on the left.

Edit layout 4

This is the most minimalist of my workspaces. Just the viewers and timeline. Anything else can be opened as a floating window for temporary access. The point of this workspace is 100% focus on the timeline, with everything else hidden.

Edit layout 5

This workspace is designed for the “pancake timeline” style of editing. For example, build a “selects” timeline and then pull from that down to your main editing timeline.

Edit layout 6

This is another dual-display layout optimized for color correction. Lumetri Color and Effects Control panel flanking the viewer, with the Lumetri Scopes fullscreen on the lefthand monitor.

There are certainly plenty of other ways you can configure a workspace to suit your style. Some Premiere Pro editors like to use the secondary screen to display the timeline panel fullscreen. Or maybe use it to spread out their audio track mixer. Hence the beauty of Adobe’s design – you can make it as minimal or complex as you like. There is no right or wrong approach – simply whatever works to improve your editing efficiency.

Note: Footage shown within these UI screen grabs is courtesy of Imagine Dragons and Adobe from the Make the Cut Contest.

©2017 Oliver Peters