SpeedScriber

Script-based video editing started with Ediflex. But, it really came into its own when Avid created script integration as a way to cut dialogue-driven stories, like feature films, in Media Composer. The key ingredient is a written script or a transcription of the spoken audio. This is easy with a feature that’s been acted according to defined script lines, but much harder with something freeform, like a documentary or news interview. In those projects, you first need a person or service to transcribe the audio into a written document – or simply cut without it and hunt around when you look for that one specific sentence.

Modern technology has come to the rescue in the form of artificial intelligence, which has enabled a number of transcription services to offer very fast turnaround times from audio upload to a transcribed, speech-to-text document. Several video developers have tapped into these resources to create new transcription services/applications, which can be tied into several of the popular NLE applications.

Transcription for the three “A” companies

One of these new products is SpeedScriber, a transcription application for macOS and its companion service developed by Digital Heaven, which was founded by veteran UK editor and plug-in developer Martin Baker. To start using SpeedScriber, install the free SpeedScriber application, which is available from the Apple Mac App Store. The next steps depend on whether you just want to create transcribed documents, captioning files, or script integration for Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, or Apple Final Cut Pro X.

If you just want a document, or plan to use Media Composer or FCPX, then no other tools are required. For Premiere Pro CC workflows, you’ll want to download an panel installer for macOS or Windows from the SpeedScriber website. This integrates as a standard Premiere Pro panel and permits you to import transcription files directly into Premiere Pro. The SpeedScriber application enables roundtripping to/from Final Cut using FCPXML.

First, let’s talk about the transcription itself. It should generally be clip-based and not from edited timelines, unless you just want to document a completed project or for captioning. When you launch SpeedScriber for the first time, you’ll need to create an account. This will include 15 minutes of free transcription time. The file length determines the time used. Billing for the service is based on time and is tiered, ranging from $.50/minute (30/60/120 minutes) down to $.37/minute (6,000 minutes). Minutes are pre-purchased and don’t expire.

Once your account is ready, drag-and-drop or point the application to the file to import. Disable any unwanted audio channels, so that the transcription is based on the best audio channel within the file. Even if all channels are equal, disable all but one of them. Set up the number of speakers and language format, such as British, Australian, or American English. According to Baker, support for five European languages will be added in version 1.1. The service will automatically determine when speakers change, such as between an interviewer and the subject. It’s hard for the system to determine this with great accuracy, so don’t expect these speaker changes to be perfect.

The transcription experience

Accuracy of the transcription can be extremely good, but it depends on the audio quality that you’ve supplied. A clean interview track – well mic’ed and in a quiet room – can be dead-on with only a few corrections needed. Slower speakers who enunciate well result in greater accuracy. On the other hand, having several speakers in a noisy environment, or a very fast speaker with a heavy accent, will require a lot of correction – enough so that manual transcription might be better in those cases.

Once SpeedScriber has completed its automatic transcription, you can play the file to proof it and make any corrections to the text that are required. It’s easy to type corrections to the transcription within the SpeedScriber text editing window. When done, you can export the text in a number of different formats. I ran a test clip of a clear-spoken woman with well-recorded audio. She had a slight southern drawl, but the result from SpeedScriber was excellent. It also did a good job of ignoring speech idiosyncrasies, such a frequent “ums”. This eight minute test clip only required about a dozen text corrections throughout.

If the objective is script integration into an NLE, then the process varies depending on brand. Typically such integration is clip-based, although multi-cam clips are supported. However, it’s tougher when you try to connect the transcription to a timeline. For example, I like to do cutdowns of interviews first, before transcribing, and that’s not really how ScreedScriber works best. In version 1.1, FCPX compound clips will be supported, so segments can be cut before transcription.

A clear set of tutorial videos are available in the support section of  the SpeedScriber website.

Integration with NLEs

Media Composer is easy, because it already has a Script Integration feature. Import the text file that was exported from SpeedScriber as a new script into Media Composer and link the video clip to it. If you purchased Avid’s ScriptSync, then you can automatically line up the clip to sentences within the script. This happens automatically thanks to ScriptSync’s speech analysis function. But if you didn’t purchase this add-on, simply add sync points manually.

With Premiere Pro, select the clip, open the SpeedScriber panel and from it, import the corresponding transcription. The text appears in the Speech Analysis section of that clip’s metadata display. It will actually be embedded into the media file so that the clip can be moved between projects complete with that clip’s transcription. You can view and use this text display to mark in/out by words for accurate script-based selections. When you import the script and link it to a multi-cam clip, synced clip, or sequence, text will show up as markers and can be viewed in the markers panel. Premiere Pro is the only integration that can easily update existing speech metadata or markers. So you can start editing with the raw transcript and then update it later when corrections have been made. However, when I tested transcriptions on an edited sequence instead of a clip, it locked up Premiere Pro, requiring a Force Quit. Fortunately, when I re-opened the recovered project, the markers were there as expected.

The most straight forward approach seems to be its use with Final Cut Pro X. According to Baker, “This is the first Digital Heaven product with broad appeal by supporting Avid and Premiere Pro. But FCPX has ended up having the deepest integration due to the ability to drag-and-drop the Library, which was introduced in 10.3. So with roundtripping, SpeedScriber rebuilds the clip’s timeline without any need to export. Another advantage of the roundtripping is that SpeedScriber can read the audio channel status from the dropped XML, which is important for getting the best accuracy.”

There’s a roundtrip procedure with FCPX, but even without it, simply export an FCPXML from SpeedScriber. Import that into your Final Cut Pro X Library. The clip will then show a number of keyword entries corresponding to line breaks. For each keyword entry, the browser notes field will display the associated text, making it easy to find any dialogue. Plus, these entries are already marked as selections. When clips are edited into the sequence (an FCPX Project), the timeline index enables these notes to be displayed under the Tags section.

SpeedScriber shows tremendous potential to accelerate the efficiency of many spoken-word projects, like documentaries. Half the battle is trying to figure out the story that you want to tell, so having the text right in front of you makes this job easier. Applying modern technology to this challenge is refreshing and the constantly improving accuracy of these systems makes it an easy consideration. SpeedScriber is one of those tools that not only gets you home earlier, but will give you the assurance that you can easily find that clip you are looking for in the proverbial haystack of clips.

©2017 Oliver Peters

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A Light Footprint

When I started video editing, the norm was an edit suite with three large quadraplex (2”) videotape recorders, video switcher, audio mixer, B&W graphics camera(s) for titles, and a computer-assisted, timecode-based edit controller. This was generally considered  an “online edit suite”, but in many markets, this was both “offline” (creative cutting) and “online” (finishing). Not too long thereafter, digital effects (ADO, NEC, Quantel) and character generators (Chyron, Aston, 3M) joined the repertoire. 2” quad eventually gave way to 1” VTRs and those, in turn, were replaced by digital – D1, D2, and finally Digital Betacam. A few facilities with money and clientele migrated to HD versions of these million dollar rooms.

Towards the midpoint in the lifespan for this way of working, nonlinear editing took hold. After a few different contenders had their day in the sun, the world largely settled in with Avid and/or Media 100 rooms. While a lower cost commitment than the large online bays of the day, these nonlinear edit bays (NLE) still required custom-configured Macs, a fair amount of external storage, along with proprietary hardware and monitoring to see a high-quality video image. Though crude at first, NLEs eventually proved capable of handling all the video needs, including HD-quality projects and even higher resolutions today.

The trend towards smaller

As technology advanced, computers because faster and more powerful, storage capacities increased, and software that required custom hardware evolved to work in a software-only mode. Today, it’s possible to operate with a fraction of the cost, equipment, and hassle of just a few years ago, let along a room from the mid-70s. As a result, when designing or installing a new room, it’s important to question the assumptions about what makes a good edit bay configuration.

For example, today I frequently work in rooms running newer iMacs, 2013 Mac Pros, and even MacBook Pro laptops. These are all perfectly capable of running Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, and other applications, without the need for additional hardware. In my interview with Thomas Grove Carter, he mentioned often working off of his laptop with a connected external drive for media. And that’s at Trim, a high-end London commercial editing boutique.

In my own home edit room, I recently set aside my older Mac Pro tower in favor of working entirely with my 2015 MacBook Pro. No more need to keep two machines synced up and the MBP is zippier in all respects. With the exception of some heavy-duty rendering (infrequent), I don’t miss using the tower. I run the laptop with an external Dell display and have configured my editing application workspaces around a single screen. The laptop is closed and parked in a BookArc stand tucked behind the Dell. But I also bought a Rain stand for those times when I need the MBP open and functioning as a second display.

Reduce your editing footprint

I find more and more editors working in similar configurations. For example, one of my clients is a production company with seven networked (NAS storage) workstations. Most of these are iMacs with few other connected peripherals. The main room has a 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro and a bit more gear, since this is the “hero” room for clients. If you are looking to downsize your editing environment, here are some pointers.

While you can work strictly from a laptop, I prefer to build it up for a better experience. Essential for me is a Thunderbolt dock. Check out OWC or CalDigit for two of the best options. This lets you connect the computer to the dock and then everything else connects to that dock. One Thunderbolt cable to the laptop, plus power for the computer, leaving you with a clean installation with an easy-to-move computer. From the dock, I’m running a Presonus Audiobox USB audio interface (to a Mackie mixer and speakers), a TimeMachine drive, a G-Tech media drive, and the Dell display. If I were to buy something different today, I would use the Mackie Onyx Blackjack interface instead of the Presonus/Mackie mixer combo. The Blackjack is an all-in-one solution.

Expand your peripherals as needed

At the production company’s hero room, we have the extra need to drive some video monitors for color correction and client viewing. That room is similarly configured as above, except with a Mac Pro and connection to a QNAP shared storage solution. The latter connects over 10Gb/s Ethernet via a Sonnet Thunderbolt/Ethernet adapter.

When we initially installed the room, video to the displays was handled by a Blackmagic Design UltraStudio device. However, we had a lot of playback performance issues with the UltraStudio, especially when using FCPX. After some experimenting, we realized that both Premiere Pro and FCPX can send a fullscreen, [generally] color-accurate signal to the wall-mounted flat panel using only HDMI and no other video i/o hardware. We ended up connecting the HDMI from the dock to the display and that’s the standard working routine when we are cutting in either Premiere Pro or Final Cut.

The rub for us is DaVinci Resolve. You must use some type of Blackmagic Design hardware product in order to get fullscreen video to a display when in Resolve. Therefore, the Ultrastudio’s HDMI port connects to the second HDMI input of the large client display and SDI feeds a separate TV Logic broadcast monitor. This is for more accurate color rendition while grading. With Media Composer, there were no performance issues, but the audio and video signal wants to go through the same device. So, if we edit Avid, then the signal chain goes through the UltraStudio, as well.

All of this means that in today’s world, you can work as lightly as you like. Laptop-only – no problem. iMac with some peripherals – no problem. A fancy, client-oriented room – still less hassle and cost than just a few short years ago. Load it up with extra control surfaces or stay light with a keyboard, mouse, or tablet. It all works today – pretty much as advertised. Gone are the days when you absolutely need to drop a small fortune to edit high-quality video. You just have to know what you are doing and understand the trade-offs as they arise.

©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

Premiere Pro Workflow Tips

When you are editing on projects that only you touch, your working practices can be as messy as you want them to be. However, if you work on projects that need to be interchanged with others down the line, or you’re in a collaborative editing environment, good operating practices are essential. This starts at the moment you first receive the media and carries through until the project has been completed, delivered, and archived.

Any editor who’s worked with Avid Media Composer in a shared storage situation knows that it’s pretty rock solid and takes measures to assure proper media relinking and management. Adobe Premiere Pro is very powerful, but much more freeform. Therefore, the responsibility of proper media management and editor discipline falls to the user. I’ve covered some of these points in other posts, but it’s good to revisit workflow habits.

Folder templates. I like to have things neat and one way to assure that is with project folder templates. You can use a tool like Post Haste to automatically generate a new set of folders for each new production – or you can simply design your own set of folders as a template layout and copy those for each new job. Since I’m working mainly in Premiere Pro these days, my folder template includes a Premiere Pro template project, too. This gives me an easy starting point that has been tailored for the kinds of narrative/interview projects that I’m working on. Simply rename the root folder and the project for the new production (or let Post Haste do that for you). My layout includes folders for projects, graphics, audio, documents, exports, and raw media. I spend most of my time working at a multi-suite facility connected to a NAS shared storage system. There, the folders end up on the NAS volume and are accessible to all editors.

Media preparation. When the crew comes back from the shoot, the first priority is to back-up their files to an archive drive and then copy the files again to the storage used for editing – in my case a NAS volume. If we follow the folder layout described above, then those files get copied to the production dailies or raw media (whatever you called it) folder. Because Premiere Pro is very fluid and forgiving with all types of codecs, formats, and naming conventions, it’s easy to get sloppy and skip the next steps. DON’T. The most important thing for proper media linking is to have consistent locations and unique file names. If you don’t, then future relinking, moving the project into an application like Resolve for color correction/finishing, or other process may lead to not linking to the correct file.

Premiere Pro works better when ALL of the media is in a single common format, like DNxHD/HR or ProRes. However, for most productions, the transcoding time involved would be unacceptable. A large production will often shoot with multiple camera formats (Alexa, RED, DSLRs, GoPros, drones, etc.) and generate several cards worth of media each day. My recommendation is to leave the professional format files alone (like RED or Alexa), but transcode the oddball clips, like DJI cameras. Many of these prosumer formats place the media into various folder structures or hide them inside a package container format. I will generally move these outside of this structure so they are easily accessible at the Finder level. Media from the cameras should be arranged in a folder hierarchy of Date, Camera, and Card. Coordinate with the DIT and you’ll often get the media already organized in this manner. Transcode files as needed and delete the originals if you like (as long as they’ve been backed up first).

Unfortunately these prosumer cameras often use repeated, rather than unique, file names. Every card starts over with clip number 0001. That’s why we need to rename these files. You can usually skip renaming professional format files. It’s optional. Renaming Alexa files is fine, but avoid renaming RED or P2 files. However, definitely rename DSLR, GoPro, and DJI clips. When renaming clips I use an app called Better Rename on the Mac, but any batch renaming utility will do. Follow a consistent naming convention. Mine is a descriptive abbreviation, month/day, camera, and card. So a shoot in Palermo on July 22, using the B camera, recorded on card 4, becomes PAL0722B04_. This is appended in front of the camera-generated clip name, so then clip number 0057 becomes PAL0722B04_0057. You don’t need the year, because the folder location, general project info, or the embedded file info will tell you that.

A quick word on renaming. Stick with universal alphanumeric conventions in both the files and the folder names. Avoid symbols, emojis, etc. Otherwise, some systems will not be able to read the files. Don’t get overly lengthy in your names. Stick with upper and lower case letters, numbers, dashes, underscores, and spaces. Then you’ll be fine.

Project location. Premiere Pro has several basic file types that it generates with each project. These include the project file itself, Auto-saved project files, renders, media cache files and audio peak (.pek) files. Some of these are created in the background as new media is imported into the project. You can choose to store these anywhere you like on the system, although there are optimal locations.

Working on a NAS, there is no problem in letting the project file, Auto-saves, and renders stay on the NAS in the same section of the NAS as all of your other media. I do this because it’s easy to back-up the whole job at the end of the line and have everything in one place. However, you don’t want all the small, application-generated cache files to be there. While it’s an option in preferences, it is highly recommended to have these media cache files go to the internal hard drive of the workstation or a separate, external local drive. The reason is that there are a lot of these small files and that traffic on the NAS will tend to bog down the overall performance. So set them to be local (the default).

The downside of doing this is that when another editor opens the Premiere Pro project on a different computer, these files have to be regenerated on that new system. The project will react sluggishly until this background process is complete. While this is a bit of a drag, it’s what Adobe recommends to keep the system operating well.

One other cache setting to be mindful of is the automatic delete option. A recent Premiere Pro problem cropped up when users noticed that original media was disappearing from their drives. Although this was a definite bug, the situation mainly affected users who had set Media cache to be with their original media files and had enabled automatic deletion. You are better off to keep the default location, but change the deletion setting to manual. You’ll have to occasional clean your caches manually, but this is preferable to losing your original content.

Premiere Pro project locking. A recent addition to Premiere Pro is project locking. This came about because of Team Projects, which are cloud-only shared project files. However, in many environments, facilities do not want their projects in the cloud. Yet, they can still take advantage of this feature. When project locking is enabled in Premiere Pro (every user on the system must do this), the application opens a temporary .prlock next to the project file. This is intended to prevent other users from opening the same project and overwriting the original editor’s work and/or revisions.

Unfortunately, this only works correctly when you open a project from the launch window. Do not open the project by double-clicking the project file itself in order to launch Premiere Pro and that project. If you open through the launch window, then Premiere Pro will prevents you from opening a locked project file. However, if you open through the Finder, then the locking system is circumvented, causing crashes and potentially lost work.

Project layout templates.  Like folder layouts, I’m fond of using a template for my Premiere Pro projects, too. This way all projects have a consistent starting point, which is good when working with several editors collaboratively. You can certainly create multiple templates depending on the nature and specs of the job, e.g. commercials, narrative, 23.98, 29.97, etc. As with the folder layout, I’ll often use a leading underscore with a name to sort an item to the top of a list, or start the name with a “z” to sort it to the bottom. A lot of my work is interview-driven with supportive B-roll footage. Most of the time I’m cutting in 23.98fps. So, that’s the example shown here.

My normal routine is to import the camera files (using Premiere Pro’s internal Media Browser) according to the date/camera/card organization described earlier. Then I’ll review the footage and rearrange the clips. Interview files go into an interview sources bin. I will add sub-bins in the B-roll section for general categories. As I review footage, I’ll move clips into their appropriate area, until the date/camera/card bins are empty and can be deleted from the project. Interviews will be grouped as multi-cam clips and edited to a single sequence for each person. This sequence gets moved into the Interview Edits sub-bin and becomes the source for any clips from this interview. I do a few other things before starting to edit, but that’s for another time and another post.

Working as a team. There are lots of ways to work collaboratively, so the concept doesn’t mean the same thing in every type of job. Sometimes it requires different people working on the same job. Other times it means several editors may access a common pool of media, but working in their own discrete projects. In any case, Premiere does not allow the same sort of flexibility that Media Composer or Final Cut Pro editors enjoy. You cannot have two or more editors working inside the same project file. You cannot open more than one project at a time. This mean Premiere Pro editors need to think through their workflows in order to effectively share projects.

There are different strategies to employ. The easiest is to use the standard “save as” function to create alternate versions of a project. This is also useful to keep project bloat low. As you edit a long time on a project, you build up a lot of old “in progress” sequences. After a while, it’s best to save a copy and delete the older sequences. But the best way is to organize a structure to follow.

As an example, let’s say a travel-style show covers several locations in an episode. Several editors and an assistant are working on it. The assistant would create a master project with all the footage imported and organized, interviews grouped/synced, and so on. At this point each editor takes a different location to cut that segment. There are two options. The first is to duplicate the project file for each location. Open each one up and delete the content that’s not for that location. The second option is to create a new project for each location and them import media from the master project using Media Browser. This is Adobe’s built-in module that enables the editor to access files, bins, and sequences from inside other Premiere Pro projects. When these are imported, there is no dynamic linking between the two projects. The two sets of files/sequences are independent of each other.

Next, each editors cuts their own piece, resulting in a final sequence for each segment. Back in the master project, each edited sequence can be imported – again, using Media Browser –  for the purposes of the final show build and tweaks. Since all of the media is common, no additional media files will be imported. Another option is to create a new final project and then import each sequence into it (using Media Browser). This will import the sequences and any associated media films. Then use the segment sequences to build the final show sequence and tweak as needed.

There are plenty of ways to use Premiere Pro and maintain editing versatility within a shared storage situation. You just have to follow a few rules for “best practices” so that everyone will “play nice” and have a successful experience.

Click here to download a folder template and enclosed Premiere Pro template project.

©2017 Oliver Peters

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

Tools for Dealing with Media

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Although most editing application manufacturers like to tout how you can just go from camera to edit with native media, most editors know that’s a pretty frustrating way to work. The norm these days is for the production team to use a whole potpourri of professional and prosumer cameras, so it’s really up to the editor to straighten this out before the edit begins. Granted a DIT could do all of this, but in my experience, the person being called a DIT is generally just someone who copies/backs-up the camera cards onto hard drives to bring back from the shoot. As an editor you are most likely to receive a drive with organized copies of the camera media cards, but still with the media in its native form.

Native media is fine when you are talking about ARRI ALEXA, Canon C300 or even RED files. It is not fine when coming from a Canon 5D, DJI, iPhone, Sony A7S, etc. The reason is that these systems record long-GOP media without valid timecode. Most do not generate unique file names. In some cases, there is no proper timebase within the files, so time itself is “rubbery” – meaning, a frame of time varies slightly in true duration from one frame to the next.

If you remove the A7S .mp4 files from within the clutter of media card folders and take these files straight into an NLE, you will get varying results. There is a signal interpreted as timecode by some tools, but not by others. Final Cut Pro X starts all of these clips at 00:00:00:00, while Premiere Pro and Resolve read something that is interpreted as timecode, which ascends sequentially on successive clips. Finally, these cameras have no way to deal with off-speed recordings. For example, if a higher frame rate is recorded with the intent to play it back in slow motion. You can do that with a high-end camera, but not these prosumer products. So I’ve come to rely on several software products heavily in these types of productions.

Step 1 : Hedge for Mac

df3016_media_2The first step in any editing is to get the media from the field drives onto the edit system drives. Hopefully your company’s SOP is to archive this media from the field in addition to any that comes out of the edit. However, you don’t want to edit directly from these drives. When you do a Finder copy from one drive to the next there is no checksum verification. In other words, the software doesn’t actually check to make sure the copy is exact without errors. This is the biggest plus for an application like Hedge – copy AND verification.

Hedge comes in a free and a paid version. The free version is useful, but copy and verify is slower than the paid version. The premium (paid) version uses a software component that they call Fast Lane to speed up the verification process so that it takes roughly the same amount of time as a Finder copy, which has no verification. To give you an idea, I copied a 62GB folder from a USB2.0 thumb drive to an external media drive connected to my Mac via eSATA (through an internal card). The process took under 30 minutes for a copy through Hedge (paid version) – about the same as it took for a Finder copy. Using the free version takes about twice as long, so there’s a real advantage to buying the premium version of the application. In addition, the premium version works with NAS and RAID systems.

The interface is super simple. Sources and targets are drag-and-drop. You can specify folders within the drives, so it’s not just a root-level, drive-to-drive copy. Multiple targets and even multiple sources can be specified within the same batch. This is great for creating a master as well as several back-up copies. Finally, Hedge generates a transfer log for written evidence of the copies and verification performed.

Step 2 : EditReady

df3016_media_3Now that you have your media copies, it’s time to process the prosumer camera media into something more edit-friendly. Since the camera-original files are being archived, I don’t generally save both the original and converted files on my edit system. For all intents and purposes, the new, processed files become my camera media. I’ve used tools like MPEG Streamclip in the past. That still works well, but EditReady from Divergent Media is better. It reads many media formats that other players don’t and it does a great job writing ProRes media. It will do other formats, too, but ProRes is usually the best format for projects that I work with.

One nice benefit of EditReady is that it offers additional processing functions. For example, if you want to bake in a LUT to the transcoded files, there’s a function for that. If you shot at 29.97, but want the files to play at 23.976 inside you NLE, EditReady enables you to retime the files accordingly. Since Divergent Media also makes ScopeBox, you can get a bundle with both EditReady and ScopeBox. Through a software conduit called ScopeLink, clips from the EditReady player show up in the ScopeBox viewer and its scopes, so you can make technical evaluations right within the EditReady environment.

EditReady uses a drag-and-drop interface that allows you to set up a batch for processing. If you have more that one target location or process chain, simply open up additional windows for each batch that you’d like to set up. Once these are fired off, all process will run simultaneously. The best part is that these conversions are fast, resulting in reliable transcoded media in an edit-friendly format.

Step 3: Better Rename

df3016_media_4The last step for me is usually to rename the file names. I won’t do this with formats like ALEXA ProRes or RED, but it’s essential for 5D, DJI and other similar cameras. That’s because these camera normally don’t generate unique file names. After all, you don’t want a bunch of clips that are named C0001 with a starting timecode of 00:00:00:00 – do you?

While there are a number of batch renaming applications and even Automator scripts that you can create, my preferred application is Better Rename, which is available in the Mac App Store. It has a host of functions to change names, add numbered sequences and append a text prefix or suffix to a name. The latter option is usually the best choice. Typically I’ll drag my camera files from each group into the interface and append a prefix that adds a camera card identifier and a date to the clip name. So C0001 becomes A01_102916_C0001. A clip from the second card would change from C0001 to A02_102916_C0001. It’s doubtful that the A camera would shoot more than 99 cards in a day, but if so, you can adjust your naming scheme accordingly.

There you go. Three simple steps to bulletproof how you work with media.

©2016 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