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

Film Editor Techniques

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Editing is a craft that each editor approaches with similarities and differences in style and technique. If you follow my editor interviews or those at Steve Hullfish’s Art of the Cut series, then you know that most of the top editors are more than willing to share how they do things. This post will go through a “baker’s dozen” set of tips and techniques that hopefully will help your next, large project go just a bit more smoothly.

Transcoding media. While editing with native media straight from the camera is all the rage in the NLE world, it’s the worst way to work on long-term projects. Camera formats vary in how files are named, what the playback load is on the computer, and so on. It’s best to create a common master format for all the media in your project. If you have really large files, like 4K camera media, you might also transcode editing proxies. Cut with these and then flip to the master quality files when it comes time to finish.

Transcode audio. In addition to working with common media formats, it’s a good practice to get all of your audio into a proper format. Most NLEs can deal with a mix of audio formats, bit depths and sample rates, but that doesn’t mean you should. It’s quite common to get VO and temp music as MP3 files with 44.1kHz sampling. Even though your NLE may work with this just fine, it can cause problems with sync and during audio post later. Before you start working with audio in your project, transcode it to .wav of .aif formats with 48kHz sampling and 16-bit or 24-bit bit-depth. Higher sampling rates and bit-depths are OK if your NLE can handle them, but they should be multiples of these values.

Break up your project files by reel. Most films are broken down into 20 minute “reels”. Typically a feature will have five or six reels that make up the entire film. This is an old-school approach that goes back to the film day, yet, it’s still a good way to work in the modern digital era. How this is done differs by NLE brand.

With Media Composer, the root data file is the bin. Therefore, each film reel would be a separate timeline, quite possibly placed into a separate bin. This facilitates collaboration among editors and assistants using different systems, but still accessing the same project file. Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro CC don’t work this way. You cannot share the exact same FCPX library or Premiere Pro project file between two editors at one time.

In Final Cut Pro X, the library file is the basic data file/container, so each reel would be in its own library with a separate master library that contains only the final edited sequence for each of the reels. Since FCPX editors can open multiple libraries, it’s possible to work across reels this way or to have different editors open and work on different libraries independent of each other.

With Premiere you can only have a single project file open at one time. When a film is broken into one reel per project, it becomes easy for editors and assistants to work collaboratively. Then a master project can be created to import the final version of each reel’s timeline to create the combined film timeline. Media Browser within Premiere Pro should be used to access sequences from within other project files and import them into a new project.

Show/hide, sifting and sorting. Each NLE has its own way of displaying or hiding clips and subclips. Learning how to use these controls will help you speed up the organization of the media. Final Cut Pro X has a sophisticated method of assigning “favorites” and “rejects” to clips and ranges within clips. You can also assign keywords. By selecting what to see and to hide, it’s easy to cull a mass of footage into the few, best options. Likewise with Media Composer and Premiere Pro, you can show and hide clips and also sort by custom column criteria. Media Composer includes a custom sift feature, which is a filtering solution within the bin. It is easy to sift a bin by specific data in certain columns. Doing so hides everything else and reveals only the matching set of media on a per-bin basis.

Stringouts. A stringout is a sequence of selected footage. Many editors use stringouts as the starting point and then whittle down the scene from there. For example, Kirk Baxter likes his assistants to create a stringout for a dialogue scene that is broken down by line and camera. For each line of dialogue, you would see every take and camera angle covering that line of dialogue from wide to tight. Then the next line of dialogue and so on. The result is a very long sequence for the scene, but he can quickly assess the performance and best angle for each portion of the scene. Then he goes through and picks his favorites by pushing the video clip up one track for quick identification. The assistant then cleans up the stringout by creating a second version containing only these selected clips. Now the real cutting can begin.

Julian Clarke has his assistants create a similar stringout for action scenes. All takes and angles are organized back-to-back matching the choreography of the action. So – every angle/take for each crash or blast or punch within the scene. From these he has a clear idea of coverage and how to proceed cutting the scene, which otherwise might have an overwhelming amount of footage at first glance.

I use stringouts a lot for interview-driven documentaries. One sequence per person with everything. The second and third stringouts are successive cutdowns from that initial all-inclusive stringout. At this stage I start combining portions of sequences based on topics for a second round of stringouts. These will get duplicated and then culled, trimmed and rearranged as I refine the story.

Pancakes and using sequences as sources. When you use stringouts, it’s common to have one sequence become the source for another sequence. There are ways to handle this depending on your NLE. Many will nest the source sequence as a single clip on the new timeline. I contend that nesting should be avoided. Media Composer only allows one sequence in the “record” window to be active at any one time (no tabbed timeline). However, you can also drag a sequence to the source window and its tracks and clips can be viewed by toggling the timeline display between source and record. At least this way you can mark ins and outs for sections. Both Final Cut Pro “legacy” and Premiere Pro enable several sequences to be loaded into the timeline window where they are accessible through tabs. Final Cut Pro X dropped this feature, replacing it with a timeline history button to step forward or backward through several loaded sequences. To go between these sequences in all three apps, using copy-and-paste functions are typically the best way to bring clips from one sequence into another.

One innovative approach is the so-called “pancake” timeline, popularized by editor/blogger Vashi Nedomansky. Premiere Pro permits you to stack two or more timelines into separate panels. The selected sequence becomes active in the viewer at any given time. By dragging between timeline panels, it is possible to edit from one sequence to another. This is a very quick and efficient way to edit from a longer stringout of selects to a shorting one with culled choices.

Scene wall. Walter Murch has become synonymous with the scene wall, but in fact, many editors use this technique. In a scene wall, a series of index cards for each scene is placed in story order on a wall or bulletin board. This provides a quick schematic of the story at any given time during the edit. As you remove or rearrange scenes, it’s easy to see what impact that will have. Simply move the cards first and review the wall before you ever commit to doing the actual edit. In addition, with the eliminated cards (representing scenes) moved off to the side, you never lose sight of what material has been cut out of the film. This is helpful to know, in case you want to go back and revisit those.

Skinning, i.e. self-contained files. Another technique Murch likes to use is what he calls adding a skin to the topmost track. The concept is simple. When you have a lot of mixed media and temp effects, system performance can be poor until rendered. Instead of rendering, the timeline is exported as a self-contained file. In turn, that is re-imported into the project and placed onto the topmost track, hiding everything below it. Now playback is smooth, because the system only has to play this self-contained file. It’s like a “skin” covering the “viscera” of the timeline clips below it.

As changes are made to add, remove, trim or replace shots and scenes, an edit is made in this self-contained clip and the ends are trimmed back to expose the area in which changes are being made. Only the part where “edit surgery” happens isn’t covered by the “skin”, i.e. self-contained file. Next a new export is done and the process is repeated. By seeing the several tracks where successive revisions have been made to the timeline, it’s possible to track the history of the changes that have been made to the story. Effectively this functions as a type of visual change list.

Visual organization of the bin. Most NLEs feature list and frame views of a bin’s contents. FCPX also features a filmstrip view in the event (bin), as well as a full strip for the selected clip at the top of the screen when in the list view. Unfortunately, the standard approach is for these to be arranged based on sorting criteria or computer defaults, not by manual methods. Typically the view is a tiled view for nice visual organization. But, of course, the decision-making process can be messy.

Premiere Pro at least lets you manually rearrange the order of the tiles, but none of the NLEs is as freeform as Media Composer. The bin’s frame view can be a completely messy affair, which editors use to their advantage. A common practice is to move all of the selected takes up to the top row of the bin and then have everything else pulled lower in the bin display, often with some empty space in between.

Multi-camera. It is common practice, even on smaller films, to shoot with two or more cameras for every scene. Assuming these are used for two angles of the same subject, like a tight and a wide shot on the person speaking, then it’s best to group these as multi-camera clips. This gives you the best way to pick among several options. Every NLE has good multi-camera workflow routines. However, there are times when you might not want to do that, such as in this blog post of mine.

Multi-channel source audio. Generally sound on a film shoot is recorded externally with several microphones being tracked separately. A multi-channel .wav file is recorded with eight or more tracks of materials. The location sound mixer will often mix a composite track of the microphones for reference onto channel one and/or two of the file. When bringing this into the edit, how you handle it will vary with each NLE.

Both Media Composer and Premiere Pro will enable you to merge audio and picture into synchronized clips and select which channels to include in the combined file. Since it’s cumbersome to drag along eight or more source channels for every edit in these track-based timelines, most editors will opt to only merge the clips using channel one (the mixed track) of the multi-channel .wav file. There will be times when you need to go to one of the isolated mics, in which case a match-frame will get you back to the source .wav, from which you can pull the clean channel containing the isolated microphone. If your project goes to a post-production mixer using Pro Tools, then the mixer normally imports and replaces all of the source audio with the multi-channel .wav files. This is common practice when the audio work done by the picture editor is only intended to be used as a temp mix.

With Final Cut Pro X, source clips always show up as combined a/v clips, with multi-channel audio hidden within this “container”. This is just as true with synchronized clips. To see all of the channels, expand the clip or select it and view the details in the inspector. This way the complexity doesn’t clog the timeline and you can still selectively turn on or off any given mic channel, as well as edit within each audio channel. No need to sync only one track or to match-frame back to the audio source for more involved audio clean-up.

Multi-channel mixing. Most films are completed as 5.1 surround mixes – left, center, right, left rear surround, right rear surround, and low-frequency emitter (subwoofer). Films are mixed so that the primary dialogue is mono and largely in the center channel. Music and effects are spread to the left and right channels with a little bit also in the surrounds. Only loud, low frequencies activate the subwoofer channel. Usually this means explosions or some loud music score with a lot of bottom. In order to better approximate the final mix, many editors advocate setting up their mixing rooms for 5.1 surround or at least an LCR speaker arrangement. If you’ve done that, then you need to mix the timeline accordingly. Typically this would mean mono dialogue into the center channel and effects and music to the left and right speakers. Each of these NLEs support sequence presets for 5.1, which would accommodate this edit configuration, assuming that your hardware is set up accordingly.

Audio – organizing temp sound. It’s key that you organize the sounds you use in the edit in such a way that it is logical for other editors with whom you may be collaborating. It should also make sense to the post-production mixer who might do the final mix. If you are using a track-based NLE, then structure your track organization on the timeline. For example, tracks 1-8 for dialogue, tracks 9-16 for sound effects, and tracks 17-24 for music.

If you are using Final Cut Pro X, then it’s important to spend time with the roles feature. If you correctly assign roles to all of your source audio, it doesn’t matter what your timeline looks like. Once properly assigned, the selection of roles on output – including when using X2Pro to send to Pro Tools – determines where these elements show up on an exported file or inside of a Pro Tools track sheet. The most basic roles assignment would be dialogue, effects and music. With multi-channel location recordings, you could even assign a role or subrole for each channel, mic or actor. Spending a little of this time on the front end will greatly improve efficiency at the back end.

For more ideas, click on the “tips and tricks” category or start at 12 Tips for Better Film Editing and follow the bread crumbs forward.

©2016 Oliver Peters

NLE as Post Production Hub

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As 2009 closed, I wrote a post about Final Cut Studio as the center of a boutique post production workflow. A lot has changed since then, but that approach is still valid and a number of companies can fill those shoes. In each case, rather than be the complete, self-contained tool, the editing application becomes the hub of the operation. Other applications surround it and the workflow tends to go from NLE to support tool and back for delivery. Here are a few solutions.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

df2316_prproNo current editing package comes as close to the role of the old Final Cut Studio as does Adobe’s Creative Cloud. You get nearly all of the creative tools under a single subscription and facilities with a team account can equip every room with the full complement of applications. When designed correctly, workflows in any room can shift from edit to effects to sound to color correction – according to the load. In a shared storage operation, projects can stay in a single bay for everything or shift from bay to bay based on operator speciality and talent.

While there are many tools in the Creative Cloud kit, the primary editor-specific applications are Premiere Pro CC, After Effects CC and Audition CC. It goes without saying that for most, Photoshop CC and Adobe Media Encoder are also givens. On the other hand, I don’t know too many folks using Prelude CC, so I can’t say what the future for this tool will be. Especially since the next version of Premiere Pro includes built-in proxy transcoding. Also, as more of SpeedGrade CC’s color correction tools make it into Premiere Pro, it’s clear to see that SpeedGrade itself is getting very little love. The low-cost market for outboard color correction software has largely been lost to DaVinci Resolve (free). For now, SpeedGrade is really “dead man walking”. I’d be surprised if it’s still around by mid-2017. That might also be the case for Prelude.

Many editors I know that are heavy into graphics and visual effects do most of that work in After Effects. With CC and Dynamic Link, there’s a natural connection between the Premiere Pro timeline and After Effects. A similar tie can exist between Premiere Pro and Audition. I find the latter to be a superb audio post application and, from my experience, provides the best transfer of a Premiere Pro timeline into any audio application. This connection is being further enhanced by the updates coming from Adobe this year.

Rounding out the package is Photoshop CC, of course. While most editors are not big Photoshop artists, it’s worth noting that this application also enables animated motion graphics. For example, if you want to create an animated lower third banner, it can be done completely inside of Photoshop without ever needing to step into After Effects. Drop the file onto a Premiere Pro timeline and it’s complete with animation and proper transparency values. Update the text in Photoshop and hit “save” – voila the graphic is instantly updated within Premiere Pro.

Given the breadth and quality of tools in the Creative Cloud kit, it’s possible to stay entirely within these options for all of a facility’s post needs. Of course, roundtrips to Resolve, Baselight, ProTools, etc. are still possible, but not required. Nevertheless, in this scenario I typically see everything starting and ending in Premiere Pro (with exports via AME), making the Adobe solution my first vote for the modern hub concept.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

df2316_fcpxApple walked away from the market for an all-inclusive studio package. Instead, it opted to offer more self-contained solutions that don’t have the same interoperability as before, nor that of the comparable Adobe solutions. To build up a similar toolkit, you would need Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor and Logic Pro X. An individual editor/owner would purchase these once and install these on as many machines as he or she owned. A business would have to buy each application for each separate machine. So a boutique facility would need a full set for each room or they would have to build rooms by specialty – edit, audio, graphics, etc.

Even with this combination, there are missing links when going from one application to another. These gaps have to be plugged by the various third-party productivity solutions, such as Clip Exporter, XtoCC, 7toX, Xsend Motion, X2Pro, EDL-X and others. These provide better conduits between Apple applications than Apple itself provides. For example, only through Automatic Duck Xsend Motion can you get an FCPX project (timeline) into Motion. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro Audio Convert provides a better path into Logic than the native route.

If you want the sort of color correction power available in Premiere Pro’s Lumetri Color panel, you’ll need more advanced color correction plug-ins, like Hawaiki Color or Color Finale. Since Apple doesn’t produce an equivalent to Photoshop, look to Pixelmator or Affinity Photo for a viable substitute. Although powerful, you still won’t get quite the same level of interoperability as between Photoshop and Premiere Pro.

Naturally, if your desire is to use non-Apple solutions for graphics and color correction, then similar rules apply as with Premiere Pro. For instance, roundtripping to Resolve for color correction is pretty solid using the FCPXML import/export function within Resolve. Prefer to use After Effects for your motion graphics instead of Motion? Then Automatic Duck Ximport AE on the After Effects side has your back.

Most of the tools are there for those users wishing to stay in an Apple-centric world, provided you add a lot of glue to patch over the missing elements. Since many of the plug-ins for FCPX (Motion templates) are superior to a lot of what’s out there, I do think that an FCPX-centric shop will likely choose to start and end in X (possibly with a Compressor export). Even when Resolve is used for color correction, I suspect the final touches will happen inside of Final Cut. It’s more of the Lego approach to the toolkit than the Adobe solution, yet I still see it functioning in much the same way.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

df2316_resolveIt’s hard to say what Blackmagic’s end goal is with Resolve. Clearly the world of color correction is changing. Every NLE developer is integrating quality color correction modules right inside of their editing application. So it seems only natural that Blackmagic is making Resolve into an all-in-one tool for no other reason than self-preservation. And by golly, they are doing a darn good job of it! Each version is better than the last. If you want a highly functional editor with world-class color correction tools for free, look no further than Resolve. Ingest, transcoded and/or native media editing, color correction, mastering and delivery – all there in Resolve.

There are two weak links – graphics and audio. On the latter front, the internal audio tools are good enough for many editors. However, Blackmagic realizes that specialty audio post is still the domain of the sound engineering world, which is made up predominantly of Avid Pro Tools shops. To make this easy, Resolve has built-in audio export functions to send the timeline to Pro Tools via AAF. There’s no roundtrip back, but you’d typically get composite mixed tracks back from the engineer to lay into the timeline.

To build on the momentum it started, Blackmagic Design acquired the assets of EyeOn’s Fusion software, which gives then a node-based compositor, suitable for visual effects and some motion graphics. This requires a different mindset than After Effects with Premiere Pro or Motion with Final Cut Pro X (when using Xsend Motion). You aren’t going to send a full sequence from Resolve to Fusion. Instead, the Connect plug-in links a single shot to Fusion, where it can be effected through series of nodes. The Connect plug-in provides a similar “conduit” function to that of Adobe’s Dynamic Link between Premiere Pro and After Effects, except that the return is a rendered clip instead of a live project file. To take advantage of this interoperability between Resolve and Fusion, you need the paid versions.

Just as in Apple’s case, there really is no Blackmagic-owned substitute for Photoshop or an equivalent application. You’ll just have to buy what matches your need. While it’s quite possible to build a shop around Resolve and Fusion (plus maybe Pro Tools and Photoshop), it’s more likely that Resolve’s integrated approach will appeal mainly to those folks looking for free tools. I don’t see too many advanced pros doing their creative cutting on Resolve (at least not yet). However, that being said, it’s pretty close, so I don’t want to slight the capabilities.

Where I see it shine is as a finishing or “online” NLE. Let’s say you perform the creative or “offline” edit in Premiere Pro, FCPX or Media Composer. This could even be three editors working on separate segments of a larger show – each on a different NLE. Each’s sequence goes to Resolve, where the timelines are imported, combined and relinked to the high-res media. The audio has gone via a parallel path to a Pro Tools mixer and graphics come in as individual clips, shots or files. Then all is combined inside Resolve, color corrected and delivered straight from Resolve. For many shops, that scenario is starting to look like the best of all worlds.

I tend to see Resolve as less of a hub than either Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X. Instead, I think it may take several possible positions: a) color correction and transcoding at the front end, b) color correction in the middle – i.e. the standard roundtrip, and/or c) the new “online editor” for final assembly, color correction, mastering and delivery.

Avid Media Composer

df2316_avidmcThis brings me to Avid Media Composer, the least integrated of the bunch. You can certainly build an operation based on Media Composer as the hub – as so many shops have. But there simply isn’t the silky smooth interoperability among tools like there is with Adobe or the dearly departed Final Cut Pro “classic”. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. You can add advanced color correction through the Symphony option, plus Avid Pro Tools in your mixing rooms. In an Avid-centric facility, rooms will definitely be task-oriented, rather than provide the ease of switching functions in the same suite based on load, as you can with Creative Cloud.

The best path right now is Media Composer to Pro Tools. Unfortunately it ends there. Like Blackmagic, Avid only offers two hero applications in the post space – Media Composer/Symphony and Pro Tools. They have graphics products, but those are designed and configured for news on-air operations. This means that effects and graphics are typically handled through After Effects, Boris RED or Fusion.

Boris RED runs as an integrated tool, which augments the Media Composer timeline. However, RED uses its own user interface. That operation is relatively seamless, since any “roundtrip” happens invisibly within Media Composer. Fusion can be integrated using the Connect plug-in, just like between Fusion and Resolve. Automatic Duck’s AAF import functions have been integrated directly into After Effects by Adobe. It’s easy to send a Media Composer timeline into After Effects as a one-way trip. In fact, that’s where this all started in the first place. Finally, there’s also a direct connection with Baselight Editions for Avid, if you add that as a “plug-in” within Media Composer. As with Boris RED, clips open up in the Baselight interface, which has now been enhanced with a smoother shot-to-shot workflow inside of Media Composer.

While a lot of shops still use Media Composer as the hub, this seems like a very old-school approach. Many editors still love this NLE for its creative editing prowess, but in today’s mixed-format, mixed-codec, file-based post world, Avid has struggled to keep Media Composer competitive with the other options. There’s certainly no reason Media Composer can’t be the center – with audio in Pro Tools, color correction in Resolve, and effects in After Effects. However, most newer editors simply don’t view it the same way as they do with Adobe or even Apple. Generally, it seems the best Avid path is to “offline” edit in Media Composer and then move to other tools for everything else.

So that’s post in 2016. Four good options with pros and cons to each. Sorry to slight the Lightworks, Vegas Pro, Smoke/Flame and Edius crowds, but I just don’t encounter them too often in my neck of the woods. In any case, there are plenty of options, even starting at free, which makes the editing world pretty exciting right now.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Easy 4K Workflow

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In the last post I questioned the visual value of 4K. However, it’s inevitable that more and more distributors will be asking for 4K deliverables, so you might as well start planning how you are going to achieve that. There are certainly plenty of demos showing how easy it is to edit 4K content and they use iPhone video for the demo material. The reality is that such footage is crap and should only be used when it’s the only camera available. At the low end, there are plenty of cameras to choose from that work with highly-compressed 4K images and yet, yield great results. The Blackmagic Design URSA Mini, Sony FS7 and Canon C300 Mark II come to mind. Bump up to something in a more cinema-style package and you are looking at a Sony F55, RED, ARRI or even the AJA CION.

df1816_easy_4k_1While many cameras record to various proprietary compressed codecs, having a common media codec is the most ideal. Typically this means Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD/HR. Some cameras and standalone monitor/recorders can natively generate media in these formats. In other circumstances, it requires an interim transcode before editing. This is where system throughput becomes a big issue. For example, if you want to work with native 4K material as ProRes 4444, you are going to need fast drives. On my home Mac Pro tower, I have two internal 7200RPM spinning drives for media striped as RAID-0. In addition to these and the boot drive, I also have another internal SSD media drive. When I checked their relative performance with the AJA System Test utility, these clocked at 161 write /168 read for the RAID-0 stripe and 257/266 for the single SSD. That’s good enough for approximately 27fps and 43fps respectively, if the media were large 3840 x 2160 (2160p) ProRes 4444 files. In other words, both drive units are adequate for a single stream of 2160p/23.98 as ProRes 4444, but would have a tougher time with two streams or more.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end with drive performance alone, because some NLEs handle real-time playback of 4K media better than do others. I’ve performed a number of tests with 4K files in Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Avid Media Composer and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. This has been on a number of different units, including a couple of Mac Pro towers, as well as a newer “trash can” Mac Pro. Plus, I’ve run tests with local drives, attached media RAIDs, and network-attached storage systems. What I’ve found is that as long as you have fast drive performance, then the bottleneck is the NLE.

Pretty much all of these choices can handle a single stream of 4K media without too much of an issue. However, when you stack up a second layer or track for a simple 2D PIP composite, generally the system struggles. In some cases, FCPX has performed better than the others, but not consistently.  The others all choked to varying degrees. When you limit it to a single stream of 4K video with associated audio, then FCPX performs more fluidly at a higher quality level than Media Composer or Premiere Pro, although Media Composer also performed well in some of the tests. My conclusion, for now, is that if you want to work with native 4K media in a client-involved session, and with the least amount of rendering, then FCPX is the clear winner – at least on the Mac platform. For many editors it will be the most viable choice.

Native workflow

The first big plus for Final Cut Pro X is how easily it works with native media that it’s compatible with. That’s one thing I don’t generally advocate on a large project like a show or feature film – opting instead to create “optimized” media first, either externally or within FCPX. Nevertheless, a lot of native codecs can be quite easy on the system. For example, one client cut an indie feature, using all native camera files from his Sony FS7. His Final Cut system was a tricked out iMac that was a couple of years old and a Promise Pegasus RAID array. Initially he cut the film from native 4K FS7 files to an FCPX 1080p timeline. I was doing the grading in Resolve, so I had him export a single, flattened movie file from the timeline as 1080p ProRes 4444. I brought this into Resolve, “bladed” the cuts to create edit points and applied my color correction. I exported a single ProRes 4444 master file, which he could import back into FCPX and marry with the post-production mix.

df1816_easy_4k_2Fast forward a year and the film distributor was inquiring whether they could easily produce a 4K master instead of a 1080 master. This turned out to be relatively simple. All my client had to do was change his FCPX project (timeline) settings to 4K, double-check the scaling for his clips and export a new 4K ProRes 4444 file of the timeline. In Resolve, I also changed the timeline setting to 4K and then relinked to the new 4K file. Voila! – all the cuts lined up and the previous grades all looked fine. Then I simply exported the graded 4K file to send back to the client.

In this example, even with a roundtrip to Resolve and a change from 1080p to 2160p, FCPX performed perfectly without much fuss. However, for many, you wouldn’t even need to go this far. Depending on how much you like to play and tweak during the color grade, there are plenty of ways to do this and stay totally inside FCPX. You could use tools like the Color Board, Hawaiki Color, Color Finale, or even some home-brew Motion effects, and achieve excellent results without ever leaving Final Cut Pro X.

As a reminder, Media Composer, Premiere Pro CC and Resolve are all capable of working with native media, including 4K.

Proxy workflow

df1816_easy_4k_4In addition to native 4K post, Apple engineers built an ingenious internal proxy workflow into Final Cut. Transcode the camera files in the background, flip a toggle, and work with the proxy files until you are ready to export a master. When you opt to transcode proxies, FCPX generates half-resolution, ProRes Proxy media corresponding to your original files. As an example, if your media consists of 2160p XAVC camera files, FCPX creates corresponding 1080p ProRes Proxy files. Even though the proxy media’s frame is 1/4th the size of the 4K original, FCPX takes care of handling the scaling math in the timeline between original and proxy media. The viewer display will also appear very close in quality, regardless of whether you have switched to original/optimized or proxy media. The majority of legacy A/V output cards, like a Blackmagic Design Decklink, are only capable of displaying SD and HD content to an external monitor. FCPX can send it the proper data so that a 4K timeline is displayed as a scaled 1080 output to your external video monitor.

Although proxies are small for a 4K project, these are still rather large to be moving around among multiple editors. It’s not an official part of the Final Cut operation, but you can replace these generated proxies with your own versions, with some caveats. Let’s say you have 3840 x 2160, log-gamma-encoded, 4K camera files. You would first need to have FCPX generate proxies. However, using an external application such as EditReady, Compressor, etc, you could transcode these camera files into small 960×540 ProRes Proxy media, complete with a LUT applied and timecode/clip name burnt in. Then find your Proxy Media folder, trash the FCPX-generated files and replace them with your own files. FCPX should properly relink to these and understand the correct relationship between the original and the proxy files. (This post explains the process in more detail.) There are several caveats. Clip name, frame rate, clip length, aspect ratio, and audio channel configurations must match. Otherwise you are good to go.df1816_easy_4k_3

The benefit to this solution is that you can freely edit with the proxies on a lightweight system, such as a MacBook Pro with a portable drive. When ready, move back to a beefier unit and storage, flip to original/optimized media, double-check all effects and color-correction on a good monitor, and then export the master files. It’s worth noting that this workflow is also potentially possible with Premiere Pro CC, because the new version to be introduced later this year will include a proxy editing workflow.

Naturally there is no single solution, but Final Cut Pro X makes this process far easier than any other tool that I use. If 4K is increasingly looming on the horizon for you, then FCPX is certainly worth a test run.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Automatic Duck Xsend Motion

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When Apple transitioned its Final Cut Pro product family from Final Cut Studio to Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5, and Compressor 4, it lost a number of features that editors really liked. Some of these “missing” features show up as consistent and reoccurring requests on various wish lists. One of the most popular is the roundtrip function that sent Final Cut Pro “classic” timelines over to Motion for further compositing. To many, it seemed like Motion had become relegated to being a fancy development tool for FCPX plug-ins, rather than what it is – a powerful, GPU-enabled compositor.

df1516_AD_2At last, that workflow hole has been plugged, thanks to Automatic Duck. Last year the father/son development team brought us a way to go from Final Cut Pro X to Adobe’s After Effects by way of the Automatic Duck Ximport AE bridge. This week at the FCP Exchange Workshop in Las Vegas, Wes Plate reveals the new Automatic Duck Xsend Motion. This tool leverages the power of the FCPX’s version of XML to move data from one application to the other. Thanks to FCPXML, it provides a bridge to send FCPX timelines, clips, or sections of timelines over to Motion 5.

df1516_AD_4Xsend Motion reads FCPXML exports or is able to process projects directly from the Final Cut Pro X Share menu. The Xsend menu enables a number of settings options, including whether to bring clips into Motion as individual clips or as what Automatic Duck has dubbed as “lanes”. When clips are left individual, then each clip is assigned a layer in Motion for a composition made up of a series of cascading layers. If you opt for lanes, then the Motion layers stay grouped in a similar representation to the FCPX project timeline. This way primary and secondary storylines and connected clips are properly configured. Xsend also interprets compound clips.

Automatic Duck is striving to correctly interpret all of the FCPX characteristics, including frame sizes, rates, cropping, and more. Since Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5 are essentially built upon the same engine, the translation will correctly interpret most built-in effects. However, it may or may not interpret custom Motion templates that individual users have created. In addition, they plan on being able to properly translate many of the effects in the FxFactory portfolio, which typically install into both FCPX and Motion.

df1516_AD_3While Xsend Motion and Ximport AE are primarily one-way trips, there is a mechanism to send the finished result back to Final Cut Pro X from Motion 5. The first and most obvious is simply to render the Motion composition as a flattened QuickTime movie and import that back into FCPX as new media. However, you can also publish the Motion composition as an FCPX Generator. This would then show up in the Generators portion of the Effects Palette as a custom generator effect.

Automatic Duck Xsend Motion will be officially released later this year. The price hasn’t been announced yet. Current Automatic Duck products (Automatic Duck Ximport AE and Automatic Duck Media Copy) are available through Red Giant.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Spring Tools

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It’s often the little things that improve your editing workflow. Here are a few quick items that can expand your editing arsenal.

Hawaiki Super Dissolve

df1416_tools_3The classical approach to editing transitions suggests that all you need is a cut and a dissolve. Given how often most editors use a dissolve transition, it’s amazing that few NLE developers spend any time creating more than a basic video dissolve, fade or dip. After all, even the original Media Composer came with both a video and a film-style dissolve. Audio mixers are used to several different types of crossfades.

Since this is such a neglected area, the development team behind the Hawaiki plug-ins decided to create Super Dissolve – a dissolve transition plug-in for Final Cut Pro X with many more options. This installs through the FxFactory application. It shows up in the FCPX transitions palette as a dissolve effect, plus a set of presets for fades, dips and custom curves. A dissolve is nothing more than a blend between two images, so Super Dissolve exposes the same types of under-the-hood controls as After Effects and Photoshop artists are used to with compositing modes.

Drop the Super Dissolve in as a transition and you have control over blending modes, layer order, easing controls with timing, and the blurring of the outgoing and/or incoming image. Since you have control over the outgoing and incoming clips separately, different values can be applied to either side, thus enabling an asymmetrical effect. For example, a quick fade with a blur off the outgoing clip, while bringing the incoming side up more slowly. As with the default FCPX dissolve, there’s also an audio crossfade adjustment, since FCPX transitions can effect both audio and video when these elements are combined. If you really like the ability to finesse your transitions, then Super Dissolve hits the spot.

XEffects Audio Fades

df1416_tools_6Free is good, so check out Idustrial Revolution’s free effects. Although they are primarily a video effects developer for Motion and Final Cut Pro X, they recently added a set of audio fade presets for FCPX. Download and install the free pack and you’ll find the XEffects Fades group in the audio plug-ins section of your effects palette.

XEffects Fades includes a set of preset fade handles, which are applied to the audio on your timeline clips. Drag-and-drop the preset with the fade length closest to what you want and it automatically adjusts the fade handle length at both ends of that audio clip. If you want to tweak the length, apply the effect first and then adjust the length puck on the clip as needed. Existing lengths will be overwritten when you drop the effect onto the clip, so make sure you make these adjustments last.

AudioDenoise and EchoRemover

df1416_tools_5CrumplePop is another developer known for its video effects; but they, too have decided to add audio effects to their repertoire. AudioDenoise and EchoRemover are two Final Cut Pro X plug-ins sold through the FxFactory application. These two effects are easy-to-use Apple Audio Units filters designed to improve poorly recorded location audio. As with Apple’s own built-in controls, each filter includes a few sliders to adjust strength and how the effect is applied. When applying any audio “clean up” filter, a little goes a long way. If you use it to its extreme range, the result sounds like you are underwater. Nevertheless, these two filters do a very nice job with poor audio, without presenting the cost and complexity of other well-known audio products.

Alex4D Animated Transitions

df1416_tools_1For a little bit of spice in your Final Cut Pro X timelines, it’s worth checking out the Alex4D Animated Transitions from FxFactory. Alex Gollner has been a prolific developer of free Final Cut Pro plug-ins, but this is his first commercial effort. Animated Transitions are a set of 120 customizable transition effects to slide, grow, split and peel incoming or outgoing clips and lower third titles. Traditionally you’d have to build these effects yourself using DVE moves. But by dropping one of these effects onto a cut point between two clips, you quickly apply a dynamic effect with all the work already done. Simply pick the transition you like, tweak the parameters and it’s done.

Post Notes

df1416_tools_4One of the best features of Adobe applications is Extensions. This is a development “hook” within Premiere Pro or After Effects that allows developers to create task-oriented panels, tools and controls that effectively “bolt” right into the Adobe interface. One example for After Effects would be TypeMonkey (and the other “Monkeys”), which are kinetic effect macros. For Premiere there’s PDFviewer, which enables you to view your script (or any other document) in PDF format right inside the Premiere user interface.

A new extension for Premiere Pro CC is Post Notes. Once installed, it’s an interface panel within Premiere Pro that functions as a combined notepad and to-do list. These are tied to a specific sequence, so you can have a set of notes and to-dos for each sequence in your project. When a to-do item is completed, check it off to indicate that it’s been addressed. This tool is so straightforward and simple, you’ll wonder why every editing software doesn’t already have something like this built-in.

Hedge for Mac

df1416_tools_2With digital media as a way of life for most editors, we have to deal with more and more camera media. Quickly copying camera cards is a necessary evil and making sure you do this without corruption is essential. The Mac Finder really is NOT the tool you should be using, yet everyone does it. There are a number of products on the market that copy to multiple locations with checksum verification. These are popular with DITs and “data wranglers” and include Pomfort Silverstack, Red Giant Offload, and even Adobe Prelude.

A newcomer is Hedge for Mac. This is a simple, single-purpose utility designed to quickly copy files and verify the copies. There’s a free and a paid version. If you just want to copy to one or two destinations at a time, the free version will do. If you need even more destinations as a simultaneous copy, then go for the paid version. Hedge will also launch your custom AppleScripts to sort, transcode, rename or perform other functions. Transfers are fast in the testing I’ve done, so this is a must-have tool for any editors.

©2016 Oliver Peters