Dialogue Mixing Tips

 

Video is a visual medium, but the audio side of a project is as important – often more important – than the picture side. When story context is based on dialogue, then the story will make no sense if you can’t hear or understand that spoken information. In theatrical mixes, it’s common for a three person team of rerecording mixers to operate the console for the final mix. Their responsibilities are divided into dialogue, sound effects, and music. The dialogue mixer is usually the team lead, precisely because intelligible dialogue is paramount to a successful motion picture mix. For this reason, dialogue is also mixed as primarily mono coming from the center speaker in a 5.1 surround set-up.

A lot of my work includes documentary-style entertainment and corporate projects, which frequently lean on recorded interviews to tell the story. In many cases, sending the mix outside isn’t in the budget, which means that mix falls to me. You can mix in a DAW or in your NLE. Many video editors are intimidated by or unfamiliar with ProTools or Logic Pro X – or even the Fairlight page in DaVinci Resolve. Rest assured that every modern NLE is capable of turning out an excellent stereo mix for the purposes of TV, web, or mobile viewing. Given the right monitoring and acoustic environment, you can also turn out solid LCR or 5.1 surround mixes, adequate for TV viewing.

I have covered audio and mix tips in the past, especially when dealing with Premiere. The following are a few more pointers.

Original location recording

You typically have no control over the original sound recording. On many projects, the production team will have recorded double-system sound controlled by a separate location mixer (recordist). They generally use two microphones on the subject – a lav and an overhead shotgun/boom mic.

The lav will often be tucked under clothing to filter out ambient noise from the surrounding environment and to hide it from the camera. This will sound closer, but may also sound a bit muffled. There may also be occasional clothes rustle from the clothing rubbing against the mic as the speaker moves around. For these reasons I will generally select the shotgun as the microphone track to use. The speaker’s voice will sound better and the recording will tend to “breathe.” The downside is that you’ll also pick up more ambient noise, such as HVAC fans running in the background. Under the best of circumstances these will be present during quiet moments, but not too noticeable when the speaker is actually talking.

Processing

The first stage of any dialogue processing chain or workflow is noise reduction and gain correction. At the start of the project you have the opportunity to clean up any raw voice tracks. This is ideal, because it saves you from having to do that step later. In the double-system sound example, you have the ability to work with the isolated .wav file before syncing it within a multicam group or as a synchronized clip.

Most NLEs feature some audio noise reduction tools and you can certainly augment these with third party filters and standalone apps, like those from iZotope. However, this is generally a process I will handle in Adobe Audition, which can process single tracks, as well as multitrack sessions. Audition starts with a short noise print (select a short quiet section in the track) used as a reference for the sounds to be suppressed. Apply the processing and adjust settings if the dialogue starts sounding like the speaker is underwater. Leaving some background noise is preferable to over-processing the track.

Once the noise reduction is where you like it, apply gain correction. Audition features an automatic loudness match feature or you can manually adjust levels. The key is to get the overall track as loud as you can without clipping the loudest sections and without creating a compressed sound. You may wish to experiment with the order of these processes. For example, you may get better results adjusting gain first and then applying the noise reduction afterwards.

After both of these steps have been completed, bounce out (export) the track to create a new, processed copy of the original. Bring that into your NLE and combine it with the picture. From here on, anytime you cut to that clip, you will be using the synced, processed audio.

If you can’t go through such a pre-processing step in Audition or another DAW, then the noise reduction and correction must be handled within your NLE. Each of the top NLEs includes built-in noise reduction tools, but there are plenty of plug-in offerings from Waves, iZotope, Accusonus, and Crumplepop to name a few. In my opinion, such processing should be applied on the track (or audio role in FCPX) and not on the clip itself. However, raising or lowering the gain/volume of clips should be performed on the clip or in the clip mixer (Premiere Pro) first.

Track/audio role organization

Proper organization is key to an efficient mix. When a speaker is recorded multiple times or at different locations, then the quality or tone of those recordings will vary. Each situation may need to be adjusted differently in the final mix. You may also have several speakers interviewed at the same time in the same location. In that case, the same adjustments should work for all. Or maybe you only need to separate male from female speakers, based on voice characteristics.

In a track-based NLE like Media Composer, Resolve, Premiere Pro, or others, simply place each speaker onto a separate track so that effects processing can be specific for that speaker for the length of the program. In some cases, you will be able to group all of the speaker clips onto one or a few tracks. The point is to arrange VO, sync dialogue, sound effects, and music together as groups of tracks. Don’t intermingle voice, effects, or music clips onto the same tracks.

Once you have organized your clips in this manner, then you are ready for the final mix. Unfortunately this organization requires some extra steps in Final Cut Pro X, because it has no tracks. Audio clips in FCPX must be assigned specific audio roles, based on audio types, speaker names, or any other criteria. Such assignments should be applied immediately upon importing a clip. With proper audio role designations, the process can work quite smoothly. Without it, you are in a world of hurt.

Since FCPX has no traditional track mixer, the closest equivalent is to apply effects to audio lanes based on the assigned audio roles. For example, all clips designated as dialogue will have their audio grouped together into the dialogue lane. Your sequence (or just the audio) must first be compounded before you are able to apply effects to entire audio lanes. This effectively applies these same effects to all clips of a given audio role assignment. So think of audio lanes as the FCPX equivalent to audio tracks in Premiere, Media Composer, or Resolve.

The vocal chain

The objective is to get your dialogue tracks to sound consistent and stand out in the mix. To do this, I typically use a standard set of filter effects. Noise reduction processing is applied either through preprocessing (described above) or as the first plug-in filter applied to the track. After that, I will typically apply a de-esser and a plosive remover. The first reduces the sibilance of the spoken letter “s” and the latter reduces mic pops from the spoken letter “p.” As with all plug-ins, don’t get heavy-handed with the effect, because you want to maintain a natural sound.

You will want the audio – especially interviews – to have a consistent level throughout. This can be done manually by adjusting clip gain, either clip by clip, or by rubber banding volume levels within clips. You can also apply a track effect, like an automatic volume filter (Waves, Accusonus, Crumplepop, other). In some cases a compressor can do the trick. I like the various built-in plug-ins offered within Premiere and FCPX, but there are a ton of third-party options. I may also apply two compression effects – one to lightly level the volume changes, and the second to compress/limit the loudest peaks. Again, the key is to apply light adjustments, because I will also compress/limit the master output in addition to these track effects.

The last step is equalization. A parametric EQ is usually the best choice. The objective is to assure vocal clarity by accentuating certain frequencies. This will vary based on the sound quality of each speaker’s voice. This is why you often separate speakers onto their own tracks according to location, voice characteristics, and so on. In actual practice, only two to three tracks are usually needed for dialogue. For example, interviews may be consistent, but the voice-over recordings require a different touch.

Don’t get locked into the specific order of these effects. What I have presented in this post isn’t necessarily gospel for the hierarchical order in which to use them. For example, EQ and level adjusting filters might sound best when placed at different positions in this stack. A certain order might be better for one show, whereas a different order may be best the next time. Experiment and listen to get the best results!

©2020 Oliver Peters

Time to Rethink ProRes RAW?

The Apple ProRes RAW codec has been available for several years at this point, yet we have not heard of any professional cinematography camera adding the ability to record ProRes RAW in-camera. I covered ProRes RAW with some detail in these three blog posts (HDR and RAW Demystified, Part 1 and Part 2, and More about ProRes RAW) back in 2018. But the industry has changed over the past few years. Has that changed any thoughts about ProRes RAW?

Understanding RAW

Today’s video cameras evolved their sensor design from a three CCD array for RGB into a single sensor, similar to those used in still photo cameras. Most of these sensors are built using a Bayer pattern of photosites. This pattern is an array of monochrome receptors that are filtered to receive incoming green, red, and blue wavelengths of light. Typically the green photosites cover 50% of this pattern and red and blue each cover 25%. These photosites capture linear light, which is turned into data that is then meshed and converted into RGB pixel information. Lastly, it’s recorded into a video format. Photosites do not correlate in a 1:1 relationship with output pixels. You can have more or fewer total photosite elements in the sensor than the recorded pixel resolution of the file.

The process of converting photosite data into RGB video pixels is done by the camera’s internal electronics. This process also includes scaling, gamma encoding (Rec709, Rec 2020, or log), noise reduction, image sharpening, and the application of that manufacturer’s proprietary color science. The term “color science” implies some type of neutral mathematical color conversion, but that isn’t the case. The color science that each manufacturer uses is in fact their own secret sauce. It can be neutral or skewed in favor of certain colors and saturation levels. ARRI is a prime example of this. They have done a great job in developing a color profile for their Alexa line of cameras that approximates the look of film.

All of this image processing adds cost, weight, and power demands to the design of a camera. If you offload the processing to another stage in the pipeline, then design options are opened up. Recording camera raw image data achieves that. Camera raw is the monochrome sensor data prior to the conversion into an encoded video signal. By recording a camera raw file instead of an encoded RGB video file, you defer the processing to post.

To decode this file, your operating system or application requires some type of framework, plug-in, or decoding/developing software in order to properly interpret that data into a color image. In theory, using a raw file in post provides greater control over ISO/exposure and temperature/tint values in color grading. Depending on the manufacturer, you may also apply a variety of different camera profiles. All of this is possible and still have a camera file that is of a smaller size than its encoded RGB counterpart.

In-camera recording, camera raw, and RED

Camera raw recording preceded the introduction of the RED One camera. These usually consisted of uncompressed movie files or image sequences recorded to an external recorder. RED introduced the ability to record a Wavelet-compressed, 4K camera raw signal at 24fps. This was a movie file recorded onboard the camera itself. RED was granted a number of patents around these processes, which preclude any other camera manufacturer from doing that exact same thing, unless entering into a licensing agreement with RED. So far these patents have been successfully upheld against Sony and Apple among others.

In 2007 – part way through the Final Cut Pro product run – Apple introduced its family of ProRes codecs. ProRes was Apple’s answer to Avid’s DNxHD codec, but with some improvements, like resolution independence. ProRes not only became Apple’s default intermediate codec, but also gained stature as the mastering and delivery codec of choice, regardless of which NLE you were using.

By 2010 Apple was successful in convincing ARRI to use ProRes as its internal recording codec with the introduction of the (then new) line of Alexa cameras. (ARRI camera raw recording was a secondary option using ARRIRAW and a Codex recorder.) Shooting with an Alexa, recording high-quality ProRes files, and posting those directly within FCP or any other compatible NLE created the simplest and smoothest capture-edit-deliver pipeline of any professional post workflow. That remains unchanged even today.

Despite ARRI’s success, only a few other camera manufacturers have adopted ProRes as an internal recording option. To my knowledge these include some cameras from AJA, JVC, Blackmagic Design, and RED (as a secondary file to REDCODE). The lack of widespread adoption is most likely due to Apple’s licensing arrangement, coupled with the fact that ProRes is a proprietary Apple format. It may be a de facto industry standard, but it’s not an official standard sanctioned by an industry standards committee.

The introduction of Apple’s ProRes RAW codecs has led many in the industry to wait with bated breath for cameras to also adopt ProRes RAW as their internal camera raw option. ARRI would obviously be a candidate. However, the RED patents would seem to be an impediment. But what if Apple never had that intention in the first place?

Do we have it all wrong?

When Apple introduced ProRes RAW, it did so in partnership with Atomos. Just like Sony, ARRI, and Panasonic recording their camera raw signals to an external recorder, sending a camera raw signal to an external Atomos monitor/recorder is a viable alternative to in-camera recording. Atomos’ own disagreements with RED have now been settled. Therefore, embedding the ProRes RAW codec into their products opens up that recording format to any camera manufacturer. The camera simply has to be capable of sending a compatible camera raw signal (as data) over SDI or HDMI to the connected Atomos recorder.

The desire to see ProRes RAW in-camera stems from the history of ProRes adoption by ARRI and the impact that had on high-end production and post. However, that came at a time when Apple was pushing harder into various pro film and video markets. As we’ve learned, that course was corrected by Steve Jobs, leading to the launch of Final Cut Pro X. Apple has always been about ease and democratization – targeting the middle third of a bell curve of users, not necessarily the top or bottom thirds. For better or worse, Final Cut Pro X refocused Apple’s pro video direction with that in mind.

In addition, during this past decade or more, Apple has also changed its approach to photography. Aperture was a tool developed with semi-pro and pro DSLR photographers in mind. Traditional DSLRs have lost photography market share to smart phones – especially the iPhone. Online sharing methods – Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, cloud picture libraries – have become the norm over the traditional photo album. And so, Aperture bit the dust in favor of Photos. From a corporate point-of-view, the rethinking of photography cannot be separated from Apple’s rethinking of all things video.

Final Cut Pro X is designed to be forward-thinking, while cutting the chord with many legacy workflows. I believe the same can be applied to ProRes RAW. The small form factor camera, rigged with tons of accessories including external displays, is probably more common these days than the traditional, shoulder-mounted, one-piece camcorder. By partnering with Atomos (and maybe others in the future), Apple has opened the field to a much larger group of cameras than handling the task one camera manufacturer at a time.

ProRes RAW is automatically available to cameras that were previously stuck recording highly-compressed M-JPEG or H.264/265 formats. Video-enabled DSLRs from manufacturers like Nikon and Fujifilm join Canon and Panasonic cinematography cameras. Simply send a camera raw signal over HDMI to an Atomos recorder. And yet, it doesn’t exclude a company like ARRI either. They simply need to enable Atomos to repack their existing camera raw signal into ProRes RAW.

We may never see a camera company adopt onboard ProRes RAW and it doesn’t matter. From Apple’s point-of-view and that of FCPX users, it’s all the same. Use the camera of choice, record to an Atomos, and edit as easily as with regular ProRes. Do you have the depth of options as with REDCODE RAW? No. Is your image quality as perfect in an absolute (albeit non-visible) sense as ARRIRAW? Probably not. But these concerns are for the top third of users. That’s a category that Apple is happy to have, but not crucial to their existence.

The bottom line is that you can’t apply classic Final Cut Studio/ProRes thinking to Final Cut Pro X/ProRes RAW in today’s Apple. It’s simply a different world.

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Addendum

The images I’ve used in this post come from Patrik Pettersson. These clips were filmed with a Nikon Z6 DSLR recording to an Atomos Ninja V. He’s made a a few sample clips available for download and testing. More at this link. This brings up an interesting issue, because most other forms of camera raw are tied to a specific camera profile. But with ProRes RAW, you can have any number of cameras. Once you bring those into Final Cut Pro X, you don’t have the correct camera profile with a color science that matches that model for each any every camera.

In the case of these clips, FCPX doesn’t offer any Nikon profiles. I decided to decode the clip (RAW to log conversion) using a Sony profile. This gave me the best possible results for the Nikon images and effectively gives me a log clip similar to that from a Sony camera. Then for the grade I worked in Color Finale Pro 2, using its ACES workflow. To complete the ACES workflow, I used the matching SLog3 conversion to Rec709.

The result is nice and you do have a number of options. However, the workflow isn’t as straightforward as Apple would like you to believe. I think these are all solvable challenges, but 1) Apple needs to supply the proper camera profiles for each of the compatible cameras; and 2) Apple needs to publish proper workflow guides that are useful to a wide range of users.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Is good enough finally good enough?

Like many in post, I have spent weeks in a WFH (work from home) mode. Although I’m back in the office now on a limited basis, part of those weeks included studying the various webinars covering remote post workflows. Not as a solution for now, but to see what worked and what didn’t for the “next time.”

It was interesting to watch some of the comments from executives involved in network production groups and running multi-site, global post companies. While many offered good suggestions, I also heard a few statements about having to settle for something that was “good enough” under the circumstances. Maybe it wasn’t meant the way it sounded to me, but to characterize cutting in Premiere Pro and delivering ProRes masters as something they had to “settle for” struck me as just a bit snobbish. My apologies if I took it the wrong way.

A look back

The image at the top (click to expand) is a facility that I helped design and build and that I worked out of for over a dozen years. This was Century III, the resident post facility at Universal Studios Florida – back in the “Hollywood east” days of the 1990s. Not every post house of the day was this fancy and as equipped, but it represented the general state-of-the-art for that time. During its operation, we worked with 1″, D1, D2, Digital Betacam, and eventually some HD. But along the way, traditional linear post gave way to cheaper non-linear suites. We evolved with that trend and the last construction project was to repurpose one of the linear suites into a high-end Avid Symphony finishing suite.

All things come to an end and 2002 saw Century III’s demise. In part, because of the economic aftermath following September 11th, but also changes in the general film climate in Florida. That was also a time when dramatic and comedic filmed series gave way to many non-scripted, “reality” TV series.

I became a freelancer/independent contractor that year and about a year or so later was cutting and finishing an Animal Planet series. We cut and finished with four, networked Avid workstations spread across two apartments. There we covered all post, except the final audio mix. It was readily obvious to me that this was up to 160 hours/week of post that was no longer being done at an established facility. And that it was a trend that would accelerate, not go away.

Continued shift

It’s going on two decades now since that shift. In that time I’ve worked out of my home studio (picture circa 2011), my laptop on site, and within other production companies and facilities. Under various conditions, I’ve cut, finished, and delivered commercials, network shows, trade-show presentations, themed attraction projects, and feature films and documentaries. I’ve cut and graded with Final Cut Pro (“legacy” and X), Premiere Pro, Media Composer/Symphony, AvidDS, Color, Resolve, and others. The final delivered files have all passed rigid QC. It’s a given to me that you don’t need a state-of-the-art facility to do good work – IF you know what you are doing – and IF you can trust your gear in a way that you can generate predictable results. So I have to challenge the assumptions, when I hear “good enough.”

Predictable results – ah, there’s the rub. Colorists swear by the necessity for rooms with the proper neutral paint job and very expensive, calibrated displays. Yet, now many are working from home in ad hoc grading rooms. Many took home their super-expensive Sonys, but others are also using high-end LG, Flanders, or the new Apple XDR to grade by. And guess what? Somehow it all works. Would a calibrated grading environment be better? Sure, I’m not saying that it wouldn’t – simply that you can deliver quality without one when needed.

I’ve often asked clients to evaluate an in-progress grade using an Apple iPad, simply because they display good, consistent results. It’s like audio mixers who use the old Auratone cube speakers. Both devices are intended to be a “lowest common denominator.” If it looks or sounds good there, then that will translate reasonably well to other consumer devices. For grading I would still like to have the client present at the end for a final pass. Color is subjective and it’s essential that you are looking at the same display in the same room to make sure everyone is talking the same language.

I need to point out that I’m generally talking about finishing for streaming, the web, and/or broadcast with a stereo mix. When it comes to specialized venues, like theatrical presentations and custom attractions (theme parks or museums), the mixing and grading almost always has to be completed in properly designed suites/theaters/mix stages (motion pictures) or on-site (special venues). For example, if you mix a motion picture for theatrical display, you need a properly certified 5.1, 7.1, or Dolby Atmos environment. Otherwise, it’s largely a guessing game. The same for picture projection, which differs from TV and the web in terms of brightness, gamma, and color space. In these two instances, it’s highly unlikely that anyone working out of their house is going to have an acceptable set-up.

The new normal

So where do we go from here? What is the “new normal?” Once some level of normal has returned, I do believe a lot of post will go back to the way it was before. But, not all. Think of the various videoconference-style (Skype, Zoom, etc) shows you’ve been watching these weeks. Obviously, these were produced that way out of necessity. But, guess what! Quite a few are downright entertaining, which says to me that this format isn’t going away. It will become another way to produce a show that viewers like. Just as GoPros and drones have become a standard part of the production lexicon, the same will be true of iPhones and even direct Zoom or Skype feeds. Viewers are now comfortable with it.

At a time when the manufacturers have been trying to cram HDR and 8K down our throats, we suddenly find that something entirely different is more important. This will change not only production, but also post. Of course, many editors have already been working from home or ad hoc cutting rooms prior to this; but editing is a collaborative art working with other creatives.

All situations aren’t equal though. I’ve typically worked without a client sitting over my shoulder for years. Review-and-approval services like Frame.io have become standard tools in my workflow. Although not quite as efficient as haven’t a client right there, it still can be very effective. That’s common in my workflows, but has likely become a new way of working over these past two months for editors and colorists who never worked that way prior to Covid-19.

Going forward

Where does “good enough” fit in? If cutting in Media Composer and delivering DNxHR has been your norm within a facility, then using editors working from home may require a shift in thinking. For example, is cutting in Resolve, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut Pro X and then delivering ProResHQ (or higher) an acceptable alternative? There simply is no quality compromise, regardless of what some may believe, but it may require a shift in workflow or thinking.

Security may be harder to overcome. In studio or network-controlled features and TV series, security is tight, making WFH situations dicey. However, the truth of the matter is that the lowest common denominator may be more dangerous than a hacker. Think about the unscrupulous person somewhere in the chain who has access to files. Or someone with a smartphone camera recording a screen. In the end, do you or don’t you have employees and/or freelancers that you can trust? Frame.io is addressing some of these security questions with personalized screeners. Nevertheless, such issues need to be addressed and in some case, loosened.

Another item to consider is what are your freelancers using to cut or grade with? Do they have an adequate workstation with the right software, plug-ins, and fonts? Or does the company need to supply that? What about monitoring? All of these are items to explore with your staff and freelancers.

The hardest nut to crack is if you need access to a home base. Sure you can “sneakernet” drives between editors. You can transfer large files over the internet on a limited basis. These both come with a hit in efficiency. For example, my current work situation requires ongoing access to high-res, native media stored on QNAP and LumaForge Jellyfish NAS systems – an aggregate of about 3/4PB of potential storage. Fortunately, we have a policy of archiving all completed projects onto removable drives, even while still storing the projects on the NAS systems for as long as possible. In preparation for our WFH mode, I brought home about 40 archive drives (about 150TB of media) as a best guess of everything I might need to work on from home. Two other editors took home a small RAID each for projects that they were working on.

Going forward, what have I learned? The bottom line is – I don’t know. We can easily work from home and deliver high-quality work. To me that’s a given and has been for a while. In fact, if you are running a loaded 5K iMac, iMac Pro, or 16″ MacBook Pro, then you already have a better workstation than most suites still running 10-year-old “cheese grater” or 7-year-old “trash can” Mac Pros. Toss in a fast Thunderbolt or USB3.0 RAID and ProRes or DNxHR media becomes a breeze. Clearly this “good enough” scenario will deliver comparable results to a “blessed” edit suite.

Unfortunately, if you can’t stay completely self-contained, then the scenarios involve someone being at the home base. In larger facilities this still requires IT personnel  or assistant editors to go into the office. Even if you are an editor cutting from home with proxy files, someone has to go into the office to conform the camera originals and create deliverables. This tends to make a mockery out of stringent WFH restrictions.

If the world truly has changed forever, as many believe, and remote work will be how the majority of post-production operates going forward, then it certainly changes the complexion of what a facility will look like. Why invest in a large SAN/NAS storage solution? Why invest in a fleet of new Mac Pros? There’s no need, because the facility footprint can be much smaller. Just make sure your employees/freelancers have adequate hardware to do your work.

The alternative is fast, direct access over the internet to your actual shared storage. Technically, you can access files in a number of ways. None of them are particularly efficient. The best systems involve expense, like Teradici products or the HP RGS feature. However, if you have an IT hiccup or a power outage, you are back in the same boat. The “holy grail” for many is to have all media in the cloud and to edit directly from the cloud. That to me is still a total pipe dream and will be for a while for a variety of reasons. I don’t want to say that all of these ideas present insurmountable hurdles, but they aren’t cheaper – nor more secure – than being on premises. At least not yet.

The good news is that our experience over the past few months has spurred interest in new ways of working that will incentivize development. And maybe – just maybe – instead of fretting about the infrastructure to support 8K, we’ll find better, faster, more efficient ways to work with high-quality media at a distance.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Chasing the Elusive Film Look

Ever since we started shooting dramatic content on video, directors have pushed to achieve the cinematic qualities of film. Sometimes that’s through lens selection, lighting, or frame rate, but more often it falls on the shoulders of the editor or colorist to make that video look like film. Yet, many things contribute to how we perceive the “look of film.” It’s not a single effect, but rather the combination of careful set design, costuming, lighting, lenses, camera color science, and color correction in post.

As editors, we have control over the last ingredient, which brings me to LUTs and plug-ins. A number of these claim to offer looks based on certain film emulsions. I’m not talking about stylized color presets, but the subtle characteristics of film’s color and texture. But what does that really mean? A projected theatrical film is the product of four different stocks within that chain – original camera negative, interpositive print, internegative, and the release print. Conversely, a digital project shot on film and then scanned to a file only involves one film stock. So it doesn’t really mean much to say you are copying the look of film emulsion, without really understanding the desired effect.

My favorite film plug-in is Koji Advance, which is distributed through the FxFactory platform. Koji was developed between Crumplepop and noted film timer, Dale Grahn. A film timer is the film lab’s equivalent to a digital colorist. Grahn selected several color and black-and-white film stocks as the basis for the Koji film looks and film grain emulation. Then Crumplepop’s developers expanded those options with neutral, saturated, and low contrast versions of each film stock and included camera-based conversions from log or Rec 709 color spaces. This is all wrapped into a versatile color correction plug-in with controls for temperature/tint, lift/gamma/gain/density (low, mid, high, master), saturation, and color correction sliders. (Click an image to see an expanded view.)

This post isn’t a review of the Koji Advance plug-in, but rather how to use such a filter effectively within an NLE like Final Cut Pro X (or Premiere Pro and After Effects, as well). In fact, these tips can also be used with other similar film look plug-ins. Koji can be used as your primary color correction tool, applying and adjusting it on each clip. But I really see it as icing on the cake and so will take a different approach.

1. Base grade/shot matching. The first thing you want to do in any color correction session is to match your shots within the sequence. It’s best to establish a base grade before you dive into certain stylized looks. Set the correct brightness and contrast and then adjust for proper balance and color tone. For these examples, I’ve edited a timeline consisting of a series of random FilmSupply stock footage clips. These clips cover a mix of cameras and color spaces. Before I do anything, I have to grade these to look consistent.

Since these are not all from the same set-up, there will naturally be some variances. A magic hour shot can never be corrected to be identical to a sunny exterior or an office shot. Variations are OK, as long as general levels are good and the tone feels right. Final Cut Pro X features a solid color correction tool set that is aided by the comparison view. That makes it easy to match a shot to the clip before and after it in the timeline.

2. Adding the film look. Once you have an evenly graded sequence of shots, add an adjustment layer. I will typically apply the Koji filter, an instance of Hue/Sat Curves, and a broadcast-safe limiter into that layer.

Within the Koji filter, select generic Rec 709 as the camera format and then the desired film stock. Each selection will have different effects on the color, brightness, and contrast of the clips. Pick the one closest to your intended effect. If you also want film grain, then select a stock choice for grain and adjust the saturation, contrast, and mix percentage for that grain. It’s best to view grain playing back at close to your target screen size with Final Cut set to Better Quality. Making grain judgements in a small viewer or in Better Performance mode can be deceiving. Grain should be subtle, unless you are going for a grunge look.

The addition of any of these film emulsion effects will impact the look of your base grade; therefore, you may need to tweak the color settings with the Koji controls. Remember, you are going for an overall look. In many cases, your primary grade might look nice and punchy – perfect for TV commercials. But that style may feel too saturated for a convincing film look of a drama. That’s where the Hue/Sat Curves tool comes in. Select LUMA vs SAT and bring down the low end to taste. You want to end up with pure blacks (at the darkest point) and a slight decrease in shadow-area saturation.

3. Readjust shots for your final grade. The application of a film effect is not transparent and the Koji filter will tend to affect the look of some clips more than others. This means that you’ll need to go back and make slight adjustments to some of the clips in your sequence. Tweak the clip color correction settings applied in the first step so that you optimize each clip’s final appearance through the Koji plug-in.

4. Other options. Remember that Koji or similar plug-ins offer different options – so don’t be afraid to experiment. Want film noir? Try a black-and-white film stock, but remember to also turn down the grain saturation.

You aren’t going for a stylized color correction treatment with these tips. What you are trying to achieve is a look that is more akin to that of a film print. The point of adding a film filter on top is to create a blend across all of your clips – a type of visual “glue.” Since filters like this and the adjustment layer as a whole have opacity settings, is easy to go full bore with the look or simply add a hint to taste. Subtlety is the key.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

A First Look at Postlab Cloud

Apple developed Final Cut Pro X around single-editor workflows. As such, professional editing teams who wanted to use this tool for collaborative editing have been challenged to develop their own solutions. One approach was Postlab, which was developed in-house at Dutch broadcaster Evanglische Omroep (EO). In order to expand the product as a commercial application, lead developer Jasper Siegers decided to move it under the Hedge umbrella. This required the app to be rebuilt with new code before it could be offered to the FCPX market. That time has come and Postlab is now available as Postlab Cloud.

As the name implies, Postlab Cloud hosts your FCPX libraries “in the cloud,” i.e. on Postlab’s servers. Some production companies or broadcasters are reticent to have their editing computers connected online, but it’s important to note that only libraries and no media or caches are hosted by Postlab. This keeps the transfer times fast and file sizes light. Cache and media files stay local, whether on your machine or on connected shared storage. Postlab sets up accounts based on site licenses and numbers of users. Each user is assigned a log-in based on an e-mail address and a password. This means that a production hosted by Postlab can be accessed by authorized users anywhere in the world, provided there’s a viable internet connection.

The owner of the account can set up productions and organize them within folders. Each production is a collection or bundle of one or more Final Cut Pro X libraries. If you have ever worked with Final Cut Server in the FCP7 days, then the Postlab workflow is very similar. Once a production has been created, an editor can log in, download the library (a check-out step), edit in it, and then upload the changed version (a check-in step). As part of this upload, the Postlab interface prompts you to add comments describing the work you’ve done. Only one editor at a time can download a library and have write access; however, other users can still download it with read-only access. If you have two editors ping-ponging work on the same library file, then one has to upload it (check in) before the other editor can download it (check out) for their edits.

Getting started

I decided to test Postlab Cloud in two scenarios: a) multiple workstations connected to a shared storage network, and b) two disconnected editors collaborating over long distances. To start, once an account has been established, any editor using Postlab Cloud must install the small Postlab application. Since the app controls some of Final Cut’s functions, you will be prompted to enable GUI Scripting in your privacy preferences. In order for Postlab to work properly, media and cache files need to be outside of the library bundle. When you first download a library, you may be prompted to change your settings. In a networked environment with media on shared storage, the path to the media should be the same on each workstation. This means when Editor A finishes and checks in the production and then Editor B checks it back out, you generally will not need to relink the media files on Editor B’s system. Therefore, this edit collaboration can proceed fluidly.

Once a production has been downloaded, the library file exists as a temporary file on the local machine and not the network. This means that Postlab can still work in tandem with storage solutions that don’t normally perform well with FCPX libraries. In addition to this temporary library file, the Final Cut backup library is also stored in the location you have designated. If you are working in a networked, collaborative environment, then the advantage Postlab offers is version tracking and the ability for multiple users to open a library file (only one with write access).

Long distance

The second scenario is working with other editors outside of your facility. The first step is to get the media to the outside editor. You could certainly send a drive, but that isn’t efficient in time nor cost, especially across continents. If you only need creative editing and not finishing services, then low-res, proxy files are fine. So I converted my 4K UHD ProRes HQ files to 960 x 540 H264 (3Mbps) files and used Frame.io to transfer them over the internet. The key to proper relinking when you are done is to set audio to pass-through when converting this files. This was a double-system sound shoot, so I uploaded both the H264 videos files and the sound recordist’s WAV files to Frame and then downloaded them again at the other end (my home). Now I had media in both locations. The process would be the same even if it were two editors in two different countries.

The first Postlab step is to create and upload this FCPX library. Once that has been established, any authorized user with a Postlab log-in can access the production. I decided to go back and forth on this production between my home and the facility and also using different user log-ins – thus simulating a team of remote editors. Each time I did this, version changes were tracked by Postlab. If I were working with multiple editors, I would have been able to see what tasks each had performed.

It’s important to note that when you collaborate in this way, each editor should be using the same effects, LUTs, and Motion templates, otherwise some things will appear offline. Since the path to the media was different at home versus at the facility, each time I went between the two, checking in and then checking out the production, media files would appear offline. A simple relink fixed this, but it’s something to be aware of. Once totally done, I could relink to the high-res camera files and “finish” the project back at the office.

Wrap-up

When you upload a library back to Postlab, that open FCPX library is closed within Final Cut Pro X on your system, because you have checked it back in. Once you log out of Postlab, the temporary library file is moved to the trash. If you need a local version of the library, then export it from the Postlab app.

Once you get the hang of it, collaboration is simple using Postlab Cloud. Library files stay light without any of the sort of corruption caused by using services like DropBox. My test project included synchronized multi-cam clips and multi-channel audio. Each time during this exchange clips, projects, and edits showed up as expected when going between the various users. Whether or not Apple ever tackles collaboration within Final Cut Pro X is an unknown. But why wait? If you need that today, then Postlab Cloud offers a solid answer.

The relaunched Postlab Cloud includes three plans, which are priced per user/per year: Postlab, Postlab Pro, and Postlab Server. The first tier only allows for library version tracking and sharing. Pro allows for a lot more libraries to be shared and comes with more features. Server is a dedicated Postlab Cloud server for larger teams or those that require IT-specific features like Active Directory. Finally, Hedge/Postlab plans to ship a local version of Postlab – designed for use within local networks – soon after launch.

Postlab has now expanded to include Premiere Pro users.

Check out the Postlab tutorials for more information.

The article was originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters