Two Great Strides in the Democratisation of Colour Grading

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Regular readers of this blog know, that I have been dreaming about a low-cost grading control surface for years. At some point I even considered attempting to build one myself, but this project never got more serious than an extensive set of notes. There were a few remotely interesting ideas around, including the Oxygen TecPro panel, the use of Kingston trackball or some midi hacks with various controllers, but these were either makeshift or still too expensive, not suited for the ultimate goal that was to make every editor have it in their suite. Today the announcement of Tangent Ripple and support for it in the upcoming update of Adobe Premiere Pro and Color Finale for FCPX hopefully closes this chapter.
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Resolve 12 Editing Experience

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Full disclosure: I was offered a full version of Resolve Studio from Blackmagic Design in exchange for this review with no other strings attached. While this perk might have influenced my opinion about the company and the product, it’s no secret that I have liked Resolve for a long time, used it on my projects since version 9, and trained people how to work with it. It’s simply a great, affordable grading tool, a worthy replacement of Apple Color. Now it is attempting to take over your edit suite, and this is what I decided to focus on in my assessment.

With the release of version 11, Resolve started to aggressively expand from purely grading tool into non-linear editing. Regardless of the initial hype and of impressive initial toolset, editing in Resolve 11 was clunky, the experience far from seamless, and in the end not really suited to anything but casual editing or correcting bad conforms. There were some brave souls who attempted to try it out on their projects, and even some universities decided to forego installing an NLE in their suites, in favour of Resolve. But I have not seen any projects edited purely from start to finish in Resolve 11. After the initial waves of enthusiasm, Resolve editing faded into background and became little more than a curiosity.

The recent release of Resolve 12 is supposed to change that. There are quite a few significant improvements, especially in the audio area, like the possibility to use VST and AU effects, more priority given to audio over video playback, a brand new audio track mixer, as well as new editing tools – multicam clips and compound or nested timelines plus any trim type that you can possibly imagine. This brings the editing toolset almost to the completeness, at least in the sense of 2015 NLEs.

The new editing toolset

Most of your usual suspects are there, including such useful things as head and tail edit, and a sync lock, which actually works properly and predictably, unlike in certain other applications. In fact, one thing that Resolve should be commended for is the way it handles track collisions on rippling – it’s intuitive, clever and saves a lot of time in the end. Similarly, the way you switch modes from Normal Edit (no operation changes timeline length) to Trim Edit (all operations are now rippling) is clever, possibly not innovative, but very clear and agreeable to my way of operating. Dynamic trimming is also there, available with a single keystroke. The only thing I can complain about is the discoverability. It takes a moment to realise what the modes do and how they work, apart from being just tools; that to open a timeline in the source monitor you have to drag it there; or that to perform Lift you have to use Delete Selected with in and out set. Some tools are simply hidden too well, not present in any menu. Another example: creating subclips is only possible when you right-click on the selected in-out range in the source monitor.

The additions to Resolve 12 trimming and editing make it a viable tool for creative editing.

The additions to Resolve 12 trimming and editing make it a viable tool for creative editing. Some options are pretty well hidden though!

There are also a few nifty features speeding up the editing process that Resolve is still lacking – one of them is the ability to set in and out point of the clip while scrubbing over the thumbnails or the filmstrip in the project media browser. While editing using the source monitor is important, and a lot of people do work that way, it is not always the most efficient, and especially the newer brand of editors might be missing them.

Where it’s still the big iron

How does editing in Resolve 12 feel though? After all, the editors are used to an immediate feedback, seamless, realtime playback experience and working with tons of media. Does Resolve 12 live up to the expectations?

I’d say yes and no.

Resolve needs a powerful machine to work properly. While any other NLE can fly on my MacBook Pro 2012 Retina, Resolve struggles, and sometimes fails, especially with heavily compressed H.264 media. I need my heavy-weight Windows workstation to get the performance which makes me comfortable. Coming from the high-end, big iron background, Resolve has not yet transcended its legacy limitations. It lives purely on a GPU, so if your edit is anything more than straightforward cut and occasional dissolve, or your resolution is high, you are going to encounter performance issues, if your graphics card is not good enough. Simple playback might be fine, but even going backwards of fast forward using JKL is not that responsive, often you will notice a significant lag between key being pressed and the reaction to it.

Also, if you are using effects and third party transitions, these are hardly ever rendered in the real-time. Arguably, this is also the case on other platforms, but in Resolve there is no way to just render part of the timeline, and it takes much more time for the software to recover from dropped frames. Yes, there is a nice background rendering option, very similar to what we can find in FCPX, but there is no granular control over what gets rendered – it’s either something not specific or nothing.

There are workarounds, like using cache, using proxy media, reducing playback resolution. They are not without their own issues, and very often require significant amount of hard drive space. In fact, the whole Chapter 5 in the excellent Resolve 12 User Manual is dedicated towards the topic of performance tuning, and it’s definitely worth reading. However, when compared to other NLEs, and especially on the lower end platforms, the smooth experience is not to be expected, when not sitting on a powerful workstation. Way better than in version 11, but we editors are a picky, spoiled bunch.

Project settings window can be intimidating to the uninitiated. Defaults are sensible, but still it is worthwhile to read the manual that comes with the software or ask someone with more experience.

Project settings window can be intimidating to the uninitiated. Defaults are sensible, but still it is worthwhile to read the manual that comes with the software or ask someone with more experience.

Finally, there’s the question of Resolve project management. It has definitely been simplified from the previous versions where a database server was used. One needs to remember though, that all the projects are still saved in a single location, and to move them to a different place you have to export them. Setting up Resolve for use in networked shared environment is not a task an average editor will be able to perform though, and it might be at times problematic, so before you get yourself in trouble either read the manual, or ask a person who has experience in this matter. Thankfully, you can move projects between computers using the drp files without much hassle. It’s definitely something to be aware of and get used to.

Where it falls short

There are still some legacy limitations like the need for all timelines to be of the same size and frame rate. It might not be a huge deal, but some of the more complex projects involve various deliveries. Hopefully this gets addressed in one of the future updates. Come to think about it, the project settings window contains a lot of options dealing with colour grading workflow, which for an average editor might be hard to understand.

Another limitation is the size of the timeline window, and inability to customise user interface to the extent that we know from Avid or Premiere. With some edits, it is not uncommon to have a 10 or even 12 edit tracks containing various elements – live action, motion graphics, visual effects, subtitles, and so on. For audio you definitely need twice that, or even more. Resolve’s current interface is best suited for flat timelines of 3-5 video tracks at the most – unless you are using a 4k or higher resolution display or dual monitors with full screen timeline option on. Therefore some projects will feel great, while others will make you wish for some more screen real-estate or workspace flexibility.

Editing

Editing is smooth on a powerful machine, but your average laptop might turn out not to be enough to seamlessly run Resolve.

Also, editors live by their keyboard shortcuts, and this is where Resolve has significant room for improvement. For one, keyboard shortcuts are stored per project, and are available via project settings. True, you can save your presets, and set the defaults, but at the same time, it would make much more sense, if they were stored as a user preference. Some of the shortcuts are great – kudos for all nudging and clip selection – but some come as defaults from FCP legacy and make less sense. A few common operations require pressing adjustment keys like shift or alt, sometimes multiple of those. Therefore the very first thing that one needs to do is to redefine them. Unfortunately, the keyboard shortcuts editor is not great and feels clunky and dated. At least a search box a la Adobe Premiere would make it easier to find relevant commands, and of course nothing beats the graphic representation of a keyboard, like in FCP.

Where it just works

Media organisation and metadata management is good – nothing revolutionary, it just works as it should and like an editor is used to. If you had used previous versions of Resolve, you will notice that the project structure is now more similar to the one in a traditional NLE – and for the better. There are bins, timelines can reside in any bin, bins are searchable. Any clip can have traditional metadata attached to it, which you can also look for, sort by and fill in, if necessary. Resolve 12 introduces Smart Bins – basically saved searches that update in real-time. Unfortunately, metadata entered in Resolve is project-specific, and won’t be shared between various projects.

Media management in Resolve just works.

Media management in Resolve just works.

Audio editing is usually smooth, if you discount the timeline size limitation. It’s great to have the ability to use audio effects and plug-ins. Right now Resolve does not ship with any, and I have not found a way to incorporate VST plug-ins shipped with Adobe Premiere. On the other hand, on OS X it recognises your standard Audio Units, which is great. At the time I was writing this review (Resolve version 12.1) there was one bug, which might or might not be a deal-breaker for you: AAC-encoded audio will distort when two such files are interacting with one another – either on separate layers, or via cross fade transition. Hopefully this gets fixed soon, as sometimes we do work on really strange types of footage, and encountering AAC-encoded audio is unfortunately not that uncommon.

Of course, coming from the world of grading, Resolve supports most interchange formats, including OMF and AAF, which you might want to use to pass your sound edit to an actual sound mixing application like Pro Tools or Audition. It also imports and exports XML and FCPX XML edits, so if it comes to worst, you can always execute your escape plan and move to an NLE of choice.

One of the potentially more useful features is the searchable Edit Index (aka Timeline Index in FCPX), being essentially an EDL representation of your timeline. Absent duplicate clip markers, it’s a handy tool for manual checking. You can also use it to browse the markers and flags present in the current timeline, though I am missing the marker list for a clip open in the source monitor, where it would be really, really handy as well.

Where it shines

The timeline interaction is often great – very similar to FCPX, ways ahead of Avid and Premiere. Moving clips around feels snappy, adjusting the edits is also fun. Audio levels are adjusted in real-time – of course, not accounting for effects, but this I would not expect – adding crossfades and editing transition curves with often just a single click and drag of a mouse. The expandable keyframe editor, similar to the one present in After Effects, is terrific. A lot of great thought went into this design. It is both simple, and at the same time efficient and powerful, definitely one of the high points of this software. I miss a bit more control over audio transition envelopes or logarithmic audio fade-ins and fade-outs, but that’s about it. Also, did I already mention that the track sync-lock actually works predictably?

It takes two clicks to get to the keyframe editor, but once you're there, you don't want to go back.

It takes two clicks to get to the keyframe editor, but once you’re there, you don’t want to go back.

Newly added multicam is smooth and nicely done. All the required options, including syncing by audio waveform, are there. Playback is good, switching between the angles does not seem to cause any hiccups. In general, the experience is satisfying.

While a lot of effects, generators and transitions were already present in Resolve 10, most of them of limited use, Resolve 12 adds the “Smooth Cut” transition, an equivalent of Avid’s Fluidmorph, or Adobe’s Morph Cut – a mix between cross-fade and optical flow morphing from form one shot to the next. It does seem to work a bit better than Fluidmorph, and it is not limited to the shots containing visible and discernible faces, like the Morph Cut is. While I’m not often impressed by bells and whistles, this feature alone is sometimes worth the effort of at least moving your edit to Resolve.

Where it excels

Since this piece is dedicated to editing in Resolve, I’m not going to do a detailed overview of grading tools. But there are two things new to Resolve 12 which can help you even at the editing stage. One, there is the Resolve Color Management – among other things it allows you to specify the colour space profile that should be attached to any clip that you bring into the project. It will make sure that the flat footage gets a preliminary correction which brings you into your timeline colour space – for example, making the flat log files more contrasty and saturated, ready for Rec709, DCI P3 or even HDR delivery. Previously this could have been achieved with the use of LUTs, but the downside was that any data that got clipped in the process was lost. Resolve Color Management takes care of it without this drawback.

The second feature that might save an editor a great amount of time is the Shot Matcher. Similarly to its SpeedGrade counterpart, it aims to analyse the source clip, and then attempts to bring the selected clips into line with it colour-wise. For any documentary editor or a person who deals with a lot of footage that is not exposed evenly, it’s a blessing. Of course, at best it can be a starting point for the proper grade, but when you’re editing, the contrast and colour continuity can make for an easier, swifter experience, especially with people not used to ignoring colour differences while watching rough cuts.

Shot Matcher can be a great time-saver when using a lot of  unevenly shot media.

The Shot Matcher can be a great time-saver when using a lot of unevenly shot media.

As a grading application, Resolve brings to the table excellent colour management from start to finish, top class grading toolset that now slowly moves into compositing territory, version management, numerous delivery options, remote and collaborative work, and last but not least – control surface integration. While not essential to an editor who just edits, for one who wants to expand into other areas, especially grading, these are a huge benefit, and could be the main reason to start your new projects directly in Resolve. And if you have been using Resolve to grade already, you can now perform creative editing there as well, or move your rough cuts from your NLE, finesse, grade and finish in a single application.

Verdict

What’s my opinion of Resolve 12 for an editor then? Still not there as a pure NLE tool. Not sure if it ever is going catch up to dedicated applications, considering its underlying architecture and limitations. But if you intend to profit from Resolve grading toolset, want to avoid the pain of conforming, don’t want to spend money on a tool you would rarely use, or have a project which does not require you to juggle tons of media, and have a decent piece of hardware to run it on, by all means give it a go. I know a few people using Resolve 12 as a supporting NLE already, and they are praising it.

Resolve has been developing extremely fast, considering that it is only the third version to have editing capabilities. The promises from Resolve 11 have been finally realised in 12. If this trend continues, I believe the new version will have smooth editing experience, and even more interesting features that will help solidify its position in the online/finishing world (including more Fusion integration). This would go a long way towards making it almost a one-stop shop for post-production, from dailies to delivery. And when Tangent Ripple comes out next year, you will most likely see it alongside Resolve in many editing suites around the globe.


 

If you are interested in learning how to use Resolve, Alexis van Hurkman has recently released another of his tutorials, this time dedicated to editing in Resolve 12. You can get it on Ripple Training website. 

The Inevitable Convergence III – The NLE/Grading Edition

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With the introduction of Resolve 12, suddenly the race towards a unified NLE/Grading tool become very interesting. It’s hard to argue, that colour correction and grading became an integral part of post-production workflow. It’s also seemingly one of the low-hanging fruits, as opposed to visual effects and audio. Let’s see what is going on for all major players in this regard.

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How To Fix Hiero XML Export For Premiere… Sort Of

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Some time ago, if you ever tried to export XML from Hiero to Premiere, you got a generic importer error message and that was it. This issue – audio related – was thankfully fixed in later versions of Hiero. However, another hydra reared its ugly head, and this time attempted XML interchange resulted in something along these lines: see more

The Inevitable Convergence – Episode II

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In the aftermath of IBC 2013 I wrote about the inevitable convergence of various software packages. It was easy to see how various vendors began expanding their packages into areas beyond the primary intended roles. NAB 2014 confirms this ongoing trend, and breeds more and more interesting solutions at various price ranges.

Let’s quickly sum it up: BlackMagic Design gave Resolve a serious boost in the editing realm and collaboration, The Foundry announced Nuke Studio, bringing Hiero timeline into Nuke – or another way around, if you prefer – upping the VFX management expectations for everyone and aiming towards the on-line market. Autodesk enhanced real-time timeline capabilities in both Flame and Smoke, while Adobe is constantly tightening the interaction between its various applications to make them work seamlessly as one. The case can be made that Avid is also attempting to do precisely that, gathering all its offerings in Avid Everywhere platform mirroring Adobe Anywhere though with proxy workflow instead of real-time server rendering.

All in all, this expansion outside the primary areas suggests that the applications are mostly mature, the toolset required to fulfil the primary functions is pretty much there, and the software companies are aggressively attempting to widen the user base. This is the case especially with grading packages, where the competition is relatively intense, and the high-end segment stops being perceived as the only viable support. Witness Digital Vision licensing its precision control surface to SGO Mistika, and going software-only route with its Nucoda, dropping its price in a clear attempt to widen its reach.

Which breeds the question – is specialized software doomed to fail in the long run? Will the likes of Baselight eventually run off of the resources to sustain themselves? Certainly, there are some comfortable niches where individual applications do and will exist – Mocha for planar tracking and Silhouette for rotoscoping seem to be pretty good examples. But they thrive in the space where they have no competition, protected by patents or relative obscurity. It’s a very cozy place to be in, but there are not many like these. How will Nuke fare against Mamba FX, now that it has Mac version? How will Premiere, Avid and FCPX survive the BlackMagic incursion?

Today for pure editing still nothing beats dedicated NLEs. I bet it might be a year or two before somebody attempts to do a larger editing project in Nuke Studio or Resolve. But I can easily see how shorter forms might resort to these tools, especially to Resolve for its unbeatable price point and relative ease of use, and Nuke Studio will comfortably find its place in the VFX editorial and possibly finishing.

Lastly, there is the problem of feature bloat and discoverability. When software starts to expand into areas not envisioned from the moment of its conception, the risk of hitting a development wall is pretty huge, since the base code and the user interface was not optimized for these additional tasks, and the forays will most likely appear clumsy to the eyes of the users of specialized packages. Nuke will never be as good roto software as is Silhouette, and I highly doubt it will outclass After Effects in motion graphics.

Will the convergence happen though? Will there be enough overlap between Adobe Creative Cloud, Nuke Studio, Autodesk Flame, and daVinci Resolve that the choice will come down to user preference and – gosh – pricing? Not unless BlackMagic partners with SGO, Eyeon or takes over Toxik from Autodesk. If that happens, all bets are off.

As for now, we can happily choose any tool we deem appropriate for the job and out budgets.

Democratization of Color Grading – what’s the next move?

Yesterday BlackMagic released an upgrade to its free version of the industry standard grading tool, daVinci Resolve. The biggest and most influential change was surely removing the limit of 2 nodes that was present in previous Lite version. This bold move essentially makes the professional color correction software available to everyone for free. I am still waiting for the announced Windows version, that would make it even more accessible, but it’s almost a given at the beginning of the next year.

There still are limitations – you can at most output at HD resolution, even though you can work with footage that is much bigger than that, you won’t get noise reduction, you are limited to a single GPU. That said, most of the people to whom this version of software is directed hardly ever yet think about projects in 2K and above and have not considered buying a second GPU except perhaps for gaming purposes. However you choose to look at it, BlackMagic did surprise everyone by providing amazing piece of truly professional software for free. This kind of democratization of grading tools is certainly terrific, and unexpected. It is however not yet disruptive enough. What will BlackMagic next move be?

I see this release as a preemptive strike against Adobe (see my previous post on Adobe acquiring Iridas) and following Apple recent “prosumerisation” trend. In Adobe CS6 we will almost certainly see integrated SpeedGrade color-correction software – to many it means that they will get this tool almost for free (for the price of upgrade, but you would most-likely want to upgrade anyway). To attempt to win the new users, there was little else that BlackMagic could do. However the question still remains, why would BlackMagic voluntarily resign from some part of their income? Why not sell the newly unlocked Lite version for $99 or $199 and profit handsomely? What’s in it for them, apart from perhaps profiting from monitoring interfaces that they already sell? Let’s speculate a little bit.

One of the things that distinguishes “real” from “would-be” colorists is a control surface. It’s a tool dedicated towards increasing speed and ease with which to operate the software. All companies that provide serious grading software also sell special panels that go with it. This hardware is extremely expensive, costing anywhere from ten thousand to several hundred thousand dollars. BlackMagic does have its own model, which costs about $20 grand. Of course, in the world of high-turnover, high-end productions, such costs are quite quickly recovered. But this highly demanding pro world is relatively small, and competing companies rather numerous: BlackMagic, Digital Vision (former Nucoda), Baselight, Autodesk, Quantel, to name a few important ones.

Certainly no home-grown editor would-be colorist will shell out $20k for a tool that will sit idle 90% of their working time. Towards this end companies like Euphonix (now Avid), and Tangent Devices developed less sophisticated models that cost about $1500. For a pro it is often a very reasonable price for an entry-level piece of hardware that will pay for itself pretty quick. However, for a prosumer it is still at least two to three times too much, especially considering very limited use of the said tool. Regular consumers are willing to pay $499 for a new iPhone, avid gamers usually spend this much on a new GPU, and I guess this is about the limit that a prosumer color-grading surface would have to cost to catch on big time.

From a business perspective, selling 10 000 pieces of hardware costing $500 each earns you more than selling 10 $20k ones. Apple knew that when they released Final Cut Pro X (regardless of what you think about the program). Professional market is quite saturated, and there is not much to be gained there. It is also very demanding. Prosumers are much easier to appease, and their tools do not have to withstand the amount of abuse that pros require. Following the Apple model – giving the tool to prosumers – is a surer promise of profit, than appealing to the demanding pros.

The question is – who will make this move? Two years ago I would say that Apple might be one of the best candidates, but after introducing weird color control in Final Cut Pro X, and focusing all their efforts on touch panels I’m pretty sure they are not the ones. I don’t expect Tangent Devices or Avid to undercut the sales of their relatively low-cost models, especially after Tangent recently revamped their panels. BlackMagic is the most likely candidate, because right now they only have their high-end model. Creating a new version takes a lot of R&D resources, both time and money, and it is pretty hard to compete in this segment. BlackMagic also always did appeal to those with lower budgets, and this kind of disruptive move is something that is the easiest to expect from this company.

Therefore I am waiting for a simple control surface that will cost about $500-$700, will be sturdy enough to last me two years of relatively light to moderate use, and sensitive enough for the kind of color grading that I presently do – nowhere near truly professional level, but sometimes quite demanding nevertheless. I understand the big problem is producing decent color wheels, but I don’t loose hope that somebody will come up with some neat idea, and implement it. And no, multitouch panel will not do. If you wonder why, read another of my articles on the importance of tactile input. The whole point of control surface is that you don’t have to look at it while grading.

Finally, is the realm of professional colorists in any danger from the newcomers? To a certain extent perhaps. The field will certainly become more competitive, and even more dynamic, perhaps a few players will drop out of the market. On the other hand, more people will be educated about the quality of good picture, and more will require this quality, and also will be able to appreciate excellent work that most of the professionals do. All in all it probably will influence more the job of an editor than a colorist, bringing the two even closer together – the editors will be required to learn color correction to stay in business. In the high-end productions not very much will change, the dedicated professionals will still be sought for both for training and for expertise. Perhaps some of the rates will go down, but most likely in the middle range. In the end I think it will have net positive effect on what we do and love.

Will we then see a new product during NAB 2012 or IBC 2012? I would certainly be the first in line with my credit card. And if we do – you heard it here first. :)