NAB Special – SpeedGrade revisited

speedgrade-featured

Today at NAB Adobe revealed the next version of their video tools. From my perspective, the most interesting developments happened on the Premiere Pro front, and the next note will deal exactly with that. As of now, let’s take a look at another promising part of the suite – the new SpeedGrade.

SpeedGrade interface in its full glory. Quite a lot of things are going on, and certainly it’s an improvement over the previous version to have these panels all on a single screen.

Courtesy of Adobe development team I had an opportunity to take a sneak peak at the pre-release version. I played with it long enough to see how much of my integration wish list has been adressed, and I have mixed feelings about it:

  1. Monitoring on different hardware – half check. Right now it’s possible to get the output on AJA and Matrox devices, or the second monitor. Bluefish and Blackmagic (which I’m personally the most interested in) support still remains vague.
  2. Control surfaces – half check. Tangent Elements is supported, but Avid Artist not so much. I’ve been considering buying one for some time, so it’s again a mixed blessing. The “virtual trackball” behavior for tablets, most likely an attempt to simulate the behavior of actual trackballs, is something that personally I’d be glad to turn off, and perhaps then it would be easier to actually use the software with Wacom.
  3. Premiere Pro integration – not as of now, but the newest version of Premiere has tightly integrated “Lumetri effect” which allows one to apply a look from SpeedGrade to any clip on the timeline. Will the release version of SpeedGrade be able to read Premiere projects and apply the effect? And then read it back for round-tripping? We shall see.
  4. File support – half check. What might break it all down is the fact that not all file formats that Premiere supports, are supported by SpeedGrade. I use XDCAM EX on a daily basis, and this is not supported. Granted, it’s also not supported by Resolve, so I’d be inclined to do the transcoding.
  5. XML import and export – nope. Hopefully it is amended by feature number 3 at certain point, but on the other hand, implementing it might be a tad easier.
  6. More Adobe-like UI – half-check. A few tweaks to the interface here and there, some unification of the icons, but we’re still in a bit different world. Granted, it’s not that important an issue, UI can be learned, and should be dictated by the needs of the application, and in this regard the flexible layout of SpeedGrade has a distinct advantage over Resolve or other applications.

You can quickly turn on and off the panels, to focus on the actual footage that you intend to grade.

As you can see most of the issues have been addressed in some manner, so there certainly is some progress, although for the seamless integration into the pipeline we will still have to
wait. It is kind of disappointing, especially after seeing how Premiere changed within past year. Certainly the goal of creating the default color grading application for Premiere editors remains unachieved.

Unfortunately as of today, mostly due to the points 1 and 4, the ease of use, and the number of available features, Resolve Lite still remains my software of choice, unless I’d be grading in 2K or higher, which currently I’m not. I wish SpeedGrade team all the best in their efforts, and I shall monitor their progress with interest, waiting for the moment when I can use the software for one of our productions.

There has also been an interesting development for me in terms of SpeedGrade, but right now I am not at liberty to say anything more than I will most likely learn this software much better than I ever wanted to at present moment. Life goes mysterious ways.

 

SpeedGrade developers DO get it

Quite recently I commented on what kind of features are important in my opinion for the popularity of SpeedGrade to rise. This interview with the creators and developers of SG is the proof that they do understand what is the key feature to fix:

There are three things in this interview that I wanted to take a closer look at.

One, it’s excellent that sending frames from the GPU will not require a major rewrite of FrameCycler. This was the basic hurdle, and it looks like it’s going to be amended pretty soon.

Two, it’s great to see that Photoshop does allow for LUTs to be applied to an image. In fact, it’s a very cool technique. Create and adjustment layer “Color lookup”, and in the properties panel for the layer you can select or load any .look, CUBE or 3DL LUT. For some reason I seems to have a problem with SpeedGrade’s .look files, but it’s a great tool nevertheless. One that is similar to Apply Color LUT that can be found in After Effects, and I hope is coming to Premiere as well.

Three, and most important, it is clear that they understand the next logical step for color grading – democratization.

Up until recently – and most of the colorists will most likely argue that even now – color grading has been serious business, that required proper hardware, proper monitoring, and proper place. Grading suites are still one of the most expensive facilities for post, even though the cost of components has dropped dramatically during recent years. And the prevailing opinion is that if you attempt to do it on a lesser equipment, you might as well not do it at all, because you’ll never going to get good results.

But you know what? The same argument was being made some time ago with regard to pre-press, and photo correction. You need a calibrated, expensive monitor to see all the nuances of color, you need profiles and color management, you need properly lighted room, Pantone color guides, proofs, etc. And at certain level you want and need all of that.  But for most publications that see the light of day, you don’t. The reality is that even on a $299 24″ IPS monitor one can get a decent match in color, that will allow you to output great material. Heck, Dan Margulis, an acclaimed Photoshop expert, claims that you can color correct the pictures if you’re a color-blind or using a monochromatic monitor. And if you know what you are doing, most people will not see the difference.

Granted, video signal is a bit special, and you do need some kind of hardware to output it to your monitor to see the possible artifacts. And DI, projection or film is another league altogether. But at the same time, unless you are heading for a theatrical projection (and in some cases even then) you have no control on how your movie is going to be watched, and what the improperly setup TV or laptop screen will do to it. Even broadcast these days with higher and higher compression ratios, is not what it used to be. The question then becomes, what the real entry level is, and what kind of deviation from your reference point you are willing to accept.

And SpeedGrade creators seem to understand this simple fact, that in order to pick up color grading tools, you don’t need the million-dollar equipment and software any longer. You can try it at home, similarly as you can try your best using Photoshop or Lightroom to correct your photos, Premiere to edit your videos, or a word processor to write your novels. Does it mean that just because you have an access to a tool, you automatically become a great colorist? Or that the fruits of your attempts will be as great as those of the master colorists? No more than each of us is a successful, popular, and talented writer.

But somewhere in the realms of high-end entertainment industry the message of having fun is being lost. Creativity is the ultimate freedom of exploration. It does not respect borders or limitations. And playing with ideas is its integral part. To experiment, to play, you don’t necessarily need high-end tools. You need toys and imagination. And toys for aspiring colorists is what we need. Now. Especially when your home PC can handle HD footage with color correction in real time without a problem.

The sad part is that Adobe is not a hardware company, so I guess I won’t expect them to make an affordable color grading surface to play with anytime soon. We still have to wait for BlackMagic Design or some other party, even less invested in the grading market, to fill this niche, and earn millions of dollars. And I do believe that it will happen sooner or later.

The craft of color grading is expanding. More and more people know about it, more and more people like to do it, find it interesting and fun. Of course, the professional colorist is not going to disappear, like professional editors did not disappear when NLE became something one could run at his home computer. But I’m going to agree with Lawrence Lessig, Philip Hodgetts and Terence Curren – video is the new literacy. And color grading is its important part.

In the end, such democratization will only benefit the craft, even though it might make some craftsmen seem more like human beings, and less like gods and magicians. The change is inevitable. And it’s exciting to see some players embracing it.

An idea on how to dramatically improve Premiere Pro

I will admit right at the beginning – the idea is stolen from Autodesk Smoke 2013. I hope they don’t have a patent for that, because it’s so fantastic. But first let me make an obligatory digression.

There are a few things to like in Smoke, and there are other not to like. Something that really turned me off was the fact that something as simple as a clip with an alpha channel would not play in the timeline without rendering. Excuse me? As far as I know there is no other NLE on the market anymore that requires it. And we’re not even in 2013 yet. This constant need of rendering was something that turned me away from Final Cut Pro. I thought we’re long past that.

I also didn’t like the fact that the order of applied effects is pretty strict, although ConnectFX, and Action are really well developed and pretty flexible tools coming from the makers of great finishing software. This is the part which I liked. But after creating your comp and coming back to the timeline, you always have to render it to preview. Period.

The real trick of Smoke rooms seems to come to clever media management that is obscured from the user. I fail to comprehend how it is different from rendering  a Dynamic Linked composition in Premiere Pro. Except from the fact that Premiere will at least attempt to play it, if ordered, and Smoke will just show “Unrendered frame”. But then, it’s just me.

However, Smoke has a feature that in my opinion is awesome, and should be implemented in Premiere Pro as soon as possible. It treats each source clip as a sequence from the get-go. It’s a brilliant idea.

In case you are wondering why I am so excited about it, let me make a short list on what you could do with the clips before you put them on the timeline when such option is available:

  1. Set audio gain and levels.
  2. Add additional audio channels or files and synchronize them.
  3. Composite another clip on top – or even make it a fully-fledged composition.
  4. Add versions of the clip.
  5. Apply LUT or a grade.
  6. Pre-render clip into proxy or dynamically transcode like in After Effects.

Can you see it now? You can work with your source material before making any edit. At the same time all these effects will be applied to the clips being inserted to the timeline or already present after the edit is complete.

I would love to see this implemented in Premiere. I don’t think it would be that hard, since sequence nesting is already possible, as is merging the audio clips. It seems to be only one more step with perhaps some clever way to turn on and off layers or effects of the clip already present on the timeline. It is the ultimate flexibility that would allow for quite a few new workflows to appear. I hesitate to use the abused words of “a game changer” – but I can’t help to feel terribly excited about it.

Oh, and while we’re at it, why don’t we tie it with scripting, and Premiere Pro project file as a universal container for other applications to work from?

My vision of Adobe SpeedGrade

SpeedGrade seems like a very promising addition to Adobe Creative Suite, which I have already mentioned. However, after playing with it for a short moment, I found with regret that it does not fit our current infrastructure and workflows. Below is a short list of what kind of changes that I consider pretty important. These requests seem to be quite common among other interested parties, judging by the comments and questions asked during Adobe SpeedGrade webinar.

First, as of now the only way to output a video signal from SpeedGrade is via very expensive SDI daughter board to nVidia Quadro cards. This is pretty uncommon configuration in most post facilities. These days a decent quality monitoring card can be bought for less than 10 times the price of nVidia SDI. If the software is to gain wider popularity, this is the issue to be addressed.

Adobe seems to have been painfully aware of its importance, even before the release. I’m sure that had it been an easy task, it would have been accomplished long ago. Unfortunately, the problem is rooted deep in the SpeedGrade architecture. Its authors say, that SG “lives in the GPU”. This means that obtaining output on other device might require rewriting a lot – if not most – of an underlying code – similarly to what Adobe did in Premiere Pro CS5 when they ditched QuickTime and introduced their own Mercury Playback Engine. Will they consider the rewrite worthwhile? If not, they might just as well kill the application.

Second, as of now SG supports a very limited number of color surfaces. Unless the choice is widened to include at least Avid Color, and new Tangent Elements, it will push the application again into the corner of obscurity.

Third, the current integration with Premiere is very disappointing. It requires either using an EDL, or converting the movie into a sequence of DPX files. It’s choice of input formats is also very limited, which means that in most cases you will have to forget about one of the main selling point of Premiere – native editing. Or embrace offline-online workflow, which is pretty antithetical to the flexible spirit of other Adobe applications.

The integration needs to be tightened, and (un)fortunately Dynamic Link will not be an answer. DL is good for single clips, but a colorist must operate on the whole material to be effective. Therefore SG will have to read whole Premiere sequences, and work directly with Premiere’s XML (don’t confuse with FCP XML). It also means that it will have to read all file formats and render all the effects and transitions that Premiere does. Will it be done via Premiere becoming a frame server for SpeedGrade, as is After Effects for Premiere when DL is employed? Who knows, after all, Media Encoder already runs a process called PremiereProHeadless, which seems to be responsible for rendering without Premiere GUI being open. A basic structure seems to be in place already. How much will it conflict with SpeedGrade’s own frame server? How will effects be treated to obtain real time playback? Perhaps SpeedGrade could use Premiere’s render files as well?

An interesting glimpse of what is to come can also be seen in an obscure effect in After Effects which allows to apply a custom look from SpeedGrade to a layer. Possibly something like this is in store for Premiere Pro, where SG look will be applied to graded clips. The question remains, if the integration will follow the way of Baselight’s plugin, with the possibility to make adjustments in Premiere’s effect panel, or will we have to reopen the project in SG to make the changes.

This tighter integration also means that export will most likely be deferred to Adobe Media Encoder, which will solve the problem of pretty limited choice of output options presently available in SpeedGrade.

As of now SpeedGrade does not implement curves. Even though the authors claim that any correction done with curves can be done with the use of other tools present in SG, curves are sometimes pretty convenient and allow to solve some problems in more efficient manner. They will also be more familiar to users of other Adobe applications like Photoshop or Lightroom. While not critical, introducing various curve tools will allow SG to widen its user base, and will make it more appealing.

Talking about appeal, some GUI redesign is still in order, to make the application more user friendly and Adobe-like. I don’t think a major overhaul is necessary, but certainly a little would go a long way. Personally I don’t have problems with how the program operates now, but for less technically inclined people, it would be good to make SpeedGrade more intuitive and easier to use.

These are my ideas on how to improve the newest addition to Adobe Suite. As you can see, I am again touting the idea of the container format for video projects – and Premiere Pro’s project file, being an XML, is a perfect candidate. Frankly, if SpeedGrade will not be reading .prproj files by the next release, I will be very disappointed.

What pro users want from Premiere Pro, what Adobe will not deliver and why

After acquiring the IRIDAS Adobe is in a perfect position now to replace the now EOLed Final Cut Studio as a preferred suite of applications for editing and now relatively low cost finishing. This is also what is most likely to happen, even though personally I would love Premiere Pro, After Effects, Lightroom,  Photoshop, Audition and now SpeedGrade to be integrated in one single seamless application a la Smoke. I am obviously not the only person to think about that (see comments here), nor even the first one by any stretch of imagination.

Here is however why I don‘t think it will happen though. For one, recent changes in pricing and the fact that Adobe software has became very affordable for new businesses and startups is something that the company is not going to strike out by building a single finishing application encompassing the functionality of the whole suite. Arguably the fact that you can essentially rent a single specific tool for your job for next to nothing is one of the things that makes Adobe software more popular than ever. This business model would be seriously undermined by conversion of the suite to a single application, and this is what actually none of us think would be a wise thing to do.

Secondly, the architectures of After Effects and Premiere Pro – not even mentioning Audition – seem to be quite different. Even though Adobe has gone to great lengths to ensure proper translation of projects between the applications, there is a realm of difference between this and actually merging the two together in a Smoke-like manner. Don’t get fooled by the similarities of the interface. The engines running these two are quite different, and to actually enclose one in another might be impossible without rewriting most of the code. Adobe already did that while creating 64-bit applications, and there is hardly any incentive to do that again, especially since their time for development has actually shortened due to the “dot half” releases.

The only sensible way to approach this is to create a new application from scratch, but that would be essentially duplicating the features of already existing programs without any real benefit to the business, and at at least twice the cost. This is not something that is going to happen without a serious incentive to do so. Perhaps incorporation of SpeedGrade into the suite might be such a good pretext, but it all depends on the underlying architecture of the program itself, and is not going to happen soon, so don’t hold your breath until CS7 or even CS8.

I bet that in the short term we will see the remake of SpeedGrade’s interface to suit more the CS family, perhaps a few more options will be added, and a “Send to…” workflow will be established between Premiere, After Effects and SpeedGrade, perhaps with the addition of plugin a la recent Baselight development for the old FCP. This is what is feasible to expect in CS6. SpeedGrade will be able to see and render all Premiere and After Effects effects, transitions etc., due to the incorporation of either Dynamic Link or the standalone  renderers that already are present in Adobe Media Encoder, and hopefully will be able to merge projects from Audition as well.

Perhaps a new common project file format will be born, independent of any application, akin to the container, where each application reads and works only on its own parts, and it all comes together in SpeedGrade (finishing), Bridge (playback) or even AME for export. And if nobody at Adobe is working on such an idea yet, then please start immediately, because this is exactly what is needed in the big shared workflows. This format would get rid of the some of the really annoying problems of the Dynamic Link, and would open a lot of possibilities.

In the long run we might see a birth of a new Ubertool – a true finishing app from Adobe, and if a container-project idea is embraced, the workflow might even be two-way. I would imagine that this tool would also incorporate some management ideas from recently demonstrated Foundry Hiero, like versioning, conforming, or even preparing material to send to Premiere Pro, AE, Audition, etc. for other artists.  Because Adobe Suite does not need only the Color Grading software for completion. It needs a true project management and finishing application, and that would be an excellent logical step for Adobe to take, and then their workflow would really encompass all stages of pre-, post- and production proper. Which I hope will happen in the end.

One thing that I am sure Adobe will not do: they will not repeat the debacle of FCPX. The new Ubertool might be able to do all that other apps do, and probably more, perhaps even better, but they will not fade the smaller tools out of existence immediately, if ever, and everyone will be able to talk to each other as seamlessly as possible.