The Inevitable Convergence III – The NLE/Grading Edition

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.

Adobe

The CC 2015 update of Adobe Creative Cloud made long strides towards the integrated tool. Premiere Pro received (finally!) updated scopes, dedicated colour grading workspace with elaborate primary and partial secondary correction, as well as some streamlining: clip selection following playhead. Master clip effects were already added last year, but they also went a great length towards making a grading experience in Premiere more efficient.

True to its motto of democratisation of colour, Adobe decided to make the controls similar to the ones one might encounter in Lightroom, making it easier to lure new users into the world of grading. This means that the tools which video people and seasoned SpeedGrade users were using on a daily basis – three-way color corrector – ended up in a very bottom of the stack, somewhat obscured. While understandable in the short run, this decision might turn out to be a bit mistaken, if an integration with any grading panel is introduced in the future.

Speaking of grading panels, some of you might remember my hopes for a low-priced solution dedicated to editors and people who are not full-time colourists. Well, it looks like we are going to see during IBC something coming from Tangent, of all places. If rumours are to be believed (and this one seems to be coming straight from the horse’s mouth), the price is going to be a whopping $350 – a no brainer. Assuming, of course, that other parties rise up to the challenge and implement the protocol for communication. I have high hopes, though I know I’ve been burned in the past, so we shall see.

The major downside of this Premiere Pro update – no matter how great for Premiere – is a seriously reduced usability of Direct Link with SpeedGrade. Whatever changes you introduce using Premiere’s grading interface are a black box, when you send the project to SG. You can’t modify these grades there, and the initial release had some really significant bugs which have been thankfully corrected in July update.

This issue probably stems from the fact, that the SpeedGrade development team is tiny, and had most likely been involved in coding the new features into the Lumetri Color Engine, making sure that SpeedGrade does not freak out when it sees the new Premiere grade. They did not manage to create the UI to handle the new layer. It’s really a pity, because it definitely is a step backwards. Hopefully this is going to be addressed at some point, but I can’t resist the impression, that this release was rushed to the market due to the pressure of NAB and June release dates. We shall see if incoming IBC has something to offer in this regard. At this moment my feelings are ambiguous.

The open question remains, whether SpeedGrade itself is going to be phased out in the near future. Direct Link performance still remains an issue, and the native mode has not seen almost any update since CS6. Arguably, most of the tools are now available in Premiere, and there is little reason to use SG anymore for a lot of users. Those few, who appreciate all aspects of this application, including control panel integration, easy comparison and copying of the grades, or selective primaries, are probably not worth the effort in the eyes of the management. My Dutch colleague, Joost van der Hoeven, recorded a few basic tutorials for Adobe, but they focus mostly on the Direct Link mode, and from what I know, there is more interest in training material for Adobe Media Encoder, than for SG. Therefore, unless we see some dramatic change in direction this year, I give SG two more years, until it stops being updated and supported, like Adobe Encore, with Premiere taking over as the NLE/Grading combo.

So far the missing grading features are: easy grade copy and comparison, grade version management, control panel integration, and – most importantly – lack of any sensible colour space management. Good old Premiere is still Rec.709 most of the time, and Rec.601 for the rest. Also, when it comes to project exchange with other toolsets, Adobe’s FCP XML export/import still lags behind other implementations. Apart from these limitations, it’s definitely a major contender in this race.

Avid

On another front, Avid finally became truly resolution independent with version 8.4 – most likely thanks to freeing itself from hardware limitations, finally shrugging away the legacy code, and having a DNxHR codec to support custom frame sizes – and now aims to gain the new following among the freelance and low-budget crowd with its incoming free version and subscription pricing. Many are crying “too little, too late”, and they are most likely right to a certain extent, though the development is ongoing, and the application is slowly becoming more accessible. My interest in this post lies however in its two extensions – Symphony and Baselight Editions.

Avid Symphony

Avid Symphony has been a tool that served its duty on the frontline of broadcast for many years. If you listen to the Coloristos podcast, you know, that there are still people delivering quality shows with it. It is fast, covers most of the simpler grading cases, and has good management of clip/scene/master grades as well as a decent integration with Avid Artist Color panel. Symphony’s position in broadcast is unlikely to change that much in the near future, regardless of the fact that the grading tools feel dated, and have not been updated for ages. They remain adequate, and only the incoming introduction of Rec.2020 colour space and HDR might prove to be the turning point. Granted, Avid is looking for developers with GPU programming experience, so perhaps some progress can be expected. But as of now, unless you are already living in the Avid world, and are willing to spend $749 on top of the standard Media Composer licence, it’s a solution without an immediate roadmap and ensured future, currently being surpassed by its competition.

Baselight Editions

For those firmly entrenched in the Avid world an interesting option is Baselight Editions – a plug-in for Media Composer, that exposes to an editor the whole interface of Baselight grading toolset, which then can be easily turned over to the proper Baselight grading system. With the use of Baselight Dailies the editor can receive footage already graded, but without the grade being actually baked in. On top of that, the grades can also be exported and – thanks to the version of Editions working in Nuke – passed to VFX artists. In the world of feature films and large studios it’s a great solution, and I applaud Filmlight for developing it. It most certainly adds value to your Avid, if you already have it. Otherwise, it’s a pretty expensive ($999) plug-in, that will not truly replace the true NLE/Grading application combo. Interestingly, Filmlight is supposedly developing a version of Editions for Premiere, but I am not sure if and when this is going to see the light of day.

Avid has also good integration with Digital Vision Nucoda, but they remain separate applications, and this is not going to change in any foreseeable future.

Apple

Final Cut Pro X is definitely earning its place back as a major NLE, having a very strong and dedicated community. While still perceived as an underdog in many circles, it became a very capable tool by itself. New improvements in its plug-in SDK now allow for custom controls in the inspector panel, and we are slowly seeing an influx of plug-ins, including those for grading, taking advantage of that. The original colour palette had its good and bad sides, and most agree that it has been a rather unsuccessful attempt to rethink grading.

Regardless of the wide plug-in selection for FCP X, it still remains tied to the model which is not yet streamlined for grading. The inspector is always tied to the selected clip (though Color Finale can switch between clips with open custom interface), there is no master clip effect (you can work around it using compound clips, but it’s a bit troublesome), there is no versioning (again, a workaround using auditions), and secondaries are mostly available through the plug-ins. So far I also have not seen any vocal suggestions that FCP X should move in this direction from the community, so the future will show whether anything will be done here, but the plethora of plug-ins suggest a need. Perhaps it’s enough that the integration between FCP X and Resolve is really great, and there is simply no need to adopt the grading tools beyond what is already available.

Black Magic Design

Finally, we’re coming to the contender which I believe has just jumped into the lead in this race. Coming from the world of professional grading, BlackMagic Resolve 12 has all the bases covered when it comes to colour correction, and it just made great strides to become a very useful NLE on its own.

Resolve 11 introduced basic editing features last year, but regardless of how proud of it BlackMagic has been, the real-time performance required for NLE operation simply wasn’t there, especially for audio, and the whole thing felt clunky and unresponsive. Lessons learnt, version 12 focused on this issue, and not only did the performance improved considerably, there is now an audio track mixer and ability to add track audio effects, which I consider fundamental towards any audio mixing in an NLE. Along with the support for AU and VST audio plug-ins it makes for a great update in itself.

There are still things that require rendering (OpenFX transitions, effects in the node graph), and in general you will need a beefier machine for Resolve to work in a responsive manner, than you would for Avid or Premiere (though it apparently runs on MacBook Air too). But this is offset by a smart background rendering cache and other features making your life easier.

I must admit I really, really like the new Resolve UI. It is clean, visible, intuitive and efficient, an exact anti-thesis to my recent rant about UI minimalism. Despite the complexity of the application, I don’t feel the need to reach for the manual unless I dig very deep into it. There is enough meaningful colour, icons are readable, detailed and usually nice to look at. With all these praises, however, what is desperately needed is a customisable workspace layout, because the current options are not enough for larger projects or any more serious audio work. Here Adobe Premiere is a great example to follow.

In an NLE department I’m missing an ability to easily review clip markers, add markers with duration, and possibly hide parts of the clips or clips I am not interested in, like I can do in FCP X. At some point a duplicate clip indicator would also be of use. Finally, there are still some audio glitches, and editing audio track effects is a bit convoluted. Apart from these, at first glance it looks like every tool I need has been incorporated. Perhaps some more flexibility in media management might be required, but for this I will have to do some real-world testing.

Resolve 12 is currently at the stage where I am willing to give it a go and edit a larger project in it just to see how it will perform. Ever since the release of the very first light version of Resolve I have been a huge fan of this software, and at the moment it looks like an amazing tool both for beginning and for experienced editors. With some additional touches it might really shine in the NLE world.

In another department, we will most likely see during IBC finally a beta release of Fusion 8 (somebody in BMD jumped the gun and for about an hour there was an info about it on the website already) working in Windows and OS X. This means, that the next logical step for BMD is to integrate Fusion and Resolve. It’s only a question of time.

I doubt we’ll see them merging the two applications together, it is most likely going to be an equivalent of Adobe’s Dynamic Link – sending a clip to Fusion, and receiving a rendered frame. Since Fusion already has its render engine abstracted as a separate render node, this type of integration will most likely be introduced next year around NAB – maybe even as an update to version 12 of Resolve. With the versioning mechanism already present in Resolve, I firmly believe that it will be very hard for BMD to make this connection working poorly and feel as patchy as Dynamic Link does at times.

When this comes to fruition, the weakest part of the package will be audio. However, it does not make much sense to acquire a separate audio application for BMD, but rather build a waveform editor into the software. Perhaps we will see some more focus on audio for Resolve 13. Or perhaps not.

On the other hand, a natural extension of Fusion is 3D work, so if BMD wants to expand further, maybe we will see some talks with LightWave 3D, as this seems to be the only independent player in the 3D world at the moment. But it’s a long shot, without an apparent benefit to BMD in either short or long run, so I am not betting on it at all. In fact, I’d rather have them focus on fixing the bugs, implementing a sorely missing 3D camera tracker in Fusion, and perhaps deep compositing or other features that would make Fusion more competitive with its high-end counterpart from The Foundry.

One way or another, it will be interesting to see where BMD decides to focus their efforts next.

Other players

I’m curious about the fate of Smoke for Mac, though at this moment I still think that it is definitely deficient in terms of its NLE capabilities, and its grading tools are not in their prime either, so it doesn’t seem to be a great contender in this race. Flame will remain the on-line system, never affordable as a simple NLE. Nuke Studio is still in its early stages as far as NLE capabilities are concerned, and is unlikely to expand there anytime soon. Timeline soft effects are nice, and it’s great to have a version of Baselight Editions working there, but it also seems to aim for another market niche, namely on-line commercial workflows and vfx editing.

Summary

In the race for NLE/Grading application combo, the main competition at the moment seems to take part between Adobe Premiere Pro and BlackMagic Resolve with Avid Symphony lagging behind, and FCP X coming around but looking in a different direction. With the release of version 12, it seems that BMD really delivered. Even though Resolve has yet to prove itself as a successful NLE, it is quickly getting there, and if you consider the price tag, there is really not much to argue with.

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