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Maintenance can be creative work as well

Up until recently I had not realized this simple truth: things do decay, and to maintain their functionality one has to expend energy, sacrifice time and put an actual effort into it. I think this is one of these fundamental truths that can be applied in general to life, universe and everything. If left unattended, the entropy will take its course, and the things will die.

Maintenance is one of this kind of jobs which when performed properly is invisible. Like a good matchmove or a good cut. Maintenance allows the action (life) to move forwards smoothly and without glitches. As such, in accordance to the old adage “out of sight, out of mind”, it is often under-appreciated and ignored until an accident happens.

Indeed, it is not as flashy as any “creative” work, and its results are never direct. But come to think of it, hardly any creative work can be done when tools are not prepared, not working correctly, or broken. Of course, overcoming such problems can be a creative endeavor in itself, but the satisfaction is usually left only for the person dealing with the problem, and will most likely be lost on the recipients of the work that was done, possibly hindering the results. The work might of course bear some signs of the problem in question, making it perhaps unique in its own way, and it is the sign of true mastery to turn problems into creative opportunities. But even in such cases the newly developed process needs to be streamlined and maintained.

I have always seen maintenance as dull job that needs to be done. Backups, cleanups, servicing – they all ate away the time that could have been used for “the proper work” or leisure. I did not appreciate that such jobs also do require creativity, if only to solve the annoyances of software glitches, hardware incompatibilities and such. Thinking about the safest and optimal workflow or proper hardware configuration is a job in itself, a job that requires knowledge, research, time, and also some economic sense. It is also a very important art of differentiating the wants (everybody wants the best tools available) from the actual needs (the productivity gains from faster computers tend to flatten out beyond certain point). This kind of fine-tuning, and deep analysis is what can be very rewarding, especially if you come up with some clever way to solve a complicated problem.

Of course, there is no way to absolutely avoid real accidents, and to foresee everything. The loss of HDCAM SR factory during recent events in Japan is perhaps something that very few people were really prepared for. But proper studio maintenance would give you at least some time window to prepare plan B for archiving and delivery.

This kind of philosophy can be applied to any aspect of life. By working I provide means for my family to exist and grow. Even if most of my current salary goes towards maintaining what already exists, hardly allowing for investments, there is a certain satisfaction of providing the base so that the others can employ their energy in a better way.

Similarly in relationships, after the obvious novelty wears off, maintenance is often under-appreciated, and can lead to perception of boredom. We need to remember, that our brains are hardwired for novelty, and we get the most dopamine and endorphine rush from new challenges and new “stuff” (this is perhaps why shopping works for many people as a mood raiser). Tweaking and fine-tuning is usually tedious. It is hard to appreciate the things that you do have, when there are so many things that you could have had, if you only worked harder, more or in another job.

And yet, taking time to maintaining what you have is essential for not loosing it, whatever “it” may be. Since this is the case, I might as well take time to enjoy it 🙂

Have a good day.

Three (or more) ways to make a vignette in Premiere Pro

UPDATE: You can download the plugin that I wrote here.

One feature that I lack in Premiere Pro is masking and vignettes in its standard color-correction tools. Unless you are using plugins like Colorista, other dedicated grading software or simply send your sequence to After Effects (if you have it), there is no obvious way to make a vignette. Here are however three ways to accomplish this effect, each having their pros and cons.

The first two ways to make a vignette require use of a blending mode, and towards this you need to understand what they actually do. I recommend going to ProVideo Coalition site, they have a nice tutorial on the subject. We will be using multiply mode to darken the image or overlay to saturate and lighten/darken the image (basically increase contrast and “punch”).

Multiply mode darkens the underlying image using the luminance value of the layer (clip) to which it is applied. 100% black darkens underlying layer to 100% black, 50% gray darkens by 50%, so for example 50% gray multiplied by 50% gray is 75% gray, and 100% white is totally transparent.

Overlay mode is partly multiply, and partly opposite. In overlay mode, 50% gray is transparent, darker colors work like multiply, and lighter colors lighten the image in the opposite manner than multiply: 100% brightness (white) makes layer below white, 25% gray makes underlying 100% black 50% gray, and so on. An overall effect is an increase in contrast and saturation (if you want to get more “punch” from your footage, try making a copy of it on the layer above and applying overlay mode to it, and see what happens, it’s a common trick to use).

I hope you’re not confused yet 🙂 Now for the vignetting:

1. Photoshop file

Simply create a Photoshop file or tiff with a dimension of your sequence. Set your foreground color to black, and background color to white or gray, click on the second gradient option to select radial gradient, click on “reverse” and drag from the center of attention outwards, drawing a vignette shape. The lightest point should be placed where the center of attention should be in your footage, and the darkest on the outside. Save the file, it should look something like this:

Import the file to your project by dragging it into project window, put it on the timeline, and apply appropriate blending mode – it’s available under the opacity part of Effect Controls palette for this clip. Tweak opacity setting to achieve desired effect.

It is a very simple, method, that is also the least intensive on CPU, although it requires switching to another program to do part of the work, and does not provide easy way to change settings – you have to change the file itself. Another advantage is that you can put it on the top layer and affect all layers below.

2. Separate layer with ramp

Create a new solid in project window. The color is unimportant, make it the full size of your sequence. Then put it over the footage, put a “ramp” effect on it (it’s in “generate” sections. Select radial, reverse, and move start point towards the center, and the end point towards the edge of vignette. Your ramp should look similarly as the Photoshop file above. Then apply blending mode and adjust opacity as in method 1.

This method is a little more CPU intensive, but gives you the possibility to change the vignette without leaving Premiere, and does not require you to have Photoshop or any other such tool at all. You can even animate the vignette if you feel like it.

3. The Circle effect

If you don’t care about elliptical vignetting, you can use the Circle effect, which populates the oh-so-intuitive category of “generators”. It is a really versatile effect that I’ve found only recently. If you apply it for the first time, you will most likely dismiss it – as I did. However, it has most things that a decent vignette needs – set your blending mode to multiply, set your color to black, add feather, reverse the mask, and there you go. What is missing is the possibility to draw an ellipse instead of a circle, and to rotate it. But still it can be pretty useful, and it is not very CPU intensive. No CUDA acceleration though.

By the way, if you thought that the Ellipse effect present in the generators category would make your day, you’d be sorely disappointed. It’s a completely different effect, incidentally totally broken in Premiere Pro, even though it works well under After Effects.

4. Lightning Effects

The most demanding, but also giving you most options, including the possibility of additional color correction, is the effect that I have hardly ever seen mentioned in the context of Premiere – “Lightning Effects”. It is quite a powerful tool, giving you a lot of AE lights functionality without the need to use dynamic link or such. If you want to create a vignette, simply apply it to the chosen clip. Now do some tweaking:

  1. Select the first light as the spot light (usually set as default).
  2. Click on the effect name or the transform icon to the left of it to see visual input in viewer window.
  3. Adjust the center point, both radiuses (radiae?) and the angle so that the center is where you want to point viewer’s attention.
  4. Alternatively tweak focus (feathering) and intensity properties for additional effects.
  5. You can also tweak Ambient Light Intensity and Exposure to adjust overall lightness or darkness of the image.

Voila! This is it. Below are some pics before and after. As you can see I decided to go for rather subtle effect, but Lightning Effects is a really powerful—if CPU intensive and not supported by GPU acceleration—tool that you can add to your editing and color correction arsenal. It has enormous potential, and creating a simple vignette with it may even sound like a blasphemy, but it’s a good place to start the exploration. The only drawback is that you can’t apply it to multiple layers below like you can with other two methods. But hey, in Color you can’t do it as well, so don’t complain 😀

Visual input of Lightning Effects filter

Footage before

Footage after

Premiere Pro positive

Some of you might wonder why do I keep complaining about Premiere Pro, and not move to some “more professional” software like FCP or Avid.

It so happens that there is a number of features that Premiere Pro has, which make it a really great tool for video editor like me who often needs to work on a project from start to finish – from ingest to distribution – under a relatively tight time constraints.

I like the fact, that I can do 90% of my audio in Premiere Pro – it has basic mixing tools, automation and support for VST plugins for whole audio tracks, works in 32-bit, and even though the basic plugins are of mediocre quality, one can always supplement them with more advanced ones, and the output is usually acceptable. I certainly could achieve better results in Audition or Protools, but in most of the cases there is no need to. Also there is no problem with importing most of the audio files format (good luck handling mp3 files in FCP), although again Mac version does have some strange issues with audio that was not sampled in 48k, and the workaround is simply moving to PC or converting the files. It might be hard if your operator used 32k sound though…

Speaking about various formats – CS5 is really amazing at handling almost anything that you throw at it – image sequences, AVCHD, AVCCAM, DVCPRO, XDCAM, RED footage… Call it what you will, PPro will swallow it, and allow you to work with it without the need to transcode the files. If you want a professional intermediate, you can always obtain Cineform codec or on Mac even use ProRes. But there is no need to – and it is a huge timesaver.

It is especially true with CS5 and CUDA graphic cards. I put a few XDCAM EX clips in a sequence, and on an i7 PC with GTX 460 I threw some of the color correction filters that I routinely use. Fast Color was a blast – no wonder, it always is. Luma Curve was a blast – nice. Three-way color corrector – no problem. Seven additional Three-ways? You bet CS5 could handle them in real time. It gave up only after I threw four more Luma Curves just to see how much is too much. I got a few seconds of playback, and then it stopped. Whew. Essentially, anything that I would be needing will be handled in real time… on a PC. If I wanted the same for Mac, I would either have to buy an outdated and no longer supported nVidia 285 or a Quadro which costs over $1000.

Color correction in Premiere is certainly not as easy and streamlined as in dedicated tools like Color or daVinci, and I must admit that basic CC is much better resolved in Avid, but still, you do have presets, you do have most of the tools that you need (basic color corrector, three-ways with secondaries, luma and rgb curves, keying and other important stuff). There are a few things missing – vignettes or saturation curve – but these can be remedied by installing additional plugins like Colorista.

I must admit, that I miss real-time scopes. All the scopes are present in Premiere, but they don’t update during playback, which is a pity. Kudos go to FCP for having those, and also for icons on color correctors to copy settings to next or second next clip on the timeline. In Premiere changing your settings in the clips is a little more troublesome. However, at least you don’t have to double click them to see their effects control window, like you have to in FCP.

Premiere also has great management of render files. FCP can loose them upon any movement on your part, and if you combine it with the FCP’s tendency to force you to render almost anything that is not a color-corrector or a transition, it can be a major drawback. Premiere remembers the position of files and filters, and there is always a chance of going back, if the clips realign themselves properly, even in a different place in the timeline. Huge, huge advantage.

What I like about Premiere the most though is that it is really the most flexible editing software that I have ever used. FCP is not so close second, Avid, even with the recent updates, still lags far behind. Work really goes fast (when there are no nasty surprises on the way), much faster than in the rest of them. Even though I’m pretty proficient in operating both FCP and PPro, I find the latter smoother, quicker and more intuitive to work with.

Therefore the only reason I’m whining so much is that this certain piece of software could have been much more reliable, and much better, if it was free from the bugs and weird gotchas that tend to happen from time to time. And if the Mac version did have all the plugins and transitions that are available on PC… oops, I did it again. Sorry 🙂