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Feather crop in Premiere Pro

I think the idea of feathered edges on a piece of footage that was cropped with standard Premiere Pro crop effect is as old, as the crop effect itself. I know that I’ve been waiting for Adobe to make it since I started using their software, which means version 6.5 of Premiere (not yet “Pro” then). And I know I’m not the only one.

How many of you have fallen prey to the hope that “feather edges” effect would actually work as it should with cropped footage? Or wished for more control than blurring the alpha channel via the “channel blur”? Or used titler or photoshop pictures as track mattes?

Fortunately, there’s no more need for this. Not because the guys from Adobe actually decided to focus their efforts on this non-critical, although pretty non-complicated, task. Drawing on my background of a would-be computer scientist, physicist, and – of course – video editor, I decided to delve into the dreaded Premiere Pro/After Effects SDK, and created the effect myself.

So, without further ado – here’s the Feathered Crop effect that I’ve written. It seems to be pretty popular (even more than the Vignette) and has gone through a few iterations already, each one adding new functionality.

The effect is free, but I appreciate donations, especially if you like the results that you are getting. I’d like to thank everyone for their generous support, and kind words. Enjoy!

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.

Why Premiere Pro could use scripting

I’ve been testing the workflow from Premiere Pro to DaVinci Resolve (similarly to other more renowned people). For many reasons I want to avoid sending a flattened file, instead relying on XML interchange, and a few annoying simple issues make it pretty inconvenient:

  1. We’re using XDCAM EX in mp4 wrapper and NXCAM (AVCHD) files which Resolve does not support. Transcoding is necessary although it’s the subject for another entry.
  2. Time remapping in Resolve is much worse than even in Premiere, not mentioning After Effects. All speed changes should be rendered and replaced before exporting XML.
  3. Some effects should be rendered, but transitions should be left untouched.
  4. All Dynamic Link clips should be rendered and replaced.

Doing these things manually takes a whole lot of time, and is very prone to mistakes. This is a perfect example when a simple script would make one’s life so much easier. The script would:

  1. Traverse the timeline, looking for clips having properties mentioned in points 2-4.
  2. Create a new video layer or a sequence, whatever would be faster.
  3. Copy the clips there one by one and queue export for each to desired codec, encoding timecode and track either in metadata or the name.
  4. After the export is done, it would import the renders, and replace old clips with the new ones.

Alternatively, I could have one script to export (1-3), and another to reimport (4).

See? It’s relatively simple. The possibilities of scripting are almost infinite. For example, I could also change all the time remapped clips automatically into Dynamic Linked AE compositions and render them using its superior PixelMotion algorithm – although I would rather appreciate Adobe including it in Premiere itself, getting rid of the old and awful frame blending. I could even attempt to change them to their Twixtor equivalents, although I must say that my experience with this effect is pretty crashy.

I looked at SDK for Premiere Pro to see if I could write a plugin that would make this job easier, but as far as I know such possibility does not exist. Plugin architecture for Premiere is pretty limited, and compartmentalized, and using C++ for this seems like a bit of an overkill.

Adobe, please support scripting (JavaScript, Python, or any other obscure language) in Premiere Pro. This way users will be able to create their own tools to solve inefficiencies of the program, and your job will become much easier. And Premiere Pro will prosper and develop much quicker and much more effectively. Besides – you don’t want FCPX to overtake you, do you?