48 Hours with Resolve and Fusion

Disclaimer: Blackmagic Design was kind enough to supply me with a full version of Fusion Studio to check out the latest features. It most certainly influenced this article, but I believe you will find it interesting regardless.

While taking part in 48 Hour Film Project I did have an opportunity to use the latest version of both Resolve and Fusion, and I want to share with you this interesting experience of rapid post-production.

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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.

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The Inevitable Convergence – Episode II

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.

Premiere Pro saves the day

Recently I was doing a small editing job for a friend, and ran into a few interesting problems.

The footage provided was shot partially on a Canon Powershot, which saves it as an AVCHD MTS stream. My computer is not really up to editing AVCHD, so I decided to transcode the clips into something less CPU intensive. The final output would be delivered in letterboxed 640x480p25 because of the limitations of the second camera, so the quality loss was of little concern. Having had decent experience with AVID’s DNxHD codecs, I decided to convert it to 1080p25 36 Mbps version. And then, the problems began.

Even though Premiere Pro did import the file without a problem, Adobe Media Encoder did hang right after opening the file for transcoding. I decided to move the footage to AVID thinking that perhaps it would be a good project to hone my skills on this NLE, but it was complaining about Dolby encoding of audio, and didn’t want to import the footage. I then tried to use Sorenson Squeeze to convert it, but it also threw an error, and crashed. Even the tried MPEGStreamclip did not help.

I was almost going to give up, but then came up with an idea to use Premiere’s internal render to transcode the footage by putting it on an XDCAM HD422 timeline, rendering it (Sequence -> Render Entire Work Area), and then exporting it with the switch that I almost never use – “Use previews“. I figured, that once the problematic footage is already converted, then the Media Encoder will handle the reconversion using previews without problems. I was happily surprised to have been proven correct. And because Premiere’s internal renderer was able to cope with the footage without a glitch, it all worked like a charm.

Use Previews switch

“Use Previews” can sometimes save not only rendering time, but also allow for encoding problematic files.

Afterwards the edit itself was relatively swift. I encountered another roadblock when I decided to explore DaVinci Resolve for color grading, and exported the project via XML. Resolve fortunately allows custom resolutions, so setting up a 640×480 project was not a problem. I also had to transcode the files again, this time to MXF container. This was a minor issue, and went relatively fast. However, due to the fact that some media was 480p, and some 1080p, and I have done quite a lot of resizing and rescaling of the latter, I wanted to use this information in Resolve. Unfortunately, Resolve did not want to cooperate. It’s handling of resize was very weird, and every time I clicked on the resized clip to grade it, it crashed. I’m certain that the scaling/panning was responsible, because when I imported the XML without this information, everything worked great. It might have something to do with the fact, that I was running it on an old GTX260, but still, I was not able to use the software for this gig.

In the end I graded the whole piece in Premiere Pro on its timeline. Here’s the whole thing for those of you who are interested:

BlackMagic Design denies rumors – or do they?

Peter Chamberlain from BlackMagic Design did deny any rumors (guess which ones?) that they are working on the cheaper control surface, believing that the segment is well saturated by other manufacturers. This is of course based on an assumption that the lowest segment is the price range that AVID, Tangent and JL Cooper are targetting, ie. around $1500-$2000. I must admit, that the release of Tangent Element, with the basic control surface at the cost of about $1200 is interesting, however it is still far above what I would consider the real democratization barrier – around $500-$700.

I understand all the limitations of such pricing, including the fact that this kind of surface would be looked by all proffessionals as a toy, which it would indeed be out of necessity of using cheap materials. I still believe it can be done, if R&D costs can be covered, and that it would introduce more people to color grading, than all the plugins combined.

It might of course be my wish to have at my disposal something that I’m currently not able to afford. But I also can’t help but to notice certain wording in Peter’s message. Namely:

…we have no plans for a cheaper panel at NAB. (emphasis added)

So… will anyone pick up the challenge? Or is my premise inherently flawed, and the future of color grading lies somewhere else?

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 🙂