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The Day I Dreamt About Has Come

My current daily job requires producing about 50-60 minutes of content per month of something that roughly falls into mostly unscripted reality show. Within 30 days we have to prepare the final edit, sound mix, including voice over and music, motion graphics, any potential VFX shots, mostly cleanups, and finally some rudimentary grade and DVD authoring. The time is precious, and short. And sometimes changes have to be introduced a day before, or even on the mastering day.

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Adobe Anywhere – are we there yet?

At NAB 2012 Adobe made an intriguing sneak peek at the technology for collaborative editing. At IBC 2012 Michael Coleman introduced the new Adobe Anywhere and presented its integration with Adobe Premiere. Like most demos, this one looked pretty impressive, and even gave away a few interesting developments in the upcoming version of Premiere, but it also left me pondering on the larger picture.

Indeed, Mercury Streaming Engine’s performance seems impressive. Ability to focus on the whole production, instead of on its single aspect, automatic (?) file management (and backup?), use of relatively slow machines on complex projects, working at long distance – all this is really promising. There is no doubt about it. However…

No back end and management application was presented. No performance requirements were given. How soon does a server saturate its own CPU, GPU and HDD resources? Apart from performing all the usual duties, it must now also encode to the Adobe streaming codec, and all the horsepower must still come from somewhere. If the technology uses standard current frame servers developed for Dynamic Link and Adobe Media Encoder, how are the resources divided, and how is the Quality of Service ensured? How effective is the application, and more important – how stable? I hope the problems with database corruption in Version Cue are things of the past, and they will not happen with Anywhere at any time.

Adobe engineers have been working on the problem for about 4 years, so there is a high chance that my fears are unwarranted. At the same time though I’ve learnt not to expect miracles, and there will always be some caveats, especially with the early releases of the software.

Of course, it explains why Adobe wants to first target Anywhere to their broadcast clients. Perhaps there is some of the sentiment, that since the video division finally has the enterprise clients, it needs to take care of them – hopefully not at the expense of smaller businesses and freelance editors like me. But setting up the servers, managing hardware and the whole architecture, takes expertise, and it is mostly the big guys who have the resources to implement the recommendations. We still do not know what the entry-level cost is going to be, but I highly doubt it’s going to be cheap.

Not that small post-houses would not profit from Anywhere. I can easily see how it could be incorporated in our workflow, and how it could easily resolve a few problems that we have to manage on a daily basis. But will we be able to supply the back-end architecture? It remains to be seen.

Interestingly, this approach of beefing up one’s machine room contrasts another trend that we have been seeing – the horsepower of average desktops being more than enough to handle pretty complex projects. All this remains totally unused in the model promoted by Adobe Anywhere. I wonder what Walter Biscardi thinks of it, and does he plan on using it at all.

I’m also curious how the version control is resolved? How are the changes propagated – can you in some way unify the conflicting projects, or do you need to choose one over the other? It is important. I gather that you can always go back to previous versions, but will they be available only from administrative panel, or also from applications themselves? Only time will tell.

It’s good that there is a possibility of expanding the system. I think a natural application that will be developed very shortly after the release, will be some kind of review player, where you can see the recent final result of the project, add markers and possibly annotations (why not? as a Premiere Pro title for example). Especially useful for mobile platforms, like iPad, where Premiere or even Prelude is not available. Such tools could become crucial for the approval and collaborative workflow in general.

There is also another point, which gave rise to the question in the title of this note. Is it the conforming uber-app that I’ve been arguing for? From the limited demonstrations to date unfortunately the answer is still no. We are not there yet, even though Adobe Anywhere seems very promising for collaborative editing, it is not yet there for collaborative finishing (and archiving for that matter).

The elephant in the room seems to be client’s review and approval. It’s OK to serve a 1/4th resolution of the picture if you are editing on a laptop without an external monitoring. But once you get into the realm of finishing, especially with your client at the back, you want the highest quality picture that you can get, with as little compression as you can. Anywhere is most likely not going to be able to serve that. Would you have to leave the ecosystem then?

Even though the support exists for After Effects, Premiere Pro and Prelude, the holy grail still remains the ability to take Premiere’s project in its entirety and work on it in Audition or SpeedGrade, and then bring it back to Premiere for possible corrections in picture edit with all the changes made in other programs intact. Or to export an XML or EDL without a hassle of hours of preparation if custom plugins, effects or transitions are being used. Nope – not there yet.

There is also a question of its integration in larger, more diverse pipelines, involving other programs and assets, not only from Adobe, but from other vendors, like The Foundry or Autodesk. It’s true, that Anywhere does have it’s own API for developers, although it remains to be seen, how open and how flexible the system will be, especially in terms of asset management.

Yet, despite all these doubts and supposed limitations, it seems to be a step in the right direction. And, as Karl Soule claims, the release of Anywhere is going to be big.

Adobe conforming tool – my vision solidifies

I have been pondering over my recent discussion with David McGavran, the Engineering Manager for Adobe Premiere Pro about the limitations of Premiere’s own XML format when it comes to interchange. I am grateful for this exchange. I realized that my ideas are not possible to be implemented in Adobe Premiere Pro itself. After all, it is a relatively uncomplicated tool with the sole specialization in editing. I hoped it could become a Smoke-like base for other applications to work from, but it turns out not to be feasible in any foreseeable future.

However, instead of letting go of my dreams, I decided to take a wider look on the problem, and paint the vision in even broader strokes. Fortune favors the brave.

Right now the Production Premium suite is still a patchwork of applications with significantly different structures stemming from various technologies that Adobe acquired along the way. The interchange between them is sometimes very good (especially with Photoshop files), but sometimes mediocre (like sending Premiere project to SpeedGrade), and often limited to a single workstation running all the applications (like the Dynamic Link). Even though I remain amazed on how much Adobe Engineers have been able to achieve within the limitations of software architectures, some dating from over 20 years ago, there are times when the integration is still sorely lacking.

With recent switch in Adobe policy towards the Creative Cloud solution it makes even more sense to give broader structure to this patchwork of loosely related applications, especially in the world of post-production, where the effective teamwork, alongside with project and asset management are some of the vital keys to success.

Adobe had already made an attempt to create an asset management system in the past, although it turned out to be a dead-end. I don’t know the exact reasons why they cancelled Version Cue in CS5, but for me and a few companies that I worked for at the time, the issue was stability. After three consecutive crashes of VC database, and literally days of attempts to recover the assets, we gave up on this quite promising solution. Clearly it was not production ready, even after a few years of work.

The void however remains, and the suite still lacks an application that would bind everything together, at least in post-production world: a comprehensive project management, and conforming tool.

Let’s take a look at a sample, deliberately vague workflow involved in film post-production:

  1. Dailies ingest and grading
  2. Rough Cut
  3. VFX work alongside the editorial
  4. Audio engineering and mixing
  5. Final grading
  6. Finishing and mastering

Hopefully there is a picture lock between 3 and 4, however the pride of Adobe has always been the possibility of retaining flexibility up to the very end of the process, and personally I would love to retain it.

Even though the production suite does contain the applications that can take care separately for each part of the process, tying them all together mostly still involves at least a well thought out folder structure, and perhaps a third-party asset management tool, and is prone to human error, especially during backup and archiving and in an environment involving more than one person. Any sensible version control is also lacking, and when it is implemented in a rudimentary fashion (raising version number in After Effects project file name) it can break other dependencies, like Dynamic Link.

What would the missing application need to do?

  1. Media ingest, transcoding and metalogging – similarly to Prelude but also importing from already partially created Premiere project if some editing was done in the field already
  2. Sending media to SpeedGrade or via FCP XML to any other grading app
  3. Receiving graded media either with .look files or as color corrected new versions (ie. track versions of a clip regardless of its filename and/or extension)
  4. Sending media to Premiere projects, supporting templates and bin organization
  5. Conforming Premiere projects with graded media and relinking without opening Premiere
  6. Preparing and managing assets for VFX work in AE or Photoshop on a shot by shot basis with templates and bin organization
  7. Tracking versions of VFX assets, including rendering and review
  8. Reviewing and exporting Premiere sequences without opening Premiere
  9. Conforming Premiere projects for FCP XML or AAF export and import and keeping track of conformed/rendered files
  10. Re-conforming XML or AAF import for Premiere
  11. Outputting any project from any of the suite apps
  12. Archiving and backup options for projects
  13. Managing meta-assets like templates, grades, presets, user preferences and other
  14. Possibly a few other important things that I forgot to include

All of this – of course – with the possibility of working with many users, many separate workstations, and in both stand-alone and integrated version.

In the end, I’d love to have the functionality or integration with Shotgun or any other “big iron” project management system. Right now it is partly being done with the use of Panel API that Adobe has added in CS6 to Premiere, but it’s just a single application patch, which works only in certain kinds of workflow. Granted, it’s a step ahead – and I hope that fully-featured scripting is the next big step in proper direction – but it’s still not enough.

Am I asking for too much? A lot of the necessary bricks seem already in place. I hope that you can see how such an application would contribute towards even greater usability of the Production Premium suite, especially in the more collaborative environment. Even though it seems like another patch on top of the patchwork, it would be more like a gate to the outside world, and a useful internal interchange manager, rather than half-hearted attempts to fix problems on the level of a single application that leave some of us wanting.

Is it feasible to give more structure to the patchwork of Adobe Production Premium? Can Adobe Engineers do it by theselves, or should they acquire a technology that is already somewhat mature like CatDV? Who knows. However, perhaps passing these ideas to Wes Plate or other brilliant guys on Adobe team would make them excited enough about such development project, that they would be interested in following it, and that the management would consider such a project worthwhile. Think big, Adobe! Audaces fortuna iuvat!