HM Blog

Tech Corner – Harry B. Miller III, ACE

CE 2012 Qtr 2


The battle is over. There are clear winners. The answers to the questions haven’t changed.

Around 80% of the ACE respondents edit on Avid, on a Mac, cutting with HD media, on network storage probably from Avid, on productions that use multiple digital cameras. The rest of the survey questions divide up what people are working on and how its released to the market. There isn’t much point to a survey that returns the same answers every time.

That said, here are the latest results.

Avid continues to dominate, and is likely to continue with its lowered price and the opening of the platform to other hardware and to being software only. It doesn’t hurt Avid that Apple killed the Final Cut Pro brand with the release of FCP X, software that is incapable of working in a professional editing environment.

Lack of competition, though, is bad. Perhaps more attention will be paid to Adobe’s Premiere Pro, or some as yet unknown software.

Platform hasn’t changed in a long time, but it might soon. Many technology watchers believe Apple will update the Mac Pro towers in the not too distant future, for the last time. Windows 8 anyone?

Finishing is another category that isn’t changing much. 

The finishing process still has the most variables. There are many solutions that work well. What makes this more complicated is the development of new digital cameras. Each camera manufacturer has a different idea of what file type to create, and different ways of making it to post-production. Oddly, the simple and old technology of timecode is the only bullet proof system for assembling a finished project.

I think this category reflects the increased amount of cable work for ACE members, and the decreasing trend of feature work. More cable channels making more shows, and less features for theaters.

Film originated productions are down to about 20%, from close to 80% in 2004. Sell your Kodak stock (oh, am I too late here?).

Along with finishing, delivery formats are still varied. It will be interesting to see if networks are more receptive to file based delivery. The tsunami in Japan forced the issue for a while with the destruction of Sony HDCam SR tape manufacturing plants.

The good news as there are fewer bad editing system choices, so it is less relevant who chooses the system.

How did we ever work in standard def? It looks soooo awful.

Using multiple camera types will be the norm, I believe. The important thing to remind production is that the media has to be at one consistent frame rate. You simply cannot mix frame rates and have the images look good.

3D: a number of members worked on 3D projects, some shot in 3D, many converted. And many reported taking the class at Sony on 3D post.

The Technology Frustration responses were quite varied: some members don’t like the latest changes in Media Composer, others felt the MC VFX tools aren’t advanced enough, while others felt lack of knowledge of the VFX tools was a problem.

One respondent: “My constant biggest frustration and fear is feeling behind the curve in the technical abilities required of the editor. My assistant … has always taken care of doing the VFX shots for me, but when a director wanted to play with the look of flashbacks, he expected I would be able to do that while he waited… I’m not sure how I should learn those things.”

ACE will be exploring ways of answering some of the questions posed in the survey. The people at Avid will get a copy of the survey results, to view all your questions and issues.

But all editors have to find ways of answering that question of technical prowess. You either have to know your technical limitations and tell the director to wait. Or you have to keep learning, keep experimenting, keep asking questions, keep watching tutorials. It takes time and effort.

But I think it helps keep us employed.

So, this survey of ACE members will continue in some form, but the questions will have to adjust. To something we don’t already have the answers.

The battle is over. Avid won the battle of the non-linear editors (NLE’s). But is Avid Technologies profitable and strong enough to survive? They’ve become a much better company for their customers with the new management. Could another company take them over, one with no respect for the editing community?

Then who will win the war?

Tech Corner – Harry B. Miller III, ACE

12 Steps to Tech Sanity

Harry B. Miller III, ACE

CE 2011 Qtr 2

My name is Harry M – and I have an addiction. I am a software-update-aholic. Let me explain.

In the early days of personal computers Wordstar was the dominant word processing program starting from about 1979. It set conventions that we use today, such as Control+C to copy and Control+V to paste text. I guess for the later, Control+P was already spoken for. And Wordstar itself rarely changed.

I couldn’t prove it but I’ve always believed software manufacturers could never figure out how to stop piracy of their goods, so they decided to release software upgrades to increase their revenue stream and stay ahead of the pirates. It made sense. If people aren’t buying MS Word 1.0 anymore, release MS Word 2.0 with new features, and with file formats that aren’t backward compatible (like the ‘.docx’ format), so the public will have to buy the new version.

The problem is when you have software that is interdependent, which is the case in today’s editing room. The computer CPU has an operating system. The editor uses software to assemble pieces of picture and audio into a coherent story (hopefully). The editing software often has plug-ins, like Boris for VFX and Waves for audio. If any one component gets out of sync, such as Apple releasing a new update to their OS and someone mistakenly updating the workstation, the editing comes to a screeching halt.

Several years ago I walked into my editing room in Prague and the local assistant cheerfully offered that he’d replaced all the older Quicktime plug-ins in my Avid with the coolest and latest releases. Which completely disabled that system. Fortunately, a backup quickly restored it to operation.

The bad news for me is now I get a notice of a new update to a program, and I cannot help myself from wanting to install that update. Avid released Media Composer 5.5.2 and it had to be soooo much better than 5.5.1 that I had to upgrade. And more than once have I blown up my system.

So, here is my 12 step recovery program (with apologies to Alcoholics Anonymous).

  1. Admit I’m powerless over software update prompts that arrive in email or as automatic notice, and that my computer has become unmanageable.
  2. A power greater than myself, i.e. my assistant, can restore me to sanity.
  3. Make the decision to turn my will to the care my assistant, who will turn off ‘automatic update’ in my computer.
  4. Make a fearless moral inventory of myself – and throw it away, as that won’t get my cut out the door.
  5. Admit to my assistant and myself that it is wrong to keep getting new versions of software that don’t work well with others on the Unity network, even though it has this neat new keyframe function that I just have to have.
  6. Be ready to have my assistant downgrade my Media Composer back to 5.0.3 and keep me from installing FCP X on my laptop.
  7. Ask my assistant to ignore my shortcomings, because they can’t be removed.
  8. Make a list of all the software updates that have crashed my editing system and make amends to all the PA’s that had to wait extra for the resulting delayed outputs from getting done.
  9. Make direct amends to those PA’s that had to wait extra, except when it would reveal I really could have saved them hours by being smarter. So, forget that, no amends.
  10. Continue to take software inventory, and promptly admit that I shouldn’t have upgraded my version of Boris Continuum because it doesn’t work well with other systems. And that new Waves program is cool, but no one else can use it.
  11.  Pray for knowledge of why I get Buss Errors, and how to prevent them.
  12. Having been awakened to the perils of updating my software, try to carry the message to other software-upgrade-aholics, to prevent them from also being a moron.

As Dexter said to his girlfriend Rita in Season 2: Yes. I have an addiction.

Tech Corner – Harry B. Miller III, ACE

Death of a Software

(with apologies to Arthur Miller)

Harry B. Miller III, ACE
CE 2011 Qtr 3

One thing stupider than releasing a piece of professional editing software that lacks essential professional post-production features, is to kill the previous version that had those features. That is what Apple did with the release earlier this year of Final Cut Pro X. And no one is (or should be) happy about it. It portends bigger problems for all motion picture editors.

Apple released the new Final Cut Pro X in June 2011. In a very controversial move, instantly the previous version of the software was no longer available for purchase. Apple had EOL’ed (End Of Lined) Final Cut Pro 7, along with its suite brethren Cinema Tools, Color, Sountrack Pro and DVD Studio.

What? After years of trying to make a sophisticated editing software and post production package, developing tools to integrate 35 and 16mm film, tempting studios and producers with lower cost and a hipper vibe, and creating a complete set of post pipeline tools, Apple put a metaphoric bullet through Final Cut Studio on June 21, 2011. And the most disappointed are editors who have depended on FCP.

The impossible problem for the FCP users is that the new FCP X isn’t compatible with FCP 7. X can’t open projects from 7. This is akin to buying an update of Word only to find it won’t open any documents you have from the previous version. Huh? Who thinks that is a good idea?

And there was some question whether the installation of X would interfere with an installation of 7 – you can’t, after all, have two versions of Word installed on your computer.

And there are other problems with X. It can’t output information (EDL, OMF, AAF) to an online or a sound facility. So, if you don’t need to work on past shows, or broadcast / project your current one, you’re good. That I think eliminates all professional film and video editors. Apple promises updates to fix some of the problems. A new release in September did add XML transfer, so older sequences could be opened. But sorry: I’d be fired if I delivered such an incomplete editor’s cut and said “I’ll fix it later.”

It is a stunning reversal from a company who has for years tried to gain a foothold in the professional market. With some success. Walter Murch became the FCP poster, um, person for the artists’ editing system. Universal Studios has in the recent past pushed for it’s cable TV shows to use Final Cut – despite how unhappy it made the picture editors who are not WM. Warehouse 13 and Eureka have dumped FCP for their current seasons.

No one is more unhappy than those current FCP users who prefer the software. All of their investment in time and money is gone. They have to find another tool. And Final Cut X is most certainly NOT that tool. X is to 7 as a .38 is to an M-16. Both can do a job, but which would you rather take to a gunfight?

Oliver Peters who writes the Digitalfilms blog wrote “In the work I do – ranging from spots to corporate to TV to films – I simply don’t see FCP X version 1.0 as functional for any of my real-world workflows. I find that a shame, because there really is a lot there to like.”

Also, now the companies and editors that have invested in FCP are one operating system update from having their entire operation grind to a halt. Apple just release their latest OS update, Lion. Not surprising, many important applications do not yet run on it (as of this writing important applications I use, Pro Tools, Sound Grinder, and SoundMiner, are not qualified to run on Lion). If Apple doesn’t mind killing FCP, why would they care about maintaining an operating system that can run it? And other critical post software?

Electric Entertainment, a production and post company owned by Dean Devlin, invested in a complete FCP post production solution. His current series on TNT is Leverage. It is edited in FCP, the sound is mixed in Soundtrack Pro, and color correction is done in Color.

From Mark Franco, the head of post-production for Electric: “We feel that an extended development period is needed to see what Apple (or a combination of Apple and 3rd party companies) come up with in the next several months. We will stay on FCP 7 for the next season of Leverage unless the product matures in time (March 2012) for us.”

Just to keep up with the changes in camera technology, Electric will eventually have to invest in a replacement solution. Again, Mark Franco: “We have other issues with Apple now as we have migrated to the RED EPIC cameras and currently Apple doesn’t support the use of the native R3D files. We may need to migrate our Color correction from COLOR to DAVINCI or another appropriate product for now.” While working on the new FCP X, Apple didn’t bother with updating its other software (FCP, Color, etc.) to keep up with current technology.

As many bloggers and tech writers have acknowledged, this move from Apple was no surprise. Apple is a hardware company, which makes software in order to sell more hardware. Sachin Agarwal was an Apple product designer who worked on FCP from 2002 to 2008. In his blog “Sachin’s Space” he says “The goal for every Apple software product is to sell more hardware. Even the Mac operating system is just trying to get people to buy more Mac computers.” He continues:

“The pro market is too small for Apple to care about it. Instead of trying to get hundreds or even thousands of video professionals to buy new Macs, they can nail the pro-sumer market and sell to hundreds of thousands of hobbyists like me.”

What is inconceivable is why would a company that is anything but short on resources (reportedly with $38 Billion in cash on hand) choose to kill a working product and make the loudest voices in the professional editing community blistering mad? Don’t they have a spare bi$$ion just to keep it alive a bit longer?

More than once Apple has purchases software only to eventually kill it, such as the VFX software Shake (http://bit.ly/cGC2J), and the music service Lala (http://bit.ly/9cXT6N). Perhaps its because the professional editing market isn’t nearly as large as the consumer market. Philip Hodgetts in his blog The present and future of post production business and technology (http://bit.ly/qfhXvl) wrote the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are twenty five thousand film and TV editors in the United States. From that he extrapolates there may be five times that many editors worldwide (125,000). Further he posits there are perhaps fifty thousand Final Cut Pro film and television editors. So, as a company wouldn’t you target your product to the millions of potential non-professional video editors, such as home video enthusiasts, journalists, and bloggers that need video editing tools?

Then again, do you really want to piss off the your most passionate and vocal customers, who can and will make the effort to embarrass you? (Half a bi$$ion?) How about the editors on The Conan O’Brian Show and their brilliant sarcastic take on how ‘great’ is FCP X http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxKYuF9pENQ)?

According to Larry Jordan interviewed on That Post Show (http://bit.ly/nnFBfV), he tried to convince Apple that X was lacking in critical features. But they didn’t listen. And he was shocked when they, without warning,  EOL’ed 7.

What makes this even scarier is attitude: what makes anyone think that Apple won’t do something else that threatens the editors’ livelihood? They are selling so many i – Phone, Pad, Devices and making so much money, why do they need to make computer towers? Or laptops? And these devices are driven by their touch screen-based iOS. What if they discontinue OS X, the operating system that drives most of the Hollywood picture and sound editing / mixing rooms? There are several blogs and software for turning off the iOS features now in the Lion OS.

Then there is competition: who is going to kick Avid Technology in the ass like FCP has up to now? Sales of Adobe software, which also has a full suite of applications including Premiere (picture), After Effects (VFX) and Audition (sound) have increased since June (http://tnw.co/pDGIYT).  Lightworks still lives as a free open source download for Windows PC’s only. Novacut is using crowdsourcing to fund its non-linear editing software project. But these competitors don’t have the drive or money to invade Hollywood as Apple once had.

I’m leery of investing in more Apple equipment or software. But as they will soon be selling iPhones to 1.5 billion Chinese customers, Apple stock is looking like a bargain.

Tech Corner – Harry B. Miller III, ACE

Another Show…Another New

…Everything

Harry B. Miller III, ACE
CE 2011 Qtr 4

If you are a picture editor easily frustrated by change, you’re in the wrong business.

Over the past six months I’ve worked on a 3D movie shot on 35mm 8 perf film and cut on FCP 7…a series shot on the Red camera and cut on Avid Media Composer (AMC) 5.0.3…a promo trailer shot on P2 and GoPro cameras, a destination film shot on 35mm 8 perf film and cut on FCP 6, a feature length scripted show shot on the Canon 5D and edited on AMC 5.5.3, a ‘sizzle reel’ editing on AMC 6.0, and now a pilot shot on the Alexa and editing on AMC 5.5.3.

Now FCP is EOL’ed (End of Line), film and film cameras have nearly disappeared (Eastman Kodak’s stock has lost 99% of its stock value according to Reuters because no one is using film), Avid has moved from 5.0.3 to a redesigned version 6, the Red camera line now has a new one called the Epic, and the motion camera company Arriflex has come out with the latest DP favored digital camera called the Alexa.

Change is good, but this is nuts.

Remember when your next film was going to be shot on 35mm and cut on Moviola? Like your last film?

But what is crazy good is how technology has made the editing room flexible. Now we can be completely mobile. Lap top computers have the computing power of yesterday’s mainframes. Storage enough for a feature comes in sizes just larger than a wallet. I regularly travel with three or four projects on separate drives in a backpack. I can work at home, or even on an airplane.

Here are several ideas to apply the latest technology to your editing setup.

  • Laptop: I’ve gotten the fastest Mac laptop available, the Mac Book Pro with an i7 processor and 8 GB of ram. A lot of video is processing: encoding to Quicktime, transcoding, etc. A fast laptop is invaluable.
  • Portable drives: there are hundreds of good options. The LaCie Rugged is fantastic: fast, and safe. LaCie has great deals in its refurbished store. I’ve also used WD Elements 2TB drives which retail for around $120. Crazy cheap.
  • Editing Software: Media Composer is my first choice, for its many features. But a copy of Final Cut Pro (not X…. please!) is an essential addition. Although not updated in years, it still is blazingly fast for quick fixes. It is also very handy to have Photoshop for image manipulation, and Sound Grinder for audio conversions.
  • Transcoding: nothing is simpler to make a Quicktime movie than Turbo.264 HD. My head starts to ache when I try to use Compressor or Sorensen Squeeze.

The next three recommendations aren’t essential, but are incredibly useful.

  • Avid’s Artist Mix: this is Avid’s flying fader mixer, formerly the Euphonix MC Mix. In clip mode (in Avid’s Audio Mixer) it allows you to adjust the sound output levels of every clip, in the source monitor or timeline. This avoids having to constantly use a mouse to adjust sound levels. You can also record a live mix, which is fantastic when mixing around dialogue and sound effects. And other related devices can be added for more options. I also use the Artist Control, which has 4 faders and several other hard and soft controls. These mixers also work in Final Cut and Pro Tools.
  • Keyboard Maestro: this software that runs in the background and is an extremely functional and capable macro program. Quickeys had been my preferred macro program, but was causing many crashes with Avid Media Composer. KM allows you to string together very complex series of mouse clicks, keystrokes, etc. And it can be triggered by external devices, such as USB connected external keyboards. KM reduces the complexity of everyday tasks to simple hot keys.
  • SoundMiner HD+ is a sound library program, for sound effects and music. It can be installed on your editing CPU and run at the same time as an editing program. I have all my sound effects on one drive, and all music on another. I simply drag the drive icon onto SMHD+ and it creates a library of all sound effects (or music) that is instantly searchable. It reads metadata that may already exist in the sound effects (most SFX libraries now come with extensive embedded metadata). And it will embed metadata that you add to each sound file, such as comments and notes. I’ve tried to extensively describe original composer music for future use. In addition, you can drag and drop sound directly into Media Composer and Final Cut. By using an AAF transfer process, it will include all metadata into an Avid bin.

And Yet Another New Camera

It seems like every week there is a new digital camera on the set. First it was Sony, then Panavision Genesis, Thomson Viper, Red, Phantom, Canon, and now the Alexa, by Arriflex.

The problem is that directors (and producers) apparently think all image capture is the same, so they are willing to use any camera and expect that it will look as good and integrate as easily as their main camera system.

Wrong.

Every camera is different. Cameras that don’t shoot 23.976, which include GoPro and Drift, are very problematic for post. The dailies playback speed must be changed before it gets into editorial, otherwise there is unending rendering or playback issues. Something production seems oblivious to. And the image quality is very different (and worse) than their main cameras.

One serious issue with some cameras is the bending image created when the camera is quickly panned. And no camera captures the wide dynamic range as film. So, explosions and fire often have to be digitally enhanced… to look like explosions and fire.

Reed Smoot, ASC, is experienced with multiple camera types. This includes shooting large format (65mm) films (Mummies: Secrets of the Pharoahs), 8 perf 35mm (The Legend of DaMing Palace), 3D (film and digital) (Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man, Jonas Bros: 3D Concert), and now the variety of digital cameras (Red, Epic, Alexa).

Asked about his preferences for digital cameras, Reed said the Alexa is not the same resolution as a Red but is more familiar and comfortable. Reed has worked with several flavors of the Red, including the Red Epic for 3D. It is very compact and works well as a steadicam. However, it has a complicated workflow and his assistants tend to dislike it.

The advantage with Alexa is it has a HD eyepiece monitor making lighting through the camera much easier. A new feature coming soon will be an optical viewfinder, again making it more comfortable for operators used to traditional cameras.

But according to Reed, no camera is better than its lens. Alexa has been partnering with Fujinon and has a lens made for the Alexa. Reed worked with the 25-250 lens in night and rain in NYC, with incredible sharpness. The camera optics today have never been better. And the Alexa is Reed’s first choice of digital cameras.

The next new camera is the Sony F65 (sexy name, eh?), which shoots up to 4K like the earlier Red camera.

According to Brad Wilson of Keslow Camera, the Alexa “will definitely give you prettier pictures straight out of the camera, but you’re limited to a baked-in look.” The Alexa can shoot to both RAW file type, to a 3rd party storage device, or ProRes 444. The Red Epic captures RAW files, which require a LUT (Look Up Table) adjustment to look more than just muddy images.

And according to Brad, DP’s aren’t looking forward to any particular new camera, but to “the new glass / lenses to take advantage of the resolution of these new cameras like the EPIC and F65.  The new Leica prime set and the Fujinon zooms come to mind.”

Change: get used to it.

Tech Corner – Harry B. Miller III, ACE

CE 2020 1st Qtr

Start your day with a heart attack by opening your master edit sequence and see the following….

Yes, all that red color means that everything in this timeline is offline. EVERYTHING.

It then occurs to you that in the process of wrapping a documentary film (which is mirrored on two hard drives), that you deleted a terabyte of unneeded media. Well, you thought it was unneeded. Ack! That big chunk you threw into the trash wasn’t unneeded.

It was, in fact, the online media that had been consolidated and copied to your Master drive for when there will be a re-edit for fixes and a shorter version of this movie. And in order to use that space, you emptied the trash. Ooops. That was stupid. Now what? This documentary had been onlined and delivered for screening. Over the course of nearly three years of work, two hard drives had expanded to three, and there were gigabytes of Avid media files no longer needed. A “housecleaning” seemed in order. At the time that seemed like a good idea. The 12TB Master drive held the camera original media, still photos, archival footage and the original transcoded Avid media files.

The 4TB portable Work drive held Avid media file duplicates and the project. Eventually a third drive was needed to hold the overflow of Avid files, backups and old outputs. In clearing out space on the smaller Work drive, I used a method from Kevin P. McAuliffe’s YouTube tutorial series ‘Let’s Edit with Media Composer.’ In the lesson titled “Archiving Your Project,” Kevin shows how you can reveal in Avid’s Media Tool exactly what clips are used in your timeline.

If you reverse that selection, you have then highlighted every clip of media that is not in your timeline. At that point you could hit DELETE and all those clips would be gone from your hard drive. But that may have unintended consequences. Rather than deleting everything not in the timeline of the locked cut, I chose to hide files that I was pretty sure were no longer used, mostly files from early on in the project when everything was digitized.

I used the Media Tools list of files not in the cut to find folders of media that were large and seemed to have the most unnecessary files. Those folders were moved into hiding. Anything that went offline I could find in the hidden files and move back into the project. Everything else could be deleted.

This went extremely well, where I recovered nearly a terabyte of space on a 4TB drive. The Master drive was also nearly full, but the Avid media files folders contained just that, work files, not high-resolution masters. So I overwrote several folders of media on the Master drive with folders from the Work drive.

As the new folders were smaller, it recovered lots of space on the 12TB drive. What I forgot is that in the process of onlining the two-hour documentary, the post house had built a NEW timeline with the final online media, graded and mostly DNxHD 175. I had overwritten all of that high-resolution media. The online timeline was now waaaay offline. Knowing a little about hard drives, I understood that even though a file has been deleted and the Trash cleared, the drive sectors that held that information retain it until those sectors are overwritten with new data. So, there was at least a chance that some of those files could be recovered.

But how? What tool can do that? Off to the internet! Searching for a specific answer to a technical question on the web requires wading through a lot of junk. The first few results are always ads to buy something, but then you can find technical articles that begin to answer the question. The first few suggestions are generally absurdly obvious (“First, don’t empty the trash”). And then I found the answer: Disk Drill.

Disk Drill 3 by CleverFiles is a drive utility, data recovery software for Mac and Windows. It is a free download (aren’t they all), with which you can scan the drive for missing files. If you want to get those files back you pay a $90 license.

It takes over an hour for Disk Drill to scan a 12TB hard drive. But amazingly it looked like the chances of recovering useful media were quite possible.

Because of the way Avid Media Composer works, newly imported media always goes into a MXF folder named “1.” I could be reasonably sure that all the missing files I needed would be in the “1” folder on the Master drive.

Disk Drill indicated after the scan that it found close to 500GB of recoverable files that were once in the “1” folder. My chances for recovery of my master media were looking better. (Pictured here is the list after files were recovered.) So I’m in for the $90 upgrade.

An important consideration when recovering files is to have a separate drive to put those files. Any writing to the Master drive could destroy recoverable files. After another two hours of copying the hidden-but-recoverable files to another drive, I was able to open the Media Composer timeline with the following result.

Not perfect, missing maybe 30 files from a timeline of hundreds of clips. All in all a great success. And the next time I want to “do a littlehousecleaning,” I think I’ll just buy another hard drive.

It would be simpler and likely cheaper than going “oops” again.