On the move

I’m going to be slowly moving to my sister site – www.creativeimpatience.com

Blog posts are available here: www.creativeimpatience.com/category/blog/

I already migrated more meaningful posts and pertaining comments there, and will be linking to those in the future. If you want to follow me, please make sure to use the new address. I’m going to leave this domain active for a while, but in the end I’m going to close it down.

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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!

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Exporting FCP XML from Premiere is a dead end

To give credit where one is due, the creators of Final Cut Pro did create one of the more popular standards of exchanging the project information, alongside the old EDL, and Avid’s AAF and OMF. Exporting XML from FCP was very versatile and allowed for various workflows to appear, passing data from FCP to Soundtrack Pro, and Color, but also to many other applications from vendors other than Apple.

For many years Adobe also tried to implement project sharing via exporting to AAF, and FCP XML. However, the exporting and reimporting still remains a pretty troublesome process, regardless of how much Adobe touts their horn. Many transitions can’t be converted, most of the effects do not translate, and there are problems with stills, time remapping, and Dynamic Link compositions. Not ideal under any circumstances.

People accustomed to XML interchange push Adobe to do a better job in this exporting – rightfully, especially in the short run. However, being so focused on their workflow, they seem to be unaware that there seems to be a better option, right around the corner, and that even Apple already considers FCP XML a legacy. The more time passes since the demise of FCP 7, the more constraining FCP XML will become, and with no support in development from Apple, the stagnant standard will at some point become problematic.

This is where the unrealized potential of Adobe Premiere comes in. Many people are not aware of the fact that Premiere’s project files are already XML! There is no need to export anything anywhere, the file is easily readable – and writeable! – by any application. Of course, it is not compatible with FCP’s implementation of XML, and its documentation is not publicly available in any way, but – as I wrote in a few of my earlier posts – the basis for the universal interchange container are already in place. The only thing that stops other vendors from accessing Premiere files is the lack of specification and – more likely – lack of demand from the users and lack of aggressive promotion of this de facto standard on the part of Adobe.

Therefore, instead of putting most resources into – mostly futile – attempts to translate Premiere sequences into FCP XML sequences to make them readable by other applications, why not promote Adobe XML standard that is already present?  This way we would get rid of numerous hurdles on the way, avoid all the problems and limitations of FCP XML, and in the end create the possibility for new, more flexible workflows.

Are you listening, Adobe?

Posted in usability, video editing | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

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!

Posted in usability, video editing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in color grading, creativity | Tagged , | 1 Comment

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?

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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.

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