Apple and the App Store – Duck!!

16 12 2010

Bottom of New Delhi statueThe more observant readers of the blog will notice that I’ve been absent for a while from posting on the blog. I’ve been travelling during much of that time — in particular a great month-long trip to India. While there I learned a tremendous amount about the Indian economy and its media industry (while also eating a wonderful amount of wonderful food, but that’s another story) and I will be writing about it relatively soon.

But I also had a chance to mull over the Apple announcement from late October. You may remember that announcement for its announcement of the Air, and the hints about the new Mac OS – Lion. They also announced an App Store for Mac applications — to great whoops of joy among Mac pundits. I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’m not thrilled — I’m more scared than anything. And I’m scared for the media creation community.

First, if you aren’t already familiar with the store, head on over to its holding page on the Apple site, where you’ll get a very short sales pitch for why the store is so great. The site itself is due January 6, 2011 and Apple CEO Steve Jobs was quoted in a MacNN story telling us why the store is so great.

“The App Store revolutionized mobile apps,” reads a prepared statement from CEO Steve Jobs. “We hope to do the same for PC apps with the Mac App Store by making finding and buying PC apps easy and fun. We can’t wait to get started on January 6.”

But the devil is always in the details or, in this case, in the reality, and I think we should all be worried.

First off, I’m going to remind everyone that one of the major complaints about the iPhone/iPod (iOS)  App Store as been its approval process. Some developers have withdrawn their apps from the store because of the capricious nature of that process. And while it is true that Apple won’t (for now) require that all apps for the Mac be downloaded through their store, it will most probably become the de facto standard for 90% of all users.

Apple will be taking 30% of all revenues, which is way better for developers than what a brick and mortar retail store would take, but totally blows compared to the percentage that an online store would take. Apple will provide the entire store infrastructure — including billing and download, which is way better for smaller developers than building their own store, but no big deal compared to a scheme like Kagi or PayPal. Apple won’t do anything for marketing except (if the iOS store is any indication) some staff recommendations. That is no different than what software developers deal with today, and is way better if you’re one of the apps selected as a Staff Pick. But it totally blows if you’ve got a good competing product to that Staff Pick. Not much different than competing for reviews right now, except that these reviews/picks will appear on a retail store.

Paramount Consent Decree anyone?

So, in many cases, you gets some and you lose some.

The biggest argument for this store that I’ve heard made is that it will exactly serve the needs of 90-95% of the average Mom and Pop Mac purchasers, who don’t want to type “Family Tree” into their Google or Amazon search bars, and wait for the delivery of the disk by their friendly UPS guy. Now they can type it into the MacOS App Store search bar and get the download immediately. And that’s completely true. For 90% of the total market, this store will probably serve all of their needs.

But nearly every media maker that I know doesn’t fit in that 90-95%. We live in the outlying 5-10%.

As an example, we know that Apple makes Final Cut Suite. We also know that there at least two competing NLEs — Avid’s Media Composer and Adobe’s Premier Pro — that compete directly with Apple’s software. There’s also the new Lightworks Open Source beta (not available for the Mac right now, but “someday”) and a few other NLEs. I’d be fascinated to see if Apple approves any one of those competitors for inclusion in the store. And, if so, how often they would get Staff Pick recommendations.

The fact that Adobe and Avid could and would continue to sell their products on their own sites and elsewhere is great and all, but that has increasingly less power, the stronger the MacOS App Store’s pull on the overall market becomes. I can see the day when it will be well nigh impossible to start a new product without its inclusion in the Apple App Store and, once again, we (as users) become captive to the Apple selection process.

============= ADDED 12-16-2010 ===================

Philip Hodgetts points out in his comment below that Apple’s rules for the store prohibit software that uses installers to be sold in the OS Store. This rules out Final Cut, Media Composer and a slew of other complex applications.

=================================================

Apple, on its own site, touts the ability to download updates.

Developers are always improving their apps. That’s why the Mac App Store keeps track of your apps and tells you when updates are available. Update one app at a time or all of them at once, and you’ll always have the latest versions.

All well and good and I’d be thrilled at this feature were it not for two huge points. First, nearly every application that I own (with the shocking exception of Avid’s Media Composer) will, if I ask it to, automatically check for updates and let me update automatically. And, second, I’ve heard enough stories about iOS app updates being delayed for weeks as they go through the Apple approval process. Personally, I’d rather update on the developers’ and my own schedules, not on a store’s — even if that store is operated by may favorite computer manufacturer.

Finally, for everyone who has ever been thankful for a 30 day trial period, let me tell you that on the new MacOS Store — you won’t have one. Apple is not allowing downloading of apps with trial periods. You download it, you pay for it. Simple policy for them, not so much for us. I often download plug-ins or conversion tools for trials so I can decide whether to buy them or not. I love experimenting with them, but not too many of my clients want to see “SAMPLE” or “TRIAL VERSION” splashed across their screens. So, if I use them, I pay for them. If I don’t find them useful, I delete them. No harm, no foul, no fowl. On the new app store — we get harm and foul. I cry “chicken!”

Those of us who live in the crazy 5-10% outlier group will have to continue to do what we’ve always been doing — use friends, Twitter, user groups, blog posts and reviews — to find software that helps me to do my job better. Luckily, that won’t go away — except in the case of marginal software companies who can’t afford to part with 30% of their revenue, as well as keep a functioning web site up for support and marketing. This strikes me as a no-win situation for small developers and I’d be interested to hear what someone like Philip Hodgetts thinks. Philip, along with his partner Greg Clarke, publishes some great tools for Final Cut Pro over at their company Intelligent Assistance, has his own online store to sell their many apps. I’d also be interested in what some slightly larger companies think — not larger to the degree of  Adobe, who can pretty well afford their own store, but places like GenArts or Boris, both of whom make great plug-ins.

Small companies, like Apple used to be, need more open markets. I question whether this new Apple OS Store, will create anything resembling an open marketplace. If not, small companies are going to start hurting even more than they do now. And while Mom and Pop won’t notice, those of us who work creating content at increasingly lower and lower margins are going to start suffering.

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Learning From Experts, Part 2

8 10 2010

Last post, I talked about how I learned about learning from the late Arthur Penn, on the film FOUR FRIENDS. This time I’m going to talk about another, more traditional, type of learning — book learning.

Many of you know that I’m an editor and editing teacher by trade. I’ve been editing using digital NLEs (first on Lightworks, then on Montage, Ediflex, Avid and Final Cut) for years and years. In all that time, you’d think I would have learned things.  Well, actually, I have. But then you always meet people who help to keep your ego in check.

A few years ago, I joined up with a group of amazing top-notch editors in an Advisory Group which gave advice on software, strategy and other feedback to a major NLE manufacturer. And earlier this year I started doing a videocast called 2 REEL GUYS with another top-notch expert on another major NLE. Within a few meetings, it was clear to me just how little I really knew about the Avid Media Composer and Final Cut Studio. Now, fortunately, both of them have published books that help me to get schooled (in both senses of that word) in both systems.

Steve Cohen is an Avid Guru, in my mind. He’s been editing on the Avid since 1993′s LOST IN YONKERS which according to IMDb, was the first studio feature ever cut with an Avid. He’s worked as a consultant for them as well and some of our favorite parts of that NLE come straight from his brain. If there is a working editor today who knows more about the hidden parts of that system, I don’t know who it would be.

Years ago, Steve co-wrote a book on tips and tricks using the Avid, which (self-published) became an underground classic. A little while ago he decided that the time had come to come out with a new book for the very new system that Media Composer is today and I’m thrilled to say that it’s now here. Avid Agility: Working Faster and More Intuitively with Avid Media Composer, also self-published, came out last month and I’ve just finished going through it.  It is an amazing work — for both new and old Media Composer users. Sensibly organized into editing functions — Basic Editing, Timeline, Audio, Effects and much much more — it has taught me tips and tricks that I didn’t know. It’s not meant to be an absolute basic book (for that I like Sam Kauffman’s book Avid Editing) though I think that beginners would get huge value from it, because it does go into basic Avid functions.

For me, the huge value of the book comes from the complexity of any piece of software. There are many editors who are using Avid today in much the same way that they did ten years ago — even though there is now so much more in the program that would help them work. It’s the same thing with Microsoft Word, on which I’ve written several books but continues to blow me away with what is buried deep inside menus. Unless you spend a ton of time keeping up with your software, you’d never learn so much of what’s new and valuable in it.

“Avid Agility” does just that.  It takes me by the shoulders, shakes me several times and shouts — “Hey dummy!  Why are you stepping into an effect that way when you could do it so much easier this way.” I’d recommend that each and every one of you who are editors — whether you are on Avid, Adobe or Apple, rush up to that link above and order the book.

So, now, you’re thinking. Ah, why isn’t there something like that for Final Cut? There are a ton of great books teaching me how to use Final Cut Suite, but nothing that really digs into secret and great tips and tricks.

Ah, you’d say that, but you’d be wrong.

Larry Jordan is one of the more tirelessly hard-working gurus for Final Cut Pro. He has written about 10 gazillion books, is the Pilot behind the essential weekly audio podcast for digital video professionals, The Digital Production Buzz, and co-hosts our videocast, 2 Reel Guys, which is designed to help you understand how to tell better stories on film and video.

He has now published what, to my mind, could become the definitive cheat sheet book on Final Cut Pro, called Final Cut Pro Power Skills: Work Faster and Smarter in Final Cut Pro 7. Impressively presented, and incredibly detailed, this book spends its 264 pages giving you about one tip per page with things that should have been obvious to me about five years ago, but weren’t. Just like Steve Cohen’s book, Larry’s book divides itself into smartly designed chunks, designed to explore areas like Audio, Transitions and Effects, Video Formats, Editing and much much more.

It has a ton of those “Oh My God, I’m Such An Idiot” moments where it tells you an easier way of boosting audio levels, or clearing settings from a group of clips. These are things that you would have thought I’d have known already but, frankly, it’s way too hard to keep all of those new things in my head, while also trying to edit something.

Larry has done us all a great service by collecting these hundreds of tips to (as the book’s title says) work “faster and smarter” and I, for one, am glad he’s done that. Go right ahead and click the link or the picture above and learn a ton of stuff.

In fact, if you’re a working editor or would like to be a working editor, I’d go ahead and click on both of these links. In the entire filmmaking world today, you have to keep learning or, as Woody Allen said in ANNIE HALL, you’ll have a “dead shark.”

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Keeping Organized – A Free Webinar

8 09 2010

One of the things that many low budget productions suffer from, as well as nearly all student films, is a lack of organization. It makes those tougher films even harder, but no one ever feels they have the time to set up their systems.

This is crazy shortsightedness and to give a few examples of what I mean by organization, I’m going to take some examples from my book, THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, 4th Edition, and present them (in my usual rambling fashion) during a webinar being given by the good folks over at New Media Webinars.

Every editor does things differently, and Shane Ross has done a pretty good DVD on the subject within Final Cut Pro. I’m going to toss my own thoughts into the ring  tomorrow, Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 10am Pacific time.

There are some good things about this webinar — the first is that it’s free, if you can make it at that time (NMW will be making the webinar available for a fee afterwards, along with some added content — a video where I’ll talk about organizing a VFX  workflow, as well as a copy of the glossary from my book). You’ll also get a chance to win some prizes, always a good thing.

Finally, I think that you’ll learn some things and, if you haven’t, you’ll have a chance to ask questions.

It should be a blast.  And you don’t even have to be in LA to see it.  So, c’mon down.  Just click on the link below.

Editing Bootcamp. Get Organized!!

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Working With New Muscle Memory

15 06 2010

The new release of Avid’s Media Composer 5.0 has a ton of little interface changes in it, some of which initially made me crazy as I continually had to remember what they were (Steve Cohen has a great tutorial up on his blip.tv page which is well worth a viewing).

This got me to thinking about how most filmmakers who I know have to develop a set of learned reactions in order to their job properly. As editors we learn the NLE tools when we’re first exposed to them (whether it’s Media Composer, FCP, Premier, After Effects or any software tool) and develop a muscle memory about how to best use those tools. Keyboard shortcuts are just the most obvious examples of these, but even something as simple as figuring the best way to create an overlap or L-cut, where picture and track are not edited at the same frame. (Naturally, Steve has a great tutorial on a trick for doing this at the end of a sequence). Over the course of time, we build up a repertoire of methods and techniques that help us to do our job more quickly and efficiently, allowing us to think more and do the mechanics less.

But, like annual releases of cars, every new release of a piece of software introduces new features and it’s way too easy to ignore them and simply continue doing our work in the Good Old Way. This means that the NLE that is released in 2010 is not the NLE that I learned on in, let’s say, 2007 (though, truth be told, I learned my NLEs waaaay earlier than that — don’t ask). But we’re probably still editing with it as if it’s 2007.

In one of the editors’ groups that I’m a member of, I’m continually amazed at how many of us didn’t know the feature that another one of us is using. The same goes for many of my students at USC — the way that they taught themselves FCP in high school is the way they’re using it today — even though it’s changed since FCP5.

The problem, in my mind, is muscle memory. Our brain and body have been trained to think and act in a certain way, and it is damned hard to get them to work in any other way. It’s not a trait peculiar to filmmakers, of course. People drive the same route to work every day, have the same eating habits as they did when the got out of college, and maintain many of the same traits — for better or for worse — as ten years ago. It’s why my mother still can’t text people and it’s why we all misspell or misuse the same words year in and year out.

But that muscle memory tends to get in the way all too often and one of the chief responsibilities of a good filmmaker today is to keep on disrupting that muscle memory. If we’ve figured out an efficient way of lighting for 35mm film, we may need to relearn the methods when we move to HD-DSLR. Every time I finish a job it feels like I have to relearn the tools all over again.

And that’s because we do.

A responsible filmmaker must spend way more time teaching him or herself new technologies, new interfaces, and new methods before, during and after every job. At this past weekend’s EditFestNY conference, the editors of AVATAR talked about how the production was literally inventing the technology as they went along. By its very necessity, they had to create new muscle memories all the time. Most of us are not so directly challenged in our daily work, and we rarely are given leave by our employers to experiment. Our jobs reward doing things in established ways. There’s very little room for learning new methods and the mistakes that generally come with that exploration.

But, to my mind, the way in which we thrive as filmmakers is to continually put those shortcuts and workflows aside periodically and asking ourselves what could be done differently. We need to go to user group meetings, read blogs and view videos, to force ourselves to see how others work.

It’s how we’re going to keep useful to new employers and excited by our work.

=============

Speaking of user groups, the geniuses at the Final Cut Pro User Group (notably Mike Horton and Dan Berube) are putting on the first ever Supermeet in Boston later this month — June 25th to be exact. There’s going to be some exciting presentations there, including some CS5 and Canon HD-DSLR workshops (remember what I said about muscle memory). and it’s only fifteen bucks!!

You should hustle on over to the supermeet.com website and learn more about the program and the details about it. Supermeets are always a bundle of fun and, if you live in the Northeast, you should wend your way to Boston on the 25th.

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The One NLE To Rule Them All

9 06 2010

No, no, no.  I  don’t think that there’s one editing platform that rules over everything.  And I never have felt that way. When I edited on film, there were debates as to whether a Moviola upright was superior to a flatbed (too noisy!!  too assistant intensive!!) and I used both.  And once people moved increasingly over to the flatbeds, there were debates as to whether the KEM or Steenbeck or Moviola was the best. And I used them all.

So, this argument about Final Cut and Avid tires me out.  I feel old.  I’ve been there and done that. And I use them both.

Avid's Media Composer 5.0But one thing that the imminent release of Avid Media Composer 5.0 (this Thursday, June 10th) brings to mind is just how much we want our editing machines to do exactly what we want them do. There is a tremendous amount to like in this great improvement to MC (as we cool and insufferable editors like to call it).  Personally, I love the new stereo tracks — which enable me to save great amounts of screen real estate and put keyframes and volume graphic moves on both channels of a stereo sound simultaneously. And I like how I can mix and match frame rates, raster sizes and a slew of other crazy stuff that I don’t really understand, right in my timeline without doing complicated conversions.  Oh, the conversions are still there, but now I don’t have to do them — MC does them  in the background for  me.

I’m lazy like that. And I don’t really understand it well enough to not be lazy.

But some of the coolest things in the new release are not really new, they’ve been in Final Cut for a while — editing directly in the timeline without switching back and  forth between Avid’s modes, for instance. Personally, I like the old trim mode in Media Composer, but if you’re used to dragging and dropping on the Final Cut timeline, this is going to seem very familiar to you.

Another thing that I really like in the new Media Composer is that I can edit directly in QuickTime, without conversion or transcoding to Avid Media files. Yeah, just like Final Cut does. I can also edit Red files directly, along with AVCHD and P2 and XDCamEX. But that QuickTime editing is great.

So, now (to a great degree) I can have some of what I like in Final Cut right inside Media Composer.

It gets even better.  Though I haven’t tested it yet (Boris!!  Are you listening??) Boris released a video today talking  about a new product that they’ve got coming out called Boris AAF Transfer. If this software lives up to its hype, it will make it very easy to edit a sequence in Final Cut and export the timeline to Media Composer and easily relink everything to the original media without complicated transcoding. In fact, with Avid’s QuickTime AMA (new in 5.0), you can simply link the transferred timeline back to the original FCP media and — voilá — you’ve got an Avid Media Composer project ready for editing, finishing, sound work or whatever you want to do.

For years, people have been doing a similar thing using Wes Plate’s awesome Automatic Duck, though it did take a few more contortions and is twice the price of Boris’s solution. Without testing Boris AAF Transfer it’s  impossible to know whether it can handle sequences of the complexity that Automatic Duck does. Wes’ plug-in has been so reliable for so long that it’s hard to imagine that Boris’ 1.0 version can come  close.

But Boris has been doing fantastic FX plug-ins for FCP and Avid (many of their effects come standard with the full version of Media Composer — sorry students) that it’s an exciting development. Often I go for their plug-ins over Apple’s or Avid’s.  So I am encouraged and hopeful.

And that leads me back to my original point. What I’ve observed over the years is not how different editing systems are, but how similar. When Avid was just starting, they looked over the shoulder of companies like Lightworks and saw that — holy splice mark Batman!! — you could actually edit in the timeline. And, lo and behold, trim mode was born. When Randy Ubillos, creator of the original Adobe Premiere, first created what would become Final Cut Pro, he was able to take a look at what both Premiere and Media Composer were doing wrong, think hard, and improve on them (Lightworks was, by then, a non-competitor). And now, with every release of each NLE, they’re looking at what their competitors are doing better than they are, and putting it into their own software.

No one knew they needed “select to the  right” until FCP introduced it. It is now in  MC (since 4.0 or thereabouts).

So, in my opinion, there is not “one NLE to rule them all.” The best NLE is  all of them together, especially when there are companies like Boris and Automatic Duck to build bridges between them. Especially when companies like Avid take a look at what Apple and Red and others are doing, and put it in their software. Especially when there are editors out there who keep on pushing those companies to create better and better NLEs.

[Don't even get me started on Get. Though not as cool as Avid's ScriptSync, it is so way cool that there were editors at a recent LAFCPUG meeting ready to throw down their hard-to-come-by-recession-dollars for a copy.]

What we want, when you really get down to it, are our favorite companies out there — Apple, Adobe, Avid, Sony, and a host of others — to keep running scared and looking at others who are doing  great innovation and trying to figure out how to do it themselves.

Then I can have one or two or three of them sitting on my Mac, and move effortlessly between them.  Then it won’t be the software that will rule, it will be the Mac sitting on my desk that will be the one true NLE to rule them all.

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Production and Post Wars (or Why Red Should Buy Final Cut)

29 04 2010

Well, all right, I’m exaggerating there. I don’t really think that Red should buy FCP, and Production and Post aren’t exactly at war (though sometime you’d be forgiven if you thought that) but I want to make a point here.

Every year it seems that camera manufacturers create many “improved” codecs that answer their needs — increased quality with reduced file size. However, that goal is pretty much immaterial to post-production professionals. We don’t care if an image takes up a large file size. In fact, with the faster processors and cheaper storage costs (last I checked, a medium-ish quality 2Tb drive costs less than $300 on Amazon), we don’t much care what size the original file is. If it’s too big to use, we’ll just create a lower rez transcode in ProRes or DNxHD and edit with that. In fact, it’s more important to editors that it be easy to edit.

This means that Long GOP file formats, where most frames are not stored as full frames but as a smaller list of changes from the preceding frame, are horrible. They are exceedingly hard to edit with. Whatever speed gains we might conceivably get from working in a smaller file size are more than undermined by the extra work our NLEs need to do in order to display them.

[Note of ignorance. I haven't yet had a chance to play with the parts of the new version (5.0) of Avid Media Composer which allegedly make a lie out of that last sentence. Pushing their Avid Media Access technology forward, and allowing the Media Composer to natively work in Quicktime, Red and various Long GOP formats, they promise to make editing much easier with these previously hated formats. This has proved to be true in my experience with the Sony EX-1 and EX-3 cameras, so this could be a great boon. And I'll talk about that in a few paragraphs, so stay tuned.]

Let’s face it. Editors are never going to get camera manufacturers to stop looking for their version of “better” codecs. We’ve long since learned to live with it. But it does mean that, unless these manufacturers work ahead of time with the NLE manufacturers (the way Red did with Apple, for instance, before the initial release of the Red One) it’s going to take some time for our favorite NLEs to catch up with each new release of a camera codec.

It’s a war and the winner of that war is… well… no one. But the biggest loser is the filmmaker.

This is less of a visible problem on the bigger budget productions where the camera and editorial departments are made up of different people, each of whom have varying levels of tech support that go beyond typing “Long GOP won’t work” into a Google search bar. But as more and more of us are shooting with small crews, and taking it back into the editing room where we have to ingest and edit it (and output it) ourselves, this becomes more than an annoyance, it becomes an impediment to our livelihoods (you know who I’m talking about, you WEVA folks out there).

So, what’s the best solution to this war? Is hope for reconciliation only slightly less feasible than the Democrats and Republicans agreeing on anything in Washington today?

Well, yes it is. But there are some signs of hope.

I’ve already mentioned Avid’s AMA. What that does is create a set of open architecture hooks for camera manufacturers, so that they can more easily create a way for editors to edit natively in the Media Composer. It’s an attempt to make it easier to do what Red did with Final Cut before the Red One’s release.

In both cases, it’s the NLE manufacturers telling the camera manufacturers — “Hey, if you’re going to create your own camera codecs, you’ll have to create your own editing codecs.” Well, not exactly, but Apple and Avid are placing the onus on the camera manufacturers to dig themselves out of their self-constructed hole. And that makes sense, so long as your NLE is one that has enough of an audience to make it worth the camera folks’ attention. I might be wrong, but I doubt that Sony, Panasonic, Red and the HD-DSLR manufacturers are going to spend buckets of money writing plug-ins for Liquid or Vegas.

So, what are our other alternatives?

In the old days, every single camera manufacturer had to create cameras that worked with the industry standard 35mm film gauge. If they wanted to create a film that was a different width — such as, say, 38mm — they had to be able to manufacture the film, the lab processing equipment, the editing equipment and the projectors to accommodate that.

Needless to say, we never saw 38mm film. [We did see 16mm and 70mm film -- which at half and double the normal size was easy for Kodak to manufacture film for. When it became clear how it opened up new markets, the camera, editing and distribution worlds came along for the ride (to greater or lesser degree).]

But what if a company could manufacture a camera and editing and distribution equipment (like Sony) and didn’t have their heads up their posteriors (like, uh.., like… oh never mind)? In a frighteningly anti-competitive way, they could then create a camera codec that worked fine in both capture and post production.

We haven’t yet seen that company, though if Red bought Final Cut from Apple (or MC from Avid, let’s say) it would certainly be a start in that direction. Please note, I have absolutely no inside information on anything that Red, Final Cut or Avid might be up to. For all I know, Apple is planning on buying Red, though that would shock me in ways that I can’t describe in public.

In the meantime, Red Cine X and AMA are two ways that post and production are attempting to bridge the gap. last time I looked, Avid wasn’t manufacturing cameras, which will make it more difficult to keep up with Red Cine X.

When Cisco bought Flip last year, I was hoping that we’d see some real synergy in the production and post areas. At the very least, I was hoping that we’d see some changes in the Flip that would enable them to interact with the web backbone much more easily. That hasn’t happened yet, and there’s no indication that it’s imminent.

But wouldn’t it be awesome if someone came up with a series of codecs that could take footage shot by a camera, make it easily editing ready and trivially distribution ready. By this, I mean more than projector-ready (something that I am hoping that Red Ray will pave a path for) but will make it easier to distribute files safely to theater owners, television networks, web distributors, mobile device partners, et al.

And, I’m hoping that these solutions are provided by multiple companies so we don’t have to be tied to one technology.

Whoever creates that chain will be the Dag Hammarskjöld of all things digital video, and their company will be its United Nations. Peace at last!

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Techy Talk

12 04 2010

I’ve got a post percolating about the use of the iPad in education but it’s not really ready yet. In the meantime, I wanted to spend a post or two talking about some more tech-y things.

It’s so damned easy to get swallowed up by the technology in post production nowadays. About five years ago, no editor that I know was using the term “workflow” and now it seems that that is all we talk about. Codecs?  Why should I know about them?  Well, honestly, it’s because that knowledge helps us to do our job better.  When I was a wee assistant editor, I made it my business to learn how the film optical houses did their job, as well as the labs.  I learned about white core mattes and black core mattes, so I could talk more intelligently about them when I was conveying our requests.

Now, take that and multiply by a thousand. I’ve talked before about how we need to know VFX, sound design, color correction and much much more in our editing rooms. Sometimes it seems overwhelming. Luckily, there are tools out there to help us do our jobs better.

Color correction is one thing that continually stumps me.  My wife, in fact, thinks that I’m color blind; she often stops me as I am on my way out the door in the morning with a “You’re wearing those together?”.

So, when Christian Förster, over at Avid Screencasts podcast, recently posted three separate vidcasts about color correction on the Media Composer I devoured them.  I waited until all three were released so I could watch them at one sitting and it was well worth the while.  You can go to his website, Avid Screencasts, to see them (as well as a number of other valuable episodes) or go directly to any of the three episodes here:

Color Correction Basics I – Laying the Groundwork

Color Correction Basics II – Manipulating Contrast

Color Correction Basics III – Manipulating Color Balance with Curves

Hey, Christian, you should put these three casts together into one, add some deeper discussion (primary vs. secondary for instance) and then sell them.  They’re that good. I’m going to put the three together for some of my classes.

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Final Cut Pro – Baby Steps Into The Future

23 07 2009

For the two or three of you who don’t know yet, Apple released its updates to its suite of video applications today.  Final Cut Suite 3, has updates and new enhancements to nearly all of the parts of the suite, including some cool title manipulation tools in Motion, voice level matching in Soundtrack Pro (a boon to quick and easy temp mixing), cooler markers and more flavors of ProRes in Final Cut, and more. Some of the features, like a floating timecode window and global transitions, are attempts to catch up with Avid’s Media Composer which has had that for a very long time. (Apple’s list of new features can be found on this page on their website.)

That, by the way, is a great advantage of competition.

But it is in the aspects of ease-of-use and collaboration that Apple has shown that it is paying attention to what it’s core market really wants. Despite the high-end videos of Francis Coppola and Walter Murch on TETRO, Final Cut’s appeal has always been to people on the lower-priced end of the market — the students, the low-budge indies, the people putting together their own shops. The entire suite concept caters to them — if your market is made up of people who can’t afford to hire separate title designers and sound editors, then the idea of charging people separate amounts for separate applications is a non-starter. For the indie filmmakers and podcasters who are creating their own soundtracks and flushing them out to the web in record time, buying ProTools and Media Composer is just too expensive. Even if Soundtrack Pro is way inferior to ProTools, it just simply doesn’t matter to that market. Having everything in a box (with round-tripping between the apps) is The Way To Go.

I’ll talk about the coolest indicator in a minute, but let me also say that the ease of use factor is also huge for this market. If I’m doing my own lower thirds, and I’m not a visual effects guru like Mark Christiansen, then I want easy-to-use templates that provide me with a great default setting.  I’ll change the look and feel if I want, but the fact that I don’t need to program in a motion effect, with a glow, and time everything out from scratch, means that I can get things done much more efficiently (even at the expense of greater individuality).

So, starting with something much higher than Ground Zero, appeals to many of the filmmakers that Apple is targeting as their market.

But here’s the cooler thing for me.

As many of you know, I’ve been harping on the idea of long distance collaboration for several years. It’s clear that more and more of us are working with people who we don’t see every day. Two years ago, I co-edited a small horror film called JACK IN THE BOX. It’s director and my co-editor were both on the East Coast, while I sat in Los Angeles editing. We exchanged files and projects via the net. It was a successful collaboration, but a bit frustrating because of the lack of face-to-face contact. This month I’m starting a new film where the director will be in Rhode Island, my co-editor in Massachusetts and me — still in California.

My point is that this is becoming more of the norm, rather than a rare instance. Commercials, corporate films, sponsored videos, and more, are fast being done by the People Who You Want To Hire, even if they’re in another city. But the tools just aren’t there yet to help re-create the face-to-face experience. We’ll be experimenting with some newer techniques on this one and I’ll report back, but the struggle is always to help all of us to feel like we’re in the same room.

Now Apple has introduced iChat Theatre, which allows the editor to play back his or her timeline right over iChat. If I read the tutorials properly, you no longer need to create a Quicktime export and then upload/FTP it. In fact, you no longer even need to create a Quicktime at all. This feature of Final Cut allows others on the iChat to look directly into a Viewer (or Canvas) on the editor’s machine. That’s it.

Now, it doesn’t have the real interactivity that I’d love — to have my iChat buddy be able to use his or her mouse to stop and scroll the cursor around on the timeline  (like Syncvue, for instance, does), and I don’t know if you can have more than two people on the iChat, but you can video chat with each other while you’re scrolling around. Mike Curtis says that you can show the timecode window as well, and that will be great for more precise discussion. But you certainly can’t take a mouse or Wacom tablet pen, and circle items on the screen (which would be handy for discussion visual effects) like you can on some services. It would also be cool if you could attach comments/markers to particular places on the timeline — so you could easily accumulate notes. But, using a screen grab tool like Snapz Pro X, you could record a notes session for later playback.

Very cool. Since one of the biggest issues in distance collaboration (as well as in any notes meeting, now that I think about it) is misinterpretation of notes.

My point, however, is that Apple has once again identified a growing need in their core market. Many of us working in lower budget ranges need to work with people across great distances. They haven’t given us any real groundbreaking tools to do that, but it is clear that they are thinking about it, and slowly introducing early versions of the tools that we will all need very very soon. These tools are very basic, and don’t really do much more than take ideas that have been floating around elsewhere for a while, and bring them into the suite. But the real takeaway here, is that they’ve now brought these things into their own tool and made them easy to use and integrate with their other tools. And that is going to be very appealing to this market.

Another aspect to this distance collaboration is their Easy Export feature which, on first glance, looks like an easy way to upload to YouTube, MobileMe and more (including BluRay — cool; direct export to DVDs from the timeline).

Oh, and one final point. They’ve made both the price of the suite and the upgrade price incredibly low. The upgrade for someone who already has a purchased copy is $299. That means that they are essentially telling the community that they’ve be idiotic not to upgrade. No one who has the money to make a video project of any kind, doesn’t have $300. (The full price, for those people who don’t have access to an educational discount or their own copy already, is $999.). Once again, Apple is saying to the indie and low budget community — this is for you.

Now it’s time for Avid and Adobe to decide if this is a market that each of them want, and then go for it.

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By the way, some other bloggers are beginning to post their own thoughts on this. Steve Cohen, over at Splice Here, is one of them. Richard Harrington, at the Pro Video Coalition, and Mike Curtis are two others who you should check out.

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METal Media Festival

10 06 2009
Taste of METal Media Festival

I’m part of a group of people who get together about every week or so to talk about events in the Media, Entertainment and Technology spaces (don’t you just love when someone uses the term “space”?). The group, which is called METal — for the Media Entertainment Technology Alliance — is run by Ken Rutkowski, who you have heard me talk about in the past.

This Thursday, June 11th, for those of you who will be in the Los Angeles, Ken and Michael Kaliski, will be hosting a very low-cost Media Festival, which will a cross between a film festival and the TED conferences. Excerpts from a large number of films will be shown, and each one will be followed by a short talk by someone representing the film. Here is how the Taste of METal site describes it.

The Media Entertainment Technology Alliance (METal) presents its inaugural media festival on Thursday, June 11th displaying an eclectic selection of meaningful shorts accompanied by speakers who will give brief, insightful presentations following each film. Moderator Ken Rutkowski will be wielding “the hook” to keep things zipping along. It’s speed dating for the mind!

The event will take place at the state-of-the-art 400 seat screening room at Los Angeles Center Studios. 450 S. Bixel Street LA, CA 90017.

Arrivals and refreshments will begin at 7:00PM with the program kicking off at 8PM.

Details can be found at the TASTE OF METal site and you can RSVP at http://metal.pingg.com/Mayfilm

I am totally going to be there. It looks like it’s going to be a very interesting and provocative evening.

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When Is Too Much, Too Much?

3 03 2009

Sony's PMW-EX1

Sony's PMW-EX1

Or, just because you can shoot a lot, should you?

I hope this isn’t too muchb “inside baseball” but there was a meeting of a lot of the production faculty here at USC last weekend where we got a chance to sample the new workflow using our Sony HDCAM-EX1 and EX3 cameras. (Ironically, two days later Avid announced a great upgrade to their Media Composer product, to MC 3.5, that makes it possible to edit the XDCAM-EX files natively, but that’s a story for another post.) It is a transition that we started making this past fall and is slowly taking over the film school. Our higher end classes are using the F900 or the EX-3, but we are definitely making the move to HD and digital capture across the entire school.

The really interesting point came in a long discussion that we ended up having about one of our key undergraduate course — called Production III — which moved to the EX-3 this past fall. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to take a little detour to tell you how the class is set up, since it’s germane to the central question of how do we move into the file-based capture world.

The class, called CTPR 480, and is a course in which four teams of about ten undergrads each, make a short film in an intense collaborative format. Each film has a director, two producers, as well as two cinematographer, editors, sound recordists/designers, production designers and one AD. They use other students help to fill out their crews. So this turns out to be the class in which these students learn how to work in very detailed ways in a particular specialty, as well as to work collaboratively with a large group of people. (A trailer for one of these 480 films can be found on YouTube). Up until last semester, the students shot on 16mm film, with a total allotment of 4400 feet of film — or about two hours worth of original shooting. This gives a shooting ratio of about 10:1, since the films have a maximum length of 12 minutes without credits.

The bad news about this, is that students are always stressed about the amount of footage that they have, and they sometimes tend to shoot in tiny little bursts — a line at a time, precutting the film in camera. The good news about this is that it requires the students to really think ahead of time about what is important to their overall story — once they run out of film, they simply can’t get anymore. The entire class and faculty can watch all of the dailies every class and really look at how the students are progressing week to week.

But what happens when there is no longer a physical/cost limitation on the amount of film that can be shot because they are capturing digitally with a file based format? In other words, if they can shoot 26 takes of a set-up, with no film cost penalty, what changes in the class? And, if I can be presumptuous, what changes in the filmmaking process?

Well, the first thing that the teachers in the class learned is that they will shoot 26 takes. If they need to do ten more takes to get the perfect dolly move, they will. But, what happens to the actors’ performances over that length of time? What happens to the crew’s?  What happens to the rest of the shooting schedule? And, from my point of view, what happens to the post-production schedule which hasn’t changed at all?

To move this out of film school, what happens when you remove one of the barriers to excessive shooting, but not the others?

AS anyone who has ever been on the set with an indecisive director can tell you, shooting take after take after take, doesn’t insure better takes. In fact, it usually insures the exact opposite — you may end getting a dolly without a bump, but a performance suffers. You may end up getting a great performance from one of the actors, but the other (who peaked after take four) goes downhill. And when you get into the editing room, does the indecisiveness really end? What about trying a version with a small smile? What about one with a quizzical frown?

Nope, in my opinion, though there is a lot to be gotten from experimentation, it rarely helps to broaden the boundaries of what you want as a filmmaker, to the extent where your collaborators can’t figure them out. I describe my process as “crawling up inside the head of my director” and it helps me to be creative in a way that can advance the overall project. It’s the way a good director can get my artistry without going all over the map.

But if the inside of the director’s head is a huge maze of constantly dead-ending corridors, I’m not going to know what to do, and it will be hard for me to create in a way that the filmmaker is going to consider helpful. I can cut a sequence 80 different ways, but only ten of them might be helpful to the overall story. What I’d really love my director to do, is to give me the outlines of the territory of the film so I can deduce those ten ways and do them in the most effective way. If I’m trying to cram five months of work into two months, then I’m going to have to eliminate at least 70% of those dead ends. Since each change expands the work exponentially (since it affects the way I cut the scene before and the scene after that change).

And that’s just in the editing.

So, the idea that unlimited footage equals better filmmaking is a complete sham (unless you have unlimited money and time, as well as an unlimited capacity for getting bad results). Just because you can shoot 26 takes, doesn’t mean you should.

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