The Right Tool For The Job and ROI

27 05 2010

AppleInsider had an article on May 18, 2010 which was titled “Apple Scaling Final Cut Studio Apps to fit prosumers” which generated a ton of blogosphere panic. Even I was caught up in the rumor mongering here, reacting to a post I’d read on Twitter and then, after reading the AI piece, tweeting about it myself. Phillip Hodgetts had a very intelligent post on his blog last week that used a historical approach to take the AppleInsider piece apart, rebutting nearly everything that the article said. Larry Jordan followed up with another article which also took pains to point out why that original piece was Dead Wrong.

But, in doing so, he made another excellent point.

For me, this is the key point — as editors our job is to tell stories visually. The tools we have today do a really great job of helping us put food on the table and pay the rent.

The emphasis is mine, by the way.

Now, I’d be the last one to paraphrase Larry (though I will be doing a bunch of that in a vidcast with him which will start in mid-June — more details on that to come), but let me try. What I think was so cogent about Larry’s comment is this: We only need enough tools to do the best job we can.

Of course, there’s a lot to pick apart in that statement. We were fine working on 35mm and 16mm film, drawing diagonal grease pencil lines down the middle of the film to indicate dissolves. But then videotape editing came along and, soon, we were able to actually see that dissolve. Very quickly, those diagonal lines were not “doing the best job” anymore.

Then there’s the reality that one editor’s “need” is another one’s “nice to have but I don’t care.” New tools in Avid’s Media Composer make displaying 3D footage must easier, but most everyone I know doesn’t work in 3D so (for now) we won’t care about it.

But those issues aside, the truth of that statement is strong. It’s not as important for us to have access to every tool out there, as it is to have the right tool. Until very recently, many feature films were edited on a very old version of Avid’s Media Composer hardware and software because that version of the program was stable, worked beautifully and gave editors everything they needed. Of course, with the advent of HD and visual effects, you can’t say that anymore, except if your job only involves straightforward SD editing. Then the urge to upgrade just isn’t there. Businesses call it ROI (“return on investment”) and the equation holds true in editing as well. Will we make or save as much money upgrading to a new tool as it will take to buy it, install it and (most importantly) learn it?

As the world changes, our editing tools must change of course. But the inverse is not necessarily true; as our editing tools change, the world doesn’t have to change as well. If something works really well in version 4.0 or in version 6, why should we upgrade to 5.0 or 7?

Incorporating new technology into our own work lives can be fraught with peril and we’ll only jump at the changes that make sense. How can we determine what makes sense without reflexively avoiding something just because it’s a change, or darting to every new bell and whistle just because it is new? Good question. We deal with that all the time.

Recently, I’ve been playing with two tools that are designed to make editing life more sensible and I’ve now incorporated them into my own editing life. In each case, I got something more by the change, than I had to put out in order to make that change. That is real life ROI.

I first saw PluralEyes back at NAB in 2009, where it was stuck all the way at a side wall. The way it was pitched to me got my juices excited — this is a tool for editors (FCP only at the time, it has now expanded to Premiere and Vegas; where is Media Composer???) that will automatically sync takes from different cameras that were shot at the same time and have matching audio. This seemed to be a godsend editors of music videos or events (think speeches or weddings) that are captured using multiple cameras. Six cameras capturing a speech can be easily sunk up to each other, even if the audio is of varying quality. Editors who have to sync multiple takes of a musical performance that was shot to a common playback will also benefit from this.

What a cool idea, right? I can hear editors all over the world counting up the amount of time that they will be saving in syncing up footage. In the “old days” this would have involved finding common points between each and every take (a verse where the band sang the word “Killer”, for instance — hard consonants like “K” are useful in finding sync), mark a sync point at those points in all of the takes, and combine the takes into one multicamera clip. This was pretty reliable but was incredibly time consuming and prone to error, especially if the person doing the syncing had to make sure that he/she wasn’t using that same word, but from different verses. In addition, at times the audio on an individual camera might not have been at the same level or quality as another camera, making it harder find the exact match by listening or looking at the audio waveforms in our NLEs.

So, PluralEyes could be a great timesaver but in order to do that, it has to require less work to set up than we benefit by using it. As examples, Avid’s ScriptSync used to take too much of my editing time to set up and so I never used it. Once they put voice recognition into it, it became a very usable tool and I now love it. On the other hand, I’m still waiting for Adobe’s Transcription tool to get to a usable state — right now I get around 50% accuracy, which creates more work fixing a transcription than I’ve saved by doing it automatically in the first place — Scott Simmons has a great review of it in his Editblog.

So, was PluralEyes helpful? Does it pass that test?

Way yes!! It can’t sync everything, but it does a great job of finding the sync points between takes, even if one of the clips is only a partial subclip from waaaaay down in a take. It does a remarkable, though not flawless, job in matching audio recorded at different levels and echo. I was able to effortlessly sync two cameras with direct feed audio, up to one that was using the camera mic, with all of its attendant room echo and noise. In the one or two cases where, for no known reason, it couldn’t sync up a track, it created a separate FCP timeline with those clips on it. This made it easy to see what wasn’t automatically sunk up so I was able to hand-sync those pieces. Synching two or three pieces, rather than thirty, is a huge time saving and so PluralEyes deserved to be in my editing tool chest.

It was the Right Tool for that very limited job and, even at $149, that was way worth it (Honesty Policy: Singular sent me a review copy of PluralEyes, so I didn’t pay that $149. But that doesn’t change my feeling about its worth.) I don’t know what your pay scale is, but if you use this application for three jobs and it saves you two hours in each, that’s about $25 an hour. If you’re not charging at least that for your time, you are either a student or starving or both. One key to this program’s success is its laser beam focus on one thing — help editors sync audio takes together quickly. That’s it. Priced accordingly, it’s a no-brainer for anyone who needs that one thing.

As an aside, Larry Jordan mentioned in his May 20, 2010 Digital Production Buzz podcast, that he has more editing applications on his computer than you can “shake a stick at”. (I’m not sure why you’d want a shake a stick at a computer — I often shake my fists, but that’s different.) He went on to say that he used different ones because not every NLE is good as another at specific things. I got to thinking about that. I used Media Composer a lot for my editing, but I absolutely hate their Titles creation tool — both Marquee and AvidFX/Boris — so I usually bop over to Motion to create lower thirds and the like and then import those files into my Avid machine. The right tool for the job. This is another example of creating a focus on single tasks. When I want to teach students how to create a simple DVD I’d rather use iDVD than DVD Studio Pro (even in it’s simple mode) because it’s Stupid Easy. But it’s phenomenally awful to do anything more complicated. For that I use DVD Studio Pro.

I apologize here for my total lack of knowledge of most Adobe products. I’ve been quite impressed by their improvements in the last few years, but my main body of knowledge still revolves around the NLEs that we use most here in the US — primarily the Media Composer and Final Cut.

Sorenson 360Another tool that I’ve been testing on and off for several months is something called Sorenson 360, which makes it much easier to upload videos that I’ve created for viewing and approval by my producing and directing collaborators. It will come as no surprise to those of you who have been reading this blog for a while that I am a strong proponent of long distance collaboration. I believe that, for editors of the future to be successful, we are going to have to be working with clients all over the world, often many of them at the same time. The feature I’m cutting now has me sitting in front of my computer in Los Angeles, the director is in Rhode Island and the producer is in Massachusetts. We need to be able to easily show each other sequences without flying all over the U.S. To that end, a number of cloud-based review and approval sites have been born on the web. They make compressing, commenting and approving much easier.

Sorenson 360 does all of that to great degree. Like any good compression tool, Sorenson Squeeze can take a while to efficiently and decently compress your films. For a 2 minute trailer that I recently created for that feature I mentioned, it took over an hour. For a documentary that I’m editing on Global Rivers, I had to create a 12 minute excerpt reel. The compression on that sequence, which was originally shot in HD/P2 format, took at least three hours — I left it after about 50 minutes and let it work overnight. When it was done, I had the site send me and my producers an email message that the upload was ready for them and gave them the password. It could have also sent us a text message as well.

Now, as anyone who has ever done any compression can tell you, finding the right compression settings is never as easy as they tell you. I’m okay at this, but I never can find the proper settings for quality, size and platform right out of the gate. Most compression programs give you a number of presets for each use but I find that these are no more than starting points. I am continually tweaking the settings for optimal image quality and web playability. Of course, once you determine the best setting for a particular project you should save it in a preset so you can use it all the time without the need to experiment each and every time (and I usually create a preset or two for each project I do — compression seems to be that finicky).

So, Sorenson Squeeze does all of that, as does Compressor. But Sorenson also provides a direct connection to its Content Delivery Network — the aformentioned Sorenson360 — as well as the notifications that streamline the approval process. It also gives me some rudimentary metrics — such as how many views each video received as well as the viewing duration for each video. This is great for web videos so you can basically tell where a viewer stopped watching your show (I find that the average viewer often dumps out of a video part way through — this way you can find out a bit of the “why”).

So, is this a tool that you need? And is it a tool that’s worth the cost (after a year of the free service that comes with Sorenson 6, the costs “start at $99″ and, yes, their website is that opaque about the costs saying that it’s “pay-as-you-go”)? Well, it depends on what you need it for. Brightcove, a leader in the CDN space (also acronymed the “ODN space” — Online Delivery Network), already provides pretty strong streaming in a variety of platforms with a full set of the statistics necessary for advertisers and sponsors. Can Sorenson deliver the same goods? Their prices range from the same $99 per month (50 videos and 40GB of bandwidth) to $5oo (for 500 videos and 250GB bandwidth).

I have to say that I’m not a Brightcove user so I don’t know the answer to that question. The real question is whether I’d reup with Sorenson 360 when my free one-year is up, and that is also a decision based on my own needs. I don’t create so many videos per month that $1200/year is worth it for me. But if you’re a video professional who finds him or herself increasingly working over distances this also might be the right tool for the job. I love its integration with Sorenson Squeeze (my compressor of choice). I love that I can drop a timecode window on top of my video in Squeeze to provide my producers with an easy way to key their notes to a specific spot in the video. I like the RTMP streaming which enables viewers to easily start a video from any point within the stream, rather than start at the top. I don’t like the fact that there are presently only two real formats for display — H.264 or Flash. I’d like some HTML5 capabilities as well. But it’s a great tool; well thought out and (with the recent upgrade to Version 2) becoming increasingly more sophisticated.

To see the example of how I used this tool on the Global Rivers documentary, you can temporarily check it out at my Sorenson360 site. I output this 12 minute trailer to a Quicktime movie, compressed it in Sorenson 6 and uploaded it to that site behind a password which, in this case, is “globalrivers“.

But, for many people, these applications could be another example of The Right Tool. Would it be really cool if we could get all of this in Final Cut or Media Composer? Maybe. Would it be awesome to be able to create Edit Lists or Film Cut Lists right in our NLE (the way we used to in Media Composer) without having to jump out to a separate program? Again — maybe.

Larry Jordan’s point is well taken. Not every tool needs to do everything. In fact, at a certain point, a tool that does everything is going to resemble Microsoft Word, where most users don’t take advantage of 95% of what the program can do, but it loads incredibly slow nonetheless because Microsoft is putting everything in the tool. Every NLE is going to need just the right tools to let the editors do their job, and no more. The real trick, with so many different editors out there, is figuring out just what the bulk of our editors need, and then give them The Right Tools to do that.

[PluralEyes disclaimer added – June 2, 2010]



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.



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.

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

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.



Great Do-It-Yourself Podcast Tips

10 06 2008

There are two really great sites that I like to tour around to get tips and technique tricks for FCP and Avid.

First, David Forsyth, over at Amber Technology in Australia, does a podcast called “Avid Tips and Techniques” which has featured discussions about the Audio Mixer, Animatte, the Super Bin, and more.

One or two Final Cut sites. My favorite are the series of tutorials about the entire Final Cut Suite from VASST, a company that does training videos. If you look up their store using the company name RHed Pixel in iTunes you’ll be treated to a great series of excerpts from those videos. I like the one called “Total Training for Final Cut Help – Final Cut Studio.” A warning — VASST’s free tutorial website hasn’t been updated in a very long time.

Another good FCP podcast, though it hasn’t been updated since early March, is Creative Cow’s podcast “Creative Cow Final Cut Studio Tutorials Podcast.” Creative Cow runs those great web forums on practically every production and post technology known to mankind (and womankind too).

A cool series of short tips and tricks from the people at Digital Heaven, who make some really neat plug-ins for Final Cut (including a large timecode window, for all of you Avid editors who miss throwing that up during music or sound spotting sessions). Their podcast of video tutorials for FCP can be found on YouTube or at this address in iTunes.



Feature Envy

9 06 2008

ScriptSyncOliver Peters, in his blog Digital Films, has a posting about Avid’s ScriptSync, the technology that allows somewhat automated connection between the script inside Avid, and individual takes. This allows the editor to edit in the lined script mode and, as for me, I often look at the script supervisor’s lined script when I edit. Once I finish my first cut, I’m rarely looking at the script — by then, it’s all about what the footage says, not what the script says.

But I often refer to the lined script (and the facing notes pages as well) to find out what has been shot for any given line of dialogue or bit of action. When I worked with the extraordinary editor Gerry Hambling on FAME, I saw that he did his own lined script, even though he had received one from the set. This is actually even doubly cool, because it means that the lined script will reflect what was actually in the dailies (even great script supers can make mistakes) as well as forcing the editor to really examine the footage that he or she has received.

So, in the scheme of things (and despite its shortcomings) this Avid Media Composer feature is A Very Good Thing.

But “more features” is not always A Good Thing.

We are all aware of Feature Bloat, the natural tendency of software programs to grow more features as they get older and need more selling points for new versions. Microsoft’s Word is often trotted out as an example. This program has gone beyond its 1981 origins (as Bravo) and its 1983 release, into a program which now takes 20 megabytes at its core (not including its countless ancillary files). I remember installing Word back on my early Mac, and it took about eight floppy disks to get it on my drive. Now, I look back fondly on those days. There are features in Word that, I’d bet, less than 1,000 people use on a regular basis.

The real problem is that one person’s useless, memory-hogging feature, is another one’s must-have.

Right now, I’m writing my new book (THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, coming in December from Peachpit Press, buy early/buy often) and, this morning alone, I’ve used the following features:

  • bookmarks
  • cross-referencing
  • index
  • table of contents creation
  • image resizing
  • image cropping
  • split screen editing
  • separate section styling
  • borders and shading

and many more.

My guess is that most of you who use Word don’t care about half of those, and that a large number of you have features that you would care about far more than I. Those of you who use other word processors will feel similarly, I’m sure.

I’ve been involved in a group that has been presenting Avid with feature requests that we absolutely need. And while the list has been arrived at by consensus, it is amazing to me how many people have different opinions about what they can’t live without. I’ve also seen how one person’s feature must-have, is another’s oh-I-just-use-this-workaround-and-I’m-satisfied. And, while I’m not involved in anything similar for Apple or Adobe (not because I don’t want to — I’ve just never been asked), I’d be shocked if they don’t go through a similar prioritization over everything.

[And that doesn’t even take into account the issue of how expensive or how much time it will take to effect these requests. There is the issue of ROI — Return on Investment — all the time in software development. Do you want to spend $100,000 software dollars on features that won’t matter to most people, or on features that will?]

So to my mind, ScriptSync is an awesome new tool that everyone should want (especially documentarians who can afford to get transcripts of their shoots), but I’m not brazen enough to think that everyone will want it.