A shot across Color's bow???

Stu Maschwitz on the ProLost blog today points to a filmmaker who used both Colorista and Magic Bullet Looks to finish an entire feature. The film is Wasting Away and has won numerous awards on the film festival circuit. The filmmaker, John Waters Flowers, has posted a nicely detailed explanation on how he used Colorista and Magic Bullet Looks to streamline his workflow and turn the film around in 10 days. One reason I'm writing about it here is some comments John has made in his opening paragraphs about why he chose not to use Color:

"Because of the tight deadline, Apple Color was not a viable solution. The film had been shot on a Viper FilmStream Camera, which gives footage a strange kind of greenish tint, and Color was taking way too long to export footage after color correction had been applied. We needed a solution which allowed us to try different looks, iterate very quickly through them, then export the footage from Final Cut Studio at full resolution once color correction was applied."

He had 10 days to finish this show - which doesn't seem like a particularly rushed deadline to me. Although from the picture of his edit room accompanying this post I infer that the color correction in Color would have been driven by a mouse, rather than a control surface. I've found the control surface easily doubles my productivity (you can read my initial experience here). So a 90 minute feature color corrected with a mouse could easily take 5 working days... just for the initial grade. And that's without even getting into establishing a look. And look creation in Color is an exercise in patience + fortitude + luck, as his Producers seemed to have discovered:

"In late 2007, I worked with Sean and Matthew Kohnen to provide Color Correction on the film Wasting Away. The film had already been graded in Apple's Color (formerly "Final Touch") but the color just wasn't what they wanted."

Without talking to anyone involved in the production, I suspect they tried to use the ColorFX room in Color. They probably found it both slow to render and inflexible. If I were them, I wouldn't want to tread over the same ground again either. And so John's decision to give the Colorista / Magic Bullet Looks isn't just reasonable, it was smart. In my review of Looks I wrote:

"I offer this up as my highest praise: In many respects, I wish Looks was the ColorFX room in Color."

I still stand by that assessment. In fact, my preferred workflow today is to color correct in Color to set the initial grade and then move into Looks to stylize the image. Setting the base grade, whether in Color or FCP is important. Once you've graded an entire scene and all the shots match, applying Looks on top of it helps increase the likelihood that the look you've developed will apply consistently across those shots - minimizing the need for time consuming tweaking and re-rendering.

Why Color over Colorista? In two words: Secondary Rooms. The ability to mask/isolate multiple areas of an image really help us sculpt an image. In fact, you could say that one of the main themes of the new excellent book by Steve Hullfish The Art and Technique of Digital Color Correction is how to use masks to enhance your image and tell your story.

And while you could do the same thing with multiple layers of Colorista or FCP's built-in 3-Way Color Corrector - it's nowhere near as fast and flexible.

But here's the thing that got me really intrigued and why I'm writing about this today... (from Stu's blog)

So if you read Flowers's excellent article and see his screenshots and ask yourself, "Is Stu listening? Does he realize that filmmakers want powerful and easy-to-use color correction tools that turn their NLE into a proper finishing tool? And that they're already using Magic Bullet for this, despite his intentions?"Well rest assured, the answer is yes.

If Stu adds control surface support and healthy secondary controls in his Color-killer - I'll be his bestest friend for life. Oh. And yes. I'll buy the software.

I like Color for it's ability to help me take the craft to a higher level. I curse Color for its idiosyncrasies that do nothing but inhibit our ability to be assured that the timeline we feed it is the timeline it returns to us. Not to mention the (not so) little bug that kills many interlaced workflows.

- pi

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Review: Magic Bullet "Looks" - Slick, Sexy, A Few Flaws

I've been a long time owner of the Magic Bullet filters. Originally - back in 2002 - I bought it to emulate the 24p "Look" for a job. Even then, I've never been enamored with post-processing 29.97fps to 24p. I've found most filmmakers use it as a crutch. As if it were some sort of... magic bullet. I'd much rather filmmakers forget about frame rate and focus more on framing, lighting, and exposure. Those elements get you far more production value than simply emulating 24p.

But times, they are a-changing. True 24p cameras are affordable and available. With some forethought these cameras mitigate much of the need for 24p emulation (yay!).

Far more in demand is the ability to create the ever elusive "Look". Whether for a flashback, dream sequence, historical recreation, emotional impact, stock emulation, or mimicking an in-camera technique (diffusion) - coming up with some "Look" (always - one which nobody has ever seen before) is a frequent request. The Magic Bullet Looks subset of filters has always been a stand-by of mine - though, unfortunately, it stands-by a bit more than I would have preferred.

Why? It suffered from having to work within the Final Cut Pro (or After Effect) filter User Interface.
Old Magic Bullet UI
The Looks Suite consisted of long run-on lists of numerical entry boxes and sliders. It's like trying to color correct with the 3 Way Color Corrector's numerical rather than graphical interface; it's powerful, but it gets old fast...

..and that sums up how I've long felt about the older Magic Bullet Editors package. Powerful, but it gets old fast.

In mid-October Red Giant Software released Magic Bullet Looks. It's an upgrade for Magic Bullet Editors - and my first impression was, "Wow. Sexy".

New Magic Bullet Looks Interface

My second impression: This is easily the best-looking, best-feeling interface I've seen... anywhere. It's fast. It's responsive. And best of all - the 100+ Look presets all update to show you a preview using the current frame you've got loaded! What a time-saver.

Preset display updates live

The point of the presets isn't to just apply it and move on (you know who you are) - but to use it as a starting point. With the new Magic Bullet Looks, if a client asks for a contrasty diffuse look - I can open the presets tab, reveal the Diffusion presets, and by looking at the small thumbnail pick the preset that seems to get me closest to the desired look. Once applied, I can start tweaking until I dial-in a pleasing result.

In comparison, the ColorFX room in Apple's Color makes much of the same promise as Looks. It has a bunch of prebuilt presets. But the thumbnails provide zero insight into how any particular preset might react with the current image (unless my image is a low-angle shot of the Golden Gate B
Presets display in Color
ridge). Either I've got to go through and apply every preset to find my jumping-off point, or I'll just start from scratch.

I offer this up as my highest praise: In many respects, I wish Looks was the ColorFX room in Color. The nodal approach that Color uses to creating a look is very powerful but very unintuitive. To be fair, Looks doesn't have the kind of repair (RGB split), grain management, and math tools of the ColorFX room. But the Color interface doesn't try to help me along as Looks does. MB Looks has a nifty help feature that describes every filter I can apply as I hover my mouse over the filter. Unfortunately, the help text is unhelpfully located at the polar opposite end of the screen from where my mouse is hovering. The font size of the help text also assumes I've got my 20-something set of eyeballs. Us "experienced" folk need a little more help than that, please.

Another shortcoming of Looks is that as I'm working on a Look, I can't see it output to my external monitor. I'm finding color decisions I make within Looks have to be tweaked once I press the "Apply" button and my monitor updates to show me what's really happening with the image. I don't think I can blame the Red Giant folks, I believe this is a limitation of the Final Cut plug-in architecture. Color Finesse suffers from the same problem when used as an FCP plug-in.

Lastly, it's clear that much thought went into assisting us in designing a look. Looks uses a Subject / Matte Box / Lens / Camera / Post metaphor, guiding a filmmaker in deciding what effects to apply in what order.

Filters are applied in a order that mimicks real-world workflow

For a more general audience I think this is fine. But I would like to be able to toggle into a PowerUser mode that doesn't restrict me from placing filters that exclusively belong to the Camera elsewhere in the chain. At times, I felt more restricted that I should have been. I understand the metaphor / paradigm that Looks is using and that much of its target audience is actually freed by following this logical workflow. Still, I'd like the opportunity to be freed from the shackles of reality when creating unreal or hyper-real looks.

Overall, Looks is a fantastic product. There are a dozen nice little interface elements I haven't mentioned that really speed up user interaction. It's an amazing upgrade for anyone who owns the previous version of Magic Bullet Looks. And if you find yourself constantly trying to implement specialty looks, it's worth the full purchase price. I hope Apple's Pro Apps team takes a close look at this software... while it's missing some of the power features I'd like to see (flexible re-ordering of filters), it has a certain "fun-factor" missing from much of today's professional apps. And the rendered results look great.

Be sure to check out the blog of the creator of Magic Bullet Looks. There's a secret feature that I haven't gotten into that's very nifty.

You can download a demo here.

- pi

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How To Prep A FCP Sequence For Finishing @ Fini

Our clients generally bring their footage to us in one of two ways:

  1. They bring their camera originals which we redigitize.
  2. They bring their footage (usually DV) on a firewire drive and we begin finishing directly from those files.

Both methods have their challenges. For now, because I've had to write out these instructions to two clients in the past week, let's focus on Method #2. These techy instructions are specifically for shows cut on Final Cut Pro...

The end result: You'll create a new project with a new timeline that's exactly the same as your current timeline - only it points to newly copied media that's been trimmed to only the footage needed to playback your timeline. We'll include 15 frames of handles for each shot, so we can slip and slide 15 frames in either direction - if need be (no edit is ever truly locked).


Because we use Apple's new Color software so heavily in our workflow, some preparation needs to go into this process that can be neatly classified as 'busy work'; all speed changes, time remaps, freeze frames, or jpeg / tiff files in your project must be rendered out and re-edited back into the sequence. Same thing with nested Motion or Livetype projects. On documentaries this is not an insubstantial amount of work. But currently, we have no choice - it's a limitation of the Color software, which is powerful enough to be worth the hassle.

Once that's done take a look at your timeline. When you edit do you "build up" your timeline, saving alternate takes in video tracks below the topmost, visible clip? If so, you need to play the role of a good Sous Chef and reduce your timeline down so it includes only the clips necessary to recreate your timeline. Everything else must go. To avoid confusion in the finishing session I suggest dropping everything down to V1. Then dedicate other tracks to specific elements... V2 for overlapping dissolves or composites, V3 & V4 for titles and graphics, V5 for the letterbox, etc...

Using the Media Manager

Once the timeline has been properly prepared, it's time to copy your footage onto the drive you'll be bringing to the finishing session. Don't do this directly from the Finder. Why? Final Cut Pro doesn't always like its media handled this way. Also, we want to reduce the number and size of files you're copying to the bare minimum. We only want the files referenced from your newly reduced timeline, and we only want 15 frames of 'handles' before and after each clip. To do that, follow these steps...

1. In your current project, in the Browser right-click on the current sequence you want to send to Fini.

2. Select "Media Manager"

3. Here's a screen shot of the settings to use inside the Media Manager:


4. Click on "Browse" under Media Destination. Navigate to the drive you'll bring to the finishing session put the files in a new folder "MEDIA_TO_FINI".

5. Before pressing OK recheck the following: 
  • The green "Modified" bar should be much shorter than the green "Original" bar. If not, something's probably wrong.
  • Be sure you are choosing the "Copy" function - nothing else, or things will go terribly wrong.

6. Click "OK"

7. A dialog will open asking you to name a new project which will reference this material. Give it a meaningful name, save it to the top level of the drive where you're putting the MEDIA_TO_FINI.

8. Let the machine run. Depending on the speed of your processor and how your drives are attached, expect this to take a while and the machine to be unavailable during this process. Maybe even a very long while. On a recent 70 minute doc this step took about 75 minutes, with FCP constantly updating as to what shot was being trimmed and copied.

Check Your Work

9. When finished, close all current projects, then open the newly created project on the drive you'll be bringing.

10. Open the timeline, select a shot in the timeline and press Command-9. Look at the file path for this clip and be sure it's pointing to the hard drive / folder you've set as the copy location. Double-check any speed changes, freeze frames, and graphics - ensuring they're all correct. You'll should watch the whole thing down.

11. You're done.

- pi

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ProResSD - On a G5? You might want to avoid it

After the results of the ProResSD tests I performed, I've started using it in situations where pristine quality wasn't a concern. And the more I use it the less likely it is I'll continue to use it.

This has nothing to do with its quality and everything to do with the fact that I'm still on a G5 (Dual 2.5).

If I do *anything* to ProResSD compressed images, the image quality drops to "Preview" - meaning I have to render before doing any outputs. After 18 months of working on this machine in which I can often have two 3-Way Color Correction filters, plus Broadcast Safe, with a crop or reposition and have everything playback at full quality with no rendering - having to force a render for even the slightest repo is driving me nuts.

I can safely say I'll be using ProResSD a lot less than I thought I would. Considering that a Quad-Core is in the near-term future I don't have the time or inclination to deal with the extra overhead forced upon me by this new codec.

If anyone has any experience using ProResSD on a Mactel, please drop a message in the Comments box. I'd love to know your experiences.

- pi

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ProRes SD Results (Finally)

2 weeks ago I finished my testing on the ProRes SD flavor of Apple's new codec. While many have tested the ProResHD variant, the SD variant hasn't been quite as scrutinized. Perhaps that's because hard drives have gotten so large and pipelines so wide that a 25 mb/s files isn't the bottleneck it used to be? Still, if you can save the space without giving up quality why not jump off the Uncompressed codec and onto the ProRes bandwagon when working at Standard Definition? To make an informed jump, we need some facts. What follows is the result of some of my "fact-checking" as I determine if ProRes SD is worthy as a 'finishing' codec and can withstand a common finishing workflow.

And if you want more info on the ProRes codec, here's the direct download of
Apple's ProRes white paper.

Judging Criteria: To judge if ProResSD was a "finishing" codec I decided I had to be able to cut, mid-shot, the original 10bit textless back into the 3rd Generation ProResSD Protection Master - as if I were creating an International Generic Master. And at the edit point it had to have no visible difference to both the human eye and the waveform/vectorscope. This is a test I know a fully 10bit uncompressed workflow could easily pass. And frankly, this is not a very challenging test even for an analog tape format like D-2 (assuming an all-digital environment). So my judging on ProResSD will be fairly harsh - it needs to be perfect.

Using a reality series I finished earlier this year as reference footage - I created a 2 minute test sequence comprised of interiors, exteriors, day, night, interview and run & gun situations. The footage was originally shot anamorphically on DVCPro, conformed in an Avid at 1:1 and then it was output to Digibeta for final finishing in our FCP finishing bay. I captured the footage via Decklink HD Pro SDI to 4 codecs:
  • 10bit Uncompressed
  • ProRes SD (High Quality)
  • ProRes SD (Standard Quality)
  • DV
The footage was then color corrected using Apple's new Color app, and rendered back its corresponding codec. The exception here was DV, which I "promoted" to a ProRes HQ sequence before sending it to Color and then treated as an HQ sequence from there on. I was curious if ProRes would further degrade the DV material with its inherit macroblocking issues. I color corrected the 10bit sequence first, for subsequent sequences I imported the corrections from the 10bit pass.

Simulating the worst-case scenario for a show being delivered to a network - I assumed the footage would be output and recaptured several times:
  • Textless Output
  • Textless Captured, Master Output
  • Master Captured, Protection Output
  • Protection Captured, International Generic created
Finally, I used the 10bit uncompressed textless as the base comparison, differencing it with the 'International Generic' of each of the other three codecs to identify the most challenging / degraded images.

Difference Tests (images will open in new windows):

  • Digibeta Capture: download image (2MB)
    I did this series of difference tests mostly from curiosity. It compares the 10bit Uncompressed to each of the other three codecs before any other processing. It gives an idea as to how much detail each codec throws away. If you've ever wondered why so many of us despise working with DV, every bit of detail you see in these tests is detail retained by the 10bit Uncompressed codec and thrown away by the DV codec.
  • Color Correct Output: download image (2MB)
    After rendering the color correction out from Color, I did another series of differences versus the 10bit render. I was looking for any obviously increased degradation that wasn't seen in the first set of Digibeta Capture difference tests. I don't see any. Color seemed to render them cleanly - especially the DV rendered out as ProResHQ which didn't seem to suffer any additional degradation, leaving open one interesting workflow possibility for those with constrained budgets and originating from DV.
  • 3rd Generation Tests: download image (2MB)
    After round-tripping from FCP to Digibeta 3 times, I again made a series of differences, this time between each codecs Textless and its 3rd generation - seeing how well it held up. The 10bit Uncompressed was rock-solid black, so I didn't bother to include it here.

Frankly, I was surprised how well the DV Promote workflow held up. After the initial hit during capture, the ProResSD didn't allow it to degrade any further. In my opinion, this is a viable workflow for DIY'ers who don't have SDI workflows available to them. But as you can probably see from the difference tests, the ProResSD is indeed lossy - but we already knew that, Apple doesn't make any claims otherwise. Which brings me back to where I started:


Q: Can a 3rd generation copy be visually distinguished when edited mid-shot into a 1st generation copy or can it be easily observed using a waveform monitor or vectorscope?

: The answer to both parts of that compound question is... When playing at speed, 1st Generation 10bit is indistinguishable from 3rd Generation ProResSD. I can't see the edit. By that standard ProResSD is indeed a finishing codec, even as we know there's been slight generational loss as observed in the difference tests.

But: When paused on identical frames and quickly toggling between 1st generation Uncompressed and the 3rd generation ProResSD - levels and chroma are rock solid steady, but there is a oh-so-slight softening of the image. It's slight enough that most my clients won't be able to see it. Heck, I barely see it. Though once I noticed it on the monitor and l looked back at my scopes, I could see a teeny softening of the trace. It wasn't evident in every shot, only those with heavy details (usually in the background). So...

ProsRes SD is an impressive codec. While only doubling the storage space of DV it gives 98% of the quality of Uncompressed. Good enough for finishing purposes? Yes. I would not use it for heavy compositing where every drop of detail is essential. Unlike the HD variant, which I've heard is rock-solid through (at least) 10 generations, the SD variant's 'lossy-ness' does exist after 3 generations.

And here's where the rubber meets the road: Will I be using it as my codec of choice? Not for network deliverables. I want my images as pristine as possible and with storage space so cheap, 25 MB/s isn't that big a deal anymore. But I
will use it for creating DVD, web deliverables, screening copies, etc - replacing 8bit uncompressed as my codec of choice for those elements. And on low budget projects without compositing needs - I'm sure there will be a few projects where I will advocate capturing ProResSD to use it from the first Assembly through the end to final Master.

UPDATE: If you're running on a G5, be sure to read
this follow-up post why Pro-Res isn't quite so thrilling on those machines.

- pi

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Learning to Legalize

I just picked up the book Encyclopedia of Color Correction: Field Techniques Using Final Cut Pro. It's part of the excellent Apple Pro Training Series. I'll do a full review when I'm done but I had to note the excellent entry on Broadcast Legality and the following entry on Broadcast Safe Filter.

These two topics confuse hobbyists and professionals alike. This book does a better job explaining these topics than anything I've read anywhere else, ever. The author, Alexis Van Hurkman, also correctly points out the deficiencies of relying on the Broadcast Safe filter too heavily.

These two entries alone are worth the price of the book, especially if you find this topic perpetually confusing.

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