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Little Frog in High Def

Musings of an NLE ronin…
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Archive for March, 2012

I started this blog in 2005, when I made my leap from editing on an Avid in standard definition…to editing with FCP in high definition…thus the name Little Frog in High Def (Little Frog being my Indian name from my youth). This blog was me talking about my foray into the world of HD specifically using Final Cut Pro…for broadcast TV shows. A diary of my successes and my failures…lessons I wanted to share so that people could learn from my…well, successes and failures.

So now, with the EOL of FCP and me moving back to using Avid Media Composer…and Adobe Premiere…I’d like to list off my 10 favorite things about FCP that I will miss.  My favorite features that made me love the application.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still use it for a while, my current job as a matter of fact most likely will use it for a few more years.  Companies out here tend to do that…use what they have because it works…until it no longer works (in some cases, even when it doesn’t work).  I post these in hopes that the other NLE makers will see them and go “yeah, that’s a cool feature” and try to incorporate it into their future releases.

Here are the top 10 favorite features that I’ll miss in FCP…in no particular order:

1. Resolution independence. I like that I can add HD to an SD sequence, and it works fine.  720p in a 1080p sequence look fine too.  And I can take 1080, put it into a 720p sequence, and scale and reposition to show what I want to show.  Adobe has this too…Avid does not. If I put a 1080p clip into a 720p project…it becomes 720p.

2. Audio mixing on the timeline, and with keystrokes. My favorite ability is to lasso audio, and press the CONTROL key and bracket and + – keys to increase and decrease audio by a few db.  Control brackets adjusts by 3db in either direction, – and + by 1db.  This allows for very quick and very precise audio mixing. And if I didn’t do that, just toggling Clip Overlays brings up the level lines and I can drag up or down, quickly add keyframes for more controlled audio dips.  Yeah, Avid does this too, but it isn’t as elegant. And Avid doesn’t do keyboard audio mixing. Nor Adobe.

3. Speaking of audio…I like having more than 16 tracks of realtime audio. Most times I don’t have more than 8-14 channels of audio, but it isn’t all that rare for me to have between 24 and 48 channels of audio. I have been in that boat many a time, especially when dealing with 6 people on individual mics, the need to add b-roll audio, extensive sound design for SFX, and smoother music editing.  And yes, as a picture editor I am responsible for a lot of the pre-mix. Many clients/network execs can’t watch a cut with temp sounding audio…so it needs to sound finished.  And be very in depth.  Avid stops at 24 total tracks of audio…only 16 audible at a time.  PPro is better…it allows, well, at least 48. Although the audio mixer is track based, not clip based, and mixing audio on the timeline is lacking…more difficult than it should be.

4. The ability to work with picture files at full size on the timeline without plugins. Being able to add picture files, in their full size (well, they have to be under 4000 pixels or FCP gives the über helpul “general error”) onto my timeline and do small moves, or temp moves on them and have them remain sharp is handy.  Avid imports still as media, unless you use the Avid Pan & Zoom plugin, which allows for manipulation. But isn’t as easy as direct picture access.  Adobe works like FCP in this respect…so that is good.

5. Clip enable/disable. With the click of Control-B, I could turn off clips in the timeline that I had highlighted…rendering them invisible and silent.  This was a quick and easy way to see clips under clips, without turning off track visibility and un-rendering EVERYTHING. It enabled me to only turn of portions of my timeline. To be fair, Avid doesn’t need this, as you can monitor separate video tracks, and go under clips without losing one render.  Disabling audio files quickly, so that I can only hear the music though…that is something Avid doesn’t do. Yeah, I could click-click-click to turn off tracks.  But it is so easy to lasso/disble in two quick strokes. And I could use it to turn off clips surrounding others for easier soloing of audio elements.

6. Simple compositing on the timeline. FCP is a far better compositor than Avid…for an NLE. Adobe is good too, but the simplicity and ease that I can composite shots in FCP dwarfs what I can do in the Avid.  And I can blend elements better, add filters to single clips only, rather than from a clip, and everything below that clip.  Composite modes right there on the timeline for many cool effects (not all broadcast safe, so beware). Building a composite shot, or funky transition is easy in FCP…a tad more involved and difficult with Avid.  As I said earlier, Adobe Premiere Pro does this well too.

7. The wide variety of plugins.  Let’s face it, there are simply a LOT of plugins available for FCP.  Enough free ones to keep you occupied and happy…and dozens more cheap ones.  A few spendy ones.  But really, A LOT of plugins.  Did I use them all? No, I have favorites, and I don’t rely on them a lot.  But when I need them, I know that I have a wide variety that I can choose from, give the look I want to make.  Avid has darn few, and of those few, they are EXPENSIVE. The only free ones are the ones built in.  There are no great free fan-made plugins for Avid.  FCP had lots of people doing this for free…for fun. FCP has a great and vast plugin community.

8. Organization of materials. This is big…so big that I had a tutorial DVD that covered all aspects of this topic. I am big on organization.  But the strength of this, the beauty of it, was also a curse. If you are new to FCP, or don’t know how it dealt with assets or  just weren’t paying attention, you could hose your project in a big way, or make life difficult down the road.  So it’s a gift, and a curse…to quote Monk.  FCP allowed for organizing footage in the project, and outside of the project, on the desktop level. It kept all tape imports and tapeless imports separated by project. And renders as well.  All captured/imported media was imported into the Capture Scratch folder, into project subfolders.  This made it really easy to find only the assets used by certain projects. I liked to make one folder per project, point FCP to that project for captures and renders, and make folders for audio assets, stills, graphics…everything.  So that all assets for one project were in one location. Easy to backup, easy to transfer…easy to delete.  The danger of the way FCP did things is that if you just grabbed a picture file, or audio file from your desktop and put it into the FCP project, the original file REMAINED on the desktop. So when you transferred the media to a drive for mobile editing, or to hand off, you might forget those odd stray files. So you really had to pay attention and be organized on the desktop level, and in the application. But this was a REALLY powerful way of doing things.

Adobe does this too…so that point is moot.

Avid doesn’t. Avid puts ALL imported assets, regardless of project, into one location. Or if you need to use multiple drives, into single folder locations on multiple drives.  And the media wasn’t accessable via the desktop level, all organization needed to be done inside the Media Composer itself.  I find this limiting.  But, it is just one way that Avid keeps track of everything, and VERY well.  There are power-user things you can do, like change the MXF folder names so that you keep multiple folders, separated out by project. But you should only do this if you know what you are doing, and know how Avid does things.

9. Exporting a Quicktime file with multiple channels of discreet audio.  Before MC6, this was something ONLY Final Cut Pro did. In fact, when I asked someone how to do this from Avid as DNxHD, they responded “it can’t. And that is the reason we have one FCP station, so that we can do just that.” But now, with MC 6, I can do that too. Isn’t as smooth as it is in FCP, but it is close, and will only improve.  Adobe PPro cannot do that…it has Mono, Stereo, and Dolby 5.1 options only. We’ll have to see if CS6 adds this ability.

10 – The ability to import only portions of tapeless media via Log and Transfer.  In Final Cut Pro you can import only portions of clips if you want.  Have a 1 hour clip of nothing, then 2 min of something happening?  Import only that.  Premiere Pro, being native only, does not do this. All or nothing. With Avid, you have to do a few tricks…extra steps.  Access via AMA, put your selects onto a timeline, and then transcode.  I guess that isn’t too bad, but not as slick as Log and Transfer.  And again, Premiere Pro doesn’t do this.

OK…eleven things.  I will also miss the ability to open multiple projects…and especially multiple sequences.

Avid and PPro have improved, and might now include something I used to only be able to do in FCP.  Either that or I simply only have 9 things.  Either way, I’m keeping the title the same…sounds better to say “my top 10 list” rather than “my top 9 list.”  Monk knows what I’m talking about.

Please feel free to add your favorite features you will miss in the comments section. Doesn’t need to be 10, but I am interested in what tricks other people do in FCP, that aren’t doable in other apps.

Normally when I work on a documentary…well, any sort of project be it a documentary, reality show, competition show…and especially narrative work…I am handed a script. And I build a show based on this script. If I am not handed a script, I am given what is called a “string out” of the footage…the interviews and VO (or a text slate with what the VO should be) all in the order the producer wants it. Either the producers do this or they have the assistant make the string out…based on a script they hand them.

So, at some point in the process, the initial structure of the project was dictated to me by someone else. Now, it might change as editing progresses…that’s the normal progression of editing. Cut what works, move things around, add more things, until you get what will be the final project. But the producer/writer had first stab at the footage and story structure.

But recently I was given a project where I was given creative freedom…almost total creative freedom. I was given the footage, I was given transcripts of about 50% of the interviews, and was told what the main points of the project should be. What points I needed to hit upon. But the sound bites I used, the order in which it went, and the b-roll added was all up to me. I was given near full creative control….and that excited me.

Now, this is a normal process on many productions. There are docs out there that the editor is given a lot of creative freedom on. I just never seemed to land those kind of projects. I always wanted to, I’d like to flex my creative muscles and show off my story telling skills. So when I was approached to edit a short documentary aimed at art education…I leapt at the chance.

So I had this drive full of footage…all Canon 5D transcoded to ProRes 422, and someone was kind enough to merge the clips with the second-system audio that was recorded too. I later found out that this footage actually came from a project with another aim entirely, but that many of the questions asked would pertain to the project I was assigned. It was dual-use footage. Well, the interview were. about 98% of the b-roll and non-interview footage was meant for the other project, so I needed to figure my footage needs as editing progressed.

Because this footage was ProRes, and was synch in Final Cut Pro for the previous project, I opted to use FCP for this job as well…even though I much desired to move all future project to Avid. But I was fine with FCP…I’m fairly comfortable with it.

So…where to start? Here I am with the footage…some transcripts (timecoded, so I can find the footage easier), and a few notes on the direction the project needed to go. Well, the only place to start is to watch the interviews fully and pull selects. While the questions pertaining to my project were asked later in the interviews, I opted to watch them fully, because you never know what nugget of information someone will say, even if the initial question doesn’t ask for it. And yes, in multiple instances, I found great statements in the questions aimed at that other project. I used many of them.

I broke the interview selects into categories. I didn’t put down all the selects from one person and then all from another. I’d separate them out by topic. Where were they from? What is their tribal affiliation (this was a project on native artists), where were they educated, where did they get their inspirations from, what type of art did they do…and so on. I did this using separate sequences for each topic. And when I was done, I made a master selects sequence and strung out the answers, separating the separate sections by 5 seconds of black. So it would be one person saying something on the topic, then another, then another.  And a cool thing that happens is that when someone spoke on a topic…expanded on it, they lead into another topic that I was going into, so it was a great segue tool.  I could have one person talk, then another, then another, back to the 1st person, third again, 4th, second…who then transitioned us into the next segment.

HOW did I determine who went first, second, third, and then when to go back to the first person?  That’s tough to explain. Explaining the creative process is difficult, as I edit by “feeling.”  That is, I feel that I need to have this particular sound bite from someone, and that a sound bite from a second person sounds very similar, so I’ll use that next.  I won’t use the full selection from the first person as they seem to mention several things, so I’ll grab the first thing mentioned, then use a similar bite from other people back to back, and then go to the second thing they talk about, then add the other people who also talk a little about similar circumstances, then back to the interviewee who will carry the conversation to the next topic.

Confusing?  Yeah, I can see that.  It is best to show examples of this…be able to do the rough string out, then duplicate the sequence and show the building of the sequence, and duplicate again with every change made so that people can see the process.  Not something I am able to do with this project…but I hope you get the general idea.

Once I have the rough stringout, or “radio edit,” I will watch it a few times, and show the client it (or producer).  This is basically the spine of the piece…the order in which the story we are telling is laid out.  I don’t add any b-roll, or music.  I might add cards where I think b-roll or pictures should go, but typically not at this point.  I don’t want to add anything at this point because things will be re-arranged and shifted to better tell the story.  Once we get this all adjusted correctly, then I move onto adding other footage.

The next pass is where I add what footage I have, what stills I have, and then cards or “slates” with descriptions of what I need, or think will work, for these sections. This is my first ROUGH CUT…lacking music, but where I start to add pacing, space out the dialog, add the b-roll and, if needed, other footage that includes audio.  This is where the piece starts taking shape.  After this, I might show it again, show where I am and what footage needs I have.  Or I might do a second rough cut pass, this time adding music and rough sound effects (if needed).  Adding music is where pacing really starts to take shape, as it can add dramatic emphasis to what is going on.  You can have someone make a statement, and then raise the music over b-roll, or over the interviewer’s face (say they are sad, or really happy and you want to show that) and let that play out for a while.  Because you don’t want to just raise the music randomly, choosing the right music, and planning how it plays out so that the part you want swells when you want it…can be difficult.  It is often the hardest part of the process for me, and the most time consuming.  I have to search for hours, days for JUST the right music.  And then edit it so that it sounds right, and swells when I need it to.

But after I add music, I tend to call this phase the FINE CUT phase.  No longer rough, but not really final.  It is a “finer” cut.  There will be versions during this phase…Fine Cut 1, Fine Cut 2…as I rearrange things, find new music, replace shots…and add more shots. FINE TUNING if you will.

That is sort of the phase I am at right now. I have a cut that has music, most of it is covered with b-roll or pictures, but I still have a few sections that need footage, and the show title is still just a black card, as we are working on a final title for the project.  But thus far most of what I have done has been up do me.  The client has made suggestions for what to cut, what to add, move this section there, that one there.  And at one point saying that there seemed to be missing a point they wanted to make. They knew that they had them talk about it, but forgot to have me include it.  As it so happens, I did have a timeline with those sound bites, as I came across them as interesting, but didn’t know where to put them.  The clients note reminded me of those, and lit a lightbulb in my head.  I added them to the piece and they made it better.

Now the cut is in the clients lap, awaiting more materials to cover some gaps.  But it is almost done.  It is really exciting to work on something where I was given footage and a few general notes about the tone of the piece, and given near full-creative freedom to make it a reality.  Normally work with scripts, or producers in the room…or with extensive notes. But this time I was allowed to do what I wanted, explore creative ways of solving things…and that is refreshing.

OH…that brings up one point…a creative solution to a problem.  For the painters, installation artists and print makers, I had images of their art.  But for the authors, I have them reading selections from their books on a stage.  Not the most exciting visual.  The camera work wasn’t the most steady at times, and at one point, this being shot with Canon DSLRs, the 5D stopped recording after 12 min (a known issue about overheating sensors).  I needed something to make this…better.  So I called the client and asked for the books that the authors read from. When I got them, I used my own Canon DLSR (T2i) and shot extreme close-ups of the books, followed the reading down the page.  I then layered this over the footage of the authors reading, so that we the viewer, could follow along.”  It seemed to work well.

I broke my laptop.

It happened so quickly. I popped off the power adapter connector and swung the lid down to close it and CLUNK! The adapter connector had not popped off to the side, but rather flopped on top of my laptop speaker, and prevented me from closing the lid. It was sandwiched between the metal speaker cover, and the delicate LCD panel. Guess what gave? Yup, the LCD panel.

Now I have this lovely rainbow crack on the lower left of my display, and then the rest up from that is white. I have a white pillar covering 10% of my display, on the left hand side. My lovely 15″ laptop is now effectively a 13″. And I cannot see the Apple menu nor the FILE menu. So, good thing I am handy with the keyboard commands.

Well, what to do about this? Get a new laptop? Believe it or not, that was my first thought. I mean, I too was sucked into this “disposable object” mentality that is affecting everyone lately. One small thing breaks, and so you replace the whole thing.

Now, I did then, a few seconds later, think, “well, this should be fixable. Just replace the whole LCD. But, that might cost a lot. A lot more than the computer is worth.” And this is an older computer…2008 MacBook Pro. Would the cost of the repair be worth it on such an old machine? I did take it to the nearby Mac repair center, and they did quote me $550 for the repair. That thought made me go back to thinking that if it was going to be THAT much, and the computer is THAT old, why not just spend a few more extra hundred and get a more recent machine? The MacBook Air is $999…a refirb is $850. It’s not that much different.

Well, I can’t afford it. Normally I might have the funds for this in my business account, but I have other expenses that make that not viable. Also, I saddled my wife with a cheap laptop that I turned into a Mac (“Hackintosh” is the term), and really, she has been looking at the MacBook Air and drooling. If I got one before her…no, that wouldn’t do.

I showed the damage I did to a co-worker, and he said, “oh, you can just replace the LCD. That’s pretty inexpensive. They sell those…a friend of mine broke his LCD too, and he just replaced it on his own.” Well, I like that idea. So I googled the part…found one for $150. Much better than $550.

And then I found a video tutorial on how to do this replacement yourself. That is a bit daunting. I have to remove 37 screws, delicate wires, and at one point, use a razor to cut through the glue that keeps the LCD attached to the bezel of the lid. Scary stuff. But, I did replace the hard drive in my previous laptop, and that meant removing about as many screws, but also a ton of other parts. And I was able to do that. So, I think I’ll take the LOW LIFE approach to this and replace the screen myself, and keep my computer, that works JUST fine for everything I do, for a few more years.

When the LCD arrives, I’ll be sure to crack open a beer, and document the whole thing. And I’ll be doing so on my family’s blog, LIVING THE LOW LIFE…where we talk about living cheaply. Replacing a laptop screen instead of the whole laptop…or paying a LOT to get it done…is “living the low life.”