Thoughts on editing software

I have recently (last 10 months or so) been working on some live-action short film projects and with all of the issues regarding which editing tool to use I have been playing around with as many apps as I can to see what they are all about. The following are some thoughts I’ve have about several editing applications out there at different price points.

Caveat emptor: I don’t consider myself an editor, however, since the second half of the 1990s I have worked with (roughly in order):

  • Adobe Premiere since its inception as an Adobe product as bundled with various hardware for the Mac and Windows machines with my first incarnation on Radius Video Vision hardware (most of my students were either in diapers or not even born yet at this point…)
  • Discreet edit* – one of my favorites for its speed and it was friendly to animated sequences. I ended up doing a lot of editing work on this system and still miss it for its raw speed.
  • EditDV (later Cinestream) – really liked this app and was sorry to see it go due to Discreet/Autodesk not knowing what to do with it after they bought it from Media 100, which had previously bought it out. I was in the beta program as it moved to Cinestream and was watching the developers and company lose direction day-by-day.
  • Media 100 – kinda bass-ackwards from the beginning (AB tracks – yuck!), but had some nice hardware and was cheaper than an Avid. Never seemed to know how to transition to DV and later file-based workflows and fast computers.
  • Avid Media Composer (and Xpress and DV) – not a whole lot of time on these systems compared to most of my colleagues, but certainly enough to understand their workflows
  • Final Cut Pro (1.0-7) – went on tour with Metallica using 1.1 on a laptop and a Sony DV handycam as a transcoder between a BetaSP deck and firewire input (almost suicidal at one point due to bugs). FCP 4-7 as the head of the broadcasting program in the department of Mass Communication and Theatre at UCA as well as post supervisor guru using FCP throughout the department and professionally.
  • Adobe Premiere Pro – versions 1.0, 1.1 and then later as CS5, CS5.5, and CS6
  • FCPX (10.6+ especially) on my own time in the last year
  • Autodesk Smoke – also on my own time thanks to Autodesk’s faculty/student licensing opportunities (had previous experience with Combustion and some Flame and Smoke (SGI and Mac))

From 2004-2008 I edited practically every work day, and Sunday mornings in the falls, using FCP. I edited short documentaries, broadcast television shows for delivery to an ABC affiliate, concerts, hour-long studio shows, as well as full-length plays and other live events. So I know a lot about video editing systems including editing workflows and editing tools (I get ripple, roll, slip, slide, 3-point, 4-point, trim edits, track manipulations, etc. better than some people I know who edit much more than I do).

So now what I have learned recently. First, a project that I am almost finished with that was inspired by my documentary class. Originally it was a personal documentary, but it evolved into a process doc. Regardless, I shot a beer brewing day and have edited most of it and hope to finish it soon – when I finish grading. I decided to try out several different apps at the beginning of the process.

I transcoded DSLR acquired footage to ProRes LT to make it easier on the following editing apps.

  1. Blender – Yes, Blender has a Video Sequence Editor (VSE) that is reasonably full featured and capable of simple short-form editing. Tears of Steel was edited on it. BTW, this is a great site to learn more about what it can do.
    1. Pros
      1. Blender has one of the most responsive interfaces of any program I have ever used so I just enjoy being in that UI environment. The VSE tools are simple and built around getting things done. There are several tools for cuts, transitions, color correction, speed changes, and transformations.
    2. Cons
      1. The timeline design is similar to Speed Razor (forgot to list it above…) meaning that there is no differentiation between types of tracks. Video and Audio can be on any track and that can sometimes be difficult to keep up with. It is possible to create a compound clip with audio and video so they stay on the same track and stay in sync, but without bundling them together it is easy to get audio and video out of sync.
      2. Blender has to cache the footage to RAM before it can play back footage in realtime. This is the real deal breaker. It brought in my footage just fine and I could do anything I wanted with it except play it back in real time until it was cached. The developers know this is an issue and there may be some changes some day soon. As a side note – Tears of Steel was finished in the VSE at 4K recently so it can do a lot of cool stuff. It is just a little slow on the playback side
  2. Openshot – This is another open source video editor. It was originally developed using Python to control the UI and MLT as the multimedia backend (libraries to playback and edit footage). The developer(s) have decided to create their own multimedia libraries and take Openshot to the next level. They recently pulled together some Kickstarter funds to make this happen. Alex Cox has also supported Openshot and seems to indicate that he will edit his next movie using Openshot. A recent demo of what’s coming up.
    1. Pros – Open source and, of course, free to use. Very active development and fast evolution into a usable app. Pretty easy to get into and understand how to make it work.
    2. Cons – Lots of dialog windows. Reminds me of pre-Pro Premiere 10+ years ago due to the fact that you have to call up a dialog box to do anything besides simple track-based clip manipulation. I see this all changing soon, but it currently has a very slow workflow.
  3. KDEnlive – Another open source video editor. This app is terrific and probably the best open source video editing app available on Linux (and other platforms with some work). The interface looks very contemporary and easy to use if you have experience in FCP 7 or Premiere Pro. It also uses MLT as its backend.
    1. Pros – easy to use. Feels 21st century. Can see doing all kinds of work with it on Linux systems especially. It uses FFMPEG for video file decoding so it can work with lots of media files including my ProRes LT footage.
    2. Cons
      1. No intermediate codec! Once an effect is added to a clip there is an obvious slowdown on that clip and there is no way to render it while you edit. Apparently there are ways of using certain codecs that can handle being played back with effects in realtime, but that was not my experience. I have noticed several others complaining about an editing render option so hopefully it will be added some day. For now, you can edit with ease as long as you don’t add any effects to clips. On the upside, the effects interface is one of the best I’ve seen.
      2. Rendering to different codec and settings can be a real pain. It seems that the most recent version deals with this problem, but at the time I was trying it out, it was tough getting final output out of the app even though it supports anything that FFMPEG can do.
  4. Smoke – Not free, but pretty damn cool. Historically it is a finishing system. It is designed to add effects, color correction, titles, and audio mixes to the final edit. From Smoke one can output to any delivery format needed. Autodesk decided to give it better editing tools based on FCP 7 in its 2013 version. So far so good. I believe its media management, effects, and color correction capabilities are awesome, but here is what I learned as I tried to get an edit going:
    1. Pros – Easy to add very mature and complex effects to footage, however, I was quickly turned off when I added a Color Warper and then a Glow in ConnectFX – got a spinning beach ball and it made the app unusable. Later changed the Color Warper to a regular Color Correction effect and all was well – seems like I found a bug… I really love its interface layout and deep deep toolset.
    2. Cons – Slow UI. When playing back footage in the timeline it is fine, but scrubbing, dragging, and doing other fast movements with the mouse or tablet tend to be very sluggish. So much so that I decided that I like it as a finishing system, but not yet as an offline editor.
  5. FCPX – The app that people love or hate or love to hate. Apple did a terrible job at releasing this app to the wild and pretty much screwed up a lot of professional lives, but all that is past us now IMO. Over the last year and a half it has had several updates and lots of 3rd-party developers creating amazing plug-ins for it and it is thriving.
    1. Pros
      1. Fast – crazy fast with my footage. Feels like that $30K Discreet edit* system from way back when
      2. Great media management and previewing ability. Have read and heard lots of people talking about its ability to work with media, view media, set multiple in/out points, etc. and they are right – Smoke and FCPX both are the best at working with media before it hits the timeline.
      3. Fast timeline – it may be “trackless,” but it rocks. It had some issues early on with being too magnetic and ripple oriented, but later versions (10.6+ in my case) gives the user the ability to throw clips around or keep them in place in the timeline as he needs.
      4. Time remapping, compound clips, and color correction are awesome.
      5. Feels fresh and new. As stated earlier, I am not an editor like many of my colleagues so I don’t rely on the same workflow as I had 15 years ago. I prefer fresh ways of looking at tackling challenges using a computer and really like that Apple decided to extract itself from the “Avid” way of editing.
    2. Cons
      1. RTFM – with change comes some learning curve. I have embraced learning apps since I have had a computer (once again, before most of my students were even born) and FCPX needs some time to read the manual or watching a tutorial or two. This is definitely one of those apps that one should not assume can’t do something – the user just hasn’t learned how to do it yet because it doesn’t work the way it did before or with other apps. On the up-side, when the new way is learned it is often seen as a breath of fresh air compared to previous workflows (in my experience anyway).
      2. Interoperability – FCPX uses a new layout for its XML files, which causes some issues with the old ways of doing things. Luckily, this issue is being solved relatively quickly thanks to Blackmagic Design Resolve and Red Cine-X Pro. We just need to see a decent audio pipeline and all will be good. Vorio and Reaper look like interesting and low-cost alternatives to Adobe or Avid products on the audio side and have FCPX workflows.

Premiere Pro was a known quantity. I have done several projects with it in different incarnations and it had no surprises for me so I chose not to deal with it on my short doc. However, when putting together a short video for a SIGGRAPH Dailies submission I went right for Premiere Pro CS6. I had my footage ready, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I had little time to put it together. Premiere Pro CS6 is FCP7’s step-brother – very similar in looks and design, but not quite the same. FCP has a more mature set of editing tools and ease-of-use features in the timeline, but PPRo is fast, has a more contemporary UI design, and can practically play back anything in realtime even if it does not do it at full resolution.

  1. Pros
    1. Easy to move to from FCP7
    2. Edits practically anything that one would want to put into the timeline (in realtime)
    3. Easy export of clips or sequences to After Effects (don’t do dynamic link though – yuck!)
    4. Part of a suite of very capable, yet flawed, applications (Photoshop, After Effects, Audition, Encore, Speed Grade, Prelude)
    5. Interesting future with cloud-based editing
    6. Recent announcements make it look even better – in a year or so it will finally surpass FCP7 completely
  2. Cons
    1. Seems to placate non-Avid, non-FCPX users. It’s FCP8 in many ways, but is that what we need to move forward? A sound editor friend of mine said long ago that video editing looked like sound editing did 10 years before. Film/Video editors seem to be slow to change their ways compared to other users of digital technologies.
    2. Poor media management, but may be getting better considering latest product announcements
    3. Same old FCP7- way of viewing media, setting in/out points and sending to the timeline via the Viewer – See FCPX and Smoke for better ways of getting an edit going. Prelude can help though…

Where to go from this experience? My brew day doc will be edited and finished in FCPX – it was the most enjoyable experience working with my needs on the edit (time remapping, swapping footage around easily on the “magnetic” timeline, etc.). I may do the color grading in Resolve, but I am not so sure it needs it. My other live-action project is akin to a visual poem that currently has 100s of clips taken over the last 10 months. I believe that FCPX is the best tool for it as well, but I would like to finish it in Smoke. So, it may take editing in FCPX, conforming first in Resolve thanks to its FCPXML support, and finishing in Smoke via XML from Resolve (confused yet?). Why not Premiere Pro? PPro’s biggest issue for me is working with media before it hits the timeline (as mentioned earlier). I could use Prelude to work with the footage, but since FCPX has such a better suited timeline editor for this type of project, I think that FCPX’s media management will be great as well. Red Giant’s Bullet Proof looks like it could be useful for my FCPX workflow too, but it is vaporware at the moment so I don’t know if it is as good as it looks.

Premiere Pro CS6+ looks like the ultimate in utilitarianism and ease of use for current FCP7 users. It is also so friendly to different types of footage that it is great for docs, broadcast, and live events graphics. Because of its FCP7 attributes it is probably well suited for long-form work as well (Monsters was cut on it back in the day – not exactly a Cold Mountain moment, but pretty cool nonetheless). For purely creative editing (responding easily to the editor changing his mind), it suffers from being chained to its past, but that’s what we wanted right?

What about Avid MC? I don’t care really. It has a lot of great attributes, especially for groups of editors working on the same project, but that is not part of my world, so from a price and technology point of view it is yesterday’s news for me. Avid’s history of disdain for academia doesn’t help either. Avid will continue to service Avid users and that is fine until they go looking for a sugar daddy – Blackmagic, Autodesk? Somehow they have prolonged their demise longer than Discreet Logic did. Once Adobe gets the kinks out of its cloud editing initiative, Avid’s niche will seem obsolete. Avid gets most of its revenue from its hardware (see their revenue reports available on their website) so as that continues to fade, look for them to do something very different, which may mean selling or coming up with a next-gen product that pisses everyone off until they actually use it…

New products and pipelines (re-visited)

There are several exciting new product announcements at NAB so far from Adobe, Blackmagic Design, The Foundry, Avid, Red Giant Software, etc., but looking at it all conjures thoughts of how these products fit within my (personal, university, professional) production workflow/pipeline.

Back in the bad-ole-days of tape-based video production there was a known pipeline because there were fairly strict standards and tightly-configured hardware and software. Video on tape was “digitized” using special hardware and edited with software that was built on top of that hardware (consider Avid, Media 100, and Discreet Logic products especially). Even when miniDV hit the scene there was little opportunity to screw things up because the standard was so strict – HDV followed with similar limitations, but allowed for some confusion created by Panasonic, Sony, and JVC proprietary versions of the standard.

When file-based content hit the scene the tight integration between “digitizing/capturing” and editing dissolved;) The separation between camera and editor meant practically nothing in the tape days, but with files coming directly from cameras, all of the sudden the editing app had to be responsible for dealing with varying codecs, resolutions, frame rates, timecode (or not), bit depths, color spaces, and data rates. Panasonic was probably the most progressive by creating their own codecs and getting them into a Quicktime wrapper right away. Sony was next with their XD… codecs. Problems started really happening with the proliferation of DSLRs and other low-cost cameras that used delivery-oriented (h.264) codecs. You might argue that HDV was the start of the BS because it used MPEG2, which is also a delivery-oriented codec rather than an acquisition codec. Problems also arose from high-end cameras that created content that was too difficult to stream efficiently, such as the Red One camera, and camera recorders that generated image sequences.

The editing apps needed something to help them out – an intermediate codec. Apple started out with an appropriately named “intermediate codec (AIC).” Avid had always required transcoding to its own codec and until this week still did to an extent (never really abandoning a tape-type workflow until now – presumably). Apple quickly followed up AIC with the ProRes codecs, which are now a standard acquisition and editing codec at all levels of the industry for the most part. If you acquired your footage in a non-editable codec either because it was temporally compressed like MPEG2 and h.264 or required high data rates like R3D files, uncompressed video files, or image sequences, you had a great codec to work with (ProRes), but you had to make sure you added transcoding to your pipeline.

Acquisition to editing pipelines:

  • Shoot to tape – digitize or capture (if digital tape) into the editing app’s native codec
  • Shoot to file – transcode to an editing file format and stay in that format or online to the camera’s native format
  • Shoot to file – camera or off-camera recorder records to editable online file format (ProRes, DNxHD, R3D with proxies or Red Rocket card)

So that’s just the very broad issue that we deal with daily as we change camera types – we have to know how our software editors deal with different camera-created files. There are other issues, such as maintaining the video’s integrity, including color bit-depth; pixel resolution, which can be difficult above 1920×1080 (HD) resolutions; and data rate. How is the industry dealing with these issues?

  • Apple’s quiet releases of FCPX upgrades include support for Red’s R3D and Sony’s XDCAM/XAVC codecs at native resolutions
  • Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 and family of video products (especially Prelude and Speed Grade) support R3D workflows natively
  • Red Giant announced “Bullet Proof” for DSLR and Go Pro (and soon other cameras) users that eases the Assistant Editor jobs of logging, applying LUTs, and transcoding
  • Blackmagic Design’s Resolve v10 coming soon will support a wide range of professional codecs
  • Avid claims to support its own initiative to move beyond its native codec in Media Composer 7

Each of these editors and color grading apps have also seen overhauled color management that allows them to maintain the color data of each acquisition format better throughout the post pipeline. BTW, After Effects users, beware that you have to manually make sure you are maintaining color fidelity through its finicky and tacked-on settings. The new version deals with this a little better due to its Cinema4D integration, but it remains to be seen how much you have to keep up with manually.

A word about Blackmagic Design. BMD is a video input/output (I/O) hardware company that came onto the scene several years ago with high-quality and very inexpensive products compared to the competition, such as AJA, Matrox, and Avid. They made uncompressed digital video I/O a reality for lower-budget freelancers and small shops. They later introduced video switchers to their hardware lineup (again very inexpensive for what they do) and then bought out Davinci and its Resolve products. They immediately slashed the price of Resolve, made it available for the Mac, and created a “Lite” version that is almost as full featured as the commercial version. Last year they shocked the video world with a low-cost professional quality camera (professional image quality and codec), and yesterday they announced two new low-cost amazing cameras and a serious upgrade to Resolve. I think the Resolve upgrade is being understated ATM. Most of this blog post is about how there is a problem with the post-production pipeline because of the variability in acquisition and editing formats and most of it is due to different manufacturers of hardware and software (Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Arri, Red, Avid, Adobe, Apple, etc.). BMD is offering another point of view. While simultaneously supporting manufacturer’s proprietary crap they are building a hardware and software pipeline that is completely integrated – reminiscent of the days when there was not as much of an issue because of tape-based workflows.

This summer you might buy a BMD pocket cinema camera ($995 + lenses) and edit and color grade its footage in Resolve Lite (free of cost), which in version 10 will have a complete set of timeline editing tools. The missing piece is audio sweetening and design, but I have no doubt that they have some ideas since Resolve is also a conform tool (understands moving data in and out of the app). You could purchase their new 4K camera or their different versions of the 2K BMCC and get a full version of Resolve so you can work above 1920×1080. I think this is pretty significant and may help create the next revolution (miniDV, HDV, DSLR, ?) for lower-budget filmmakers. They are also in bed with Apple or, at least on the same wavelength as Apple, since they have been consistent and early supporters of the FCP X XML format. This falls in line with their POV of keeping costs low and efficiency and simplicity up front.

Some advice – your camera choice must accompany a well-defined post pipeline. Want to shoot with a Red at 3-5K, how will you edit and finish it on your budget (which is probably exhausted after the camera rental) – do you have the software and storage (with backup) available to finish >2K – why are you shooting >2K, bragging rights? Shooting DSLR, how will you maintain quality through the edit and finishing? Shooting with the BMCC, will you record to Cinema DNG or ProRes? Shooting with a Canon C100/300, how will you work with the MXF files?

Red, Premiere Pro, Avid, and Apple all have their own answers to these questions, but you need to really know how your data will move from acquisition to delivery. Otherwise, you may find yourself compromising in the end due to lack of tools or funds or both. Or, at least, learning new tools when you don’t have time to spend on learning curves so your final product suffers from your lack of understanding of the process/tools.

More advice – drop FCP 7! Move on to something else from the list above or truly learn how to do offline > online editing with new cameras and codecs (and learn how to maintain color fidelity using FCP 7, which is a PITA).

Just some thoughts – thanks NAB and fxguide’s coverage!