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!