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Workflow Update: iMac, Adobe and the "X" Factor

Apple iMacs

As I noted in my previous blog, the iMacs are fast becoming my machine of choice and the newest models are even more impressive than the two we have running. At this time, barring any major announcement from Apple that changes my mind, my plan is to replace the remaining 3 Mac Pros in Edits 1, 3 and 4 with 27" iMacs and AJA T-Taps. Once our original series hits, well I'll need 8 of them for that series alone. I'm looking at the 3.4 Ghz model though I'm not totally sold on the Fusion drive since it's brand new. Kind of disappointed I can't do the SSD Drive + SATA drive like before. I may very well go with the 3TB SATA and wait on a Fusion drive until second generation. For RAM, I'll go back to Other World Computing where 32GB is only $195 vs. $600 via Apple upgrade. I'll definitely step up to the nVidia GeForce 680MX and I'll swap out the wireless keyboard for the full sized keyboard with the number pad. Only looking at $2717 from Apple (including AppleCare) +$200 from Other World computing. Absolutely incredible for all that power plus the beautiful 27" screen.

We've had at least one iMac in production for over 6 months now and they are fast machines. The only place you'll notice them to be a bit slower than the absolute fastest machine is when you go to render. Depending on what you're rendering out, it might take a bit or a lot longer than a 12 - 16 core machine. So we're keeping our two 12 core Mac Pros and simply using those to do heavy lifting renders. When a project is done on the iMac, we can simply open it up on the 12 core and render away. But for news stories and even our documentaries, those are being rendered directly on the iMacs.

I know some folks out there look down on the iMacs because they ARE less powerful than a desktop and they are less configurable. I've seen articles of late showing all you all the technical reasons why you really need to consider more than just processor speed and RAM for maximum performance and that's correct. If you need ONE machine, and you only work with ONE machine in your operation, you probably want a desktop. Something beefy with dual graphics cards, 12-16 cores and gobs of RAM so you can get your work done and rendered as quickly as possible.

In my case, our facility is set up for 9 edit suites (5 currently running) and the potential for some new series coming in the door. For that, I need the best performance vs. cost not only to upgrade all the suites, but also maintain competitive rates vs. other post facilities in the area. I need a bunch of machines that can cut fast and are reliable no matter how much data we throw at them. So far, the iMac is proving more than capable of that and most of all, the clients have not noticed any change in the day to day operation of our shop. Premiere Pro, After Effects and Photoshop all work efficiently on the iMacs and that's about 90% of our work right there.

Adobe Premiere Pro Workflow

Somebody asked me recently to update y'all on our workflow with Adobe Premiere Pro. As I have mentioned in the past, we started right off the bat with An Editor's Guide to Adobe Premiere Pro and the media management section of that book is THE most important section for any editor to read. That section really set the basis for how we manage the workflow of all the projects.

My biggest concern going into Premiere Pro was the fact that there was no primary codec to work with, it's sort of a free-for-all. Adobe's biggest selling point is "Just worry about creating, we'll handle anything you throw at us natively." And on that they are pretty much accurate. We've only run into one specific codec / computer combination that really threw Premiere Pro for a loop and that was XDCAM Quicktime files on Windows. There's no native XDCAM QT codec for playback on Windows so you need to purchase a plug-in from Calibrated Software to make that work. But even with the plug-in, our Windows machine just chugged when we had to use XDCAM QTs that were delivered to us from shooters in the field. Beyond that single codec / computer combination, it really IS anything goes with Adobe Premiere Pro.

After coming to terms with the fact that Adobe really can handle anything natively, we decided to roll with it. So we will bring all elements into a project natively unless there is a good reason not to. Keep in mind we are an independent Post Production Facility so that means we have zero control over the footage our clients bring us. Adobe Premiere Pro has greatly improved our efficiency in having to deal with whatever the shooters send us and allowing us to get right to work.

The general workflow for a typical project for us, which is usually a news / documentary / episodic is as follows:

All media is first checked by our Media Management Specialist. Kelly manages our media database and organizes all the materials for and upcoming project, including pulling any archived materials we may have including tapes and digital media.

Kelly will then load up all the raw media organized as described in that Editor's Guide book I mentioned earlier. We use a modified version of the folder structure they show in that book but essentially we keep everything organized by how it came in. If a shooter shot three P2 cards, those cards are loaded into the project in their original folder structure since Adobe can read them natively. If we have tapes captured, they are put into their own folder and so on. As much as possible, we try to have Kelly put everything onto the SAN prior to the edit so the editors can start right off by setting up the Project instead of having to pull all the media as well.

The editor will then usually create a Bin for each element in the Project. So those three P2 Cards will come into three Bins with the same names as the P2 cards. Generally the Producers are going to come to us and tell us "Card 2, Shot 2X24Os" so it makes sense to keep the bins organized the same way the Producer logs them. We never re-name the clips, though we may put descriptive information in the metadata or at the very least the Description field. We often color code the clips too for easy timeline identification of what various elements are.

The Editor will also ensure to select "Put Media Cache Files in same location as Media Files" (or something like that) as we run on a SAN. These are the Peak Files that you will see Premiere Pro generate when you import your footage. By putting them with the media files, you can open the project on multiple machines and not have to re-generate the peak files each time. If you have a small project, it's no big deal to regenerate the peak files, but a documentary with 20 - 200 hours of material, well that can take hours.

For the offline editing, we will generally use either a 720p/59.94 or a 1080i/29.97 timeline using the AVC-Intra 100 preset in Premiere Pro. These are two great base timelines to use for high quality editing to output. We'll leave the Video Previews set to MPEG I-Frame for the offline as well. During this phase, the editor will literally edit with everything native, as is with no conversions made. 720, 1080i, 525, 625, 24, 30, 60, 25, 50, MPEG, H264,Internet downloads, etc..... whatever the raw material is, we just throw it into the timeline and edit. This is the biggest strength of Premiere Pro that we simply get the materials into the system and start editing. There's no sense in converting everything if you don't even know what will be in the final cut. BUT we do generally color code things in such a way so that we can identify things that we definitely will want to do conversion on before the final cut, makes it easy to pick those shots out later.

Once we have a "locked cut" (parenthesis because as we all know there never really seems to be a locked cut any more) then we will start cleaning up the materials that need it. We'll use our AJA Kona and IoXTs for example for most of our format conversions. Say we're editing in a 720p/59.94 timeline, we'll take all the 1080i / 29.97 material and run it through the AJA products to make them all 720p/59.94 via hardware. Generally we do this the easy route by just throwing all the 1080i / 29.97 material into a single timeline and just making a single pass rather than do each shot individually. We can always refer back to the original media via a previous cut of the project so it's no big deal to simply have a file called "1080i Converted" in the main timeline. Same goes for SD that has to be upconverted to HD. AJA hardware does a much better job that just Adobe software. Although we are awaiting delivery of a Blackmagic Teranex 2D unit which adds line doubling with SD to HD upconverts so those will be even cleaner. That will also give us PAL-NTSC or vice versa conversion as well.

We do these conversions one of two ways. Play out the timeline from one edit system to another or play out the timeline from one edit system to our AJA Ki Pro which is how we usually do it. Love, love, LOVE the KiPro since it automatically makes a ProRes file for us. If we want a DNxHD file, we can use the KiPro Mini.

At the "locked cut" phase we also switch the Video Previews over to ProRes or DNxHD as these result in far superior renders than the MPEG I-Frame, particularly with fast moving video and graphics.

For sound mixing, we do one of two things currently. For most documentary and all broadcast projects, we'll output an OMF for our ProTools sound designer along with an H264 reference quicktime file. He'll then create a Stereo Mix or a Stereo Mix plus split tracks depending on the broadcast requirements.

Or the editor will simply mix in Adobe Premiere Pro if it's a project that doesn't require or have the budget for full sound design. Right now that's a bit clunky since we can't use the audio mixer for the mix. Well, we COULD if it truly WAS a locked cut. But the Audio Mixer in Premiere Pro is a TRACK based audio mixer, so all keyframes created by the audio mixer are created by track position. Not by clip. So when our client inevitably comes back to us with a "minor change" that results in changing out 5 clips, trimming another and adding a sound bite, well our mix would be completely screwed. All the keyframes would NOT move with the changes, they simply stay locked into place on the track. So it's a bit of a painstaking process at first, but you learn to pick up the speed as you do it more, but we mix the timelines per clip. Fortunately, you can make Gain and Volume adjustments across multiple clips so it's not as bad as it sounds.

The biggest pain in general is that for whatever reason when using a Wacom Tablet, Premiere Pro does not accurately read the input from the tablet so the keyframes and any other paramaters you try to set in the timeline will jump up/down/left/right as if snapping is always enabled. This doesn't happen with a mouse thankfully so we'll use a mouse when we have to do a long mix.

For color grading we still export a self contained QT from Premiere Pro, either ProRes or DNxHD, to Resolve. I'm going to finally use Resolve 9 this coming week on a short project to test it out. In Resolve I simply use Scene Detect to cut up the file and grade away. From Resolve it's a rendered QT, either ProRes or DNxHD again, to send back into Premiere Pro.

For file output we'll use Adobe Media Endoder as it works really well and can output multiple files easily.

For tape output, we use our one system that has a BlackMagic Extreme 3D card in it that can lay to tape frame accurately each time. MUST ensure that the Premiere Pro interface is on a single screen or there will be dropped frames. Simple go to the Windows > Workspace and choose "Editing." That brings the entire interface to a single screen.

Premiere Pro caveats

Tape Capturing is still completely useless in the software so we still break out FCP 7 pretty much exclusively for that operation. We do a lot documentary and news style work so we're always pulling materials from tape. It's still an essential part of our workflow so instead of trying to force Premiere Pro to do something it really can't, we just switch to a tool that can. Works well as we usually have Kelly do the capturing on a dedicated system so the edit suites aren't tied up capturing.

The biggest issue we've run into are project that files that come up as corrupted or missing elements and cannot be opened. Seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why this happens. Projects from 9 months ago, 6 months ago, last week. They just suddenly won't open on any of our systems. With the work we do and the clients we work with, we're constantly opening projects from as far back as 5 years ago to revise, repurpose, and pull elements from. We can go back into our FCP projects from 10 years ago and open pretty much all of them without a problem. This is something I've been VERY vocal to Adobe about and I have every confidence they are addressing this very important issue. Fortunately there is a very easy workaround. Simply create New Project and import the "corrupted" project into that. Continue working.

Premiere Pro moving forward

The tool has become the workhorse at our facility. It's a great storytelling tool and I'm finding that my rough cuts are going so much faster than with FCP. The hoverscrub in the bins is so fast for auditioning shots and while I'm still using the FCP keyboard presets, one of my editors has switched completely over to the Adobe presets because once you get used to them, you can fly even faster. I definitely need to get up to speed on all the keyboard editing / trimming. That's what folks love Avid so much for, but PPro has made major gains with these controls in 6.0 and I'm sure it's just going to get better moving forward.

So right now, I'm very happy with where Premiere Pro is today and where it's poised to move going forward. It's not perfect, but it's a solid tool and a great storytelling device. The tight integration of the entire Adobe Suite also makes life really easy when we get to the finishing process of any project.

Final Cut Pro X

I've had a lot of folks asking me if I'm considering re-introducing FCP based on the most recent updates from Apple. Here's the way I look at X today.

If you're using FCPX right now, you should be really happy with what Apple's doing. You're getting more features back into the tool and they should be making your day to day work more efficient.

For me, I see no reason to switch back to FCP. It's amusing to see Apple touting the "new features" such as Drop Shadow and the Dual display. In my mind, those are simply corrections and an admission from Apple that X was released before it was ready for prime time. In the interim, we've switched off to other NLE platforms and in my mind, both Adobe Premiere Pro and Avid are superior to what FCP X is today and certainly superior to what FCP 7 was back in the day. There are certainly some good concepts in X but as a whole package, it falls short of my needs today.

I never say never, and if a client were to come in tomorrow and demand we use X for a project, we'll use it, we have it in the shop. But as far as the tool of choice, there's nothing in X today that makes me remotely consider swapping out Premiere Pro for X as our primary or even secondary tool. There's also something to be said for looking at companies whose main source of profit comes from really good professional software vs. consumer hardware. When software is a loss leader or a minor portion of your profit margin, you can do more what you want to do vs. what the market is asking for.

Adobe, Avid and Autodesk are all actively reaching out to the professional editing community to make their products better and more accessible. I appreciate that.

And with that, the end of this installment. Hope it's helpful and thanks for all your support through the years!

Posted by: walter biscardi on Dec 10, 2012 at 3:17:57 pmComments (4) Editing, Post Production

Professional Video Editor, Producer, Creative Director, Director since 1990.

Credits include multiple Emmys, Tellys, Aurora and CableAce Awards.

Creative Director for Georgia-Pacific and GP Studios, Atlanta. Former Owner / Operator of Biscardi Creative Media. The show you knew us best for was "Good Eats" on the Food Network. I developed the HD Post workflow and we also created all the animations for the series.

Favorite pastime is cooking with pizza on the grill one of my specialties. Each Christmas Eve we serve the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian seafood meal with approx. 30 items on the menu.

If I wasn't in video production I would either own a restaurant or a movie theater.



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