A continuation on my “Cautionary Tales of an FCP Switcher.”
UPDATED: 6/25 - VTR Success & Workstation Update. At the bottom.
Getting Caught Up on our Series
As mentioned at the end of the original article, we moved our PBS series over the Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 with the reasoning that if we had to flatten a file at the end of the editing process, we’d might as well use the NLE that offers the most native format support. So far, that has absolutely proven to be true and I’m proud to say that my editing team has caught up on our production schedule. Primarily because the software is just so doggone fast our guys are able to jump right into the edit.
Now the emphasis is on our editors to manage all the data, the software really doesn’t do any sort of media management. We stringently follow the guidelines set in “An Editor’s Guide to Adobe Premiere Pro” for managing the data. Essentially we put all the media in place on our SAN before it’s imported to the project. Once a project is completed, we literally have one folder to archive that contains everything needed to bring the project back.
So as far as the editing is concerned, the team is very happy with how Premiere Pro is performing, even our main Avid editor is loving the new CS6 interface and trim tools. We’re also finding significant improvements in render time of CS6 compared to CS5.5.
As noted in the original article, Premiere Pro does not have any way to perform a Consolidate / Transcode function taking all of the native material and conforming all the footage to a single codec. The workflow of sending a flattened Quicktime File to Resolve along with an EDL has resulted in spotty performance from Premiere Pro CS6. Sometimes the EDL imports as expected and the file Pre-Conforms in Resolve and other times Resolve crashes when we try to access the EDL. Conferring with BlackMagic Design, they have discovered errors in the EDLs that are causing the crashes. I’ve sent the troubled EDLs to Adobe for review and we’ll see what they find.
Fortunately, Resolve has an amazing Scene Detect Tool so even without the EDL I can prepare a 30 minute episode for color grade in about 15 minutes or so. And just to remind you, EDLs are the only tool we can use with a flattened QT file into Resolve 8.2, XMLs and AAFs are for timelines.
The one area that’s frustrated us the most is the incredibly poor VTR controls of Premiere Pro. Yes, tape is a large part of our workflow today and for the foreseeable future, particularly as we do a lot of Post on documentaries and long form projects which have a lot of archive materials. We’ve digitized 3/4”, DVCPro HD, HDCAM, BetaSP, BetaSX, DigiBeta, DV, DVCAM, HDV and even VHS in the past year alone. Over the next two months we’ll be digitizing over 400 tapes for three projects. With CS 5.5 VTR control was completely useless for us. We had hoped CS 6 would offer improvements with VTR performance, but so far, it’s been very inconsistent.
This past Friday we spent the entire day with AJA and Adobe trying to layback a show to a Panasonic AJ-HD1400 VTR. One of our edit systems could actually control the deck and start the recording frame accurately, but it was dropping frames for unknown reasons so we couldn’t use it for mastering. We narrowed the problem to something on the Mac HD but could not fully determine what it was.
A second edit suite with a faster computer was able to play without dropping frames, but the audio was 5 - 8 seconds ahead of video during mastering. After a full day of testing, we were no closer to laying back to tape than when we started.
So the workflow for now is to export a self contained quicktime movie and lay back to tape using either Avid Symphony or FCP 7. We'll use FCP 7 for all digitizing since Premiere Pro cannot read Avid MXF files. The good news is both AJA and Adobe are committed to making VTR control work so we’ll be ready to test again when they are. But I am frustrated that Adobe has a professional NLE that can’t control a professional VTR reliably today.
Enter Smoke 2013
The public beta of Autodesk Smoke 2013 is upon us and I’ll be honest that I’ve not had a whole lot of time to even get started with the application. Production deadlines and getting our Post workflow back on track after our initial problems has taken up a lot of our time. My staff has not touched the application at all yet as they are concentrating solely on picking up speed on Premiere Pro.
Where my initial testing will be is color grading actually. Smoke 2013 can handle all of the native formats we’re working with on our current series and it can read an AAF from Premiere Pro. So when the time becomes available in the next few weeks, our first tests will be send episodes of our PBS series to Smoke to how the timelines get into the application and then how the Color Warper will suit our grading needs. If we can avoid the flattening necessary to get the shows from Premiere Pro to Resolve, that will save us a few hours per episode.
Of course, I’ll be doing the testing with practice episodes after they are delivered, we’re not going to put Smoke into actual production until the workflow has been tested, tested and tested again. It also won’t go into actual production until after the actual public release and all of the features have been finalized.
As I’ve noted in previous blogs, I have a plan to replace our 5 primary edit workstations with 27” iMacs and lean on a few “big iron” workstations to handle all the rendering and output. A big reason for sticking with the iMacs is Smoke 2013 and the idea that we might run it as a primary editing tool in our edit suites at some point after the the public release. I just took delivery of our first 27” iMac and added the 32GB RAM kit from OWC and it will go right into documentary production this coming week as a test before we move forward with 5 of them.
While I originally wasn’t a fan of thunderbolt external boxes, now I’m really starting to see the advantages, particularly with software like Resolve allowing us to simply switch output devices with ease rather than having to pull cards out of a machine. I’ve been an AJA fan for a long time, but of course, AJA products don’t work with Resolve, probably never will. But now we can have AJA IoXTs, T-Taps for editing and a BMD thunderbolt I/O device for using Resolve. When it’s time for color grading, just disconnect one device and connect the other. I’m liking that concept and depending on how the iMac tests out, we might go ahed and add the other iMacs and ship out the Mac Pros.
I have to say, I’m seriously rethinking the iMac plan after seeing just how flippin’ fast PC workstations are with both Adobe and Avid software. I just might put lower cost PCs in the edit suites and just have a couple of 12 core Mac Pros for Smoke. I’ve used Macs professionally since 1996 but it’s clear that if I want maximum performance with our current software packages, Windows is the way to go. We can put together a pretty cheap PC with a lot of RAM and a nice nVidia card to get awesome performance from our software. I can also re-purpose all of our AJA Kona boards since they work cross platform.
As I’ve reported recently we’re successfully using a Dell Precision PC workstation with Adobe software and I just completed a review of the ProMAX ONE Hero machine which is easily the fastest workstation I’ve ever tested. Needless to say, I have a lot to consider in terms of workstations right now.
My conversations with Avid are continuing and so far they do seem committed to looking at our concerns and those of other FCP editors in opening the back-end workflow if possible. We’re going to have some folks coming in to visit the shop to better understand our workflow and where the breakdowns are happening trying to get the projects out to third party software.
I’ve also been told they’re working directly with BlackMagic Design to improve the workflow between Avid and Resolve. Good to see Avid taking the initiative to work directly with BMD to make the workflow better for all of us.
The Tales continue.....
Our testing continues and I’ll report back soon as our Tales roll on.....
UPDATE 6/25 - VTR Success!
A few folks commented to me that BlackMagic Design cards were working good with Premiere Pro CS6 so this morning I loaded up the CS6 Trial on our Resolve workstation. 12 Core Mac Pro, BMD Decklink Extreme 3D card and voila, we had full tape control. It wasn't perfect by any means, it locked up a few times, audio was out of sync one time, but we were able to successfully lay back an episode of our series to tape. It was frame accurate 8 out of 10 tries so that's progress.
The only annoyance is that the BMD VTR controls don't respect the Timeline In Point. In our case we always set up the timelines to start at 00:58:00:02 with Bars at 00:59:00:02 and show start at 01:00:00:00. Generally we set our In Point on the timeline to either 00:58:40:00 or 00:59:00:02 depending on how much black we've laid down on our master tape.
With the BlackMagic VTR control, it always starts the timeline at the head. So I just had to chop off everything at the head making the start of the timeline 00:59:00:02 and made the edit on the VTR at the same point. Worked perfectly 8 out of the 10 times.
I've reported our results back to AJA and Adobe so maybe they can figure out where the problems lie with the Kona boards. We're still awaiting our IoXT to do the same test on the iMac.
The new 27" iMac was in production all day today and the editor reported it was outstanding all day. VERY fast compared to the Quad Core she had been editing with for a week, no crashes, no hiccups, no anything. Just a very fast workstation. First day on the job was a good one!