Talk to the Badger

Badger SoftieHooray, Rycote have delivered my Badger wind-jammer! After a week that revolved around filming and editing talking heads and vox pops, it still struck home how aggressive and threatening a Sennheiser 416 can appear to interviewees when it’s hand held for interviews – like having a gun pointed at them.

This will break the ice, it’s cute and fun, and it’s REALLY good in the wind!

So we’re all on the same page, underneath that fake fur is a long microphone ‘pipe’ that’s sort of the ‘telephoto lens’ of the microphone world. If you use it outside, and the merest zephyr of wind plays across this long black thing, it creates a nasty rumble that drowns the interview with rumbles, bumps and that ghastly scratchy ‘audio overload’ interference that completely ruins your audio. So a wind jammer is Sine Qua Non outside, but can be redundant inside. In fact, it becomes more of an audio recorder’s codpiece. But in my previous post, I came to terms with why one should use a ‘fluffy’ or a ‘wind jammer’ indoors where it serves no purpose. But I digress.

Rycote will make you one to special order – no extra cost (thanks, guys!) but of course you’ll have to wait for it. Sure there’s skunks and zebras, but I like the badger – and especially considering that Rycote are in Gloucestershire, which was the epicentre of the Badger Cull Debacle – so, I feel this is in memoriam of the Badgers Who Fell.

To be clear, the badger effect only comes on strong at certain angles. This is not an anatomically correct badger. Don’t expect this to pass muster at a children’s puppetry party. But that’s the strength. It ‘hints’ at badgerness, but it’s still actually a proper pro-level bit of kit that will allow you to shoot outside with sensitive mics.

It’s not frivolous – just a little nod to those who get the joke. Of course, if I were shooting a drama or a difficult investigative journalism piece, this is not the thing to bring. But I shoot corporates. I shoot shiny, happy video full of shiny, happy people, and I’m looking forward to interviewing people with it. It? Him? Her? Should one name it? Or is that going too far?

Yes. It is. It’s just a socially acceptable iteration of the dead cat.

Preset white settings – Danger, Will Robinson!

Many cameras allow us to dial in a specific colour temperature for a shot, rather than manually set it with a white or grey card. It sounds good, but can deliver alarming results.

Consider these two images shot under different lighting systems. In both cases, I’ve put a daylight Dedo DLED-4 over the shoulder as a sort of 3/4-backlight-kicker thing. It’s a look I like. That’s a fixed constant. I like to light to 4500 ºK which gives me wriggle room over colour temperature, and is a piece of cake with a bi-colour device like the Dedo Felloni. I had to shift the camera to 5600 to match the lighting sources with my cheaper LED panel lamps.

The camera was a Sony PMW F3 with Nikkor 35-70 at around f4.

Immediately, you can see that the Non-brand LED panels are green. Not just a little, green, they are Incredible Hulk Green. Note the daylight highlight on Rick’s temple – its about the same in both images, though I did use 5600 ºK on the F3 for the Non-brand LEDs. I tried using half CTO, but the results were absolutely hideous.

Both images are from LED sources and are untouched in terms of grading. The Fellonis are neutral, accurate and appear to all intents and purposes to be full spectrum. I also find the diffusion and fill tweaks to be particularly nice, considering the cramped location and speed at which we had to work.

So it’s plain: be careful of setting a colour temperature in-camera – it works well with continuous spectrum lighting, but looks horrible if you use more restrictive sources – especially LED devices from the lower end of our budget. They output a very restrictive light.

But that’s not the whole story.

Let’s do what we’re supposed to do: let’s white-set on a known white reference (not just a bit of photocopier paper). Let’s re-light with our non-brand LED panels. At first glance, hey! It looks good!

Let’s compare with the more ‘continuous spectrum’ Fellonis on the right. Note that Rick’s skin tone on the left is far flatter with a hint of grey and yellow. Note also that the pure daylight source behind him is now casting a MAGENTA light over his hair and shirt – all that green has been neutralised, leaving a nasty Magenta odour hanging about. If we try and cancel that out, it will bring the green back in. Meanwhile, the brighter reds and oranges have been tempered by removing so much green.

The result? There’s an ashen look to the skin. It’s a bit dull. It lacks life. On the right, there’s some flush to the face around and under the eyes. The backlight and his shirt pick up the fresh daylight from the three-quarter back. It’s natural, rather than made up.

But bear in mind that if I were using the Non-brand LEDs in a mixed environment, trying to blend them with existing daylight or tungsten or – egad, even worse – both, the results are just awful. That green tinge is back, and it really doesn’t sit with anything else. I remember vividly a shoot trying to use these No-name panels in a mixed lighting situation, pinning half-CTO and diff over them to try and calm them, and still seeing the green tinge seep through.

  • Take home 1: be careful using pre-set Kelvin settings as not all lighting is full spectrum. You’re choosing a compromise. It can be the best decision, but it can also be wrong.
  • Take home 2: a proper white-set is the way to go in difficult situations, but strong corrections will impact other lighting sources (ambient, backlight, fill, etc)
  • Take home 3: Unless shooting raw, correcting for White Balance issues can only take away data from your image and reduce its quality.

Note: look out for the full story (and more) on moviemachine.tv soon.

C100 noise – the fix

The Canon C100 is an 8 bit camera, so its images have ‘texture’ – a sort of electronic grain reminiscent of film. Most of the time this is invisible, or a pleasant part of the picture. In some situations, it can be an absolute menace. Scenes that contain large areas of gently grading tone pose a huge problem to an 8 bit system: areas of blue sky, still water, or in my case, a boring white wall of the interview room.

Setup

Whilst we set up, I shot some tests to help Alex with tuning his workflow for speed. It rapidly became obvious that we’d found the perfect shot to demonstrate the dangers of noise – and in particular, the C100’s some-time issue with a sort of pattern of vertical stripes:

Click the images below to view the image at 1:1 – this is important – and for some browsers (like Chrome) you may need to click the image again to zoom in.

So, due to the balance of the lighting (couldn’t black the room out, couldn’t change rooms), we were working at 1250 ISO – roughly equivalent to adding 6dB of gain. So, I’m expecting a little noise, but not much.

Not that much. And remember, this is a still – in reality, it’s boiling away and drawing attention to its self.

It’s recommended to run an Auto Black Balance on a camera at the start of every shoot or if the camera changes temperature (e.g. indoors to outdoors). Officially, one should Auto Black Balance after every ISO change). An Auto Black Balance routine identifies the ‘static’ noise to the camera’s image processor, which will then do a better job of hiding it.

So, we black balanced the camera, and Alex took over the role of lit object.

There was some improvement, but the vertical stripes could still be seen. It’s not helped by being a predominantly blue background – we’re seeing noise mostly from the blue channel, and blue is notorious for being ‘the noisy weak one’ when it comes to video sensors. Remember that when you choose your chromakey background (see footnote).

The first thought is to use a denoiser – a plugin that analyses the noise pattern and removes it. The C100 uses some denoising in-camera for its AVCHD recordings, but in this case even the in-camera denoiser was swamped. Neat Video is a great noise reduction plug-in, available for many platforms and most editing software. I tried its quick and simple ‘Easy Setup’, which dramatically improved things.

But it’s not quite perfect – there’s still some mottling. In some respects, it’s done too good a job at removing the speckles of noise, leaving some errors in colour behind. You can fettle with the controls in advanced mode to fine tune it, but perversely, adding a little artificial monochrome noise helped a lot:

We noticed that having a little more contrast in the tonal transition seemed to strongly alter the noise pattern – less subtlety to deal with. I hung up my jacket as a make-shift cucoloris to see how the noise was affected by sharper transitions of tone.

So, we needed more contrast in the background – which we eventually achieved by lowering the ambient light in the room (two translucent curtains didn’t help much). But in the meantime, we tried denoising this, and playing around with vignettes. That demonstrated the benefit of more contrast – although the colour balance was hideous.

However, there’s banding in this – and when encoded for web playback, those bands will be ‘enhanced’ thanks to the way lossy encoding works.

We finally got the balance right by using Magic Bullet Looks to create a vignette that raised the contrast of the background gradient, did a little colour correction to help the skin tones, and even some skin smoothing.

The Issue

We’re cleaning up a noisy camera image and generating a cleaner output. Almost all of my work goes up on the web, and as a rule, nice clean video makes for better video than drab noisy video. However, super-clean denoised video can do odd things once encoded to H.264 and uploaded to a service such as Vimeo.

Furthermore, not all encoders were created equal. I tried three different types of encoder: the quick and dirty Turbo264, the MainConcept H.264 encoder that works fast with OpenCL hardware, and the open source but well respected X264 encoder. The latter two were processed in Epsiode Pro 6.4.1. The movies follow the above story, you can ignore the audio – we were just ‘mucking around’ checking stuff.

The best results came from Episode using X264

Here’s the same master movie encoded via MainConcept – although optimised for OpenGL, it actually took 15% longer than X264 on my MacBook Pro, and to my eyes seems a little blotchier.

Finally Turbo264 – which is a single pass encoder aimed at speed. It’s not bad, but not very good either.

Finally, a look at YouTube:

This shows that each service tunes its encoding to its target audience. YouTube seems to cater for noisy video, but doesn’t like strong action or dramatic tonal changes – as befits its more domestic uploads. Vimeo is trying very hard to achieve a good quality balance, but can be confused by subtle gradation. Download the uploaded masters and compare if you wish.

In Conclusion:

Ideally, one would do a little noise reduction, then add a touch of film grain to ‘wake up’ the encoder and give it something to chew on – flat areas of tone seem to make the encoding ‘lazy’. I ended up using Magic Bullet Looks yet again, pepping up the skin tones with Colorista, a little bit of Cosmo to cater for any dramatic makeup we may come across (no time to alter the lighting between interviewees), a vignette to hide the worst of the background noise, and a subtle amount of film grain. For our uses, it looked great both on the ProRes projected version and the subsequent online videos.

Here’s the MBL setup:

What’s going on?

There are, broadly speaking, three classes of camera recording: 8 bits per channel, 10 bits per channel and 12 bits per channel (yes there are exotic 16 bit systems and beyond). There are three channels – one each for Red, Blue and Green. In each channel, the tonal range from black to white is split into steps. A 2 bit system allows 4 ’steps’ as you can make 4 numbers mixing up 2 ‘bits’ (00, 01, 10 and 11 in binary). So a 2 bit image would have black, dark grey, light grey and white. To make an image in colour, you’d have red green and blue versions stacked up on top of each other.

8 bit video has, in theory, 256 steps each for red, green and blue. For various reasons, the first 16 steps are used for other things, and peak white happens at step 235, leaving 20 steps for engineering uses. So there’s only about 220 steps between black and white. If that’s, say, 8 stops of brightness range, then a 0.5 stop difference in brightness has only 14 steps between them. That would create bands.

So, there’s a trick. Just like in printing, we can diffuse the edges of each band very carefully by ‘dithering’ the pixels like an airbrush. The Canon Cinema range perform their magic in just an 8 bit space by doing a lot of ‘diffusion dithering’ and that can look gosh-darn like film grain.

Cameras such as the F5 use 10 bits per channel – so there are 1024 steps rather than about 220, and therefore handle subtlety well. Alexa, BMCC and Epic operate at 12 bits per channel – 4096 steps between black and white for each channel. This provides plenty of space – or ‘data wriggle room’ to move your tonality around in post, and deliver a super-clean master file.

But as we’ve seen from the uploaded video – if web is your delivery, you’re faced with 4:2:0 colour and encoders that are out of your control.

The C100 with its 8 bit AVCHD codec does clever things including some noise reduction, and this may have skewed the results here, so I will need to repeat the test with a 4:2:2 ProRes type recorder, where no noise reduction is used, and other tests I’ve done have demonstrated that NeatVideo prefers noisy 10 bit ProRes over half-denoised AVCHD. But I think this will just lead to a cleaner image, and that doesn’t necessarily help.

As perverse as it may seem, my little seek-and-destroy noise hunt has lead to finding the best way to ADD noise.

Footnote: Like most large sensor cameras, the Canon C100 has a Bayer pattern sensor – pixels are arranged in groups of four in a 2×2 grid. Each group contains a red pixel sensor, a blue pixel sensor and two green ones. Green has twice the effective data, making it the better choice for chromakey. But perhaps that’s a different post.

C100 Chroma Subsampling – the fix

c100The C100′s AVCHD is a little odd – you may see ‘ghost interlace’ around strong colours in PsF video. AVCHD is 4:2:0 – the resolution of the colour is a quarter of the resolution of the base image. Normally, our eyes aren’t so bothered about this, and most of the time nobody’s going to notice. However, stronger colours found in scenes common to event videographers, and when ‘amplifying’ colours during grading, all draw attention to this artifact.

Note that this problem is completely separate from the ‘Malign PsF’ problem discussed in another post, but as the C100 is the only camera that generates this particular problem in its internal recordings, I suspect that this is where the issue lies. I’ve never seen this in Panasonic or Sony implementations of AVCHD.

This is a 200% frame of some strongly coloured (but natural) objects, note the peculiar pattern along the diagonals – not quite stair-stepped as you might imagine.

Please click the images to view them at the correct size:

There are stripes at the edge of the red peppers, and their length denotes interframe movement. These artefacts illustrate that there’s some interlace going on even though the image is progressive.

Like ‘true’ interlacing artefacts, these stripey areas add extra ‘junk information’ which must be encoded and compressed when delivering video in web ready formats. These are wasting bitrate and robbing the image of crispness and detail. Reds are most affected, but these issues crop up in areas of strong chrominance including fabrics, graphics and stage/theatrical lighting.

Some have pointed the finger of blame at edit software, specifically Final Cut Pro X. I wondered if it was the way FCPX imported the .MTS files, so I rewrapped them in ClipWrap from Divergent Media. In version 2.6.7, I’ve yet to experience the problems I experienced in earlier versions, but the actual results seem identical to FCPX:

For the sake of completeness, I took the footage through ClipWrap’s transcode process – still no change:

So the only benefit would be to older computers that don’t like handling AVCHD in its natural state.

To isolate the problem to the recording format rather than the camera, I also shot this scene on an external recorder using the Canon’s 4:2:2 HDMI output and in recorded in ProRes 422HQ. The colour information is far better, but note the extra noise in the image (the C100 includes noise reduction for its AVCHD recordings to help the efficiency of its encoding).

This is the kind of image one might expect from the Canon C300 which records 4:2:2 in-camera at 50 Mbits per second. Adding an external recorder such as the Atomos Ninja matches the C300′s quality. But let’s say you don’t have the option to use an external recorder – can the internal recordings be fixed?

RareVision make 5DtoRGB – an application that post-processes footage recorded internally in the 4:2:0 based H.264 and AVCHD codecs, and goes one further step by ‘smoothing’ (not just blurring) the chroma to soften the blockiness. In doing so, it fixes the C100′s AVCHD chroma interlace problem:

The results are a very acceptable midway point between the blocky (stripey) AVCHD and the better colour resolution of the ProResHQ. Here are the settings I use – I’ll do a separate guide to 5DtoRGB in a separate post.

The only key change is a switch from BT.601 to BT.709 (the former is for US Standard Definition, the latter is for all HD material, a new standard is available for 4K).

So why should you NOT process all your C100 rushes through 5DtoRGB?

It takes time. Processing a 37 second clip took 159 seconds (2 mins 39 seconds) on my i7 2.3 GHz MacBook Pro. Compare that with 83 seconds for ClipWrap to transcode, and only 6 seconds to rewrap (similar to Final Cut Pro’s import).

You will have to judge whether the benefits of shooting internally with the significant transcode time outweigh the cost of an external recorder and the inconvenience of using it. You may wish to follow my pattern for the majority of my non-chromakey, fast turnaround work, where I’ll shoot internally, and only when I encounter difficult situations, opt to transcode those files via 5DtoRGB.

I’ve also been investigating the use of a ‘denoiser’. It’s early days in my tests, but I’ve noticed that it masks the ‘interlaced chroma’ stripe pattern is effectively hidden:

This is not a panacea. Denoising is even more processor intensive – taking a long time to render. My early testing shows that you can under- and over-do it with unpleasant results, and that the finished result – assuming that you’re not correcting a fault, but preparing for a grade – doesn’t compress quite as well. It’s too slick, and therefore perversely needs some film grain on top. But that’s another post.

Three Wise Men at Prokit

ProKitIt’s the morning after the day before – Prokit’s amazing ‘Three Wise Men’ event. A great crowd, lots of interesting discussion.

The general idea was to bring together Andy Bell’s lighting workshop looking at 1-up and 2-up interviews, Chris Woolf’s in-depth investigation into wind and mechanical noise, and I’d round up with a quick look at lighting for chromakey, specifically matching the background plate.

Andy’s hands-on workshops are a lot of fun – ‘what can you do with two lamps and a given programme style?’ but with the constraints of time and space, Andy took us through lighting plots that moved a step or two beyond ‘3 point’ setups plus a few little tricks too.

I hope to see a recorded version of Chris’s presentation soon, as I only caught bits of it from the back. Chris is Rycote’s Technical Consultant, and therefore the depth of detail was great – definitely required taking notes, though.

There were two bits of information in my presentation that I promised to publish post-event and so here they are:

Firstly, GreenScreener – a very useful app for iOS and Android from Per Holmes and Hollywood Camerawork:

http://www.hollywoodcamerawork.us/gs_index.html

It’s so important to get an even light on the background, whilst not pouring too much light, and this app makes it falling-off-log easy to adjust lamp position, intensity and flagging to make it work.

Secondly, a great video from Eve Hazelton and the team from Realm Pictures, plus a follow-up on keying in AfterEffects with its built-in Keylight plug-in (similar in scope to the FCPX keyer we demonstrated on the day).

https://vimeo.com/34365256

Richard Payne from Holdan had bought a very new toy in – still in beta. This was a ‘live’ chromakey solution, with HD-SDI, HDMI or DVI inputs for foreground and background, plus output. We’d got it working behind the scenes, but it developed ‘demo nerves’ just as we were setting up and so we skipped it. However, initial tests looked really good and so hopefully we’ll get to do a more in-depth chromakey press which includes both live and post keying another time.

For what it’s worth – and probably the most valuable part of this post? How to pack away your Lastolite pop-up background:

POV’s 2013 Documentary Filmmaking Equipment Survey

Whilst the number of respondents is a bit too low to be a true picture, POV’s survey does paint an interesting picture of the Documentarist’s world. It’s still a ‘buy’ rather than ‘rent’ market, for the best part in love with Canon’s DSLRs and lenses.

However, there’s a couple of splits  I wanted to see, but isn’t here. Firstly the split by sensor size: what has happened to 2/3″, and what proportion are now S35? Secondly, and somewhat related, body design. There still seems to be plenty of room for ‘the little black sausage of joy’ – the fixed lens, all-in-one camera with a wide-ranging parfocal zoom.

Yes, the Mac dominates in Docco editing. I boggle slight at the FCP7 market – twice that of all the Premiere Pro flavours. FCP7 used to bog down with over 35-40 mins in a timeline, and for larger projects I’d have expected a larger takeup of Premiere Pro.

Still, at least Gaffer Tape makes it into the top 5 ‘things we love’ list.

POV’s 2013 Documentary Filmmaking Equipment Survey

Creating the Dance of the Seven Veils

Unboxing videos are an interesting phenomenon.

They don’t really count as ‘television’ or ‘film’ – in fact they’re not much more than a moving photo or even diagram. But they are part of the mythos of the launch of a new technical product.

I’ve just finished my first one – and it was ‘official’ – no pressure, then.

I first watched quite a few unboxing videos. This was, mostly, a chore. It was rapidly apparent that you need to impart some useful information to the viewer to keep them watching. Then there was the strange pleasure in ‘unwrapping’ – you have to become six years old all over again, even though – after a couple of decades of doing this – you’re more worried about what you’re going to do with all the packaging and when you can get rid of it.

So… to build the scene. My unpack able box was quite big. Too big for my usual ‘white cyclorama’ setup. I considered commandeering the dining room, but it was quite obvious that unless I was willing to work from midnight until six, that wasn’t going to happen. I have other work going on.

So it meant the office. Do I go for a nice Depth of Field look and risk spending time emptying the office of the usual rubbish and kibble? Or do I create a quiet corner of solitude? Of course I do. Then we have to rehearse the unpacking sequence.

Nothing seems more inopportune than suddenly scrabbling at something that won’t unwrap, or unfold, or not look gorgeous. So, I have to unwrap with the aim of putting it all back together gain – more than perfectly. I quickly get to see how I should pack things so it unpacks nicely. I note all the tricks of the packager’s origami.

So, we start shooting. One shot, live, no chance to refocus/zoom, just keep the motion going.

I practice and practice picking up bundles of boring cables and giving them a star turn. I work out the order in which to remove them. I remember every item in each tray. Over and over again.

Only two takes happened without something silly happening – and after the second ‘reasonable’ take, I was so done. But still, I had to do some closeups, and some product shots. Ideally, everything’s one shot, but there are times when a cutaway is just so necessary, and I wish I got more.

Learning Point: FIlm every section as a cutaway after you do a few good all-in-one takes.

Second big thing, which I kinda worked out from the get-go. Don’t try and do voiceover and actions. We’re blokes, multitasking doesn’t really work. It’s a one taker and you just need to get the whole thing done.

Do you really need voiceover, anyway? I chickened out and used ‘callout’ boxes of text in the edit. This was because I had been asked to make this unboxing video and to stand by for making different language versions – dubbing is very expensive, transcription and translation for subtitles can be expensive and lead to lots and lots of sync issues (German subs are 50% more voluminous than English subtitles and take time to fit in).

So, a bunch of call-out captions could be translated and substituted pretty easily. Well, that’s the plan.

Finally, remember the ‘call to action’ – what do you want your viewers to do having watched the video? Just a little graphic to say ‘buy here’ or ‘use this affiliate coupon’ and so on. A nod to the viewer to thank them for their attention.

And so, with a couple of hundred views in its first few hours of life, it’s not a Fenton video, but it’s out there stirring the pot. I’d like to have got more jokes and winks in there, but the audience likes these things plain and clear. It was an interesting exercise, but I’m keen to learn the lessons from it. Feedback welcomed! What do you want from an Unboxing Video?

Thunderbolt Stikes Back

UPDATE: Writing >2GB files on SSDs >240GB with the Seagate GoFlex Thunderbolt Adaptor can cause the drive to unexpectedly dismount from your computer with an error (-50). Read the full story and the solution by Wolfgang Bauer.

Following on from my USB3 testing, I’ve finally received an interesting box – the Seagate GoFlex Thunderbolt Adaptor, now in stock for about £100.

The cool trick is that you can connect any ‘bare’ Solid State Drive (SSD) to it, and the price of SSDs is coming down quickly. A 256GB SSD can be had for under £140. Of course then you have to add your £40 cable, but assuming we can use one adaptor and cable for all your SSDs, finally we have a solution for Thunderbolt SSD for editing (and archiving/Backing up to USB3).

The downside is that you’ll probably want to keep the bare drive in the adaptor with some elastic bands or something – very high tech.

So, why would you want to do this?

Because it’s freaking fast. That’s why. Editing with Final Cut Pro 10 on this drive is the sort of experience we assumed it would be. No spinny beachballs of death, no stuttering, just ‘slick demo’ performance.

Drive Write (MB/s) Read (MB/s)
Slow, cheap USB2 drive 21.6 26.2
Western Digital Passport SE (USB2) 30.1 32.8
LaCie Quadra 7200rpm 2TB on FW800 46.6 44.5
Crucial 256GB SSD on FW800 75 81.6
Western Digital Passport SE (USB3) 96.3 108.4
Internal 512 GB SSD in MacBook Pro 17” 88.8 167.0
ThunderBolt with SSD 266.3 381.3

We’re talking 5x the speed of FW800 write, 8x the speed of FW800 read. And then there’s file access times.

With the same cable and adaptor, you can purchase additional SSDs for £140, and pretty soon we’ll see half a terabyte for under £200.

For my little industry niche, that means one SSD per edit for the duration of that edit, then archived off to hard drives so the SSD can be recycled, but happy to have maybe even a dozen of them – which I couldn’t afford with the current clutch of Thunderbolt/SSD combinations.

As I edit on site a lot, this can mean little gotchas like power suddenly dipping or going off entirely. Not talking third world style, just leaving a render in your hotel room and Housekeeping thoughtfully remove your room key that you taped into the slot to keep the power on. Or that moment after a big event where you’re backing up, and the 3-phase power you’ve been living on gets pulled for the de-rig. Which is why I’m so passionate about bus-powered drives that can work with a laptop editing computer.

And then there’s the scary ‘let’s edit this in the car’ or ‘let’s log rushes on the plane’ – with spinning disks? No. Ah – how about SSD? Fine. I’ll be archiving ‘media managed’ videos to thumb drives next.

It makes hard disks feel as old fashioned as tape.

FCPX – partying with your Flaky Friend

Tart

UPDATE: Compound Clips, specifically splitting Compound Clips, and worst of all, splitting a compounded clip that’s been compounded, increases project complexity exponentially. Thus, your FCPX project quickly becomes a nasty, sticky, crumbly mess.

Which is a shame, because Compound Clips are the way we glue audio and video together, how we manage complexity with a magnetic timeline, and butt disparate sections together to use transitions. Kind of vital, really.

Watch these excellent demonstration videos from T. Payton who hangs out at fcp.co:

These refer to version 10.0.1, and at time of writing, were at 10.0.3, but I can assure you that we STILL have this problem (I don’t think it’s a bug, I think it’s the way FCPX does Compound Clips). We return you to your original programming…

Okay, report from the trenches: Final Cut Pro 10? Love it – with a long rider in the contract.

I’m a short-form editor – most of my gigs are 90 seconds to 10 minutes (record is 10 seconds and I’m proud of it). Turn up ‘Somewhere in Europe’, shoot interviews, General Views, B-Roll, get something good together either that night, or very soon afterwards, publish to the web, or to the big screen, or push out to mobiles and ipads…

This is where FCPX excels. As an editorial ‘current affairs’ segment editor, it’s truly a delight. I bet you slightly overshot? Got a 45 minute take on an interview that needs to be 45 seconds? Range based favourites are awesome, and skimming lets you find needles in a haystack. Need to edit with the content specialist at your side? The magnetic timeline is an absolute joy, and don’t get me started about auditioning.

It’s true: in cutting down interviews, in throwing together segments, and especially when arguing the toss over telling a given story, I’m at least twice as fast and so much more comfortable throwing ideas around inside FCPX.

But my new Editing Friend is a ‘Flaky Friend’.

She really should be the life and soul of the party, but somehow there’s a passive aggressive diva streak in her.

There are three things she doesn’t do, and it’s infuriating:

  • She doesn’t recognise through-edits – they can’t be removed, they are, to her, like cesarian scars, tribal tattoos (or so she claims), cuts of honour. We tell her we’re cutting soup at this stage, but no. ‘Cuts are forever’ she says, like the perfect NLE she thinks she is.
  • She doesn’t paste attributes selectively – it’s only all or nothing. ‘We must be egalitarian’ she croons. What is good for one is good for all, apparently. You can’t copy a perfect clip and only apply colour correction to the pasted clip – you must paste EVERYTHING, destroying your sound mix, needing extensive rework to your audio mix, and heaven help you if you change your mind.
  • She flatly refuses to accept that there is already a way we all do common things, and wants to do it her own kooky way. Making J and L cuts into a Tea Ceremony, blind assumption that a visual transition needs an audio transition, even if we’ve already done the groundwork on the audio… girl, the people who think you’re being cute by insisting this are rapidly diminishing to the point you can count them on your thumbs, and we do include you in that list.

So okay, she’s a good gal at heart. Meaning the best for you. But she needs to bail out and quit every so often, especially if you’re used to tabbing between email, browser, Photoshop, Motion et al. She’ll get all claustrophobic, and you’ll be waiting 20-40 seconds with the spinning beachball of death between application switches. It’s all a bit too much like hard work. ‘I can’t cope’, she sighs – and spins a beachball like she smokes a cigarette. We stand around, shuffling our feet as she determinedly smokes her tab down to the butt. ‘Right!’ she shouts at last. ‘Let’s get going!’

And yes, it’s great when things are going right.

But put her under pressure, with a couple of dozen projects at hand, some background rendering to do, it all gets very ‘I’m going to bed with a bottle of bolly’. I’m getting this an awful lot now, and I really resent being kept hanging around whilst she changes a 5 word caption in a compound clip that takes 5 FRICKIN’ MINUTES to change, I resent every minute of waiting for projects to open and close, and whilst it’s lovely to see her skip daintily through all that fun new footage, when it comes down to the hard work, she’s so not up to it…

I am twice as fast at editing in FCPX, but I am a quarter of the speed when doing the ‘maid of all work’ cleaning up and changes. It means that, actually, I am working twice as hard in X as I was in 7, just mopping up after this flakey friend who has a habit of throwing up in your bathtub and doing that shit-eating grin as they raid your fridge of RAM and CPU cycles.

Well, FCPX dear, my flaky friend, you’re… FIRED.

Tonalizer – a scalpel, not a bullet

Now we’re all shooting flat, how do we get our rushes looking their best? By grading. From the giddy high end of DaVinci down to the humble color board in FCPX, grading is the price we pay for creamy highlights, rich shadows and that ‘expensive’ cinematic look. And I’m in love with a new tool.

We shoot flat because the ‘video’ tonality of traditional video is far less than modern CMOS sensors can handle – by modifying the mapping of brightness to the camera’s curve, we can squeeze in a couple of extra exposure stops if we’re careful.

Of course that makes the pictures look a little different. Highlights are pushed down a bit, shadows are pulled up a bit, and we get ‘flat’ looking pictures. They need to be graded in post to ‘roll off’ the last stop or two of highlights, so brightening the highlights again, but without the awful cut-off of a ‘blown’ highlight – the ‘tip-ex’ effect on foreheards, for example. Similarly, the shadows can be tamped down, but because the shadows started life in a brighter realm, as they’re pushed down to more shadowy levels, we retain the details without the boiling mass of noise we used to associate with it.

Of course, because EVERY shot you’ve taken has this flat profile, EVERY shot needs work in post before mortal humans can enjoy them. You can apply a ‘Look Up Table’ (a long list of ‘if it’s this level of brightness, that should be that level of brightness’ if somebody has been kind or commercial enough to make one for your Non Linear Edit system (e.g. Technicolor profiles), but if you’re hand-rolling, you’re on your own.

I’ve traditionally used Magic Bullet Looks and Colorista to do my conversion from flat to full, but with the transition to FCPX, we had to wait until fairly recently to get back this functionality. The Color Boards did not provide the kind of delicacy in manipulation of curves, and other plug-in manufacturers have stepped in.

Personally, I preferred Magic Bullet Looks because of familiarity and the general ‘one filter to control them all’ approach, but it feels heavy going for FCPX – and for some reason it feels slower and heavier than it did in FCP7.

Then along comes Tonalizer.

If you’re used to the interface glitz of MBLII, Tonalizer’s dour set of sliders seems a little limiting. No faux colour balls, no pretty graphs, some curt labels, and that’s it.

But what it actually does is wonderful – it’s as if there’s thousands of subtle adjustments it can make, but they’ve all been tamed down to a few sliders. FCPX may have a brightness slider, and you can watch the whole Waveform get shifted up and down the IRE scale, ensuring your image is only correct at one minute point in the slider’s travel. Watch the brightness control in Tonalizer affect your waveform, and see how it’s nipping and tucking things at the top and bottom end of the scale, subtly redistributing the tonality over a very pleasant curve, which you can then change the shape of with another slider. Then there’s the ‘highlight rescue’ and ‘shadow boost’ that file down the sharp edges in highlights and shadows, with a form of contrast that subtly increases around areas of brightness transition that gives the merest hint of ‘phwoar’ (a UK idiom that I hope travels well). Of course, if you wind everything up to 11, your footage ends up like a dog’s dinner, but Tonalizer can handle subtlety.

It’s all very neat and handleable, it’s all very focused on footage that’s been shot on flat profiles, and tellingly, it’s got all the little things we need day to day:

  • Adaption will pull flat ‘log’ style rushes in to shape
  • Tint is good at removing the green pollution in Fluorescent lighting
  • Warmth simply nudges the colour temperature (won’t correct the WRONG colour temp, but handy in mixed conditions)
  • Protect Skin Tones will ring fence that little collection of tones so your lit interview is fine, but the green pool of background is improved

And then there’s the Detail Sharpener.

Sharpening is anathema to Narrative shooters, but in Corporates, sharp colourful pictures sell. Period. Not oversharpened ‘black ring around white objects’ horrible ‘in camera’ sharpening. Tonalizer just wafts some magic over the image and helps the camera’s inherent sharpness. You have turned the sharpening circuits off, haven’t you? Cameras don’t sharpen well as they have to do it in real time and it sharpens all the noise and crud. If you do it in post, the computer spends a little more time and care (with the appropriate software).

So Tonalizer lifts and separates, adds a bit of definition, respects skin tone, and even has little niceties like an ‘assist’ mode that flags clipped detail, plus a ‘safe range’ that gracefully protects your picture from harm when winding up the controls to higher values.

For FCPX users, there are two versions – one specifically set for Technicolor CineStyle favoured by many DSLR shooters. This shoots incredibly flat, and takes the DSLR brightness range to the very edge, producing clay-like skin tones and such milky images that it takes time and skill to bring back (but the results are worth it if you do have the time).

Shooting ultra flat does have some disadvantages – more noise in the shadows, but Tonalizer has a Noise Reduction function to help mitigate that. Another issue is that you are spreading a lot of info over an 8 bit image, and aggressive manipulation will degrade the image as your carefully spaced data gets pulled and pushed and bits fall between the ‘8-bit gaps’ and disappear for ever. Start yanking the sliders of any grading plug-in, and watch the waveform monitor, looking for the fine horizontal lines (gaps in the info) appear.

So there’s a ‘Comfy Camp’ of Picture Profile users who want enough brightness range in highlights to do the roll off thing, and enough tonality in the shadows, to create an ‘expensive’ if not completely ‘cinematic’ final image, and this is where Tonalizer is a great tool for getting the look you want. It certainly floats my boat for corporate/commercial work, and has already supplanted MBL2 for my ‘jobbing’ work – quicker to get right, quicker to render, and I have to say I rather like its singleminded approach.

Am I giving up on Magic Bullet? Absolutely not. It goes further, does more… but it’s slower and easy to ‘overbake’ (I habitually dial back my MBL grades to 66%). For well exposed stuff that just needs to be clean, clear and smartened up, MBL is overkill and, used indiscriminately, can do more damage than good. Tonalizer is perfect for just a little bit of zip and starch.

It’s been out a while, but I didn’t really bother much because i) I had Magic Bullet Looks, and was happy with it, and ii) I thought it was quite expensive for what it was offering. I then saw Tonalizer demonstrated at the February MacVideo Live event (where 10 lucky attendees walked away with a copy – not me, alas) and managed to have a quick play with it. You will have to try it out on your own footage to realise its worth. I do note, however, that there have been a number of promotions, and fcp.co currently has a 35% discount going.

This is a blog, not a review, and I’m not particularly keen to get involved with promoting anything, but have been much enthused by Tonalizer, and for FCPX users, it’s well worth checking out, even if you do already have a plethora of level/curve based plug-ins.