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

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A Case of Upgrader’s Remorse

FCS3Final Cut Studio ‘new’ is out. It’s been two years since the last major update, and we’ve been waiting for some pretty spectacular new features. Personally, I’ve been waiting for some pretty spectacular fixes, but that’s a different story.

Cut to the chase: should a Final Cut Pro user upgrade? Is it worth £250?

Short answer: sort of.

The speed tools (ramping from slomo to fastmo) are welcomed. The markers that move when the edits under them move are welcomed but frankly should have been there from the get-go. The new codecs are great if you know how to use them (and I reckon 70% won’t touch them), and there were little irritations – inconsistencies and pseudo-bugs – that have disappeared.

Motion’s got better, though still no preset for anamorphic PAL. Color is almost usable by mortals. Hopefully, SoundTrack Pro is stable enough to be relied upon to get something useful done by the deadline. LiveType’s gone.

But in its stead is a nasty ‘auto’ fashion, the auto-everything – auto export, auto burn, auto voice levels, that’s not necessarily what a pro app wants or needs. And then there’s simple stuff. The FCP text tools are STILL broken, so certain fonts aren’t selectable. The FCP lower third can’t do multi-line text – not because it can’t, but because FCP developers have chosen not to. No, the answer isn’t ‘do it in Motion’. The 16:9 action and title safe are not industry standard, just a 10% 20% rule of thumb. Thank goodness for developers like Martin at Digital Heaven and Alex at Alex4d, who leverage the latent power of FCP and get the little things right.

Bells and whistles? None of my clients, nor my colleagues’ clients have or want iChat – we use Skype’s screen share instead. Not everyone has a use for AVCIntra. The BluRay discs that Compressor burns are only ‘screeners’ – nothing wrong with that, but it’s hardly ‘authoring’.

And you really know when Apple’s casting around when features such as ‘tick marks’ for SD get big billing in the features, when 4:3 crop marks would be more useful but aren’t supported.

The community is pretty unanimous in declaring themselves Underwhelmed. Good word. Sums it up. As much as I love Apple products, it’s as if the company has done the bare minimum – the absolute minimum – to get us to shell out for an upgrade. The FCS3 upgrade feels like the recent MacBook Pro upgrade where we got a nice machine, nice screen, but lost the PCIe slot in favour of an SDHC slot.

There’s repairs to the facia – thanks for that. But many users are thinking ‘how is this going to change my work? What will my clients notice after I’ve upgraded?’ and the answer is ‘nowt’. Which is a pity, because there’s lots of little things that are a great step forward for the platform. Which is why this should have been FCS 2.5 and FCP 6.5, not a full revision. After all, Compressor’s just got a .5, and DVD Studio Pro hasn’t been upped at all.

It’s a classic case of Buyer’s Remorse, that awful trough of disillusionment we often go through having just purchased something but can’t quite get immediate gratification.

Give it a couple of months, and there will be no way I could work with FCS2. Just in time for the Snow Leopard upgrade and we’ll do it all over again.

Betting the farm?

MacWorld is but a fading memory. NAB has come and gone. WWDC is over. MacBook Pros are being booed at. Still no FCP. Not even a whisper. Where’s the beef?

No, I am not going to join the rant about how FCP hasn’t been updated and how Apple may be abandoning the Pro Video market as exemplified by the dropping of PCI Express in the Location Video workhorse 15″ MBP. I don’t buy that. But I do buy into the fact that something serious needs to happen with FCP for its long term health. So much is broken. So many compromises. Sure, the enemy of ‘Good’ is ‘Better’ and at least FCP is out there.

And 6.0.4 is good. Good enough. It does what I want it to do, but that’s now. Things change. Innovation. Things must evolve in the face of change, or die. So is FCP dying or evolving? Probably pupating is closer to home. Getting ready for the next OS.

Look at what SnowLeopard is bringing: 64 bit, so FCP won’t slow down on large RAM hungry projects (currently only 2.5 GB RAM can go to FCP, no matter how much you have installed). QuickTime X improves H.264 and pokes connectors into custom hardware. OpenCL taps into your GPU so rendering Core effects gets a speed bump, and Grand Central should make multi-processor machines deliver on their promise.

And then there’s the fact that FCP isn’t a spring chicken. It has a history, and a complex one at that. There are things deep in Final Cut Pro that really shouldn’t be there. Stray DNA, vestigial PC routines, note that I’m guessing, but pretty sure that their removal would require complex surgery.

So I’m betting the farm on a re-write of FCS, with significant chunks making their way into Cocoa to make FCS into a full-on Snow Leopard app with a future, rather than a rehash on the same chassis. And hoping same goes for Color, SoundTrack Pro and Motion, with the assumption that LiveType gets put out to grass.

It would be a mammoth task. But Apple’s done this before with the Intel switch.

When you’ve blown the XDCAM-EX magic smoke…

There’s been a definite meme at work this week. I’ve heard it at training sessions, I’ve had emails, I’ve read posts, and had phone calls all about people having trouble with getting EX1 footage into their system.

Of course, XDCAM Transfer does a great job – check out my tutorial in the How-to section above. But some people have been, well, ‘playing’ – doing things that perhaps they shouldn’t. And suddenly there’s an EX1 card with stuff they can’t view, can’t edit, and haven’t backed up.

So here’s an interesting utility that I’ll be investigating soon:

http://www.calibratedsoftware.com/

Essentially, it promises that you can edit the native EX1 files, even if the magic structure of your SxS or P2 card has been mangled out of shape. It promises you can rescue your ‘orphan’ video clips – no bad thing, but hopefully people accept that SxS (or equivalent) cards are like your negatives, your original film. Best not muck around with them too much. But I digress.

Whether this is a codec or a way of generating QuickTime wrappers on the fly remains to be seen, but basically the idea is you can shove the mp4s directly into Final Cut and start editing – straight off the SxS card if necessary.

News cutters: rejoice!

Back to school

This may be a missive in the school of ‘Painfully and Slowly Working Out the Patently Obvious’, but in the face of a sudden delay in the start of an edit, I decided to splash out on something to cheer me up until the tapes arrive (four to six hour delay). And being a bit of a sad git at heart, what do I choose? To cuddle up to an Iain M. Banks? To go for a long cycle ride in the balmy summer air?

No, I’m watching training material.

There’s a lot of really great training material out there on very exciting subjects. And I’m surfacing from a long dip in Ripple Training’s Compressor 3. Yes, the thought of ploughing through a few hour’s worth of Compressor training is hardly going to make a spike on most people’s Richter scale, but it pays off.

The first comment I’d make to any new investor in any of the many of the downloadable training programmes from the likes of Ripple Training, Lynda.com and Total Training, is to watch EVERYTHING, don’t skip the first few chapters even if you’re drumming your fingers through it thinking that this is all in the manual. I suddenly discovered the ‘Upload via FTP’ destination and the ‘FLV’ encoding elements in my Compressor that I didn’t know I had. Soon you’ll be into deep dive stuff, inserting chapter markers, hooking cheap hardware to accelerate your H.264 Compressor encodes, optimising your WMV encodes, learning how not to reduce your Mac to an unresponsive jelloid mass by not switching on unnecessary options and using job chaining, how to avoid unnecessary key frames cluttering up your natural stuff, and making very nice video for distribution and optimal use within Final Cut Pro. And on and on.

The benefit for any UK based Final Cut Pro editors is that the dollar is so Euro amp; Pound friendly that good training is an absolute bargain. Lynda.com and Pixel Corps offer very very broad ranges of materials (The Corps has a more cliquey follow-on meet-your-tutor, discuss-with-peers feel, Lynda has oodles of everything to watch and learn, but doesn’t follow on – take your pick). Ripple Training is focussed on the Final Cut Pro niche, and if you ‘dress to the Adobe’, Total Training makes training you want to watch. Beyond that, many kind and talented souls have made screencast tutorials and all of them have much to offer.

Okay. Now and again, there’s the occasional dog. A ‘what a waste of everything’ moment. But at least by churning through the tutorials and the training, you’re able to discern, and that means you’re learning. Learning and training leads to doing better, doing it faster. Increasingly effective earning power. And now, with any luck, that bike with the tape hasn’t left yet, so I can take another sneak peek at Ripple Training’s Motion 3 Deep Dive.

Zmatte is dead, long live DVmatte Pro!

For those with long memories of the UK FCP User Group, you may recall my rants about chromakey and DV. How in theory it should not be done, but in reality it can be done with external plug-ins.

Two offerings lead the field in terms of quality and affordability.

I chose Zmatte over DVmatte Pro a long time ago because, while DVmatte Pro was actually better in the long run, it was too slow and fiddly for the extra 20% of quality you got, and I quickly found out that clients didn’t notice.

So I championed Zmatte. Four clicks and you’d be pretty much there.

Then in September 2007, as a member of the Pixel Corps, I tried version 3 of DVmatte Pro.

The interface has been slimmed and yet it’s more powerful.

The speed is astonishing – due to the fact that rather than burdening your Mac’s main processor with arty stuff, it uses your Graphics Processor to do the work, which is exactly what it was designed for. ‘Hardware Accelerated’ is always an exciting term for graphics geeks.

It does the usual magic of using the ‘shredded’ colour information in DV and HDV and supplementing that with extra detail information gleaned from the brightness (luminance) part of the image.

It now does all the graceful things we like in good chromakeys such as edge wrapping. Still not as gracefully as Zmatte, but the quality is superb and the speed…

… DVmatte Pro is bloody quick. You can actually watch a live preview. You can actually watch a live preview of HDV material being keyed on a MacBook Pro. An 8 minute edit of talking heads against green renders ‘better than hardware’ in about 40 minutes on such a machine – from 1080p EX1 footage. That’s fast.
You will need to watch the on-line tutorials as there are some things to understand, but if you’re needing to do chromakey with FCP from DV, HDV or XDCAM-HD, you really should check out DVmatte Pro.

Online: http://www.dvgarage.com/prod/prod.php?prod=dvmattep3

The joys of tapeless workflow

Since making room for an EX1 in my life, something wonderful has happened to my edit work: I have plenty of well named clips in projects that are filed and searchable.

Of course, logging and capturing is the foundation layer of any edit. But sometimes edits happen to tight deadlines under pressure, and the time taken to patiently spool through each tape and refer to the shot logs, selecting the best takes and marking their in/outs ready for batch capture is quite frankly longer than the time to suck in a whole tape, apply DV Start-Stop detection and switch your thumbnails on so you can roughly sort into bins of rushes. And as deadlines shrink and edit budgets get tighter, there’s a temptation to not actually label each clip according to content. Just rely on bin names. And then you find yourself plucking shots from whole rolls of tape rather than individual clips. And that’s when you hit the needle in a haystack syndrome. The trouble is, taking in each clip and giving it a name takes a lot of time that, thanks to the absurd shooting ratio that DV offers (today I am working my way through 3 hours of footage for a 3 minute insert – a shooting ratio of 60:1), it would take days. And for a 3 min insert I have hours.

Of course professional crews don’t overshoot, and take careful notes of what they shot, where, when, who, and so on. But when a client hands you three tapes, what do you do? So to cut to the chase: The Sony EX1 is partnered with XDCAM Transfer – an application/plug-in for FCP users. Its party trick is to highlight, say, a dozen clips out of 60-100 on a card/disk, and enable you to name them all ‘exhibition GVs’, then jump around instantly between clips marking some good, some no good (which can make them disappear from your shot list), pick out some and add ‘sponsor’ to their filename. 15-30 seconds. Onto the next batch of shots. And so on. Select all, import, and lo – neatly labelled shots minus the dross. And I’ve been timing this: for a 16 GB card (an hour’s worth, maybe 100-200 shots for event work), I can log/label and import in half the time it would take to ingest the footage from tape. And this is firmly implanted in my mind today as I ingest 3 hours of PDX-10 footage with an unset clock, so DV Start-Stop detection doesn’t work, and the tapes are full of TC breaks. Yesterday I had 90 mins of footage shot and edited by end of play for a 6 minute item. Batch naming makes the editor’s lot a happy one, especially in time pressured environments.