Adobe Pipelines: Redux

My last post on building production pipelines has generated a bit of mail. Some of it is from Macfans who refuse to believe that any film work can be accomplished outside of the magical, all-powerful Final Cut Pro, but most of it contains more-reasonably posed questions. For example, since I laid out Adobe’s production suite as a backbone for three different studios models, is it really the best? For most projects, yes, the myriad of professional applications that Abode sells, working together will be more powerful and more cost-efficient than any alternatives.

For other projects with special requirements, this might not be the case. And the different studio setups that I mentioned aren’t rough guesses; they’re designed around specific projects that I have in mind. Mostly they exist at as treatments and have simple budgets and production structures attached, so it’s easy for me to choose what would best tools for those project requirements. For the most part, those tools are made by Adobe. However, I did get one query as to why my low-budget film would be edited on Premiere, and my medium budget on an Avid.

Well, basically for the same reason that if I were to go from driving to work once a day to a job that involved driving all day, I’d exchange my Toyota for a BMW or an Audi. Premiere and Final Cut are like Toyota and Honda cars. They’re basically the same quality of construction, and they use similar parts, and they do the same job. Toyota and Honda’s mid-range cars are great for most uses, but every now and again you need something specialized. If you need to move tons of material from one place to another you need a large truck. If you need to beat serious deadlines, you need an F1 racer.

And sometimes, for comfort and reliability, you want a BMW. Yes, top-line Avids are actually more limited in some ways, which makes them a bad choice if you’re working on small video projects that mix and match formats, but an excellent choice if you want a more streamlined solution for a single, carefully planned purpose. And people who complain about Avid only accepting certain filetypes or hardware are like people who complain that BMW and Mercedes engines don’t accept cheaper, third-party Japanese components.

And that’s not really the point of high-end cars or high-end NLEs. The other reason is that 95% of all pro film editors use Avid. If I was hiring a professional driver for full-time, high-precision driving, I’d want to make sure that he’s using his own gear; what he’s most comfortable with. Even though you can easily load several hours of footage into Premiere or Final Cut, it just ends up feeling more unwieldy than in Avid.

Practical Pipelines and Adobe

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of building production pipelines around the workload of the studio. I then wrote in my article about Adobe’s Production Studio that it was powerful and flexible enough to be ideally suited to a number of different production environments and workflows. This prompted a few emails asking for examples of what I meant. Let’s take a moment to reflect on some recent projects and daydream about some potentially upcoming ones…

Video Production

Earlier this year I completed a promotional video using the tools in the Adobe bundle. Because it was a relatively simple and short project, I whacked out the whole thing myself on two computers. I began with video shot on the Canon XL2, and edited this together with stock footage in Premiere. Some of the materials needed only minimal color tweaking to get agood match, but the majority required considerable adjusting. For example, I was combining interlaced video, 24p DV, and telecine’d 35mm into what was meant to be a 30p master.

Premiere enabled me to edit these divergent framerates in one timeline, which I could then import into After Effects for fixing on a shot-by-shot basis. After considerable deinterlacing, color adjustments, glow passes, sky replacements, and gradient overlays, it was time to change the mostly fullscreen shots into widescreen. Because the final was meant for exhibition on 16:9 widescreen displays, I used InstantHD to stretch the video into 16:9 rather than a letterboxed 4:3. At this point I also created a number of technical animations in After Effects as well, using Photoshop and Illustrator for some of the elements.

The music, sound effects, and narration were edited and mixed in Audition, and mastered to a full 5.1 surround track. The audio and video files were combined in Encore, and I was able to create a seemingly random set of loops that was controllable by DVD remote without using the menu. This is non-standard approach but it was something I specifically needed for the job spec, and so I was impressed that Encore gave me enough control over the authoring process to do this. All in all, the project was a great success, and the close integration between the apps sped the process up considerably.

Admittedly, this was a one-man show, but larger projects requiring more staff could get the same benefits. In a previous, much larger project, we used Premiere and After Effects together across several workstations seamlessly, sharing assets even in the previous, non-Dynamic-Linked versions of the software. Starting with a naming convention that allowed the interchange of DV video files, highly compressed MP3s, and transcribed text files, we created a simple proxy system to maximize productivity. With a semi-automated backup and renaming tasks, untreated video files were replaced by the final versions within the edit as they were completed.

How to Calibrate an NTSC Studio Monitor

Earlier today I helped a friend of mine set up an NTSC studio monitor by using color bars to set the brightness, hue, and saturation properly. It’s been a long time since I did this, so it took me a while to remember how, and I figured that I might as will write it down while I’m at it. The first step is to get color bars displaying on your monitor, and they should be color bars played out of your computer or edit deck.

So, first we set the brightness, or luminance. On the lower right, just under the red bar, you’ll see three grey stripes, each lighter than the other. On a computer monitor, the far left is black, and the center one is dark grey. However, that black is actually darker than video black on an NTSC monitor, so we should adjust the brightness to where those two tones just match. Then adjust the contrast so that the white square on the left is at its brightest without “blooming” into adjacent squares.

Now for color. All good studio monitors will have a number of extra display options, like underscan, pulse-cross, and blue gun. Selecting the blue gun will turn of the red and green electron guns, showing us only the blue signal. This will result in four blue bars separated by three black ones. First, use the chroma or saturation knob to match the outside two bars with each other and the short bars in the middle row. Then use the hue knob to match the middle bars together.

You should now have four blue bars that match each other, with no change in brightness between the top stripes and middle stripes visible. The color is now set. You can switch off blue mode and see the full color bars displayed correctly. Now luminance, chroma, and hue are correctly displayed according to the NTSC standard. Note, you’ll be calibrating the monitor to your video signal, so if it the signal is faulty, your monitor’s color will be faulty as well. To test the video signal, you need scopes.

Adobe Production Studio Review

A couple of months ago I upgraded all of my Adobe software in one shot by ordering the Adobe Production Studio. This comes in two versions; the regular (Premiere, After Effects Standard and Photoshop for $1200), and the premium (upgrades After Effects to pro version, and adds Encore, Audition, Illustrator, and several third-party plugins for $1700). I went for the premium version because almost all of these additions would be worth the extra $500 on their own, so getting them together is quite economical.

I’ve been meaning to write this review for a while, because this bundle is quite a step forward, both in terms of the individual upgrades, and in the added integration between the applications. Adobe has built a suite of software that builds on itself and makes a number of production task faster due to the enhanced connectivity. As a result, the individual applications get a boost in power and flexibility. It’s a solution that can be the foundation for many different production pipelines and accommodate many project types.

For example, the first thing I did with it was a reasonably complex commercial animatic. I used the Adobe Bridge (a file manager that connects the programs, stores metadata, and more) to get some stock photos from internet libraries, sent them to Photoshop so I could cut them into layered PSDs, which After Effects imported as layered compositions. I arranged the layers in 3D so I could simulate camera moves, and then imported that animation into Audition for the final music and sound effects edit. A seamless process taking only a few hours, using four different programs.

Premiere Pro 2.0

click to enlarge

Premiere has several new features now, including the spiffy-looking multi-camera switching, and it’s all new fully docked interface, but there are some serious changes under the hood as well. For example, it now handles virtually all SD and HD file formats, mixing different frame rates, in resolutions up to to 4096×4096, and has native support for the Xena HS encoding card for real-time uncompressed HD work. Premiere is also piggybacking on After Effect’s 32-bit colorspace render engine, and there are a lot of new color correction tools to take special advantage of that.

The Importance of the Pipeline

How to build a studio is a topic that I’ve seen discussed on a few internet message boards recently, and I’ve also gotten a few emails about it. In the olden days of video, this was extremely expensive, but now you can get comparable gear for almost one tenth the price. Also, dealing with analog video was kind of tricky. Even basic post tasks might involve lots of equipment that we don’t see much in computer post. For example, multiple edit decks, edit controllers, DVEs, video and audio signal amplifiers, cable patchbays, TBCs, blackburst generators, timecode capable audio recorders, multitrack mixers, and lots and lots of exotic cables that you don’t see much anymore.

Yes, things are simpler today, particularly in post-production. But contrary to most indie film ads, a good post studio requires a little more than a single camcorder, a single cable, and a single white plastic laptop. A good post studio is built around a pipeline, not hardware or software. The workflow needs to be designed around what the staff will be doing on a day to day basis. And it should be scalable, as well.

Judging from the feedback I’ve been getting, most of my readers are at varying stages of the transition from video production to feature production. The video work, be it for a local tv station or an individually marketed DVDs, pays the bills while allowing the reader to practice filmic techniques and move towards a career in film production. Regardless of how advanced these individual production companies are, the first step to building a solid studio is the same; outline the upcoming annual workload.

What exactly will this studio be doing? Producing short-form documentaries or long-form documentaries, either independently or under contract? Filming live events and conferences and selling lecture DVD products? Creating TV commercials for broadcast TV? Various video for the web projects? How-to, training, or other industrial videos? Off-line film editing? Color correction and other graphics work? Once you know that, you can begin to plan a pipeline to best serve these projects.

The goal is to create a workflow that is balanced between the utmost efficiency in handling the job at hand, and the ability to expand the studio rapidly for the jobs of the future. It isn’t possible to just pick the components on their individual merits; the studio network needs to be more than the sum of its parts. Every aspect of the production process must be taken in to account to avoid bottlenecks. First look at upgradability, in terms of both gear and of staff, and them move into the hardware and software. This will take a lot of research, since digital video isn’t quite as simple as it initially looks.

After Effects: Compound Blur

Ok, lets take a moment to talk about my current favorite After Effects filter. It’s something that I haven’t used much in the past, but on my last project, I ended up applying it to several layers in each composition. As an example, I’ll use this simple background.

I created these graphic elements to set behind text. They look interesting, kind of like a DNA chart, and they animate well, with individual pieces sliding around and dissolving over each other. Graphically speaking, it fits the technical nature of the project, but it’s too sharp and distracting as it is. I could blur it evenly, but that would just look like shapeless blobs moving back and forth. Time for something a little more subtle.

Compound Blur applies diffusion to an image based on the grayscale values of another image. To control it, I made a simple linear gradient that whited out most of the area where I planned to put text. I then added the Compound Blur filter to my moving blocks, and set my gradient as the blur layer. After tweaking the blur amount and lowering the layer’s opacity, we have what we’re looking for (with some images, heavy Compound Blurring can create blocky artifacts, but these can be blurred again by a masked adjustment layer).

The areas where the gradient is lightest, the blocks are the most blurred, and the upper left corner of the image, sharp detail is still visible. This is simplest use of the filter; just a still linear gradient controlling the blur amounts. However, animated gradients or moving footage can create interesting effects, and if you can make a pseudo-depth map for video footage, it’s a good way to add or enhance depth of field blurring, even though the Lens Blur may be a more precise option.