Friday, August 31, 2012

Adobe CS6: The awesome and the annoying - part 1

So, I've been working on the next Snow Goose Productions project; and this time it's our own reality show.

For those of you rolling your eyes right now, I'll just say that it's an interesting idea for a reality show that involves helping people with problems in an unconventional way; and without the ridiculous exploitation that has come to define the reality show space. That's what the goal is, at least.

But enough about that. This is a post about workflow and editing systems.

For at least the pilot of this show, I'll be shooting on two Canon T3i cameras. In order to deal with the 12-minute-per-clip recording time, I'll be staggering/overlapping the recording starts of each camera so at least one is recording at all times, and syncing the footage of both cameras to audio from a Zoom H4n audio recorder (which will be running in 4-channel mode - two external mics plugged in as well as the internal mics).

Despite finding a decent workflow for editing H.264 footage, my aging PC was far too slow to work on a project of the scope of this show - especially when I start throwing effects on. So, after much discussion with the other members of Snow Goose Productions, we decided to get a new editing system.

I thought about three possible choices:

  1. Build it myself. 
  2. Get it custom made. 
  3. Get a Mac.

After dealing with the quirks of a "build it yourself" system in the past, I decided not to do that again; even though it would be significantly cheaper. That leaves two choices: Mac or pre-built PC.

I've been wanting to get a Mac for years, but the higher cost of entry has always held me back. Now, the performance deficit is the issue. I can't afford to get even the baseline Mac Pro; and the remaining systems may be relatively stable, but don't give a lot of bang for the buck. Still, the advantage here is that I wouldn't have to deal with all the Windows configuration BS.

I've been a Premiere Pro (actually the whole Production Premium suite) user since 1.0, and while I've never been completely happy with it, it's (ultimately) gotten the job done. I didn't try to upgrade past CS3, since I haven't been working with processor/disk intensive codecs. Once I started working with a DSLR, that's all changed. Also, ever since CS5 was released, Adobe appears to have really gotten their stuff together and made Premiere Pro into a true contender to compete with FCP and Avid.

And one other thing: Thanks to Adobe Creative Cloud, you can now rent (almost) the entire Master Collection of Adobe programs for $350 this year - if you have CS3 or newer. So, CS6 seems like the logical choice.

CS6 is available for Mac. The Mac has ProRes. Pretty much every independent filmmaker I know uses a Mac. Macs tend to be more stable than Windows PCs. All of these a great reasons for getting a Mac.

There's one other issue, though: Ever since CS5, Premiere Pro and After Effects use GPU acceleration to greatly speed up rendering and allow you to work with more layers of video/effects in real time. In theory, Premiere Pro/After Effects/Media Encoder CS6 works with the GPUs in last year's MacBook Pros. From reading the Adobe forums, however, it appears that that support is sketchy at best. The new Retina display MacBook Pros? You have to "hack" them (add the name of their GPU to a text file), and there's no performance benefit to using them over software-only mode. The iMac GPUs? Not supported, even with the "hack".

Of course, I could always switch to Final Cut Pro X, but I would be re-learning a whole new editing paradigm right in the middle of shooting a major project - not a great idea.

I could run Premiere Pro in software-only mode, but would have vastly increased rendering times.

Using Final Cut Pro 7 would mean that I would have to convert my all my footage to an intermediate format - just like I do now.

To set up either a PC or Mac with Avid would blow more than half my entire budget.

So basically I've talked myself out of a Mac, Final Cut, and Avid. Which leaves a pre-built PC running Creative Cloud.

There are a number of video-oriented PC building stores out there.

I went with one.

I got a PC with:

  • An Intel i7 3930K processor. 
  • 16GB of RAM manufactured specifically for the system builder. 
  • A 256GB SSD drive. 
  • 8TB of internal RAID storage (Two 2x2TB RAID 0 arrays - one for editing, one for rendering). 
  • An Nvidia GeForce GTX670 2GB video card - which is faster than a Quadro 4000 for less than half the price. 
  • Two year parts and labor + 1 year express pick up warranty.

I ended going with ADK, since they were priced right, had a great warranty, and allowed me to send in my Blackmagic capture card to fit into the new system. Oh, and they test the system thoroughly before sending it out. Unfortunately, my capture card was DOA (and I didn't have enough money in the budget to replace it), so I'm currently doing without it.

I've now had the system for 3 days, during which I've poked and prodded at the video production programs (Premiere, After Effects, Encore and SpeedGrade). I've barely scratched the surface of the other programs in the suite.

So, without further ado, on to the pluses and minuses.

Given the right hardware, Premiere Pro CS6 is now a pretty awesome workhorse. Instead of doing the proxy file dance, I can now edit footage from my T3i without transcoding. Many common effects play back smoothly without rendering.

In particular, Warp Stabilizer is amazing; not so much because of how well it stabilizes footage (other editing programs have the same or similar capabilities), but because it can do so in the background while you edit, and it doesn't require rendering the clip it's used on, even when you change the basic settings... Unless you stay zoomed out and want it to try to fill in the black borders generated by the filter moving the image around; then you have to render. Otherwise, you can change the basic parameters to your heart's content, and it still plays back the footage buttery smooth unrendered.

What used to be a whole process involving rendering out uncompressed to After Effects, setting tracking points and rendering back out to an uncompressed file is basically reduced to dragging and dropping an effect on a clip. Awesome.

One particular gripe I had for a long time was how crappy the process of making a DVD from Premiere Pro was. Instead of downsampling, Premiere Pro's Media Encoder would render out everything - including titles and effects - directly at DVD resolution, even if the timeline was HD. To add insult to injury, Premiere Pro had a 2-use-only Dolby Digital encoder; so you were forced to render out the audio in PCM, import the video and audio files into Encore (which had an unlimited-usage Dolby Digital encoder), and hope that you calculated the video bitrate low enough so it didn't go over DVD capacity.

In Premiere Pro CS6, there's finally a proper unlimited-use Dolby Digital encoder, and really clear labels for encoding presets. Awesome. I still had to select the Dolby Digital encoder in the settings (and therefore made a preset), but it works consistently.

This version of Premiere Pro (like the previous two versions) uses a maximum of 12GB of RAM, so 16GB or greater is ideal, especially if you run memory-intensive 3rd-party plugins. The plus side? I can load up a whole timeline of clips, and it hasn't crashed yet. I could get used to this.

Media Encoder is now a truly separate application, so you can use it to quickly convert a standalone clip to a Youtube version or whatever you'd like without creating a new Premiere Pro project, or fiddling around with After Effects.

After Effects doesn't feel that different to me, but I have yet to try the Mocha tracker built in to it. If you do a lot of After Effects work, get as much RAM (and as many processor cores) as you can afford - After Effects will use it all if you let it. Based on what I've seen so far, I would recommend 32GB of RAM or more.

I might be having some issues with the results of the Neat Video plugin not showing up properly in the monitor window, but otherwise, After Effects is nice and stable.

SpeedGrade is a bit of an odd duck. It's a really powerful grading program, but it's designed primarily for an uncompressed video workflow (the "send to SpeedGrade" option in Premiere Pro renders out your timeline to .DPX frames). I haven't had much luck getting it to import .EDL sequences from Premiere that point to the original media.

The interface is pretty arcane, too; I think there's a theory that if a program was designed to cost thousands of dollars, it should have an interface designed to fit with a very particular workflow and setup, rather than having silly things like menus and a help file. The timeline is confusing, and trying to do simple things like set up a new project (rather than just deleting the timeline of the old one and adding new clips) still eludes me.

On the other hand, the actual quality of the grade you can get beats the ever-loving #$%@ out of the built-in color correction effects in Premiere Pro and After Effects. I'm going to have to basically take a course to learn how to use them properly, but the secondary correction passes alone are just incredible. Now, to learn how to properly set the colorspace to match 8-bit output files...

I haven't messed around with the menu creation abilities, but Encore appears to be basically unchanged. I need to get some Blu-Ray discs to play around with that a bit - maybe a BD-RE disc for test burns?

Anyways, I've have a lot more time to play with these programs (and more) in the next few days, so I'll might report more in a week or so.

Update 1 (9/7/2012):

I had one disk of my "render" RAID 0 array drop out with an error. I re-built the RAID, checked it out thoroughly and it seems to be working fine, but I will definitely be backing stuff up more frequently. Also, the hard disks make a loud "click" from time to time - although I've read that this is normal for that particular model of drive.

I've experienced some occasional program crashes in After Effects and SpeedGrade. SpeedGrade has an (automatic, background) Quicktime importer that crashes frequently, although the main program remains running. Clearly, SpeedGrade works best with .DPX files - although my "render" RAID dropped out in the middle of working with .DPX files. If it does so again, I'll note it here.

I might seriously consider upgrading to 32GB of RAM - After Effects sure can use it, and I'm sure other programs would love it, too.

Cineform Neo 5 footage imports fine, but renders out as colored noise in After Effects and Premiere Pro. Thankfully, Virtualdub can access the footage (using the Quicktime plugin, I believe, which you need to download seperately), so I could transcode it to another format. There appears to be no upgrade pricing for Neo 5 to Cineform Studio Pro... Which is unfortunate considering how soon after I bought Neo that the latter came out. So, I think I won't be using Cineform for intermediate files.

I'm going to have to really study the SpeedGrade manual to figure out how to make sure I'm working on a new project. As it stands, I guess it's basically set up to work on one project, then clear out all the files associated with that project before going on to the next one.