A Cautionary Tale for the FCP Switcher
COW Library : Apple Final Cut Pro X Debates : Walter Biscardi : A Cautionary Tale for the FCP Switcher
What follows is a cautionary tale for anyone switching from Final Cut Pro 7 (or earlier) to anything else. If you are looking for an exact replacement for FCP, you'll be sorely disappointed. There is nothing on the market today that is as flexible as that tool was. Multiple NLEs have similar and better ways to do some things, but as someone who has edited on FCP since 2001, I have found absolutely nothing that absolutely positively replaces that tool completely. So you will most likely end up in a similar situation as I have, installing multiple tools and using the right tool for the task at hand. Well, sometimes even picking what you think is the right tool might go awry.
This entire story revolves around a magazine styled show that features reports shot by photographers all over the United States using every camera and format imagineable along with completed stories submitted by stations nationwide.
As I reported previously in my blog, we made the decision to switch from Final Cut Pro 7 to Avid Media Composer 6* for our broadcast projects after extensive testing with both Avid 6 and Adobe Creative Suite 6. In particular, we really wanted that extensive media management Avid is famous for and it was nice to see the AMA linking feature make it a bit quicker on the ingest side. Also, we still do a lot of documentary and broadcast projects that involve tape capture / mastering from professional VTRs and that's one area where the Adobe Creative Suite just falls flat. (*Note: I ended up buying 5 copies of Avid Symphony since it was cheaper with the cross grade offer than Media Composer)
For those who don't know, the AMA linking is Avid's first step into supporting native file based workflows allowing the editor to mix and match files, formats and even frame rates in a timeline. P2, XDCAM and other file based camera formats can essentially be brought into a project, in their native formats, and the editor can start using those files right away. In the past, Avid required the editor to transcode everything to a conformed codec / frame rate / frame size before the editor could start working. We have since discovered that the AMA comes with a price, as you will see.
Now moving away from Final Cut Pro, one of our main goals is to speed up our turnaround times by reducing or eliminating the need for a Log and Transfer type of process. That is the need to conform all our footage to single format / frame rate / frame size, etc... BEFORE we start the edit. As we tested both products, it was obvious that Adobe Premiere Pro is superior in the "anything into your project and timeline" aspect. Heck even with missing data from the cameras, Premiere Pro can still read many files that nothing else can.
Avid offers the Transcode / Consolidate function so in theory, we could "edit anything" and then conform our finished timeline at the end of the process, create an AAF from the consolidated timeline and send that over to Resolve for color grade. That would give us the flexibility of not transcoding anything in the beginning and having fully conformed, independent clips at the end for Resolve. No scene detect or EDLs necessary.
Now here's the first place we messed up during all of our testing. We never actually tried this consolidate / transcode process send AAF to Resolve because quite honestly I didn't think we had to. Avid's Transcode and Consolidate functions are well known and I just figured that would be the least of our worries. We edited news stories, promotional spots, created files for the web, laid masters to tape and it all worked. But we never actually tried to to Consolidate / Transcode and send an AAF of a project to Resolve. In hindsight, Mistake #1.
One thing we did discover during our testing is that AMA Linking just didn't work as well as we would have liked. When we just linked to the media, that is, just left it in its native format, the systems were sluggish. Avid was happier if we transcoded all our media over to a single codec, in our case we did everything to DNxHD. Ok, so why did we continue with Avid if that defeats the purpose of trying to speed up the turnaround time of our editing by using native formats? Avid's fast import really is fast. That is, it'll transcode everything to DNxHD or ProRes MXF much more quickly than FCP's Log and Transfer function. We did not conform everything to a single frame rate / frame size, we just left everything in the native frame rate / frame size so it would do the fastest import possible, again planning to do a full Transcode / Consolidate at the end of the editing process.
Now the second place we messed up in all our testing, I didn't know that Resolve required Tape Names for all clips to accurately assemble AAFs from Avid.* I discovered this as we were finishing up Episode 1 of the second season of a series. BlackMagic tried to give us a few workarounds but talking to multiple long time Resolve artists confirmed that if you really want an accurate AAF to go into Resolve, you really wanted to have tape names on everything. File based cameras don't have tape names, but of course, coming from Final Cut Pro, I figured no big deal, we'll just add fake tape names to all the file based media. Ah well, if it was only that easy. (*Note: this tape name requirement applies to Resolve 8.2 and earlier, I'm told 9.0 may remove this requirement, but as I don't have it here for testing, I don't know.)
ISSUE #1: 720p 30 OVER 60
The current series we cut requests that all photographers shoot in 720p / 60 or if that's not available, 1080i / 29.97. That's what the Producer likes and quite frankly, so do I, especially 720p/60. This series uses a a lot of stringer photographers around the country using just about every make and model of camera. One of the biggest issues we have to deal with is working with the myriad of formats and when the photographer tells us "Sorry, I shot a commercial last week in 24p and forgot to switch the camera back for your shoot." So we end up with many MANY formats and codecs for each 1/2 hour show.
First off, the very first episode of season two of series we could not get the AAF working and after three days of struggling with the issue, I finally told my editor to create a flattened file for Resolve. Well that failed constantly so we ended up playing the timeline out of the Avid and into an AJA Ki Pro to create a Quicktime ProRes file which I used Resolve's Scene Detect to slice up into the 430 or so shots that are in the episode. It worked, but was not elegant and not what we expected from the Avid to Resolve workflow.
I was determined to get the AAF workflow working for the second episode because that was the whole point of using Avid. Get all the raw clips into the application and not a sliced up flattened file. This is where things got really really interesting.
But because of the bug on this very specific format, and no others, we were unable to modify the clips in any way to add a Tape Name. Even if we had attempted to add a Tape Name during ingest from the P2 cards, the software would not have allowed it due to the bug. Avid technicians were logged into our systems for a couple of days trying to modify the tape names and understand the problem. It was vexing even for them. We could change the tape names of many of the clips in the show but just not the ones from this one camera, even though they showed up at 59.94 fps just like much of the rest of the show. It was only after we sent a test clip to them, did they discover the shots were actually 30 over 60 and find this bug. And of course, those clips formed about 1/2 of the particular episode. Avid did send us a copy of Media Composer 5.5 which did not have the issue as a temporary workaround while they fixed the bug. But they did end up fixing it over a weekend so we were able to continue on with the Symphony 6 systems. I would say we were about 5 days behind schedule at this point in the process. Not great, but not horrible yet for us.
ISSUE #2: TAPE NAME CHANGE REQUIRES MATCHING FRAME RATE
The 720 30 over 60 problem discovered and mitigated, we still could not change the tape name of many of the clips in the project. Turns out we ran into a "safe guard" in in the software. Avid ONLY allows the user to Modify the Tape Name of a clip if you are in a project with a frame rate that matches the clip. So if a clip is 29.97 frame rate, you must be in a 29.97 frame rate project to modify the clip. If the clip is 59.94 frame rate, you must be in a 59.94 frame rate project.
The timeline was 720p / 59.94 and of course we had an entire story in 1080i / 29.97 and even a few 23.98 clips in the timeline so no matter what my editor did, she could not Modify the names of those clips. It was explained to me by the folks at Avid that it has to do with the deep database structure of of the software. What makes that database so strong is the fact that "everything matters." Avid doesn't want the end user to be able to make changes to the core information of a clip too easily that will have ripple effects right down the database. One of Avid's core strengths that literally no matter where you are in the edit, how long you've been editing a project, it will always know where all of the media is all the way back to the original tape captures / raw camera files. So this means, something that should be as simple as adding / changing a tape name is locked down tight.
It does NOT explain to me why we can't change tape names in any other than a project of the same frame rate as the clips and quite honestly, this was the point at which I was ready to throw in the towel. My editors were frustrated, I was frustrated, that something so seemingly simple as changing a tape name should be made so difficult. Having to create bogus projects just to add a tape name was vexing. But she spent another day working through the various clips and formats and finally got all the clips to have tape names so we figured we were done. I think we were about 8 days behind schedule at this point, but it seemed the worst was behind us and we finally had a handle on the problem. This was only Episode 2 and I figured what we learned in this episode would apply to the rest of the season.
ISSUE #3: AAF EXPORT WITH COPIED MEDIA
With the final edit selected, my editor chose to Consolidate / Transcode and conform everything to DNxHD to get ready for the AAF file. This process creates all new files from the finished timeline that are all conformed and into a single codec, frame rate and frame size. That process done, she then proceeded to the AAF dialogue choosing the "Copy Media" command which would copy all of the clips from the finished timeline into a single location. Our Resolve is on a stand-alone system so this makes it very easy to point Resolve to the media when it's in a single location rather than pointing it to the main media database that might have thousands of clips in it, especially on a shared media array. This is a standard workflow for working with an independent Colorist that's in another facility as well. You just want to give the colorist what they need, not thousands of extra files that aren't in the final timeline.
She received an error to the effect of "Creating an AAF using anything other than 'Link To' is not permitted with ProRes files." The original project included ProRes files from story that was originally delivered in Final Cut Pro, but the error didn't make sense because everything had been transcoded over to DNxHD and she was creating the AAF from the newly consolidated timeline. Another call into Avid and more remote sessions with their technicians and we could not get the AAF to work. I'm going to admit at this point I about lost it and made Avid very aware of my feelings. Every step along the way we were stymied by things that should not have stopped us.
Conversations back and forth resulted in Avid sending down Bob Russo to personally diagnose and fix the problem. Even though we had transcoded everything, Avid was still referring back to our original files. Bob even did did a brand new Transcode / Consolidate to ensure that there was nothing wrong with ours. His didn't work either.
So then he literally spent the entire day going through the timeline, shot by shot and transcoding material yet again. This is a guy who knows the software backwards, forwards and upside down and it still took him all day to go through the process, I can't imagine how long it would have taken my editors to go through that entire process. By the end of the day, he was confident that everything was ready to go, and the next day the AAF process should go smoothly. We felt pretty good too.
Only it didn't. The next morning she got the exact same "Creating an AAF using anything other than 'Link To' is not permitted with ProRes files" error from Bob's timeline. This was the one Bob spent all day making sure every single file was transcoded and linked correctly to the proper file.
Now the editor working on this particular episode is a very low key person and I will tell you I've never seen her so upset in the three years she's worked with me when that error came up. Bob Russo finally proposed that the software was still linking to the rendered media from my editor's offline cuts and we'd have to go in there and find all those clips and convert them too. After two weeks of frustration, more errors and to have yet more files that need to be transcoded she was done. This made absolutely no sense to us that a fully transcoded / consolidated timeline with all new DNxHD files would still refer back to old renders. Why would we still want older renders to hold when we've changed the codec and format of the entire timeline?
At this point both of my full time editors were completely and utterly frustrated with the entire situation. They were no longer editing and creating, they were just troubleshooting and working with Avid engineers. We had been discussing for the better part of a week whether we should just go over to Adobe for the series since it was so much more flexible.
We jointly made the decision that day to switch the series over to Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 starting with Episode 4 (episode 3 was already in edit in Avid). I had the editor make a flattened file of Episode 2 along with an EDL for Resolve, which is what I should have done 11 days earlier, but again, hindsight is always 20/20. I got the show graded, and Episode 3 we did the same thing, flattened the file and sent the EDL to Resolve. Episodes 4 and 5 are in Adobe Premiere Pro and I have been working with my editors to help us get caught up to where we're back to about 5 days behind at this point, which includes me editing through the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
To their credit, Avid listened to everything we had to say and tried to help. In fact, they did help a lot addressing some issues along the way. Sending Bob Russo down here spur of the moment was above and beyond what I would have ever expected, given how small of a shop we are. I had multiple conversations with product managers, engineers, and others at Avid. They really were all trying their best to help us through the situation and get us back on track.
But the software itself was throwing up roadblock after roadblock, mainly because of the way the database works. It was doing what it was designed to do, make sure that all of the media was tightly controlled so that the editor can always find the original clips. And as such, it had a very rigid way of working which conflicts with the "new, more open Avid."
In short, Avid has opened up the workflow on the front end of the process by allowing editors to work natively with multiple formats via AMA, but on the backend the software itself throws up a lot of roadblocks when trying to conform and export a timeline from the application. I describe as "We've made it a lot easier for you to start editing, but good luck getting your project out of our software." If you're going to finish your project inside Avid, you're good to go. But when trying to get outside the software, the tightly controlled database gets in the way.
Speaking to other editors and much larger facilities than ours, I got the same universal answers. The workflow between Avid and Resolve is a bit of a nightmare right now, especially if AMA is involved. The "new, more open Avid" is a lot like the old Avid. If you truly want the smoothest operation in that application, you MUST conform all of your footage BEFORE you start the edit. Especially if you want to send your project to another application, say like Resolve.
So the back-end workflow is something Avid is going to have to address. You can't make the front of the editing process more flexible to appeal to the former Final Cut Pro market but leave a rigid back-end workflow that gets in the way of the editor and using other tools. Based on my conversations with them, they do acknowledge that the workflow is not perfect right now, but what they will do moving forward is anyone's guess.
So you may be wondering, if we're flattening everything at the end of the workflow, why switch to Adobe Premiere Pro? I figured if we need to flatten at the end of the process anyway, we might as well use the software that's the most flexible on the front end. Zero conforming, zero transcoding, just throw the entire mix into the soup and flatten it all at the end for Resolve. And as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, we've run into situations where no other software can even read the camera files due to missing data except for Premiere Pro.
Is it perfect? Heck no. In fact the database management is about 180 degrees away from Avid. We have to very carefully manage and put our data in the right locations before we import them into our Adobe projects because Adobe doesn't move anything when it comes in. We're following the management structure suggested by Richard Harrington in his "Editor's Guide to Adobe Premiere Pro" as our guide. Even with that, even with use the exact same shared storage system, we already ran into a project this week where one of the four stories would not re-link to the media when opened on a 2nd computer. No idea why, had to manually relink everything.
That Consolidate / Transcode tool from Avid is something that is sorely lacking in Adobe and we do all hate the lack of audio controls before a clip goes into the timeline. Nothing like loading up a song in the Source and having it blast you out of the seat because you can't just drop the levels in that window. Tape capture / output is just not there reliably at all, we'll have to use other tools for that. And of course right now our AJA Kona boards work about 50% better with Avid than they do with Adobe Premiere Pro.
So it's not perfect by any means, but my editors are starting to pick up the pace again and quite honestly, it's a mental thing now too, just working on a different platform with a fresh start.
I want to stress again, Avid worked very hard with my editors to address the situation. Multiple phone calls, remote sessions, Bob Russo on site, it was way beyond anything I would have expected for our project. It's just the way the software is designed to operate right now means the workflow still works best if you adapt a traditional Avid workflow of conforming everything first. We are going to continue our conversations with Avid after we get caught up with our series and hopefully we can all work together to help open up that back-end workflow and make it more flexible in the future.
By the same token, we're talking with Adobe too about what we like and don't like with CS6. Their backend workflow needs to be addressed as well. There really isn't another software out there that can handle so many formats in a single timeline. So to work with outside software like Resolve, or even to hand a project over to another shop, they need to figure a way to make a conformed timeline to a single codec that isn't a flattened file. And of course we'd like to see some better media management to help prevent those projects losing links to files on occasion.
So where does leave me right now? I had originally purchased five sets of Avid Symphony and I'm going to sell three of them. I originally purchased two sets of CS6 Production Premium and I'm going to purchase four more of them. As I write this, Adobe CS6 works a little better for our current workflow, which really requires the maximum flexibility we can have.
And this certainly means that as we test software in the future, we will have to test every single scenario and make zero assumptions. Who knew FCP 7 was as flexible it was? You just don't realize what you had until you move on to something else.