*This article was originally publish in the 2010 Supermag which can be found here.
It’s hard to imagine that only a couple of years ago, production and postproduction were considered two separate realms. While an editor would begin cutting during production, it was rare that he/she was ever on the set. Editors didn’t really have much to do during production because dailies needed capturing, files transcoding, and projects organizing. However, with the digital revolution and tapeless cameras, editors have an increasingly important role in production.
As tapeless cameras emerged on the market, and demand increased for HD quality offline workflows, dozens of new ‘HD codec flavors’ were introduced. While these new codec varieties appeared promising, several issues needed to be resolved. First, there was no ‘standard’ codec making it difficult for NLE’s to focus their research and development. Second, because most of the new formats developed, (except HDV) were not tape based, they could not be captured through traditional means. In fact, many solid state camera formats were virtually un-editable.
But necessity is indeed the mother of all inventions. Two huge innovations enabled NLE systems to respond to the challenges mentioned above: ‘Editing codecs’ like DNxHD and Prores, and file transfer methods like AMA and Log and Transfer, which depend on a computer’s processing power. As a result, dailies can now be viewed at their highest resolution natively and instantly, and organized or edited directly on the set.
This article is written from my point of view as an ‘editor on the set’ of a television pilot called, “Handicapped John” (HCJ) using both Sony XDCamHD and the Canon 7D with an Alpha version of Media Composer 5.0‘s AMA plugin.
Let’s face it, movies are expensive to make, even the short ones. So whenever new technologies offer an alternative to using the words ‘post house,’ we’re happy to use them.
THE BEEHIVE OF PRODUCTION:
Like a swarm of honey bees, workers begin arriving on the set in the wee hours of the morning. We had been preparing for these two precious shooting days for over a month, longer if you count writing the script. At this point, I had already spent every dollar and favor I had in the world. Still, we were only at the beginning.
Each day on HCJ, we aimed to shoot 11 pages of script, encompassing 25 camera setups in 12 hours. This meant a new camera setup every 28 minutes for 12 hours, which includes time spent for lights, blocking the scene, and then actually acting it out.... several times.
So how is it possible to shoot at such a frenetic pace? Well, for one thing, you shoot with two cameras. As brilliant and forward thinking producers (or was it just based on what was available to us? I can’t remember), we elected to shoot using the Sony F-800 on to XDCam disc, and with the Canon 7D, a DSLR shooting to compact flash cards. The difference in the appearance of the two cameras is laughable. However, the 7D had one huge advantage: it’s tiny! More on that camera later though.
Now remember, this article is written from the point of view of an editor, so let me clarify what those two cameras mean to me. From the Sony camera we are capturing the “XDCamHD codec, in an MXF container”. With the Canon 7D we were shooting to “Quicktime wrapped, H.264 codec” media. Yes, we mixed codecs knowingly.. Dun dun daaaa.....
To clarify, a ‘wrapper or container’ is a delivery method of playing any number of ‘codecs’. The word codec stands for compression - decompression and literally refers to how the footage was stored on the disc. Examples of codecs include; DVCProHD, DNxHD, Apple ProRes, H.264, and MPEG-2. When a producer asks for a quicktime movie, my head spins for a moment. Why? Because no one type of quicktime movie works everywhere yet. The conversation typically goes like this:
Me - “Do you want a DVD or a Quicktime?”
Producer - “A Quicktime is fine.”
Me - “Any particular kind of Quicktime? There are lots.”
Producer - “A .mov is fine.”
Me - “They’re all .mov’s.”
Producer - “Just a regular one then. Nothing fancy.”
Erg..... I’ve learned to ask better questions. Now I say it like this:
Me: “Do you want a DVD like the ones Netflix sends you or do you want to play it on your computer?”
Producer: “Netflix please. Can you have that for me in 15 minutes?”
TIP: Typically if you do not have the correct codec installed, your Quicktime player will be either all white or all green.
POST TOOLS DURING PRODUCTION!?
Avid Media Access (AMA) is a plugin that allows Avid Media Composer to look at a video file in its native codec and wrapper directly, without needing to import or capture anything. This circumvents the classical import into the OMFI or Avid Media Files Folder, and represents a huge break from past Avid interaction with media. But this feature is already a whopping year old, so why bother talking about it? Because it keeps getting better!
With the newest release of Media Composer 5.0, Avid is able to connect via AMA to any clip that plays in QuickTime on your computer. Since AMA uses plugin architecture, tomorrow’s ‘un-editable‘ codec nightmares can be avoided by camera manufacturers who now work directly with the Avid programming code.
At the time of my testing this feature, AMA worked brilliantly with some codecs like XDCamHD but had not yet gained the ability to do H.264. However since then support for H.264 has been added.
AMA AND XDCamHD
Back to the set of, “Handicapped John”. The first XDCam disc of the day popped out of the camera like a warm apple strudel at 3PM on Saturday afternoon. I had six hours remaining with which to make myself useful (on Sunday I could be useful all day since I had yesterday’s footage too).
Here are the seven steps I used to view, backup and even create an assembly edit while the dailies were still on set.
Step 1) Install the XDCam codec from Sony’s website before you begin it with your computer. The codecs can be found here: www.sony.com/xdcamhd. The downloads are free to use. Download file, PDW-U1 XDCAM Drive Software (VFAM) version, whichever is newest.
Step 2) Connect either your XDCam Camera or an XDCam player to your computer via iLink (fire wire) or USB. You’ll know if you have downloaded the codec because the XDCam disc will mount like a hard drive volume.
TIP: To find out which codecs will work with your version of MC, open the console: Tools> Console or Command 6. Type in: AMA_Listplugins
Step 3-A) Copy all of the contents on the XDCam disc to an external hard drive. Essentially, you are creating, ‘virtual volumes’, which Avid can access through AMA. Avid can access the discs via AMA without doing this, but this step is important for backup of your media if your hard drive crashes. Be organized here, do not be lazy!
Step 3-B) Do step 3-A again on to a second hard drive for backup. At this point, eject the HDCam disc and store it for safety.
Step 4) Launch Avid MC and create a new project. In my case, using XDCamHD, the project was 1080p, 23.98fps.
Go to your project settings and open up AMA. By default AMA is already active. In the ‘bins’ tab, select, ‘create new bin by volume name.’ This means that you can load all your XDCam discs at once, and that for each volume (or tape) linked, a new bin will be created with the same name.
Step 5) Click file: File> Link to AMA volume. The volume can be the actual XDCam disc or the newly created virtual disc. I prefer the virtual method because your hard drives spin faster than the real disc, making real time access a little faster. Your clips will light up yellow and fill your bins.
At this point you can already view, and edit your XDCamHD footage! You should note that there is no way to delete your original media from a disc or virtual volume while using AMA.
Step 6) For XDcamHD, Consolidate simply means ‘to copy’. Highlight all the clips you wish to edit with and consolidate them to a hard drive by clicking: Clip> Consolidate/Transcode. Select the hard drive you wish to copy to and click, ‘ok’. Yet another copy of your footage is made, only this time it goes into the more traditional Avid Media Files folder. You should do this for long projects.
Consolidating means the file will have its wrapper changed to a more Avid friendly type of MXF container (yes there are many types of MXF). The consolidation process should move rapidly, as you are not changing the codec or re-compressing anything. On my laptop, this process moved slightly faster than real time.
After consolidating, edit as you normally would.
STEP 7-10) DSLR and the CANON 7D
The Canon 7D has three huge advantages. It’s small, cheap to buy or rent, and has the ability to fit most of Canons’ fantastic photo lenses.
However, the codec it uses, H.264, is a Long GOP compressed and is thus a difficult codec to edit with. This is mainly because only two real frames are recorded per second (subject of another article). Furthermore, the camera is shooting at the extremely high bit rate of almost 50Mbps. By comparison, a standard definition DVD has a max bit rate of 9Mbps. At the time of this writing, H.264 is not a supported codec for AMA. Accordingly, the file must be traditionally imported. However, if your goal is simply to view the footage, open it from the finder level and hit play!
Be diligent in how you organize this media and make sure to copy it to a second hard drive!
TIP: H.264 takes a ton of processing power to play back in quicktime by itself, regardless of what editing system you are using. Most times shrinking the image size will get rid of the stuttering playback in QT.
Step 7) Importing QT files files out of the ‘DCIM’ is now as simple as File>Link to AMA File(s)
Note: When dealing with many cards, I recommend using AMA and then consolidating to DNxHD 110 (or higher) so that you can use this high quality import as your ‘online’ media later for color correction.
For those editors who wish to make just a few quick cuts, use AMA to edit directly without bothering to consolidate. There is no problem if you are dealing with 2-3 cards worth of footage. By comparison, one feature that I edited used 293, P2 loads worth of footage. Consolidating takes time, AMA doesn’t.
The huge advantage of the XDCam is that you will have a disc to walk away with, which offers great peace of mind. The discs are relatively cheap at $25 for a 45 minute load.
Skip the offline-online workflow if you can. Edit in native high resolution material and output to QT files. Only go to tape if you get distribution and need it.
Once you get to post and time is a little more relaxed, it’s worth spending some time script syncing your dailies, especially on long projects. On Handicapped John, we didn’t have a script supervisor, so having a record of the coverage is invaluable. Besides it’s cool. I’ve included a picture just to show it off.
Good luck and have fun shooting! We love this job!
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