Indulge Your Inner Filmmaker
by Aaron Moody
One thing that is crystal clear from NAB 2003: Apple loves making grand gestures. No one makes grand gestures better than Apple and we love watching them. It's a fait accompli that soon following Apple announcements of this magnitude, life for film and video folk's will change profoundly. Apple speaks; the initial shock hits, the earth moves, paradigms shift and the end user gasps in awe. Over the top? Maybe. Not going to affect you? Don't make that bet. This version of shock and awe was the typical reaction from the floor at National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) 2003 convention in Las Vegas. Seasoned pro's acting like teenager's on a first date. Apple's booth was the only one consistently packed, open to close nearly every day of the conference. The feeling was electric and I kept hearing the same refrain, "I haven't felt like this since April '99!" It was April '99 when Apple first changed the broadcasting/filmmaking world with the announcement of Final Cut Pro 1.0. Now, with a bold introduction of Final Cut Pro 4.0, grown up geeks were unashamedly geeking out with a software-induced religious fervor.
There simply has never been a better time to indulge your inner filmmaker, period. Apple has been on a quest to flat out destroy any boundaries, perceived or real, between those who make their living doing this and those who desperately wish they could. They want every person from non-users to Adobe Premiere users to Avid loyalists. With Final Cut Pro 4.0 (ETA: June) they stand their best chance yet of getting them. Final Cut Pro version 4.0 is that good.
It would take pages and pages to go into the improvements to FCP, and those pages have already been written on Apple's website. I'm just going to hit the biggies: LiveType, Soundtrack, Cinema Tools and Compressor.
One of the loudest complaints from FCP version 1.0 was about the text generator. It was awful, no question about it. A long running joke has been, "Oh, yeah, I love the titler in Final Cut! It's called Photoshop, right?" The text tool in FCP was so horrible Apple started bundling the Boris Calligraphy plug in text tool which was a great improvement and we were all thankful. In June of 2002 Apple purchased Prismo Graphics, the makers of India Titler Pro, arguably the best text tool available for the DV crowd. LiveType is the welcome result of that acquisition. Simply put, you can do things with LiveType that normally requires a trip to Adobe After Effects or Pinnacle's Commotion Pro or any number of graphics apps. The cost of LiveType for FCP 4.0? Free. That's right, it comes with it. Bundled with Final Cut Pro 4, baby. Let the geek-out begin!
Adobe Premiere users may be familiar with SmartSound Quicktracks. It's basically some royalty free tunes and a plug-in style application that allows you to quickly customize the length for your projects. It comes with Premiere. You can upgrade to the full-blown Sonic Fire Pro (software only) for $99. The big selling point for SmartSound seems to be that you don't need to be a musician. Thing is, what if you are? What if you actually want the ability to customize royalty free music track by track? Bring in the drums, find a funky bass line, lay down some strings, blow some brass, kick it with a screaming guitar lead then mix and match for length, time and whatever 'til you're loopy with unbelievable looping power. You see, that is Soundtrack. Oh, and what was the price on that puppy in the window? I'm sorry, did you say bundled with Final Cut Pro 4 for free? Ooohhh yeah! That's why I love Apple! No kidding on this one. Go to Apple.com to check out the signal to noise ratio of Soundtrack. It'll free your mind (and time) musically even if you aren't a musician.
Most anyone who's been swept up in the whirlwind that is the digital revolution has tried at some point to give video a film-look. One of the qualities (one of many) that says to the human eye, "Hey, you're watching film" is the progressive 24 frames per second rate that film is shot (for slow and fast motion the frame rates vary) and projected at. Until recently, all camcorders that fell into the "prosumer" category ran at the North American standard of 29.97 interlaced frames per second. That all changed at NAB 2002, just over a year ago when Panasonic introduced the AG-DVX100. It's the first prosumer DV camcorder to shoot 24 progressive frames per second (24p). 24p is the same frame rate of film motion picture camera's and the Sony CineAlta High Definition camera George Lucas used for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. In a joint Apple/Panasonic April 2002 press release at NAB, Apple committed publicly to providing a solution to accommodate the editing of material from the AG-DVX100. To understand this better, rewind to near the end of 2001 when Apple bought a product called FilmLogic. FilmLogic was used by editors (using NLE's like FCP) to enable them to accurately edit material shot on film. Apple repackaged FilmLogic, renaming it Cinema Tools and sold it for $999. Fast forward to NAB 2003. Cinema Tools has been dropped as a separate application and is now available bundled with FCP for an additional...ZERO dollars. Cinema Tools is just a new feature Final Cut Pro 4. Feel the earth move yet? 24p not your thing, right now? OK. Well, it's there with FCP 4 when you get around to it. No worries, take your time. Go to Apple.com for an in depth trip around Cinema Tools.
It's not possible (for me anyway) to mention Compressor without first talking a little DVD Studio Pro. If you're doing any kind of video for pay (or not) you need (want) to at least start thinking (fantasizing) about dumping the VHS vehicle (horse and buggy) for the DVD vehicle (starship). Perhaps not a complete VHS ditching but honestly consider a major flirtation with DVD. In Apple's iLife suite you'll find an app called iDVD which truly is not a bad place to begin. Now that Apple has announced DVD Studio Pro 2 (due in August), if you are at all committed to providing a DVD solution for clients (or even a really intense hobbyist!) you NEED to take a good look at what's new in version 2. For instance, the price: DVD Studio Pro is now -brace yourself or hug your iMac tighter than usual- $499, a jaw-dropping price plunge of $500. DVD Studio Pro (DVDSP) started out as the result of a deal Apple announced in early 2000 when they purchased the DVD products and technology of Astarte, the maker of DVD Director. Although, DVDSP has been a fantastic tool and certainly worth the Apple standard pro-app price of $999, for many users it lacked certain "higher end" features. In July of 2001, Apple knocked the DVD authoring community flat on it's butt with the acquisition of Spruce Technologies, the maker of very high end DVD authoring tools. DVDSP 2, from what I saw at NAB 2003, has very little code (if any) left over from Astarte. DVDSP 2 looks like a complete, from the ground up rebuild, and it looks like Spruce. One big DVDSP complaint has been that the QuickTime MPEG-2 encoder was less than desirable for doing long form DVD (amongst other things). This has been not so much a DVDSP problem but a Quicktime problem. If you're editing with FCP and DVD authoring with DVDSP, you've been stuck with the limitations of the Quicktime MPEG-2 encoder. Many have disliked the Quicktime encoder so much, they've resorted to some confusing, painful work-flows involving encoding on a PC. Enter Compressor. Plain and simple, MPEG-2 encoder-wise, this is so not your father's Quicktime encoder. The MPEG-2's they were producing at the Apple booth were so clean, they sparkled. AND, it's a true variable bit rate encoder. AND, it will do a 2-pass encode (just to make sure!). AND, it comes -drumroll, please- bundled with both FCP 4 and DVDSP 2 at no additional cost.
All the amazing things mentioned here barely scratch the surface of what Apple served up at NAB 2003. There are over 300 new features in Final Cut Pro 4 alone. All the realtime effects have left the desktop and now go out FireWire. You can now mix audio in realtime, on the fly, with key-frames! Either of those features alone is worth the $399 upgrade price for existing Final Cut Pro users. It needs to be seen firsthand to get the full impact but spend a little time reading on the Apple site and you'll see what I mean. PeachPit Press will be offering the Apple Pro Training Series: Final Cut Pro 4. The book comes with a DVD of the files used in the tutorials and seems like a friendly way for a beginner to get started.
I want to quickly (no laughing) mention a few other things from NAB destined to help bring higher quality filmmaking tools to more filmmakers. If you've been dreaming of someday shooting a Hi-Def (HD) film like George Lucas, James Cameron or Robert Rodriguez (director of Spy Kids 2, which was shot on 24p HD) the Miranda DVC-800 is fascinating. It's a media converter that piggybacks on a Sony or Panasonic HD camera. What's the most interesting conversion? DV. It has a FireWire port. Marry this to one of those new controllable FW hard drives from Sony (DSR-DU1) and you have a instant DV copy of your 24p HD shoot that you can edit immediately. This promises to potentially save significant amounts time and money. Converting all the HD tapes you shoot to DV so you can edit with less expensive hardware is expensive. Editing your entire HD project in HD, however, is even more expensive. You need larger, faster hard drives and $1300/day rental for an HD deck. The Miranda DVC-800 gives you an instant DV version. Edit your film, make the most expensive editing step be a short one and save it for last. The Miranda unit costs $9000. OK, so HD for the masses is still pricey, but it's coming down and this is a huge step in that right direction. It'll be a good rental item. Count on it.
ZGC is a company that makes an adapter called the Mini-35. It allows you the use of 35mm motion picture film lenses with a Canon XL-1 or a Sony PD-150 miniDV camcorder. Have you ever noticed that on video, almost everything you see is in very sharp focus? That's where the Mini-35 shines. The ability to choose what is in focus and what is not, leads to another of those visual cues (generally associated with images shot on film) that says, "hey, you're watching film." Choosing items of focus is critical for storytelling and DV filmmakers bend over backwards trying to achieve this either in software during post-production or by backing up the camera so far, you're nearly in a separate zip code than your actors. As appealing as that might sound at times, it's truly not conducive to good filmmaking as a rule. I like the image from the Mini-35 Canon XL-1 the best. The XL-1 has a detachable, interchangeable lens so the adapter goes on before you attach any lens. The fitting of this goes camera, converter, 35mm lens when using the Mini-35 adapter with the Canon XL-1. Cool. This is a very good thing. On the Sony PD-150, the lens is fixed (not detachable/interchangeable) so it goes in front, forcing an optical "zoom in" more than I'm comfortable doing. On the Sony PD-150, the fitting is a compromise: Camera, fixed (non-detachable) DV camera lens, the Mini-35 adapter, then the 35mm film lens. No other way with the Sony PD-150. I asked ZGC if they planned an adapter for the Panasonic AG-DVX100 24p DV camcorder. My concern being that the DVX100 has a fixed lens like the Sony PD-150. He told me they plan to tear one these Panasonic camera's apart and make some kind of camera/adapter combo so the fixed lens/zoom-in compromise of the Sony PD-150 would be eliminated. Wow. The timeframe indicated for implementing this was September. At the time of this writing, there are almost four whole months between now and then; practically a Digital Revolution eternity. While truly exciting, I'd be prepared to be pleasantly surprised but I'm advising against any breath-holding.
Audio has, without one question in my mind, been the child forgotten in the Digital Revolution. To really do audio right has been, in a word, expensive. Tascam showed a new digital mixing board aimed squarely at the DV crowd. It's called the FW-1884. It takes almost every kind of audio input you would want and sends it over FireWire, thus the "FW" distinction. If you like working with computer based audio recording but still wish to use a physical mixing board and you don't have major studio budget? This might be the board for you. Sure, it works with popular audio apps like Steinberg Nuendo and MOTU's Digital Performer (motorized fader control, too) but I'm told that it should also work well with Bias products like Peak and Deck. Peak and Deck are -as post audio apps go- pretty inexpensive and work very well. A good bang/buck combo. The one thing I could not nail down from either Tascam or Bias was wether or not there would be motorized fader control for Peak or Deck. Time will tell I suppose. The FW-1884 should be great for any kind of in house audio: mixing your own original tunes to voice overs to mixing your latest DV feature. MSRP: about $1600. It will probably street for less. Tascam says to look for it at the "top of June." Will it work with the new RT mixing in FCP 4? Who knows. I can't get anyone to go on the record so I would guess that initially, it will not.
AJA, a maker of PCI cards that work with FCP for those using higher end video than DV, announced a box called Io. This box allows you to work with uncompressed video over a FireWire 400 connection. I can't begin to describe how cool this Io box is. Io has all the major video (SDI, component, S-Video and composite) input/output but most audio I/O as well. With the new realtime, on-the-fly mixing in FCP 4, this bodes very well. Io was developed by AJA with Apple and is set to ship the same time as FCP 4. At $2300, it's pricey but truly groundbreaking and if you do that kind of work it's worth every penny. Keeping initial price points in perspective is key with all of these brand new introductions to products. Remember that most of this stuff isn't even shipping yet; to work at these levels used to cost far more; invariably the price always drops, usually sooner rather than later. Technology here on the bleeding edge of the digital revolution changes so fast that sometimes announced tools don't even make it to their release date because the technology becomes passe that quickly. Any way it happens here, we (the end users) always benefit. Always. Io will have fierce competition. Take it to the bank. ProMax (a leading value-added reseller of video products as well as making/selling their own tools) already has a similar box they're touting called the ProMedia Converter. The big difference between Io and the ProMax ProMedia Converter is that the ProMedia Converter will also act as a stand alone converter and is supposed to work with other applications. As near as I can tell, Io will not. Io is scheduled to ship first but the Promax ProMedia Converter does a little more and is about the same price. See what I mean? You've got to read fast to keep up with the shifting techo-winds and they are a-blowin'! ProMax has felt the harsh financial bite of announcing product that was obsolete before it could even ship. Their real time PCI card (RT-Max) had a full court advertising press. I've got the magazine pages to prove it. I had the check made out and touted this PCI card loudly to anyone who would listen. It promised to do seemingly miraculous things but it never saw the light of day. Someone always gets cut when riding the edge. Rarely the end user, though. So, Io is good. The ProMax ProMedia Converter will be good too. One way or another we always benefit.
One last product. Ever heard of Magic Bullet? Magic Bullet allows you to take your video footage and do many things to manipulate the image to mimic many of the attributes of film. Magic Bullet was used on Cher's Song for the Lonely. It's a stunning piece of software but it's only available as a plug-in for Adobe After Effects. What? You don't own After Effects and you have no intention of ever owning After Effects? Oh, well. Sorry about your luck there. Until now. The guy doing the Magic Bullet demo at NAB told me that it will soon plug directly into Final Cut Pro 4. This one's not bundled with, though. Magic Bullet costs $999 for the DV and Standard Def version, $1999 for the Hi-Def version. So, soon you won't have to pony up the extra scratch for After Effects so you can use Magic Bullet.
Life aboard the Apple Final Cut Pro juggernaut just keeps getting better. It's been bumpy at times but it's a been good kind of bumpy, I think. Final Cut Pro 4 and DVD Studio Pro 2 are proof that Apple listens to it's user base and takes their input very seriously. With the new versions of FCP and DVDSP just ahead (even if there is no hardware change), I'll say it again: There's never been a better time to indulge the inner filmmaker and Apple has never looked shinier. Go ahead, I dare you. Take a bite.
© 2003 Aaron Moody
Aaron Moody is the Creative Director of PictureDreams Film & Video somewhere in Maine.
Editor's Note: Aaron Moody has asked that all comments, questions, responses, hate mail, etc. resulting from this article be directed to The moonrockreptiles Forum.
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