After Effects: 2D Tracking with 3D Camera Tracker

Occasionally when trying to do basic 2D tracking in After Effects I find myself in a situation where I just can’t get a useful track. Either my tracking point is obscured or something crosses. However I find that After Effects’ 3D Camera Tracker can get great fixes on things because of the way it tracks hundreds of points…

So that left me with an issue – how do I get a useful 2D track from the data created by the 3D Camera Tracker in After Effects? Turns out it’s pretty simple…

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Baselight for Avid

A few years ago I worked at a post house in Auckland called Images and Sound. While I was there I had the good fortune to work with colourist Paul Lear and observe the recently new (at the time) FilmLight Baselight grading suite. This was a time when we were still mastering to tape and most of the colour correction at Images was done tape-to-tape in the DaVinci 2K suite, but high-end fully digital grading was becoming more achievable and affordable with the likes of Baselight.

It was an amazing system and made me constantly jealous. My Avid Media Composer suite at the time had only limited colour correction abilities (and, frustratingly, that hasn’t changed even now in Media Composer 7.0). So imagine my excitement when FilmLight announced, seven years later at NAB 2012, that they were making Baselight available as a plugin for Media Composer! Then imagine my frustration when I realised it was only available on the Mac – my edit suites are all on Windows.

Now, about a year later, I’m finally getting to use Baselight for Avid in Windows. The product is still in beta, but it’s solid and delightfully powerful.

The Environment

Things have changed dramatically in the last few years when it comes to grading tools. It started quite a few years ago with the introduction of Apple Color in the Final Cut Studio suite. It was the first fully featured grading tool to be easily available to small businesses and individual editors. And that was where things stayed for a few years until Blackmagic acquired DaVinci and made their Resolve product available either for free in a limited configuration or only $995 for a full version.

So now, in 2013, I have at my disposal Avid Symphony, DaVinci Resolve, Adobe After Effects (with Magic Bullet Looks and Colorista) and now Baselight for Avid. My options are varied and adaptable.

Why Baselight?

BaselightUI

Baselight UI within Avid Media Composer

Given that I already have a full copy of DaVinci Resolve, why would I even need Baselight for Avid? It’s pretty simple really – simplicity and flexibility.

For the bulk of my work I find the colour correction tools within Avid Symphony to be sufficient. They lack finesse in some ways, but they achieve decent results and, most importantly, they are fast! Using the relational grading features I’m able to speed through my work at a pace that fits our high turnaround production (I’m onlining and grading five 23-minute episodes every week – I have two days max to grade everything).

The problem with my reliance on Symphony is that there are times when it’s not the tool I need. Where a scene needs a little more than I can easily achieve in Symphony I’m faced with a problem – either I have to start stacking effects to get what I want (not ideal given the lack of floating-point processing between multiple effects) or I have to take the scene out of Symphony to Resolve or After Effects.

Taking the scene out of Symphony creates it’s own problems – while the workflow from Avid to Resolves and back is good, it’s also destructive. Once I take a scene out I can’t really touch it again and it’s new media that needs to be rendered and managed. It works but it’s not ideal.

Enter Baselight for Avid – it’s a very powerful grading tool I can use directly within Symphony. It accesses the media directly and is rendered with Avid’s standard rendering engine meaning that renders are managed as normal. Now if a scene requires a little something extra I can easily add the Baselight effect, either to the clips directly or to filler on an empty track, and use Baselight’s powerful tools to get exactly what I want.

In Practice

One of the things I’ve always liked most about grading directly within Avid, either Media Composer or Symphony, is the Color Correction mode – working on exactly the same timeline I can easily move from shot to shot apply a grade. It’s fast and efficient and very simple. Other NLEs have traditionally made this workflow more difficult by requiring that you apply an effect to each clip and then edit each one separately.

Unfortunately that Color Correction mode is limited to Avid’s internal tools – using Baselight within Avid sees us reverting to an effect-by-effect workflow where we have to step into and out of the Baselight interface for each effect separately. FilmLight are aware of this issue and have gone some way to addressing it by implementing a macro that is effectively Exit Effect Editor -> Jump To Next Clip -> Enter Effect Editor which works fairly well to streamline to the process.

However once you consider how you might grade a given scene it also become apparent that you can probably take a more wholesale approach. Avid’s ability to apply effects to filler is a real bonus here, allowing you to drop a single Baselight effect over an entire scene so you can set a general look. You can then cut filler where necessary to isolate any shots that need further adjustments.

Baselight grades saved to a bin

Baselight grades saved to a bin

The ability to save Avid effects into a bin is also helpful in that it allows you to quickly build a bin of looks that can easily be reapplied to other scenes from the same setup or location, for example. Currently there is no way to save thumbnails with those effects, but with careful naming it’s not too hard to build up a pretty usable library quickly.

Baselight for Avid can also save grades using FilmLight’s BLG format. This allows simple interchange with a full Baselight suite, or even FilmLight’s FLIP on-set looks device if you happen to have one of them around… Additionally all the grade data on your timeline can be exported within an AAF to a full Baselight suite for a final grade if necessary.

The plugin is a realtime effect on the Avid timeline and leverage GPU processing for playback and rendering. On my Z800 I can perform quite complex grades and still see realtime playback on DNxHD material.

A minor frustration, if you happen to have Avid’s Artist Color panel (I do), is that Avid doesn’t really like sharing it. So you can use it in the Baselight plugin, but you basically have to remove it from Avid first.

Learning

And this is where I’m still a little stuck… The life of a modern editor these days seems to be filled with learning new tools, so this is just another to add to that list. It’s clear from simply looking at the Baselight user interface that it’s powerful and complex. Like so many tools we use it’s full of depth. It doesn’t take long to get the basics (although Baselight’s terms for different ways to grade the image are a little alien at first) but there is obviously a lot more to learn.

FilmLight have a handful of videos that pretty effectively outline the basics of the tool and give you a clear basis from which to work. You should definitely watch them before you start randomly attacking your timeline, but after that you’re going to be a little on your own. There is training available for Baselight, but the product doesn’t have the mass appeal and adoption that Apple Color used to and that DaVinci Resolve does now so resources aren’t (yet?) as plentiful online.

Conclusion

If you’re doing finishing using the colour correction tools Avid Symphony or Media Composer already then Baselight for Avid seems almost like a no-brainer. It’s relatively inexpensive and brings an amazing amount of power directly into the Avid software. While it might not be immediately practical to entirely replace your Avid grading workflow with Baselight it is definitely an excellent way to augment your existing work and bring a new level of finesse to your work.

While FilmLight obviously have some difficulties fully integrating their product through Avid’s AVX plugin framework, they have done a great job so far. Hopefully they can manage to work with Avid over the new few versions to make it even better, but even if that doesn’t happen the level of integration offered currently is obviously much more than an external application.

You can get a trial version of Baselight forAvid for the Mac at FilmLight’s website. The Windows version will be out soon at the same place.

The New Mac Pro – Why?

Apple announced their long awaited new Mac Pro at WWDC today. It’s different. Very different.

There are, of course, many differing views on the new design, and it certainly wasn’t the complete failure that some cynics (myself included at times) expected. Indeed, the new machine boasts some decent specifications – new Xeon E5 processors, super-fast SSD storage, dual GPUs, 1866MHz DDR3 RAM. It also offers six Thunderbolt 2 ports and four USB3 ports.

But there is one fairly big feature that it is missing: expandability.

The existing Mac Pro, and desktop workstations in general, are powerful computers with capacity for expansion to meet differing needs of high-demand applications.

So, when I look at the new Mac Pro design I think, why?

Why make it that way? There is no obvious benefit – no compelling reason. All you do by creating an entirely custom form factor is make it practically impossible to upgrade, expand or improve the system. For what benefit? There’s no reason, as far as I can see, that Apple couldn’t have built a new system with the same high-end specs into a more traditional form factor that would still allow for regular expansion.

The new design, with almost all connectors at the back, pretty much guarantees you’ll need to put it on top of the desk rather than underneath. We’re also going see a return to wrangling a mess of cables and external devices. With the new Mac Pro everything is external. So, if you’re an editor, you’re likely to have, at least, a RAID array, a couple of external drives and a video I/O device connected most of the time. That’s four separate devices, four cables, probably four power adapters, all vying for desk space.

Why is a cool cylinder case more important than simple practicality and configurability? In your existing Mac Pro (or HP Z820 perhaps) you can easily have a large RAID, two GPUs and video I/O hardware, and it can all sit tidily under the desk. What are we gaining from a weird cylinder that makes the loss of that simplicity worthwhile?

Overall I can’t fault the specifications of the new Mac Pro – it’s got good hardware. But it just lacks the flexibility that I’ve come to expect from a pro workstation, and fundamentally that’s all because of the choice to build it into a small cylinder.

Adobe In the Cloud

Today at the Adobe MAX conference Adobe made a very big announcement: Boxed products are dead, as are large versioned releases.

The internet freaked out.

Some even want to petition Adobe to change their stance

I can only assume that these people don’t understand the model? Now, instead of US$1,700-2,400 for various Adobe Creative Suite packages you pay $49/mth. $600 a year. For almost everything Adobe makes.

If you already own an Adobe CS product from CS3 onward then it’s even cheaper for you – only US$29/mth for the first year.

For anyone who makes money with their Adobe products this shouldn’t be a big deal, a hour or two of work in a month and you’ve covered your cost. You don’t need to worry about a big expense the next time Adobe release a new version.

Some are complaining about Adobe’s ability to revoke app access – that’s true in a sense, but it’s unlikely. Surely if Adobe, for some reason, decided to stop their Cloud activation services then smart people would work around it. Similarly and always-on internet connection is not required – the license tool verifies access once a month. And software will continue to work for 180 days which offline. 

Some are also worried about the security of their data. While Creative Cloud does include some cloud storage features, they are entirely optional. Everything you do on your computer can (and by default, will) stay on your computer. Just like always.

The Creative Cloud software is exactly the same software you currently use. You can log in to the cloud site and download any app you want. What’s more you can have the applications installed on as many computers as you want, and activated on any two concurrently.

The biggest advantage for us as creative professionals though is in terms of access to new features. All (well, most) of the Adobe products are developed by different teams, all with different challenges and roadmaps, but once every year or so they had to all lock off a new version and release them all together. Some applications probably didn’t get to include everything they wanted, while others were probably waiting for the release so they could finally get into our hands.

That’s no longer an issue – the applications are no longer locked into a specific release cycle and they are certainly no longer tied to one another for their release schedule. If changes in Photoshop require a year to complete, but new features in After Effects can be rolled out in just a few months then we’ll get the After Effects changes while the Photoshop team keeps working on their stuff.

This is a reflection of a concept in software development called agile development. It focuses on frequent releases of feature improvements rather than infrequent monolithic updates. It means we get new stuff quicker and the developers get better feedback on usage and direction as they go. We as the users benefit by getting a product that adapts to our needs quicker and more efficiently.

I’ve been using Adobe Creative Cloud for over a year and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It lowers the cost the end users, delivers a much more flexible solution.

Walter Biscardi has also taken the time to sort out a few misconceptions about Creative Cloud.

Dylan at NAB

I’ll be at NAB in a little over a week. If you’re also at NAB and want to catch up then check out my posted schedule, send me an email, or drop me a line on Twitter.

As well as roaming the show floor looking a gadgets I don’t need and can’t afford I’ll also be appearing daily on the EditShare stand to talk about what I do in my day job and how EditShare’s products (specifically XStream, Ark, Flow and Geevs) are instrumental in the production of 250 episodes a year of NZ’s highest rating drama series.

I’m also going to catch up with the Avid Community team for an interview on their stand at 4pm Wednesday.

Also, if you’re free on Wednesday night then come and join me for the Penn & Teller show – I’ve secured some great rates, but act quick because I have to confirm the numbers by April 3rd.

In Defense Of ‘Good Enough’

For many people in the TV and video industry good enough is a dirty word. It suggests a lack of care or investment. I think good enough should be embraced. Knowing what is good enough for the work you’re doing allows you to invest time and money in the places that will benefit the most.

When embarking on a new project you should establish just what is good enough for that project – in terms of camera, lighting, sound, codec, editing resources. There is a sweet spot for these things that varies from project to project. If you’re making a web series to be distributed on YouTube then a Canon 5D, inexpensive lights and microphones are all good enough for the job.

Making those decisions about what’s good enough is important and it lets you spend your money (and time) wisely. Shooting 5K raw on a pimped out EPIC camera will cost more, take longer and not deliver a whole lot more value to your finished product – it’s way more than good enough. In choosing to over spec something like that you’re also taking resources from other aspects of your project that perhaps aren’t quite good enough.

We can critique DSLR cameras endlessly (and I have) – they have bad ergonomics, limited shooting time, problems with rolling shutter and moire, poor audio, and so on, but when it comes down to it they are very often good enough and that’s an important thing to consider.

In post-production I think good enough is possibly even more important. Usually there is finite time (thanks to a deadline) and/or budget with which to accomplish post-production, so knowing what’s good enough there is important to ensuring that everything can be completed within the time and budget available. If the opening titles aren’t quite as you’d imagined but are good enough then it’s probably a good idea to move on. If you manage to get everything good enough within the time and budget then you can always go back and make things better. However, if you’ve got one thing perfect and nothing else finished then you haven’t got a product.

If budget and time aren’t an issue – you’re doing it yourself on your own gear – then good enough is still important. If you can’t accept that your work is good enough to call ‘finished’ at some point then it will simply drag on forever, and more often than not, I think, over-editing a video kills it. Again, a finished project that’s good enough is better than a unfinished one.

Don’t think of good enough as settling for something inferior or imperfect, think of it as striking a perfect balance.