Avid Media Composer in a DSLR World

Don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but Canon made a little digital SLR camera called the Canon 5D Mark II and, apparently, it shoots HD video… It seems that some people are quite excited about the whole thing. Well if you had noticed that, you’d probably have also noticed that almost every mention of editing 5D footage is around Apple’s Final Cut Pro. It’s certainly not because other products can’t cut it, it’s probably just because of a massive commonality between those who’ve embraced the 5D and those who long ago embraced FCP.

So how do the current crop of HD DSLR cameras play with Avid’s flagship NLE? The answer is just fine now, and really well soon. As I write this Avid is shipping Media Composer 4.5, it cuts the DSLR footage fine, but there is transcoding involved and that takes time, but they’ve also recently announced Media Composer 5.0 and it will do it all straight from the files, with no waiting around.

So how does it work now, and how will that change in Media Composer 5.0?

I recently had the pleasure of shooting our 48 hour film, Professional Dancer, with the 5D and really there’s nothing like serious time pressure to help you come to terms with workflow options!

In general Media Composer likes to work with what it knows, that means usually that it will only work with Avid Media – stuff it’s either capture or transcoded itself, but it also incorporates native support for some popular file-based broadcast acquisition formats like XDCAM and P2. Anything beyond that has to be imported, which will involve Avid converting the file into it’s own codec and wrapping it in an MXF file. This will change in Media Composer 5.0, but more on that soon…

For DSLR users this could be seen as a hinderance. But there’s more to it than that – while FCP users can simply drag and drop the 5D’s .mov files into their timeline, the perfomace is less than stellar, and the frustrations will quickly build. Instead the suggested workflow has been to convert the media to Apple’s ProRes format which is better suited to the rigours of the NLE environment, and to that end Canon released EOS E1, an import plugin for FCP which will, among other things, convert the footage into ProRes.

The import process into Avid is a similar process, where Media Composer will convert the file from Quicktime H.264 to your specified Avid resolution – the time taken to do so will depend a lot on the power of your computer and what you’re converting to – my laptop takes about 5 minutes to import 1 minute of 5D footage as DNxHD 120. When importing the files ensure you tell Media Composer that they are ‘RGB’ source files, so that the colour levels will be appropriately handled.

The waiting may seem like a lot of time wasted, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way at the end of the edit when minimal rendering is required to create a finished product. Many 48 hour teams had the pain of watching a render bar barely tick along as the time ran out – there were a lot of rendering laptops at the finish line.

So what abour the metadata, and sound? Well here it get’s complicated… The files from most DSLRs lack any decent metadata – even things as fundamental as timecode that we’d expect from other formats are missing in these files. Also, the sound on the DSLRs is not great, they have AGC systems which mess with the audio levels, and no professional audio inputs,

There are ways to work around it (the 5D can disable AGC and set manual level, and BeackTek have an adapter to get good audio in), but most people advise a ‘dual system’ record as is common in film production, where audio is recorded to a separate device, it could be another video camera, or something like the Zoom H4.

Clean audio can then be synced to pictures in the edit suite. With timecode this is easy, in fact Avid just about automates it, but without timecode it’s more difficult, you have to locate the sync points manually between audio and video, but that’s why clapper boards exist – Here FCP users do have an advantage in the form of a product called PluralEyes which will automatically sync audio to pictures by using the camera’s lower quality audio as a sync reference, however newly announced software called DualEyes will be able to automate this sync process for any NLE.

What options then exist for Avid users now? Well there’s a few things… Avid has a fairly unique feature that could be very helpful here – it can read timecode data from a video’s audio track. Standard SMPTE timecode is a series of pips that can be recorded by audio equipment, so by feeding an LTC source info the DSLR that is in sync with the audio recorder you can actually record timecode that Avid will be able to decode, although in doing so you are probably giving up reference audio attached to the recorded video (unless you feed LTC to one channel and a mic to the other).

Another option is to create timecode in the video files – VideoToolShed’s QtChange can modify the timecode track in a Quicktime file based on the file’s creation date, so if you sync your camera’s time to your Audio recorder then it should be possible to record audio and video files that have similar timecodes.

Offline / Online Workflow?

As all the clips have to be imported you can choose what resolution to import them at. You could import all footage as Standard Def 15:1 for offline if you wanted to. When it comes time to online you can simply select the edited sequence and Batch Import the clips again at a higher resolution (DNxHD 185 perhaps). When they clips are imported they record a ‘UNC’ path for the source file, so if the original source Quicktime files are still located in the same place then Avid will find them and re-importing them is just a button click away. If they source files have been moved, it’s usually as simple as locating the first one and Avid will see the rest.

What About Media Composer 5.0?

While the issues with timecode data aren’t going away anytime soon Media Composer 5.0 has at least one massive improvement for DSLR film makers – Quicktime AMA!

AMA, or Avid Media Access, is Avid’s method for handling access directly to native media files. It was introduced in version 3.5 with XDCAM and P2. Essentially you can point Media Composer at a folder full of files it supports and it will immediately index the clips within the folder and create clips in a bin that point directly at the files.

One big difference with this approach and the standard filesystem-based approach of FCP is that Avid indexes the files it finds and creates a unique media ID that will remain consistent every time it indexes the same file. That means even if files are moved or renamed Avid will still recognise and relink them, just as long as you point it at the correct folder to index.

This AMA functionality has be limited to professional broadcast formats until now, but with version 5.0 it has been extended to include ‘All Quicktime’ files – so in theory any file that the Quicktime player will play is also going to be available for immediate access in Media Composer with AMA, including H.264 DSLR files, and even Apple’s ProRes if you have the necessary codec installed. Presumably the performace will be less than native media, but once the files are in you can also Consolidate them to standard Avid Media – so AMA for making shot selection and then consolidate to edit.

The Practicality?

Avid is more than capable of editing DSLR matial right now with Media Composer 4.5 and earlier (in fact if Quicktime on your edit suite will play the source files, then Avid will import them – although earlier versions may not read timecode from the Quicktime files), and with the pending release of Media Composer 5.0 Avid’s strength in this area becomes even greater.

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