Sep 6, 2012

Graduating from Final Cut Pro to Adobe Premiere

For a long while I've been meaning to write a longer post about my current video pipeline, mostly to communicate from others in the same situation. In particular I wanted to start with why I've been transitioning away fron Apple's Final Cut Pro and back into Adobe Premiere (where I first learned editing in high school), but a new program Adobe's launching called Adobe Anywhere made me particularly excited, as it directly addresses the pipeline I've been having to work with for the past two years.

Quick history, I learned video editing on Adobe Premiere in high school because I had a PC. Although it was able to edit well enough, the video card was terrible. So I finished a project and had to "print to tape," I'd be laying hands and praying that the card wouldn't drop frames on playback, screw up the whole export, and I'd have to start over. Before affordable DVD burning (and definitely before YouTube), working linearly was miserable*.

*(For those who care [and none of you should], my father had a Hi8 tape deck at his workplace that was literally like reel-to-reel editing, which I practiced a bit).

I took an Adobe After Effects class in community college a few years later, and loved the Socratic feeling that the more I learned about the capabilities of the program, the more I realized I was still just scratching the surface. I still think I only have a running knowledge, especially when I can see the source project file of some animations.

Later in college, we were trained on AVID, but because the Nitris and Symphony systems were so expensive, we had to reserve our time slots, and Final Cut Pro was available on all of the regular computers. When I graduated and starting working professionally, FCP was the choice because it was very affordable and available, and everyone else I worked with used FCP. Skip several years, several jobs and companies later, and my traditional pipeline is working with a team of two to seven photographers and editors, everyone on FCP, and all exporting out files for streaming (with the rare occasion of exporting to DVD). I don't think I've ever exported to tape outside of college, though I always entertained the thought when figuring out backup/archive solutions.

Now if the job wasn't an individual contracted project (in which case I was the sole photographer/editor/motion graphics designer), the work was done in-house, ie all editors sat next to each other in the same building. When my partner and I started Looking Glass Children's Videos, we a) didn't have the money to purchase and use editing equipment for staff, b) weren't even sure we'd ever want to have a central post studio. All of the editors I knew and hired had their own equipment they were happy to work with and wanted to edit from home, and especially with the nature of Looking Glass' videos, there was no need to produce from one location (I designed our pipeline specifically for photographers and editors to work from around the country, in case we wanted special videos we couldn't shoot in southern California).

Again, at the time, all of our editors used Final Cut Pro, so our pipeline was for me to source all footage (shot via DSLR's) to the editors via hard drives or FTP if there wasn't much footage, and when they completed a cut they'd email me the FCP project file (only a few MB's), which I'd be able to reconnect to the source ProRes files and apply final edits and color correction before exporting out to stream to our subscribers' iOS devices.

Unfortunately I big hiccup in the process was bringing FCP projects to After Effects for cleanup (mostly frame smoothing/warp stabilizing, but some basic effects were applied). I used Popcorn Island's free script to bring FCP timelines to AE without having to export out- this way I wasn't creating duplicate files, saving hard drive space and complication, and dealing with the source video files. It was especially difficult if I worked on the piece in AE and wanted to bring the cut back to FCP- it was impossible without manually re-editing the piece.

Last year, Apple released the long, long-awaited FCPX that promised a lot of updates editors were asking for. The program was not only re-coded to utilize the full power of modern Macs, but completely rewrote the fundamentals of how professional editors work. This was a very big deal to very few people, but of course adoption of FCPX to a wider audience was giant, so there's no looking back for Apple. I purchased and used it during Looking Glass days, but it was clear that this new version would be even worse for sharing projects to multiple editors and collaboratively editing, so I had to get a refund and continue with FCP7. A lot of pro editors started to turn back to Adobe Premiere, so over this last year, I've been doing the same.

Some of the biggest reasons for this I still love After Effects and Photoshop more than ever. Some of the other programs I've used and liked, like Lightroom for photos or Audition for sound editing, but having to give up AE and PS would be sad days for me. All of the major video editing programs are essentially the same in terms of workflow, it's just the details the differentiate them. Meaning it's not difficult to do some basic editing with Premiere (just as it wasn't difficult to learn and use AVID in school). So this was never a light-your-baby-on-fire debate: just as it takes two bottles of beer to enjoy the taste, it takes only a few weeks to get your stride with an editor.

A few things I'm still getting my head around, and I may or may not come around just through familiarity.
  • I still convert all DSLR footage to ProRes. Adobe Prelude is an interesting program, but it's still kinda awkward to me. I've heard from a few sources that it's best to convert the limited h.264 codec to something more robust, like ProRes or Cineon, and along with the naming convention I like to use, I don't mind converting. I also dabbled with the AVCHD codec, so making everything consistant with ProRes doesn't feel like a bad idea.
  • Color timing options are overwhelming. There's the filter options on the timeline, like 3-Wheel Color Corrector (which I'm not feeling is as powerful as FCP's), but then there's Red Giant's Colorista, which is difficult to import to After Effects (though Colorista runs in both), and in After Effects there's Color Finesse, which doesn't backtrack to Premiere.
  • Premiere's Title Window is balls. I can understand making something comprehensive, and I appreciate doing as much as it does in the timeline (instead of bringing it to AE just for some basic titles), but it really feels like trying to draw with your left hand, in terms of placement, layering, fonts and sizes, etc. Sometimes I really miss FCP bare-bones titler in just throwing in some placeholder titles, or just having to make single-word changes (that don't require duplicating and saving a separate asset).
  • Sound editing also has a learning curve, especially if you want to keep everything in the timeline, and especially with DSLR shooting. DSLR's allow 2 mic inputs on separate channels, but it's really difficult to mix those back to stereo, or move backward on timeline-based effects.
  • I love that most filters in AE work in Premiere, like throwing Red Giant's Denoiser and Unsharp Mask onto DSLR footage in Premiere and it works in AE. But I miss having a smoothcam filter to plug in directly on the timeline (just to smooth pans and dollys), and it'd be nice to have something like AE's wonderfully powerful Warp Stabilizer available (even if it were simplified).

Again, a lot of it just comes with getting used to the territory, but ultimately it'll be in the right direction. It's also really great to use if you do have a large group of remote editors, because licensing just one version of Premiere is much, much more affordable than purchasing the license for the Final Cut Suite. And again, with Adobe's new Adobe Anywhere, a lot of the problems or slowdowns I encountered before are gone.

Now I just need to start exploring the world of Ray Tracing in AE, and practice more with Mocha.