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Avid Media Composer’s UI Wars

User interfaces

Let’s face it we are obsessed with UI. User interfaces are our way of controlling everything, and I’m not just talking about Avid Media Composer. From the dashboard in your car, the panel on your stove, the buttons in the elevator, the remote in your hand and the apps on your phone, to Google and Facebook, none of us can navigate through five minutes of living our lives without dealing with some sort of an interface.

They all have something in common: someone designed them. Whether artful or ugly, deeply integrated or not, someone took the time to craft every part of every interface we touch. When we find one we love, we want it mimicked everywhere, don’t we? Remember the 1990’s Star Trek LCARS craze? Remember how after the iPhone launched, everything had to look like Jony Ive designed it?

And oh, how we love to be critics of our beloved interfaces. We’ve spent years mentally cataloguing every interface we’ve ever seen with vile hatred or divine reverence. Yet none of us like the same thing. So how the heck can anyone agree? In short, we can’t but that doesn’t stop us. As critics we lash our lists onto everything, from surfing the web to editing in NLE apps to noticing the differences between browsing Netflix on our phones versus Apple TV. Have we grown overcritical? Absolutely. Add to that a global demand for our opinions via services like Facebook and Twitter, and we could easily refer to this era of humankind as “The Age of Criticism”. 

And so, to all app designers and engineers everywhere including those at Avid, I say: “Ha! No pressure!”

 

The Media Composer UI, and the growing user base

 “Why are you STILL using Avid? It’s so old! It needs an update!” – Client

We’ve been hearing that for years, right? Well, they’re right. It is old. Name another app you use that was created in the 1980’s. Quicken was made in 1983. So was MS Word. Photoshop arrived a year before Avid, in 1988. Do any of these apps look the same as they did in their early years? Well as the joke goes, Avid did. Even though it has actually gone through about a dozen redesigns since then, the core ideology of Media Composer’s UI has remained relatively unchanged for many years.

But being old isn’t a bad thing when you have a wealth of fresh minds handed a fun, new challenge.

What prompted this more dramatic change in 2019? There were dozens of reasons, but one always bubbled to the top: new users entering the industry were alienated by its interface. Working with video on computers used to be hard. It no longer is. Apps today reflect user needs, and Media Composer’s UI just wasn’t following that curve. I’m not even talking about its comparison to other postproduction apps like Resolve. All apps in general, even mobile, were much farther evolved in the consciousness of the new user base. Media Composer’s UI development just seemed to sit there, like a rusty truck behind a barn.

In defense of most professional editors everywhere, we’d rather have a working version than a pretty one, right? But that was the problem: as professional editors using Avid, our numbers were dwindling.

Media Composer 2019 attempts to put all those issues in the past, and it’s not just because of the look. That would’ve been easy, to just slap yet another UI on top of it. No this is dramatically different. An overhaul of much of the underlying “old code” was also done. The architecture for bins was moved to a whole new framework, and a lot of the generally slow interface responsiveness users saw in the timeline was finally confronted. They really did this one the hard way, and it shows. The timeline’s reactions to clicks, scrolling and other stimulus feels so much faster now.

The initial release of this new interface was on June 20, 2019 with MC2019.6. It was the result of dozens and dozens of top editors and post pros all over the industry being tapped for their expertise as well as their long list of pain points, feature requests and current needs from a UI. The beta testing for this version was the largest in Avid’s three-decade history.

This Avid Blog is a history of Media Composer’s UI that hopefully explains the “why” behind it all. It is about the war that happens publicly and behind closed doors. No, I don’t mean reality TV style brawls between engineers, I mean the creative struggle between three main characters: 1) Avid, 2) Media Composer’s users, and 3) today’s level of computer science and how apps are engineered.

Avid knows there is still a lot of work to be done. There is a massive backlog of features, and many of them were unable to be addressed until this new work was done. With many of the apps old hindrances now gone, much of that work can begin. By Avid Connect and NAB 2020, everyone will begin to realize the scale of it all. For context, let’s bounce around history a bit to see how we got here.

 

Avid Connect 2019

On April 6, 2019, Avid publicly unveiled the new Media Composer interface to the world at Connect in Las Vegas. Avid’s inventor, Bill Warner himself was in the front row. As long-time Avid moderators, Randall L. Rike and I were honored to be sitting with him.

2019 Unveiling the UI

Chris Bové, Randall L. Rike, Bill Warner

We were shown a brief example of the new interface, which I posted to the Avid Editors of Facebook almost immediately (LINK). I’ve been to many Connects before, but this was the first where the audience was raving over every new part of Media Composer.

Though unlike most of the people in the room, everything being announced was familiar to me. I was approached by Avid a year prior to join a team of consultants that would help steer the development of this new user interface. As you can imagine, here in the audience at Connect I was extremely excited to see all of the work finally being shown.

Later there was a session with Tom Ohanian, who was the eighth employee at Avid in its early days. Tom discussed the UI of the initial Avid/1 Media Composer, and it was fun to see its initial sketches.

Sketch of Avid/1

Kabir Akhtar, ACE, Tom Ohanian

It was a weekend full of nostalgia and forward thinking, a perfect celebration of Avid’s 30-year anniversary.

 

Flashback: The UI meeting at Avid Connect 2018

Steve Audette, ACE (PBS Frontline) and I were teaching a Documentary Master Class together.

Avid Connect 2018 Documentary Master Class

We were thrilled Avid trusted us with such a large venue during Saturday’s prime lecture time. We were equally humbled to be invited to something much larger the following day.

We got an email from Avid’s David Colantuoni: “We are looking forward to meeting you and hearing your feedback! The Avid Product Management team, Avid Engineering, Marianna and Avid’s President and CEO, Jeff Rosica will also be in attendance.” Within the email were also the words “invite only”. Now really, who could pass THAT up?

It was a private unveiling and brainstorming session of what Media Composer’s new interface could look like.

Entering the room, I noticed the rectangular tables were fitted together into that right-angled horseshoe that is supposed to give some sense of an Arthurian roundtable. People were finding their ways into chairs and awkwardly smiling at each other in that way people do at conferences. We weren’t complete strangers. Pockets of us knew each other quite well. We were simply having fun discovering who else had been invited. Eyes were darting about for nametags on people we didn’t immediately recognize. But again, in that awkward, conference-kind-of-way, we’d soon realize that we were amidst friends and peers we’ve been following online for years.

Steve and I took seats near the center of the horseshoe. Over to my far right were longtime Avid engineers Alan Swartz and Randy Fayan, both of whom I’ve been a huge fan. Next to them were heads of Media Composer, Randy Martens, Kate Ketcham and David Colantuoni. Across from me was the amazing Marianna Montague. The room was filling up with some of the top editors, assistant editors, audio pros and video engineers in the field – Scott Jacobs (MIB: International), Monica Daniel (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow), Lawrence Jordan, Randall Rike, Jonathan Mosier, on and on they filed into the room. The gamut of postproduction was well represented.

The doors closed. The session began. (Was I seriously the only one there who had brought Media Composer to a meeting about Media Composer?)

Brainstorming session for the new UI

The first rule was stressed: no pictures. (Whoops.) The second rule: no holding back. They wanted a true brainstorming session. Screenshots and rough representations of ideas would be presented of what they are working on, and they wanted us to give them a heap of feedback.

And so we did. The meeting lasted two-and-a-half hours.

Randy Martens was introduced. For those who don’t know him, Randy has been around Avid for quite a while. You may remember him from a series of videos on MC6 that came out in 2012.

Randy Martens, 2012

Chris Bové, Randy Martens, Connect 2018

He walked up to the giant projector screen and began his show and tell. We saw a pic of some initial sketches.  (Similar to Tom Ohanian’s sketches of the Avid/1.)

Sketches of new UI workspaces

These were a basic draft of what the four primary workspaces – Edit, Color, Effects and Audio – could look like.  Although workspaces have been around for years, a lot of Avid editors have simply never used them. So, to some this would be new territory. I’ve been working with them for a long time now, so to me this was simply a better way of making them more front-and-center. I liked this a lot.

We then saw the first concept for the interface.

Proposed new paneled UI

Cool! A snap-to-windows, “paneled” UI.

They demonstrated their initial thoughts, of how each item could move around inside of the panel, and how each might attach. Rather than a magnetic-style attachment, which would merely dock one window to the next like in older Photoshop or Encore apps, these could be made to work within one another, dynamically. It was hard to grasp at first, especially in theory without visuals, so we all just kind of nodded and smiled.

Then they mentioned “floating”. Even though they were going to make it possible for editors to operate in this new paneled UI, they were also going to make it possible NOT to do so. The whole interface could also be “floated”, like it had been for years prior. This was wonderful news.

Decluttering of the screen real estate was stressed. We were shown the idea of vertical tabs. There was a lot of skepticism over this design concept. I mean, they’re odd, right? Reading text at a 90-degree angle? But some of us realized how this design could be used. For example, no more wasted screen real estate in Audio Editing mode.  We’d be able to “stack” the tools into one “tabbed tool”. Yes! I’ve wanted that for years. No one ever really needs to see all of the audio tools open at once. It’s not like they need to be watched in real time.

Proposed new UI: vertical tabs and a bin map

Then we were shown a preliminary concept for the “Bin Map”, an idea originally brought forth by Alan Bell, ACE here: (LINK). As the presentation went deeper, craftspeople were raising their hands. Some things they were showing were just not going to work.

Monica Daniel and Scott Jacobs both gave a wealth of praise and thoughtful caution. They explained how some of these ideas might look cool, and might be useful to some industries, but would cause way too many extra clicks or inefficiencies for editors and assistants on long-format scripted series. They wanted to make sure that efficiency and logic should be stressed, as well as design. Steve Audette, ACE and I spoke from the documentary side, making sure that script-based editing and broadcast workflows were addressed. Randy Rike provided perspectives from his experience dealing with users on the Avid forums and his many years as a broadcast engineer.

The folks at Avid were all jotting down notes and responding to the criticism and advice. At times they defended the reasons behind some things, but only to engage more conversation, not to dig-in their heels. It was a wonderful interaction. We all felt like this might be the only time we’d have the opportunity to be heard, so we kept hammering-away with questions.

“Will this be just a facelift?” asked one person. “Will the media engine underneath also be re-coded from scratch to support this?” asked another. Kate Ketcham and Randy Martens went back and forth, answering everything they could. We were quite critical.

Then Jeff Rosica, Avid’s President and CEO entered the room. He put an immediate end to our worries. He didn’t try to shove the old Avid marketing from previous years down our throats of “Avid is listening”. Instead he proved it with action. He explained that Media Composer and ProTools are Avid’s flagship products, and would be ignored no longer. This was going to be a fully funded, fully supported, all-hands-on-deck redesign. The entire backlog of feature requests was going to be looked at. Everything old was on the table. Everything current was on the table. Every idea for the future was on the table. The future of Composer was at stake, and so big development dollars were going to be thrown at this.

It was a silent room, with grins from ear to ear.

After Jeff left, the session continued. Much more was shown, again stressing the recapturing of wasted screen real estate. Here’s an idea we had to gain back the wasted real estate from the Smart Tool, but keep its functionality… What do you think?

A new approach to Smart Tools

Here’s a way we could reconfigure things for “x” workflow. What do you think? 

Here’s the idea of bins being changed to allow for [insert many longtime feature requests].

Decluttering of the screen real estate was yet again stressed. On and on it went. They showed many new ideas still being worked on. Randy even showed a few far-reaching interface ideas – new inventions that would not be released until sometime after the initial launch. It was clear they had done their homework, diving deep into the bottomless pit of feature requests.

And then I heard it… A wonderfully familiar voice gently spoke up behind me: “Can I say something?” 

Everyone’s heads turned. Norman Hollyn had apparently snuck-in a few minutes late. Norm was a professor at USC, and their endowed chair of editing, which meant he was highly respected both for his views on the history of film editing, but also its future.

Norman Hollyn, Chris Bové, Randall L. Rike

“I just want to say that all of this looks great. When my students compare edit software, not just the interface, Composer is seen as old-fashioned. They are often baffled at how overly complex it can feel, even for simple workflows. So, everything you’re talking about sounds like steps in exactly the right direction.”

Norm always did have a great sense of context.

The conversation steered itself to Media Composer’s performance issues. We all knew the playback engine and the timeline functionality itself was “riddled with old code” that lingered from the original design plans decades earlier. Thus, we were told this couldn’t just be a redesign but a start-from-scratch venture. It had to be. The responsiveness of both the playback and the interface had to be upgraded in unison. (Hence the all-hands-on-deck mentality here.) We were buzzing with excitement, but as we began creeping towards the 3-hour mark we were also getting hungry.

The meeting broke but people hung around chatting for a really long time. Norm and I were in the back corner, discussing this new decluttering and simplified visual approach to workspaces – how the reduced visual strain might even benefit people in the industry with autism & sensory issues.

Sadly, this would be my last in-person conversation with Norm. He would pass away 11 months later, in March of 2019. Looking back, it is heartwarming to know he was part of this group. The loss of his helpfulness and wonderful personality still shakes the world.

As we all walked away from the conference room, my thoughts became playfully lost in a daydream: the memory of seeing my first Avid, over 20 years prior.

 

A history of Avid’s interfaces

Early test of the Avid/1 in 1987

Bill Warner, Inventor of Avid

The first Avid I had ever laid eyes on was at Jerry Sherlock’s New York Film Academy, above the Trevi Deli in Manhattan (great bagels). Sitting at an early version of Composer was the first “Avid Editor” I had ever met, a brilliant filmmaker named Elizabeth Shub. It was in a back room, past a long row of Steenbeck flatbeds. I remember simply being impressed with the idea of sitting down at a computer to do editing. I mean heck, a computer?

UI from Avid’s early days

Remember, during this time Avid was not usually considered an edit system you created finished videos with. It was simply for offline, and then sending finished edits off to a negative cutter or a linear bay. Back then you didn’t think too deeply about its interface design.

MC7.2 in 1999 (Credit: Oliver Peters)

Avid Symphony in 2002 (Credit: Oliver Peters)

Later in 1999 and 2000, the world was finally editing on Avids in a quality that could be broadcast. I went to Avid training at Sheridan College, Ontario under Didier Kennel. I remember asking him how far I could push the interface design. I wanted to make every single workspace a different color. I wanted to skip Avid’s prescribed color scheme and access the main color picker from the OS itself. I wanted to hop between workspaces and have the entire bin structure change dynamically with my actions. This way I could sit down and instantly see where I needed to go.

We both sat there in front of Media Composer 8 (the first 8, that is), playing and playing, realizing I was asking too much.

Shortly thereafter, I was on a Media Composer 9000XL running MC10. Much better! This tackled a lot of I was hoping for, and it got better for MC11 and MC12. In 2003 the version numbers flipped back to MC 1 when the Avid Adrenaline hardware came out. Then MC2 was released to be the first HD-capable system. Following were versions that kept adding features while maintaining the stunning UI and ecosystem.

The early 2000’s allowed full control of UI colors (Credit: Pianoman72)

All of these offered wonderful control over how the interface looked. The timeline background could be made 0;0;0 black (a very missed feature). Even filler in the timeline could get assigned a user-specified color. (Think for a moment how cool that was, workflow-wise, to temporarily make clips dark and make filler pure white, thus visually identifying holes in a sequence.)

Keep in mind this was before the days where Media Composer was used in any sort of a gray interface, so one could really get creative with everything.

Early 2000’s Interface Settings (Credit: Pianoman72)

Then there was the added beauty of custom Workspaces. (Not “workspaces” as in Avid shared storage, but rather in UI customization.) An entire visual environment could be created for the various “modes” one might use in editing. For me personally, I created a whole color-based ecosystem for my shared projects in a number of facilities. The idea was to be able to walk by an edit system and instantly know what mode it was in. Digitizing was red, audio editing yellow, VFX purple, scripting green, color correction dark gray, and standard editing blue. Timeline settings and Keyboard settings also chased these interfaces.

If I hit a keyboard shortcut for digitizing, it would automatically open the digitize tool, ping the external I/O box, send its signals through the routers, and the interface would turn red, prompting me subconsciously to check my audio mixer to make sure I wouldn’t get feedback once the signals came back from the tape deck and hit the speakers. There were reasons for the other colors as well. The idea wasn’t to define which colors were important; rather to allow each facility to define for itself which colors were important.

Rounded buttons and dark colors in MC2.6.6 (Credit: Kangelis)

The idea of customizing workspaces became vital to many editors. It helped editors recognize occasional “oops” moments. For example, it’s easy to click on the Audio workspace, so some audio work, and then go do some VFX work by simply opening some tools. No big deal, but when they were trying to make VFX edits and suddenly realized visually that the workspace was still set for Audio (yellow), they knew to hit the hotkey to change to VFX mode (purple). This rippled the UI to not only open the correct tools, but also the linked VFX keyboard, timeline views and so on.

The UI was even nice during the DV tape revolution in the early 2000’s with Avid Xpress Pro. This was the consumer-level variation of Media Composer that took off tremendously.

Avid Xpress Pro launch screen

Avid Xpress Pro UI

It was designed a bit differently, with more mouse-driven functionality. When the industry fragmented itself after the release of Final Cut Pro, this was Avid’s answer. For the first time ever, the prosumer and consumer markets were able to get onto an Avid edit system and actually get pro-looking work done and delivered.

Avid Xpress Pro HD (Credit: Lancaster)

Broadcast was a huge buyer of Xpress Pro systems as well, once HDV workflows were incorporated. The market was now being flooded with editors who were not only learning how to cut in the Avid ecosystem with Avid terminology and ideas, but were also able to cater their UI completely around whatever workflows they needed. It was the democratization of Media Composer. Though many high-level Media Composer editors started to look down on this era, it was truly a great time to be creative – at any price point.

Everyone loved the full black timeline background (Credit: Portishead 2007)

If you’d like a full view of interfaces of the past, visit the older photos posted to the Avid Pro Video forums “Avid Customer Setups” here: (LINK).

But in the mid-2000’s, our needs began to change. The need to boost Avid’s underlying technology was becoming more important than its UI.

By now camera makers were neck-deep in the race for file-based workflows, and NLE companies like Avid were chasing their heels. New codecs and wrappers were coming out way too fast. The challenge was to integrate them as quickly as possible, so as not to alienate customers from the media they just finished shooting.

The result began a new chapter for Avid in 2008. They unveiled a new philosophy called “New Thinking” (LINK). We weren’t sure whether or not it was hinting towards trouble. We saw that Avid Xpress Pro was going to be EOL, and that all its users were going to be offered a deal to upgrade to Media Composer. Some were worried about seeing some of Xpress Pro’s UI design merging into Media Composer’s.

A sort of a civil war began out of this worry, manifesting in chat rooms and user groups. This time it wasn’t between Avid and users, but between two types of editor personalities arguing over the interface and how people should operate within it. Old school editors who were significantly keyboard-based scoffed louder than ever at the mouse-driven workflows that started with Final Cut and Avid Xpress Pro. Newer editors were much more right-handed, favoring mouse clicks and almost ignoring the keyboard completely. Neither could agree on anything. Yet again, the industry fragmented itself.

Regardless, we still remained in the shadow of these file-based workflows and how to deal with them. With MC3.5, Avid created AMA Linking. It wasn’t perfect but it was enough.

The following year, broadcast editors had a short-lived, but hot and steamy love affair with Media Composer 4. Broadcasting was still largely tape based, and Avid’s new Expert Decompose feature had an ingenious UI and functionality for merging the offline/online tape workflow.

But then in 2010 everything changed. MC5 was released with a new, simpler UI. At first glance we all thought the simpler design was going to be a default setting, and that the functionalities behind the interface would remain intact. Very quickly we realized it was simply stripped-down.

MC5 Timeline

MC5 was a serious upgrade in features, so some editors really appreciated the stripped-down feel. While the previous UI was well-loved, for some users who just need to get in and start working, it could feel heavy and sometimes cluttered. For them, the trivialness of arguing over a UI change was lost in the shadow of getting Windows 7 support, the first implementation of Smart Tools, and the long-awaited RTAS.

MC5 Source/Record Editing

Others hated it beyond measure. I resided firmly in that camp. I was really missing the old UI, and for good reason. Our entire workflow at facilities had to change as a result of the change. Interns and assistants no longer had the color-coding I mentioned earlier, as a means to visually know what mode they were operating in.

With the arrival of MC5.5 and seemingly no changes back towards the earlier UI, there was a social media pile-on of haters. It garnered the nickname “50 shades of Avid gray”.

Timeline UI for MC5 – MC7

Nonetheless we appreciated the features being added. Improvements with MC6 and MC6.5 were a tremendous upgrade in underlying technology: 5.1 audio capabilities and ProTools interoperability, ProRes encoding and so on. MC7 brought more significant under-the-hood advancements, namely FrameFlex, LUT support and background transcoding. Yet again, we the cranky UI lovers accepted the lack of interface in light of these significant workflow enhancements.

MC8 was Media Composer’s volley into the Software as a Service (SaaS) age, and became Avid’s longest-running version number ever, lasting nearly five years. For MC9 Avid instead adopted the year/month system of naming versions – hence MC2018.

And so there we were. It was 2018, and many of us felt we sat on a mountain of reluctant acceptance rather than being immersed in the truly joyful experience of editing. But to be honest, we actually became really efficient with it. We built muscle memory and for the most part, forgot the past. Significant non-interface upgrades of course happened over all these years. Things in Media Composer’s operations certainly got better and better with the times, but we never again saw as much control and flexibility with the interface as the pre-MC5 days.

But then…

 

The Alpha

It was after 5:00pm on a Friday in December 2018. As I was closing my system down, DING went my email. It was Randy Martens, Senior Product Designer of Media Composer:

“…Try a build of the new UI”? Gee let me think…Yes!

To clarify, there are three phases of testing that Avid extends to non-Avid personnel: Alpha, Beta and Moderator. I’ve been a “mod tester” for years. There are about 50 of us worldwide. Marianna Montague runs the Moderator program, and we get an email from her a few days before a new version gets released. We test it and check the readme files.

Alpha/Beta is very different. When you sign up, you are asked how many honest hours per week you can dedicate. So being “on Beta” isn’t simply early access to the software. A responsibility exists to engage with it and then report opinions and issues.

I was thrilled to have been asked, but I could see a catch. Avid’s engineers and app designers are intensely dedicated. In order to become a reliable source of feedback for them, I would have to say “no” to a lot of my usual freelance work for a couple of months. I would have been sorely disappointed in myself to be asked to help, and then get pulled away by clients. Luckily it only ended up being three freelance jobs, an estimated loss of about $12,000 USD. Was it worth it? I didn’t know yet. I mean, well, what if this new Media Composer really sucked?

The process of testing Alpha was a blast, partially because of the direct conversations I was having with the designers themselves but partially because I got to watch design elements get better and better. Watching the UI get worked on over the course of a number of versions was a real education.

Of this, I kept a journal. Here are a few fun excerpts:

 

MC Alpha Journal – Day One (17 December, 2018)

Wow this is weird. I’ve never worked in an “alpha” version of the software before. There are areas of the app that just don’t work. This is SO ODD… but fun. Lots of areas are still being worked on.

 

MC Alpha Version 3 Journal Entry (26 January, 2019)

This is still a very unstructured version. Dual monitor doesn’t work, and won’t for a while I’m told. But I have a bigger problem – I simply cannot get used to Media Composer without the project window. This totally sucks. [UPDATE: Randy says each bin is going to have access to a “bin container side bar square” that will make it act like the Project Window.] Interesting. I like that idea. Then each bin, anywhere on my screens could potentially be the project window. Nice.

 Note: The responsiveness is amazing. I love how this feels. Clicking on things in the timeline is so fast – much faster than previously. They obviously re-architectured a lot of the underlying code already.

 Seeing an issue with the paneled UI. There is extra black around the video frame. I can’t decipher the difference between this nothingness and any legit letterboxing in the video itself. A workaround for it could be to make the Grid Safe Action 100%. I’ll suggest it to the group.

Grid Safe Action set to 100% helps identify the video’s edges

MC Alpha Version 4 Journal Entry (11 February, 2019)

Wow they sure released this update quickly. I see they incorporated many of our suggestions. But now I can’t read any of the timeline text when I highlight in/out points. They said they’re still working on font colors and contrasts though. Will advise them.

Loving how I can use the OS color picker to change how I color-code things. However, regarding the skinning and the highlighting, the whole timeline – when the Light Mode is active – is too gray.

An early Alpha version: gray shades in UI are too subtle

Need to suggest bringing back a colored highlight. The only highlight color is a light gray, which is too hard to discern. I have in/out points highlighted here, but I can’t see them at all.

 

The Beta

On March 12th, the program transitioned from Alpha to Beta. This means we’re now looking at each version of the beta app as a full app, not in portions. Wohoo!

MC Beta Version 6 Journal Entry
Whoa, this version threw a goofy font on everything – probably just an installation issue. Will let the team know.

Highlight of the in/out in the timeline still needs work. It’s almost inverted currently – the clips are colorful but the highlight is a grayish white. The colors of things in the timeline are still conflicting a bit, and there are situations where I cannot see the highlight at all. I sure do wish there was a highlight color.

An early Beta version: source-side play area too dark to see black markers

Brightness issues: Some interface text is white, and some is black. Occasionally, I can’t read the text or see Markers because of how dark the area under the S/R monitors is. 

 

MC Beta Version 10 Journal Entry (23 May, 2019)
Yes!!! They fixed the timeline colors and fonts, and they’ve added a purple highlight. This works for now. I’d love to see more highlight colors eventually but let’s move onto more vital stuff. Also, they announced a delay in the public release. Basically, they want to give this release more time to get the launch in to the best state it can be. Great idea.
 

Playing around between light and dark modes. Also playing with the Smart Tool’s replacement concept. Hmmm… I’m really gonna need to train myself on this one. The concept is tricky to master.

Getting used to the new Smart Tools interface

MC Beta Version 12 Journal Entry (6 June, 2019)
I can now hop nicely between light and dark interfaces without seeing any visual problems. All of the color and font issues seem gone. I can’t believe how much they’ve fixed so quickly! There are just a couple more potential bugs to discuss.

 

The Public Release

A few days before the public release, a final email came from Keith Gerrard, the leader of the Avid Beta team. “This has easily been the longest beta program that we’ve run here, and we could not have gotten Media Composer to this point without YOUR help!”

There was, as you can imagine, a general sense of both excitement and worry. The love of any UI experience really does reside in the individual personality and style of the user, which is impossible to forecast. There’s a strong chance someone would dislike it simply because they have a fondness for green highlights over purple ones. But at a certain point, Avid just has to stop designing and let the public decide. 

And there was a nice surprise bonus. Just as the launch was happening, Avid made public a huge number of tutorials for this version: (LINK). 

When June 20th hit and both 2018.12.6 (old UI) and 2019.6 (new UI) were released, I watched everyone’s reactions to them on the Avid Editors of Facebook. Here are some fun quotes:

 

Am testing Avid 2019.6 and liking how snappy the interface is so far.

It’s the same Avid, with significant but good interface updates. 

2019 up and running on the home system. Don’t think it will take long to familiarise myself with the new layout. The workspace tabs are a nice addition. Docked panels work wonders for my OCD! Cheers! 

Is this really the only colour choices we have for the tracks? Makes my eyes hurt!  

Anyone else having a hard time getting smart tools back into their UI of 2019.6? 

If I install the new MC am I able to reinstall an older version? Or am I stuck with the newer one? 

First impression is not great for me – feels like its dumbed down – hopefully will settle into it! 

I’m a big fan of the new UI. Has a lovely modern feel to it. It’s responsive, intuitive and will really help me organise my footage better than ever before.  

So resizing and docking windows is cool and all, but it would be even more cool if the color correction controls actually scaled with the window. 

Been training on 2019.6 most of the day. getting the hang of the new GUI and loving it. 

Today I had my first client supervised session with 2019.6, and it was great. Not one hiccup or crash. 

Oof, I really don’t like the windows all docked together. I’m gonna have to find a way to work around that. 

Sorry to be negative, but I liked the old interface better. It is kind of exhausting trying to find things now. 

I like the new 2019.6 interface. There seems to be a lot more room, and I like the Host Window choice for individual screens.

 

The differences between versions 2018 and 2019

You do have a choice whether to try the new interface. If not, you can keep accessing 2018. My personal suggestion if you’re leery of the massive change: Have your current version’s installer file sitting on a drive somewhere, and then go back-and-forth between them until you’re comfortable with the new interface.

There is a difference development-wise. The newest features will only be added to the 2019+ versions. Now don’t get snippy about that. It would take entirely too many resources to try to apply the exact same new features to what are essentially to differently coded apps. So, for your own learning process, it is up to you to decide whether you actually NEED the new features or if keeping your comfortable, stable version is better for working with clients. Remember, some of the top television shows today are still being made on older versions with dongles.

 

2018.12.x series

In December of 2018, Avid released this version. They have been updating it with patches (Windows) or updated versions (macOS) ever since. This is going to be updated and current for a while. For Apple users, know that it is qualified to run starting on Mojave 10.14.5. *It is not qualified to run on any other version of Mojave. So, to eliminate all possible issues that Avid’s engineers didn’t test, you should update your macOS to 10.14.5 immediately. For more info on macOS versions, go to Avid’s Version Matrix: (LINK) or to my little cheater website: (LINK).

Positives: It is the most recent version you can have that completely ignores the idea of a new user interface. For many users with no time to learn the new interface, and for facilities with older computers that might not be qualified to run the new interface, this is a great way to stay current.

Negatives: Since the new interface was also retooled on top of a lot of new code and architecture upgrades, the timeline and functionality of this version will not be as snappy as 2019. Also, it hasn’t been discussed yet but everything in the world of computing eventually gets an EOL date. One could safely imagine that the old UI would be retired before the new one.

 

2019.x series

This is also going to be constantly updated and current, just like 2018.12.6. For Apple users, know that it is also qualified to run starting on Mojave 10.14.5. *It is not qualified to run on any macOS before that. So, to eliminate all possible issues that Avid’s engineers didn’t test, you should update your macOS to 10.14.5 immediately.

Positives: The latest and the greatest. The new interface. The fastest “feeling” version out there. Plus, LOTS of new features. Many more than the 2018 and prior builds.

Negatives: Whether you’re talking about NLEs or not, bugs are in all new software, everywhere. However Avid is fast to fix them. A month later, Avid released 2019.7 which included 50 bug fixes.

I find the new interface to be a great 1st phase towards a perfect UI. It’s not there yet but gosh, the bulk of the work that needed to be done in order to get it to this point was staggering. Now with that out of the way, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

In the meantime, here’s what we DO have right now.

1) Four default workspaces, significantly coded for efficiency and snappy interface behavior. The ability to create custom workspaces in addition to these is also great.

The new default Workspace Bar is awesome

2) The redesign of the icons is terrific.

3) The ability to fully color-code the interface is back to about 80% of what it was. This puts us into a really good place for a while, as more important functionality gets built into the app. The next step would be to gauge whether a full return to the pro-MC5 Interface Settings is in order, or if new UI tools can allow for something even more robust. I’m guessing the later would make the most logical sense.

Don’t forget that the clips themselves in the bin can be re-colored to anything you want, via the OS color picker. You don’t have to use Avid’s default colors. Here is an image I doctored to show two possible scenarios – one with the Default Timeline tracks enabled, and one without. As you can imagine with showing the Timeline’s clip colors as Source, and then using the OS color picker to designate clips whatever color you wish, it is possible to create a nearly black-and-white environment.

An example of how much the UI colors can be changed

Below is a screenshot from Steve Audette, ACE, who has not only adopted the paneled UI, but has gone with a very desaturated look. So, for everyone who hated the initial promotional images of MC2019, here’s your proof that you really do have a great deal of control over the UI.

Timeline Tuesday from Steve Audette, ACE

That being said, please don’t discount the track colors. Not yet. Get in there and play around with them. You will discover a lot of new flexibility in how things can be organized in your edit.

4) The paneled UI was the hardest thing for me to learn. I loved the magnetic elements and window panes in other apps I’ve seen like Adobe Encore, and so to see one that didn’t behave the way I immediately expected it to took a longer learning curve than I thought. Let me rephrase – the understanding of it came quick, but building that understanding into a muscle memory that I could use with clients in the room took a few weeks. I’ve grown to really like a hybrid version – where I have my left monitor paneled with all my bins, and my right monitor floating with the S/R window, Timeline and Audio Tool. Now that I’m used to it, I can’t go back to 2018 or prior. I like this too much.

5) The Bin Map is just cool. Note: This is just the initial look of it. As users give more feedback to how they are using it, it will be tweaked a bit more visually.

 

And finally: Why is creating a thoughtful UI even important?

Let’s play devil’s advocate. Why is it important to create a UI with the assistance of users anyway? Why allow users to care about colors, design and layout at all?

Simple answer: comfort = focus.

Authors and novelists seek out that special typewriter or perfect chair with a laptop, or whatever comfortable environment in order to focus on the content they’re writing. For Avid editors, their comfortable environment actually is the Media Composer UI. This is where they eat and sleep. This is where greatness takes root. I’ve known plenty of top editors who would rather wrestle with technology than wrestle with the interface.

In order to be creative, we first need to be comfortable. Since we’ve established that no editor likes the same things, it is only logical to conclude that we need to be able to craft our own environments – our own little corners of the universe.

We need the UI to offer as many robust options for customization as possible. That’s why this new interface has so much promise: a much stronger ability to organize using colors and workspaces, and the ability to choose between a paneled UI, a floating one, or even a hybrid.

I’m reminded of that brilliant scene in The Right Stuff where the astronauts are arguing with the engineers over whether the capsule should have a hatch with a window. (LINK). The same thing applies to all app design and engineering. While editing is of course about creating the finished product, editors are stuck in small capsules of their own with nothing in front of them except their edit system, day after day for their entire careers. They probably don’t have a Master’s degree in computer science or even know the differences between design and engineering, but they do have a sharp wisdom of everything that affects the needs and efficiencies of their day.

If there’s a technical limitation forbidding something in an app from happening, that’s fine. If putting a window in the spacecraft resulted in the astronauts burning up upon reentry, then eliminate the window. The point is to try. The point is to find that perfect half way point, where engineering + the user experience + Avid’s ability to fund it all perfectly meet.

Two-hour documentary, finished on MC2019.6 (Credit: Chris Bové)

Which brings us back around to the new Media Composer. Do you have opinions yet?

Do you like it? Do you hate it? To be honest, I really don’t care. Not yet. I will soon, I promise… but not yet. Not until you’ve operated it on a paid, professional job for a minimum of 40 hours. I’m serious about that. Spend a full week inside of it, under excruciating pressures of time and money. Have your previous version ready to be reinstalled if it gets too impossible to operate, but honestly try to muscle through the new version.

Our minds operate differently when we’re under pressure. We forget about being armchair critics and we become adapters. Our seldom-tapped adaptability traits wake up and take charge. In martial arts, they say you’re not allowed to dislike a move or a technique that you’ve just learned; not until you’ve done it 1,000 times. Only then are you qualified to have an opinion because by then it’s been absorbed into your consciousness. (And if you’re into martial arts, you know doing something 1,000 times is really nothing.) Same concept applies here. It’s easy to dislike a car for the paint job, but love it once you’ve given it a thorough test drive.

So, when you’re ready to look into the new Media Composer, give it more than just “a college try”. Dive into it and do things over and over until they sink in.

Editing is one of the most fun jobs ever, and this new version allows you to decide how to have that fun. You’re no longer locked into just one way of working. Speaking of which… Get back to work!

The New Media Composer

Experience all the new capabilities the minute they’re ready.
We listened to you, what you liked, what you didn’t and what was missing.




How Avid Media Composer Uses a Computer

In the past, acquiring and running software for desktop and laptop computers was a slow, thoughtful process. We would stand in stores (back when they existed) and stare at software boxes (back when they existed). Turning a box around, we’d comb through the specs, making informed decisions based on our intimate knowledge of the computers we owned.

That was for simple “home stuff” like Quicken or Doom but what about “work stuff”? As professional craft editors responsible for large projects it was even more critical to understand the specs and the tech behind the whole process.

At the time Avid Media Composer wasn’t just software in a box. It was acquired as part of an expensive “turnkey” system – a machine designed from the ground up with the sole purpose of running it as best as possible. It’s the etymology behind referring to an edit system as “an Avid”.

Today we download and install everything we see to our phones, tablets and even desktops. We’re app-happy. It’s how we test and consume new workflows, and it’s all thanks to this massive D.I.Y. culture. The result is editors and assistants building and supporting their own machines. Unless we’re responsible for outfitting a massive facility, turnkey systems are largely gone. Today all we need to do is click, download and pay a monthly subscription fee to get a working Media Composer system. But what kind of computer are we downloading it to? Will it handle Media Composer? Or perhaps the more appropriate question: How will Media Composer handle the computer?

We’ve all asked these questions over the years, especially when we were students learning the trade. In fact today, places like the Assistant Editors Bootcamp are great examples of how we bring new women and men into the industry. But are they learning these basics? When Noah at the AE Bootcamp reached out to me with these questions, they were at the request of his Lead AE and Independent Editor class. I was eager to help. But to truly get answers, we need to get them from Avid’s engineers directly.

A group of students at the Assistant Editors Bootcamp, lead by Noah Chamow in 2017. (assistbootcamp.com)

Conveniently, Avid is in a wonderful mindset of transparency right now.

As a Vice Chair of Avid’s ACA, as well as a volunteer Moderator of Avid’s Pro Video Community, I was able to have conversations with a number of senior level peeps at Avid. Reponses came in from many of them – from Avid offices in Massachusetts, Québec and California.

Avid Technology Inc., 75 Network Drive, Burlington, MA 01803

It was the response from Shailendra Mathur, VP and Chief Architect that kicked everything into gear. Here’s what I asked:

For the purpose of assisting editors and AE’s, I’m hoping to create a 1-page guide that explains what parts of a computer are used by Media Composer – broken down by processes like rendering, AVX Plug-ins, real time playback, processor-intensive codecs and so on. Would you or one of your staff be willing to assist me in its creation? 

The response from Shailendra Mathur: 

Hi Chris, sure we can help. We have quite a lot of info on this since it has been a popular question through the ages, and it will be a wonder to fit it into a single page :-).

Shortly thereafter I got an email from a number of Avid’s engineers and away we went. The first question: How simple would this one-pager be?

I opted for a simple concept we could start with – listing only the “intentions” of the app, meaning answers to questions like, “For video effects, does MC use the CPU or the GPU?” and, “How many cores are used and for what tasks?” From there we started diving into the details behind those simple explanations.

It took a while, which wasn’t their fault but rather mine. In addition to my craft-editing schedule, there were a lot of emails and phone conversations with Avid’s engineers to help me understand things. I’m not an engineer, so I’ve been very thankful for their patience. I still can’t say I comprehend it all, yet the goal from the beginning was to have this written by an editor for editors.

Here is the result:

So… Are you begging for more details? Of course! We’re craft editors and that’s what we do.

First… What is this whole thing and how long has it been here?

The Avid Intelligent Compute Architecture as it’s called was initially developed when Avid Media Composer v3.0. It evaluates the whole system – the OS, hardware, GPU capabilities, availability of processors and number of cores. It dynamically distributes the processing to the device best suited to the specific task for different segments of the timeline. Rather than targeting just the GPU, just the CPU, or just the FPGA based cards, the philosophy changed to use them all in a holistic fashion. Thus the whole system is turned into an accelerator. The Intelligent media player in the application acts as an orchestra conductor, keeping as many of the resources playing to provide the performance required. Keeping a holistic view of the whole system in mind, particular attention is paid to the cost of transferring heavy video data across the system bus when deciding which compute hardware should be used for a particular process.

OK let’s get into it. Below are cutouts from the above 1-pager, followed by the notes I jotted-down during my conversations with Avid’s Architecture team.

 

RAM and Cache

1. Everything works better with more RAM. Filling a computer with the maximum it can handle is now a standard recommendation. Having less RAM constricts Media Composer’s abilities.

Media Composer works best when it encounters the least restrictions possible, especially when it comes to RAM. For example, take a 2014 MacPro with 16GB of RAM. Hit play and watch the RAM usage in the macOS Activity Monitor. (This is how we monitor apps and their efficiency.) Media Composer may hover generally around the 8GB area. But if you take that same system and change the RAM to 32GB, Media Composer may hover generally around the 14-16GB area. This isn’t Media Composer “hogging” more resources, but rather the smaller RAM is constricting the system’s ability to use any available resources. This is a prime argument for increasing a system’s RAM to max capacity. 

Maxing-out the RAM “lifts the computers ceiling” as high as possible. Thus all functions have the possibility to operate at their own maximums on that computer, without constraints placed on them by lesser amounts of RAM. If a new iMac can physically hold a maximum of 64GB of RAM, then that’s what is recommended by Avid.

Since RAM can be the easiest and least expensive way a user can upgrade a computer, Avid has been architecting the 64-bit playback engine to take advantage of RAM first.

Minimum requirements will, of course, still exist. For example, a laptop with only 8GB of RAM and a 5400RPM external drive holding a project’s DNxHD media will work as a minimally qualified machine.

 

2. Larger raster sizes (UHD, 4K etc.) use more RAM than smaller ones. 

Larger raster sizes means more pixels, which require more processing power to play in real time.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aspect_Ratios_and_Resolutions.svg

3. The Interactive Frame Cache within Composer often assists playback. Since cache from Composer is stored in RAM, increasing the Media Cache -> Video Memory can improve stream counts. This allows more streams to be played in real time without rendering. Users should learn to use this setting as needed.

Avid Media Composer: Settings -> Media Cache

Leaving the Desired Video Memory cranked-up all the time may negatively affect other processes and apps.

In Media Composer’s processing algorithms for playback, video is actually looked at as individual frames. During processing, Composer determines how those frames get played in streams. For example, a single video layer of DNxHD media qualifies as one stream. More layers and effects add more streams.

The term processing refers to the heavy lifting of playback. There may be pre-processing involved at some stage (where things are transformed – partial renders would be one form), but getting everything from the drives put forth into the output, all of that is referred to as processing.

The term cache in a timeline refers to a way that processing distributes the handling of playback. When processing gets really dense and complicated, here is where CPU cache can assist.

The cache might be thought of as a sort of invisible Video Mixdown that the system uses to reduce strain and help playback. That’s a pretty narrow and somewhat incorrect definition, but it hopefully gets the basic point across. A better way of explaining it would be: Instead of doing a complex evaluation over and over again (processing), Composer keeps the result in RAM, saving the pain of fully reprocessing over and over. Cache is downstream of processing, and will remember the results of processing.

Cache does eventually fill up. At a certain point, when there is no longer room in the cache, the oldest used frame is thrown away in favor of the new frame. Want more frames saved in cache? Get more RAM.

Avid Media Composer: Settings -> Media Cache (showing the default setting)

Avid Media Composer: Settings -> Media Cache (showing the Set High setting)

Note: On this particular system, which is loaded with 32GB of RAM, Media Composer is operating at around 8 GB. Setting the Media Cache’s Video Memory to 22 GB adds to that memory pressure, reaching a grand total of around 30GB. This means only 2 GB of RAM is left, which can cause memory issues if any other apps are launched or if background processes like Dropbox or iTunes begin to sync.

When Media Composer is closed, the Memory Cache setting is not saved, thus allowing for fast, easy re-launching later.

Note: Increasing this Video Memory setting by large amounts may negatively affect other processes that require RAM, so do not to leave this cranked-up all of the time. Adjust it up/down as needed.

 

4. The Playback Video Frame Cache improves single frame play responsiveness.

Avid Media Composer v8.9.2: Settings -> Media Cache -> Video Memory tab

While the Media Cache -> Video Memory increases the number of frames saved, this setting increases the responsiveness of those frames during playback. It gets better results with Media Cache -> Video Memory set higher.

 

Codecs

5. Currently the CPU handles encoding/decoding of codecs.

RED Camera files (R3D) are the exception, which encode/decode with help from the GPU, and certainly more so when a Red Rocket card is assigned the workload.

Most codecs are structured in a way that one might call “GPU averse”. But this could (and likely will) change in the future. If codecs become more GPU-friendly as bitstream formats, then Avid will no doubt chase that philosophy.

 

6. Playing codecs smoothly in a timeline requires processing, which benefits from more CPU cores. Codecs with large raster sizes also benefit from more cores.

Playing a timeline that contains Linked (AMA) clips plus many effects results in a higher stream count, especially with more complex codecs. With more cores there are more opportunities to distribute the processing of those streams effectively.

 

7.All codecs benefit from more RAM, but some codecs (LongGOP, AVC/H.264) need much more to work effectively.

Some codecs are easy for computers to play and edit (like DNxHD). Other codecs are more complex and require a great deal more processing power to get minimally acceptable results. There are certainly situations where computers that are considered minimally qualified to run MC are not powerful enough to run MC plus those codecs. More RAM will have to be added.

Files accessed through the Source Browser can also be transcoded in to Avid codecs (Clip > Consolidate/Transcode) which use less streams and less system resources to play. Workflows using Avid HD-sized codecs do not require a high number of cores to work effectively.

Note: The H.264 codecs (.mov and .mp4) are no longer being handled by the legacy 32-bit QuickTime engine. As of Media Composer 8.9.1, the 64-bit playback engine handles them. This applies to XAVC-S (.mp4) as well.

 

Video Quality Menu

8. The Video Quality Menu changes the raster size of the viewed output to allow weaker computers to play complex codecs smoother. Green/Green mode plays the codec in full raster. Yellow/Green mode reduces that raster to 25%. Full Yellow mode reduces that raster to 6.25% (1/16th size). Currently the CPU, not the GPU, handles this raster resizing.

The CPU is doing this resizing from its original raster size. Operating in these lower modes on HD-sized projects usually allows for a weaker computer to play back a timeline smoother.

For larger-than-HD raster sizes however, this can add a CPU-based bottleneck.  The computer is using more resources to do a real time conversion of the raster.

 

9. If a codec is greater than 8-bit, switching the Video Quality Menu to Green/Green/10-bit mode playback can sometimes be a more effective use of overall processing. This depends on the amount of effects on a clip.

 

Video Effects, Timeline & Playback

10. GPU is front loaded/preferred by Composer when playing from a timeline. Playback looks at the topmost layer in a timeline first, which is seen as one stream.

The term “front loading” means that the top-most-layer in a Media Composer timeline will target the GPU first. When playing a sequence, Media Composer looks at a timeline’s play head (blue vertical bar) from above, and not from the side like we users do. (Imagine the play head as the light bar in a photocopier or a scanner, hovering over a sequence.)

Before playback of a sequence with effects begins, Composer’s algorithms allocate as much of the timeline as possible to the GPU. It also allocates some CPU power, but only after it identifies specifics within the timeline that need CPU-only processing and/or multithreading over a number of cores.

The primary reason for all of this is we want to read back only one stream from the GPU, and that starts with the topmost layer. So loading a computer with the hottest qualified GPU and highest amount of GPU RAM possible helps with this. The better and more RAM-heavy the graphics card, the less data needs to be sent to the CPU and the cores.

Render and Expert Render can relieve system stress by collapsing multiple streams.

 

11. Some effects are processed only using the CPU. They were engineered to do so. More recent effects have been engineered towards GPU usage.

Avid Media Composer v8.9.2: Effect Palette

12. Some Color Adapters (source effects for example) are processing-intensive, so a more powerful GPU will handle them more effectively.

 

Random Notes

That’s it on my notes in-context with the basic document, but here are a few other tidbits of information I picked up in conversation.

– As of Media Composer v8.8.3, the QuickTime AMA plugin relies a lot less on the QuickTime engine (operating in the background outside of Media Composer), and more on Composer’s own playback engine.

– Higher frame rate clips benefit from more cores as well as bandwidth. This is because higher frame rates can be handled by something called stream-based parallelism (the processing of sub-sequent frames in parallel). This eats up a lot of buffer memory. Thus another argument for more RAM. Note: this is only for I-frame codecs. Hence why GOP codecs are so much more difficult. Their processing of frame rates cannot be handled in any sort of method of divide-and-conquer. By design, GOP codecs have a lot of interdependencies between the video’s frames. If processing of a later frame can only proceed once the dependent earlier frame has been decoded, then you have a result that needs to be addressed much more practically and linearly.

 

Further Reading

If you’re really into learning the architecture behind all of this, Avid has public access granted to many documents created over the last few years by Avid’s architecture team.

Here are the links:

1) A blog discussing the architecture itself – the Avid Intelligent Compute Architecture: http://community.avid.com/blogs/mediacomposer/archive/2013/03/12/how-intelligent-computing-powers-our-editorial-architecture.aspx

2) And here is my personal favorite – the public file ion Google of the patent filed which includes the performance architecture: https://www.google.com/patents/US8358313

 

Questions?

Any questions? I’m sure there are. If this info doesn’t prompt more questions, I’d be surprised. For the sake of being heard as best as possible, let’s please post all questions and comments at one place, on the Avid Community.

Here is the link: http://community.avid.com/forums/p/182676/849425.aspx#849425

Ask as many questions as you’d like. If it’s something I don’t know (which is plenty), then I’ll pass it along to others. Or perhaps other users here can step up? The goal is a universal understanding, in order to make us better at our craft. Hopefully this is one good step in the right direction.

Thank you for you time!

Chris Bové

(AKA “Pixel Monkey” on the Avid Community)

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Unlocking the Power of Avid ScriptSync

ScriptSync is an Avid product that lives inside Media Composer. It assists filmmakers and video editors with a workflow we’ve been waiting 100 years for – the ability to quickly sync video and audio clips directly to the lines and lines of words on our scripts and transcripts.

Either someone has written a script ahead of time, or like with documentary or reality shows, someone makes word-for-word transcriptions of what people said, and then builds the script in post-production from those transcripts.

You’d think something this awesome would have been around a lot longer. Well it has. Eleven years longer in fact. Many people are actually confused between what ScriptSync is and what is the environment inside Avid Media Composer it works from, namely script-based editing.

It’s funny how many people over my career have said this exact line: “Wait, you really want me to write down what they said? Every word?”

If you want ScriptSync to work, and work well, your transcripts need to be amazing. Not just slapped together, or approximate. They need to be accurate. I’d even recommend word-for-word, to the point of including ums and uh’s, stutters and restarts. The more you give ScriptSync to latch onto, the better.

There are three options, and they absolutely subscribe to the theory of cheap, or fast, or good. And I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one fits your production.

The first option is the cheap option. Use an app or a bot on the Web that makes speech-recognition transcripts. Since there isn’t a person listening and typing, the customer is supposed to expect a failure rate. If you are in need of extras in your transcripts – like notes about what timecode each new bite starts at, and who is talking (interviewee versus the producer asking the questions), then this option is not for you.

The second option is the fast one. Use an upload service that hires people at an incredibly cheap rate. On-call and on-demand, these people bang-out transcripts as fast as possible. Think of them as the UBER of the transcription world. For this, a lot of independent producers have recently begun using REV.com. The price is nice and the speed of getting back transcripts is nice too.

There are still issues with this – many of them. But the biggest ones are inaccuracy and inconsistency. If your interview mentions medical terms, occasional foreign language words, or anything out of the ordinary, many times the contracted transcriber will simply spell it phonetically. Also, on large projects you are absolutely not guaranteed getting the same transcriber. If you have 30 transcripts, you might have 30 different people, and each with a different style and accuracy level.

Plus, and a lot of independent filmmakers don’t often think of this one, but what is that company’s confidentiality plan? You may not be concerned with whether they leak the information about what an interviewee says, but depending on your material perhaps you should? Are those transcribers under your own Non-Disclosure Agreements? How sensitive is your material? Remember they are able to keep your proxy videos or audio clips forever if they wanted to. Lots to think about!

The third option is the good one. Use a transcription service that includes a full spectrum of services including confidentiality, a single transcriber assigned to the entire project for consistency, researching the subject matter as it’s being transcribed especially medical terms, locations and such, double proofing on the part of the transcriber and the transcription company’s manager, back-end confidentiality where all evidence of the work and its transcripts are actually deleted from the contracted transcriber’s computer, and then upon request, using of all the transcripts for closed captioning., so that you’re not starting that part of the process from scratch.

Here in the US I’ve been a huge fan of Accurate Secretarial. Every editor should find a good small-scale place like this one that has large-scale standard operating procedures.

I know it seems like I’m drifting away from ScriptSync a bit, and hammering away at how precise your transcriptions need to be, but your transcriptions feed ScriptSync. 

ScriptSync is only as good as your Transcriptions.

Well here we are. All transcripts are made, and from them, the script was written.

Time to load the scripts and the media into the system and get it ready for ScriptSync. The process here is actually the same as it was when ScriptSync came out.

Don’t open Media Composer yet. First grab a transcript in a folder on your computer. You’ll have to reformat it as a text file (.txt) in order to use it in Media Composer.  Why is this? Actually it’s a good thing. All of the extra formatting that comes along with Microsoft Word would just get in the away of you trying to make your film. In order to mark your script in the Avid with script-based editing’s tools, you need it to start as a clean thing.

Open it in Microsoft Word. Click File / Save As. About 2/3 of the way down, click Format, Plain Text (.txt). Don’t worry, it’s not going to save right now, just wait a moment. Click Save and see what happens. See? Before it saves, another dialogue comes up. This is important. Text Encoding: Even if you’re on a Mac and going to a Mac, just trust me on this. Click MS Dos. Options? Insert Line Breaks. Always. End lines with CR/LF. Always. Allow Character substitution? Always. Once you have these four things selected, click OK, and it saves your script as a text file.

So why those settings?

There are big tech reasons behind it. The terminology and operations of script formatting – in Avid and in all computing in general came from the old days of typewriters. So in the background, when any Word doc or Final Draft doc, or Text File is being converted from one thing to another, that background architecture is following a set of rules created ages ago. ASCII rules to be exact. And those rules here are:

 

  • Text Encoding: In MS Dos, it allows more transferrable features between OS’s.
  • Insert Line Breaks: If you don’t, you’ll be going for the Guiness world record of the longest horizontal script ever.
  • CR : Carriage Return. This returns the text creator’s ability to its left justification
  • LF: Line Feed. This means the text won’t be typing right on top of the last line of text that was typed.
  • Character Substitution: For when you have a goofy name like mine.

 

Once done with all these, click “Save”. Now this is ready to be brought into Avid Media Composer.

OK, are you ready to sync your script the old way – the archaic, slow way? Let’s do that first, so you can understand how awesome ScriptSync is.

In Composer, click File / New Script. Go and find that script, and bring it in. Here it is, completely formatted for the script-based editing environment. As you can see I’ve also requested from the transcriber to add timecode as well as the letter Q and a colon to indicate the producer’s questions. Now let me tell you,  do this File/New Script a few times and, like everyone else, you’ll be begging Avid to expand this to File / New scripts (plural), bring ‘em all in at once. Man we want that. Maybe someday.

Now click File / Open Bin, and let’s bring in the video and audio clip that is what was transcribed. File / Source Browser to bring in media, or you could bring it in through legacy methods like File / Import or digitizing from tape, it depends where it came from.

Now you can’t just drag it onto the script. That would be like dragging a clip into the timeline without any in/out points. Avid wants to make sure you’re deciding where it should go. It wants in/out points. So go give the clip a listen. Where does it start? Where does it stop? OK go highlight that area on the script. See how nice the click-and-drag ability lets you define in/out points? This isn’t doing any damage to your script. This is just setting in/out points, much like in your sequence timeline. Nothing sticks. Set an in, and an out. Is this the right in and out? Unsure? Well unfortunately, you’d better be sure. It is not – I repeat – not an easy interface for making changes. There is absolutely no “trim” function as you’re used to in the timeline. So you don’t have to be exact with your in/out. Actually you can be sloppy, but you need to be sloppy in adding too long of an in/out, rather than too short.

Now drag the clip into that area. Nothing is synced yet. It is only placed.

Time to sync. Ready? Look here in the toolbar. There’s a play button, which plays the take totally separately from Media Composer’s source/record monitors. There’s also a Record button. Record? What are we recording if the clip is already captured? We are recording the points at which we want to sync. And we do so “live”.

Hit record. It starts playing the take from the very beginning. So you’ll sit and wait through silence, film crew banter, or whatever. Wait for the start. Now when you hear a word, click the clip’s magic little green tail here. Do it again… And again… And again… You can be as line-by-line exact as you want, or if this whole project only has a couple of days of editing total, just click a few and deal with the fact later that your only syncing a few points, and you’ll have to shuttle to find the exact words.

You’re adding these little triangles, called “script marks”. I never call them by that name though because it’s too easy to confuse someone in conversation between “script marks” and “markers” in the timeline. I call them carrots. It’s an old term, and I’m old. So forgive me. Anyway, add the next carrot. And the next… And the next… Bored yet? Getting nervous because you already spent time transcoding or digitizing, and the producer is demanding real results, not this tedious junk?

Well tough! Sit here and do this for the next 40 hours of interviews you shot! Or go buy ScriptSync.

ScriptSync. Ready to see it?

Highlight the in/out. Drag the clip. It becomes a “take”. Click Script / ScriptSync. OK.

Done! Next script. Done. Next script. Done. Those 40 hours? You’ll now be done in like one or two, tops. How much do you charge per hour? Yeah. ScriptSync. No brainer.

A new beautiful feature added for script-based editing 2.0 is text editing. It was sooo bad in the past. I wouldn’t expect something as robust as MS Word to be inside Media Composer. But this new text editing is a really nice compromise. It works great. You add or change text, and the carrots move dynamically. Sure you could do this for script rewrites I guess, but for now let’s just look at transcripts. Let’s say you didn’t use a good transcription house, and you find some text that’s just wrong. Click Edit. Fix it. Done!

Another great feature we’ve had for years but that they’ve upgraded is Set Color. Yeah baby, here’s where the color-coding geek in my jumps out. Is there a good line? Color it. Is there a bad line or one you can’t say for legal or non-disclosure reasons? Color it. Color things your own way, or according to your writer/producer’s preferences, or even to Final Draft’s standards, if your writing staff is using that.

Interface-wise, the default way a new script looks is actually not this white one I’ve been using. Normally it comes with line numbers and gray colored line separations. A lot of folks use it and are really impressed by it. They’re settings you can enable or disable. Personally I always turn those off and keep scripts white, without line numbers. When I have dozens of bins open, it is so wonderful to be able to immediately identify the difference between a bin and a script. I need to see the script separated from bins, visually.

So there it all is: ScriptSync and script-based editing.

This webinar is just an adjunct to the wealth of wisdom out there on ScriptSync. Over the years some of the brightest people we have in our industry have written about it and presented about it. Go to Amazon.com and find “Art of the Cut” by Steve Hullfish. Following Ashley Kennedy and her tutorials has been amazing. Also, go Google Oliver Peters. Go Google Michael Kammes, and his awesome 5 Things series. Follow Kevin P. McAuliffe’s Get Started Fast video series. Go to 24p.com, the immense site from Michael Phillips, the former principal designer at Avid who co-created Avid ScriptSync and script-based editing. Definitely go Google Frontline PBS editor Steve Audette ACE, who has been one of our greatest voices for ScriptSync. Follow the Avid Editors of Facebook. Follow the little Facebook page I created ages ago called “Script Sync Fans”. Go to those places and ask questions. Ask as many as you can.

Or if you really want to get good at ScriptSync, then do what I did… Just play.

Start opening things, and clicking on things, and mess up intentionally. Go break stuff. Then go fix it. The only way to learn how to dig yourself out of a hole, is to throw in a shovel and then dive after it. Craft editing is a challenge, and we must never get to a point where we are above the challenge. If we do, we stop being better filmmakers, and we stop being better storytellers.

ScriptSync is tremendous technology because it helps us be better storytellers. More gets done, and less story gets missed. And we must be focused on the story. In order to give audiences the feeling of total immersion, we must operate behind the scenes, madly – one person in a room, madly pursuing an idea.

It’s the only thing that has ever worked.

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Unlocking the Power of Avid PhraseFind

PhraseFind is an Avid product that lives inside Media Composer, and allows editors to search their Media Composer project for specific dialogue moments in clips phonetically – that is, by the sounds of the words. It’s like a private detective, listening to all of the voices in a project, and then making that info accessible through a simple “Find” window.

Long-format projects such as broadcast documentary need PhraseFind desperately. For decades, things just took a lot longer. Filmmakers and video editors were limited by existing workflows. They knew that phonetic indexing would happen in some far-off, Buck Rogers future, but the technology just wasn’t there yet. Then in 2011, Avid PhraseFind was released. Every editor went nuts.

PhraseFind has more than one major use. While its primary purpose is practical, helping editors find words phonetically, a secondary result is financially based. PhraseFind offers a huge boost in efficiency, which has resulted in a noticeable reduction in edit schedules.  Non-linear editing in general has already caused a profound reduction in the amount of slow, linear searching and editing of clips.

When you’re banging-out a script as fast as possible, and everyone gets into a room for a rough cut screening, at many points the question comes up, “Does that interviewee or actor or commercial talent say that word or phrase better somewhere else?” Often because a sentence sounds unfinished or there’s an odd sound on the tape during that word. If the EP or the producer is in the room asking this, classically everyone would’ve gone diving into transcripts for the answer, and it would become something to check later. Or the EP and the producer would be forced to sit there talking about whatever while the editor would go grab the tape, pop it into the machine, listen for better iterations of the word or phrase… the process just took too long and it had everyone asking the same question: “Someday will Avid invent a thing that can listen to all of the audio and tell us where all of the syllables, vowels and like-sounding words can be found? Will they make editing happen phonetically?”

Here is the Find Tool. I’m glad PhraseFind is accessed with the Find Tool because it floats over all other bins and interfaces in Avid. It’s not locked away inside script-based editing or some other workflow you have to learn. Everything to do with searching for something, be it script text or phonetic text, is right there.

To really get good at PhraseFind, you’ll need to start thinking phonetically. Let me rephrase… You’ll need to start thinking “fun net tick lee”. If you don’t, you’ll actually be capping your chances of getting good responses. For example, search for the abbreviation for Los Angeles by typing “L.A.”, and then search for “el lay” or “elle ay” or “L A” with spaces and without the punctuation. PhraseFind will give you better results if you think like a microphone, not like a dictionary.

The whole phonetic concept applies to foreign languages as well. Currently you can download and install only one Language Pack for PhraseFind and ScriptSync at a time. That’s usually fine for most editors, unless they’re working on a multi-lingual project. Then they worry. However with PhraseFind that doesn’t matter. For example, let’s say you know that someone in the project speaking Japanese says “Hajimemashite” but you don’t find it anywhere. Using the American English version of PhraseFind, search for “ha gee may mosh day”. Aaah, there it is.

Here is Avid’s Marianna Montague walking us through the process of purchasing and activating Avid PhraseFind.

Since PhraseFind works better based on how it’s used, the true secret weapon is an editor’s own skill and enthusiasm to work harder. It’s an app that exists because most of us no longer have days or weeks to overly pre-organize projects. If we’re lucky we get scripts. If we’re really lucky we get transcripts. Occasionally we get a little time to screen the footage, but quite often, guerilla filmmaking on a grassroots budget hits our edit rooms. We’re sitting there, responsible for getting that ten-minute’s worth of finished rough-cut done and out the door for approvals before 5:00pm.

With Avid ScriptSync, editors can sync script words to their video in seconds, rather than hours. Don’t miss my upcoming webinar—Register here.

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Create a Media Composer Project Structure That Will Last For Years

I love user groups. We need more of them. At a user group, editors break down the walls that divide them (competition-wise) and share ideas. The topic that comes up time and time again:

“Hey — How do you set up your project file structure?”

Boring question, I know. On one hand it makes you realize for the moment that a user’s group is really a High School A/V club reunion session. Yet when someone starts to answer that question, ears perk-up, crowds tighten-in, and pencils (or iPads) come out.

So here is—so far—the best system I’ve heard… so far. It is a combination of over 100 editor’s personal practices, and I’ve been using it flawlessly for years to make everything from national PBS programs to TV ads to wedding videos and more.

 

  1. Turn on your computer. Mac or Win – I don’t care. First thing’s first:  do NOT start your edit software!
  2. I’m sure you have more than one INTERNAL hard drive, right? The one you have the software running on (C: drive; or MacHD; or whatever), and a second drive NOT for media, right? No? Go get one. It can be internal or external, as long as the connection is fast like Thunderbolt or USB-3, and the drive itself is fast. So no 5400rpm drives. This will be SOLELY for your (drumroll please) Editing File Structure.
  3. Got the drive? Great. On it, create these folders: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017. And create one last folder called “Shelf”.  You will be using the 2013-2017 folders for ALL your editing projects. 100% everything except the media itself. The “Shelf” folder will be your generic in-box. “Hey, I like that picture of the light post in front of my house, and I may use it for something someday, but I don’t know what. Where does it go? Shelf. Where does the media go? Ideally for the least amount of playback issues, ANY edit system will prefer an internal drive to an external one, unless the external is a shared storage system or a RAID. Designate all your media to go to a place separate from your main OS drive as well as this second internal drive. (Obviously the past years are for your old projects.  Let’s tidy them up too, shall we?)
  4. In the Shelf, create a folder called My Default Project. In it, the following folders: AMA, Animations, Audio, Avid, DVD Blu-ray, Graphics, Logs, Promotion, Scripts, Slates, Sponsors, and XPORT. These will be the heartbeat by which you set your rhythm for the rest of your life! Copy the “My Default Project” folder and paste it into this year’s folder. Rename it whatever your next project is going to be called. Do this for EVERY project until the end of time, and you’ll NEVER lose anything again!

AMA – For most projects, it is always best to keep all raw camera files on a separate hard drive. However if someone quickly sends you small clips, archive videos or reference videos, this is a great place to keep them.

Animations – This is where finished After Effects animations go. Only motion graphics though. No still-imagery.

Audio – Raw music files, voice-overs, you name it. If it’s audio, it’s here.

Avid – When you start Media Composer and create a new project, click on the folder with the magnifying glass and tell it to save the project HERE.

DVD Blu-ray – This is the place to keep all disc-based files—DVD and Blu-ray stuff. Photoshop-generated menu screens, QuickTime files, captioning files for a DVD, you name it.

Graphics – This will probably be your largest, most disorganized file. When I work, I create new versions of everything— sometimes 42 versions of the same image, just for safety. Please feel free to create as many subfolders as you want.

Logs – Creating tape logs is becoming a scarcely used tactic, but I’m hopeful it’ll come back like vinyl records and Rhodes electric pianos.

Promotion – QuickTime files, screenshots of your finished project, teaser videos, stuff for your reel… just anything you’ll be using specifically for promoting your work.

Scripts – A MUST for editors using Avid’s script-based editing functionality, but great for anyone getting even the most barbaric of scripts from a producer.

Slates – I like having a separate folder for Photoshop-generated slates that go at the beginning of a video (for broadcast), but you can certainly make this a subfolder in Graphics.

Sponsors – Logos, logos, logos!

Xport – Whenever anything is exported directly out of Avid Media Composer, it is sent here. Videos, graphics, audio mixes… everything, no exceptions. Inside this folder I create many subfolders – one for YouTube uploads, one for screen grabs, and so on.

(Note – Please feel free to change these to suit your own needs.)

Now, WHY do all this? Simple. Pretend it’s 2021. You want to get into your 2015 project and work on it as if time didn’t pass and everything was still there. Well, now it is! Did you get a new computer since then? Of course you did. But before you did so, you dragged all your years worth of work onto an external hard drive, and then back onto your new computer’s drive. Cool! It’s like it never left.

So that’s it for starters. I work in a collaborative broadcast environment where an editor can go on vacation for two weeks and I need IMMEDIATE access to his files. Using this structure, I know exactly where to go—and I’ve done so recently with a project that dated back to 1996! Whammo—found the thing and was using it within minutes.

Hope this helps!




Unlocking the Power of Craft Editing

Ever meet a truly driven editor? Almost insanely driven? Someone who generates a crazy amount of product in less time than anyone else? Someone who has some marginally acceptable knowledge of compositing, animations, plug-ins and sound design, but when it comes to just sitting down and crafting huge lengths of storytelling, their razor-sharp instincts play through the script effortlessly like a jazz musician?

Long before grand visions of cloud collaboration, subscription-based apps, review and approval services, render farms, 4K, petabyte archive systems or even mind-dumbing arguments on Facebook over which hard drives are better, there were craft editors.

Craft Editors.

We unlocked a room, flicked a light switch and pulled up a stool. Leaning over the converted laundry bin in the corner, we rifled through clips of film footage. Yes that’s where such terms came from—they were lengths of film, measured by the foot and clipped-off at scene changes. Where was our edit system? A Rivas splicer, sticky with tape residue, sat on the 6-plate Steenbeck up against the wall. There was nothing to click on, and no firmware to install. Collars up, so that the selects hanging over our necks didn’t get sweaty. Lunch? Skipped, unintentionally as always. A river of coffee flowed for 18 hours straight. All we lived and breathed for days, weeks or even months were the pages of the script pinned to the wall.

This is not fetishizing over days past. This is craft editing. This is total immersion into the storytelling process—one person in a room, madly pursuing an idea.

Where did that go?

Make no mistake—the core concept of craft editing is still here, and so are we. The tools have changed. The tangibles feel different. Film is nearly gone. Tape is nearly gone. Media formats shift constantly with the forces of consumerism, and we either lean forward to ride the wave or get caught in the undertow, struggling for breath. But the purpose behind craft editing is the same.

It seems diluted though, doesn’t it? Editors have removed themselves from their root focus. When things were simpler, editing also meant script editing. We ran “editorial,” much like the editor at a newspaper. Today we run “post.” We were once masters of constructing ideas through grammar and syntax. We thought in terms of subjects and predicates, independent and subjective clauses. We acted on those ideas through visual narrative and sequencing. When scenes weren’t working, we saved them. That was our craft. (If you haven’t read this book, do so immediately.) But that was also in a time when “offline editing” didn’t actually generate a finished video. It generated an EDL. Here we are decades later, and our scope encompasses the entire post process. We certainly generate finished videos. Lots of them. We’ve shifted to jockeying codecs and key frames, creating titles in 3D space, updating plug-ins, round-tripping through compositing and coloring programs, fixing mismatched version environments, tech supporting whatever junky computers or mobile phones our clients are reviewing rough cuts on, exporting in 4K, and so on.

There are also mountains of distractions to deal with. What distractions? Well if we’re reading this blog right now, we’re not editing. We may be rendering, importing or exporting, but we’re not pushing any buttons.

Today we beg for distractions. We check Avid Blogs, #postchat, Avid Editors of Facebook, AOTG feeds, Avid-L2, The Cow, the excellent 5Things series by Michael Kammes and so on. We love them. We LOVE them! They give us links, which prompt us to create countless Google tabs, which allow us to read up on every smidgeon of technology imaginable. We drool over every new camera, new app, new hardware and new bloated set of features that are thrown at us.

But stop. Take a breath.

“Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth…there is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

– Spoon Boy, The Matrix (1999)

It is far too easy for us to get caught in the current of technology, which is often swift and exciting yet not very deep. We find ourselves too far downstream from where we intended. We justify it as multi-tasking, but really we’re just getting lost down rabbit holes, following the wrong rabbits.

Think of an audience member. Right now, think of a person in a theater somewhere. Someone is watching something somewhere, always. And television, with thousands of channels in hundreds of countries, something is on somewhere, always, and someone is watching it, always. Actually there are thousands, millions, watching the things we make—our craft—right now. We made all of it. As a world of editors, we have all contributed.

But although we lust over our precious technology, our audiences could care less. We need to stop bending the spoon, and ourselves. Just stop, if only for a moment.

Occasionally we need to look away from our screens. We need to put away our iPhones. There are physical benefits to taking a break (visit Fitness in Post), but for the moment we’re thinking beyond that. We need to stop being self-serving and self-centered. We need to solely serve the story we are working on. Stare at a blank wall for a while. Look into the abyss behind it. Try to remember how we got here. In some cases (no, in most cases) we’ll need to discover how to get back to dry land. We need to get back to being that one person in a room, madly pursuing an idea. Film? Tape? Digital media? Who cares? Nobody. Really.

We need to return our focus to the story.

“Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful… So audiences will not be drawn to the technology; they’ll be drawn to the story. And I hope it always remains that way.”

– Steven Spielberg

The Story

The credits finish. The lights come up. What are people talking about when they walk away from a theater or turn off a TV? Perhaps they’re debating camera angles and codecs? No, they are discussing the story. They’re talking about the characters and the plot they were caught-up in.

As editors this is our craft, our responsibility. This is where we eat and sleep.

The writers, producers and directors are counting on us. They’ve done all they can in pre-pro and in filming to create a mountain of options for us. We are the last gauntlet the story must run through before being fed to the wolves. Sure we have somehow become the masters of codecs and apps, but as the foster parents of a film we must be far more than just technical, artsy-fartsy types. If we are going to be hired back, we need to be both the editorial department’s business leader and its chief content officer. We need to over-deliver, under-deadline. This means only one thing: story. All other aspects can be contracted. We are the ones who need to deliver that finished, watchable thing that perfectly conveys the vision of everyone involved… all while carrying the audience’s attention, believably.

How do we start? We need a script of course. Sometimes it arrives already finished. Sometimes as with documentaries, it gets created in the edit bay. Even if the script is a pile of 3×5 cards or an endlessly rambling text document, it’s a start. We’ve all done work as Script Editors on the side, so we can handle it. Editorial minds are wired to funnel those ideas. We are storytelling sausage makers. (Just make sure we invoice for the extra script formatting work.)

In documentary there is an additional step: transcriptions. Interviews are not scripted, so someone in our process needs to get them transcribed, word-for-word. Beginners are always baffled when they realize this really does mean typing everything manually into a word processor. Fortunately many contractors exist so we don’t have to do it ourselves. (Here in the US, a favorite is Accurate Secretarial.) The process is simple—upload a low-res proxy or even a private YouTube video, and then wait for the transcript to be emailed back. Most services are quick and provide amazing detail.

So we have a script, and maybe some transcripts. We’ve spent days or weeks discussing the story and the deliverables with the writer, producer and director. Now what?

We are editors, so we need an edit system.

The Edit System

Mac or Windows, pick one. It doesn’t matter. For software, Final Cut Pro 7 is nice and so is Final Cut Pro X. Adobe Premiere Pro works great too. So do Edius, Vegas and now even Resolve. The list goes on and on. They all work. Of course they do, don’t be misled. No one watches a movie and says, “Oh that was made on a ___ system.”

Each one of those options is like a hammer—whether found in a hardware store or a dollar store, whichever hammer we find will surely drive a nail. Of course it will. So it doesn’t matter.

I’m lying of course. It actually does matter. The edit system we choose is the rope keeping us on the mountain. It is our lifeline, an extension of us. It may not define us but it’s certainly defines how we enter and exit our day. As craft editors we are left alone with the project, unsupervised, for long stretches of time. So when we’re in that store staring at hammers, we ask: are we hanging a picture frame or building a house? And how many houses? If this is the only hammer in the toolbox, will it last?

Enter Avid Media Composer. (Most of us old dinosaurs just call it Composer.)

Composer caters to every kind of workflow because it was the users of every kind of workflow out there who helped to create it. Its concepts are seamless and intuitive, making sense in logical, human terms.

Oliver Peters, a well-known and respected editor and colorist wrote an outstanding blog article (here). In it he gives a beautifully simple explanation of what most filmmakers believe are Composer’s shining qualities.

Others in the industry share a similar respect. Reading Avid’s Customer Stories is always an inspiration. Gary Bettan from Videoguys always gets deeply detailed when writing about Composer. And it’s always great reinforcement when we see how Composer users swept the ACE Eddie Awards in any given year.

One of our favorite qualities is how Avid constantly updates Composer—even older versions. They’re still adding to software that was released two years ago. And despite all the updates over the decades, Avid really hasn’t changed it much. Bugs get fixed and features get added but many core workflows have remained—the ones that have spoken to filmmakers for decades.

Composer also has a feature within it that no one else has—one that caters to the practical storyteller in all of us. As craft editors, we don’t just move clips around. We work on huge, scripted projects and want something more than just an edit system. We want Composer’s crown jewel—its Script-Based Editing environment, bolstered by two fiercely desired add-ons, ScriptSync and PhraseFind.

1.  Script-Based Editing

Avid’s Script-Based Editing environment is our beloved interface within Composer because it does something amazing – it allows us to sync our video clips right to our script. It’s like editing video right on top of the script inside Microsoft Word. (Well OK, it’s not as elegant as Word but you get the idea.)

Steve Audette (@stevecutsdocs) is Senior Documentary Editor at PBS Frontline and an expert at the broadcast documentary workflow. While instructing a class at NAB in 2014 he described Composer as, “…still the most thoroughly and thoughtfully crafted tool for editors.” His workflow is deeply rooted in Script-Based Editing, which he describes in this video.

Though it’s been around for a generation (read its history here), the Script-Based Editing workflow is surprisingly unknown. Even power-users of Composer may have seen this functionality but never bothered to get into it. (I’ve been in many certified Avid training courses, and it’s just not taught well enough.) Those who know it love it. It’s one of the few benefits to Composer that no competitor has been able to top.

Many craft editors regard Composer’s Script-Based Editing environment as the most powerful asset in Avid’s entire product line.

On massive documentary projects, many freelance editors even rent their producers a laptop with Composer on it, solely because of this. All the clips are imported and synced to the script, and then the laptop is handed over to the producers, sometimes for months. They lock themselves in a room, bouncing between the Script-Based Editing environment and Microsoft Word to create their first interview assembly. (Every single one of my producers calls it an immersive and enjoyable creative experience.)

2.  ScriptSync

Nested inside Composer and created by a company called Nexidia, ScriptSync is a game changing add-on to the Script-Based Editing environment. The process of syncing videos to the script can be time consuming and labor intensive. ScriptSync does it with one click by listening to the phonetics of the audio and syncing it to the text in the script. It can do a day’s worth of manual syncing in about 20 minutes.

3.  PhraseFind

For many editors, especially in documentary and sports, PhraseFind is the greatest invention since Composer itself. Also created by Nexidia, it allows users to type a word, and search phonetically through the media to find every instance of audio in which that word was spoken. Is a film scene destroyed because of an ambient noise during a vital word? Does a documentary interview end all of his sentences sounding like a question? PhraseFind allows us to replace that word with a better sounding one within ten seconds.

If editing is swinging a hammer, then Composer is using a nail gun. Operating with these tools in combination is simply the apex of workflows. Editors who are new to discover these in combination get blown away, and seasoned aces refuse to leave it behind. We once again become an extension of the writing staff. We become engaged in paragraphs and words rather than just sights and sounds. We get pulled away from the temptation to turn on the computer and just start clunking-away at video editing. We’re in the whole picture. We are craft editing.

OK, so here we are at day one of the edit. The director has just walked in with a giant pile of media. Script in-hand, seated at Composer, we need to begin the edit. The footage has to go somewhere. How do we manage it all?

The Storage

Let’s dispense with the craziness surrounding storage right here and now. Look at it from the context of our original idea—one editor in a room.

“That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is – a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.”

– George Carlin

For the past 100 years, long format projects have needed three storage locations for an edit to happen. They still do. The first holds nothing but shot footage (the negatives from the camera). The second holds the media being edited (one-light film transfers). The third is the fortress into which we archive the project.

Today editors reign over a vastly expanding empire of hard drives. Redundancy Rules!!! While operating without redundancy means faster drives and makes us feel sexy and dangerous like characters in a Tarantino movie, from a business sense it’s just plain stupid. So with redundancy, storage ends up costing more in total than the edit system itself. This is normal. But with that much investment, the most important element to storage is… drumroll… the person managing it.

Once again, it’s on us as editors.

So let’s expand on this. Here is one financially secure workflow many editors are currently engaged in. Let’s pretend we’re editing a documentary for PBS.

1. Shot Footage

The director shoots stuff, and then puts the footage on a hard drive. It gets duped to a second drive. The first goes on the director’s shelf and the second goes to the editor. The editor copies it to a third drive. The second drive goes on the editor’s shelf and the third gets plugged into Composer. (Whew!)

Format the third drive NTFS (Win) or OSX Journaled (Mac). Name it “RAW_[project]”. (Pick any 3-letter abbreviation for the project.) Never edit with this drive. It’s just for accessing the shot footage, transcoding from it, and then putting back on a shelf.

2. Footage for Editing

For editing, we need a fourth drive. Format this drive the same, and name the drive “AVID_[project]”. Self-contained RAID units or shared storage systems work great here too, depending on the quantity of footage and thus size of storage needed.

Most editors prefer individual drives and RAIDs over shared storage because everything is cleanly encapsulated. Neat little boxes, that’s what we like. It’s the most secure process we have. When the project stops, the drives get unplugged and then new drives for the next project get plugged-in. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. And when we’re lucky enough to use massive shared storage systems, we treat them like individual drives anyway. In Avid ISIS for example, we create workspaces that are around the same size as an external drive, because when the project is done it’ll need to be archived off to an archive drive anyway.

Now we begin editing. Launch Composer. Create a new project on our computer’s internal drive. Set the Media Creation settings to import and render all media onto the fourth drive, “AVID_[project]”. Next, get the footage into the system. Use AMA, transcode, consolidate, import, record, capture, digitize, a potato launcher or a plunger. It all works. It’s all good.

3. The Archive

Plug-in a fifth drive. Format it the same, and name it “ARCH_[project]. Unplug it and put it away on a shelf. Then every Friday just before you happily leave for the weekend (hahaha), plug-in this ARCH drive and drag the entire contents of the AVID drive to it. Also copy the Composer project from the internal drive to the AVID drive.

When the project is all done, copy the Composer project from the internal drive to the AVID drive. Wipe the ARCH drive and then copy the AVID drive onto the ARCH drive. This means you will be able to plug either drive into any Composer system and see the entire project with all of its media. Lastly put the RAW and AVID drives in a banker’s box. Take the ARCH drive to a secure location off-site, never to be touched again unless the AVID drive fails.

While very labor-intensive, this is security and redundancy at its finest.

The Review and Approval Process

This is the easiest part of the process because every producer and executive producer comes into the edit bay to discuss the film during each increment of its completion.

Ha! Yeah right.

This is the most disorganized, scatter-brained, infuriating part of the job as a craft editor. We’re barely done beginning the project—in fact we’re just starting to formulate creative ideas about style and pacing, and here comes the criticism. Experienced editors are calloused to this. We’re made of rhinoceros hide. Although it bugs us to no end, we know to grab a pencil and start writing because if this is the producer’s first impression, then we can imagine it would also be the audience’s first impression.

But rarely are the producers in the room for the review session. They’re remote. Of course they are. They’re off producing something else—hopefully more footage for us.

Enter today’s world of cloud-based review and approval products. Although none of them are yet a perfect fit to every editor’s needs, the last couple of years have been pretty good to us.

Scott Simmons (@editblog) is one of the most visible craft editors found in social media today. A ceaseless writer of blogs and articles discussing industry topics, he created an article for Pro Video Coalition (here) that is robust with options for review and approval. Since then, we have also been introduced to a new option called “Frame.io” which looks promising.

Effects and Finishing

Animations, titles, effects and plug-ins are examples of ancillary media, which used to be handled by somebody else than craft editors. Well actually they still are on projects that can afford it. But today they are absolutely part of our craft, and a topic often discussed and fiercely argued.

More than just flash, they have become a pure method of how editors can implement their style. Put ten editors on the same project and it’ll have ten different styles—partially because of cutting, but mostly because of effects. In fact, today most editors in broadcast or advertising get hired based on style rather than technique.

There are two different ways to approach effects—leaving the edit system or staying within it. If we are exiting Composer in order to do this work, like in After Effects, then we are in essence assuming the role as animator or title designer and currently abandoning the role of editor. But if we are simply working with things inside of Composer, it somehow feels like we are still editing—a bit of a lie, but a gentle one.

Where effects truly help us thrive as editors is in how they allow us to be creative without hindering us through complicated interfaces. I was recently at a demo of Sapphire 8 by GenArts, hosted by Kevin P. McAuliffe (@KPMcauliffe) at the new Future Media Concepts training facility in Toronto, and was blown away by its new node-based workspace called “Builder.” Many of us in the room momentarily thought we were looking at Avid DS. Check it out (here).

The Delivery

Weeks and weeks have gone by. Finally we’re at the delivery stage. What’s the most important tool we need here? Hint—it has nothing at all to do with craft editing. It’s called a Deliverables List—a  simple Microsoft Word doc, created by the producers way back during pre-pro, which itemizes every single thing that needs to come out of the edit. This includes the film itself, trailers or promos, web or DVD extras, frame grabs of content for websites, YouTube uploads, submissions for awards and the credits. Really well organized lists even list rough-cut videos and their scheduled screening dates.

If a project has no deliverables list, then expect zero accountability of any kind throughout the process. Expect last-minute emergencies every day. This is why most editors demand to be part of deliverables list meetings throughout the edit.

For actually making the deliveries, editors can either export what is needed from the app itself, or can export one mammoth-sized video file, and then use other apps to do bulk loads of compressing.

There are lots of options out there. Sorenson Squeeze Pro is often endorsed by Avid editors. A few apps out there work a little faster than Squeeze, but not always as reliable or high quality. We carry around (and in the cloud) a set of custom presets for it. These we pamper and guard as strongly as our credit cards and app passwords. They are our lifelines to digital delivery because they can be plugged into and used on any computer with Squeeze on it. They represent years of trial and error in creating the best looking and best playing video files that can possibly be encoded.

Whew, the project is done! We’ve archived it, we’ve shared clips of it, and we’ve promoted it on our websites. Is that it? Yes that’s it for the project… but not for us as professionals.

If we’re going to keep getting new projects, we need to constantly evaluate how the last one went. We need to look closely at ourselves, our tools and at our workflows. Training ourselves is easy. Find a school, find a user group or just find some training videos. But how do we evaluate—or even fix—our tools and our workflows?

When We Need Help

Sometimes we need help. Things break. Workflows don’t always work. Many issues are based on individual computers or with editors who may be inexperienced with new features or workflows. In high-pressure situations when we have a six-figure art director standing over our shoulders, we need answers immediately.

Enter Avid Support and the Avid Communities.

Craft editors know that Avid has the most thoroughly trained and most instantly accessible support staff of any of its competitors. (I’ve spent hundreds of hours on the phone with them over my career.) As a paid service it is definitely worth it—having a real voice of experience on the other end, available within minutes. Avid also has some of the most thorough online forums, moderated by some of the most experienced people in the industry who volunteer their time.

But the best-known and loved support guru of them all is Avid’s own Marianna Montague. A constant advocate for every customer and every need, we truly believe she has cloned herself several times. Directly or indirectly, she has helped tens of thousands of editors over the years. No other company has anyone who comes close to her abilities. Just remember—although Twitter and Facebook are easy and accessible with our phones these days, the best way to investigate questions in detail with her (or any Moderator) is by posting questions to the Avid Communities: Composer & video questions (here) and Pro Tools & audio questions (here).

The Avid Customer Association / Avid Connect

Remember the story of the boy who cried “wolf”? Eventually no one believed him. The opposite is also true, and especially true in this industry. Anyone who cries “sheep” and gushes over a product saying that everything is good all of the time eventually ends up with the same fate. No one believes constant praise either. In fact, go ahead and name one product that has ever deserved constant praise. (Cue the cricket sounds.)

Avid has kept rock-solid workflows inside Composer, however they also know that all workflows need tweaking and updating as the industry outgrows them. A couple of years ago they began face-to-face discussions with craft editors to identify new workflows as they arise. This has been done through the Avid Customer Association and its live events, called Avid Connect.

“Decisions are made by those who show up.” 

– Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing

Jointly led by customers and Avid employees, the Avid Customer Association is a sort of United Nations of post-production. We have begun to drum-up highly active, passionate discussions between Avid and its users—real conversations that many people have been waiting a long time to happen. Many changes in the industry have been causing friction between Composer and some of its users. Yet editors who have been cared for by Composer’s workflows are passionate about giving back. As new workflows arise, they want to help Avid change Composer for the better. We look at workflows in all apps not just Avid’s, and how they are used in all corners of the industry. It’s been a very exciting time.

After a year of research and discovering ourselves, we are now beginning to discuss new product quality needs with Avid’s own product designers. At Avid Connect, craft editors are able to sit down with Avid’s product designers to learn how things work, and also help them understand all of our workflows and needs.

It’s a delicate balance. We certainly don’t want to inflict change at the expense of the ecosystem surrounding filmmaking. But we need some serious updates to happen, and the Avid Customer Association has been lending us a good voice. 2015 will bring many long-time issues to the table. How long will Composer remain a viable option for craft editors? That’s up to all of us—inside and outside Avid’s walls. As a group of users, there are two things we need to do to keep our primary tool in operation:

  1. Join things like the Avid Customer Association (here). Join and be active in local user groups. Go to Avid Connect. Through these we can have a louder collective voice to keep helping Avid adapt itself to our ever-changing needs
  1. Give constant feedback in highly viewed places like the Avid Community’s Feature Requests forum (here). It’s also important to go to the Avid Community often. Ask lots of questions, and when we see someone else having trouble, give them a hand.

Once those are done, Avid can be in a position to spend its development dollars more effectively. The more educated they are to our priorities, the faster they can accommodate them.

And Finally… The Passion of a Craft Editor

Few things employ humans more than the term, “What if.” In science, “What if” presents an impossibility that is waiting to be conquered. In filmmaking, “What if” has created every movie ever made and every TV show ever broadcast.

But the curiosity behind “What if” only gets us half of the way. Let’s look again at our original idea—of one editor in a room, madly pursuing an idea. Why “madly”? What is it that makes us pursue things “madly”?

Regret.

Regret is the most powerful magic a craft editor can possess. Regret for not finishing a project on time. Regret for creating a finished film that flops. Regret for standing in the back of the theater on every opening night and never creating a standing ovation. Regret for always getting nominated for an Emmy but never winning one. Regret for not being called back. Regret for making something we ourselves would never want to watch again. And worst of all, regret for letting ourselves get too technical and abandoning our story.

We all have suffered crushing regret, and we all refuse to feel it again. So we come in early. We leave late. Even when the project is nearly done, we watch it again and again. We turn off the volume to see… is it carrying itself visually? We look away from the screen to listen… is the story clear and seamless like a radio program? We make seventy versions of it, and throw them all away. Is it working? We screen it for strangers. Is it working? We scribble on our script. We write and we rewrite. Is it working?

But this isn’t a neurotic condition that should be looked at negatively. At the core of all craft editors is a type of insanity—one that makes combating this regret absolutely fun. It is the art of perfection, and the perfection of art. It is the difference between doing something and doing something really well.

Craft editing is foster parenting someone’s idea into a fully-grown film. It is an incredible exercise in trust. It is for responsible, thoughtful people who need to create rather than destroy. In a world that cuts itself apart, we cut things together. And in order to keep it fun, we dive blindly off the path into the tall weeds to make a new path. Craft editing is a challenge, and we must never get to a point where we are above the challenge.

So no matter what technology may bring, we must be focused on the story. We must think like one person in a room, madly pursuing an idea. It’s the only thing that has ever worked.

 

PS – Please disagree with me. Please post your thoughts and your workflows. We thrive on different ideas and conflicts. Don’t let me be the only one talking. We need to hear from you.

 

Chris Bové / Pixel Monkey on Avid Community / @heybove