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Screentech.

The human desire and fondness for nostalgia (insert statement beginning with 'In my day ...') is a very interesting phenomenon when viewed through the lens of recent technological developments. Take, for example, the humble yet iconic vinyl twelve-inch record. It's been fifteen-odd years since the introduction of the laser-read compact disc and yet a specialist rack of vinyl records in a large music store is not uncommon. Whole sections of music retail are still devoted to vinyl (not just the trade in rare, antique vinyl, but new release twelve-inch records). Manufacturers Denon, Technics and Sony have all released brand new model, direct-drive turntables in the past two years. And visit any club in any city the world over sporting a DJ and, despite the prolific releases of DJ specialized digital CD decks, Technics SL1200 turntables and the vinyl format are still the weapons of choice.

Having noticed this, find any audiophile or music collector and ask them about sound quality and the overwhelming majority will respond with an unvarying statement of 'Analogue vinyl sounds warmer'. No one is really sure what 'warmer' means but the result is the same; despite the scientifically measurable higher quality of digital formats, people still long for the 'good el' days'.

This says one of two things: either we have a very strong nostalgic streak that makes the past look glossy and wrinkle free; or ever-shifting technology, that long ago became more accurate than our own eyes and ears, leaves us with a very warped and confused perception of 'quality'.

Pick up any non-linear, digital editing system and it's almost guaranteed to possess some sort of 'film-look' filter. Whole Internet discussion boards are devoted to the best ways of achieving this elusive 'film-look' for DV and even HD productions. These filters generally do three things to achieve their 'film-look' ideal; they add grain and slight amounts of visual noise to the image to mimic celluloid emulsion; they shift down and even under-sample the frame rate so it has the cadence and feel of 24fps film; and they remove the interlacing fields to create a single progressively scanned frame. The irony of all this, of course, being that these processes actually degrade the quality of the image. Dirtying it up to make it look 'better'.

Now don't get me wrong, I've used these types of filters extensively myself to create a particular look, and certainly when done well they can remove the 'video' style of DV footage. But is this really about dissatisfaction with the DV image or more about some stigma of inferiority? Is it a class war or a matter of fact? Is the old really better or do we all have an ongoing techno-shock and so cling to the old look like a security blanket?

The film purists and 35mm DPs amongst us are probably up in arms now, declaring in bold tones that film latitude is far greater and DV or even HD isn't yet close to the impeccable resolution of 2k or 4k film. Sure, we all know you're right.

Digital formats aren't there yet for pure pixel-by-pixel comparison to celluloid or for dynamic range and sensitivity. But is there any doubt that it's just a matter of time before they are?

And when it does arrive, and it still doesn't look the same as film, will we still long for the old days? And twenty years from now, will we all be opening up our super high definition editing systems, that run on a palm-pilot, and trawling through the millions of visual effects hunting for the one called 'DV look'?

Firing the Magic Bullet

Software plug-in developer Red Giant has updated its suite of Magic Bullet plug-ins. Magic Bullet is designed specifically to offer a range of film-like looks and visual styles to digital productions.

Magic Bullet aims to replicate the tone, grain and diffusion of various 'real-world' film stocks and indeed comes pre-built with a range of presets modeled from big budget films such as The Matrix, with its green tint high-contrast, Saving Private Ryan's desaturated flicker, and the sepia sweatiness of Steven Soderberg's Traffic. Of course the plug-ins are completely customizable and so can be adapted for the particular visual style of your project.

The technology behind Magic Bullet was developed by former Industrial Light + Magic effects artists Jonathan Rothbart, Stuart Maschwitz, and Scott Stewart, and so has a strong pedigree of use in projects from super low to enormously high budget.

Long since available for applications such as After Effects and Premiere, Magic Bullet is now released for Sony's Vegas non-linear editing system.

Many editors, compositors and colour-graders achieve similar visual styles through the traditional use of primary and secondary colour correction, as well as RGB and HSL tonal adjustments. The advantage Magic Bullet has is in streamlining this whole process and making it not much more complicated than drag, drop and tweak.

Avid's new Bundle of Joy

There's little doubt that the role of editing systems (and subsequently the role of editors) has changed enormously over the past few years on the digital road. Where once the editing system was the place where clips were simply strung end to end, NLEs are now fully fledged compositing engines, audio recording systems and 2/3D animation tools.

In line with this, many software developers have moved to keep users on their tools and stop them shopping around for components by offering very competitive bundles. Adobe really got the ball rolling in a new way earlier this year, with its Digital Video Collection that included Premiere, After Effects, and Audition for multitrack audio, and Encore for DVD authoring. Apple doesn't need to bundle its software because, given there's little to no software choice on the Mac, you'll more than likely be using their stuff end-to-end anyway--Final Cut Pro, DVD Studio Pro, Shake (or the newly released Motion) and the recently purchased Logic for multitrack audio.

Avid, still overwhelmingly dominant at the high end of town, is conversely feeling the competition heat at the more budget end of DV and HD, where Premiere, Final Cut Pro, Vegas and Liquid Edition are all snagging substantial numbers of users.

In an attempt to be seen as an end-to-end solution, Avid have released Avid Xpress Studio which includes Avid Xpress DV for editing, Pro Tools LE for audio, Avid 3D, Avid FX, Avid DVD and a Digidesign Mbox USB audio interface. Step up to the pro version and you get the Digit002 for audio and MIDI and the Mojo real-time accelerator. For under $7000 it's not a bad deal.

Interestingly, Avid were sponsors, had a demo stand, and even gave away prizes at the recent Australian Teachers Of Media (ATOM) conference in Melbourne. Avid in schools? Avid being used by overworked, underpaid teachers? Does Avid have a genuine desire to provide accessible tools for media education or do they simply want to get to future users while they're young and impressionable? The tactic has worked for Apple for years--virtually giving away Macs to schools in the hope that students would hold their loyalty to the fruit company when they became adults with disposable incomes. Avid seems keen to follow this same lead.

The adaptation of Avid DV Xpress from their higher end Media Composer and Symphony systems was not an easy one, and many have criticized Avid Xpress for trying to hold on to too much from its bigger brothers; the result being an overly, and unnecessarily complex system-polluting application. Things have improved but it may well be a very hard task for Avid to prove its education friendliness. The truth is that Avid Xpress (and Final Cut Pro for that matter) aren't the easiest applications around to get newcomers into, inherently attached as they are to traditional methods of editing. Some of the cocky young upstart systems, which are not so attached to 'the way things have always been done', are often finding easier and better ways of achieving the same ends.

As editing systems and developers continue to compete heavily with each other, it will be wise to watch the education sector to see where the industry is going. Companies will be vying harder and harder in the coming years to get access to their future users earlier and earlier. We can only trust that increasingly limited education budgets don't get drained and abused in the fray.

Editing the groove

Just as the editor's job has expanded with digital tools to encompass areas such as compositing and animation, so too has there been a steady rise, particularly in small and independent circles, in editors cutting their own soundtracks, or at least wanting too. (I have a theory that all editors are really just frustrated musicians ... I know I am.)

The tools for doing just this are becoming more and more accessible, flexible and powerful. For several years, loop sequencers, led by Sony's AcidPro, have become staple tools for knocking together short sound tracks and scene-bridging music elements. Apple wanted some of the action, so, in typical Apple style, they simply headhunted the software designers who made Acid and put them to work on their own clone, Soundtrack.

Electronic music stalwart Cakewalk have gone a step further with the release of Kinetic, a soft-synth studio that combines the ease of loop sequencing with the flexibility of MIDI.

The most notable element of Kinetic, however, is not what it does (which is cool enough) but that Cakewalk have a groundbreaking deal with music giant Roland and have been given access to Roland's library of genre-defining electronic sounds. Included in Kinetic is Roland sound canvases that give access to original 909,808 and TB303 samples. Traditionally the only way to get these sounds was to spend thousands on hardware. Not any more! It may well be that pro musos and studio engineers buy Kinetic not to make music with as a software package, but just to get their hands on those sounds.

Kinetic provides a vary flexible and easy to use step or realtime MIDI recording environment for producing your music elements, and parts which can then be sequenced together and outputted in all the major flavours of audio format, including acidized wav files for use in other sequencers that have the ability to tempo and pitch correct.

Lightwave shines

Seminal 3D modeling and animation software Lightwave has released its new version 8, with a long list of improvements, tweaks and enhancements. Rather than anything particularly new, version 8 places most of its emphasis on speeding up the workflow process. Inverse and forward kinematics, which are used to create realistic friction, movement and relationships between objects (such as lower-legs to upper-legs) have been improved to allow for faster implementation and faster rendering.

In the endless pursuit of photo-realism in 3D, Light-wave 8 includes fascinating new tools for creating cloth and soft-body elements that not only react to other elements, such as movement and particles, but can also respond to actions, like being torn.

It's very easy to get caught up in the possibilities of non-linear editing systems, as they are pretty amazing, but if you want to really see where the future of media creation is you need to check out the latest in 3D.

Screentech

Australia is often touted as a classless society, but anyone working in digital production and the film industry knows that this is as big a lie as 'Babies Overboard'. 35mm purists turn their nose up at DV. Filmmakers making movies for the Internet get shunned as non-serious film-makers. TV camera operators swing their hefty digi-beta cameras and scoff at the handheld models. Avid editors wave their hand dismissively at the idea of cutting a doco on a laptop in a software-only editing system. So on and so on ...

The media production class war is alive and well. Certainly there is growing acceptance of the 'poor cousins'; globally the trickle-down effect is bogus right wing economics, but in regard to technology it is happily effective, But even for those working in the underclass, banging out their low-budget productions on affordable desktop computer software and digital cameras, there is still the tone of aspirational longing--the hope of looking over the fence into the big guys' yard and thinking one day I'll have the money to run post-production equipment like that.

Will our films be more engaging if they're all cut on major hardware Avid setups? Will our composits and FX shots be all the more believable if done on SGI systems?

Discreet's Class War

Long standing software developer Discreet (makers of 3DSMax and software compositing tools like Combustion) have announced the forthcoming release of new versions of all three of its high-end compositing, motion graphics and effects systems: Flint, Flame and Inferno.

It goes without saying that there are numerous improvements, extra features and new effects (ability to import layered Photoshop files, expanded undo options for each layer, enhanced colour correctors, masking and keys) but the really interesting part of these releases is that they raise issues of class once again.

Flint is the least expensive of the three and although it shares the same base code as its big brothers, it is just a standard 8bit processing engine, where as Flame and Inferno offer 12bit processing and resolutions up to 4k film. That said, Flint still ships as a turnkey system with a price tag consisting of many zeros.

This new version of Flint (number 9) has also made an operating system shift and now only runs on Linux. (Flame and Inferno run on SGI Irix,) This in itself is an interesting and bold move, but one that is nonetheless happening in pockets all over the post-production industry, as developers realize the virtues of Linux as more stable, more efficient, faster and cheaper than anything Microsoft or Apple have offered.

But what about that price tag? Certainly many of the features of Flint are excellent. They're not necessarily unique--Flint doesn't really do anything others can't also--but it prides itself on doing them better, cleaner, and with more precision.

But all three of these terms (better, cleaner, more precise) are subjective ones, and the real question to be asked by post-production supervisors should be: 'Is Flint (and high-end turnkey systems like it) tens of thousands of dollars better than a software based system like After Effects, Combustion or Boris Red?' All of these are 8bit and 10bit compositing systems that do pretty much everything Flint does. Flint is an amazingly powerful system and users swear by it, but are your shots going to look tens of thousands of dollars better for having used it? The jury is out and, who knows, maybe they will.

The answer is itself subjective, but nonetheless it makes us once again aware of the class distinction in media production and invariably begs the question as to the future of such systems. When even basic non-linear editing systems have very powerful compositing tools in them, how long can a post-production budget justify the expense? This is not to belittle the far superior power of a system like Flint over compositing tools on your humble Premiere, Vegas, Final Cut Pro NLE timeline. But it does raise some interesting questions about the future of software development, the changing nature of the film industry, and our roles as creators within it.

Mixing all around

Sony's Vegas set the new generation audio trend and now most software based editing systems provide tools for surround sound mixing and 5.1 channel output. But the ability to mix in surround and deliver in surround on DVD is still useless without an effective hardware solution for monitoring five channels of discreet sound.

Audio hardware developer M-Audio, who make a vast array of solutions for music production and sequencing software (in particular the generally overrated Pro-Tools) have released a simple, low-cost solution for home studios and independents.

The Revolution 5.1 offers clean and clear output for surround sound audio at hi-definition specs of 192khz 24bit (which is generally considered well beyond what the human ear can hear anyway). The Revolution 5.1 comes with its own software mixer interface to ensure ease of control of multiple inputs and outputs. The lack however of 6.5mm TRS jack sockets may force many potential users onto more expensive hardware just so they can plug-in record without an adapter. If, however, all your sounds are internally generated through soft-synths, loops and samples, then the Revolution 5.1 is probably all you need for effective monitoring.

There are many consumer and home studio solutions for surround sound monitoring but a hardware card is only as good as the cables, sockets, inputs and preamps that connect it. M-Audio have a great deal of experience in this area and the pedigree of M-Audio gear may set this otherwise fairly basic card apart from the field.

Canon's last SD stand

There are many good and widely used standard definition DV cameras around (Sony's PD170 and PD150, Panasonic's new toys with progressive scan, and various offerings from JVC being quick off the mark with HDV), but arguably the camera to which others have traditionally been compared is the long standing Canon XLls.

Distinctive, with its bent body, red and white chassis, superb fluorite lens and unmistakably attractive open architecture system, allowing interchangeable lenses, the XL1s showed a remarkable longevity in a world where equipment changes are as common as underwear swaps.

The future was in question, however, with the inevitable being asked of Canon: will the next XL be HD? Canon have answered with what they claim will be their last SD DV camera--the XL2. This came as a surprise to many, as Canon are a prime developer of the High Definition DV standard (HDV) which has become such a buzzword.

The XL2 looks basically the same as it predecessor; the open architecture remains, so where is the newness? The XL2 remains a standard definition camera with Canon obviously playing the safe bet that the true mass movement to HD across the board is still a little way off, and that there remains a market for an SD DV camera of this calibre.

The new elements of the XL2 are nonetheless substantial, if predictable: 24fps progressive scan image, 4:3 or 16:9 shooting, and they've upped the number of effective capture pixels across the three CCDs.

HD may be around the corner but many working media makers will still be using SD for the next few years and the new XL2 will more than likely continue to be the DV camera of choice for docos, indie films, shorts and the occasional brash feature.

Cinema 4D heads towards double digits

The world of 3D graphics production is a crowded one. There are more toys than you can know how to play with, and just to make matters very difficult indeed, there's hardly a dud amongst them. All the major 3D applications (namely 3DSMax, Maya, Lightwave, Poser, XSI, Rhino, etc.) are excellent. Each has its strengths but overall, unlike other areas of media production technology, the standard is very, very high and as a result, competition is stiff.

German manufacturer Maxon are about to release the ninth incarnation of their very highly regarded Cinema 4D. Not as widely used or known as Maya or Studio Max, C4D is nonetheless an extraordinarily powerful 3D modeling, rendering and animation system that has made deep inroads in production effects for film and TV production.

Version 9 offers some new enhancements that go beyond just the usual embellishments. C4D had been criticized in the past for weak modeling tools compared to its very accomplished animation and rendering elements. This has been overhauled with expansive polygon and NURBS modeling features. Going further, C4D9 offers new tools for simulating cloth and moving textiles on models in response to elements such as particle generators and motion dynamics.

Of course, digital media systems do not live in isolation and need to talk and play nice with other applications. CD offers many options for multi-pass rendering to bring layered projects into compositing projects, such as After Effects and direct export to Combustion and Final Cut Pro.
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Title Annotation:Technical Section; compact discs
Author:Jones, Mike
Publication:Metro Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Words:3354
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