This article was first published in IBE Magazine, September/ October 2011 issue
Increasingly large volumes of User Generated Video Content are being produced every day. The majority of this audiovisual content is shot and edited by non-professionals uploading their videos onto social media websites or online TV channels, and even used as a source for TV broadcasters. These videos are usually shot with low cost cameras or cell phones and edited using editing software on a laptop or an ordinary PC. This trend would appear to suggest that these low cost tools could replace “professional” editing systems.
At the same time, the industry is witnessing growing demand for the high end finishing of audiovisual content using expensive Color Grading and sound editing systems. This may seem contradictory with the tremendous use of low cost systems, but I believe that post-production systems spanning a wide range of costs, complexity, speed and features can and will continue to co-exist together.
“Low cost” and “professional” editing systems
I was asked recently whether we can produce an “Avatar” in the UAE and my answer was: Yes, but it would take us twenty or thirty years to do so today with the tools currently available in the region. This is compared to around two or three years in an established film production environment. A large complex product requires an adequately sized and skilled workforce and technological tools to be delivered to a certain quality and within a reasonable timeframe. The same principles apply to using various editing systems. In many cases you may be able to reach a similar finished product using low cost or higher end professional tools, but it will certainly take you much longer. This is assuming that the low cost system is able to process the files using chosen file and encoding formats.
Low cost video editing software are undoubtedly easy to use with their increasingly rich functionalities and performance. They also cost only a fraction of what similar software would have cost a few years back and is a good choice for editing personal or simple company video and exporting it to your social network page or company website. The question is; would you be able to use such products for more “serious” editing?
Editing long form videos is the first troublemaker for low cost editing software as the reliability and speed start to be effected after a few hours of work and a long timeline. Advanced editing systems are stable, flexible and reliable offering not only individual functionalities, but a production workflow. They provide the processes from managing raw footage, editing with all the effects and titles, making color adjustments, to exporting your edit to a variety of formats. They also have a much more powerful and richer set of tools that respond to the creative requirements of the producer or director.
Real-time processing and previewing of multi-layer projects is expected these days from a professional editing system with limited render time except for very complex sections of the timeline. With High-Definition (HD) in its various flavours becoming the predominant acquisition and editing format, more robust software and solid hardware processing power is required to deliver efficiently the requirements of HD editing in real-time.
TV and computer screens are getting continuously larger. 40-inch is probably the average size for a new TV screen at home nowadays. HDTV has become “Standard TV” in many parts of the world and we are getting used to a much greater quality of picture and sound. Internet connections in regions around the globe are now capable of streaming HD videos to our laptops and smartphones: our “acceptable” quality levels have become higher.
Challenges: sound and Color Grading
Having said that professional editing systems are certainly needed to deliver professional videos on time and in a managed process, what does this desire for higher quality mean?
What stands out in today’s crowded space of television programmes and movies are higher quality productions. This may be from a creative or storytelling point of view, but certainly higher quality sound and picture are also key differentiating factors. Looking back again to what people watch online, around two thirds of the twenty most viewed videos of all time on YouTube are not User Generated Content, but rather professionally produced video clips.
TV and film productions have already moved or are in the process of migrating onto tapeless production workflows, with main players upgrading from SD to HD and the film industry converting rapidly to D-cinema. These changes are adding more challenges to audiovisual content creation, whilst offering more creative options. The two main areas where we can see significant changes are Color Grading and Audio post-production.
Let’s talk picture. The big names in camera manufacturing (such as ARRI, SONY, PANASONIC, RED, CANON etc.) have introduced tapeless or file based cameras for the television and film industries at decreasing costs. An independent producer can now shoot HD, 2K, or even 4K videos using one of these cost effective cameras. A producer sitting in his or her edit suite in Cairo, Beirut, or Abu Dhabi now has access to millions of pixels that they would never have imagined having access to previously. These large frames capture a lot of details resulting in a richer picture, at the same time revealing any flaws in the picture capturing process, especially in lighting and color balances. Color Grading has accordingly become an essential step in the post-production finishing process for shot-in-high-resolution content.
The coloring tools in regular professional editing software have become mature and affordable: you can now do Color Correction and Grading using the low cost “Color” in FCP, or AVID’s Color Correction toolset, or Davinci Resolve. But what is expected from the high-end Color Grading systems is the processing of high-resolution footage in real-time with reliability and flexibility.
The advantage of using high-end specialised color Grading systems, and expert colorists, is that Color Grading is a demanding creative and technical process for any genre of production. Flexibility and responsiveness cannot be compromised for any finishing process and the reliable performance and consistency of results combined with the ability to manage different color Grading workflows are essential. The range of input resolutions and file formats captured today from various camera systems is so wide that the specialised Color Grading system should be able to import and process footage in mixed raw formats with increased accessibility to color data in all data workflows. “Over the shoulder” Grading where the producer or director is in the room with the colorist requesting modifications and trying various grades can only be efficiently carried out when the color Grading system allows for such actions to be completed instantly and in real time, without wasting time rendering.
Our post-production facility in Abu Dhabi was busy recently finishing a thirty episode historical Arabic drama series that was broadcasted on many regional TV channels during the holy month of Ramadan. The producers recognisedthe need for a higher quality picture as an important factor for their production to stand out from the crowd during the highest viewership season of the year in the Middle East. Many challenges were faced during the process including discovering that the raw footage arrived in multiple frame rates which we managed to find solutions for with the tools available at twofour54 intaj. Last minute changes to the content were required at the final stages of the finishing process as historians were providing comments on the script and the historic sequence of events to make them as precise as possible. This meant re-editing and modifications had to be performed directly onto the Grading system. The producers also wanted the series to have a “studio quality” finish, which is only possible to get on time and to the quality standard requested, using a high-end Color Grading suite such as the one we have at twofour54 intaj. The results were amazing and the producers now believe that it is no longer necessary to travel to Hollywood or London to get the results they were able to get on their doorstep in Abu Dhabi.
Sound: the other half of the picture
Sound should not be forgotten. As the picture gets richer and more details are available to viewers on larger screens, viewer expectations for a higher quality sound has also increased. Sound should be taken seriously in the migration process from SD to HD. Some people argue that the opportunities and sound features that HD offers broadcasters and producers exceeds what a HD picture offers in comparison to SD; larger frame size and better quality image are obviously important, but broadcasting 5.1 Surround Sound for example may be even more valuable. The importance of surround sound has just started to become recognised by regional broadcasters with premium content suppliers (acquired movies, TV series and sports) providing their productions and live feeds with 5.1 surround sound embedded.
On the post-production front, sound editing, mixing and finishing have recently received more attention within the Middle East media production industry. Knowing that entertaining the audience means offering them a richer experience; the processes needed to offer the higher quality sound requires higher end systems with advanced toolsets. For serious audio finishing you need the sound quality, stability, high processing power and unlimited track count that only high-end software and hardware systems can provide.
It’s all about quality
It is really all about quality. If we want to reach wider audiences with the sound and picture quality expected by today’s demanding viewers, then we have to pay further attention to the picture and sound post-production finishing processes. This applies not only to feature films and TV commercials as used to be the case, but for a wide range of genres of audiovisual content including drama and documentary productions.
Hasan R. Sayed Hasan, Head of twofour54 intaj