We have just finished post-production on the first episode of a new music series from Abbey Road Studios, called Abbey Road Studios: In Session with Volkswagen Beetle, featuring an exclusive gig played by Paul Weller in Studio 1 at the world famous recording studios. The concert was filmed on Friday night, edited Saturday & Sunday, graded and onlined on Monday, delivered to Channel 4 on Tuesday and broadcast on Wednesday night at 12.10am. Even looking back at that schedule as I type it here now makes me wonder how we managed to complete a 4-day turnaround on a 36-minute show for one of the UK’s leading broadcasters.
If you read the previous entry on this fledgling blog, you will know that my company My Little Eye recently made the switch from Final Cut Pro 7 and Mac Pros, to Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 and HP workstations. We are currently running 3 high-end HP Z820s which perform the bulk of the editing tasks at my studio, combined with an HP Z1, which is used as our on-set DIT workstation.
At this point it’s important to note that this blog is not intended as a promo for Adobe or HP. Nor is it my intention to criticise other NLEs or workstations. When FCPX was released, I, like the majority of the pro-editing market working in broadcast, was faced with the dilemma of jumping on board with the new software, or switching to the likes of Adobe or Avid. For a host of reasons (missing features, lack of new Mac Pro hardware, lack of communication from Apple), and after biding my time for over a year staying on FCP7, I recently decided to switch to Adobe Premiere. The main reason for this blog is to highlight the resulting advantages and pitfalls of that decision, in the hope that it may in some way be useful to any other editor still faced with uncertainty about which step to take. It’s not going to be the right decision for everyone – that depends on what you’re editing and what NLE you feel comfortable with. But if you’re thinking about moving to CS6 and possibly switching platform to a PC workstation, you may find what follows of some interest.
Over the coming month, I’ll be blogging about my experience using this kit on the show, looking at shoot days, multi-camera editing in Premiere, and the decisions we faced in grading and onlining amongst others. But for today I’m going to talk about using the equipment on set.
The new 8-part series, made by the same team that makes Live From Abbey Road, began production at the end of October. Having worked on the previous 2 seasons of that show as the primary editor, this time I was hired by producer Michael Gleason to take charge of the entire post-production process, editing the show with my assistant editors Toby Older and Darren Martin, and supervising the grade and online. We were also asked to be on set for each of the 9 shoot days, performing DIT duties and previewing rushes for director Matthew Amos and his camera crew.
Having decided on the Adobe & HP route, we started thinking about the Z1 as our on-set workstation. We wanted something relatively portable that we could get to and from the studios without too much inconvenience, but with more power than a laptop. If we remained in a Mac Pro environment an iMac would offer a similar solution.
In general we’re the first ones to arrive on set, which for this series is Studio 2 at Abbey Road, famous for being the studio where The Beatles recorded the majority of their records. We are positioned on the floor of the studio itself, tucked away in a corner with a prime view of everything happening on the set. Not only do we get to witness some amazing sets by some of the best bands and musicians around, we are also always in direct contact with the director and all of the camera ops. There are numerous advantages to having an editor on set, the main one being that I can have a direct influence on the footage we are receiving. In the past series of Live From Abbey Road, we’ve always used a lot of documentary footage in the edit, trying to give the viewers at home a real sense of what it’s like being in a recording studio. The room is always full of interesting kit, including instruments, amps, flight cases, pedals and microphones. Shots of these are always great to use in the edit, but in the previous seasons I was always supplied with a varying degree of rushes, some of which were useful, others less so. Now we’re on set, I’m supervising the camera ops in capturing these cutaways. On the first shoot day of this series, I pre-loaded some of the rushes from the previous series on to the Z1, so I could show them exactly the kind of shots we wanted. We now send the ops out to record the shots whilst the bands are sound checking, and they return with a card full of rushes which we preview instantly.
We then have an immediate decision to make, as to whether I have enough material for the edit, or if they need to go back out and film more. The advantages of this are twofold. I don’t end up with 2 hours of random rushes to go through to find the best shots – we now have around 15 minutes of top quality cutaways ready to be used in the edit. This speeds things up when it comes to my decision making in the offline edit. For the cameramen, it gives them focus and prevents them having to film for hours on end, not knowing what is useful and what ends up on my digital version of the cutting room floor, a bin called “shots not used”. Normally jobbing cameramen go from project to project, sometimes not seeing the result of their work until the programme is broadcast or online. Since we’ve started this way of working, I’ve heard several of the camera guys saying how good it is to have the editor on set, as they get instant feedback on their rushes. Like anyone involved in creative work, it’s great to be told you’re doing a good job, so it’s better for the production team morale as much as anything to be able to reassure the cameramen that they’re capturing what the director wants. Our director Matthew Amos started out as an editor, so understands better than anyone what is useful in the edit suite, so it was he who requested in the pre-production meetings that I attend all the shoots.
When I first met with Adobe, one of the key tools in the CS6 suite we spoke about adopting was Prelude, the ingesting and logging tool which comes as part of the Production Suite bundle. Initially I was very interested to see how Prelude could help with our workflow. On all previous seasons of Live From Abbey Road, and in the bulk of my day-to-day editing for the record labels, I have had to transcode footage to Pro Res in order to edit effectively in FCP7. The crunch point came recently when we were given 5TBs of footage for a One Direction edit. Converting all that footage to Pro Res before we began editing was not an option, so we switched the edit to Premiere and began working with the native files instantly. So one of the biggest defining factors in switching to Adobe, was the ability to edit without converting, and I’m pleased to say editing natively works like a dream in Premiere, even with 5 streams of HD in multicam mode.
Whilst mainly a logging tool, Prelude also gives the option of copying or transcoding camera originals to multiple destinations at the same time. Having the ability to copy and verify camera originals to 2 or more destinations for instant backups was something that I knew would be vital to our DIT work. However, after spending a few days testing the speed of Prelude, we quickly realised it was not going to be part of our toolset on this series. We ran a series of comparison tests between Prelude and ShotPut Pro, and were surprised to learn that when offloading footage from the camera cards to an internal drive and an external USB 3.0 simultaneously, Prelude took almost twice as long as ShotPut Pro to complete the same task. With both softwares operating equally reliably, speed became the single defining factor. At the end of a long shoot day, the last thing we want is long transfer times whilst everyone else has gone home. Prelude’s progress bar also works on a percentage of the files copied, rather than the actual amount of data, so you can be stuck at 99% for an age if the last file is a large one. This gives you no idea of how long transfers take, which is not helpful on set when you have people waiting to view the rushes. So for our workflow we opted for ShotPut Pro on set, and 6 shoots in to this series I can report that it’s been amazingly reliable and fast. We’ve had a 100% success rate with all our transfers and backups, so I’d highly recommend it to anyone performing DIT duties on set. If you’re still dragging and dropping folders and files from your card readers on to hard drives, stop and invest the $99 for this software and be 100% assured that what you have on your cards is being safely transferred to your drives. I hope the speed issues of transfers is looked in to by Adobe, as ideally I’d prefer to use Prelude as part of a complete set of interacting software, but we have to use the tools that serve us best at any particular time. I think with the next release of Production Suite, Adobe will have addressed some of these issues, making it an amazing one-stop product for all our video needs, but currently Prelude is a work in progress. I’ve seen some of the plans they have for it, as well as its current features, and I’m sure it will prove to be an excellent tool, especially for logging rushes for films or live events.
Having copied the footage from the cards, for screening purposes we then load the rushes in to Premiere. One aspect of the Premiere interface we love is the large icon view in the bin windows, which gives you a pretty good idea of all the rushes you have, almost like a storyboard. When the director wants to see something in more detail, we drop the footage in to the timeline and use the ‘ key (on Windows, tilda key on a Mac) to expand the Program Monitor to full screen. This is fast becoming our favourite hotkey in Premiere – indispensable for expanding any window to full screen, and a real client pleaser. For editing, which I’ll cover in more detail in future blogs, it’s great for popping the timeline instantly to full screen to get a complete view of your edit.
Using the media browser in Premiere, we can even preview rushes direct from the card reader. We’ve used this feature a couple of times when the director needs to see a shot instantly and doesn’t have time to wait for it to ingest. However, we try to limit this, as I always prefer to back-up instantly the moment a card comes out of the camera. It’s always best to err on the side of caution, and plugging cards into computers without backing up always makes me nervous. A good example of us using this feature was on a recent shoot with the band Django Django for episode 2, which airs next week on November 21st. I won’t go into too much detail here, but director Matthew Amos wanted to try something special to cover one of the band’s performances in a single take using just one camera. He needed a couple of attempts, but on the third take he nailed it. After each of the previous attempts we loaded the camera card into the Z1 and Premiere to see if the shot had worked. The first two were close, but not quite there. Knowing what adjustments he needed to make, the third take was as close to perfect as we could have hoped for. Having me there to preview the rushes meant he wasn’t reduced to guess work, and with the take complete, we could move on with the rest if the shoot.
If you’re a director or editor reading this, hopefully you can see the benefit of either having the editor on set, or at least consulting the editor in the pre-production process. Too many times on jobs I could have helped reduce a world of pain for everyone involved, if I’d been ask my opinion prior to receiving a lot of unsuitable rushes. Editing is too often made up of compromises because it was the last thing to be considered, when most productions would run more smoothly if they were planned out back-to-front with the edit in mind first. Luckily I’m working with a team now who respect that, and I’m grateful to director Matthew Amos and producer Michael Gleason for making the decision to have me on set.
The combination of the Z1 and Premiere isn’t just being used by us as a portable DIT machine. As I go in to more depth next week about the editing process, I’ll tell you how the Z1 can match the high spec Z820s when it comes to editing 5 streams of multi-camera HD footage, direct from a USB 3 drive. If you’re wondering about the capability of this machine, rest assured it’s a high performance edit station, easily surpassing the capabilities of any of our mac pros. If I were planning out a 6 suite post-production set-up now, which hopefully will be my next move as my company continues to expand, I would be ordering 4 Z1s for assistant editors and junior editors, and two Z820s to be used as high-end broadcast finishing suites. My next blog will deal with how we’ve been using these machines and Premiere on the rest of the shows for the offline editing of the series, and what we like and dislike about the experience so far.