Editing a Network Television Special with Adobe Premiere

My edit room while editing "The Lymon Bostock Story"

I have used Premiere on and off for years now. Back in the late 90's and early 2000's, when I was editing at my day jobs on powerful machines running Discreet *Edit and Avid Media Composer, if I wanted a "home" system, I had to find a lower priced alternative. Enter Premiere with a DVStorm video card by Canopus. Great for doing side projects, as well as practicing my editing skills on my own time.

Then comes a little product called Final Cut. When that hit v4, it became my personal editor of choice, and Premiere was put into the closet for years. Being a heavy Photoshop and After Effects user, I have generally had a copy of Premiere hanging around, I just never bothered to install and try it. When the new "Pro" incarnation of Premiere hit CS5, there seemed to be enough there to take another look. While the features on the back of the box were certainly worth noting, it delivered a bit more in promise than reality. Version 6 it was at a point that I was ready to start using it for some of my side projects, and I did so as much as possible to get fluent again. Although I thought it worked really well, there was something about it that still did not feel right, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It felt a little like a toy. It got the job done, but the road was a bit bumpy getting there.

FINDING THE RIGHT JOB

When they indicated at my day job at the Network that they thought the "Next" version of Premiere sounded like it was going to be worth looking at, I wasn't quite sure. I knew it worked well enough on a current MacBook pro with a local RAID system, but certainly had no level of confidence it could handle the incredibly stressful job of being our everyday editor of choice, with a team of editors, a very large network, and tens of thousands of hours of online footage. Although we are in the process of upgrading our workflow, we are still currently using the MacPro towers we had when we launched the Network in 2008. Nevertheless they installed the suite on our systems, and were asked to try it on our jobs whenever possible, to see how it goes. It pretty quickly became obvious that the one thing that the aging towers needed were new video cards to up the stakes on the Mercury Engine, to help make up for the older processors. Some new Nvidia cards, and it was up and running, at least as well as version 6 had before it. Then the new builds of "CC" started rolling in, and it was absolutely amazing how quickly things changed. Half the time you couldn't even emote exactly what was changing, but it was just feeling better and better. Little performance improvement here, small interface changes there, and 6 months later, Premiere CC felt like an entirely different product. I have never worked in software development, but I was surprised how fast the updates were upping the stakes. Its almost as if Adobe had a secret version of Premiere complete in a back room, and just would release a little bit of it each week to keep us excited. Certainly they couldn't be coding these changes this quickly. I was impressed and getting very excited. I knew the summer was coming and I was approaching the start of a show I really wanted to push through Premiere. Unfortunately the official release date for CC was too late for the start of our show, and I wasn't about to start a big project on a BETA version of Premiere, plus the AJA drivers weren't quite ready. Its a shame, because I really wanted the new multi cam stuff for that job, but I started that edit in FCP, and put Premiere on the back seat again.

TESTING IT ON AIR

In mid-July 2013, as I was wrapping up that job, I knew I had a few weeks before we would start on our next show, THE STORY OF LYMAN BOSTOCK, covering the 1978 murder of the California Angels star outfielder. Its a short 30-min special, but this particular project posed lots of challenges to us. We knew we had an air date coming in late September, but we had not shot a single frame of the planned 15-20 interviews. They would be shot at locations all around the country, on a multitude of different cameras. Canon C100, C300, C500, mkIIIs, a Sony F3, a Red Epic, and some Varicam. We also had 100's of hours of archival footage as well as some archive interviews from people who had passed. There were resolutions from SD up to 5K, and every codec you can think of under the sun. I decided I had to push some small jobs through Premiere, and make sure it would work ok of the larger project. For several weeks while Bostock was in pre-production, I did numerous small featurettes for the Hall of Fame, as well as our daily show, MLB Tonight. Not only was Premiere fast, it was stable, and that was a huge key for me. I have a tendency to crash FCP a minimum of 3 times a day, so this felt like a revelation.

STARTING THE SHOW, XML IMPORTS FROM GRASS VALLEY, ORGANIZING FOOTAGE

As we began production on Bostock, my biggest concern was the amount of footage we were going to be bringing in, which can be a major issue for FCP. At the Network we bring in over 3500 hours of footage a week, and we keep months of footage online at all times, and I wanted much of this to be available to me in Premiere. I was also starting to get back interview shoots, many of them 2 and 3 cameras. The first thing I did was use Media Encoder to send low rez versions to our Grass Valley Asset system, LD Edit. From there, the Producers, assistant editors and I could make select reels or rough edits if need be, and XML them back into Premiere. Hit a little snag here in that Premiere would not properly read the Grass Valley XMLs, so I had to open them up in FCP, and use it as a cleaner to re-export. Not sure which side is most responsible here, but I suspect Premiere is not reading the pure FCP XML, and makes its own flavor of it. Once back in Premiere I would re-link back to the camera originals. Because of time, we were editing native as much as possible, at 1080p24. With the RED footage that started at 5K, I did export a 1080 ProRes file, as well as the proxy for our assets. For the 2 camera shoots, I would use the built in audio sync feature, new to CC, which worked great. For the more complicated shoots of multiple takes over numerous cameras, I would bring these into PluralEyes, sync, and export a sequence back to Premiere, which I would then turn into a Multicam clip.

SPEECH TO TEXT

With the large amounts of interviews in the show, I thought this would be a good opportunity to test and use Premieres Speech-to-text feature. Although we have transcripts and timecode breakdowns, I figured it would be nice to be able to search into the audio to quickly find bites I may be looking for. Overall, it worked ok, but not great. The quality of the translation was mediocre at best, which was a bit disappointing. The audio quality was great, and many of the subjects were very well spoken, but it still struggled. We do have transcripts, and you can use files to help Premiere along in the translation, but here is where my biggest issue comes…it only reads Adobe Story files. This is an unnecessary step, and feels like a power play that I would expect from Apple, but not Adobe. I have a text file sitting right there, I should be able to use that, as I do not have Story running on our main edit machines. Adobe should know we will use products because they are done well and useful, not because your forcing us into it. So I didn't use it, and the results were less than stellar. Another gripe was that you can only search single words, not phrases. So if you know the subject says "I went to the store", you would have to search "went" or "store", which seems a bit silly. Overall, this feature stills needs some work.

ROUGH EDITS, APPROVAL COPIES

It was once we actually started editing that the benefits, speed and power of Premiere started to come through. Because it is codec agnostic, the only real decision you need to make when editing with CC is resolution and frame rate, and for this show we went 1080p24. Even though we need to deliver our final content at 720p60 XDCam for the network, we are now being sure to future proof as much as possible. When shooting a couple interviews on the C500, we did go 4K for some of it, and after the show is over, I will deal with that, and checking how viable of an option that is for the near future. All tests we did taking our 1080p24 out to 720p60 via Media Encoder has been very promising, and very fast, so that wasn't a concern. Just edit away, and bring it into XDCam land as the last step. Switching my keyboard to FCP7 settings when editing gets you about 90% of the way to feeling like your just using a better version of FCP7, which is why you often hear the internets referring to Premiere as FCP 8, and I do not think thats a negative. The timeline navigation is tremendous, and very fluid. I love the new way you deal with expanding the audio waveforms. It just works so smoothly, its apparent Adobe is either really listening, or some of the developers are really using the program. Its the little things about CC that are hard to pinpoint, but just makes things work so well. Keeping in mind our MacPros are almost 6 years old, its only going to be better in the near future for us. Creative Cloud has breathed new life into our aging systems, and its only going to get better. This being a half hour show, we actually have 22 minutes of content. We go about it by breaking our story down as best we can into 4 segments of about 6-7 minutes, and then watch it through with placeholders for stuff that hasn't been shot yet. I generally take a shot at an editors cut first, then have the producers come in, and we see what works and what doesn't. This is the critical time of the edit, not because you are making things look and sound good, but you are making sure the story is right, and we are telling it in the right way. For this show, it took us about 4 days to shuffle things around, cutting things out, and seeing whats missing. This is also the time we are looking whatever VO lines are needed to bridge information that the viewer needs.

ONLINE EDIT

Once we are satisfied that the show flows correctly, we make sure its segmented well for commercial breaks, with a running time of about 24 minutes or so. Its good for us to go into the online portion of the show about 2 minutes heavy. At this time, I am starting to lay on music, as well as pull green screens, and VFX. We have been using After Effects for VFX since day one. We also have SMOKE and NUKE when needed, but in this case, I would be taking care of the visual effects myself, right in the edit bay. Using DLL, I would be sending about 15 shots from Premiere to AE. My way of currently using DLL is to send it to AE, but immediately undo on the Premiere side. Its a quick way to get footage over, but it loses the actual connection. Because of network traffic and our aging machines, DLL has a tendency to hang a bit. I know its more an issue on our end than on Adobes end, because in my home studio, DLL works great, but thats on a current MacBook Pro. We do an amazing amount of green screen work for a network sports channel, so AE gets a good workout. I also had to use Mocha for some tracking to remove glares off a couple of photos, and to replace a monitor or 2. Also, at the top of each segment, Bostocks widow is seen going through an old scrapbook of photos, and in order to make a couple edits work for continuity, some photos she was holding had to be replaced. This post is more about Premiere as an editor, but AE, as always, holds its own against any compositing program out there. Sure, I wish it had nodes, but it gets the job done, and its just very familiar.

AUDIO MIX, GRADING AND FINALIZING

Although my background comes from audio production, the one thing I will not be doing for this show is the final audio mix. I really do not have the time, as we are getting close to delivery, but also we have a great audio engineer who works in one of our (2) Fairlight rooms. For those unfamiliar, Fairlight is a high end audio hardware/software combo, geared towards production. As we finalize the segments, I take them into Audition, and do a rough mix, but get it as close to being ready for air as possible. Due to time constraints, my mix is the one that appears on the press release/review copies. I put things as best an order as possible, then OMF it via the network to the Fairlight room. I spent a LOT of time learning Speedgrade over the past year, and I really, REALLY like it. Especially the color tools themselves, and I had full intentions of this being my color grading platform for this show. Unfortunately as editing went on, it became evident that it wasn't going to be an option, as due to the input/output workflow of using Speedgrade. Also, its tracking is very slow, and still doesn't come close to DaVinci in the Power Window area. Because the show was shot very flat, we are using the grading process to breath some life into the images. We really needed the ability to XML a timeline that conformed perfectly, and that is just not an option yet in Speedgrade. I will continue to use SG as much as possible for future projects, it just wasn't the right choice for this show. (NOTE: Just as I posted this, Adobe announced support for Premiere Pro Projects in Speedgrade will be available Oct 15th. Not in time for me to get this project ready, but I will certainly be using it going forward.)

CONCLUSIONS

We still have a couple weeks left on the online edit, as well as final approvals and such, but I can not say enough how well Premiere has held up. I'm gonna have to knock on some wood, but it has not crashed a single time during the edit of this show, and has done everything I asked and expected of it. I have personally been a Creative Cloud customer since Adobe introduced it, and love the way it works. Now that they have laid all the cards on the table, I look forward to large updates during the course of the year. The one place Adobe still falls short is media management, but seeing the way they have been listening, I am fairly certain they know we are asking, and I have full confidence they will get it right and deliver. Its been fast…Its been fun…..it feels like the NLE I have been waiting for. Anyone interested in watching the result, you can find the information here: http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20130918&content_id=60975420&vkey=pr_mlb_network&c_id=mlb_network