Creative Cow: Making the Transitions to HD with Media 100

by Nick Griffin, March 2009


Over the past few years it seems that just about everyone had been talking to me about HD. "When are you going High Def","Tape or Tapeless", "P2 or XDCAM?" And so on. Everyone was talking HD... except our clients... until the latter part of last year.

My partner and I work almost exclusively in the technical/industrial end of B2B. Our work therefore is typically shown on computer screens, conferences room projectors and over the net. This logically had me in a mindset of "What's the rush to produce in 1920 x 1080 if it's going to be viewed in 640 x 480 -- or less?" In fact, last summer the owner of one of the factories where we were shooting a safety video gave the discussion an unintentionally humorous twist. He asked if what we were shooting would be available in High Def. When I asked him how he might use the program with his employees his reply was "Oh we'd show it on the TV in the lunchroom." The 20 year old set connected to a VHS player.

Then It Began
This past fall, with little fanfare, one of our largest clients announced that going forward everything his company was doing was to be in High Definition. For the upcoming trade show everything was to be BluRay, large plasma screens and even an HD theatre complete with HD projector. That's when our world changed because being High Definition became a requirement of doing business.

We started a two video project in conjunction with a shooter who had a Sony 350 XDCAM. Then, for two other shoots, we rented a 350, eventually purchasing one. What I've found most appealing about the Sony 350 / 355 camera was the ability to re-purpose our existing 2/3" SD lenses -- with surprisingly good results. A friend explained that while our 5.5mm wide angle would likely be unacceptable at the edges on a 2/3" HD Camera, the 1/2" CCDs on the 350 fall well within the "sweet spot" of the lens. That helped making the choice between adopting Panasonic's P2 format and going with this slightly lower-end part of Sony's XDCAM product line a fairly simple, financial one.

Another factor in choosing between the P2 and XDCAM formats was the nature, and cost, of the recording medium. As of this writing a 32Gb P2 card sells for around $1,250. A 23.3Gb XDCAM disk is under $20. The intent of a P2 workflow is to download the data from the card, re-format the card and manage the footage as computer data from that point forward. This same process can be done with the XDCAM disk for, I believe, more than a thousand erasures per disk. But, coming from a decades-long tape background, I find it much more comfortable to take a shot XDCAM disk and file it away in the tape library after downloading. An hour and a half of HD shooting per disk makes XDCAM almost less expensive than the BetaSP tapes we grew up on, they take up less space on the shelves and the camera original is a nice back-up to have.

Also holding us back from the HD transition was what we assumed would be the need for expensive add-ons on the post-production side. Prior to taking the time to learn about XDCAM I was erroneously assuming that for anything other than P2, with its inexpensive readers, we'd need to add an HD studio deck. The pleasant surprise came on learning that the XDCAM camera itself simply connected to the edit computer with a Firewire cable and the files could be digitized from the camera directly or brought over to the hard drive in total and acquired from there. Without the need to spend tens of thousands on a deck, the addition of a high speed RAID to accommodate an HD throughput was fairly painless.

Now on to the software. A couple of years ago I had made the decision to return to my roots and set aside Final Cut Pro and return to the Media 100 fold. Frankly this was a selfish, simple choice. I like Media 100 better because it allows me to work faster. The pleasant surprise of the HD transition was that Media 100 supported XDCAM with the then current 12.7 version. In December we made the upgrade to Media 100 version 13 for its additional added features. More on them in a minute.

We had been making these videos for a trade show where it was plainly evident that my large client wasn't the only one who had made the jump to High Def. Far more noteworthy, and from my perspective disturbing, was that just about everyone in this 300+ exhibitor trade show who was using video was displaying on 16x9 screens whether or not they had 16x9 material. What is with people who think a horizontally stretched 4x3 image looks better than a properly proportioned image with some un-used real estate along the sides? Drives me crazy. (Short trip, as the old joke goes.)

Importing XDCAM
Although the XDCAM Transfer software references FCP as its Mac application, it seems to work flawlessly with Media 100. I'm guessing that this is Sony's consideration of Apple's marketing muscle versus that of the somewhat smaller Media 100 / Boris organization. Marketing aside, XDCAM Transfer works and works well.

Importing Sony XDCAM footage directly from the camera

One of my complaints, which I've voiced with Media 100 is that there is no global way once in Media 100 to eliminate the audio channels. So what's the big deal? Well for someone like me who shoots a fair amount of MOS. (Which I've always been told comes from the 1930's German/English hybrid film language for "Mit Out Sound." Seriously.) This means that, after import, clips have to be individually selected and have their sound channels turned off before placement on the timeline. I've since found that once sound import is turned off within the XDCAM Transfer software it stays off so this is a simple work-around to a minor problem.

The Feature Set
The underlying philosophy of Media 100 has always been to perform tasks with as few clicks and steps as possible. What some may view as a simpler interface than that of other NLE's as a downside, I view as being built for speed. As such, the core Media 100 user tends to be oriented toward getting work done rather than delving into an extended feature set. Now don't let this give the impression that Media 100's features are at all limited. It's more that it's organized in a hierarchy of functions -- there when you need it, but not always in the way.

The original Media 100 was based on "A" & "B" video tracks with an Alpha-keyable graphics track living over top of that. The primary A/B tracks still exist, but instead of a single graphics track there can now be as many as 99 additional video channels. This goes a few years back to version 10 and certainly put an end to any claims that Media 100 wasn't competitive with other NLEs because it only had two video tracks. But now that there are 99 plus two I still find that, with the exception of overlayed graphics, the need for more than two video channels is something which only comes up in our work about 5% or less of the time.

For those wanting a full arsenal of transitions, Media 100 v. 13 has a boatload. They fall into four categories. First, four varieties of dissolves. Second, 27 different wipe effects, most of which can be modified in a number of ways and many of which are real time for playback, only requiring rendering for export. Third, is the category of DVE (or Digital Video Effects) transitions. There are 35 of these -- standard stuff like cube turns, picture-in-picture and more varieties of page turns than good taste would ever dictate using -- along with "Compositing Suite" which opens the Boris Red application. Speaking of which, the fourth category of transitions, labeled "Boris" contains a dozen pre-set transitions including some pretty contemporary ones like "lighten-blur-scatter-x-wave." (And, yes. That's a single effect which does these four things.) Boris access also provides the ability to build and store one's own pre-sets. Given this fairly large variety of transitions and the numerous variations within them, it's hard to imagine that anyone could ever feel creatively restrained by Media 100's otherwise streamlined interface.

Living in the Effects section of the menu bar are a series of seven different blurs which can be applied to clips and large variety of "Generators," some of which modify clips, others of which create their own moving graphical elements. These include five shatters, a couple of sweeps, ripples, waves and even one with the self-explanitory name of "Up in Flames." It's important to note that these are simply the small set of presets installed "out of the box" and are by no means the only effects selectable in this way. Users are able to brew up whatever works for them using Boris Red and save the effects for quick retrieval as needed.

Just in case it's not obvious from the above, the full Boris Red application, now at version 4.3, is part of the installation for each level of the Media 100 program. As an add-on to other NLEs Red sells for $995 MRSP, meaning that when offered as part of the install, the whole Media 100 package provides a real bang for the buck.

Titling using Boris Red's pre-defined Style palette

Boris Red has a learning curve proportionate to its powerful abilities. It's deep enough, with enough tools and variable parameters within those tools that you could spend weeks exploring all that it can do. That said, the opposite is also true. You can use Red as a simple titling application after just a few minutes of familiarization.

Four Flavors. No Waiting.
At present, and for the foreseeable future, there are four levels of Media 100. This begins with the $995 Media 100 Producer, a software-only option which can import and play out through Firewire and can acquire video through both P2 and XDCam import. Producer also can export programs and clips in a number of digital formats. The surprising thing about Producer is that it is a very complete program, containing nearly every feature of the higher end, hardware-based versions of Media 100. This includes, when outfitted with the proper RAID, the ability to work seamlessly in High Definition.

Hardware-based Media 100 systems are available in three levels, all currently using different AJA-brand PCIe cards and optional breakout boxes. The SDe offers Standard Definition I/O via SDI or Analog. HDe adds to the mix HD I/O and real-time HD to SD down-conversion. The digital-only HDSuite can down-convert, up-convert and even cross-convert (from 1920x1080 to 1280x720, for example) on the fly. The Media 100 software goes for $1,495. Add the price of the AJA card of your choice (prices range from $995 to $2990) and a Breakout Box ($299) to configure a complete system.

So What's New?
Version 13 of Media 100 added two major features. Both are majorly-major.

First is the re-designed audio mixer. Media 100's approach to audio has gotten continually more serious with each new release. What had been up to 24 channels of audio going into two output busses in earlier versions now has 24 channels (designated as the "A" group) going into up to 8 submastering stereo busses ("B" group), going to up to eight assignable stereo output channels (called, you guessed it, "C" group). Each of the original 24 tracks can be sent to more than one of the buses, enabling multiple mixes to be output from a single program. The submaster "B" buses provide the flexibility of adding EQ and/or dynamics to an entire submix instead of on a channel by channel basis.

Media 100's new three section Audio Mixer--Click to see larger image

Certainly there is much more about this which I could explain. But Flo Peters, leader for the COW's Media 100 forums and longtime Media 100 guru has created an excellent tutorial which can be found by clicking here :

Check it out. Flo knows!

Plays Nicely With Others
The advantages of the second major addition to Media 100 version 13 don't come from Media 100 as much as they do from Apple. That is Media 100's ability to export and import between Final Cut Pro and, of far greater significance, Final Cut Studio's Color application.

Those who work in mixed environments where both Media 100 and Final Cut pro must co-exist should be pleased with the fact that a show can be started on one and finished on the other. But, you might ask, doesn't this pretty much prove that if you have FCP you don't need Media 100? To this I would go back to all of my ease of use/ fewer keystrokes arguments. I can get a lot more done and in the big "time equals money" scheme of things that's why so many of us have either stuck with or returned to Media 100.

One more thought on working between Media 100 and FCP. One of the support people at M100 describes XML interchange as enhanced or "glorified" EDL. Remember where EDLs (Edit Decision Lists) came from? They were a way to move jobs between the SAME hardrware-based edit system. CMX to CMX, Sony to Sony, etc. Later on in their development there were some migration tools which did SOME translation between differing systems, but the key word here is SOME. Well, the M100 to FCP to M100 interchange path has nudged things a step forward from SOME to MOST.

When exchanging between programs a cut is always a cut, a dissolve is a dissolve. According to the company "Media 100 interprets (EDL) codes according to its own internal wipe-code mapping table." A matrix wipe or a luma blur on the Media 100 side is not going to translate when opened in FCP and a Spinback 3D in FCP will likewise get a "huh?" when re-opened as a Media 100 timeline. Un-recognized transitions will be left as simple cuts. One caveat stipulated in Media 100 literature: " XML Interchange supports M100 programs and FCP sequences only. This release does not provide export/import of bins." Hmmm... perhaps this means that a future version will support more than just the interchange of timelines.

With the original EDL exchanges in the days of 2" Quad, 1", 3/4" U-matic and Betacam the EDL shot list was passed back and forth with the original tapes. Today to use an EDL on a different editor, either the source files are moved using good old "sneakernet" -- drives going between machines, or better still a high speed link to the files through a shared storage network. From what I've seen, the re-linking of media after going out and coming back in via XML is fairly painless. (With XDCAM once the "trick" described below is used, however.)

And for those of us who may share an FCP and Media 100 installation on the same machine, it's also worth noting that starting with the 12.6 release of the Media 100 hardware systems came the ability for both FCP and M100 to peacefully co-exisit on the same hard drive partition and both use the same AJA card without conflict. It's one of those things that today seems like no big deal, but back in the day of having to switch boot drives and drivers to get between the two makes this a giant leap forward in convenience.

And Now... The Biggie
XML Interchange gives Media 100 v.13 near seamless access to one of the most powerful color correction and color grading tools available outside of the high-ticket, bucks-deluxe world of tools including DaVinci and other hardware-based color solutions. For the relatively small added price of Final Cut Studio -- $1,299 -- you can have the ease and speed of Media 100 along with more control over color cast and selective color correction than you ever would have dreamed. The learning curve on Color is a bit torturous and can be greatly eased by Walter Biscardi's Stop Staring and Start Grading with Apple Color DVD, available from the COW store.

But... There's a trick
Importing XDCAM into Media 100, while a straightforward process, has a couple of unintended side effects. Fortunately both are easily overcome. Perhaps I'm doing something wrong and there's an obvious solution because when I acquire scenes using XDCAM Transfer the application places a smaller version of the file in a sub-directory inside the directory where the media is being stored. I've found that this can be discarded with no consequences, but not sure why it's doing it in the first place.

The second is somewhat more consequential, but was easily solved with the help of Media 100's crack tech support. Initially I could not get the Color application to bring over XML scenes which had been acquired through XDCAM Transfer. Scenes acquired directly in through HD-SDI had no problems, so it was clearly an issue from either the transfer software -OR- the way that Media 100 was transcoding the file into the specified CODEC. Understanding the problem is actually far more complex than the fairly simple solution.

On acquire via XDCAM Transfer, Media 100 adds its own designation to the end of the file name. So "" would become "" with the V100 included as a throw back to Media 100's old days when that end designation became a good way of seeing a file's data rate. Except now, with High Def, it's meaningless and Color's interpretation of XML is confused by it so files with it at the end of their name are not recognized. The simple solution is to delete "-V100" and the extremely simple way to delete entire folder's worth is with AppleScript's "Replace Text In Item Names" function.

Compatible Peripherals / Tested and Approved Configurations
Going back to its inception Media 100 has thoroughly tested every card and peripheral to be used with its equipment. The information is available on their website and is highly specific, right down to which slot in which computer cards should be used. This matters. Take it from someone who with his first M100 system blew off the importance of this attention to detail and found out that his existing video card froze the system. The "compatible peripherals" approach is a nice middle ground, sitting comfortably between full turn-key systems and the "you're kind of on your own" way that Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere are sold. And if you still don't think this is a big deal, just explore a few hundred of the COW's postings on problems and performance issues with popular NLEs which aren't as rigorous in matching hardware with their software. Here's one more place where Media 100 as a product and as a company truly shines. Set up your system the way they say to and you're in business. Speaking of which...

Working Professionals
One distinguishing factor I've noticed about Media 100 and its users is that we are nearly all working professionals -- people using our systems to earn a living. There's nothing scientific or researched about this conclusion on my part and certainly there are a lot of facilities and individuals doing serious work with all of the other brands of non-linear editing systems. But several of the brands of NLEs also seem to have their share of hobbyists, those who want to edit but don't put food on the table with editing.

For me the fact that Media 100's base of users is almost exclusively the working pros points again to the importance of the speed and ease of use factors I cited earlier. When your hours have a price tag attached to them what you can get done, with as few keystrokes and in as short a period of time as possible, takes on a far greater importance.

A Bright Future
The pace of development at Media 100 picked up considerably once it was acquired by the folks at Boris FX. OK, probably more accurate to say that it was brought back from nearly dead. In recent years the release of updates seems to be accelerating with the jump from 11 to 12 shortly followed by 12.5, 12.6, 12.7 then onto version 13 late last fall. While the Product Manager is being somewhat cagey (as all good project managers typically are) over plans to release the next major version, I can't help but notice on my calendar that the NAB show in April is approaching fast, and we all know what that usually means.

In Conclusion
Making the transition from a Standard to a High Definition shop was far simpler than I ever imagined. XDCAM made the change less expensive than I thought it would be and going from editing SD to HD with Media 100 has been an essentially un-noticible difference in work flow and techniques. And, as is the case after the fact with so many good decisions, I'm left asking myself, "Why did we wait so long?"


Nick Griffin operates a marketing firm with a strong focus on video and other forms of visual communications.


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