Posts Tagged ‘Systems reviews’

The Hiero we deserve, not the Hiero we need…

The Foundry’s Hiero launched last month, after a public beta period. Described as “a pipeline in a box”, perhaps the best way to think about is a bells & whistles conforming system.

Here are some of the things it can do:

  • Conform media
  • Transcode or rename media
  • Track versions (to some extent)
  • Generate NUKE scripts

It’s fully extensible through python, so in theory a lot of features can be customised to specific workflows. Quite frankly, I would have killed for this on almost every production I’ve worked on. It would have made a lot of data management chores a breeze. There are a few notably absent features, such as the lack of scene detection, and the extremely limited notation functionality, but that will happen in time no doubt.

The Foundry view Hiero as a kind of post-production hub, managing shots coming in, and shots going out. A client can view the latest overall version of a show, before going into a grading room. On one hand this is a necessary step: colour grading is less often about colour and more about asset management and versioning. This fulfils a crucial need: to have a stage that exclusively deals with editorial issues prior to grading.  So with Hiero, the production team goes over to the Hiero system, reviews visual effect versions, checks editorial issues, delegates more work and so on. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that in the real world.

For starters, who’s responsible for maintaining this hub? In general, the production team would lack the expertise required to manage the process, and in any case, from their perspective, they are paying everyone else to ensure the various pieces fit together. At the launch event, there were talks by people who’d been using it at visual effects houses The Mill and Framestore. But even these are edge cases: it would be extremely unlikely to have a single facility responsible for doing the bulk of the post work on a major film. On a typical film, The Mill might be handing off a bunch of effects to a DI facility elsewhere, and not really care how it fits in with elements from other sources (let alone that the production might not want the Mill having such a level of control over the film). Likewise, the DI facility will expect to just conform everything in the grading suite, as they always do. There wouldn’t be much benefit to adding another link in the chain.

So it could fall to a third party, who would coordinate everything, but then who is going to pay for such a service? I agree with the principle of Hiero, and I’d argue that someone should be paying for such a service. But if there’s one thing we know about post, it’s that people hate having to change their workflows.

So where does that leave us? Currently Hiero is around $5,000 for a node-locked license, and that prohibits it from being considered a utility a freelancer could invest in, or that a facility would pay for “just in case”. I hope that the Foundry can crack this problem, because it can arguably make post easier for all of us.

The Foundry offer a 15-day trial of Hiero, as with all their products.

Lustre 2007 Update…

Product: Lustre
Version: 2007.0
Manufacturer: Autodesk Media & Entertainment…
Price: Lustre HD – from $190,000 / Lustre Master – from $260,000

Performance & stability: n/a*
Features: 7/10
Expected return on investment: 8/10
Support: n/a*
Longevity: 9/10
Flexibility: 7/10

Pros: A great suite of colour tools, plays well with other Autodesk systems.

Cons: Still missing some fundamentals, like a decent timeline

Bottom line: If you’ve got an Autodesk pipeline, this will fit in nicely

*This review concentrates on features and design rather than hands-on performance

Lustre 2007

Lustre was one of the first commercial digital grading systems available, aimed squarely at the high-end digital intermediate industry. With version 3.0 (um, make that “2007.0″) out in the wild, it’s time to take a look at how it’s bearing up against the competition.

The last couple of years have seen some major updates to the heavyweights of the digital grading systems, though to be honest, nothing earth-shattering. After all, there’s only so much that can be done with colour, and once you factor in the capability to load 3rd-party add-ons and plug-ins (or “sparks” in Lustre’s case), there’s little point creating new effects. So the trend for the last two years or so has been to focus almost exclusively on workflow, redesigning key elements of interoperability and user interface, whilst maintain a steadfast “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” policy. Autodesk is no exception in this case, and the vast majority of improvements in this latest version are to the benefit of existing users.

The most noticeable and probably most interesting improvement is the new control surface. These have been completely redesigned from scratch, even down to the materials used. There has been much fanfare from Autodesk (who were showing them off back at IBC last year) about the new panels, and rightly so. Unlike the previous panels (or those nasty Tangent panels that can be bought separately), the new control surface screams “ergonomic” at you from fifty paces. Rather than try and monopolise the available space and cram it with extra buttons, there is space for weary colourists to rest their wrists. The panels are also modular, meaning they can be happily rearranged to suit you or your available desk space. On top of this, all the buttons are completely configurable, right down to the intensity of the backlights (yes, all the controls are backlit too). Every aspect of the application can now be controlled by the panels, so that the trackball can be used to pan or scrub images, for example. It might not appeal to Filmlight’s “Blackboard” crowd, who have long been used to having every function at their fingertips, but to use an aircraft metaphor, it’s probably the difference between the cockpits of a jumbo jet or a fighter plane.

Another area that has received attention is the overall processing speed. Even on the same hardware, you’ll notice definite speed improvements over previous versions. With the latest hardware, you’ll get roughly double the processing power. The GPU is used to accelerate the preview display, although mercifully the CPU is still used for renders, which should guarantee accuracy and longevity of project data. The net result of all of this is that up to four secondaries can be used for real-time without any need for additional rendering. Though this is not recommended practice for final tape deliverables, it nevertheless is ideal for dailies or less intensive grading sessions. For everything else, some rendering will be required, but then this rendered source can be used to generate real-time playouts at various resolutions through the GPU.

Another welcome feature is the possibility to show UI elements on the broadcast video output. The main benefit of this is for showing things like split-screens on client-attended sessions (for example, in setups that use digital projection. One of the other nice touches is the option to set a coloured border around the broadcast image, very useful for grading in a completely dark environment (when the aforementioned panel backlighting comes in very handy). The two other “stealth” features (i.e. those you won’t hear much about, but which are very useful) are interlaced video support and the ability to read infra-red data from scans. Support for interlaced video prevents the flicker when parked on an interlaced frame. Unfortunately there is no way to digitally remove (or create) fields in Lustre directly, but at least it will process each field separately, necessary when doing things like pan & scans. The infra-red data allows scans to be dustbusted with a little more efficiency, although I believe Lustre requires a particular implementation of the DPX format in order for these to be read correctly (such as those that can be generated by an Arriscan scanner).

The area where Lustre 2007 really shines (to use a really bad pun) though is in its interoperability with other Autodesk systems. First of all, the browser in Lustre 2007 will now automatically map other Autodesk systems it finds on the network. But the real benefit comes from improvements in workflow. For example, you can send a shot to be graded from a Fire system to a Lustre system, grade it in Lustre, and then send it back as a new reel to fire. The real beauty of this system is that everything remains “live” to some extent, meaning that you can make changes in either system and those are automatically propagated to the other systems.

The metadata improvements promised in previous releases are getting closer to reality, at least between Autodesk systems. It’s got nothing on say Toxik just yet, but the trend seems to indicate some long-term direction for the product line. And the more you think about it, the more interesting it becomes. Of course, this is all already possible to some extent with careful planning and sound data management, but this workflow offers a simpler, faster and more convenient (for those with a predominantly Autodesk-based environment at least). Lustre remains a solid choice as a standalone system, or practically a must-have for those who want to add a grading suite to their flames and smokes.

Lustre has one thing few of its competitors do: a good reputation. Even though it seems to be lagging behind some of the newer systems in terms of features, it has a solid user-base across the world, from giants like E-Film and Laser Pacific to much smaller boutique facilities. The pricing is fairly reasonable, but for anyone looking to buy, the decision to go with Lustre will largely depend upon whether or not there are other Flame or Smoke systems already in place.

Posted: May 21st, 2007
Categories: News
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Windows Vista…

Product: Windows Vista
Version: n/a
Manufacturer: Microsoft…
Price: $250*

Performance & stability: 7/10
Features: 8/10
Expected return on investment: 3/10
Support: 9/10
Longevity: 8/10
Flexibility: 6/10

Pros: Looks stunning

Cons: A drain on the hardware and the bank account

Bottom line: Only worth considering if you’re buying a new PC.

*Price quoted is for Windows Vista Ultimate Edition downloaded from Microsoft in the U.S.

Windows Vista

Windows Vista was released yesterday, to much fanfare. However, Microsoft had made beta versions of their new operating systems available for people to try out for a while now.

There are undoubtedly many reviews of Vista online even as I write this, but I’m going to focus on this review from the perspective of post-production, in terms of using it as a platform to do day-to-day tasks and organize data.

Microsoft’s PR engine insists there are 100 reasons to upgrade… but I’m going to look at these areas specifically: working with files, media features, and networking.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Vista is that it looks absolutely stunning. Provided your hardware can manage it, the new “Aero” theme makes all application windows semi-transparent, with a bit of blurriness, making the whole thing look like it’s made of glass. Perhaps an apt metaphor, because the second thing you’ll notice about Vista is that it feels fragile. The third thing you’ll notice is the overwhelming number of popups, warnings and announcements as you try to do anything.

It seems that the heavily criticized security aspect of the operating system has been given an overhaul. But the end result is that you have many more confirmation boxes to click through to perform basic tasks. A case in point: there is a new feature called “User Account Control”. What this does is plant logos over everything that requires administrator privileges to perform. Any time you click a button with this logo, you’re asked to provide administrative credentials in order to proceed. Presumably, the point is that a standard (non-admin) user has to toddle off and find someone with the correct credentials in order to proceed, and therefore not be able to do anything significant without approval. But the truly bizarre result of this, is that for most people, who are already logged in with administrative privileges, they will be confronted by this warning many times a day for no apparent reason. The good news is that it is possible to turn this “feature” off, but this then causes “Windows Security Center” to nag you repeatedly to turn it back on, unless you disable the security center as well.

Browsing files is a bit of a mixed bag in the latest operating system. On one hand, it seems that browsing large numbers of files is processed slightly quicker than it was for Windows XP (but still not quite as fast as Linux). However there is a slightly odd behavior: Vista will display files to you as it reads them from the disk. This means that, rather than waiting for an entire folder to be read and then displayed in one go, it will show a few files, then add some more, then add some more. That would be ok, but it doesn’t do this in a logical order. The net result of this, is that you can’t be certain that the folder’s contents are completely listed, and that the position of items in a folder will move as more items are listed. This is annoying on two counts: first if you use the control+A shortcut to select all files that you want to do something to (because you will miss files that have not finished being listed), and second because if you drag-select files, they might suddenly deselect due to their position moving. Finally, the default behavior of Vista is to draw thumbnails of all images it finds, so browsing a sequence of tiff files for example takes far longer than it should.

On to networking. Again, some oddities in the security system can cause frustration here. I attempted to create a headless system (i.e. without a keyboard mouse and screen) running Vista, but had to reconnect a monitor and keyboard several times after I thought it had been sorted out. The problem was largely due to the new multi-layered firewall in Vista. First of all, Vista distinguishes between “private” and “public” networks. How it makes the distinction is unclear, but the net result is that a lot of basic network functions are disabled by default, including “network discovery” – the ability to see the computer on the network from another system. This can be resolved by changing the networking to a “private”zone, and then set options to allow various functionality, at least until you install another network adaptor, at which case everything reverts itself. Sigh. Even worse, when using the Hamachi… VPN software, which installs its own virtual network adaptor, Vista insists on reverting the zone back to “public” on every single reboot. The only workaround is just go with Vista’s insistence that you’re on a public network, and tweak the networking options for this category. On the plus side, the built-in remote desktop is much better than its XP counterpart, allowing you to log into an account that is already logged in without starting a new session.

Working with media seems to be much better. Vista includes all of the functionality of Media Center (as an aside, it also includes all the functionality of Tablet PC if you install the new Wacom driver), as well as a long-awaited DVD authoring application. This is great for producing quick, nice looking DVDs from video clips. The version of Windows Media Player 11 now has the option to share the media library (which includes audio, image and video content) across the network, in a similar fashion to the DAAP protocol found in iTunes (but with slightly more thought put into it). In addition, if you have an XBOX 360 or other “Windows Media Center Extender”, you can stream directly to an external display, such as a projector or TV. All of this is great stuff, but falls down on one issue: it is all deliberately crippled. All of the new media sharing and DVD burning works fine for Microsoft’s own WMV formats, but woe betide anyone who tries to stream quicktime, Xvid, DivX, etc. movies.

Some of the other new features are Bitlocker- a built-in proprietary file encryption system (Keepass is essentially the same thing, but is free and open-source) and ReadyBoost, a method for using flash memory to accelerate I/O performance (but I can’t honestly report any quantifiable improvements when using it). There are several options to provide some form of backward compatibility with Windows XP-native applications, and these generally work OK. Starting Adobe After Effects 7 causes all the Aero features to be disabled, though this is only for the duration of running the application and automatically reverts back to normal when you exit it. Many applications I tried running, such as Autodesk Combustion 4.03 seem to work without any real problem, if a little quirkily, but Autodesk 3DS MAX 9, for example, won’t even install from the CD without repeatedly crashing.

Which brings us to the conclusion: it’s hard to see any real improvement in anything in the new OS. Perhaps in time, more applications will leverage some of the features and make a visible difference. But for now, for the price it just doesn’t seem like you’d be getting anything for your money. Sure it looks nice, but that flashy Windows key+Tab application switcher is not all that great after the novelty factor has gone. A brand new version of Vista Ultimate costs $250 from Amazon in the US. Trying to buy the same thing in the UK costs £370 (approximately $740 at current exchange rates) for unexplained reasons. Either price is high, the UK price ridiculously so. I haven’t factored the cost of an upgrade from Windows XP, purely because I don’t think there is any point upgrading from Windows XP. Due to the heavy hardware requirements of Vista, you will definitely notice a decrease in performance after upgrading (I have downgraded a couple of machines to verif this). Right now, Vista is best bought with a brand new PC, and even then, only to save you the hassle of having to install the numerous Windows XP updates and patches (standing at around 120 updates last time I tried…)

And as for the old Windows vs. Linux debate, though I’m not a huge fan of Linux myself, this release increases the differences between the two, for better and for worse.

Posted: January 31st, 2007
Categories: News
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Scratch 2.5 Update…

Product: Scratch
Version: 2.5 (build 216)
Manufacturer: Assimilate Inc.

See also the full review of Scratch 2.0

Scratch Updated Impressions


Scratch

I reviewed Scratch about 6 months ago. Scratch is released in builds as well as point releases, and now that it’s up to version 2.5 (build 216), I took another look to see what’s changed.

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Posted: January 23rd, 2006
Categories: Uncategorized
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Film Master 3.0…

Product: Film Master
Version: 3.0*
Manufacturer: Digital Vision
Price: $99,000 + options

Performance & stability: n/a*
Features: 8/10
Expected return on investment: 8/10
Support: n/a*
Longevity: 8/10
Flexibility: 8/10

Pros: Some very innovative features

Cons: Seems as though it’s playing catch-up in some areas

Bottom line: Not as many bells and whistles as some of the other systems on paper, but there’s a lot of things you’ll wonder how you’d lived without


Film Master 3.0



*This review is based on demonstrations and interviews with the developers rather than first-hand experience, so no data is available for reliability or performance.

Nucoda’s solution to the digital grading problem (the problem now of course, is not how to do it, but rather, with what), has had a very loyal following. Nucoda, now a part of Digital Vision, is perhaps not as much of a household name as companies such as Filmlight and Autodesk, but on the other hand, they bring a fresh perspective into the mix, with innovative features overlooked by their rivals, and an eagerness to please their customers.

Digital Vision’s Nucoda product line includes several different systems: Data Conform (for editorial work), Film Cutter (which adds primary colour grading, editing and compositing), and DVO Image Processing (for restoration, including grain reduction, dust removal and aperture correction). Actually, they are all the same product, but with different features locked, depending on which license you buy (this in itself should make upgrading a simple process). Film Master is at the top-end of the family, with all the features of the others, plus secondary colour grading options. But so what? There are now many competing products that can make the same claim, especially considering what a relatively small industry this is (to the point where I wonder who is actually buying new systems). But Digital Vision offers several intriguing differences from the competition.

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Posted: January 5th, 2006
Categories: Uncategorized
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