The LONG Story of My Trial of Avid Media Composer, and the history of how I discovered it.

My apologies in advance, this is a very long story…

First, a little history…

I have been around TV work most of my life. I grew up in TV stations, thanks to my dad, and his career during childhood. I have known since I can remember I wanted to be in TV. It also helped that my favorite movie (and later TV show) was “V”, back then! Michael Donovan, the lead character, was a “News Shooter“.

This was the stuff of legends when you were 9.

He made it look so cool! Getting exclusive “hidden camera” footage, shooting tape of warfare, big events, and beating an alien with the heavy end of an early Betacam! Way cooler than any “Beastmaster” character, anyway! Having been a shooter since, it’s not nearly as cool as it seemed. Still, a big thanks to my Dad, and Kenneth Johnson! It was a great, yet totally abnormal childhood. That’s another post entirely. I have been shooting and editing video since I was 13. I won my very first award in TV production at age 15. When I learned to edit, it was on 3/4 inch tape, “U-Matic” straight cut machines, after hours in an edit bay, where my dad worked at the time. I also edited on several variations of VHS, S-VHS, Betacam, and lots of analog linear systems.

An example of a 3/4

I remember learning what “genlock” was, from the 1987 Amiga 500 demo tape, and how cool it was to know that Timbuk 3′s “The future’s so bright” video was partly done on the same computer my dad had on his desk, back in the 1980′s. When systems like Newtek’s “Video Toaster” came out, I was blessed to be going to school where one was accessible. I had a unique experience, in that I learned computers, at the same time, I learned how to edit. I was lucky enough to see the two start to work together, as I grew up. Thanks to a VERY well equipped video production class (for its time) I got to work with folks who understood it way more than I did. (Michael Jantzen and Kevin Wilhite especially) I learned the basics of effects, 3D animation, and using computers to control decks, and how to control an edit using a computer, as it was still very much in its infancy. Bottom line, I know now, why the world needed “non-linear” editing, because I used the stuff that preceded it. Spending hours on tape based systems, and working around the real limits of this, will make you appreciate how great it is now. In 1985, my dad’s TV station, KOBI bought an “E-FLEX” DVE machine that cost around $100,000, in 1985 money. The days before computers were very expensive, and mostly archaic to what we can do with even, iMovie now. Even “ReelDirector” for the iPhone is pretty amazing, comparatively!

My First Real Non-Linear Experience…

As non-linear was really starting to take over, I was getting out of the field, a bit. I did get to try out things like the “Fast Video Machine”, and ” Video Toaster Flyer” in Memphis, but got no real experience with these early non-linear systems. I started working in radio in 1996, and got out of the world of TV for a while. In 2000, I was put in charge of creating a series of training videos, and promotional video for a company I worked with at the time. Shooting it was no problem. The basics don’t change much. Editing the project was the issue. I was given some sort of Windows PC based editing software to cut the project with. I was so out of the loop on the new systems, I can’t even tell you what it was, except some consumer-ish flavored MPEG1 editing software, that combined with a 400 mhz machine, really stunk to work on. Several crashes later, it was time to move on. I had a deadline, and the project needed to get done, as scripted. I started searching online for video editing software that could do this, and wouldn’t cost a fortune. The cheapest way to do this, and get what I needed done, was with an iMac, and iMovie. Certainly not the most powerful of the stuff available at the time, but an affordable editor, to fix the projects. This was my first real experience on a Mac, too. Something I could write another page on.

iMovie more than got that job done for me! It was a pretty basic video, so I didn’t need advanced layers for this. I mainly just needed something that worked. This was my first real edit started and completed in a non-linear system. The learning curve was nothing, and that also had a hand in the purchasing choice. I learn things by doing, so I created a pet project, just to get really into the software. That was a video tribute to Andy Kaufman. I really liked his work at the time, and loved the movie (and song) “Man on the Moon”. I bought up every VHS and DVD I could find of Andy’s stuff, and made a video, entirely in iMovie, with some help from the”Dazzle” DV Bridge. What a great way to learn.

iMovie was a surprisingly powerful editor for a guy who did most everything prior on straight cut machines. Even the concept of a cross dissolve, was amazing. This required “A-B Roll” machines to do with tapes, in my time. As I started to edit more, in this way, I found its limits, and began to seek out an editing solution that would offer a bit more in the way of “professional” features.

And so began the era of Final Cut Pro for me…

Titanium G4 Powerbook running Final Cut 1.2.5

Around January 2001, I found several articles about “Final Cut Pro”, and read how you could even “edit on a plane” with a Powerbook. For me, this was an amazing concept. By this point, my little iMac, and the soon to be purchased iBook G3 barely squeaked by the minimum system requirements for Final Cut. I spent the money, and got into it at version 1.2.5 . This version didn’t even have the little level meter back then for audio. That came in version 2, I think! Sure enough, for my purposes, my iMac DV+ and iBook ran it fairly well. It’s safe to say, that I got into Final Cut because it was somewhat affordable, and worked on my existing systems. When you are buying this stuff on your own, this was a relative bargain! Go back, even a few years, and what you could do with a laptop in 2001, required a room full of gear to do, when I learned the business.

This is what it looked like then.

I started to do more and more TV stuff, now using Final Cut Pro as my editor. I picked up all kinds of freelance work, over the next few years, while still staying entrenched in radio. I am amazed my wife put up with me back then! She would have never seen me, that may be why! In 2003 I produced what became a local version of “Trading Spaces” for my radio station. This was one of the more ambitious Final Cut productions I did, at that time, and one where I was doing everything myself. I shot with DV cameras on the weekend of our station’s “Trading Spaces” contest. It was a blatant ripoff of the show itself. We got away with it, due to tying promotionals with Time Warner. I borrowed additional cameras, and edited segments nightly. One part per night, for 5 days. This was done this way, because bandwidth in 2003 was not great, so smaller length files were needed. Second, it was all I could knock out in addition to my regular workload. Those were long days and nights. Every bit was edited on my iBook G3, that ran at a blazing 450 mhz. This project was a huge success. Over 10,000 folks viewed those videos that week, (big numbers for 2003, and that station’s site.) and we gave our advertisers something no other local radio station attempted prior. This project got me more work, A LOT more. My company bought me a faster Mac, and we did more things like this. When I brought the DVD to a local production house for some duplication prices, the owner seemed impressed by the work. He told me “I would love to see your system.” I got my laptop out of my car, and showed him. He was blown away!

He had recently lost his business partner, who did most of the editing. His old partner was an Avid Media Composer guy. I had little idea what Avid was, I had never used it. When he left, the owner was left with the “FAST Video Machine” as his editor, at the time. Apparently, the price point, and power of Final Cut swayed the owner to hire me, and he installed Final Cut as the replacement to the previous Avid system, and his current FAST system. Both of those decisions worked well for him, I think. I started doing a lot of commercial work, corporate video, even voice work with his company. It was during this time, I got to shoot and edit some of the “Sun Studio Sessions”. They are now parts of music history, excerpts of which got played on the “Today Show” on the 50th Anniversary of Rock & Roll! They now are kicking around on Youtube. Here is the most popular of those, hit count wise, “Memphis Soul Song”.

In the years since, I have created several hundred projects of all kinds in Final Cut, and have worked with all major versions since 2001. Final Cut has been my only editing software for that time. I work with a lot of other programs, and a ton of plugins for the program, too. As I said, the major reason I got into Final Cut at first, was it was incredibly powerful, and affordable, and it ran on my Mac at the time. I stayed with it, from OS-9 on, because it worked well. In that time, Final Cut has taken over a lot of places in the industry, and it’s now a large part of the video editing market share. My budget driven choice, was a good one, it seems. When I was working at the production house in Memphis, we were amazed that Final Cut was getting into Hollywood, thanks to projects, like the Oscar Nominee for best editing, “Cold Mountain”. It was hard to imagine a movie being cut, on that level, in the software I was using daily. The software has gotten more and more powerful. New additions, like “Motion”, and the time saver called “LiveType” sure sweetened the inevitable upgrades too.

I have just never explored the other editors much, because there was not much I couldn’t do with my system, and do well. Why bother paying attention? So I didn’t. I have always worked on laptops for everything. I like the ability to work from nearly anywhere, especially on location. My system has almost always been centralized on a laptop. That brings its own set of issues, but the ability to work, with just a laptop, and an E-SATA drive, is wonderful in many ways. Last year, I was able to shoot daily on location in Hawaii, and edit nightly from a dorm room, and release 1080p edits, that viewers saw the next morning on the “mainland” thanks to Youtube. The idea of a large workstation, no matter the benefits, hasn’t been much of a priority to me. Starting when I did, when the ability to crossfade without a render, was not really affordable. You just get used to the render times, that have come with my configurations to date. It was just part of the way it works. Even as recently as a couple of years ago, the “real-time” systems were expensive, or didn’t run on a laptop, or required a different platform, editing system, or card, or breakout box. Oh, and always a lot more money. The RT abilities of my systems seemed fine, for the most part.

Working for a higher purpose…

In the last few years I started working with church media departments. This started for me in 2005, as I volunteered at my home church in Tennessee. In that process, I have been blessed with some great experiences, and have been able to do what I love, for a variety of ministries. Never underestimate the ability of the media crew at some of these churches. You learn a lot about multitasking, when you work in a large (or small) church. The saying in church, is that 80% of the work is done, by 20% of the people. That’s an optimistic number, in church media! I have met, and have been, “the Media Guy” who can run switcher, roll video, slides and graphics, and even a robotic camera, all at once. Some of the most talented folks in Media, can often be found in churches. Names like Byron Mathe, and Avid DS editor, Carey Brown come to mind. In the process, I was tasked in late 2005, to create a weekly feature called “90 Seconds”. My first paying gig in my home church, was to produce this each week. This was not a new concept, the Pastor had seen it on Fox News, (“Around the World in 80 Seconds” was a nightly feature) and at a college one of his kids attended. This was designed to replace someone with a LIVE mic talking about upcoming events, and to, modernize the “announcements”. This feature has served me well. Doing this, I was able to later build it for other churches around the country. It’s part of what got me a job in Louisiana, and was a major factor in getting my current gig. I have successfully built “90″ in 4 large churches since 2006. “90″ has always been a task to build each week, due to heavy graphics, and video always coming from a variety of places. Traditionally, with my systems, it’s been a “build, render, tweak, then render again” process, that is time-consuming, depending on the week. When you deal with this each week, you get used to rendering, and the time it takes.

“California Dreamin’…”

In the Summer of 2008, I moved to Southern California. I took a great job, doing what I love with a church here. I also get to shoot some amazing HD stuff with some of my favorite artists, thanks to my friend Dave, and his nationally syndicated radio show, “Retro Rewind”. I even get to be on the show from time to time, and have picked up some interesting side work from knowing him. I am even part of the process, right now, of helping to develop a new show, that is getting pitched to some serious studio execs very soon. People can tell you, you don’t have to be in the Los Angeles area, to get the good jobs. They’d be right, but it sure helps! It has for me, anyway. One of the things I couldn’t wait to get involved in, was the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro Users Group . I had been reading about this group for years. If you ever get the chance, I would certainly go to a meeting with them, or just visit the archives on the site. Their meetings are like a semester of film school, in each night. I now regularly attend, and it’s wonderful. That room is composed of some of the most talented editors, and post production people there are. My first meeting, was one where they brought in the “Where the Wild Things Are” editors, and had a “stump the gurus” session. One guy had a question about “Compressor”, and the guy who answered it, was the writer of the program. These meetings are great! The next meeting to be held, was about Avid Media Composer. (Insert Record Scratch SFX here) Confusing… That’s very much like going to a Chevy dealer, only to be told to also learn the value of the Ford! It was quickly explained, that the idea, was that this is still very much an Avid town, and the latest version of the Media Composer, was worth a look. There is a real need to know both, if you want to edit in this town.

“This town IS big enough for the two of them.”

That meeting was amazing. They brought some Avid gurus to show off the latest version of Media Composer. They ran it through its features, and I was amazed by the warm responses the room gave this rival system. They also brought in editing legend, Walter Murch. He has edited on Media Composer, and Final Cut Pro, he’s done the big stuff. In the 90′s, Walter edited “The English Patient” on a Media Composer, which later won the Oscar for best editing! I mentioned “Cold Mountain”, yeah, that was him. He gave an honest assessment of both systems. The strengths and weaknesses of both, and his take on the new Avid. Just being able to hear him speak about anything editing, is a real treat. Part of the reason the group was presenting something about Avid, they were now offering a full 30 day trial of the Media Composer. The emphasis being, that in L.A., Avid is very much a part of the workflow of the shows, and movies in production. Even Walter Murch has to go back and forth between the two, it seems. To get the work, you’d be better off knowing both.

“Why Not?”

It took a couple of months, to even consider the content of the meeting. As busy as it was for me, I had no time to learn with a different editing system. After doing some serious reading on the subject of the Media Composer, I finally downloaded the rather large trial version. There it sat in my downloads folder for a bit longer. I wanted to try it in a 30 day time period where I could really spend some time learning it. I considered it a personal challenge to see if I can learn it, with any substance, in 30 days. Why not, right? At least I can put the experience on my list of software that I am competent in using, hopefully.

“Getting Started”

Once I cleared my plate a bit, I finally loaded it up. Thankfully my Macbook Pro (early 2008) meets the system requirements for it. I got it installed, and just started playing around. I noticed immediately the differences in control of the timeline. Avid is very different interface. I had to read some tutorials, and there are some good ones, when you look for FCP to Avid training. Avid is much more centered around the keyboard. That’s a basic difference. Not that FCP can’t be keyboard centered, it can be. I have just always worked fast with “mousing” through it. Avid made me rethink that a bit. Avid also has modes of editing. Trimming has its own mode, overwrite, etc. That definitely took some getting used to. This is addressed in the newest version of Media Composer, that’s out in June. I imported some footage from an upcoming project with Retro Rewind, and just played around in the software. I often shoot with a Sony PMW-EX3, and Avid’s much touted AMA features shine with this camera. You can literally plug the USB line or memory card, from the camera in, while Media Composer is running, and it loads a new bin with your footage. You can start editing immediately. There is no transcoding necessary, (Though I don’t recommend staying on the cards, consolidate it first.) it is ready for work. That’s cool! I also pulled in some footage from a Canon HV20, (HDV 1080i 60) and the Canon XH-A1, (HDV 1080-24F) using the A1 as the deck. Pulling from tape is a bit different in Avid, but it works well, as you’d expect. I then threw different formats on to the same time line. Just as advertised, it worked well. Different frame rates, compressions, and slightly different raster HD and HDV material mixed well. And no need to render it out. Even on a laptop.

I built first, a pretty simple series of basic edits, using home HD video from a recent L.A. visit with family, and fumbled my way through it. The work was of no consequence, I just messed around, to get familiar with the interface. I could write a lot more about the fundamental differences, or how to traverse the different programs. I won’t. I have already written a book here, seemingly. Sorry about that! If you need to know the differences, there is much out there from real experts. I just messed around, and read some Avid knowledge base, when I needed to and figured it out. Took a few days, but I started to get somewhat comfortable with it. I tend to learn by doing, and I knew that to really dig in, I would have to create something I was originally to do in Final Cut. That particular project was gonna be a “Behind the Scenes” video from the set of the Joey McIntyre’s (Remember New Kids on the Block?) “Here we go again”. This project was a big one, for me, and Retro Rewind. Still, I felt this project was perfect to put Avid through its paces. We shot several hours of 1080 HDV from the set of his video, along with a interview with Joe afterwards. This was a big “exclusive” for the show. A lot was riding on it. I always knew I could screw it up on the Avid, and still cut it on Final Cut, if I had to. I never had to.

This was my first true Time Line experience in Avid

Because this was originally intended to be a Final Cut project, it was all transcoded into “ProRes” and the HDV source was de-telecine’d months prior. We had to sit on this project for some time, so the original files were long gone. I had to import the footage into the Avid to DNxHD to edit. Because of the amount of footage, this took a while. I also built all of the graphics in Motion, and LiveType, so it was not 100% Avid, in that sense. Those graphics had long been “approved” for use, before I decided to move it to Avid. This worked well, once I learned some of the settings of importing. Since the trial version of Avid doesn’t include some of the effects that the full box set has, my setup was nearly “stock”. Gone were the hundreds of favorite effects I have grown used to in my Final Cut system. That made it interesting, but not a deal breaker. I did manage to load up “Magic bullet Looks” as an Avid Plugin, however. What a great plugin, for whatever editor you use! I was surprised at how nice it was to edit in the Avid environment. The modes take some getting used to, but once I did, I got fairly fast with it. I spent the better part of a weekend working on this video. I picked up some very good stuff, prior from the Avid Screencast website. A great resource for a new Avid editor.

I found cutting this video, in a new environment surprisingly easy. The basics of editing, and time line, are the same, in most software. Once you figure out the “controls”, it’s pretty much the same idea, just in different menus, and button combinations. While I was not as fast in Avid, as I would have been in Final Cut, I wasn’t slow on this project either. I really started to like the “trim” mode in this project. Adjusting edits, using this, was very different for me. That said, I liked it. The way you can move, and “JKL” with it, is nice. I don’t mind it being a different mode, in that sense. It’s a cool feature of the Avid. I cut and adjusted using this mode, more than I would have ever guessed I would. One edit in this video was worked on for quite a while, getting the cut just right. I personally think the trim mode in Avid, shows how they cater to the film side. The use of “rollers”, and the playback in this mode seem to focus you on the individual cut a bit more. Since you almost have to go to this mode in most edits, it’s tough to not get sucked into it for a while. I did get this video started and finished in Avid. Most of the edit was done in one day in my bonus room. After some notes, and the one change from the notes, it went out to the world, in several places. My first real project on the Avid, was a success. Here is that video by the way…

After that, I thought the next “test” would be to move “90 Seconds” to Avid. This was not an easy task. The easiest way and fastest way to do this, was to export the blank template, as a quicktime file (Animation codec, with alpha) and import it into the Avid, and bring the elements, like transitions, and sound work, the same way. This worked well, and the first thing I noticed about it, no stalling, no “unrendered” screen. It worked immediately. This is not the case in Final Cut. Never has been. Not on my system anyway. Once I loaded that, I started to build that week’s 90 as I would normally. After the previous project, I was getting fairly quick in Avid. As I brought in different things, and graphics, and titles, the Avid kept chugging away, without the need to render. 90 has always been a standard def project, so that’s a factor. Only when I dropped an HD file, to the time line, and then color corrected it, and added LiveType alpha .mov files on top, did it begin to stutter. It was still very livable to play and scrub through. Since I was re-creating a story from the week prior, much of the project was still LiveType heavy. While Avid will require a render as you do some FX, and layer it up, it’s still a lot faster on my system. The same tasks do process faster, and 90 is an incredibly real-time edit, for the first time. This was amazing to me! This is a time line I have worked with, in some way, every week, since 2005. Rendering has always been part of the process. The way the top layers of graphics are, this isn’t unreasonable. It just became part of life, in this project.

Something unique about 90, is that you have to use all kinds of source material. Promos and workparts come from the web, in all varieties, and frame rates. Lots of HD material, Sometimes DVD, sometimes screen capture video, when relating things about our website or when you just have to capture something for the story. Once imported, this stuff just played like it should. One thing that was always frustrating in Final Cut, was dropping 60i or 30p on to its normal 23.98 timeline. I cut 90 in 23.98 for a lot of reasons, but often have to work with 60i material. When you drop a 60i file onto a 23.98 FCP timeline, it’s motion is just terrible. Probably has something to do with the way it’s pulled down, fielding wise. You either do that week’s 90 as a 60i sequence, or live with the terrible motion. It’s just the way it is. In Avid, this is not an issue. the video’s motion looks like it should when you do this. This was a welcome change. I successfully edited 90 for the remaining weeks of the trial in Avid with great success. I am nearly as fast cutting 90 on the Avid, as I am, in Final Cut. Avid was now entirely ready for my day-to-day experimental use. I was going to make the most of this 30 days.

“Along came a garden gnome…”

Our Garden Gnome Promo shoot

A project that came along at the church was a series of promos for an upcoming missions conference. The idea was to poke fun at the “Travelocity” campaign, and shoot some humorous stuff with a garden gnome. It’s one of those, “You had to be there” kind of things. It was never Shakespeare, but it worked. This was a 4 part series. I had to do almost everything in these, shoot it, write it, voice it, edit it. In this economy, just glad to be blessed with employment! These were all HD shoots, with a lot of blue screen work, and in the third one, quite a bit of production, and “comp” work. They were all surprisingly challenging! Each week, a new one had to be done, in addition to the regular workload. Basically, every minute I had, counted. I truly appreciated the AMA working with the EX3 footage, directly in this project. I also got to know the “Spectramatte” for keying. It works great, nothing complex at all, keying was painless, even with highly compressed blue screen footage. Animatte made it possible to do serious detail work, but in this context, it wasn’t that necessary. Avid did great on these edits. Even in the most complex parts of it. Like the Joey McIntyre project, it remained stable throughout, as well. After these promos, I got really quick in Avid. You may be curious about the Gnome promos. Here is the third one. I even got to work in a “Wilhelm” scream. Suspension of disbelief is a must for these…

“You have 0 days remaining on your trial”

The fourth “Gnome” promo, and that week’s 90 were the last things I cut on the trial version of Avid. It expired shortly afterwards. I was sad to see it go! What started as a personal challenge to learn something new, became an education in how the other half was living. It’s not that Final Cut is a bad choice. It’s not. It has served me extremely well for almost 10 years. But seeing this Avid software run my day-to-day work, as well as it did, with me barely knowing it. That was pretty cool! When you often have more work, than time, you appreciate the efficiency of the Avid on my system. It was apparent, especially since the latest version of Final Cut Studio actually seems a bit slower than the previous version. Some of the things I liked most, are in the details of Media Composer. The Media Management is really smart. Takes some getting used from Final Cut experience, but very nice. I left a hard drive off, when I loaded an Avid sequence. I got the familiar “Media Offline”. I then turned the drive on, and it resumed it’s place on the time line, no searching, or re-connecting. It just came back. Details like that, are cool, and more importantly save you time and grief. The huge amounts of un-do’s are nice too.

When the trial ended, and I resumed my normal workflows, in Final Cut, the benefits of the Avid were in plain sight.

This is an example the project, back in Final Cut.

We are now in the process of purchasing Media Composer. I wrote a 3 page proposal, highlighting why we needed it, at my job. Your experience may vary, but to me, Media Composer is a welcome new addition! No editing system is perfect. Avid has a fair share of quirks, some of which are being addressed in version 5. My crazy mix of workflows, and equipment performed great with Avid. Whether it’s the long weekly sermon stuff, the day-to-day work, or the bigger more demanding projects, Avid made it all work faster in its first 30 days. That’s a big deal for me! The new features of version 5, will make it even better for a Final Cut guy like me, too. As my job slowly works it’s way toward a long form TV broadcast, I cannot imagine working against that weekly deadline without the Avid. When even a text lower 3rd on standard definition requires a render in Final Cut on my system… Media Composer makes this upcoming task, and other future projects, far more reasonable.

In my work, the most valuable commodity I have is time. Media Composer is going to help get some more time. I think with my workflow, and system, Media Composer is the simplest, and most efficient way to bring this kind of speed increase to my day-to day edits. It has more than proven itself, with this task in the 30 day trial run. Used in combination with my current arsenal of software, I can do it all, and now even faster!

“Some last thoughts about Avid.”

I definitely get the impression that Avid is moving away from its old business model. What little I knew of the system a few years ago was that it was incredibly expensive, and Final Cut was taking market share, handily because of it. Even by offering a 30 day trial, they have changed the way they operate. Under their old system, there wasn’t much of a way to try it, and little incentive to do so. Things are definitely changing, and their current crop of employees, seem to get that. I have talked to several folks with the company in recent months. Guys like Matt Feury, Adam Kranitz, Robert Russo, and Angus Mackay. I even met some of these folks at NAB last week. Their people are very solid, and customer oriented. Seeing Robert Russo giving a demo of version 5, he was passionate about the new stuff, and it showed! These guys are more into this stuff, than I now am! That’s refreshing. With or without Avid, you should definitely check out some of the Avid Podcasts, like the “Rough Cut”. They recently hosted an event with the editors of “Avatar”. Definitely worth a listen.

Bottom line, I am glad I tried the 30 day trial, and listened to the L.A. Final Cut Pro User’s Group advice of knowing both systems. By doing this, I have added a powerful new system to an already great mix of software for video production. Thanks Avid! You may want to take a run with the 30 day trial, although, I would wait for version 5 to come out before you do! My next project? Trying to get together with some Avid people to re-group the L.A. Avid User’s Group. It’s gone missing recently. Gonna have to work on that.

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