Conforming Headaches

For better or worse, high-end feature films and television still follow an offline/online model, cutting with some kind of lower-res proxy and conforming a higher-res original. The dirty little secret of our new file-based workflows is that despite the many advances we’ve seen, conforming is still a pain in the butt. Why? Because no conforming system can fully conform Avid effects. Sure, cuts and dissolves can be handled easily, but more often than not, effects work has to be painstakingly rebuilt by eye. That seems downright crazy to me — in the wonderful, all-digital, file-based workflow of the future, people are still studying the locked cut, figuring out what the heck was done, and reconstructing it by eye.

Yes, there are exceptions. If you do your offline in Media Composer and finish in Avid Symphony, everything comes across. That’s a wonderful thing and if you work that way, you become dependent on it quickly. But unless you color correct in Symphony, you’re going to have to export, which means baking in a look and accepting a maximum raster size of HD video. On the Final Cut side, the XML export format opens the door to full conforms, but even then, in many DI environments you still don’t get everything.

I had a chat with a product marketing person at one of the DI system manufacturers recently, and I asked him why. His answer surprised me. His view is that we editors don’t care — we expect and have no problem with a by-eye conform. That might have been true once, but not today. Once you start doing complex effects work and see it conformed perfectly with little or no effort, you start wondering why things should work any other way. And you start to chafe at all the behind-the-scenes effort expended by editors and assistants, just trying to get back to something that worked just fine in the offline editing room.

This is a long-standing, Tower-of-Babel problem — there is no standard effects language. And it seems that each manufacturer has their own selfish reasons for not spending the money needed to make really good translations possible. That was tolerable in the days of film and HD, but in the all-digital present, it seems more and more anachronistic to me.

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12 Comments on “Conforming Headaches”

  1. Loren Miller Says:

    Very good observation, Steve.

    At one time or another I’ve asked both major NLE vendors (and more recently third party vendors like Intelligent Assistance who build apps like this) to break out XML exports with full effect use histories. IA’s Clip Reporter shows signs of this implementation, which reduces online reconstruction, and I think the demand will grow as more editors are led into the effects conform of a show. (I can hear the moans and groans.)

    To promote open standards between popular editors, XML seems to be the right language.

    Happy Thanksgiving all. – lsm

  2. bert clqes Says:

    We use Digital Vision Film master for our conform, and it has an exentsive Avid Workflow — Sending media back and forth, thus not requiring the effects to be done outside avid. We don’t use avid, but lightworks, so we haven’t tested it out… Film master is however extremely helpful for our workflow!

  3. Emyr Jenkins Says:

    Hi, we use Baselight. The workflow goes: Avid Offline-Avid Conform-Grade on Baselight-Online on Symphony or DS.
    Offline effects are recreated at the online stage on the graded material.

    Emyr

  4. Emyr Jenkins Says:

    Sorry, I meant to say Avid offline effects are recreated automatically at the online stage on the graded material.

  5. Steve Says:

    That seems pretty convoluted. Sounds like you are conforming twice, no?

    • Emyr Jenkins Says:

      Sorry I didn’t explain properly. The workflow is dead easy. Conform once onto the Avid Unity – Baselight just links to the media on the unity through AAF. You do the grade and then render new media (back onto the Unity). A new AAF is created which keeps the original offline avid effects but links to the new graded media instead of the original rushes.
      I think Digital Vision does something similar as well and I think both systems can do the same with FCP XMLs.
      Emyr

  6. Steve Says:

    Does that allow you to time directly from Red R3D files?

    Needless to say, you’re limited to HD when you go back into the MC…

    Interesting, though.

    • Emyr Jenkins Says:

      You are correct, unfortunately the workflow I described doesn’t allow for native R3D. That would be cool.
      Like the blog,
      Emyr


  7. Yes, there are solutions via 3rd party systems but these all require additional investments. Steve, correct me if I’m wrong, but are you talking more about some kind of universal file format, which all manufacturers could agree upon, a la .jpeg, .tiff or .pdf that would allow for seamless integration? I mean open source is here and eventually there will be some enterprising hacker out there who can write the code. But I think many manufacturers still fear cannibalism of their product lines if the “offline” tools become too powerful.

    BTW, like your new header logo. Congrats on the new name!

  8. Steve Says:

    Exactly. The goal would be for some kind of universal effects description language that all manufacturers could support. Without that, the expense and complexity of translating from one box to another presents a huge barrier that we editors pay for with time and aggravation. Editors have to show that we want and need such a thing. Otherwise there isn’t much motivation for creating it.

    And … thanks for the compliments!

  9. Allan White Says:

    Ok, I’m going to ask a newbie question, so bear with me (my background is in online and corporate video, not broadcast or film).

    What, precisely, is the need for conforming? Put another way, what conditions require it? Why can’t current edit systems provide the output required? Is it only necessary to output for film/digital cinema (2k)?

    Recreating all the edits seems like madness. It’s stuff like that that has me avoiding getting too excited about things like Color.app and Resolve for grading.

    Honest question, hoping to understand more.

  10. Steve Says:

    Allan,
    The simple questions are sometimes the hardest to answer, and this is certainly one of them. The lines between offline and online are blurring every day now and, more and more, it’s possible to conform in the “offline” environment. That said, the two key issues are expertise, and calibrated, flexible color.

    If you’re on a shoestring, then you do your own conform and you take your chances. If you have more money, you work with experts, people whose job is to understand the minefield that digital workflows have now turned into, where every show is different and every software release brings new opportunities and problems. Editing and conforming are different skills and the expertise needed to do one doesn’t necessarily translate to the other.

    Second, and more important, a proper finishing environment will have fully calibrated monitoring and high-end color correction gear. So when you like the way something looks, you don’t spend a lot of time wondering whether your monitor is telling the truth.

    But color correcting and conforming aren’t the same thing, and it’s certainly possible to conform ‘offline’ and color correct in a proper environment. And that’s where the limits of the typical offline cutting room come in. Final Cut and Media Composer are limited to HD. So that’s one limitation. (After Effects can go higher, and offers another set of options.) Moreover, if you want to work with high-bit-rate, low compression media, you’re going to need rocket-fast drives.

    Other problems are specific to your workflow. For example, in an Avid environment, working with Red material, you can conform the original R3D files via AMA, but you have to bake in a look and downrez to HD before you output — even if you work uncompressed. So you’re not giving your colorist full flexibility.

    You can work around things like that — taking your chances that most shots will be okay with baked-in color, but in the end, it’s generally simpler to let the folks who know about this do their job.

    I could go on, but I hope that helps. I’m sure others will weigh in with opinions. There are a whole lot of ways to skin this cat right now and none are perfect or ‘right.’ There’s only what works for your project, your comfort level, and your budget.

    Steve


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