Cleanliness is next to sensible. Neatness is Nirvana. It promotes efficiency. It shows nervous clients you're organized. They'll still be nervous, but you'll be organized. It can ease your blood pressure, and help you through troubleshooting, too. Finally, cleaning tools can rescue inferior footage and audio.
No, I do not obsessively wash my hands, although that's an inexpensive way to avoid getting the flu.
Let me first offer full disclosure-- I am not an engineer or hacker and I don't play either one on TV—at least not for free. I'm a freelance editor, filmmaker, writer and entrepreneur. Also a Macintosh nut, since 1985. I know there are wonderful Windows solutions out there-- a tour of any NAB or SMPTE show floor reveals a full universe of products on both platforms which really work. Forgive my bias if I enjoy the more cogent human interface design I get on any Mac, even at the expense of a little speed, which is rapidly becoming a non-issue.
Back in 1978 editors had to be very clean. Here I'm negative-cutting "SINCE ‘45," a student Oscar winner produced out of Boston by Michael Korolenko, which I also edited. The half-hour show contained 1200 splices. We don’t use cement anymore. We use the “Insert” or "Overwrite” button. It’s much neater. No dust issues.
System Shine-ups Those of us editing digitally-- just about everyone today-- discovered long ago that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of aspirin, but since we never think like that on a deadline, there are some tools to extricate you from disaster. Perhaps you're just dipping into the newest technology to ply the 100-year-old craft that is the heart and soul of filmmaking. Perhaps you’re an old hand wetting your feet in the dagblasted newfangled world of nonlinear editing. Whether you're a neatnik or a thrasher, welcome to the Zen of Neat and Clean.
I edit Avid and Final Cut Pro longform configurations of all kinds, but it doesn't matter what you use. Assuming you've repaired file permissions, used free utilities like MacJanitor or Onyx to purge unnecessary system files, and it's not your RAM, video card, insects nesting on your motherboard or liquid seeping into your hard drive electronics -- I have seen all these -- it's mostly about your storage solution and keeping it healthy. I'm talking about the hard drives attached to your system, inside or out, to which your media gets captured. You have to keep these disks in the pink, and slavishly so. Many of us make our living from them.
Disheveled Directories Systems occasionally crash. I happen to think Macintosh crashes are more stylish than Windows, but both machines occasionally lock up, freeze, hang, stop or panic. A power failure can fry drives—especially when the power returns! A system not connected to a voltage-regulated battery back-up brick known as an UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply), can cause major damage to a disk drive's "directory." The directory is that section of the disk which tells the operating system what's on the rest of the disk. Zap your disk directory and you will not be able to recover your media files without a specialized send out-and-wait service. I had an assignment for a company a few years back which hadn’t a clue as to why it was plagued with SCSI hard drive issues. I asked if the facility had occasional brownouts—it was in an old building. Yes, they did. I recommended an UPS immediately, they bought a hefty one which provided backup to not only the disk drives and tower, but the deck, monitors. and the system didn’t act up afterward. On the older SCSI systems from which I used to edit, I have seen almost all disk issues cleaned up by the installation of an UPS with Automatic Voltage Regulation (AVR)—which provided—what else?— clean electricity.
For the remaining disk disasters, enter DiskWarrior, the premiere product of its kind. It does one thing and does it well: it rebuilds and cleans trashed disk directories.
DiskWarrior shows you what a mess your disk directory is, and how it should be (small strip above). You can even repair an OSX disk from within OS9 if you need to.
I had a seriously zapped internal disk-- in fact my OS9 disk partition-- die completely. Just would not show up. I had 20GB of files on it, including system preference files, application registration files, Word documents, irreplaceable Illustrator, Photoshop stuff I was working on and hadn't yet backed up. It can take hours to back up the new multi-gigabyte disks, even over FireWire. We get lazy, don’t we?
Under OS9, DiskWarrior took 36 hours to uncover about 11,000 files. Imagine a movie of a bulldozer going carefully in reverse, scavenging as it goes, with all the buildings popping back up as the vehicle treads backwards. Diskwarrior scans the problem disk and rebuilds the directory based upon the disk contents so you can get back to work. DW under OSX is considerably faster.
A clean disk directory is a happy disk directory.
Drives, He Said So what about the actual contents of a hard drive? As you digitize media, they are usually deposited continuously from the core outward on each disk platter. Eventually you remove some or all of these files. If you remove some, the disk is left with open sectors in the middle of large files. That's where new stuff gets deposited-- in parts. That can be messy. Each platter is storing high-bandwidth data and if it gets deposited on your disk in segments, you're asking your hard drive data head (think of an old photograph arm) to jerk hither and yon, retrieving it in segments. Hard disk controllers don't do that gracefully if the segments are far apart and very short.
A great deal of your finely tuned system involves good hard drive response. If editing actions like playback and trimming and clip access seem sluggish, it may be a drive going on strike and needing “a defrag.”
For years Avid had a proprietary hard disk scheme for its high-end Media Composers and didn't want you to de-fragment your media files with standard utilities. Disk prep was accomplished with Avid's Disk Utility only. Today, for tools like ExpressDV and ExpressPro, Avid relies on the OS for disk formatting, and defragging your drives is highly recommended, so get out your TechTool Pro or Alsoft's Plus Optimizer companion to Diskwarrior, and defrag away. FCP lays out media files as standard QuickTime files and media drives always benefit from defragging.
Optimizing a large drive is often an overnight operation. PlusOptimizer took half a day to defrag a 120GB FireWire drive, carefully examining the disk contents, leaving certain "anchored" files where they should be and rebuilding around them like any good defrag utility. Your drive, like you, will awake refreshed and notably more responsive. The downside to this product is that Alsoft has not yet updated it for OSX—you have to do this work in OS9. There are more current tools available.
What's the cheapest way to defrag your drive? Copy the contents to a clean drive. Either way, allow time.
A Clean Screen A lot of us are using new flatscreens, which are now affordable, and can be a real joy in our cozy little digi-studios. They radiate next to nothing in electrons. But after sneezing on them over time, after children visit and place strategic thumbprints on them because they're so cool, you need to clean your screens.
CRT's benefit even more from periodic cleaning; they are radioactive dust magnets. I've been in some busy facilities where the screens revealed a full stop of light transmission after cleaning. These days I use items like KlearScreen (www.klearscreen.com) which carries a nonabrasive chemical solution. On a Sony Trinitron tube years ago I used ordinary household glass cleaner and noticed large chunks of the chromatic coating disappearing over time. I say, dump the bottles, get flats, clean less.
Neatness Counts Now we come to your workscreen and the onscreen application windows you work with. Are you a neat freak or a thrasher? There are excellent editors of both stripes, but I dig neat. In Avid, you have Toolsets. Choose one and use it. In Avid Express Pro, I arrange my main timeline window on the 20" Apple flat, and the bins on the 17" flat. Be aware, I chose the 20" to join the 17" because both are identical height.
When your bins become scattered to the far corners of the desktop, use your custom toolset again to collect your sanity. You can customize window arrangements and save them to the currently chosen toolset. You can access different Toolsets from function keys mapped to specific uses, like color correction of Shift-F8, audio mixing Shift-F11, etc. This way, you can be neat and quickly so.
In Final Cut Pro, you have preset Layouts. Layouts for single screens, dual monitor setups, SD, HD, for functions similar to Avid's and equally customizable. Choose one or two and use them. There are two Custom Layouts you can immediately set and access on Shift and Option-U-- unless as with Avid you choose to remap the commands.
Being neat usually helps you find that clip you need this very second. Don't overlook these helpers. There's nothing that says your screen has to reflect your mind, especially when a client is working with you!
Wacky Windows There are several payoffs to a clean and neat computer workscreens, with NLE windows nicely arranged and maxed to your display(s). One of the most common problems in either Avid or FCP is a playvback issue involving overlapping or oversized windows. In Avid, if your playback seems stuttery and jerky, check to see that nothing overlaps the Composer window—even one pixel overlap can affect playback. In FCP, if you encounter dropped frames, first thing to check is an oversized image in the Canvas window: simply make it active and go Shift-Z (Fit to Window). If you still have issues, shrink the Canvas image until the CPU can play it.
Media MakeOvers Some amazing content massage tools are now available for Avid and Final Cut Pro and we celebrate a couple here.
Very Clean Video Cleanup tools have been available to still photographers and Photoshop users for years. What sparked their expansion to motion media was raw need: more and more legacy video from old Sony reel-to-reel PortaPaks and 3/4" originals showing up in post houses and TV stations as library material, repurposed media assets, or just plain old "stock footage".
Plug-ins! Without a plugin, you're forced to import your footage into another program, such as Commotion Pro, After Effects or Boris Red-- huge and very rich programs-- and then export your footage back to your editor. This is disruptive for isolated issues, and is often overkill for simple video artifacts, which is why plugin architectures like Avid's AVX and FCP's FXScript were developed.
Final Cut Pro is an impressive growth industry, but it doesn't yet sport neat capabilities like Avid's ability to "park on a field,"-- that's one half the NTSC video frame. Unlike film frames, video frames contain two half-resolution interlaced fields-- they're even different in time by 1/60th of a second-- and occasionally a defect can be traced to and isolated on one field. High end Avid systems like Symphony and Digital Softimage also allow frame painting-- two elements which facilitate quick "in house" frame repair of digitized old-technology footage. But what’s out there for FCP?
One example of full-frame patching is Re:FILL from Re:Vision Effects, Inc., available for Macintosh or Windows, which allows you to cover defects, scratches, and a whole group of image artifact problems you'd normally have to leave the program to tackle. Like DirtFix (below) it's not entirely automatic, you have to create special "holes" to cover the defects, but FCP has a range of shape tools to do just that, and then you apply Re:FILL and it senses the hole and does its special magic, using copy and blur from neighboring pixels. Re:Fill is part of a package of plug-in filters each available for around 100.00, and you can also achieve some amazing effects with the filter.
With Re:FILL, one minute you have scratches, the next you don’t.
For easy field repair in Final Cut Pro, we have Digital Heaven’s DH_Dropout filter, for $10.00! This powerful filter is a wonderful way to spot-repair analog dropouts in your digital transfers. Often by simply applying the filter with its default settings, you can effect a perfect repair. DH_Dropout was one of the very first tools to address field 1 or 2 repair.
I repaired this dropout (left) from a beta SP transfer practically on the fly with DH_Dropout. (Courtesy: Rampion Visual Productions.)
DH_Dropout is one of a suite of affordable filters which are insanely useful. I recommend them all. Digital Heaven also offers a MultiCam solution for those of you not yet upgrading to Tiger or FCP5. All their products work, and the tutorials on their are indescribably…clean! DirtFix is AVX plugin for the Avid family on Macintosh or Windows which provides an easy way to clean up legacy video footage, ugly scanline burps and the like right from within your project. DirtFix allows you to fix most video dropouts, film dirt, and other transient defects within Avid editing systems. Like Re:FILL above, there is handwork involved, setting keyframes on problem fields. You move a special outline box over the defect, then add a keyframe to each defective field. DirtFix patches over the defect using the clean portion of the previous field or frame, or using a similar portion of the current field. Very clever, very affordable, and you don’t leave the editing program.
Audaciously Antibacterial Audio From Avid's Digidesign division, once exclusively for ProTools, now available as an Avid AudioSuite plug-in, DINR reigns as desktop system noise cleanup king, with a price tag to match. If you do a lot of audio in noisy locales, it’s worth it.
When you first use DINR it can take your breath away- quite literally. In the hands of a professional, specific undesirable frequencies can be taught to the plug-in, and are subsequently removed by the plug-in. I once watched and listened with amazement as Fred Mueller at Berklee College's Film Scoring Department dealt with a documentary track in which a pervasive air conditioner's steady hum threatened usability of a crucial interview. He fed DINR its dinner, teaching the plug-in all about the hum. Suddenly the AC guys came in and heaved the old box out of the room-- processing actually left the voice brighter, bouncing about in an empty room!
Berkeley Integrated Audio Inc, produces Peak, a very respectable audio design alternative to ProTools, Digital Performer, Logic, on Macintosh, but till now did not offer smart sound reduction in the vein of ProTools' DINR.
On FCP, Soundsoap, a $100.00 standalone product from Bias holds some of the same power. Soundsoap "Junior" is great for removal of wholesale "whooshy" background sound, low rumble or hum. For instance, I had great success reducing a horrible buzz from a bad mike track. It’s also simple to use. SoundSoap Pro for $600.00 is a real DINR competitor. Pro provides more control over intelligent noise removal, using a nicely designed procedural interface, and easily approaches DINR in results-- as well as price tag. Again, the price is justified if you encounter a lot of these issues.
Load a sound file from Avid or Final Cut Pro into “Junior” and soap up! You can see the audio is cleaner on the right half of the oval.
I think the near future of affordable short or longform editing is a responsibly outfitted offline shop, often cutting in DVCAM or DVCPRO format. Small budget work can now be finished in house. Big budget project files can be transparently transferred to online facilities dedicated to finishing video and audio. The affordability factor is bringing producers back to editors and boutique shops for content work and then to online for vision engineering, legalizing, etc, just like the analog video workflow of years ago. But new responsibilities come with the new technology; editors are expected to handle a range of systemic, digital, video and audio problems in the course of a day's work in addition to grappling with content, and here you’ve seen some neat examples of what’s available to cope with all these issues without baking your noodle learning them.
This by no means covers the waterfront in content cleanup, and I haven't even mentioned cool tricks you can do with existing Avid and FCP tools in a pinch, although here's a video fix you can apply for free:
A Petite Pixel Problem To cover an annoying dead camera pixel plaguing every shot in your movie, apply a very tiny Gaussian Blur filter. The only cost is render time and disk space. But you know all about disks by now, don't you? They're clean, right?
Now clean up your room!
Locate any of the products mentioned on Google for the latest versions and prices.
*** Loren S. Miller edits dramatic and documentary shorttform and longform work out of Boston and Los Angeles. His short documentary credits include five Oscar nominees, one winner, several other festival awards and a couple cool wall plaques. His favorite PBS assignment so far has been Antiques Roadshow. His favorite dramatic feature assignment is always the most recent. He also develops editorial and training support products like KeyGuides™ to help people work less painfully and more effectively; he collects letter openers; he bicycles; and still has time to show up at the Boston Final Cut Pro User Group! Visit www.neotrondesign.com and reach him anytime at
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