Embracing Failure – My First Feature (The Impersonators)
This is an on-going post-production diary I’m keeping while I cut my first feature, The Impersonators, an indie comedy.
Before the failure, a success: the first teaser trailer was released a couple days ago:
And now the rest.
As I moved through the motions of being my own assistant, I hit my first point of utter frustration. Not even a clip in the bin yet and hair was threatening to be pulled out. I wasn’t exactly punching walls, but it was irritating me exponentially.
For the purpose of hopefully offering someone some insight on this, I’ll remind you I’m working with Avid Media Composer 6.
Avid’s error messages are scary, and I’ve seen a lot of them now. My issues seem to be well documented on forums but with no actual solutions, which is maddening. Some things work for people, but not for others. There’s no consistency like with most issues I research. I’m documenting my experience for the next person that has to do this, so maybe they’ll come to the understanding that it isn’t something that is entirely THEIR fault, necessarily.
The production was shot on hacked Panasonic GH2 cameras. It’s a pretty common thing to do these days. I have folders of AVCHD media arranged on my external drive (.mts files if you’re newer to this or possibly looking for a solution to your own issues.) I’ve worked with AVCHD before so I knew of the potential pitfalls, but I’ve always been fine when using the Log and Transfer tool in FCP7. This was my first adventure into AVCHD in Avid Media Composer, so of course it has to be with clips that may not be entirely standard as far as codecs go.
Here’s what happened. After the project was created, I’d link to the files via Avid Media Access (AMA) and they’d show up in my bin. My first issue occurred when simply trying to play them in the source window. They’d play for a second, then I’d get an error to the effect of “ASpringbuffer”. Then it would stop responding and I’d have to force quit.
I tried again, going right to consolidate/transcode without trying to play back the files through AMA. I set up the transcode to DNxHD and let it go on a batch of maybe 10 files. The status bar would hang for a while, then beach ball of death, then an “upstream pipe” error.
At first, I figured it was because I was using a little USB 2 drive just to test out a couple clips while my new g-tech drive was being shipped. But this remained consistent after I was hooked up to the 7200rpm 2TB drive via eSata (maybe I should try this with Firewire 800 just to rule out eSata being weird?) At this point, forum posts I’ve seen mentioning this error have people speculating that it’s either the hard drive unable to keep up with Avid writing files, or it’s the GH2 hack affecting the audio side of things on the clips, making Avid unhappy. I tried changing some settings to make Avid happy with the audio and nothing changed. The most frustrating thing about this is that on the forum posts, sometimes these clips work totally fine for people. The original poster will share a clip, and subsequent repliers will be able to AMA and transcode it. Then the next person in the thread will get the same upstream pipe error. Then someone else will change a setting and it’ll work, while the next person will change the same setting and it won’t work. Nothing online has a definitive answer.
I sent a tiny clip to two trusted Avid editor friends to see what would happen on their system. Same thing. Asked a few more, including some helpful COW people. No clue.
So now I’ve pretty much narrowed it down to either being a software or a hardware issue. YES, I know, I’m so helpful.
My next thought was to say “eff it” to AMA and try to just import the clips and let Avid take a century to transcode them that way. So I tried that with ten files from another folder within the drive. At first, it seemed like it was working. Then after one clip, an upstream pipe error.
Well, ok then.
So at this point, I had no easy way to get these clips into MC. I knew they were fine because Premiere was importing and playing them back relatively fine, if a bit choppy at times though to be fair they are massive. I didn’t really push Premiere to do anything beyond just importing, but I’ll give it credit that it actually worked. I decided to see if FCP7’s Log and Transfer tool would like them and opened that up. (As a side note, one or two of the card volumes wouldn’t mount in there because the person wrangling the media was messing around with the card structure. One of my folders is JUST mts files without the metadata. What a pain. Camera people: DON’T DO THAT.) So I mounted a volume and transferred three clips, transcoding them to ProRes 422. It was fast and it took the files, and they looked good and played back great.
Then I had a moment where it was 1 AM and FCP7 was about to seduce me into cutting in there. It was just so familiar. “Come here, have a cuddle.”
No, I really need the extra practice in Avid, and FCP will forsake me later for sure anyway. As I make OS updates, it gets worse and worse. Premiere is an option, but like I said, I’d rather go with Avid for my own sake. I took the ProRes clip that FCP made and transcoded it to DNxHD, and it fast imported into Avid. I briefly considered doing this for every clip – renaming them by scene and take right there. It wouldn’t matter since I’m doing all the finishing within my Avid, more or less, no concerns about relinking or sharing. But among other reasons to not do this, it seemed like a LOT of extra time spent transcoding things twice. And a lot of messing around with disk space allocation.
I should throw in an aside here that it was after midnight and I posted my frustrations on Twitter and instantly had four people giving me their opinions or advice, or at least trying to troubleshoot. That’s awesome. I love you all.
Anyway, my next move was to obtain Clip Wrap and try that out. I used it to transcode a file to DNxHD. It worked and fast imported into Avid as expected, played back great. Yipee. The only issue is I have 12 folders of media that I need to transcode, and they don’t have unique filenames (meaning, in Card 1 there’s a 001.mts, and Card 2 there’s a 001.mts) so if I loaded all of these into Clip Wrap, I figured there’d be some funkiness where it’s re-writing, overwriting, or just crashing when it hits those files. There’s no way to batch them and I wanted to let it run overnight. And I didn’t want to rename the source files.
So instead of transcoding in Clip Wrap, I simply re-wrapped a couple of folders worth of files since that takes just a couple minutes. Out of curiosity, I tried to AMA link to those files (which didn’t work). Figures. So I opened up Mpeg Streamclip and set up a batch list to transcode 2 folders of files. In the batch list, you can have files being sent to different places, unlike in Clip Wrap where everything has the same destination folder. Plus I pretty much trust Mpeg Streamclip with my life anyway, so it seemed like a safe bet to let it run overnight without error.
The transcode takes for-freaking-ever as you’d expect with all this media, but it worked. I then took those and am currently fast importing into Avid, which also takes for-freaking-ever but not in the same way. They should totally not call that fast import because it makes me expect it to be faster. Maybe “easy import”? “Slow and steady import?” Anyway, they are all importing correctly, mxf files being created, everything plays back fine and looks good. The transcoding and fast importing time so far has exceeded 20 hours. It’ll probably wind up closer to 30. I absolutely see why people are taking Premiere more seriously. That’s a lot of downtime for your system JUST to get the media in the NLE. But I’m assuming I’ll make back this time later in by not having to troubleshoot Premiere. If this was something I needed to turn around fast, I would have to use Premiere, no doubt. I also see the benefit of something like the KiPro, recording natively on set.
But ya know, if anything else goes wrong with this, I’ll have to bail and go to FCP7. I’m willing to troubleshoot Avid for a while – that’s a part of the learning experience. But when it gets past a certain point, it’s time wasted.
So for my workflow, this will work. But what if I needed to have an edit that can be relinked and moved and shared among facilities? What would be the solution? I’m not really sure, and I’d love to know. I really think it has to do with the codec not being perfectly standard. There’s just one little thing in there that’s making Avid sour. At first, I thought it was a disk speed issue. Maybe it’s a combination. But really, I think it’s the fact the files are just a little different. Regardless, this has been really educational already. And I have the feeling my permanent tension headache will subside soon, as I tried editing a few clips into the timeline as a test and everything suddenly was familiar again.
Another side note. The teaser trailer I posted in this blog was cut in FCP7. I knew exactly what scenes and takes I needed, so I was able to go into Log and Transfer and quickly grab my handful of media and go to work. While editing this teaser, Log and Transfer actually crashed FCP 28 times over not that many hours worth of editing. So Log and Transfer really doesn’t like these clips either. Even if I were in FCP7 I’d still have hours of transcoding via Mpeg Streamclip, just to ProRes. But no importing into FCP. However, much less robust media management.
When I was getting ready to start this project, I asked around for advice and tips on setting things up or exploring the depths of Avid. One editor friend gave me the best insight so far. Paraphrased: Embrace failure, because every time you screw up now is a time you won’t screw up in the future.
Anyway, now that I’ve got that sorted out, I can finally start to sync and cut. More opportunities for failure lie in my reach!