Avid Media Composer 4.0 Mix and Match Open Timeline

Avid has continued on their path of regular, usable, functional updates for their popular editor Avid Media Composer. Last week at IBC Avid surprised many when they rolled out version 4.0. Is this version (to use a tired cliche when talking about software upgrades) a revolutionary upgrade or just an evolutionary update? I think it depends on who you ask or what your needs are.

While 4.0 doesn’t include anything as (seemingly) revolutionary as Avid Media Access it does include one feature that had to be added … a feature that any modern NLE needs to compete in 2009: the completely and totally open timeline. That is allowing the mixing and matching of frame rates as well as resolutions.

The addition of this open timeline is a feature that in one sense could be seen as the dumbing down of the application to accommodate the masses. But that’s what any relevant NLE has to do in this world of Flip cameras and DSLRs that shoot video as well as the amateur filmmaker that’s attempting to work in a professional world.

Let’s be honest here … mixed frame rates are something that you really want to avoid in your production if at all possible. It’s not that you can’t mix frame rates and have a good looking product in the end but once you being mixing frame rates (as opposed to frame size, as in resolution) you are asking for trouble. A perfect example would be a job I recently had to fix where a major label band had, apparently, decided to shoot their own music video. An uncompressed QuickTime was sent over for color grading but when output much of the motion in the piece was bad. Jitter and stuttering throughout the whole video. Upon requesting a drive with the project file and media it was easy to see why. The project combined 23.98, 29.97, 59.94 and 24 fps media. To make matters worse the editor had cut the piece in a 24 fps timeline (that’s true 24 fps and not 23.98) even though the 24 fps media only composed a tiny fraction of the total media used in the edit. To make matters worse he had never viewed the edit on anything other than his Mac’s computer screen and the QuickTimes used for approval. Needless to say it was not a quick process to fix the problem shots.

I digress into this story to illustrate what is very common in the world of “professional” video production these days, mixed frame rates. And it can pretty much be traced right back to Final Cut Pro’s ability to do just that. When this “feature” was added (I can’t remember which version it was) it was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing as it allowed an editor to mix in the occasional off frame rate shot with ease. A curse in that it removed the need for planning your shoot on the front end to keep your frame rates the same. And an even bigger curse in that many editors and people attempting post-production today don’t even understand why you can’t/shouldn’t haphazardly mix frame rates and expect every shot to look right.

Enter Avid’s Open Timeline and it’s new Mix and Match capabilities. Media Composer has long been able to mix SD and HD, OMF and MXF media but it couldn’t mix frame rates. With version 4.0 the ability to mix frame rates has been added as well. The problem with mixing frame rates in say … Final Cut Pro … has often been that the application would apply some type of improper pulldown cadence when adding (for example) 23.98 fps material to a 29.97 timeline or it would just do a downright bad job of removing frames from from 29.97 material and cause horrible motion artifacting. There are some frame rate conversions that it’s just not that easy to do. I swear that I have shut down a mixed frame rate Final Cut Pro edit at the end of the day only to restart it the next day and have FCP interpret the frame rates differently thereby causing a slight shift in an edit point.

Avid claims to have done this mixing and matching for formats in a better way and provides realtime, broadcast quality output from the mixing and matching of any resolution or frame rate. There might be a requirement to render upon delivering a final master via Digital Cut as this forum is discussing but if you scroll down and read the Sep 14, 2009 at 4:14:43 pm post by Terence Curren then you get an idea of how this might work.  The proper mixing of frame rates in the same timeline is quite an achievement and Avid tends toward delivering a feature later rather than sooner but delivering that feature working right. This will be a great advancement for a lot of post houses.

There’s a number of other new additions like transition preservation, improved 3D editing and Macintosh support for the Pro Tools Satellite feature. Steve Cohen has done a great job of explaining some of the features on his website and you can read the official press release straight from Avid.

Perhaps most exciting for students if that Avid will now provide complementary upgrades to the software for 4 years. From the press release:

Pricing and Availability

Media Composer, Symphony and NewsCutter systems will be available on September 30.  Interplay 2.0 will be available on September 16. Media Composer 4.0 is just $295 USMSRP for educational institutions and students. Beginning September 30, 2009, students with academic versions of Media Composer software (versions 3.5 through 4.0 purchased on or after March 1, 2009) will qualify for complementary upgrades for four years from the date of software activation. For more information on qualifications and availability, please visit www.avid.com.

That’s quite a change of policy and what is probably an industry first. A freshman film student could buy Media Composer for $295 and stay current with an industry standard editor throughout their whole college career, providing they graduate in 4 years of course. It’s a very sweet deal indeed. Considering how often Avid has been upgrading Media Composer in the last couple of years then they could be at version 6 or 7 when a new freshman graduates!

What’s missing from this 4.0 release? Any new formats being supported by Avid Media Access. I’ve discussed what’s missing from AMA before and I had really hoped to see AMA .mov DNxHD QuickTime support in any new Media Composer release. There has to be some technical hurdle that the engineers have been unable to jump in order to make this happen. It just makes so much sense to provide DNxHD QuickTime support. Maybe in version 4.5 … but let’s hope it’s 4.0.1!