Company Woos Final Cut Users with Sleeker, Faster Apps

Adobe has more than usual riding on CS6, the latest version of its Creative Suite package for production and post. CS5.5 launched at NAB last year just as Final Cut Pro X was landing with a thud among users who didn't care for the radically rethought interface and slimmed-down feature set. Adobe's Premiere Pro NLE already had some momentum, thanks to broad native format support on the timeline and a substantial performance boost through NVIDIA GPU acceleration, and the company enjoyed a surge of interest from editors who were suddenly examining their options in the marketplace. "Tens of thousands of users" switched from Final Cut Pro or Avid Media Composer to Adobe Premiere Pro and its mates over the last 12 months, Bill Roberts, Adobe's director of video product management, told us during a briefing to introduce the apps included in the CS6 Production Premium bundle. He indicated that Adobe would like Premiere Pro to become "the Photoshop of video editing."
FCP X remains controversial, though Apple has taken steps to put some key missing features back in place. And that means Adobe will get more attention than usual at NAB, as editors try to figure out their next move, platform-wise. Compositors and VFX artists will already be scoping out Adobe's booth to see what's new in After Effects, and Adobe has given that program a serious overhaul under the hood that should translate into a substantial increase in speed on the desktop as the software uses a sophisticated new caching system to eliminate redundancy when it comes to rendering. (Scroll down to read more about this release of After Effects.) But attention has clearly been lavished on Premiere Pro — Adobe's NLE has gotten a forward-looking redesign, broader native support for professional camera formats, and a smoother, speedier workflow inside the app itself. And, with the inclusion of SpeedGrade among the Creative Suite products, Premiere editors now have the option of manipulating clips with a high-end color correction tool rather than the simpler three-way color-corrector included in the application.
What Adobe hasn't announced yet is exact dates and pricing for the new versions — "the first half of 2012" is all the company is willing to say right now. Stay tuned.
Premiere Pro Gets More than a Facelift
The first thing you'll notice when opening Premiere Pro CS6 for the first time is the new default workspace. As Premiere Pro Product Manager Al Mooney explained it to us, the emphasis in this design iteration is "more video, less UI."
The source and program windows get more generous real estate across the top portion of the screen. The project panel, tucked into the bottom left corner, has gotten a big usability boost — now, you can scrub and set I/O points using just the thumbnails of your clips, dragging them directly to the timeline. Alternately, you can scrub back and forth through the clips just by hovering your cursor over the thumbnails and mousing left and right to whip through the footage. (Don't worry — if you hate this stuff, the CS5.5 workspace is easily accessible via drop-down from the top menu.)
The former multiplicity of buttons and analogue-style controls that cluttered the source and program panels are gone, replaced by a single line of icons. (A "button editor" lets you easily choose and rearrange the buttons according to your preference, or to suit the type of project you're cutting.) But buttons are sort of beside the point — there's an emphasis in CS6 on efficiency, and that means the kind of keyboard-driven command set that pro Final Cut Pro and Media Composer editors rely on. The three-way color corrector in CS6 has also been redesigned to mimic the ones found in FCP and Avid, making it more intuitive for pros.
If you're serious about color-grading, the CS6 Production Premium package includes Adobe SpeedGrade CS6, which you can fire up with a handy Send To SpeedGrade command that kicks a 10-bit DPX sequence over to that application. (We expect to see tighter SpeedGrade integration via Adobe's Dynamic Link workflow next year.) The Lumetri Deep Color Engine that drives SpeedGrade supports linear and log color space, and all color decisions are non-destructive, meaning you can't compromise image quality by baking in a look. Masks, filters, and color adjustments are applied in layers, a paradigm that should make sense to experienced After Effects and Photoshop users. Real-time performance is possible through GPU acceleration with Adobe certified graphics cards, including the NVIDIA Quadro 4000, 5000, and 6000. SpeedGrade will be a little much for some editors, but power users who relish the idea of primary and secondary correction layers, film-style filters, and libraries of preset looks will likely appreciate its inclusion here.
Along with SpeedGrade comes a potential offline/online workflow option — SpeedGrade can create lighter proxy versions of very large files for offline editing in Premiere Pro, then use EDLs from Premiere to conform the original footage. SpeedGrade supports file formats including DPX, QuickTime, Targa, TIFF, Open EXR, and raw ARRI, Red, Phantom, and Weisscam formats. XDCAM and AVCHD files will have to be opened in Premiere Pro, then sent to SpeedGrade as DPX sequences.
The Mercury Playback Engine has gotten some tweaks, too, notably support for the OpenCL-based AMD GPUs (the 6750M and 6770M) in 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros. A new non-stop playback feature lets you work right in the program monitor, editing, trimming, color-correcting or adjusting other effects in real time without pausing playback. Speaking of effects, Adobe's new Rolling Shutter Repair effect is built right into Premiere Pro, as is the wonderful Warp Stabilizer that turned up in After Effects CS 5.5.
And it wouldn't be a Premiere Pro release without new native format support — CS6 adds new support for Red Scarlet-X, Red Epic, ARRI Alexa, and Canon C300 to its bag of camera tricks. It also supports any number of cameras in multicam editing mode, subject to the limitations of your hardware. 
In After Effects, Cache is King
Meanwhile, over in After Effects, the big news is something Adobe calls the Global Performance Cache, the culmination of two years' worth of work. The concept is simple — don't make After Effects render any more than it needs to. After Effects CS6 caches frames to RAM, as well as to a persistent disk cache. That means the program retains all of the frames you render in RAM, so that as you try going in different directions with your project, frames from your previous renders can be reused if you decide to undo and return to a previous idea. The system has been designed to recognize reusable frames wherever they appear on the timeline, including those in duplicated layers or compositions. 
For its next trick, After Effects looks at those frames in RAM and decides, based on how long it would take to render them again, whether it's worth copying them to a disk cache. Once they're in the disk cache, you can close out of the project, work on something else, and then come back to it later. When you re-open the project, After Effects scans the cache and retrieves the appropriate frames for that project. "You can open the project a week later and access the same cached data," After Effects Product Manager Steve Forde told us. "And the cache tracks with the composited media, not with the project." That means that, if some of the cached frames are identical from project to project, each project will have access to the same frames. Naturally, you can configure which disk holds the cache and how big it's allowed to get so that it doesn't become The Cache That Ate Your Disk.
You can see it working, too — green lines above the timeline indicate that a comp has been cached in RAM, while a blue line indicates that it's been cached to disk.
The Global Performance Cache is tech-y stuff that sounds a little geeky and unsexy, but Adobe promises that you'll notice it when you start using it — beta sites reported a time savings of 60 to 70 percent in their After Effects workflows. And Adobe also says NVIDIA ran tests showing that better use of OpenGL and GPU acceleration has increased performance for many key functions by a factor of 1.5 to 2.5.
Other new features in After Effects include a powerful 3D Camera Tracker that's based on the aforementioned Warp Stabilizer technology. It analyzes a camera's movement in 3D space based on cues from the 2D footage, then creates a new virtual camera in After Effects to match the original motion. Additionally, 3D tracking points are overlaid on the 2D footage. There's also a new ray tracer, with accelerated rendering on supported NVIDIA GPUs with at least 1024 MB of texture memory. (Adobe and NVIDIA began showing early examples of how the ray tracer works during SIGGRAPH last summer.)
There's a lot more to CS6 than we've covered here, of course. For example, On Location has been replaced in this version by Prelude, a more file-based approach to workflow with ingesting, logging, and other annotation features that are integrated with Premiere Pro. And development continues on Audition, which shows up here with new features including real-time clip stretching and — a fun one — automatic speech alignment. For more on that, watch the clip below, recorded at last year's Adobe MAX event. You can catch up with more CS6 info at Adobe's dedicated CS6 website. And keep an eye on StudioDaily for more CS6 details in the weeks to come. If you're a current Creative Suite user, information about upgrading to CS6 can be found here.