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Nonlinear Video Editors for Streaming Postproduction
The last year saw developments—some big, some small—to all of the major nonlinear video editing platforms. Here's a look at the latest word from Adobe, Apple, Avid, and Sony.
Wed., Feb. 11, by Jan Ozer

Unless you’ve been pulling a Rip Van Winkle over the last few months, you won’t be surprised to learn that in the world of video editing, 2008 belonged to Adobe CS4 Production Premium. However, there was news surrounding all four major editing platforms in 2008—Adobe, Apple, Avid, and Sony—so let’s get to it, working in politically correct alphabetical order.

Adobe CS4 Production Premium
With the CS4 upgrade introduced in Q4 2008, Adobe patched some necessary feature gaps (think AVCHD), supercharged the CS4 Production Premium creative workflow (think more Dynamic Link), and launched several new groundbreaking features (think audio-to-text). Usually an afterthought, the 4.0.1 release includes a shot over Apple’s bow with the ability to import Final Cut Pro projects without conversions or rerendering. By any standard, it was a glorious year for Adobe.

But let’s begin at the beginning. CS3 shipped in July 2007, adding Mac support for most suite components. While obviously huge for Adobe, CS3 otherwise had so few new features for Windows editors that Adobe had to buy Serious Magic and throw OnLocation (née DV Rack) and Ultra into the bundle.

That said, given the number of Final Cut Pro (FCP) users who already own Photoshop, Illustrator, and perhaps even After Effects, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the Mac version, especially if you’re interested in Blu-ray Disc production, which Final Cut Studio still doesn’t offer. For many users, upgrading their individual components to the CS3 level cost more than simply upgrading to the CS3 production suite, which meant that Encore, Premiere Pro, and OnLocation—as well as other components such as Flash—were essentially free.

Interestingly, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro share a common designer (Nick Schlott) who worked on Premiere before joining the Final Cut team at Macromedia, the company from which Apple bought Final Cut Pro in 1998 (7 years before Macromedia was acquired by Adobe). You can argue till the cows come home about which product is better, but the common heritage makes switching from Final Cut Pro to Premiere Pro (or vice versa) far easier than jumping from or to Avid, Vegas, or any other editor.

That’s why the ability to import Final Cut Pro projects, seemingly a throwaway feature in what’s usually a maintenance release, is so brilliant, because it removes a critical barrier to at least trying Premiere Pro. Hey, if Adobe’s aggressive suite pricing has already enticed you to buy it, you may find it worth it to check out Premiere Pro before paying Apple $500 to upgrade to the next version of Final Cut Studio.

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself; CS4 is tremendously significant for current Adobe users, not just potential Final Cut Pro deserters. For the record, you can buy Premiere Pro as a stand-alone product, which includes Encore, OnLocation, and the Adobe Media Encoder, or you can buy Premiere Pro, et al., within several CS4 product suites. Since I’m presuming that you’re interested in streaming, let’s start with a look at the Adobe Media Encoder, which morphed from a limited-utility, necessary evil into a powerful stand-alone encoding tool with workflow advantages that no encoding tool can match.

Adobe Media Encoder
With CS3 and previous versions, Adobe Media Encoder (AME) could encode one file at a time and was joined at the hip with Premiere Pro, so you couldn’t encode and edit at the same time. With CS4, AME gained both batch-processing capabilities and the ability to run independent of Premiere Pro. You can even load Premiere Pro sequences and After Effects compositions directly—a unique convenience—and set up a watch folder that will encode files dropped there to a selected template.

Operationally, the workflow is similar to past versions. Specifically, you choose File > Export Media to open the Export Settings dialog, where you choose a preset or customize parameters as before. When you click OK to close the dialog, however, AME opens, gobbles in the sequence, and lets you return to editing almost immediately.

Figure 1
Adobe Media Encoder looks the same (in the foreground) but is now a stand-alone application that can batch encode multiple files (in the background).

Regarding the three key streaming codecs, AME still uses MainConcept’s H.264 codec and produces very good quality in both the Windows and Mac versions; although, if you’re producing files for streaming, you may miss the lack of two-pass CBR. For VP6, AME gained both 2-pass encoding and support for VP6-S/E, plus a quality-related control that lets you trade off encoding speed for quality. In my tests, output quality was on par with On2’s own Flix Pro application, the VP6 gold standard. Regarding Windows Media, Adobe didn’t add WMV encoding to the Mac version, though the output quality in the Windows version is quite good.

From a performance perspective, AME is a real speed-burner for both H.264 and Windows Media (again, Windows version only) though VP6 encoding is competitively very, very slow. Other rough edges include the watch folder’s inability to encode automatically: Someone has to be around to click the Start Queue button, which is flat-out silly. Overall, however, unless you’re a high-volume VP6 producer or a Mac user who needs WMV files, AME may be the only encoding tool you’ll ever need.

Premiere Pro
Premiere Pro itself also benefited from lots of discrete and undeniably useful additions, including support for AVCHD. You’ll need a pretty hefty machine to edit and render in this format since it’s so memory-intensive, with both Mac and 64-bit Windows dramatically outperforming a Windows 32-bit workstation in my performance tests. As an alternative on Windows 32, try the CineForm intermediate codec once it’s available for CS4. In my tests on CS3, it reduced memory requirements and performed much faster than CS4, producing the same project with native AVCHD source files.

The other big workflow enhancement is the ability to send unrendered Premiere Pro sequences directly to Encore via Dynamic Link (or to import Premiere Pro sequences from within Encore). Once you’re authoring in Encore, if you see any changes that you’d like to make in the video, click Edit Original and you’ll be taken back to Premiere Pro. Save your changes and the sequence updates in Encore, a huge timesaver for DVD or Blu-ray producers. Speaking of Blu-ray, Adobe also added pop-up menus to Encore, making it the only authoring tool costing less than $40,000 or so with this feature.

Figure 2
Premiere Pro is showing off two new features: AVCHD support and Dynamic Link Export to authoring program Adobe Encore.

Back in Premiere Pro, Adobe added support for sequences with different settings, so you can produce a Blu-ray Disc at 1920x1080, a high-quality streaming file at 720p, and low-res output at 640x360, all within the same project. Adobe also added a ton of one-to-many convenience features, such as the ability to apply one transition to an entire project, one filter to multiple clips, and one audio levels adjustment to a number of audio files.