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In Review: Avid Media Composer 3.5

Earlier this year Avid released the 3.5 version of Media Composer software, as well as the corresponding versions for NewsCutter and Symphony.
Media Composer 3.5 included more change and innovation than a typical
.5 software release. Besides many small improvements, there are three
big features promoted with this release: software activation (no more
dongle), 3D stereoscopic editing and Avid Media Access (AMA).

Dumping the Dongle
For many years, Avid systems have been
tied to a hardware license key (a.k.a., the dongle). This USB device
enables licensed installations of Media Composer, Symphony or
NewsCutter to work on any computer to which it is connected. Install
Media Composer on a PC workstation in the office and a MacBook Pro for
the road and simply change from one to the other by moving the dongle.

Media Composer 3.5 introduced an optional software activation
similar to that used by Adobe. Opting for software activation disables
the dongle and from then on the system is authorized over the Internet.
Like Adobe, you may install the software on as many computers as you
want, but when you change from one to another, you have to deactivate
the first computer and then reactivate the second computer.

You have the option with 3.5, but Avid has switched to only software
activation with Media Composer 4.0, which became available September
30. Existing customers who are upgrading to 4.0 and already possess a
valid dongle will be able to flash them and continue to use dongle
authorization. One cool aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is that you
may now download and use a full version of Media Composer for a free
14-day trial without dongle or software activation. This try-and-buy
offer is an excellent way for anyone new to Avid systems to get
comfortable with Media Composer.

I’m Seeing Double
Avid Media Composer 3.5 became the first creative
editing application to let editors work with—and display—3D stereo
content, without the need for a third-party plug-in. Other NLEs, like
Quantel iQ Pablo, have already offered 3D capabilities, but these
systems are generally used for DI finishing and not creative cutting.

Footage recorded for 3D productions, using either side-by-side or
over-under camera configurations, is stored in two sets of image
sequence files. These correspond to the left- and right-eye views from
each camera. Avid offers MetaFuze—a free Windows utility—to combine
these files into a single Avid-ready MXF media file. The MXF file
contains the muxed—or “fuzed”—images in a common stereo format. Media
Composer’s 3D stereo preferences can be set to off (you’ll see an over-under image), left eye only, right eye only or checkerboard (an interlaced view of the left- and right-eye images). Media Composer 4.0 also adds a side-by-side view. In addition to stereo image files, MetaFuze 2.0 will also transcode native .R3D files from the RED ONE camera.

During normal editing, the editor would set the system preferences
to left- or right-eye only in order to display normal images for
cutting. You wouldn’t want to cut with the over-under or checkerboard
display. When it comes time to screen a rough cut with a director, the
editor would switch the system to checkerboard, don 3D glasses and view
the playback as a stereo image. Unfortunately, this comes with a few
caveats. Viewing the image in 3D requires a 3D-compatible LCD screen,
plasma screen or projector with active glasses and an emitter. You
cannot use a software-only Media Composer and expect to switch to full
screen playback and see proper 3D on your standard computer display.

There are no controls to correct or alter convergence. 3D finishing
systems, like Quantel, offer such control, which can be used to enhance
the stereo effects or lessen issues that might cause eye strain and
headaches. Avid uses half-resolution images, meaning that a 1920×1080
left- or right-eye frame is only 1920×540. The two files are then
interlaced to create a single, combined 1920×1080 frame. Finally, Avid
offers no 3D finishing path within its own product line. You can’t take
a Media Composer project to an Avid DS and create a 3D stereo digital
cinema master. Such a master would require full-resolution left- and
right-eye images in a 48fps format. Currently Avid recommends that you
export an EDL, AAF or FilmScribe XML file for finishing in a DI system,
such as Quantel iQ Pablo.

I haven’t cut a 3D project yet, so the whole stereoscopic buzz is
lost on me. I understand the box office argument, but I feel that the
size of the potential user market isn’t big enough for Avid to spend
precious R&D resources on. But, if you are cutting a 3D film
without Avid’s new stereoscopic features, any 3D test screenings during
the course of locking the cut come with a lot more effort and cost. If
you are working on such a project, Media Composer’s 3D stereoscopic
solution will definitely save you money.

Native Editing with Camera File Formats
Avid Media
Architecture (AMA) is a new plug-in API, like Apple FCP’s Log and
Transfer. AMA gives Media Composer the ability to take native media
from a card, disk or volume and open it directly into Media Composer as
a bin. No import or ingest required, and it comes complete with all the
camera-generated metadata. Avid must work with the camera manufacturers
to write drivers for AMA. Right now Sony (XDCAM), Ikegami (GFCAM) and
Panasonic (P2) are on board, but there is hope that others, like RED,
will join the party.

I tested AMA with both P2 and XDCAM EX media. It works well if you
stick with Avid’s recommended practices, but isn’t foolproof if you
deviate. One of the P2 shooters I work with clones his cards to small
USB drives. The result is a partition that mounts for each card. 13
cards means 13 hard drive partitions on my Mac desktop. The Media
Composer “Link to AMA volume” command opens each partition as a bin,
which is populated with clip data and is ready to edit. Unfortunately,
Media Composer had trouble tracking this many different AMA volumes.
After a few times opening the project, it would start to lose links to
the media and more and more clips would show up as “media offline.”

Then I tested a different approach, which proved more successful. I
took the same small drive and copied the contents of each partition to
folders on my local drive, being careful to maintain the P2 folder
structure. By doing this, it was possible to load any or all of these
folders into Media Composer by designating them as AMA volumes. Avid
further recommends to consolidate media that you intend to keep.
Consolidation copies the native files into a standard Avid Media Files
folder. In either case, my test project continued to work well with
either AMA or consolidated media.

AMA offers various workflows. If you are cutting fast-breaking news,
you’d probably just link to an AMA volume and cut directly from the
native media. This could even be a P2 card or XDCAM disc pulled
directly from the camera. A film editor would take a different
approach. A digital feature project might start by linking to the AMA
volume for each day’s dailies. Then transcode those clips to Avid’s
DNxHD36 lightweight editing codec. Move the transcoded clips to a new
bin and delete the AMA bin. When you are done with the rough cut and
ready to finish at a higher resolution, simply link to one large AMA
volume containing the native camera media. The files open into Media
Composer as one or more AMA bins. Finally, relink your edited sequence
to those files.

But Wait, There’s More
The dongle, 3D images and AMA have
received the most attention, but there are two additional new features
worth noting in Media Composer 3.5. That’s the new FluidStabilizer and
the SubCap generator effect. SubCap is a both an effect and a method to
add open captioning to your sequence. You can import text files of the
dialogue and set a look based on style sheets. Previously this function
required everything to be built from scratch or to use one of the
several plug-ins developed for captioning. Now you can do it within the
basic feature set of Media Composer. SubCap will be welcomed by editors
posting foreign language projects or other open captioned shows, such
as museum presentations.

FluidStabilizer is a stabilization and tracking effect based on
Avid’s FluidMotion technology. Instead of specifically adding a number
of tracking points on the screen, simply use FluidStabilizer or
FluidTracker. You can set one point on the image and the tracker will
automatically set a number of surrounding tracking points related to
that original point. It will then track this “cloud” of points to
derive a motion path. If you are trying to stabilize a shaky image,
then simply increase the scale to get rid of the frame edges. After the
track has been analyzed, Media Composer will playback the stabilized
shot in real time.

The big news of Avid Media Composer 4.0 is to improve the openness
of Avid’s “open timeline.” Prior to this release, you could only mix
media with matching frame rates, so mixing 720p/59.94 content with
480i/29.97 and 1080i/29.97 wasn’t always practical. Those barriers are
now gone, which means that Media Composer editors will finally be able
to freely combine various video resolutions and frame-rates onto the
same timeline.

As a whole, Media Composer 3.5 and now 4.0 are very healthy updates
to this professional editing tool. It proves that even in challenging
financial times, Avid is continuing to invest in its development
effort. This gives experienced users a reason to stay with Media
Composer and first-time Avid editors a toolset that’s hard to resist.

Avid Media Composer 3.5



Software activation (no more
dongle), 3D stereoscopic editing and Avid Media Access (AMA).

CONS: No controls to correct or alter convergence for 3D, AMA works well if you
stick with Avid’s recommended practices, but isn’t foolproof if you

BOTTOM LINE: Very healthy updates
to this professional editing tool.

MSRP: $2,295