Democratizing Media Production

Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve 14 is set to shake up the industry, but is that good news for the pros?

or people like me who have worked at the cutting edge of television, advertising, corporate and entertainment production for the past couple of decades, the game has changed almost beyond recognition. Looking back at when I managed a post production facility in Soho — which is still clinging on to its status as the beating heart of the UK film and television industry — I can’t quite believe the budgets we allocated to keep on top of the latest technology. Each step up in quality (Linear to Non-Linear, SD to HD, then HD to 4K+) meant extremely expensive upgrades to camera hardware and media storage systems, and I wince when I remember the slow and buggy development in NLE software and the expensive and logistically demanding upgrade cycle for the associated hardware — manually stripping out and rebuilding edit suites to house the latest kit. Then there was the nightmare of software licensing and the difficulties and expense involved when upgrading and dealing with system compatibility issues. And there were always issues aplenty, trust me.

It is not just the facilities that have had to change with the times though, it’s the people and the whole mindset of the industry. The production process was once staffed primarily by people with very specific single skillets: camera people, sound technicians, sound mixers, off-line and on-line editors, graders, producers and directors all of whom knew the value of their skills and the very clear, very rigid boundaries of their roles in the process.

No more. The democratisation of the industry has seen technology put 4K capable smartphones in everyone’s hand and awesomely powerful laptops within the reach of every graduate. Riding its own version of Moore’s law, media production has seen quality skyrocket as average production budgets plummeted. In other words, high-quality production has become streamlined to the point where client’s expectations are so high, and their budgets so relatively low compared to previous industry standards, that only small, multi-skilled & adaptable companies can hope to turn around a profit or even keep afloat. A small team of one or two multi skilled, tech savvy producer/directors, camera operator/sound recordists, animator/editors, armed with a basic kit, a DSLR, a laptop and an Internet connection have taken over video production for clients large and small, and I should know as I am one of them!

Some might say I’m painting a rather gloomy picture here, but I actually think change is to be celebrated. I marvel as I look back at all the advances we’ve seen since the days of VHS cameras and Non Linear editing, and at the end of the day, in an industry built on technology, change shouldn’t really come as a surprise. There have been winners and losers along the way, of course — this rapid evolution has seen the old business model for post houses suffer and the big beasts of production hardware and software driven hard to innovate and provide users with cost effective and flexible tools that make production quicker and easier. Established technology companies like Apple that once dominated the sector seemingly gave up innovating for it, while others (like Adobe) stepped up to make huge changes to their products and licensing systems, embracing the demands of new, versatile and mobile, laptop based users.

This new landscape also presented a huge opportunity for smaller ambitious companies to expand. One such company is Blackmagic Design from Australia, last week I attended a pop up product demo and training session to launch their latest version of DaVinci Resolve. Ironically this was on Greek St, the same Soho haunt where I managed my first post production house, what seems like a lifetime ago.

The event was massively oversubscribed, and no wonder: With the launch of DaVinci Resolve 14, Blackmagic have done the unthinkable (as far as a production professional is concerned): they have broken the boundaries between professional editing, colour grading and audio post and put them all into one easy to use piece of software. Oh and by the way, a limited feature version is free — yes free — while the full version is only £239 ($299) or get that for free when buying one of their cameras.

To put that into some context, this is less than my annual Avid Media Composer subscription, and it comes with lifetime updates for free! Not only that, but a new high performance playback engine and Optimised Media support means it will run on any well specced, mid-priced laptop. putting incredible power in the hands of everyone.

There are hundreds of improvements and advances since version 12.5. The edit panel now functions like a fully fledged NLE, offering incredible playback and scrub speeds and all the established edit features and functions of the competition as well as a few innovative new options like Audio Overlays, which pops the audio waveform right there with your clips in the source window, an awesome feature when you are editing dialogue.

A new Overlay Edit function lets you drag video only, audio only or video and audio to the timeline straight from the source window, no more drag, drop, select unwanted tracks and delete! It also comes with a useful selection of effects built in and will work with any third party OFX packages out there. The Colour page also gets access to over 20 new effects plus a new Warper, Stabilizer and Face Refinement Filter to touch up those eye bags, wrinkles and pimples.

Grading also benefits hugely from the speed improvements in version 14 and reviewing grades feels very quick indeed, but the show stopper in here is the addition of Fairlight, a professional audio solution designed for film and TV post production.

Working in perfect synch with your edit timeline each track on the new Fairlight page gets realtime EQ adjustment plus independent dynamics processing with an expander, gate, compressor and limiter plus VST plugin compatibility.

I am going to have to play more with this but the demo was seriously impressive. Not only can I use my current VST plugins but I can finish the mix inside my NLE without exporting to another application. The multi-channel recording feature is another huge step up from my current NLE and give me great flexibility in the mix. On top of this, new collaborative features enable multiple editors and colourists to work simultaneously on projects and timelines speeding up the workflow.

My favourite feature in 14, though, is the new Timeline Comparison Tool which graphically illustrates the changes made between versions of timelines and enables you to inspect, reject or approve them one by one.

There are too many groundbreaking features in Resolve 14 to discuss them all here and yes, to be able to fully exploit its capabilities I will have to put in some time to learn the interface and gain some new skills in sound mixing and finishing, but at every step I will be taking more control of my productions with more creative results and I will become less dependent on hiring facilities and single skill operators to get me the deliverables my clients need. And that, according to Simon Westland, Dir. of Sales EMEA for Blackmagic, is exactly what they were aiming for in developing the Resolve 14. To solve real problems for production professionals.

“It’s about what toolset a user wants and what problems we can fix for that user, that drives our product development,” he explains

For me, that mindset is the real game changer. Giving people the ability to go from edit to grade to audio in a single clip is a massive shift, as is the fact that exporting and round tripping to other applications for colour correction or audio post is now a thing of the past. It all translates into dramatically speeding up production and keeping costs down, and that feels tremendously empowering. As good old Bob Dylan so aptly puts it, The Times, They Are A Changin’, but that’s not such a bad thing after all.

Technology writer for FastCo, Quartz, The Next Web, Ars Technica, Wired + more. Consultant specializing in VR #MixedReality and Strategic Communications

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