Nonlinear Editing Platforms:
by James Delhauer
For almost a century, the process of editing film was an entirely mechanical process. The first editors were required to hand-cut reels of celluloid film and stitch them back together in order to create sequences of images. Though this process evolved and became more sophisticated throughout the twentieth century, the advent of modern computers and user interfaces created the opportunity for something new. In 1989, an up-and-coming company known as Avid Technology introduced the Avid/1—the first iteration of their digital nonlinear editing platform. This product represented a paradigm shift for the world of filmmakers and, in less than a decade, it had all but replaced the traditional flatbed editing systems that had preceded it by generations. Today, Avid products are the industry standard in their fields. And while film editing remains the jurisdiction of our brothers and sisters in Local 700, these tools are also of the utmost importance to Local 695 video engineers, whose responsibilities include media playback, on-set chroma keying, off-camera recording, copying files from camera media to external storage devices, backup and redundancy creation, transcoding with or without previously created LUT’s, quality control, and syncing and recording copies for the purpose of dailies creation.
What was introduced as the Avid/1 in 1989 is now known as Media Composer and no piece of software has been used more to edit Hollywood productions. For the first two decades of its product life, the Avid system was developed as a turnkey platform—a self-contained hardware platform designed for the single purpose of running its software as efficiently as possible. These units were costly to acquire and made the Avid workflow inaccessible to many. However, in recent years, this approach has been dropped in favor of standalone modular software distribution.
As Avid Media Composer celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year, it remains the most prolific nonlinear editing platform within our industry.
The current iteration of Media Composer is a series of exclusively of 64-bit applications that are engineered for real-time playback and decoding of footage by assigning different tasks to different computer hardware components. The platform has been optimized for work with Avid’s DNxHD and DNxHR codecs—a series of proprietary lossy capture codecs. In spite of this optimization, the software’s render engine can decode a wide variety of formats beyond these. All of these changes have made Media Composer much more accessible, allowing nearly anyone with a personal computer and an internet connection to explore Hollywood’s industry-standard editing software.
Avid currently distributes this application in three distinct versions, meaning that users can license separate portions of the software so as to save money on unnecessary features.
Media Composer | First is their entry-level edition, which users can download and use for free. Intended for new editors and those looking to explore the Avid ecosystem for the first time, Media Composer | First provides users with all of the basic tools and functionality of a nonlinear editing platform but limits the number of video tracks, audio tracks, effects, plugins, and bins users can use in a single project. It does not support resolutions greater than 1080p high definition and only supports a limited number of output codecs. Despite these limitations, it can be a versatile tool on set. Video engineers and playback assists can take advantage of this free application in order to verify files, play back media for the purposes of quality control, and create basic dailies for producers. At this time, Media Composer | First project files cannot be opened in more advanced versions of Media Composer, though Avid has stated that this ability will be integrated at some point in the future.
Then there is the standard Media Composer license, which is designed primarily for single users and can be customized to suit their needs. This edition of the platform removes the basic limitations seen in Media Composer | First, allowing for productions that shoot at higher resolutions to take advantage of the Avid platform on set. Moreover, without a limit on the number of bins a user can create, 695 engineers can begin the process of project setup and forward their work along to the post-production team, increasing efficiency and narrowing the gap between production and post.
Users requiring advanced features can also license secondary software “options” for Media Composer. The Symphony Option adds functionality for color correction and project mastering. The NewsCutter option contains tools useful for edit to broadcast environments. The ScriptSync Option allows for integration of the screenplay into the editing process. The PhraseFind Option can automatically parse audio files for phonetics, allowing editors to search for clips based on what may have been said near the mics on set. The Production Pack Option includes a host of advanced color grading, audio design, and visual effect plugins. Users can individually decide whether these features are necessary for their needs and license them or not as appropriate.
This edition of Media Composer is primarily distributed via digital download as part of an ongoing subscription. Annual subscriptions can be purchased for $23.99 per month or $239 up front. A monthly subscription is also available for $34.99. However, users who are wary of subscription-based software can purchase a single-user perpetual license for $1,499. Each of the additional software options incurs its own cost as well. Like Media Composer, the Symphony, ScriptSync, and PhraseFind options can all be licensed annually in one lump sum, annually on a monthly basis, or as part of a month-to-month contract. Newscutter and Production pack can only be purchased through one-time payments of $499 and $699 respectively.
Before licensing all of those individual options, users should look to the Cadillac software package from Avid—Media Composer | Ultimate. This bundle, which includes all of the features of the standard Media Composer application and the Symphony, Newscutter, ScriptSync, and PhraseFind options, is a compressive end-to-end post-production platform. It also includes tools and features for multi-user editing and project collaboration, granting users the ability to make real-time reviews and revisions when working in tandem with one another. Media Composer | Ultimate is only available as part of annual or monthly subscriptions. Annual licenses cost $499 for a year with discounts available for multi-year contracts. Customers can also pay $49.99 per month for a one-year license or $74.99 per month on a month-to-month basis.
Unlike their competitors, Avid Technology both manufactures and endorses high-end hardware to support their software products. Users can purchase a wide variety of both first-party and third-party breakout boxes, I/O devices, and hardware accelerators that Media Composer can take advantage of in order to increase functionality, improve application stability, and render the most challenging of products. When paired with these products, Media Composer becomes one of the most powerful rendering platforms commercially available. Their advanced storage solutions are also optimized for Media Composer integration, incentivizing productions using Avid NEXIS network-attached servers to take advantage of NEXIS and Media Composer’s paired utility features in order to optimize workflow efficiency. The result is a product that stands well on its own but continues to improve the more you explore the family of products surrounding it.
But when users need to venture outside of the Avid ecosystem, Media Composer has the tools necessary to do it. The current editions of the program support the export of AAF, OMF, and EDL utility files, allowing media and timelines to be sent from the world of Avid into a variety of third-party applications such as DaVinci Resolve, Adobe After Effects, and Pro Tools—Avid’s own digital audio platform.
Unfortunately, Avid’s patchwork software approach can be confusing to new users, especially considering how many different price points there are for licensing. Users must exercise caution and do a fair bit of research in order to make sure they are getting the best price for their needs. It’s also worth noting that while the complete edition of Media Composer | Ultimate has functionality intended for sound design and mixing, no version of Media Composer includes a license for Pro Tools. As Media Composer reshaped the landscape for film editors, Pro Tools reshaped the world of sound and has set the standard for audio production and post-production workflows. Users who also require a comprehensive digital audio workflow solution will be required to purchase two separate licenses.
This stands in sharp contrast to Avid’s principal competitor, Adobe Systems, whose entire Creative Cloud application suite is available in its entirety for $52.99 per month with no need for additional subscriptions or hardware to utilize its core functionality. This puts Media Composer in the somewhat odd position of being both more expensive and less expensive than its rival, depending on what components customers choose to license and which they do not. Moreover, workflows that are reliant on external hardware for acceleration or versatility can be difficult to support on sets in remote locations.
As Avid Media Composer celebrates its thirtieth birthday this year, it remains the most prolific nonlinear editing platform within our industry. More Academy Award-winning films and Emmy Award-winning series are cut on Media Composer than any other system. In spite of this, competitors from Adobe Systems, Apple Inc, and Blackmagic Design have all begun to encroach on its market share. In the coming issues of Production Sound & Video, we will provide spotlights on these products as well so that members can make the most informed decisions when determining which nonlinear editing family is the best investment for them.