The Power of Code: an editor’s story #b3d

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I recently spoke with Blender user Nikos Priniotakis about his use of Blender to create video content and teaching 3D graphics to students.

Could you briefly explain who you are where you are and what you do?

I’m a documentary maker half of the time.  The other half is spent on blender, doing 3D stuff. Also, as a movie maker, I use Blender for my main editing tool which makes me a lucky full time blender user. I’ve been teaching 3D and post-production in Cergy-Pontoise University (France) for few years. I am now in charge of two diplomas (a generalist computer graphics degree and a 3D graphics degree, focused on heritage and archaeology).

image05Cergy-Pontoise University (France)

How long have you been using Blender and what do you use it for?

I discovered Blender around 2008. At that time I was in charge of the audiovisual department of an anthropology research center in Taiwan. I was writing and shooting documentaries in China and was also training chinese photographers to make documentary films. I was in need of a lightweight NLE (Non Linear Editor program) that could easily be installed on any computer. At first, I used Blender to make rough cuts, directly on site. Later, back at the office, It was refined with FCP (Final Cut Pro). Then I realized that the tricky part was already done in Blender so I eventually gave up FCP. That period was amazing because our whole workflow was unconventional. Shooting on DSLR (back then, only few of us dared to go for it) and editing with a free 3D software. The TV-channel we were working with never complained about it.

Why do you choose Blender for editing video over a commercial application like Premier Pro?

Well, from my point of view Premiere Pro (Adobe) and FCP (Apple) are not as professional as Blender for video editing.

I’m sorry, what?

As a professional, I just need a tool that is compliant with my way of doing things.

Let me explain : I’ve been using FCP for years. I used it so much that I edited video with the same easiness as one can edit a text or chew a gum. Then I discovered Blender’s VSE (Video Sequence Editor) and found a whole new level of freedom (mixing everything on an infinite timeline, using color strip as markers (thanks David!), flexible interface, scriptability. That was unbelievable. The software is so versatile that you can mold it to your own workflow.  FCP X, it’s a fantastic tool. It does a lot of tasks for you. But at the same time, it changes the way you work (t even changes your vocabulary… do you want to export your movie as an adult, or you want to share it like a teenager on social medias ? haha).

While Blender doesn’t have the whole slew of (FCPX) functionalities, it has something more : python. Being able to tailor your own tools, that’s something any professional would dream of.

Do you have a concrete example?

Once I was asked to provide copies of a few documentaries, each needed to be subtitled in several languages. I’ve always been amazed by the efficiency of the subtitling process at the chinese tv stations. They have a machine with two screens and two buttons (in and out). They – first – type the entire text and then, in real time, add it, line by line, to the video. So, I mimicked this workflow by script in Blender and that was it. Once the movie is subtitled, you can swap the text file for a translated one and re-render the movie. I couldn’t do this with any other NLE application, as far as I know.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHjGF1g5gh8

Do students miss out on learning industry standard techniques when using Blender?

Working on a modern NLE, there’s tons of technical things you don’t need to worry about anymore (codec conversions for instance). It’s so comfy and automated that you only need to focus on editing. And that’s great.  But today, I am an educator. My students will enjoy the autopilot comfort of those modern programs in the future. For now, they need to learn the fundamentals. You know, before driving a Tesla, you still need to get an actual driving licence, right?

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In this spirit, we like to re-invent the wheel. It’s very uncomfortable and somewhat unproductive but very rewarding. I need students to discover different methods, to exchange, to experiment. It’s a very creative way of learning.

VSE doesn’t have bins or native metadata features. If students need those they will find alternatives within blender and they will end up learning even more. At this point I need to say that this academic degree is bound to forge Swiss army knives. They need to be able to survive in any unknown working conditions, on any theatre (video, motion design, infographic, design, interactive web stuff and so on).

How much media is generated inside Blender and how much is external media?

Well, the sound is treated and conformed first, then imported to Blender. Also, some masks, titles, images are produced with Gimp or Krita. That’s it. To make things easy, I like to create a low-res proxy folder of my footage. I don’t use the internal system to do that. For the final export (render out), I just swap the proxy folder for the original. This way, I am sure to get the best playback that the VSE can offer.

Why did you decide to create the Easy-logging addon?

When you make documentaries, you are constantly hoping for something interesting to happen, so you shoot a lot. Mostly my footage is just garbage. For a 52’ standard film (52’ = 52 minutes), I usually have 10 to 20 hours of rushes (disorganized footage). Obviously the most important part of the work is to de-rush (organize or make sense of) and log the sequences. Precisely the weak point of Blender!

At first, I wrote a bunch of tiny scripts to ease the process and then I rewrote the whole thing and shaped it into an add-on. Version 2.0 includes many of your ideas, David.  That’s the power and beauty of community driven projects.

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What are the key benefits of this addon?

Easy-logging basically lets you 3-point-edit in a very conventional way. You construct a sequence of footage onto a new ‘editing table’ (VSE timeline) where you can log, extract or save small sections of a video file with a system of tags. You can immediately place them to your main timeline or save them for later. The metadata is stored in a special database that is not project related. This means that you can import footage previously logged in a new document and reconnect your tags. You can also modify the structure of your footage directories, mix them with others or move them to another drive. The add-on will still be able to keep track of the metadata. The database can also be shared with the people you work with.

The basic 3-point-edit workflow : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3n3VPp7lyqk

The tag system : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQcp8pliaJA

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The plugin also comes with a script that can automatically build unique video sequences out of your logged video files, following the tempo of a selected music track and a suite of tags that you defined. I called it parametric video editing and it’s super fun.

Parametric video editing : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKZew3hNhCc

Do you think that Blender’s VSE should be upgraded to make it function more like a regular NLE?

Definitely. I’d love to see those functionalities being in blender by default. We have almost everything but – surprisingly – the basics are still missing. For a developer, it wouldn’t take more than a few days to implement and the benefits would be immense.

There are so many people out there seeking a reliable open-source NLE that there are other projects in development, like Kdenlive or Openshot. Remarkably, despite the missing functionality, Blender’s VSE is still ahead. With a little effort, we could rally thousands of new users.

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Are people ready to dig into such a complex software for video-editing ?

Yes, people can enjoy the VSE and make it their only editing tool as soon as they pick the proper layout. Then it’s all very simple.

Also, post-production has everything to do with 3D. We create motion design and special FX, we track, we mask, we assemble things within the same global and coherent 3D based environment software. Nowadays, post-production involves techniques that go way beyond the simple pixel treatment : we are geometry aware. For example, 2D software like After Effects struggle to turn themselves into 3D applications, it’s cute and clumsy but it’s the right thing to do for them. I mean, they finally get it.

How do you think Blender’s VSE could be improved?

Dear Santa, please provide : A native metadata system and a sound level display.

Nikos do you have any T-shirts for sale? What would you promote on it if you did?

Haha… I would probably go for something cheesy like this :

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