Pre-Pro NLEs
Posted Dec 1, 2004

Way back in my college days we had things called distribution requirements. You had to take a certain number of classes in each of three disciplines: humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. I always came up short in the natural sciences, and as I browsed the available Intro options in the various departments, I found that they fell into two categories: those designed for rising majors—future math professors, software developers, astrophysicists, and neuroscientists—and those geared to the needs and intellectual limitations of the non-science crowd. At their best, the latter gave you a stimulating introduction to the scientific principles that underpin your life, while the "real" science classes took a pre-professional approach, introducing you the science required for your future job. In short, they took two fundamentally different approaches to what at first glance might appear to be the same thing.

Video editing software is much the same way. Choosing the tool that's right for you depends on several things; two of the most important are where you're starting as an editor, and—even more important—where you're going.

In EMedia and EventDV, we've tended to describe what many publications call "consumer" NLEs as "entry-level" editing software. "Entry-level" is a useful term in some respects, since it does distinguish consumer-oriented products that are genuine timeline-based video editors (like Pinnacle Studio and Ulead VideoStudio) from "automatic" video software like muvee's autoProducer, which is fascinating from an application design perspective but doesn't leave much room for growth on the user's part. And entry-level does, at least, suggest some notion of upward mobility, advancing the aesthetic or technical accomplishment of your video work, if not its purpose (say, from hobbyist to professional, or from part-time/occasional/ departmental videographer to independent/full-time).

And the fact is, most of the tools we typically describe as "entry-level" won't get you very far if you're trying to make the jump from hobbyist to pro; the competition is just too strong. A lousy craftsman blames his tools, but superior tools will get you a long, long way, while the wrong tools won't even get you to the bench when all your competition's got professional equipment designed for professional use.

But let's say you're a tech-savvy novice, and though you don't have a pro's experience or budget, you have a pro's acumen. You know you can hit the ground running in the event video field, even if it's only a half-dozen events per year, but you really need to watch your pennies as you go. Maybe you can't afford Final Cut Pro or Vegas, but you're too ambitous and too quick a learner to start with a tool that's functionally, arguably, a dead end. What you need is software that's built for a pro, but sold at consumer-level pricing, with selected reductions in feature sets accounting for the difference. Apple Final Cut Express, designed and marketed as just such a tool, represents a sort of platonic ideal for a class of software that might best be described as "Pre-Pro NLEs." Two high-profile products released in fall 2004, Adobe Premiere Elements and Sony Pictures Movie Studio 4.0, also bear close examination as pre-pro contenders. Meanwhile, two other longstanding products, Pinnacle Systems' Studio Plus and its newly upgraded Liquid Edition 6, represent the separatist approach, which in its own way tells us as much about the pre-pro class as the tools that actually fit the bill.

What it is, and What it isn't
Pinnacle Systems' software NLE line, partly upgraded this fall, provides an extreme example of a non-pre pro approach that works extremely well, yet also illustrates how distinct and non-sequential consumer and pro software from the same vendor can be. The two Pinnacle tools that have been reviewed in EMedia—the "consumer" Studio and the "pro/ prosumer" Liquid Edition—have earned high marks each time we've tested them [see Jan Ozer's Liquid Edition 6 review in this issue, pp. 26-29]. Though they play for the same team, they have little in common (neither came up through the Pinnacle farm system, to extend the baseball metaphor) in terms of interface. The Pinnacle development team has enhanced them with some similar capabilities (like the auto color-correction feature found in both Edition and Studio Plus), but by and large Studio does little to prepare its users for Edition if they're considering making the jump. Sure, Studio introduces you to the concepts of capturing and importing video assets, working with them in a timeline, and applying titles and effects and transitions within that paradigm. Studio also shows off Pinnacle's ingenious concept of authoring DVDs from the timeline.

But anybody who has a chance of making it as a pro videographer could pick up these general concepts anyway and, more to the point, would still be starting basically from scratch with the Edition interface, which is no mean feat. It's like jumping from Star Gazing 101 to NASA. With all due respect to Studio 9, which I hold in high esteem, it just doesn't work that way.

Apple, by contrast, took the opposite approach in 2003 when it introduced Final Cut Express as a sort of junior version of Final Cut Pro. With Final Cut Express, you got the Final Cut interface, the Final Cut effects engine, and much of the Final Cut Pro palette for $299—$700, or the full price of Premiere Pro, less than the MSRP of Final Cut Pro. Besides an attractive upgrade deal, you also got the opportunity to make an entirely seamless Express-to-Pro transition. You go in knowing the interface, and you can even touch up your old FCE projects in FCP (although you can't go back—or rather, you can't take your FCE project back to FCE after you've modified it in FCP). What you don't get are things like Compressor, Apple's powerful encoding engine; Offline RT mode; waveform and vectorscope controls; non-DV capture options; and Apple's Soundtrack audio tool, although it's compatible with FCE and available as a $239 add-on.

Given the timing of Apple's Final Cut Express release—almost coincidental with Adobe Premiere's defection from the Mac platform—the move raised questions about why they were doing it, if not simply to fill in the space left vacant by Premiere or provide a lower-cost alternative to prevent Mac-based Premiere users from jumping to Windows. In the pre-pro context, FCE makes much more sense. iMovie serves its market admirably, and its audience is a captive one (since it ships with most Macs), but by and large it's not an upwardly mobile one. FCE, by contrast, is a perfect fit for pros who want to do pro work but don't need all the power of FCP and don't want to shell out $999 to get it.

Another candidate for the pre-pro category is Avid's Free DV. Maybe Free DV qualifies as the monastic ideal in this space simply because there's something essentially chaste about it. It's a free, non time-limited download that completes Avid's commitment to using, essentially, the same interface throughout its entire range of video tools, which extends from Final Cut-level desktop editing software (Xpress DV, Xpress Pro) up to the highest-level of Emmy-winning broadcast and film editing and finishing systems (Media Composer, Symphony, etc.). Assessing the accessibility of the Avid interface is beyond the scope of this article; what's most interesting here is that you'll find that interface in Free DV, albeit with its capabilities somewhat hamstrung. If Avid's goal is to circulate Free DV as a teaching tool, to give students of video post-production a product they can practice on, it's ingenious, especially since it doesn't expire in a month like the "free" versions of other tools. And despite its price, Free DV is anything but a consumer product; I'm not sure most consumers could even figure out how to download it, based on the wealth of such complaints to be found on the Web (I failed on two machines, and couldn't even install the version Avid sent me, although I finally got it up and running off the download on a third machine).

Free DV's approximation of the Avid editing interface is, by all appearances, very effective. I don't think this is anyone's final editing tool—and Avid certainly hopes it isn't (see Stephen Inoue's comment on "loss leader" low-priced applications in the "Elements of Style" section). You can finish some types of projects in Free DV, but if you're the type of editor who's setting out to master this interface, you've got to go somewhere from here, and if you're a videographer who warms to the Avid approach, your natural next destination is Xpress DV. Here you'll get familiar with the multiple project/asset bins, a marvel of media organization; dual-monitor support for effective color manipulation; and sophisticated trimming controls. The two-track timeline is a smaller facsimile of the Xpress DV experience and makes insertion of noddies and cutaways easy. You'll miss the 100+ effects you get in Xpress DV (only 16 in Free DV), but more importantly, you'll learn Xpress DV-style configuration of those effects (via basic keyframing controls), which again is the real pre-pro goal of the product.

A final potential player in this category, one that offers a pair of tools with pre-pro possibilities is Ulead Systems with Ulead VideoStudio and MediaStudio Pro. It's hard to categorize these tools as pre-pro and pro for two reasons: one, VideoStudio is almost the quintessential consumer tool, with no pro pretensions whatsoever; and two, Ulead has positioned MediaStudio Pro (MSP) somewhat outside the Premiere-Edition-Vegas continuum by selling it as a substantially lower price: $299 vs. $599-$699 for the other three—a huge difference in this market. There are also some significant differences in the pro-specific features of MSP vs. the other three, primarily in the extent of its color correction, image panning, and other motion effects in its repertoire, although it's easily the fastest of the group in terms of rendering (for output of equal quality, let's note, lest we succumb to the ultimate red herring of NLE performance comparisons). And what MSP does have in terms of pro-level editing features—its VideoPaint effects/rotoscoping engine and CG Infinity titling and animation utility—you won't find much of in VideoStudio. But there's a definite same-family feel to the interfaces of the two products that makes VideoStudio a much better stepping stone to MSP than, say, Pinnacle Studio is to Liquid Edition, and that goes beyond the generic DV capture, timeline editing, video storytelling stuff you'd learn in any consumer NLE. And it's definitely a much less expensive jump.

All things considered, VideoStudio doesn't qualify as a pre-pro tool in the way Final Cut Express does, primarily because unlike FCE, it's not the type of midpoint where you can expect to get some pro work done. On the other hand, if MSP isn't quite the pro solution that Final Cut Pro or Vegas is, at $299, its speed, usability, and solid feature set make it a perfect low-cost introduction to professional desktop video editing, and may prove to be the only tool you'll ever need.

Studio Time
Apple wasn't the first company to take the pre-pro approach, and Avid wasn't either. Sony Pictures (first as Sonic Foundry), had been cultivating a pre-pro dynamic for years with the pro-centric Vegas and the $99, consumer-market Movie Studio. Although, like FCE, Movie Studio differs from Vegas most of all in terms of the extent of its features, in some ways the biggest difference between the two programs is that some features that debuted in, say, Vegas 4, also arrive in Movie Studio for version 4, even though Vegas has already gone on to version 5. Notably, in this fall's release of Movie Studio 4.0, users get a DVD authoring application (earning it the moniker Vegas Movie Studio+DVD, mimicking the nomenclature of Vegas+DVD) that, according to Sony Pictures marketing VP Dave Chaimson, "is nearly identical to DVD Architect 1.0," even though the latest full version of Vegas sports the updated DVD Architect 2.0.

What makes it similar to Vegas in that respect is also what makes it different from consumer tools. Rather than integrating DVD authoring as is increasingly the trend with consumer video editing software, Movie Studio+DVD takes the approach followed by pro software suites like Adobe Premiere/Encore, using output to a companion DVD authoring application rather than integrating the two. In Sony Pictures' view, the "segregated workflow" is better-suited to professional and prosumer post-production. "People appreciate not having the weight of the DVD toolset on top of the NLE," says Sony Pictures media software director of engineering Dave Hill.

The most significant way in which Movie Studio 4.0 differs from previous versions of the software—at least for our discussion here—is the product's new positioning, which closely follows the pre-pro blueprint. Back in the days before Sony Pictures' July 2003 acquisition of Sonic Foundry, when the two companies were just friends, Sonic Foundry had one set of products for pros (Vegas, Sound Forge, CD Architect, etc.) that they sold under their own auspices, and a line of consumer products (Movie Studio, Acid Loops, etc.) that they sold mostly through a partnership with Screenblast, Sony Pictures' e-tail outlet/video hobbyist club. Today, Chaimson says bluntly, "Screenblast is dead," and so is the channel-mandated disconnect between Vegas and Movie Studio.

This fall actually saw the simultaneous release of "Studio" versions of all of Sony Pictures Digital's "media software" products, Vegas Movie Studio+DVD, Sound Forge Studio, and Acid Studio. Each product in the set bears a "same interface, smaller feature set, lower price" resemblance to its pro-level counterpart. And as with pro-level video suites like the Adobe Video Collection, these tools are at least partially linked; for example, to dig a little deeper into soundtrack development with a Movie Studio project, you can launch Sound Forge Studio directly from within the program. Again, you don't get the complete feature set in either tool, but you do get a pro-style workflow, and odds are you aren't even drilling down to the Sound Forge level in your soundtrack development if you aren't doing some level of professional work.

Essential to Movie Studio's pro orientation is creation of video events via the media trimmer, which operates outside of the timeline, working on media elements that aren't even in the timeline yet. When you trim, you don't select what's out; you select what's in, which is one of the fundamental distinctions between hobbyist and pro approaches to video editing (hobbyists tend to use a lot more of what they shoot, and, if they edit at all, often only snip out the parts where they drop the camera or someone sticks a hand in front of it).

Movie Studio also makes the pre-pro cut by the numbers, with three (each) video and audio tracks per timeline (Vegas, like Premiere and Liquid Edition, allows unlimited tracks), 180+ video effects and 170+ 2D/3D transitions, and 10+ audio effects (Vegas, a world-beater in audio capabilities as befits the product of a company with Sony Pictures'/Sonic Foundry's audio roots, offers 35). Audio quality options are pretty standard—Movie Studio maxes out at 16-bit/48kHz, while Vegas goes to 24-bit/ 192kHz, but audio editing features like time stretch and envelope controls are much appreciated. Movie Studio stands comfortably on the pro side of the chromakey dividing line, and it's worth noting, since Movie Studio shares this technology with Vegas, that EMedia has rated Vegas' overlay and keying capability the cleanest and best in the business (when compared to other Windows NLEs in its class).

Finally, as mentioned earlier, Movie Studio absorbed DVD Architect 1.0 with the new version 4 released this fall. Architect 1 was definitely the weak link in the Vegas 4 chain, and although Architect 2.0 proved a tremendous leap forward over v. 1.0, it's still not quite on the level of Adobe Encore or Ulead DVD Workshop 2. More to the point, what you get in Movie Studio is a version behind what Vegas currently includes, and really doesn't offer the flexibility or control of a prosumer DVD authoring environment like Sonic DVDit! 5. Scene selection menus and submenus are very easy to create and customize, as are the addition of navigational buttons, and text and titling features are spartan but solid. Architect Studio also combines consumer-style features like slideshow creation and music compilation with the ability to load chapter markers from Vegas or Movie Studio and nice quality optimization controls. Suffice to say, when most of the appropriate points of comparison are pro and prosumer products, even at the $99 price tag, you're talking about a certain order of professional tool.

Elements of Style
Meanwhile, Adobe has released Premiere Elements, the long-awaited consumer counterpart to Premiere Pro. Naturally, this is one that could have gone either way. Adobe was secretive as ever about the product until shortly before its release date, but it was too tantalizing not to speculate. Consumer products are consumer products, and certainly Adobe knows the difference between what consumers and pros want, but with all the R & D they've put into Premiere Pro, how likely were they really to develop an entirely different interface from the one they have to think is well-nigh perfect? What they've created is definitely different—it looks consumer from the outset with a birthday-party logo, a very simple wizard-like approach (a taskbar guides you every step of the way from capture to output), and a wall of presets when you go looking for effects. But there's quite a bit of Premiere Pro lurking under the surface.

That said, Adobe is very clear about their intentions for this $99 product. "In the past, we've done LE [light edition] versions of Premiere," says Ron D. Nydam, product manager for Premiere Pro. "This time, in the Elements category, we've followed the Photoshop Elements model. We're targeting hobbyists," he says, which means a different order of user entirely from those who might purchase Premiere Pro—not Premiere Pro editors in training, but hobbyists who intend to stay that way. Premiere Elements users, in Adobe's estimation, are doing video for fun. By contrast, according to Nydam, "Premiere Pro users are using video to make money."

Stephen Inoue, product manager for Premiere Elements, says Adobe consciously avoided the pre-pro approach with Elements. "We've seen where ‘beginning' applications are thrown out there as a loss leader. We didn't look at it that way. We wanted to appeal to a new market for Adobe. Address people who have fun with video, not use it to pay the mortgage. We don't look at it as a loss leader but as a market that's been fun to get into."

On the surface, Premiere Elements has much in common with consumer applications like Studio and VideoStudio: big preview window, two-track timeline, lots of catchy titles and transitions, built-in DVD authoring application, effects capabilities slightly hidden. Elements seems to try a little too hard to shield consumers from its effects palette. Everything starts as a preset that's a little difficult to penetrate; Pinnacle Studio, for example, makes it much easier to configure the effects it gives you, and you don't have to circumvent the presets to get to the customization. It's not immediately apparent or terribly intuitive, but you get past the presets by opening the effects controls. When you do, you realize you're working with a pretty powerful program—no rival for Premiere Pro, but certainly more than you get with the $99 version of Pinnacle Studio.

You get color effects, blurs, and bevels; static or animated drop shadows; 2D image pans and zooms; silly filters and twirls; PiP effects; and chromakeying and mattes via the familiar (to Premiere Pro users) eyedropper and Adobe Color Picker. You can also superimpose one image on another via one of the few sophisticated editing concepts that's right up front in Premiere Elements: an opacity meter that you can see and manipulate with any clip on the timeline. The chromakey and titling features much more closely resemble what you'd get in a pro editor like Premiere than what consumer tools offer; in those respects, Premiere Elements has no peer among consumer NLEs.

Nydam acknowledges that Adobe hopes this kind of sophisticated editing exposure will at least create the possibility of upward mobility. "In Premiere Elements, users can learn the concept of keyframing and applying effects. They will develop storytelling techniques and behaviors that they can use to be successful in a professional environment," he says. "A Premiere Elements user can be very comfortable in the environment before moving up to Premiere Pro."

Another key aspect of Premiere Elements is its integration with Photoshop Elements 3.0; you can buy the two in tandem for $149. In one of the stranger press releases to come across the transom in recent months, Adobe announced Photoshop Elements with new slideshow capabilities offering VideoCD output, which immediately prompted me to check the date on the release and make sure the last two digits of the year weren't an "01" or a "99." That decision remains a mystery, but the Premiere/Photoshop Elements bundle at least gives Photoshop Elements users one way to get their slideshows onto DVD.

The Photoshop integration is a huge boon to Premiere Elements users, too, in how it upgrades the DVD authoring capability (a strong parallel to Adobe's pro-level Video Collection, where the most salient tool-tandem is Photoshop and Encore). Perhaps the most unprofessional element of Premiere Elements is its DVD authoring utility, which is, well, utilitarian at best.

Here's where their theorizing about how to make a consumer tool—by giving the people what they want and emphatically nothing more—has its most disappointing consequences. Without Photoshop Elements in the bundle, your DVD authoring options consist of marking your chapters and choosing a template (Encore files built from layered Photoshop docs). No custom background image, no motion (video or buttons), no background audio, no button images or routing or first play, no return-to-menu options. (This DVD utility also bespeaks the "save the users from themselves" approach found in many consumer tools; in Premiere Elements, you can't customize your DVD structure enough to mess it up.)

The result is actually pretty appealing: a cleanly navigated, very usable DVD, acceptable to the viewer, but frustrating to the author. "One thing we learned from pro apps: Encore users wanted customization," says Inoue. "For most of our Elements users, this is their first time doing a DVD. Our users don't know how to program a main menu button."

Premiere Elements has a cool DVD preview option I haven't seen elsewhere—live TV preview via FireWire to camcorder, analog out to TV. But without the extra $50 for Photoshop Elements, you can't even add your own background image to a menu. That definitely counts against them in the pre-pro department, unless it simply drives their users to upgrade in frustration. On the other hand, it may simply mean that consumer-minded editors who want to add more flourishes to their DVDs will opt for consumer NLEs with more exciting DVD authoring features like Studio or VideoStudio.

And while pros-in-progress may find much to like and grow on in Premiere Elements, they'll probably want to do their DVD authoring elsewhere—reason enough, perhaps, to take Adobe at their word and write it off as a hobbyist tool. And leave the pre-pro work to the unabashedly pre-pro products.

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Companies Mentioned in this Article
Adobe Systems,
Apple Computer,
Avid Technology,
Pinnacle Systems,
Sony Pictures Digital Networks,
Ulead Systems,