844/X Tested Under Fire

Brian Diecks still remembers his concerns over the original decision. "Some of my friends thought I was nuts to risk a major client's premiere project with us on a brand-new level 1.0 edit system, " the President/Creative Director of The Diecks Group recalls, "but the promise of Media 100's 844/X nonlinear editor and the performance it offered for the cost made it a gamble worth trying."
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Brian Diecks still remembers his concerns over the original decision. "Some of my friends thought I was nuts to risk a major client's premiere project with us on a brand-new level 1.0 edit system, " the President/Creative Director of The Diecks Group recalls, "but the promise of Media 100's 844/X nonlinear editor and the performance it offered for the cost made it a gamble worth trying."

Media 100, Inc has been understandably proud of its new flagship NLE that earned high praise when introduced at NAB2002, including a Star Award from TV Technology. In fact, 844/X was given its name to emulate the engineering sleekness of European sports cars in a reflection of Media 100's confidence in the speed of the system. Offering four real-time streams of uncompressed video, each with its own alpha channel for keys, in a turnkey package for $65,995 including 350 GB storage made a lot of people curious whether the system could actually live up to its promises at that price-point. So thanks to The Diecks Group, a Manhattan-based post production house, we're going to get one of the first looks at the system performing in a real-world situation under the kind of fire that can only be generated with a valued client looking over your shoulder.

"The claim of 844/X's ability to handle a total combined bandwidth of 420 MBps was what first attracted us," Diecks says, "because we need to use the system for both vertical effects creation and compositing, as well as horizontal editing. When you have clients sitting with you in the room like we recently did on a series of TV spots for Champion Mortgage and they ask for creative changes, then boom-boom-boom it happens on the screen with no rendering. And that's with keys and transitions up to four layers of compositing."

Media 100 designed this level of image manipulation into the 844/X while it was being developed under the code name of "Pegasus." "The reason we can provide this cost/performance value for nonlinear editing is our new GenesisEngine media supercomputer that is at the heart of 844/X," says Dave Cobosco, vice president of marketing for Media 100 Inc. "Powered by a series of semiconductors we developed called Foss, Holmes and Hatalsky, this gives us four real-time pairs of video and key channels. If you need more, our Intelligent Layering Architecture (ILA) creates a non-destructive composite of the first four layers, freeing up the other three processors for additional streams."

Right off the bat, The Diecks Group put this accelerated recursive processing capability to good use.

"For example, these high-profile spots involved several shots of a man flipping burgers on a grill," recalls Erik van der Wilden, director of editorial and animation, "and the clients wanted to see how alternative takes would work. It was simply a matter of dropping different cuts onto the timeline and the system maintained all the compositing settings such as cropping or green-screen levels for each of them without rendering. This gave me the kind of real-time interaction that can be invaluable during a session with several clients in the room. Then later, I went back and fine-tuned all the parameters to finalize the composite."

But what good is an elaborate composite if you can't quickly adjust individual elements? A feature of 844/X called Visual Voicing lets you select any four of the composited layers for individual preview in a manner similar to hitting the "solo" button on an audio mixing console. "I used Visual Voicing a lot," says van der Wilden, "basically because it was so easily available. I might have eight layers running in a sequence, but would want to take an isolated look at the timing of base video and just one of the elements. This Voicing capability really saved time when it came to finalizing a complex composite."

END OF THE COFFEE BREAK

Shooting for maximum picture quality, 844/X employs adaptive median filter algorithms to automatically deinterlace incoming video streams into progressive frames. Yet it has the horsepower to process them in 10-bit, 4:4:4:4 video in real time. As a practical matter, however, editors accustomed to steam-driven, number-crunching NLEs may find a downside to this. "I'd grown accustomed to creating a composite and then walking away for a cup of coffee and a donut while the system rendered it," van der Wilden muses. "But the 844/X is so fast that I've actually lost my coffee break."

Brian and Erik were able to lay down the basic shots for five different versions of the Champion Mortgage spots within just a few hours, enabling them to create an EDL for the subsequent telecine session so they could replace the one-light takes with properly timed and adjusted final images. But when it came to importing graphic elements created on other systems in their shop, Brian Diecks found one feature of 844/X had been underpublicized by its parent company.

"Instant Media Access allows importation of elements created in any QuickTime system such as Adobe After Effects," he explains, "which let our 3D expert transfer his output directly into the system. It's actually called a 10-bit YUV Macintosh codec, although because it doesn't strictly involve compression/decompression it is more accurately referred to as file translation software. Since early Media 100 systems had a strong appeal to the Mac community, this will be invaluable to post houses using Apple products."

The test-drive project for Champion Mortage was commissioned by a large agency out of Virginia so the pressure was really on The Diecks Group. The five 30-second spots, completed just at the end of June, took eight weeks to complete even though they all required individual versions for different markets. And, as often happens, an additional 60-second spot was asked for right at the end of the schedule.

"When it came time to create different versions of the spots, we simply sub-comped all the layers onto the timeline and did a video mixdown," van der Wilden describes. "Then it was just a matter of dropping the different end tags onto them. We turned out 44-48 locally customized versions, complete with DAT-chased voice-overs, in a single evening."

It wouldn't be fair to leave a review of 844/X without mentioning two other major points. First, all of Media 100's previous systems, whether on Macintosh or Windows platforms, have utilized a single monitor user interface. 844/X provides dual-screen support, the conventional source/record display, in addition to output to an analog or digital program monitor. Not only does this look more familiar to many high-end clients, but two screens also provide more real estate for working with 16:9 images and since there will be an HDTV incarnation of the system in the near future, this could be a significant advantage.

Second, Media 100 has not forgotten audio work. Although software Version 1.0 had no equalization, this feature will appear in the first level of updates due out by the time you read this. But the company has built a powerful Keyframe Editor into the system that in addition to controlling all in-stream visual effects in a single interface, can also edit audio on a subframe level. "I've never seen an NLE that provides this level of detail over editing sound," says van der Wilden. "With a graphical display as a visual aid, 844/X supports embedded SDI audio fully compliant to SMPTE 291M and 272M, again emphasizing the quality built into the system."

The Diecks Group knew they were walking uncharted territory exposing a highly valued client to the new 844/X, but Brian Diecks insists it lived up to its NAB promises completely. "We didn't have a single hard crash during the whole project," he allows. "Again, that's quite remarkable for a system just coming onto the market."

Media 100, however, really wanted to cover its bases on this trial run of its new baby so the company shipped out a second 844/X system to The Diecks Group as a backup. Brian Diecks assures us they never even opened the box.