Reviews Software

DaVinci Resolve (an awkward review part 1) DRAFT

Note: Blackmagic Design was kind enough to send me a copy of their training book “The Definitive Guide to DaVinci Resolve 14“ back in February. Although Resolve 15 was released in April, none of the information below is affected by differences between versions 14 and 15.

In addition, since I’ve clearly been working on this review for a looong time, I thought I’d share with you, my loyal readers, the current draft of my review, as well as my notes here.

There is SO much good and free information (here is just 1 example) about Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, that it is difficult to think of ways to contribute to the conversation. However, here is my attempt to cover some of the philosophical questions introduced by such a comprehensive software program. My point of view is as a producer and a teacher, and less as a day-to-day user; so let’s see where this goes!

Age of the NLE virtuoso?

The most interesting question posed by DaVinci Resolve is: who is this software for? By incorporating NLE editing, Audio Mixing, industry leading Color Correction, and node-based Compositing; you’d logically think that Resolve’s ideal user is the one man band. However, unlike a plugin such as Colorista or Adobe incorporating Machine Learning to automatically match shots in Premiere, Resolve does nothing to hide the inherent complexity of each discipline.

Resolve Color
Mastering this one interface could take an entire career.

People often ask me which program they should use if they want to edit digital content for the web, and without hesitation I almost always say, “Adobe Premiere”. Let’s not mince words here. I understand that the question could be interpreted with nuance and subtlety. But the question doesn’t warrant the effort.

Media Composer is built around the heritage offline/online workflow model. Avid can bolt-on and bulk-up AMA all they want, but MC wants to manage your media for you. The interface is practically begging you to let it.

When your digital content is a few dozen clips hastily copied off of a camera card onto the desktop; the ability to drag a file from the Finder into a Timeline is undeniably superior.  Not from a media management point-of-view, but from a just creating an edited video to share with the world is huge accomplishment point of view.

If you have to ask “which program I should use,” then you’re using Premiere. The people and projects inclined to use Avid Media Composer already know that they’re sending their audio to be mixed in ProTools etc.

Which leads us to this: The Resolve interface is so sweet I want to lick it!

Resolve interface details
Look at those track selectors! And the beautiful rounded corners of those clips!
Resolve trim details
Trimming so smooth it could double as a slip-and-slide.

I know that it sounds like I’m conflating interface and task complexity, and I kinda am. But as I’ve observed before, I think there is a relationship between the complexity of an task and the complexity of a program’s interface to achieve it. Clearly Blackmagic’s designers have been working on overdrive, but who can truly master DaVinci anymore? As a producer should I feel dubious of an Resolve 15 expert? Who is the virtuoso who’s mastered Editing, Compositing, Color Correction, and Audio Mixing; and interfacing with software at its most sophisticated level?

The Definitive Guide to Visual Literacy?

I think Blackmagic’s guide to Resolve 14 is very well written. There is so much to like here. Paul Saccone’s writing style embodies the best of Strunk & White’s rule about clarity. Complex concepts like trimming and handles are explained (and illustrated) in a straightforward way that make it easy for a novice editor to understand.


Saccone’s writing is so clear that when you stumble upon something obtuse, you realize the inherent complexity of nonlinear editing. A good example of this are the JKL scrubbing instructions on pages 56 – 59. You can only learn so much about surfing from books; eventually you have to get out there and get thrashed by the waves.

Although written with pristine clarity, here again we have to consider this question of: who is this software for?

Saccone will remind the reader that: “It is also important to understand that the clips are not copied, moved, or transcoded when you import them. DaVinci Resolve is completely non-destructive; it simple links to the unaltered files in their current locations on your hard drive.”

Or: “Don’t worry, changing the Display Name does not change the filename on your hard disk.”

And yet he never explicitly explains the difference between media files and the representation of them in the NLE. Something you’d assume would need to be taught to someone who doesn’t understand the non-consequences of changing a clip name.

The Left-brain Right-brain Problem

Perhaps my favorite insight so far has been Saccone’s description of the effect of the auto select button: “Keeping audio and video in sync is always a concern (and chore) for editors.” I know that the terms left-brain and right-brain are incorrect, but editing is a unique blend of the technical and creative, and here we have a perfectly succinct description of an editor’s cognitive load.

Editors can be a curmudgeonly lot of people when it comes to their tools. Who can blame them? On one hand you have the computer, a rigidly logical device with a very low bandwidth interface. On the other hand, you have the task of creatively juxtaposing motion pictures in a mentally taxing work environment. Then, much like a chef that can only make a meal as good as his ingredients, editors can only work with footage given to them from “the field”.

It is no wonder an editor will clutch their favorite (or only) NLE so tightly. Their hard won muscle memory reduces the cognitive load of interfacing with the software. A skilled editor can be equally creative in Media Composer, Premiere, Resolve, or Lightworks; but they won’t be as effective stumbling over unfamiliar keystrokes.

If only xkcd would consider the NLE.

To be continued…

Media Theory Software

Final Cut Server REVISITED

Look at what popped up on my #Timehop feed today:

I don’t remember the exact problem that prompted this Facebook status update, but it reminded me of my very first post about Final Cut Server in the previous version of this blog. It’s worth revisiting, with an updated commentary at the end:

What is Final Cut Server?

by DKG on 2/2/10

I am often asked, “What is Final Cut Server?” And until last week I struggled to answer this question. The unveiling of Apple’s iPad made it all clear to me:

Final Cut Server is Apple’s attempt to abstract away the file system for digital creative work.

What does that mean?

Think about an iPhone. On the iPhone you never need to worry about where you’re installing an application. Just open the App Store, click “install,” and ‘pop’ the new app appears on your home screen.

In the ideal Final Cut Server installation, the editor, the assistant editor, and the producer never need to access the file system. No more asking the graphic artist in which sub-sub-subfolder did he save the newest graphic open.

And once you understand Final Cut Server replaces the Finder it becomes easier to see the true value of FCS. It also becomes easier to understand some of FCS’s other features, such as version control and annotation. I’ll discuss those features at a later date, because I really want to drive home the point on the benefits of an abstracted file system.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball compared the future of Apple computing to the automatic transmission:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.

From my experience the most time consuming and creativity-sucking aspect of digital collaboration in post-production happens to be finding and managing the files themselves. I can not count the number of times I’ve accidentally imported a graphic from the wrong folder and later had to swap it out because an assistant editor saved it in a different, but equally logical sounding folder.

Final Cut Server attempts to alleviate this problem by removing the question, “where should I save this file?” I am certain that Apple’s intended consequence is to free the digital artist from the technology so they can focus on their real work, creation.

I still hate the file system, and I’m in good company. I’m currently reviewing Blackmagic Design’s “Definitive Guide to DaVinci Resolve 14“.  The author dedicated a significant amount of time reminding the reader of the difference between the media file and the representation of it in the project.

  • Pg. 35: “It is also important to understand that the clips are not copied, moved, or transcoded when you import them. DaVinci Resolve is completely non-destructive; it simple links to the unaltered files in their current locations on your hard drive.”
  • Pg. 48: ” Don’t worry, changing the Display Name does not change the filename on your hard disk.”
  • Pg. 84: “The project contains only the metadata for clips and timelines. It has no media associated with it.”
  • Pg. 88: While describing a ripple edit: “The audio and video tracks of the clip are removed, or extracted, from the timeline, but not deleted from the bin or your hard drive.” (emphasis mine)

This speaks volumes to the difficulties the average computer user has managing files. If you spend any time managing Avid Media Composer projects, you’ll see that even seasoned editors struggle with file management, evidenced by miscellaneous assets or render files created on the system drive.

This also confirms my own firsthand experience teaching nonlinear editing. My students almost intuitively always understood editing concepts like insert, overwrite, and trim. It was the importing, exporting, and media management that tripped them up.

I think people struggle with file management because the digital world doesn’t accurately map on to the physical world. Physical objects can’t exist in two places at the same time. But with things like Smart Folders and Smart Bins there is no reason something can’t be in two places simultaneously. But this is a conversation for another day…