About two weeks ago Adobe released their 2017 update to Creative Cloud, and because of a couple of projects that I happened to be working on at the time, I figured I’d download it immediately to see if I could take advantage of some of the new features.
If you want the TL;DR review, the short version is this: most of the features offer genuine improvements, but range in usefulness from incredibly useful to just minor time savers; a few, though, are utter crap.
Side note: I considered talking about the new features found in Adobe After Effects, but really, there’s not much to say other than: they work? Largely they’re just performance increases accomplished by moving things to the GPU, broader native format support, time shortening templating, and better integration with a few other Adobe CC products. If you look at their new features page, you should be able to pretty quickly figure out which ones could be important to you, and there’s not much else to say about them other than “they work”.
Premiere is a different animal though, and I can’t say that all of the new features work properly. But let’s start with the positives, of which there are many.
First and foremost, 8K native R3D imports.
This was expected, and necessary. And while not ‘featured’ as part of their summaries, it is there and it works. That’s a boon to all of us shooting on Helium sensors, and to our clients. So far we’ve been running 8K ProRes or 2K proxies for our clients so they could edit with our footage; now they can take care of mastering with the 8K themselves (if they want). So definitely a plus.
Second, the new native compression engine supporting DNxHD and DNxHR.
To me, this is a big plus. I keep looking for a solid alternative to ProRes for my workflows, and while they don’t yet support the DNxHR 444, they do solidly support DNxHR HQX. Since a significant portion of my usual workflows are built on 12 bits per channel and roundtripping between Adobe and DaVinci, having a solid 12 bit 422 cross-platform alternative to ProRes may finally let me get rid of DPX.
Third, the new audio tools. Oh, thank god, the new audio tools.
I happen to be working this week on a short project doing sound design and light mixing (I’ll link to it when it’s up) and the new audio tools in Premiere have been a massive time saver. If you’ve ever tried to do audio work directly in Premiere before, you’ll know how maddening it’s been dealing with their unresponsive skeuomorphic effect control knobs. Even doing basic EQ meant flagging values on and off and struggling to get things as precise as you wanted.
But the new audio UX is… well, fantastic. I really can’t praise it enough. The effect controls are still skeuomorphic (which I actually think is important in this case) but look classier, and more importantly actually respond really quickly to the changes you want to make. They’ve expanded the tools set and the effects run more quickly. I can’t be happier - this alone saved me hours of frustration and headaches this week.
Fourth, the new VR tools.
So the same project I was doing sound design on happens to be a stereoscopic VR project. So immediately, the promise of new VR tools was exciting - what more would they let me do, I wondered?
Install, fire it up, and… not much, actually.
Here’s basically all of the new VR tools I could find:
Automatically detect the VR properties of imported footage, but only if they were properly flagged with metadata (marginally useful, not really useful)
Automatically assign VR properties to sequences if you create a new sequence based on properly flagged VR footage.
Manual assign VR properties to sequences, allowing you to flag stereoscopic (and the type of 3D used, if any). The sequence flagging allows for Premiere to automatically flag for VR on export, when supported.
Embed VR metadata into mp4 files in the H264 encoder module, instead of just QuickTime.
Connect seamlessly to an Oculus or other VR headset with full 360 / 3D output.
And that’s… it. Really? I mean, there is actually no difference between the viewers in 2015.3 and 2017, both handle stereoscopic properly; assigning the VR flags to sequences and then embedding the necessary metadata on export VERY useful. But I would really LOVE to see an editor trying to edit with a VR headset. Or color correct, for that matter. Reviewing what you’ve got, sure, but not for the bulk of what you’re doing.
I should note that Premiere chokes on stereoscopic VR files at resolutions greater than 3K by 3K, which makes mastering footage from the GoPro Odyssey interesting, since it comes back from the Google Jump VR system as 8K by 8K mp4s. Even converting to a full ProRes 422 intermediate at 4K by 4K proved too data heavy for Premiere to keep up with on an 8 Core MacPro.
But it’s not only VR performance that’s an issue: it’s still missing a whole bunch of features that would really make it a useful VR tool. Where are my VR aware transitions? What about VR specific effects, like simple reframing? Where is my VR support in After Effects? Why can’t I manually flag footage as VR if it didn’t have the embedded metadata? What about recognizing projections other than equirectangular? They have a drop down for changing projection type on a timeline, but equirectangular is the only option. What about native ambisonic audio support? Or even flagging for ambisonic audio on export?
Don’t get me wrong, what they’ve done isn’t bad; it does work, and is an improvement. It’s just that the tools they added were very tiny improvements on what was already there. And I know (and use) that there are plugins that give Premiere and After Effects many of the VR features that I need to actually work in VR. But it's really difficult, almost impossible, to get by without the 3rd party plugins.
Maybe I’m just jaded and judgmental, in part because of my reaction to the HDR 'tools' they announced, but when you advertise “New VR Support” as the second item on the new features list, it had better be good support. Like, you know, actually work as well in VR as you can in standard 2D video. If I, as a professional, require third party plugins to your program to make it work at the most basic level, it’s not the turnkey solution you advertise. I’m sure that more tools are in the works, but for now, it feels lackluster and an engineering afterthought rather than an intelligent feature designed for professionals.
But don’t worry, that’s not their most useless feature change. Let’s talk about their new HDR tools.
What. The. Hell.
I mean that. With all of my heart.
I might be a little biased on the subject, but honestly I question who in their right mind decided that what they included was actually something useful.
It’s utter shit.
But worse than that, as-is it’s more likely to hurt the broader adoption of HDR than to help it.
And no, I’m not exaggerating.
On paper, the new HDR tools sound amazing. HDR metadata on export! HDR grading tools! HDR Scopes! Full recognition of HDR files! Yay!
In practice, all of these are useless.
Let me give you a rundown of what the new HDR tools actually do.
Premiere now recognizes SMPTE ST.2084 HDR files, which is awesome. But only if the proper metadata is already embedded in the video stream, and then only if it’s an HEVC deliverable file. Not a ProRes, DPX, or other intermediate file; only HEVC. And like VR support above, there’s no way to flag footage as already being in HDR or using BT.2020 color primaries. Which ends up being a massive problem, which I’ll get to in a minute.
When you insert properly flagged HDR footage into a sequence, you get a pleasant surprise: hard clipping at 120 nits on your viewer or connected external display. It’s honestly the worst clipping I’ve seen. And there’s no way to turn it off. If you go to export the clip into any format without the HDR metadata flag enabled on export, you get the same hard clipping. And since you can only flag for HDR if you’re exporting to HEVC, you can’t export HDR graded or processed through premiere in DPX, ProRes, TIFFs, OpenEXR or any other intermediate format.
This is why in my article on Grading and Mastering HDR I mention that it’s really important to be using a color space agnostic color grading system. When the application includes color management that can’t be disabled, your options become very limited.
Also, side note, their HEVC encoder needs work - it’s very slow at the 10 bits you need for HDR export. I expect it’s better on the Intel Kaby Lake chips that include hardware 10 bit HEVC encoder support that, oh wait, don’t exist for professionals yet (2017 5K iMac maybe?)
But at least with the metadata flagging you can bypass the FFMPEG / x265 encoder that you’ll have needed up to this point to properly encode HDR for delivery, right?
Why would you think that? Of course you can’t.
Because if you bring in a ProRes, DPX, or other intermediate file into Premiere, there’s no way to flag it as HDR and it doesn’t recognize embedded metadata saying it’s HDR like DaVinci and YouTube do. What happens is that if you use these intermediates as a source (individually or assembled in a sequence) and you flag for HDR on export, Premiere runs a transform on the footage that scales it into the HDR range as if it’s SDR footage.
When is that useful? If I have a graded SDR sequence that I want to encode into the PQ HDR space, while keeping 100% of the limits of an SDR image. Because why the hell not.
But never fear! Premiere has included new color grading tools for HDR!
Well, they aren’t horrible, which I suppose is a compliment?
To enable HDR Grading you need to change three different settings. From the Lumetri context menu in your Lumetri Panel, you need to select “High Dynamic Range” to enable the HDR features; on the scopes you’ll need to switch the scale from “8 Bit” to “HDR” (and BT.2020 from the scope settings); and if you actually want to see those HDR values on the scope, you’ll need to enable the flag “Maximum Bit Depth” in your Sequence Settings. I’m sure there’s a fantastic engineering explanation for that last one, but it’s not exactly intuitive or obvious, and took me a bit of hunting to figure it out.
Once you’ve enabled HDR grading from the Lumetri drop down menu, you’ll get a few new options in your grading panels. “HDR White” and “HDR Specular” come available under the Basic Correction panel, “HDR Range” comes available under the Curves panel, and “HDR Specular” comes available under the Color Wheels panel.
The HDR White setting seems to control how much the other sliders of the Basic Correction panel behave, almost like changing the scale. The higher the HDR White value, the less of an effect exposure adjustments have and the greater the effect of contrast adjustments. The HDR Specular slider controls just the brightest whites, almost like the LOG adjustment I use in DaVinci Resolve Studio. This applies to both the slider under Basic Correction, and the wheel under the Color Wheels panel. HDR Range seems to change the scale of the curves similar to how the HDR White slider does for the basic corrections.
All of this, by the way, I figured from watching the scopes, and not the output image. I’ve tried hooking up a second display to the computer and hooking up our BVM-X300 through our Ultrastudio 4K to Premiere, but to no avail - the output image is always clipped to standard video levels and output in gamma 2.4.
Which, if you ask me, severely defeats the purpose of having HDR grading tools to begin with. Here’s a great idea: let’s allow people to grade HDR, but not see what they’re grading. Which is like trying to use a table saw blindfolded. Because that’s a thing people do, right? Which brings me back to my original premise: What. The. Hell.
When you couple that little gem with the hard clip scaling, you realize that the only reason the color grading features are in this particular version is to make the process of cross grading from SMPTE ST.2084 into SDR easier, and nothing else.
Oh, one last thing of course: here’s the real kicker: you can’t even export HDR10 compliant files. Yes, I know I said that in the HEVC encoder you can flag for ST.2084, but you can’t add any MaxFALL, MaxCLL, or Master Display metadata. And yes, I double checked that Premiere didn’t casually put those into the file without telling you (it doesn’t).
And it has zero support for Hybrid Log Gamma. Way to pick a side, Adobe.
So passions aside, let’s run down the list again of new HDR tools and what they do:
Recognize SMPTE ST.2084 files, but only when already properly flagged in HEVC streams and no other codec or format.
Export minimal SMPTE ST.2084 metadata to flag for HDR, but only works if your source files are already in the HEVC format and already properly HDR flagged (see #1), or if they’re graded in HDR in the timeline, which you can’t see. Which renders their encoder effectively useless.
Enable HDR grading through a convoluted process, with a minimal but useful set of tools. But you can’t see what you’re doing, so I'm not sure why they're there.
There is no bullet point 4. That’s literally all it does.
The question that I have that I keep coming back to is “who do they think is going to use these tools?” It feels like the entire feature set was a “well, we need to include HDR, so get it in there”. But unlike the VR tools that you can kind-of build into, these HDR “tools” (I use the word loosely) are really problematic, not just because the toolset is incomplete but because the way that the current tools are implemented is actually harmful to a professional workflow.
Call it simple feature bandwagoning, or engineers that didn’t consult real creative professionals, or blame it on whatever reason you will. But the fact is, this ‘feature’ is utter shit, which to me sours the whole release, just a little.
My biggest concern here is that while someone like me, who's been working with HDR for a while now, can tell that these will hurt my workflow, Premiere is an accessible editing platform for everyone from amateurs to professionals. And anyone looking to get into HDR video may try to use these tools as their way in, and their results are going to be terrible. God awful. And that hurts everyone - why would we want to adopt HDR when 'most of what people can do' (meaning the amateurs and prosumers who don't know any better) looks bad?
So basically, if Premiere is part of your HDR workflow, don't even think about using their new 'tools'.
HDR Rant over, let’s bring this back to the positive.
Just to reiterate, the new audio tools in Premiere CC 2017 are fantastic. I can't emphasize that enough. Most of the rest of the features added are pretty good. The new team projects collaboration tools, though I haven’t had a chance to use them, appear to work well (though are still in beta). The new captions are useful, the new visual keyboard layout manager fantastic (though WAAAY long overdue!), and the other under-the-hood adjustments have improved performance.
Should you upgrade? Yes! It’s a great upgrade! Despite my gripes I’m overall happy with what they did!
Just don’t try to use it for HDR yet, and be aware that the new VR tools aren’t really that exciting.
Written by Samuel Bilodeau, Head of Technology and Post Production