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Common NLE Plugins

12 minute read

Lately it seems like every application platform is attempting to do everything all at once. Between Resolve and Final Cut X and their focus on doing everything from within one application, and Avid and Adobe trying to create full-fledged ecosystems within one brand, there is a big focus these days on decreasing, rather than increasing, the number of applications that a filmmaker needs to keep current.

However, no matter how hard software developers try, it’s impossible for them to satisfy every need. There are just too many things that can be done, and too many different use cases, for a single product to cover it all. If nothing else, it’s a matter of economics. Apple says there are more than 1 million installations of Final Cut Pro X. Development on that product will inevitably focus on features that benefit the vast majority of those users.

But if you have an idea for an application that might benefit only 10,000 users, there might still be a real benefit in creating it, even if it’s not worth it for the major companies to solve the specific problem you are struggling with.

That’s where companion applications, helpers, and plugins come in. These are little tools that help make the post works job easier without necessarily being useful enough for everybody to immediately embrace. In fact, this space is not just one that is useful to filmmakers, it’s also useful to the developers of the major heavy hitter applications as a proving ground for new technology.

Breaking new ground

For a long time we had to manually sync our dailies by hand, unless we were working on a timecode sync based production. It was a laborious process. Then along came Pluraleyes, initially a standalone application and a plugin for your editing platform that used the waveform of the audio in your video file to sync up picture to the waveform of your audio recording. All of the sudden something that used to take hours of hand labor became an automated process. Not “instant” like timecode sync, but less laborious.

It was a revolution, and it’s still the best example of the type of innovation that often comes from smaller developers thinking about problems in new ways. So what happened? Within a few years, every major editing platform had integrated a native waveform syncing feature, and PluralEyes was purchased by the plugin maker Red Giant, who have continued to innovate with the product to provide functionality that might be missing from the native tools.

Not every innovation that comes from a small startup gets absorbed by the big companies. Many functions just aren’t so useful that they are a natural fit for the bigger platforms. It’s important to remember that just because a certain major platform has a given functionality doesn’t mean that it has put all of the work and innovation into making that function as powerful, or easy to use, as it could be. For instance, Da Vinci Resolve has an excellent noise corrector built into the platform, but it is not uncommon to see other powerful noise correctors installed in the software in various post suites since they might offer real power on particular shots, or simply because a given editor or colorist is used to it.

Plugins remain useful even when there is a similar functionality in the full NLE, generally providing power and interface optimization that are the result of a design team focused on one thing and one thing only. The folks at Neat Video do noise correction, that is it. That’s their jam. There will always be benefits of that.

GPU Optimization

One other area where smaller vendors often shine, especially in the last few years, is in accelerating their workflows. For the longest time, it was the default assumption that any time you added a plugin the timeline color would change to “needs render,” since plugins tended to be very processor intensive.

However, the major manufacturers have worked extensively to create GPU optimized plugins that are able to create quite stunning effects, often in real time, meaning they can immediately play back at full speed without rendering. This speed opens up new avenues for creativity, since it’s easier to explore when you aren’t constantly waiting for everything experiment to render to see how it looks. In fact, GPU acceleration is an important enough aspect for plugins that Avid Media Composer has created a special symbol, the green dot, to allow end users to easily see what plugins are GPU optimized.

Before we talk about film industry specific plugins, however, there are a few applications that weren’t built specifically for filmmakers, but it is worth it for most filmmakers to know about them. The vast majority of modern filmmaking software (with the exception of Final Cut Pro X, of course) is platform-agnostic, meaning you can run it on Mac or PC easily, but many of these outside applications tend to be Mac-specific, at least to start.

The Big Players In Plugins

Red Giant and Boris Effects

There is no real way to talk about plugins and helping applications without talking about the two biggest vendors in the field, Red Giant, known for Magic Bullet, Denoiser, Colorista, and Boris FX, who own Sapphire and Mocha along with Continuum.

Why are these two companies so dominant? Well, aside from both making great products (they do!), there is a natural tendency of this market to consolidate since it makes for easier licensing at the corporate level. Let’s say you are a medium-sized cable TV network with 100 editors in your facility; do you want to have separate contracts with 20 different plugin makers for all 100 seats in your facility? Or do you want to have a single vendor offering you all the functionality you need within a single license agreement?

While the space for the “individual editor buying a single plugin” remains highly competitive with players big and small, the market at the corporate level is very dominated by the major vendors because of the customer service support they provide and the integration with a larger facility.

This means it’s smart for you to get to know the offerings from these players since it’s likely you’ll sit down to a system with these installed on your next freelance job. Take a look at the plugins installed on any system where freelance on since you never know when it’ll be useful and it’s nice to know it’s already there instead of frantically hunting at 3 am looking to see what tools might be installed.

Facility licensing is especially important since it allows for users to move projects around from machine to machine effortlessly. If you’ve ever worked on a project in a school or facility with plugins and layered many of them on, then gone home only to discover a massive red “Plugin Not Installed” warning when you launch, you know how frustrating it can be to get back on that same machine, or have to purchase the plugins you need for a home system, just to finish the project.

One tip is that, if you are working somewhere with plugins and know that you will be leaving that facility and finishing elsewhere, you should consider “baking in” your plugins. This means rendering out each shot with a plugin on it to a fresh video clip, then re-importing it “baked.” This can be laborious, and of course you lose the power of raw video, but it can also be well, well worth it.

Conveniently, both Red Giant and Boris make it very easy for students to get their hands on their tools, since of course if students get used to/addicted to the tool in school, they are more likely to push their bosses to pay for the full license later. Boris has a program that gives a license to anyone with a .edu email address and a student ID, and Red Giant allows for combined discounts, which is exceptionally rare. So, for instance, you can apply BOTH your student discount AND any sale they have into one massive super discount. Every December they have a massive sale, and if you are set up with a student discount early you can potentially get 80% off permanent licenses of the software.

Just because these two are the biggest, however, doesn’t mean they are always the best, and when you are considering plugins, it’s well worth testing out others.

Looks

By far the most common arena for plugins is creating “looks”, taking “bland” footage and adding spice, flavor, or personality. With look names like “Hollywood” or “Cinematic” or “CSI,” the purpose of these plugins is generally to take video footage and make it feel more expansive.

Of course, most projects go through a dedicated color grading step, so the color grading plugins are less prominent than they used to be. However, when the deadline is tight, when you might not have the full color grading skills, or you just want to experiment, they are worth considering.

Red Giant Magic Bullet Looks and Colorista and Boris Continuum are the popular choices, with Hitfilm from FXHome being another popular choice.

Titling

Another major arena for plugins is to bulk up the titling sophistication of an editing application. While bigger projects continue to use dedicated motion graphics tools, most likely After Effects, sometimes you simply don’t have the time or manpower to manage the round trip, and you want more sophistication or “pizzazz” than is offered in the native editing titling tool.

Titling is another area where plugin makers have either been absorbed by, or created long-term licenses with, the major NLE makers. Media Composer ships with the New Blue Titler, licensed by Avid to enabled\ more sophisticated titling tools. Boris Title Studio and the Red Giant Effects Suite are also popular options.

Tracking

Sometimes you need to track a specific element in frame. Maybe you want to replace a TV screen in a handheld shot, or you want to place some text so it feels like it’s part of a shot. Tracking is an essential part of that process. This is an area where the current leader is clearly one product, Mocha.

Mocha created ripples through post when it first became available for its amazing planar tracker. Mocha is so good, in fact, that a toned-down version of Mocha is licensed by Adobe to come standard in After Effects. However, there are standalone and integrated versions of Mocha available for all the major platforms, and the toolset continues to constantly evolve, with a growing set of VR tools coming out in recent years.

Special Purpose plugins

Beauty Box

Beauty Box, from Digital Anarchy, is a specific toolset designed purely around “beauty work,” the process of de-aging or cleaning up the skin of a subject. While many associate this work with cosmetics and fashion, it is just as common in narrative and documentaries these days, and the beauty box toolset highly targeted at making it fast and easy for the user.

Noise Correction

Low light video noise is one of the major frustrations of filmmakers everywhere. Maybe the camera was slightly too deep in stop, or there just wasn’t enough light on the scene, but you didn’t have a well-exposed image and there is a fine, dancing grain on it you want to remove.

While there is a native noise correction built into Resolve Studio that is quite robust (though very GPU intensive), the general solution most pursue is a plugin, with Red Giant Magic Magic Bullet Denoiser being a very popular solution, especially when bought bundled with the rest of the magic bullet suite.

But Neat Video is worth consideration as well. It plugs into all the major platforms, and Neat Video will sometimes help a shot when you felt completely helpless.

Knoll Light Factory

While the film industry is less lens flare addicted than a decade ago, lens flares are still a powerful way to elevate and transform a shot, and the powerful customization tools found in Knoll Light Factory make for a fun, flexible, lens flare-tastic experience.

Interface Plugins

One final arena of plugins worth remembering is plugins that are designed to help a user interface with an outside platform more seamlessly. Online customizable stock footage platform Filmstro has a plugin for integrating their tracks into your timeline seamlessly. Even Shutterstock has a plugin for shopping for and licensing your stock footage.

Frame.io has a great plugin for integrating client notes to a timeline. Rather than having to go back and forth with a browser, checking every note and bringing it up to the timeline, client notes are brought in to a timeline as markers, making them easier to navigate to and check off the to-do list.

Helpful Tools

Amphetamine

Amphetamine is a menu bar application that stops your Mac from going to sleep. That’s it, that’s all it does. But rather than having to go into your system preferences every time you are doing a long file transfer or render and you want to be sure it makes it, you can just head up to the menu bar and click on the little customizable “Amphetamine” icon (we prefer the coffee carafe to the pill, it feels more businesslike), and your Mac won’t sleep.

It does just what you want it to do. There is a similar app from Zhorn software for PC called Caffeine, though we haven’t tested it to know if it’s as reliable as Amphetamine for Mac.

Activity Monitor and iStat Menus

Most Macintosh machines come with a great little program included called “Activity Monitor,” which can be super helpful as you try and calculate various situations and see whether or not something in your setup is causing you to lose valuable time on a process.

Worried if having a few tabs open in chrome is slowing down your render in Premiere? You can watch activity monitor for CPU activity, and it should give you a sense of whether you are clogging up your processing power. Of course, you never want to use 100% of the power available; you need some overhead, but if the premiere render is only using 20% of your power, you have room to browse Buzzfeed.

Unfortunately, Activity Monitor is somewhat limited, and most users end up spending the money to purchase iStat Menus. Like Activity Monitor on steroids, it allows you to monitor all of the temperature sensors on the machine, see what processes are consuming what resource, and best of all monitor your GPUs.

Have a render constantly crashing? Check the temperature to see if you need to cool your system down, perhaps by putting it right by the AC vent or clearing space around it. Have a GPU installed but not seeing it in iStat? It might not be used at all.

SMC Fan Control

SMC Fan control lets you control your fans. You Mac is generally trying to keep your Mac cool, but also quiet, and will slow your fans when possible to avoid making noise. As a filmmaker with a big render and a deadline you generally want the fans cranked to the max, and can live with a little buzzing noise. With SMC you can crank your fan speed to the max, to pre-preemptively get cooling your system before a big render.

Blackmagic Disk Speed Test

The computer industry tends to focus a lot on CPU speed in their marketing, largely because it’s a simple number to try and benchmark. But for many tasks filmmakers regularly embark on (camera downloads, renders), disk speed can be one of the huge bottlenecks. While Thunderbolt offers a maximum of 40Ggb/s transfer speed, that doesn’t matter at all if the hard drive you are writing to can only read 125Mmb/s.

Blackmagic Speed Test emulates a common filmmaker scenario and tests drive speed (it will even tell you want resolution and codecs a drive will support). Next time you are wondering what the bottleneck is, think about drive speed.

Paragon

PC and Mac hard drives still don’t play with each other natively. Worse, neither platform has native support built in for the Linux file format EXT, which is the required format for DPC drives (though unofficially NTFS is somewhat common for DCP delivery). To make one work with each other, the standard is Paragon. Affordable, stable, useful, chances are you’ll be purchasing a Paragon application at some point in the future when the client brings in a drive in the wrong format for your facility.

DCP Transfer

DCP transfer is one of those applications that do one thing (transferring DCPs from one drive to another), but it does it well. Built on top of licensed Paragon drivers, DCP transfer copies and validates the mapping for your DCP, giving you peace of mind as you transfer your DCP from one drive to another. DCP is a notoriously finicky protocol. It is indeed possible to break it when copying, and DCP transfer provides real peace of mind.

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