I’ve been wanting to check out the Artist | DNxIO ever since it was announced. Being able to easily capture and edit footage with Media Composer, Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve is a huge plus, but that’s really just the baseline of the features. I finally got hold of one and will be writing something about my own impressions shortly, but I had the opportunity to talk with someone who’s already been using it in a post-production environment
Adam Sonnenfeld has been all over the figurative and literal map in the industry. He edited two feature length independent films before he turned 25, after which he took a hiatus from post production to see how things worked on-set as a camera production assistant. He recently completed work as an assistant editor on One Direction: This Is Us, a documentary for Sony Pictures directed by Morgan Spurlock. Adam continued to work with Morgan as the Lead Assistant Editor on History Channel’s series, Dark Horse Nation before being promoted to Post-Production Supervisor of Warrior Poets, where they’ve been able to test out the DNxIO for the past few months.
I wanted to focus on how he’s been using the DNxIO and how it impacted their workflow, but I couldn’t resist asking about the move from the edit bay to the supervisor’s chair, as well as plenty other details about exactly how the box has performed for them.
Terence Curren: I’m curious how and why you went from editing to a more post-supervising type role. I don’t usually see people shift in that direction.
Adam Sonnenfeld: I’m about to turn 30, so I try to keep perspective around everything because I know I haven’t been doing anything for particularly long and I think there’s value, especially in this industry, in learning as many different skillsets as possible. When the opportunity opened up for me I took it because being able to figure out how all the pieces of a project can fit together is something I love to do. I think having had the opportunity to be on the project manager side is just more for me than having to shut a door. I love the interaction of being on this side of it and being part of all the different aspects of a project. And now I can almost always keep my door open. Mark Harris, the post supervisor on One Direction, made the same career move, so I knew the path was there.
Terence Curren: Getting those pieces to fit together is an interesting way to think about a project as whole. Did that come from your experiences on-set?
Adam Sonnenfeld: For sure. As soon as I was out of college I moved to LA and did a couple $100,000 low-budget films where the director told me they had $5,000 to pay an editor and we’d be working for three months. I was fine with getting that kind of money for three months worth of work. There’s a way to do that. But seven months later we were still working on that film, and there’s no way to do that. I eventually moved to New York and started assistant editing here. I took a couple years off to be the camera PA on Men in Black III, which was a really good experience in terms of learning how everything on a major studio film happened and seeing how hard people work and how dedicated they were. It was a really important experience to take back into post, because it inspired me to improve as an assistant editor.
Terence Curren: And that got you back into the post world?
Adam Sonnenfeld: My work ethic had changed after Men In Black and I wanted to get good at what I had been doing. Paul Levin, the post supervisor on MIB, helped me move back into post in NYC and eventually I started working at Warrior Poets on the One Direction film. I stayed with the company and worked on Dark Horse Nation before making the change. They didn’t have a staff post supervisor, and I had started taking more of a leadership role as an AE, so it was a natural move.
Terence Curren: It does take a certain type of person to want to sit in a room and figure out how everything is going to work in terms of an edit, doesn’t it?
Adam Sonnenfeld: I definitely think so. And as much as I love doing that, I’m in film because it’s a project. I’m in it for the project management and feeling of accomplishment that comes from seeing all the parts coalesce, so being able to work with a lot of people who love what they’re doing has just been great. Now when I hire assistant editors and production assistants and they ask, “what do we do?” I like to joke and tell them what we do isn’t filmmaking. What we do is technical and challenging, but it’s also fun. It’s a project. That’s what we do. We have all these pieces to put together, and it’s what I like about the industry and what I get to bring to the company.
Terence Curren: I can certainly appreciate that as a guy who went from primarily being in the chair to running the business and trying not to be in the chair as much I get where you’re coming from.
Adam Sonnenfeld: It’s such a different mentality because we have these big picture, often year-long endeavors, and I get to be part of everything that goes into them. I help choose which cameras to shoot on, coming up with the workflow for on-set, bringing that in here, figuring out how we’re going to do dailies, and then delivering. Right now I’m researching DCP software and how to build a Linux computer to run it all. Being able to work in this capacity is what allowed us to bring in the DNxIO and figure out how we wanted to use it.
Terence Curren: That’s a good segue to what I really wanted to discuss with you. I’ve just gotten my hands on the DNxIO, but I know you’ve had one at your shop for a few months now. I wanted to hear about some of your experiences with the product. How are you guys using it?
Adam Sonnenfeld: We use the DNxIO in every which way that we used to use a Nitris. We gave it to one of our editors for a little while, and then we were in the process of building a DI room, so now we’ve moved it into the DI room to see what it can do there. So we use it between Media Composer and Resolve, primarily.
Terence Curren: Are you connected with Thunderbolt or PCIe?
Adam Sonnenfeld: We’re using it on a Windows HP Z840 with Thunderbolt. We weren’t having issues with the PCIe when we put the PCIe card in the correct slot, but we also have a Thunderbolt RAID, and that RAID is really nice. Unfortunately, the Avid PCIe needs to be in slot 5, and the Thunderbolt card from HP also needs to be in slot 5 in order for everything to work, so we get a slight performance degradation on our Thunderbolt RAID because we have to run the two together off of Thunderbolt. That’s a known issue though.
Terence Curren: Yeah, I was curious about that workaround. So do you have slight degradation in throughput on the drives?
Adam Sonnenfeld: I can’t play back 4K DPX’s, which isn’t a tragedy (laughs). In theory, the drive should be able to do that.
Terence Curren: Are you getting a lot of 4K DPX work?
Adam Sonnenfeld: We’re using it in a proper DI room, so we’re running Resolve out of it. Right now we’re doing a feature in 4K DPXs, and we’re using some proxies and caches in Resolve. It’s working great.
Terence Curren: What are you monitoring the 4K with?
Adam Sonnenfeld: We aren’t monitoring in true 4K. We have a Flanders Scientific CM25, the OLED 25 inch. And then we have one of the new JVC projectors with about a 100-inch screen. That projector can accept a 4K signal, and we’re using it that way, but it spits out 1080. They have what they call an e-shift, which shifts some pixels around so it’s a little sharper. That projector is the 2016 model, which JVC says can support DCI, but it’s brand new so we have to get it calibrated by someone who can actually check that. We’re currently relying on the Flanders for color accuracy, and we do final QC on our projects uptown at Dolby.
Terence Curren: I was curious about how many of the various outputs on the DNxIO you actually need.
Adam Sonnenfeld: We’re using a lot of them. We have a ton of stuff that’s hooked up to that box. One of the SDIs goes out to an audio disembedder so we can do 5.1 in the room. So that goes into a disembedder, then to a board and then to a 5.1 system. That’s one output. We have another one that goes to a Teranex and then after the Teranex it goes to a HyperDeck. We use that for a couple different things. One is for when we have to do format conversions or standards conversions. We run that through Teranex to the HyperDeck and then just import those QuickTimes. If we’re doing a watch-down with clients and we feel like we’re pressed for time, we’ll set the HyperDeck to record a ProRes proxy. So we’ll do a review and just watch something straight down, and then have the QuickTime done. That’s another output. And then we have two more outputs that go to the Blackmagic SmartView and an AJA Lut box.. The LUT box can route to the projector and then the SmartView goes out to the Flanders. So we use all of them, which is great.
Terence Curren: That’s one of the big advantages over the lower end cards or other alternatives, isn’t it?
Adam Sonnenfeld: It’s an advantage for sure. A number of those devices can sort of piggyback and go in and go out, so we could probably do a very, very long loop and do most of these things, but it’s super helpful to have all of those outputs.
Terence Curren: I know that was one of the things with the Nitris DX, for example. All of the I/O that was available, which Avid had to put in there because so many different people were using it in so many different workflows. So it was good to see that carry forward.
Adam Sonnenfeld: Oh, for sure. I mean, our time with it has been really good. The only reason you hear even a hint of a tone around that in my voice is because I’m skeptical of anything that has “Blackmagic” on it, even though we own a ton. That might come as a surprise, but I have a really hard time talking about it in any other way. At the same time though, it works, and all the support has been through Avid.
Terence Curren: Did you need to give them a call for anything?
Adam Sonnenfeld: There was one issue really early on, and this was in the pre-release time period. We tried to do a Firmware update through PCIe because at the time I had PCIe on another system, and the box wasn’t supported to do Firmware updates through PCIe. It was one update back, and had I done that update through Thunderbolt from a Mac, I would have had no problem moving forward doing these Firmware updates. Anyway, I bricked the thing, so I called up Avid and got a set of very simple instructions to hook up to USB and reinstall the Firmware and do a clean sweep on the box. I’m fairly technical, but with the instructions they gave, anybody could have done it. In some ways it was a huge relief, because that just shows you can get close to killing it and still put it back together. Or at least it felt like that.
Terence Curren: It’s nice that Avid is supporting it as opposed to…well, how do we politically correctly define the Blackmagic support versus the Avid support?
Adam Sonnenfeld: Oh…I don’t know. The Blackmagic support people are really nice, and they try. A lot. But I feel like they’re working for a very different company. Avid is there to help in a different way.
Terence Curren: That’s a net positive.
Adam Sonnenfeld: For sure. And it’s worth the difference in price.
Terence Curren: I agree. And you also get the Fusion plug-ins included. Do you guys use Fusion at all?
Adam Sonnenfeld: We haven’t yet. There are a few things we haven’t done yet. We haven’t used Fusion, and we haven’t used it in any sort of visual effects capacity. I don’t believe we’ve used it with Premiere or any of the Adobe programs, so I can’t speak to Adobe or Fusion compatibility.
Terence Curren: What can you tell us about the system or setup that you were using before you got hold of the DNxIO?
Adam Sonnenfeld: We had a 4K Blackmagic Decklink in the computer that I replaced the box with. We had a solution for going back and forth between Avid and Resolve, but there were a lot of little bugs. For a long time in Blackmagic cards, and I don’t know if this has been fixed globally, there was a bug with audio scrubbing in the viewer window, so you couldn’t load audio-only in the viewer window and audio scrub without getting beachballing like crazy. That was an issue I was getting complaints about all the time. As soon as we got this in, whatever the Firmware difference was, it took care of the issue right away. Immediately, even early on in the builds, the “get along with Avid” side of it was solved and Resolve just worked. We never had any issues with it after that.
Terence Curren: Have any new issues popped up for you?
Adam Sonnenfeld: The only issues that I’ve had with it have been around computer compatibility. Those are all known issues though, and they’re actively working on fixing them.
Terence Curren: What do you mean by “computer compatibility”?
Adam Sonnenfeld: Just in terms of what port you can use and how in the HP it’s slightly limiting because the Thunderbolt card and the PCIe card are both supposed to be in the same slot. Of course, the other side of that, how many people actually have a computer like the one we have built up right now? We have a Cubix Xpander with three Titan-X cards in it, and if it wasn’t for the Cubix Xpander I could have maybe purchased a SAS raid instead of the Thunderbolt. I’m loading that thing up, and in that way I’m just kind of out of spaces. But not many people are going to be in that situation.
Terence Curren: It’s probably not as common. But then again, for the people who need all of the I/O that’s available on the DNxIO, they’re more likely to be doing something like you’re doing, as opposed to someone sitting in their garage and hammering things out on a laptop.
Adam Sonnenfeld: Yeah. I hear that, but at the same time, in our office, we have two or three Nitris’ that are still in use, and we just use HDMI out because times have changed and reliable monitoring, for most of our editors, is the primary purpose of these boxes. The thing that I was really excited about is the fact there’s Avid support for this. When I spoke with some of the Avid guys a couple weeks ago, I told them that was really the selling point for me. It resolved some of the compatibility issues that open I/O was giving me on other cards instantly. It’s just a huge plus. We talked about some of the known issues and they’re already working to resolve those. It really is a great box.
Terence Curren: I understand you’re not really using it for capture from decks at all, correct?
Adam Sonnenfeld: Yeah, ingesting is all tapeless. We’ve used it to make a few tapes though. CNN is the last client we worked with that actually requires tapes, so for the latest season of Inside Man, we laid all off the tapes out via the DNxIO without a problem.
Terence Curren: On the Nitris DXs’, were you ever using Symphony Universal? Where, for instance, you could take a 23.98 project and spit it out at 59.94?
Adam Sonnenfeld: I don’t think so. We would always switch the project. We always opened the sequence in a 59.94 project, so I don’t know if that’s taking advantage of it.
Terence Curren: Any other special workflows that are different from other places you’ve been at?
Adam Sonnenfeld: We did a film this year called Eagle Huntress, and the workflow on that film was sort of bizarre. It’s all subtitled, and we worked on the subtitles in Avid in sub-cap, then exported that and gave it to the director to turn into a Word document and edit the translations directly. It was all in Kazakh and we needed to subtitle it in English. So the version that was in Avid was sort of a word-for-word translation, and we needed to get what he edited in the Word document back into the system and then over to Resolve. We used a combination of Avid sub-cap and Final Cut 7 for that, because we could export a ProRes444 movie with alpha from FCP that we could just lay into Resolve. So we built all that in Resolve and that was all through the DNxIO. We did the whole movie, all sorts of standard conversions and all that on the DNxIO system, using all of the different monitoring and conversion tools like the Teranex that are hooked up to it, and it’s been super reliable, which is what matters.
Terence Curren: And for people like you and I, that’s the most important thing
Adam Sonnenfeld: Exactly. I get nervous when I have to put anything new on a system. I really do. The fact that this has been reliable, and that it does everything it says it’s going to do and everything we’ve asked for has been amazing.
Terence Curren: Anything you can tell us about the box’s features you’ve been able to check out or test?
Adam Sonnenfeld: I don’t think we’ve done anything specific through that box that couldn’t be done with another I/O solution. Even for audio punch-in, like VO recording. Morgan does a lot of VO, but we have a totally separate mic and pre-amp that we love, so we’re always going to use that, just because when we’re doing VO we want to use the best pre-amps that we can. We haven’t really had a chance to test the box in that way yet, mostly because it’s just an automatic that we’re going to use our booth. That said, there are some things I know the box can do, but we just haven’t tapped into them yet.
Terence Curren: It’s good to know it’s there for anyone who doesn’t have that kind of setup.
Adam Sonnenfeld: Oh, for sure. The thing for us is that I’m using it in more of a DI room, so it’s a part of our finishing computer. The only people who would use the encoding side of it are the assistants who at this time don’t often have access to it. Our editors, who would use the punch-in, don’t have access to it either. It’s in a room that has a very specific purpose. It needs to work everyday, and it has more clients in front of it than any other system in the place, but we’re not pushing the demands of it other than it terms of reliability. We’re not pushing the feature set.
Terence Curren: I know you said you’re happy with the Avid support, so does that lead into you feeling comfortable with it as something you’re relying on in front of all those clients?
Adam Sonnenfeld: Oh yeah. Knowing that I can get on the phone with someone and say, “this has stopped working”, is really important. From there, if it were to ever break down I would grab a Nitris, so I’d still try to keep with the Avid products in that room.
Terence Curren: What sort of professional would you recommend this to?
Adam Sonnenfeld: I used to have a KONA 3 as a home system setup, but as I said I’ve gotten away from doing a lot of editing myself. But I’d recommend it to anybody who’s using Avid and were looking at products like the KONA 4 or any of those high-end products that do everything but want a direct line to Avid support. If I were in that same situation today, I never would have bought a KONA 3 and a Breakout Box, I would have gone straight to this.
Terence Curren: That support really makes a difference, doesn’t it?
Adam Sonnenfeld: Without the Avid support on this, I probably would have gone with AJA, but the fact that this takes care of Resolve issues is also key. In my mind, this replaces those cards that were at the $2,000-$3,000 price point that were super reliable, and then you get the Avid support (I think you can also get it with a full Media Composer software license) plus the ability to work with all the other programs that click into a Blackmagic card. I don’t think I’d recommend it to a film student, although I still talk with my college professors, one of whom is building a film department in Ohio. He was asking me what hardware he should get, and I told him he needed to get a couple of these, because he’s going to want it, and he’ll also want to teach a few students how to use it. So I’ve totally recommended it to people who I know are going to take advantage of being able to switch between programs and do everything they want with it. In a way they either need this, or the Blackmagic Mini Monitor. I recommend one of those two things to people, unless they still need to use a deck.
Terence Curren: Last word around how this has impacted what you’re doing at Warrior Poets?
Adam Sonnenfeld: We’re using it as a straight I/O box, and it’s done everything we’ve asked it to do.