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Switching to Adobe Premiere Pro CC for the Sony a7S

As a long-time Avid Media Composer junkie, the thought of migrating my post workflow to another non-linear editing system (NLE) has always given me hives. Several years ago the company introduced Avid Media Access or AMA, which made it exponentially easier and more convenient to bring footage from a myriad of cameras and capture formats into Media Composer with only a few clicks. It was a game-changer that sought to put the brakes on the mass exodus from Avid to Final Cut Pro that was taking place at the time. It certainly stopped the bleeding to an extent, however there have always been gaps in the AMA armor that have undermined its effectiveness.

With new cameras (and seemingly constant firmware updates for those cameras) being released all the time, it’s increasingly important to stay up-to-date with trends in digital cinema capture. Avid integrating Apple ProRes support into AMA was the first major leap, but support for Sony’s codecs has always lagged a bit behind. The onus is partly on Sony for not nutting up and licensing Apple’s incredibly efficient and insanely popular codec or Avid’s DNxHD format, but there is certainly enough room for more than two horses in this race. More importantly, the consumer should be free to choose the camera of their liking based on a whole host of features without the limitation of being forced to choose based on the types of file format it spits out and which NLE supports it.

Enter Premiere Pro. Adobe’s editing system has gained steam in the race over the last several years for its ability to work natively with a wider range of camera formats and render video more quickly and efficiently than its competitors. Not to mention its seamless integration with its Adobe Creative Suite brethren. I had dabbled with it only once before about six or seven years ago on a web series pilot that I had directed. I was using it because my friend Rob Vornkahl, who had shot the episode and was doing the visual effects in After Effects, was also using Premiere. I found it to be fairly intuitive, but nothing like my beloved Avid, so, once the project was over, I never looked back. That is until I discovered the Sony Alpha a7S Full Frame Mirrorless Camera.

The a7S landed on my radar while on my way to the movies alongside my long-time friend and colleague Brian Harnick, who follows developments in digital cinema technology probably more closely than anyone I know. He had read about the camera’s impressive specs and seen some test footage just after the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) trade show in April and was on the market for a camera upgrade. Despite being a working camera assistant and cinematographer myself, I have to admit that I actively avoid “geeking out” on camera specs, so I didn’t follow up on Brian’s enthusiasm. Subsequently I was a bit surprised not long thereafter when he announced that he had purchased the camera. And it wasn’t long after that that I ran into David Park, another DP friend, on a job who had just bought one as well. Even then I didn’t get my panties in a bunch. It wasn’t until I needed a camera for a project of my own that the Sony a7S piqued my interest.

My partner and I wanted to film a sequence featuring horses at a ranch in my hometown in Massachusetts for a music video we were directing. We had scouted the location and decided to shoot with no crew, no lighting and with a very tight schedule. We knew that we needed a camera setup that could stand up to the challenge by being small and light, versatile, good in low light, able to shoot in super slow motion, and require no camera crew. A big ask for any camera, let alone one we could afford in a pinch. Our original plan was to use another of Sony’s “prosumer” entries, the FS700, which we hoped to get on loan from Rob. We had worked with it before on one of our previous projects and were confident that it would fit the bill. We were disappointed to learn, however, that it was unavailable for our shoot dates, which we couldn’t move. We looked into a myriad of other cameras keeping in mind our requirements and the a7S quickly rose to the top of the list with its small DSLR form factor, video-specific feature set, 3200 base ISO in S-Log, and 120fps capability at 1280×720 resolution. Since a loaner wasn’t available, we decided that renting one was the best and most affordable method of road testing the camera. We found a competitive rate at LensProToGo in Massachusetts and supplemented the body with a Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR FX lens, a Novoflex Nikon to Sony E-Mount adaptor and a Genus 72mm Eclipse Vari-ND filter. For stabilization I had purchased an off-brand Glidecam system on eBay. The setup couldn’t have been more suitable for our needs. The rental was affordable, the rig was small, light and easily adjustable on my own, and the camera was shockingly light sensitive with an easy-to-navigate menu system, which allowed me to quickly switch frame rates on the fly.

The experience was so smooth and the production had come together so quickly that I hadn’t spent a lot of time researching the post production workflow. Having filmed some earlier scenes on an Alexa Studio owned and operated by my friend Bill Amenta, I had already created a Media Composer project and brought in the ProRes files using AMA in a matter of seconds. Needless to say I was disappointed to discover after filming with the a7S that AMA didn’t support Sony’s new XAVC S format and that I would have to find a way to transcode my footage in order to make it Avid-friendly. The first few applications that I played around with proved to be glitchy and inefficient, creating clips with artifacts and massive ProRes or DNxHD files that would have tripled the storage needed for the project. Finally I consulted Brian once again and he mentioned that he had been using Premiere Pro CC to process the footage due to its native XAVC S support and ability to quickly and easily interpret the overcranked clips. I was easily convinced to give it a shot having already subscribed to the Creative Cloud versions of After Effects and Photoshop. Even more convincing was the realization that Premiere could easily import the Alexa ProRes footage as well with no transcoding and ostensibly handle the entire project saving me valuable time on my already tight post production schedule. The only problem was I hadn’t worked with the application in years, so there would be the inevitable learning curve. I decided to give it a shot and, after making some keyboard shortcut changes to make the transition from Avid a little more palatable, I was off!

I now have a completed rough cut and am mostly satisfied with Premiere’s performance. Once the project is complete I will report back with a more full review of the application and a comprehensive guide to making the switch from Avid Media Composer. I certainly do not consider myself a convert as Avid is still the industry standard and my go-to NLE (I’m still stuck working with MC 5.5.5 at the moment, by the way), but I was so impressed with the a7S and the Premiere workflow that I just ordered my very own Sony a7S. So, until AMA gets XAVC S support or, by some miracle, Sony bows to Apple and updates their cameras with ProRes support (yeah, right!), I’ll be steeped in the Adobe universe.

Stay tuned for my full review of the Sony Alpha a7S Full Frame Mirrorless Camera once it arrives in the coming weeks.

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