By Keith Putnam
Recently, postPerspective contacted me in my role as a “working DIT” to test drive the relatively new (and free) offering Scratch Play in a production environment. Having now auditioned it on a couple of jobs and two different computer platforms, here are my thoughts.
Prior to this, I had never really used any Assimilate software. My exposure to Scratch was limited to the post environment as a finishing tool for final color grades and deliverables creation. Some of my DIT colleagues use Scratch on a daily basis as their go-to on-set workflow center, but I tend to employ a combination of Colorfront Express Dailies, DaVinci Resolve Lite and RedCine-X Pro, depending on the particular needs of the job at hand. As such I was curious to see where Scratch Play could fit into my usual stable of software.
As a newcomer to all things Scratch, my first launch of Scratch Play presented me with an unfamiliar environment. Where the majority of applications in this space would employ a “timeline” metaphor or a “nodal” metaphor (or both) to manage your media, Scratch Play presents the user what they call a “CONstruct,” which is suppose I can best describe as a linear series of stacked timelines. When importing media clips, one can either place each clip successively horizontally along the CONstruct, or stack them vertically. I’ve found that it seems to make the most sense to stack vertically by magazine, or media type, and then progress horizontally to the right as magazine numbers increase. This takes some getting used to, but over time I found it to be fairly intuitive or, at least, organizationally useful.
Scratch Play allows the user to manipulate the master settings of the CONstruct regarding frame rate and frame size (pretty much every possible option from 8K UHD-2 down to SD with all of the DCI container sizes as well) so every clip is living in the same environment. This is in keeping with Scratch Play’s possibly most useful application — a universal media player.
Much like the omnipresent open-source media player VLC, Scratch Play will attempt to handle any kind of video media thrown at it. In my brief experience, however, it surpasses VLC’s ability to play somewhat more unusual (to the consumer, not the professional) formats such as Avid DNxHD MXF files. Plus, if you string together multiple formats in the CONstruct and then enter the player, Scratch Play will seamlessly play each clip no matter what format the clips are in.
Putting It To The Test
For example, on a recent documentary project, I was routinely mixing 4K RedCode with Canon 16-bit HD MXF and HD DNx175 media generated by Blackmagic Hyperdecks without a problem. It’s important to remember, however, that Scratch Play’s ability to play back various formats at full frame rate is going to be dependent upon your computer’s hardware.
But as mentioned, VLC is itself a pretty decent universal media player. So what is VLC totally incapable of that Scratch Play can do easily? Color manipulation.
Once a clip from the CONstruct is opened in the player, the user now has access to an ASC CDL 1D LUT color correction environment with Slope, Offset and Power sliders for all three color channels and luminance, plus an overall saturation control. Scratch Play is savvy to all the various SDK-available manipulations that any given camera you’re likely to encounter has, so, for example, if you load a RedCode clip you’re able to manipulate all the RAW settings like ISO, “FLUT,” color temperature, gamma, etc.
With something a little more limited, like Canon 16-bit MXF, you can at least choose between full and legal range and the color space you’d like to work in. Scratch Play provides REC709, ACES, sRGB (convenient for being limited to a laptop monitor or doing work destined for the Web), and XYZ P3 spaces, plus a few others. Color spaces are provided both for the working environment and for the output to whatever monitor you’re using. Resolve Lite does this, too, but rather than burying the choice in a master project preference, Scratch Play has a convenient menu available all the time, and your selections can be made on a clip-by-clip basis. Very flexible.
Also, if you’re working on a MacBook Pro Retina with an HDMI port, like I was, you can hook up your favorite HDMI-capable color grading monitor and have it “just work” without any additional futzing around with project settings. Assimilate has “Dual Head” mode set to turn on automatically, apparently, if Scratch detects a monitor on the HDMI port.
Scratch Play is capable of loading 1D LUTs (like your favorite LOG to LIN transforms) and, more importantly, saving your color work as a 1D LUT for use in other applications. Scratch Play allows saving LUTs in several formats: .cdl, .lut (a generic 1D LUT format), .xml, .txt and, of course, .3dl for easy use with Scratch. This is great for sending looks along with the media to post production so dailies generated will match the DIT’s work on-set, or for generating your own dailies.
A word on that: Scratch Play does not do transcodes. Any transcoding/exporting work must be done by another application, and if you’re in the “Free Software World” it’s most likely that the application in question will be Resolve Lite. This isn’t a problem, of course — Scratch Play doesn’t claim to be capable of transcoding. But it can bring up the question of why one would use Scratch Play at all if one needs to transcode. Wouldn’t I just do all of my work in Resolve Lite? Perhaps, but I would argue that once one is familiar with Scratch Play (and if one is only in need of a 1D LUT), the fact that Scratch Play is a leaner and more lightweight beast than Resolve could make color work faster than dealing with Resolve’s media management system and all the various “rooms” one must pass through in Resolve to get work done.
Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that Scratch Play will not generate dailies for you. So, Scratch Play is a lightweight, flexible system for universal media playback and simple ASC CDL color correction.
Surface Pro 2
One of the selling (or free licensing, anyway) points of Scratch Play is that it’s really the only color correction application that can be used at full force on a tablet device — specifically the Microsoft Surface Pro 2. Microsoft was kind enough to provide me with a loaner Surface to test Scratch Play on and my overall reaction was “this is almost great, but…”
While the Surface seems to me to be a pretty great low-profile, portable, fully-functional Windows-based computer, there appears to be some issues with the way that I personally want to use Scratch Play on it.
Perhaps my primary issue was that for Scratch Play to play back media smoothly on the Surface, the media needs to be copied to the internal storage of the Surface. Or, at least, may need to be on a proper hard disk connected to the Surface (which I didn’t try). I wanted to load media onto a USB stick, insert that in the Surface’s USB slot, and load the media in Scratch Play directly from the USB stick expecting full functionality. I didn’t quite get my wish. I first noticed the problem when attempting to play Arriraw .ari media from the USB stick in Scratch Play. No go.
Granted, that’s a pretty extreme example given the data weight of Arriraw, but I didn’t have much better luck with other media formats. Copying media takes precious time and, as a DIT, I’d prefer to only have to copy media onto something like a USB stick and work with it directly rather than having to copy it again onto the internal media of the Surface.
[Editor’s Note: We reached out to Assimilate to ask about this issue. This is their response: “The media does not need to be copied to the internal storage of the Surface Pro as long as the media devices you connect to the USB 3 port can transfer data at USB 3 speeds. For example, if you use the Red Station RedMag, or a device like it, you can play the media directly off the external device.”]
All in all, the promise of running Scratch Play on the Surface is great. Scratch Play will definitely stay in my DIT software toolbox, and I’m sure I’ll pull it out quite frequently. It won’t replace Resolve Lite or RedCine-X or Colorfront Express Dailies, but it will definitely work alongside them. I look forward to the next version!
Keith Putnam (pictured using Scratch Play on a MacBook Pro Retina with an HDMI port) is an IATSE Local 600 DIT who has been working on features, television shows and commercials since 2008. His credits include indie favorites Margin Call and Rabbit Hole, and the VFX units of Limitless, The Wolf of Wall Street and the forthcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Follow him on Twitter @QXZ, and his Website is http://highwatermedia.com.