AMD 2.1

Review: Assimilate’s Scratch Play

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.

Play-Surface

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.

ColorMyWorld_2

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.

DataBehindTheDatassmall

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.”]

Summing Up
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.


5 thoughts on “Review: Assimilate’s Scratch Play

  1. The Annoyed Editor

    The one thing I noticed (and appreciated) with Scratch Play is that it is GPU accelerated, so you can use a powerful GPU to help debayer RED files in realtime and it also seems to give better playback performance than Redcine-X Pro does.

    Reply
  2. Ronny Langer

    ok, you work as a “IATSE Local 600 DIT” with 8 Bit HDMI Signals out of your Macbook.
    That doesn’t make sense for color grading!

    Here in Europe we DIT’s use 10 Bit Displays with Scratch and DaVinci for Color Work;)

    cheers Ronny

    Reply
  3. Keith Putnam

    Hi, Ronny. Thanks for your comments.

    While the vast majority the on-set color work I do is either live-grading a LogC feed over SDI on Sony 10-bit OLED monitors or using the same monitors with Colorfront via a Kona card for color grading after downloading, it is occasionally useful for quickie dailies color grades to employ whatever tools may be at hand such as a laptop and an HDMI-connected external monitor. Obviously 8-bit monitors have their limitations and are rarely used in professional situations, but if someone in a pinch wanted to look at their Scratch Play “one-light” color grades on an HDMI external monitor it can be done. Clearly you would not ever consider doing such a thing, but nevertheless the possibility exists. Free software will frequently be used by amateurs, and amateurs are often likely to be using 8-bit HDMI monitoring.

    The scenario I described above in which I connected the HDMI monitor to the laptop was mostly curiosity to see whether or not it worked, and how easily Scratch Play dealt with the monitor. I haven’t actually used that setup on a paying job, though I can see how the phrase “like I was” was confusing. I meant that on the documentary job I alluded to I was managing media on an rMBP, and also using that rMBP to test-drive Scratch Play.

    Thanks again!

    Keith

    Reply
  4. Greg Adams

    I am trying the free scratchplayer, but found that audio is out of sync with video. It starts in sync but around frame 35 the audio starts again and stays 35 frames behind the video through to the end of the clip. (I used the players audio mixer to count the frame delay exactly)

    These clips run in sync within MS media player or the W10 new TV&Film player. They were produced and encoded within Blender (AVI h.264) in which they also run in sync and they run in sync within Premiere.

    As a free user I can’t access the forum and there doesn’t seem to be any help available.

    All I really want is a media player that has a normal file open menu, the ability to scrub play, and a frame counter so I can see exactly which frame I need to animate better. (All things that W media players don’t do.) Scratch play offers these and loads of things I don’t really need and has the annoying aspect of taking over the display and forcing me to learn yet another re-invented way to open files.

    Out of sync audio makes it useless, and not having any help system means I have little chance of finding out how to sync it.

    Reply
  5. Mazze Aderhold

    Hi Greg, sorry to hear that.
    I think h264 encoded AVI is not a supported format right now – that it still works is more a surprise to me.
    Anyhow, you could either take a look at our user group on google groups: https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en#!forum/scratch-list
    Or shoot an email to support@assimilateinc.com – maybe have a sample (or the file in question) ready for us to test, so we could look into adding support for it.

    Other than that… well, SCRATCH Play is more than “just a player” – hence has a couple more buttons.
    But in general – you start, click load, click play and that’s it, or just drag&drop the clip you wanna play to the SCRATCH Play icon – not too much to learn, actually.

    Cheers,
    Mazze

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.