All the Video Editor You Need, Free: DaVinci Resolve 12
If you’ve done any sort of of research of the color grading software world, you’ve no doubt come across Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve 12. It is unequivocally one of, if not the, leading stand-alone color grading application. So much so that when asked to do a review of it for this magazine, I quipped “Reviewing DaVinci Resolve to see if it’s worth getting as a color grading tool would be akin to reviewing Photoshop to see if it’s worth getting as a photo editing tool.” Unless you’re working as a professional color grader or visual effects artist at the highest levels of Hollywood or Madison Avenue, DaVinci Resolve is the stand alone tool to get if you want to do more serious, in-depth professional color grading.
However, what makes this review particularly important for you photographers out there breaking into the world of video production is the fact that DaVinci Resolve 12 is now a powerful non-linear editor (NLE) that makes it a contender against the likes of Apple’s Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro CC. (In fact, the user interface sort of looks like the a cross between the two.)
The NLE capabilities for DaVinci Resolve were actually added a couple of versions ago. But version 12 has added some additional features that have kicked it up the proverbial notch. Most notably, multicam editing and improved audio support, including the ability to export AAF files to Avid Pro Tools as well as VST plugin support. (Pro Tools is a leading stand-alone audio editing tool. Many filmmakers and video producers will have a professional audio engineer finish the audio master of an edit in Pro Tools. So having the ability to now export to Pro Tools from within DaVinci Resolve is huge. With regards to VST plugin support, these are additional audio plugins that expand the amount of audio tweaking you can do directly within DaVinci Resolve.)
What I want to do in this review is give you the knowledge and perspective you’ll need to make an informed decision about whether to use DaVinci Resolve 12 as your sole NLE. Again, if you want a stand-alone color grading tool, it’s a no-brainer. Get it. Especially since it’s free. That’s right, DaVinici Resolve 12 is free. (Well, as you’ll learn later, nothing is entirely free. But, you will not need to spend any money to get DaVinci Resolve 12). This free version used to be called Lite. They have since removed the Lite designation. So DaVinci Resolve 12 is free, and DaVinci Resolve Studio (with all the bells and whistles) is $995. But the overwhelming majority of you reading this article will never need the Studio version.
The “Price” is the Power Prerequisite
As my grandmomma used to say in her Southern drawl, “Nothin’ in life is ever free, baby.” Yes, DaVinci Resolve 12 is free. But if you can afford to get the system needed to run it adequately (video plays smoothly without stuttering or becoming sluggish; system doesn't crash; being able to have at least one other program open at the same time, etc.) the cost to get a traditional NLE like Final Cut Pro X or Premiere Pro is most likely negligible. So, in my opinion, cost is not really a factor when making an NLE decision. Especially since a good NLE is essential if you want to do any kind of serious video work.
DaVinci Resolve 12 is more than a “good” NLE. It’s a pretty great one. But the powerful color grading features require a pretty hefty system:
- The minimum RAM requirement is 8 GB, but 16 GB is recommended. If you can get 32 GB or more, I would.
- Perhaps the most crucial requirement is your GPU memory (graphics card). Anything under 1GB of VRAM is pointless. At the 1GB level, you’ll probably be okay editing traditional HD footage. I recommend a minimum 1.5 GB of GPU. The website Digital Cinema Demystified (http://www.dcinema.me/) suggests 4GB or more of GPU memory if you want to do 4K work.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that once you add up the investment needed to get an adequate system (especially if you’re a Mac user), the the term “free” is relative. However, chances are many probably already have a beefy enough system.
Who is it for?
So, who should be seriously considering DaVinci Resolve 12? I see two candidates:
- People who are using another NLE and want to start using a powerful color grading tool that simplifies the color grading finishing process
- People looking to have the NLE and color grading tool all in one program
Other NLE Users
If you’re already using another NLE, but are looking to up your color grading game, DaVinci Resolve is a no-brainer. Because it’s such a popular tool, there is a wealth of resources to get started. You’ll find a plethora of free tutorials on YouTube. If you don’t want to wade through YouTube, there are great paid training resources too: Lynda.com, ColorGradingCentral.com, RippleTraining.com and GroundControlColor.com are worth strong consideration. My personal recommendation would be Ripple Training for two reasons 1) they’re masters at creating easy-to-follow affordable tutorials and 2) they have Alexis Van Hurkman, who literally wrote the book on DaVinci Resolve training. I’ve also looked at GroundControlColor.com’s offerings and they’re right up there with Ripple Training for ease and affordability.
Traditionally when you send a project to be professionally color graded in DaVinci Resolve, you export an XML file that DaVinci Resolve imports. This sometimes causes problems as not everything always imports perfectly (especially if you’ve used any kind of plugins in the edit). DaVinci Resolve’s XML support is significantly improved (particularly for Final Cut Pro X). However, now that DaVinci Resolve’s NLE features are so powerful, once you’ve imported a project from your main NLE, you have more options to fix issues and make editing tweaks in DaVinci Resolve, eliminating the need to go back to your NLE, make those changes, then roundtrip back out to DaVinci Resolve. And since DaVinci Resolve has its own XML exporting feature, any NLE changes you do make can be imported back to your main NLE.
All Under One Roof
There’s no doubt that Blackmagic Design has super-charged DaVinci Resolve’s editing features to make it your “one stop shop” for editing and grading. If for any reason you’re in the market to switch NLEs, DaVinci Resolve is definitely worth considering. The benefits are obvious. But here’s another wrench to throw in the mix: both Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X now have options to provide powerful color grading features all-in-one. Premiere Pro CC 2015 will take on Adobe’s previously stand-alone color grader, SpeedGrade. All of those features will now be in Premiere Pro. For Final Cut Pro X users, Color Grading Central released Color Finale for only $99. It essentially works like a plugin but gives you all of the traditional color grading features you’ll need (color wheels, curves, LUTs, etc.)
Color Finale brings a full color grading feature set directly into Final Cut Pro X.
It should go without saying that the NLE features in Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X still have the edge over DaVinci Resolve, and the grading features of DaVinci Resolve far surpass those of Premiere Pro/SpeedGrade and Final Cut Pro X/Color Finale. So determining which you use as your primary NLE may depend on what’s more important to you: NLE features or grading features.
Using DaVinci Resolve as an NLE
For the purposes of this review, I edited a simple video using footage I shot for Creative Mornings Seattle’s “Work” theme (you can see the video at http://daredreamer.fm/dvrvideo). I shot a combination of footage on a Fujifilm X-E2 camera and a Blackmagic 4K Production Camera. My laptop was not beefy enough to edit the 4K footage, so for simplicity I used half-resolution proxy footage that was already created by Final Cut Pro X when I edited the “real” video.
This review isn’t meant to be a tutorial on how to use DaVinci Resolve as an editor, so I’ll just highlight and bullet-point some key findings.
Like any NLE, there is a slight learning curve. But if you have any NLE editing background, it won’t take you long at all to figure everything out.
One of the things I liked was that when setting up my first project, it asked if there’s an NLE system I’m already used to using. This will activate the keyboard shortcuts you’re already familiar with.
The workspaces for DaVinci Resolve are laid out in sequential order:
- Media for importing your media
- Edit for NLE editing
- Color for grading
- Deliver for exporting the final video
Here are some major caveats and key features to keep in mind when editing in DaVinci Resolve:
- Although DaVinci Resolve 12 now supports native AVCHD footage (e.g. from the Sony A7s or Panasonic GH4), depending on your camera system, you may need to drill down to the “Clip” or “Stream” folder to see the clips. Also, audio for these .MTS files doesn’t seem to be supported. The audio from my AVCHD files was not imported, and I found a number of other forum entries with similar problems. The best solution seems to be using an AVCHD video converter (like ClipWrap) to convert the footage to a more compatible file format. For my review, I was using the proxy footage created by Final Cut Pro X. (Depending on when you read this review, this issue may be fixed.)
I had to drill down to the “Stream” folder/directory of my AVCHD folder to import the files.
- When you first drop a clip into a project, if the project settings don’t match the clip, DaVinci Resolve will give you the option to change the settings to match. If you accept, you need to restart DaVinci Resolve for the changes to take affect
- ProRes footage works best with DaVinci Resolve. H.264 can work, but you’ll take a performance hit if you cut in it.
The use of smart bins brings the kind of metadata management power I love about Final Cut Pro X. You can set certain parameters for clips that will automatically get added to your smart bin. You could therefore have clips that are in multiple smart bins (e.g. a 1920x1080p slow motion clip could be both in a 60fps smart bin and a Full HD smart bin).
Select the parameters for the Smart Bin based on numerous categories.
Any clips that are both 1920x1080 and 60 fps (or rather specifically, 59.94 fps) will appear in each of these smart bins.
- The multicam editor is very good. It’s quite similar to Final Cut Pro X, which has arguably the best multicam editor among all the NLEs. You can sync by in/out points, time code or sound. Final Cut Pro X makes it very easy to choose a .wav file as the main audio source for a multicam clip. It takes a bit more tweaking and finessing in DaVinci Resolve if you want to do the same thing. But it is nice that you can open a multicam clip in the timeline to make individual tweaks to clips.
- You can easily unlink and relink video and audio clips.
- The various dynamic and asymmetric trimming tools make it easy to quickly trim/expand one or multiple clips simultaneously.
- DaVinci Resolve gives you quite a few export formats and codecs; but my guess is that most of you reading this will most likely use QuickTime format with the ProRes or H.264 codec. DaVinci Resolve gives you the ability to tweak data rate, resolution, etc.
- DaVinci Resolve comes with 16 transitions, five title formats, and eight generators. It also comes with 18 audio plugins. If you want to extend the functionality with different looks and effects, you’ll need to get Open FX plugins. Some are free, most will cost some money. A good place to start is RedGiant.com and FilmConvert.com.
Give it a Spin
If you have the system requirements needed, I see no reason not to download DaVinci Resolve 12 and start playing with it, both as an NLE and a color grader. I know of plenty of editors who edit in more than one system. You may find yourself using one NLE for most of your editing then use DaVinci Resolve to edit a project when you know there will be heavy color grading needed. Just like many of you have backup cameras, it can’t hurt to have a backup NLE.
Ron Dawson is an award winning video producer, author and host of the filmmaking podcast “Radio Film School” as well as the creative business podcast “The Solo Creative,” both located at http://daredreamer.fm. He is based out of Seattle, Washington.