These are the DaVinci Resolve tips I wished I knew when I was getting started.
After a career of many years in high tech, I decided to do a big career shift into film. I am currently enrolled in the Motion Picture Arts Program at the Recording Arts Institute of Saskatoon (RAIS). It’s a wonderful program that I highly recommend.
In my new ideal role as a film producer, RAIS has provided me with a firm understanding of many of the key roles in film, practical skills with many current filmmaking technologies, and how they come together to make magic happen.
Part way into the program, I decided to shift my focus away from Adobe Premiere and After Effects and dedicate myself to learning DaVinci Resolve 15. My learning goals at RAIS are unique from the other students, who are being prepared to find jobs at local studios and projects and need Adobe skills to do that. To become a film producer, these technical skills are less important, so I could choose a different path for myself.
I’ve since completed a few small projects (including a 4m music video and a 10m final project entitled The Five Rules of Weed). This experience has led me to become a huge DaVinci Resolve fan – although there are things about the experience that leave a lot to be desired that I will comment on throughout.
In this article, I’d like to share a few important lessons I’ve learned about:
(In future articles I’ll dive into Fusion compositing, Fairlight, Color, and Delivery.)
Before I dive in to my lessons learned, I’d like to think big for a moment, and comment on what I believe is a potential fundamental shift in the way indie films (not major motion pictures) are being made.
A Paradigm Shift in Indie Filmmaking
Over the past 25 years, software engineering (my recent career) has gone through a paradigm shift: from a top-down, waterfall-based mindset that takes forever to deliver value to customers – to an agile, team-of-peers approach that focuses on delivering value quickly while iterating. I see the potential for a similar shift in filmmaking, thanks to software like DaVinci Resolve.
There are a few key moments in film creation that make agility challenging, such as:
An indie team that centers all their workflow around DaVinci Resolve for ingest, editing, sound, color correction, and delivery can avoid many agility killers – and deliver value to viewers much more quickly with a well-rounded and skilled team working in parallel on a common platform.
The paid DaVinci Resolve Studio product includes project server collaboration features which allow several people to work on the same projects at the same time. Instead of large chunks of work being serialized and adding months to the schedule, everyone can work at the same time. (While making effective use of communication and locking features to prevent accidents.)
I fully expect we will hear about filmmaking teams this year (2019) that standardize on DaVinci Resolve Studio to radically simplify their workflows and improve their delivery schedules.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Software and Hardware Prerequisites
I’m a Windows person, but I have been using both Windows and Mac with DaVinci Resolve, thanks to the Macs available at RAIS.
Quick reminder about keyboard shortcuts between Windows and Mac:
Windows Shortcut Mac Shortcut
Regardless if you are running Resolve on Windows or a Mac, I highly recommend finding a good three button mouse with a middle scroll wheel/button to unlock many time saving mouse shortcuts.
For the remainder of this article, I will refer to features as they work on Windows.
DaVinci Resolve requires Windows 10. Blackmagic states that they don’t even test on older versions of Windows anymore. Windows 7 is less secure and supports fewer video codecs. Save yourself a bunch of problems and upgrade to Windows 10.
Blackmagic has published a Configuration Guide to help with hardware selection. Note that Blackmagic has an unacceptably horrible UI for finding their guides and manuals where you need to visit the Support Center for DaVinci Resolve, then scroll through the list of Latest Support Notes at the bottom of the page. You find the latest software downloads in the same way, by scrolling through the Latest Downloads section at the bottom of the page.
These downloads and guides are not easy to find directly with Google – likely an SEO decision by Blackmagic – forcing us to go through this horrible web design when we want to download anything.
FYI - When you download the Studio version of Resolve, you can bypass registration by clicking the Download Only link on the bottom left. They have no such privacy feature for the free version of Resolve – which is an unacceptably horrible privacy fail and design choice.
I am running Resolve, and recently Resolve Studio on an older PC with 64 GB of DDR3 memory but a new NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 GPU. Resolve Studio takes better advantage of the GPU, and has been a huge timesaver for me.
You can learn about other differences between Resolve and Resolve Studio in the DaVinci Resolve 15 Feature Comparison Guide. This is an important guide to read, and it is only three pages. Many of the newbie questions about the capabilities of Resolve vs. Studio are answered here.
I have encountered some challenges caused by the age of my machine – and discovered a few rendering workarounds that have been helpful. I'll describe these in a future article.
Oh, and while we're on the topic of software - I cannot for the life of me understand why DaVinci Resolve is made available as two distinct product downloads - free and Studio. Maintaining two code bases has got to be problematic, and working on a filmmaking team that uses both products is unnecessarily complicated and broken.
In my case, I would see effects watermarked in encoded output files rather than simply identified in the UI as unavailable without a license. Moving my project back and forth between school and home computers running the free and Studio versions of Resolve was a huge PITA.
Surely this two product approach is no good for the dev team or for customers. It needs to stop.
The singular most important thing I have learned about setting up new projects in DaVinci Resolve is to be very thoughtful about the frames-per-second (FPS) choice you make for your timeline. Do not simply default to the FPS of some of your content.
Also note that you can only have one FPS for all the timelines in a single project, unlike Adobe Premiere.
If you need to deliver to a client in multiple frame-rates, you will need to think through this workflow very carefully. You may need to use another transcoding tool outside of Resolve such as Handbrake to deliver special frame-rate settings.
Trying to maintain parallel projects with different frame-rates can quickly become a pain in the ass as you copy or manually recreate all the edit and Fusion decisions between projects.
DaVinci also does a horrible job with FPS changes after a project has been started.
If you want to create a copy timeline with a new FPS, you will have to edit, color correct, Fusion composite and sound edit everything you did the first time around – the “shortcuts” for doing these things cannot be trusted – and the fastest shortcut for this (importing a DRP with a different framerate) is not offered by Blackmagic. There are no compelling workflows for changing the FPS of a DaVinci project – the only truly dependable way to re-encode the frame-rate is after the full video is encoded.
In my case, I made a choice to film my final project in 30 FPS (in hindsight, a bad choice), which in most cameras means 29.97 FPS (a television broadcast standard), even though the menus often simplify this to 30 FPS.
When I ingested the media, I allowed it to reset my timeline settings to 29.97 FPS. I should not have done this.
Much later, when I needed to create a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) for projection at The Roxy using the Kakadu Motion JPEG 2000 format, the Resolve Deliver page gave me a unique error message that could not be found on the internet.
It turns out Resolve has an undocumented “feature” that it cannot create non-integer DCPs.
As a result, I had to use DCP-o-matic, which incidentally is a wonderful tool worth supporting.
All of these were great lessons learned for me. I hope you will save lots of time and suffering by noting my experience here.
Pro-Tip: Pick a Standard Frame-rate For all Projects
Taking this FPS lesson one step further, because DaVinci resolve makes it difficult to copy/paste clips, keyframes, and Fusion comps between timelines with different frame-rates, it is a good idea to select one frame-rate that you will usually use, allowing maximum sharing between projects. Say you figure out how to do cool-looking end credits well, it will be easier to copypasta it into your next project.
Going forward, I've decided to use 24 FPS as my standard, as I'm interested in producing indie movies. (Although it would be great to make a TV show happen in Saskatoon!)
DaVinci Resolve has some of the best educational materials available for filmmakers - and it's free!
Blackmagic Design has a 2,600+ page manual for DaVinci Resolve. While I wouldn’t recommend reading it cover to cover, it is a fair resource when you are getting to know specific functionality in the product.
Blackmagic Design has a ton of educational materials (books and videos) worth spending time with on their Training Page and YouTube Channel. The books here are more approachable than the manual. Each training class is sizeable and includes project materials so you can follow along. Great starting points worth your time.
They have a DaVinci Resolve Forum that is helpful – I’ve learned a ton reading past threads which I’ve found via Google.
There are also some very helpful Facebook Groups.
Be sure to search Google, YouTube, the Manual, the Forum, and the Facebook Group itself before posting beginner questions to a group. There are so many helpful resources already out there – it is a super useful skill to figure out how to find and use them.
Ingesting Numbered Photos
Often, you want to add photos or images to the timeline as still images that appear for a few seconds. The default functionality of Resolve is to merge numerically incremental images into a single ‘video clip’. (I believe this is how RAW clips work.)
By selecting the three dots at the top right of the Media Storage area while on the Media tab, you can select Show Individual Frames.
This will allow you to see and copy all of the images individually into your project bins.
Also note, you can change the default time duration of an image dropped on the Timeline under the DaVinci Resolve menu, Preferences, User, Editing, General Settings, Standard still duration. I believe the default is 5 seconds.
Using the Clone Tool to Ingest Media
Though the UI takes a bit of getting used to, the functionality is very helpful. The Clone Tool will copy files off your media sources (like SD cards and camera hard drives) while verifying accuracy with a checksum. It will also spread media across several target folders if they run out of space.
If you want to plug in many camera cards and stack up several jobs to run automatically while you go out for dinner, you can do that too.
Start by pressing the Clone Tool button while on the Media tab, then Add Job, then drag and drop source and destination folders into the UI. When you have all your Jobs in place, press Clone.
In a multi-camera shoot with on-location audio and multiple takes, there are lots of files to sift through when you are editing. This gets more complicated when scenes are shot out of order (the usual), and when you shoot parts of a scene on multiple days.
If you take a moment to give each audio and video file a Clip Name with some kind of naming standard, it makes editing later much easier. Use copy-paste when renaming to move more quickly.
For my latest project, I used a simple “Sxxa – Short scene name – Ty – Shot or Audio purpose – Camera”:
I created a Smart Bin of all the media in the project, sorting by Clip Name to find everything I needed for any scene easily.
There are much more powerful mechanisms to edit metadata on clips in DaVinci Resolve, which can then be searched and Smart Binned, but for my short film I felt it was overkill. On a larger project, I would spend some time with the team thinking through how metadata can help streamline our collective workflow.
Editing UI Controls
The Edit tab has a collection of buttons across the top that control what you can see in the UI, such as Media Pool, Effects Library, Edit Index, Mixer, Metadata, and Inspector.
I recommend getting really used to what these buttons do so you can regularly customize the UI for what you are doing now.
For example, I used a smoke clip to introduce various dream sequences in the film. I eventually standardized on a zoom and opacity level I wanted to use consistently. With the Inspector open, I could easily select each clip to verify it was configured as intended.
If the clip was misconfigured, use the Paste Attributes… command (right-click a clip after copying another) to quickly copy the same settings from clip to clip.
My favorite UI keyboard shortcuts for controlling the UI are:
Learn to use Spacebar and the JKL keys for playback control.
Learn to use In-Out points (with the I and O keys) on media clips, plus the video/audio only hover-selectors so you can drag only what you want on to your timeline.
Learn how to Blade (B key) and use Trim Edit (T key). Trim edit is a great way to control exactly what is showing on the start and end frame of a clip on the timeline.
Learn how to set markers (M key) on a selected clip or on the timeline. I will often listen to the music on the timeline while pressing the M key for each beat, then edit video clips to the beats of the music.
Use the D key to disable/enable a selected clip.
Unlink your audio from video and learn how to create J-Cuts and L-Cuts.
Learn to use Undo (CTRL-Z), Redo (CTRL-SHIFT-Z), and History commands on the Edit menu to fix accidents.
You can create a Timeline containing other Timelines - cool!
Three Point Editing and Copy Paste
One of the most common questions from people new to Resolve is how copy/paste works. It is a bit non-intuitive for people new to a non-linear editing (NLE) system.
You can use copy/paste shortcuts like CTRL-C and CTRL-V, but paste is affected by Auto Select controls, Locked Tracks, Disabled Tracks, and In-Out markers. It's a complex topic. If something doesn’t seem to be behaving intuitively, check all of these things. Clear In-Out markers on the Timeline with the ALT-X shortcut when paste behaves oddly.
My favorite way to copy/paste is to ALT-Select one or more clips and drag a copy to a new location.
My favorite way to replace a clip is to select the clip, press X to set In-Out points around it, highlight the new clip I want to use in the Media Pool (setting In-Out points on it as well), and press F11 (Replace Clip). Afterwards, press ALT-X to remove the In-Out points on the timeline, otherwise future pastes will go there too.
I highly recommend reading Chapter 22 Modifying Clips in the Timeline in the manual and watching the Blackmagic Design Editing training video. The edit UI is deep and powerful, and there are too many tips and tricks to cover here.
Basic Sound Editing
Fairlight is a powerful tool for managing your audio tracks, busses, and main outputs such as Stereo or 5.1 Surround Sound.
However, I've find it useful to do some basic sound work while in the Edit tab.
For example, reviewing the sound levels of vocals, sound effects, and music is easy to do using the Mixer. For a nice overview of target sound levels see this article.
After I’ve placed all audio and video I think I’ll want to use on a timeline I’ll use the Normalize Audio Levels… command against multiple vocal clips with a value of -12 (with ‘independent selection’ checked) to put all of my vocal clips in a similar range. Resolve looks at the maximum volume level of the clips selected and reduces the volume of each clip to make your chosen volume level the highest level of each clip. You can see the volume level selected (and change it) using the Inspector.
This is a nice starting point, but then you’ll want to go through each audio track and boost or reduce specific spoken phrases. With Audio Waveforms showing on the timeline, zoom into an audio clip so you can see the waveform. Make the audio track taller.
Use ALT-Click to add keyframes on the audio clip volume line. Put two keyframes close together. Drag the volume levels between keyframe pairs to change the volume of that part of the waveform.
Watch the height of each part of the waveform, looking for some level of volume consistency.
Then, listen to your work while watching the Mixer, to ensure your vocals are in the comfortable-to-listen-to -12 to -15 range.
This technique can be used for sound effects and music too - with different target volume ranges.
Auto Audio Sync
DaVinci Resolve has rudimentary Auto Sync Audio capability built in, but it has some serious limitations. If you select a video clip containing audio and another audio clip, this command can replace the embedded audio with linked audio. This allows you to use a cleaner audio signal recorded on set than the microphones built into the camera, which usually contain distracting machine noise from the camera.
Some limitations I’ve noticed:
Because of all of this, you end up getting good at lining up multiple audio sources using visual and waveform cues, such as a spiky clapperboard snap. It’s not perfect, and it’s a huge pain in the ass when you are dealing with many audio sources (such as actor lav mics) in a shot.
My lesson learned here – always record the clapperboard snap on camera, and always record audio on the camera to sync with later.
Some cameras can take in a clean audio signal from an on-set microphone without mucking it up with hardware noise – if you have this type of camera take full advantage to save some time in post.
In my short time using DaVinci Resolve so far, I’ve found it to be a powerful and deep product that can do just about everything an indie filmmaking team would want; admittedly from my own beginner’s perspective. It has a few unfortunate limitations – but it also provides huge value and workflow simplicity.
There are tons of free educational resources to learn from – that go from beginning tips to the most advanced techniques.
Putting training content in a 2,600 page PDF manual is about the worst way to do things – but it’s a start. Hopefully Blackmagic will take a cue from every other software company and start publishing educational tidbits by scenario in an easily linkable and discussable web format. Telling people to check out page 1,647 of the manual as it existed on May 15, 2018 is just about the worst possible way to encourage learning and knowledge sharing online.
For a free product, DaVinci Resolve is surprisingly powerful and useful across many aspects of post-production. I haven’t even talked about the Fusion, Fairlight, and Color tabs yet – holy cow they rock. Titles and credits are super-easy, green screen effects work well, and color grading by groups is very powerful.
Most importantly, Blackmagic has shown a strong commitment to releasing regular updates to DaVinci Resolve – every month it gets better and better.
This corporate commitment to improvement is IMHO the most compelling aspect for making a career commitment to learning and using DaVinci Resolve.