Into the fire with FCP X

As most of you know in following this blog, I’ve challenged the wisdom of what Apple has done with Final Cut Pro X. You may have also sensed, however, that I have warmed a bit to the application over the months. I’ve been working with FCP X since its launch nearly a year ago, mostly on smaller, unsupervised commercials and web videos that I could do on my home system. A couple of my freelance clients have been looking at a possible move to Final Cut Pro X, so I could see it as an option in  my future.

Working on a small scale has been a good way to test the system and get my sea legs, but at some point you have to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. Time to see how it really handled itself on a bigger job – with a client in the room – on a project that required working beyond the simple confines of the FCP X environment. The ideal project came along at a facility where I often hang out and edit. It’s a four-suite SAN-connected facility. I was confident enough with the software and its ability to get the job done that we deployed FCP X on a few of the workstations for this inaugural project.

Creative concept and production

This project was a series of employee-oriented TV commercials for a Midwest grocery retailer. In the commercials, real employees deliver variations on the company slogan. On-camera delivery included the full line and portions of the phrase, so that in edit, I would mix and match different employees saying all or part of the line. The style is based on the cadence created by juxtaposing different speakers. Of course, each spot needed the right blend of departments, ages, gender, etc. representing the client’s diverse workforce. It’s precisely because this concept would mesh with FCP X’s organizational abilities and the magnetic timeline that I felt X was the ideal editorial tool for these spots.

Past productions for this client have included 35mm film, ARRI ALEXA and Canon 5D. This time the primary camera was the new Canon C300, with a little bit of slomo B-roll footage recorded on the Canon 5D Mark III. An extra element in the mix was a Sound Devices PIX240 to be used as the prime recorder, taking the SDI feed (audio, video and timecode) out of the C300 camera. Footage was recorded to the on-board CF cards as a back-up, but the point of using the PIX240 was the ability to record a high-quality signal as ProResHQ in the PIX. Since the camera triggered the PIX240’s recording function, there would be matching clip numbers and timecode on each.

One issue in this configuration was the preferred format of 24p (1920×1080 @ 23.976fps progressive). The C300 adds 3:2 pulldown to the SDI stream to output 29.97. Fortunately, the PIX240 has built-in conversion capabilities, which includes pulldown removal. After some brief testing, I was comfortable enough with how the PIX240 handled this and in its ability to record an artifact-free 24p signal to its hard drive.

Pre-edit preparation

I’m a big believer in first preparing your footage in a proper manner before editing. I’m not a big fan of mixing a lot of native formats. This is especially true when it’s footage I know I will need to get back to and decipher in the future. Plus this footage had to go out-of-house for additional post work. In this case, the end product would be color graded on a Baselight system, so I wanted to make sure the post house would have all the media in the ProRes format, with EDL-compatible reel IDs and timecode.

The PIX240 recorded ProResHQ clips with a matching number scheme to the native Canon XF recordings, but the PIX assigned an arbitrary reel number of 001 as the default for recordings made on that hard drive. I prefer to have reel numbers correlate in some fashion to the date and location of the production. The reason is that this is metadata embedded into the file. If I simply read the file again a few years down the road, the reel number by itself will give me some idea what that file belongs to. The beauty of QuickTime files is that they can be modified in various valuable ways if you have the right software. In the case of the PIX240 recordings, I decided to alter the names and the reel ID information.

Changing the file name is relatively easy. I use Better Renamer, a batch renaming utility, to strip off the part of the name I don’t want and to add character strings that I do. The production took place in four cities and the C300 onboard recordings took several cards (which we referred to as rolls). Using Better Renamer, I would strip off PIX_ from a default name like PIX_355 and add back the prefix of KC_R4_ to change the name to KC_R4_355. This would designate Kansas City, roll 4, clip 355.

Changing the reel ID is trickier and technically a “destructive” process, because you are altering native file information. The easiest place to make such batch changes is Final Cut Pro 7. Yes, it’s hard at this point to get through a complex project like these spots and do it all within FCP X.

In FCP 7 you can batch-rename reel IDs in the browser, which alters the embedded information of the media file itself. Highlight the selected clips, make the change in the correct column and ignore the warning. I altered the default 001 to an 8-digit alphanumeric name (all caps) that matches EDL specs. I also wanted something that would make sense in the future for identification purposes. So clips shot on May 31 by the A-camera would become HV0531A1. Client – date – A camera – roll 1.

To convert the 5D files, I followed my standard method (outlined numerous times in this blog):

a) MPEG Streamclip to convert the files to ProRes

b) Cinema Tools to conform the speed to 23.98

c) QtChange to add/alter reel ID names and timecode

d) Better Renamer to change the file names.

Some of you will read this and wonder why I didn’t use Final Cut Pro X’s “Import from Camera” (like FCP 7’s Log & Transfer) or to simply edit natively. Part of the answer is that I first wanted to alter the media files themselves. This is important if you intend to hand off portions of the project to another system. FCP X changes internal database information, but not the media file. If you choose to import and copy the media into your event, then the new media file is named with a date/time UID stamp that’s pretty meaningless to someone just reading the file name.

FCP X also works with optimized media. One of the formats it considers optimized is the Canon XF codec, so you can’t have it convert this to ProRes even if you have that option selected. For this project, it made more sense to prep the files prior to entering into the FCP X world. That might not be the case on a different production.

Organizing your media for the edit

My biggest rationale for Final Cut Pro X were the internal organization features. The production included 720 Canon C300 clips (6 ½ hours) and 15 5D slomo clips (about 15 minutes). A total of 660GB of media (ProResHQ and ProRes). My current approach – and what I used on this session – is to import all the files into a single Event and leave the media linked to its original location on the hard drive – a folder on the SAN volume. If you do this, DO NOT move or alter the media files once you start editing in FCP X or you’ll run the risk of losing connection to the media files.

If you work with a lot of different FCP X jobs, you quickly learn that there is no internal way to manage different clients’ work. You either have to move these files manually from the Final Cut Events and Final Cut Projects folders to an “inactive” folder(s) – or you have to use a utility like Event Manager X. Doing this often and manually can add some confusion, so I recommend the following solution. Assign all productions a job number and add Media and Edits to the naming convention.

As an example, an Event might be labeled 2040_clientname_title_Media. You can create folders in the Project Library. At the top level create a new folder that will contains all of the Projects (sequences) for that production. It would be called 2040_clientname_title_Edits. Now when you have to manually move folders, there is only one top-level folder for each and it’s clear which one goes back into an Events or Projects folder.

Since I had placed all media clips into a single Event, Keyword Collections became the primary method of organizing the clips. Think of these as bins. There were 132 employees, 4 cities and 12 categories (pharmacy, managers, deli, etc.). I used keywords for each employee’s name and their category. Next, I created a folder for Keyword Collections to group people according to their city. Keywords can be assigned to hotkeys and you can apply keywords to a group of clips at once. Multiple keywords may be added to any clip.

The beauty is that anything you do in one area is applied to all. For example, applying the keyword Joe Smith to a clip sends that clip to the Keyword Collection for Joe Smith. Now, if you are in the Joe Smith Collection (think of it as a bin) and apply another keyword for Manager, the clip will also be added to the Manager Collection. All of the keywords (and ratings – like Favorite or Reject) that you have assigned to this clip, will appear in all instances for the clip. In this example, that would be in three places: the Event, the Joe Smith and the Manager Collections.

The next handy feature is ratings for Favorites and Rejects. With modern file-based cameras, you typically end up with a lot of short clips. In addition to false starts and bogus clips, these may also include short bursts for the slates preceding the actual clips. Using the Reject rating on any of these clips – and then setting the Event browser to “Hide Rejected” – will remove these clips from view. They are still there if you change the setting to “All Clips”. Obviously, you could use this for any completely bad takes, as well. After I culled the clips down to those with actual content using this method, the 720 employee clips was filtered down to 408 clips (6 hrs. 12 min. of content).

I set my Event browser to a  list (not thumbnail) view, which displays the selected clip as a filmstrip at the top of this pane of the UI. Since it shows video and audio in this filmstrip view, you can quite easily identify the spikes in the audio waveform every time the person delivers their line. It’s a simple matter to skim through each clip and add a marker for every successful line delivery. When it comes time to review the footage with the client, simply skip ahead to each marker to review that section.

The actual session

Working with the client in the room is a charm with Final Cut Pro X if you’ve done this level of organization. When clips from a certain person are requested, finding the right choice only takes a few moments. The best way to note client selects for the possible takes is to use FCP X’s system of range-based Favorites. Simply mark in-out points and hit “F” for favorite. A subclip is created for that portion of the longer clip. FCP X allows multiple, overlapping range-based selections within a clip.

Another trick is to use Smart Collections. For example, in this session, I created a Smart Collection for Favorites from each city. Once the proper filtering was defined, if I chose a range-based Favorite (subclip) for Joe Smith in Kansas City, then that section would appear in the Kansas City Smart Collection. Going forward, if the client or I wanted to review only the best options from those that had already been selected, I only needed to review the clips populated into these various Smart Collections.

The magnetic timeline design of Final Cut Pro X has been hotly debated, but it was the ideal approach for this set of spots, because we frequently re-arranged the order of the people in the spots. I did use Auditions once, but that didn’t prove too useful, due to the general slowness of setting up Audition clips. I used most of the editing tools X has to offer, excluding the various “automatics”, which aren’t too useful for this type of production. Since I varied the speed of some of the slomo shots, as well as slowed some of the standard shots, I was happy to have X’s Optical Flow for cleaner slomos.

Although I didn’t do the final color grading, I did have to use the built-in tools for review copies. The footage shot with the C300 used the Canon Log profile, resulting in a flatter, darker image. I was able to edit just fine this way, as the client understood, but then I quickly graded the completed rough cuts using the Color Board tool for a close-to-final look. This was needed in order to show execs for approval of the rough cuts.

Sending out

The final mix and color correction was done out-of-house, which required timeline translation with Xto7 for Final Cut Pro. Export an FCP X XML, import that into Xto7, which in turn opens it as an FCP 7 project and sequence.

Now for some glitches. Audio was all recorded with two mics, so FCP X defaults to stereo. I had changed these to dual mono in the Project and disabled (unchecked) the mic channel I wasn’t using on a clip-by-clip basis. The corresponding XML resulted in having no audio on the FCP 7 timeline. The fix seemed to be to restore my FCP X Project clips back to stereo, remove all level changes and then send to FCP 7 again. Now all the audio was there, except for one or two clips. These seem to have been affected by the slomo clips in the timeline, which also didn’t show up. In both cases, it was easy to manually add these clips back to the FCP 7 timeline and fix the issue.

From there, I exported an OMF  file with embedded audio for our Pro Tools mixer. Next, I needed to send full QuickTimes and a matching EDL to the colorist who was working on a Baselight system. I like to consolidate the media first and my favorite application is Automatic Duck Media Copy. It takes the FCP 7 XML and copies all the media used in that sequence. There is no conversion done in that process, so I feel it’s a safer approach than FCP 7’s Media Manager. Once copied, I take the new XML and open it back into FCP 7 and make sure that all media is reconnected to the copied files. This sequence is used to generate an EDL needed by the Baselight system. 94 clips were used in the string of six :30 commercials, requiring only 134GB of media instead of the full 660GB.

The roundtrip back

Now to conform the final commercials. Audio was no problem. Simply line up the AIFF files containing the mix and the stems (separate dialogue, sound effects and music) at the head and you have all you need for mixed and a split-track masters. Due to the “rubbery-ness” of the magnetic timeline, it did appear that removing transitions at the beginning and end of spots and removing the slomo clips caused some shifting of the spots within this string of six spots on a single Project timeline. No sync issues, but definitely not as locked into position as with an FCP 7 timeline. I did use the Audio Roles functions to export a multi-channel QuickTime file as a split-track submaster, which worked well.

Replacing the “dailies” footage with the rendered files from the Baselight system proved to be a bit trickier. Most color correction systems that render individual clips with handles will append unique IDs to the end of the file names for the rendered files. That’s because you might have used several clips from a single, longer camera file. Unfortunately, this complicates reconnecting the new media files. It’s completely impossible with FCP X, because everything about the file is seen by the software as different.

FCP 7 and Premiere Pro can relink, but require you to do this one clip at a time, as they can’t match the file names. Not ideal for 94 clips. I have done this in the past with Color, but for some reason, this time Color simply wouldn’t do it. In the future I will get a new XML from the transfer house that matches their baked files, which should eliminate these issues.

The workaround was to use Better Renamer and strip off the added suffix from the file name. Only a couple of clips were from a common source, so the application adds its own suffix (a, b, c, etc.) to these clips with the same name. Back in FCP 7, reconnect this media, manually reconnect the few clips with modified names and voila – you have the correct timeline linked to the new, graded shots. The last step was to export a new XML and use 7toX for Final Cut Pro to bring that sequence back into Final Cut Pro X. Marry it to the audio, make sure everything still lines up, add final graphics and Bob’s your uncle!

The final masters are HD, but broadcast distribution is still largely standard definition, 4×3 letterboxed files. After Effects continues to be my favored conversion method due to its clean scaling and correct 29.97fps interlaced files with the proper 3:2 pulldown cadence. All files were distributed electronically rather than on videotape. The finished spots may be viewed here.

Impressions

By and large this first big project went reasonably well. Editing in Final Cut Pro X is an acquired taste. If you stick with it and learn it, there’s a lot to like. I found that learning a few simple keystrokes and short cuts made things go faster and muscle memory kicked in for the new commands pretty quickly. I can’t say it was faster than with FCP 7. We got more done in the allotted schedule than was anticipated, but I believe (based on what I’ve done before with the same client) that the same would have been true with FCP 7, Media Composer or Premiere Pro.

There were some hiccups. The first was the SAN. This is a volume-level SAN, where each room has its own write volume plus read access to all the others. This doesn’t seem to work with FCP X’s “Add SAN Location” function, which was probably designed for a file-level SAN, like Apple Xsan. That doesn’t seem very important though, since multiple editors can still share the same media on the SAN drives.

I started with the Final Cut Events and Projects folders on the SAN volume, but experienced a lot of beachballs with nearly every second or third task. Sometimes a fraction of a second long and at other times, a couple of seconds. I experienced a couple of crashes and/or force quits a day. To FCP X’s credit, nothing was ever lost. Towards the end of the production, I moved the Events and Projects folder to the local drive (media still linked on the SAN volume) and all of these issues went away. So maybe network traffic creates some conflicts. The moral of the story is to keep your Events and Projects (renders, too, unfortunately) on a fast local drive and performance should be OK.

There are a lot of editing enhancements and software optimization that I hope will come soon. Editing/mixing audio is pretty weak in my opinion. (In fact, I found it refreshing to do some quick audio fixes on an existing commercial using FCP 7 again, after working in X for a while.) Simple titles are all Motion templates, so performance is VERY challenged. Stack two basic text lines over each other (no animation) and even a fast machine drops frames quickly unless you render.

After final delivery, I had to make a few quick changes, which required swapping clips on one spot and some color correction tweaks on three others. I had to match both the out-of-house color correction and the mix for these new clips. I could come close on the color correction using the Color Board, but needed the Broadcast Safe filter to clip white levels. This only works when you apply it to a compound clip, so you can’t see how your corrections are affected by the filter as you adjust the colors. Plus, it does more of a soft clip, thus changing the levels close to the ends rather than simply clipping. This filter has almost no adjustment control, making it of limited value. The same is true for audio, where compression and limiting does not work correctly when you try to apply it at the end of the audio chain. It is very hard to adjust your audio levels interactively between the compressor and the volume slider and get the correct limit.

Lastly, some of these fixes required that I use a few of the free plug-ins that various users have developed. You get what you pay for, as I found one that had a huge mistake in it. Applying the filter arbitrarily scaled the image up 150%. Fortunately these are all Motion templates, so it was a relatively easy matter to edit the filter in Motion and correct the mistake.

In the end, none of my concerns or complaints were deal-breakers. Editing was fast and generally fun, though you have to be very, very, very careful in what you do, when precision is important. Given the experience, I’ve moved onto another large corporate video project and will use Final Cut Pro X again on this one. Hey – I’m in the fire now!

©2012 Oliver Peters