Ten Tips For A Better Final Cut Pro Experience

Many experienced editors making the transition to Apple’s Final Cut Pro often struggle with some of FCP’s core operating features. This is especially true of many Avid editors who view working in Final Cut akin to learning a different language. Here are 10 quick tips on how to run and organize FCP edit sessions that will hopefully ease your frustration.


1. Edit with sequence content.  Many editors like to cut one sequence into another. This forces FCP to nest the source sequence – a feature that I consider evil. Nesting causes a number of operational problems and should be used sparingly and only when intended. To avoid this automatic behavior, remap your Overwrite (F10) and Insert (F9) keyboard commands to become Overwrite/Insert with Sequence Content. The behavior won’t change with master clips, but when you cut one sequence into another, the original source clips show up on the new timeline, instead of a single nest.


2. Playhead Sync – Open.  The middle canvas pulldown menu offers a choice of Sync Off, Open or Gang. The default is Sync Off, but when you choose Open, the entire sequence (instead of a master clip) is loaded into the viewer. These two windows stay in sync, so as you move to the next sequence clip it appears in both the viewer and canvas. By changing the viewer tab to motion or filters, you can quickly see what filters or motion adjustments have been applied to a timeline clip without first needing to double-click. Working in the open playhead sync mode is great when you are color grading a show, because it lets you move through the timeline in much the same way as in Avid’s color correction mode on Media Composer and Symphony. Simply move to the next clip, apply a 3-way filter, adjust and move on.



3. Stacking color correction filters.  Final Cut Pro does not offer a sophisticated built-in color grading mode, like Symphony. That’s why Apple integrated Color into the Final Cut Studio suite. Nevertheless, there are many situations where editors prefer to stay inside FCP for grading. You can often achieve similar results to Color without leaving the FCP interface through careful use of several different filters. Since FCP allows you to stack filters, you can easily enable or disable filters in the stack and move them higher or lower in the stack to change the result. I will often use FCP’s 3-way color corrector for a “primary grade” and then stack more instances of the 3-way, Colorista, Face Light and/or Vignette, using them for a “secondary grade”. If I need more of a stylized look (glows, selective focus, etc.), then Magic Bullet Looks has become my “go to” weapon.


4. Multicam grading and syncing.  There’s a quick and easy way to grade your cameras, as well as slip sync in multiclips once they are edited to the timeline. First, find a grade that works for each camera. Copy-and-paste it into a browser bin. Then use the timeline Find command to select a specific camera. Every clip for the same camera angle will be selected and highlighted. Drag and drop that camera’s filter from the browser bin onto the timeline clips. Repeat for each camera. What if you think one camera is slightly out of sync? Use the same Find procedure to select all the clips for that camera, choose the slip/slide tool (S) and trim your clips forward or backward using the bracket keys. In a matter of a few minutes, an entire half-hour studio multi-camera show can be graded and adjusted for sync!


5. Uprez.  You’re done with the creative cut and need to “uprez” – the process of recapturing your timeline clips at full resolution to generate a master. It’s also called conforming and online editing. This is where Media Manager can be your friend or enemy. I follow a very specific process that has served me well to date. I always do media management with the draft-quality media attached. Past versions of FCP would not properly media manage sequences with the media offline, but others report this has been fixed. Your mileage my vary.


These are my steps:


a. Copy the sequence twice – once for audio (remove all video clips), once for video (remove all audio clips).


b. For each of these new sequences, choose “Make Sequence Clips Independent”.


c. For each sequence, select Media Manager and use the Copy function. Select 4 sec. handles for the audio-only sequence and 1 or 2 sec. handles for the video-only sequence. These will be copied into two new projects and media will be duplicated. Since the video media is low-res (such as DV25), the process shouldn’t take that long and won’t take up much space.


d. Open the two new projects and edit the audio-only sequence back to the video-only sequence. Close the audio-only project. (I am going to assume that your original audio was captured cleanly from a digital source, so there’s no reason to recapture it.)


e. Compare the Media Managed timeline to the approved rough cut and make sure there are no problems. If it’s all OK, then go into the master clips bin and find all the video that you intend to recapture. Clips that are already high-quality, like stills, may not need to be recaptured. Generally, you are only going to need to recapture timecode-based videotape clips. Find those clips, highlight them and select “Make Offline”. Delete the media.


f. Change your project setting and sequence setting (such as from NTSC DV25 to 1080i) and set the proper capture settings. I usually recapture WITH all audio tracks and ignore the logged settings. This ensures that I get the proper video along with all the audio tracks. I don’t intend to use this audio, but if there’s any question of quality or mic selection, I have the original source on the hard drives and can verify or replace as needed.


g. Batch capture and then make all necessary adjustments in the timeline, such as tweaking the motion (size, position) and distort values.


6. Media locations.  Final Cut defaults to placing all media and project files into a Final Cut Documents folder on the internal system hard drive. It will let you designate any drive or folder as a preferred location and this feature is what gets most newbies into serious trouble. The result is often media scattered all over a bunch of drives and media folders inside other media folders, not to mention “untitled” files and folders all over the place! This does not make FCP very happy and might bring your system to a total halt.


My recommendation is to place all project files (and the Autosave Vault) inside a Final Cut Documents or Projects subfolder within the user Documents folder on the internal drive. Add an FCP Media subfolder inside your user Movies folder and at the root level of all external media drives. Any of these may be selected as the Scratch Disk location in the FCP System Settings. Be careful, though, because FCP looks for the last one used. If it’s disconnected, FCP has a tendency to create new folders on the internal drive. The cache file folders can go anywhere you like and there’s also no reason not to store project files on the external drive as well. I just don’t place them there for safety’s sake, in case of drive failure.


Final Cut typically generates four media folders: Audio Render Files, Capture Scratch, Render Files and Media (when Media Manager is used to copy files). Within each of these folders will be a subfolder for each project bearing the same name as the project. This makes it easy to archive media by simply backing up folders with the right name. In addition to the four FCP folders, I typically add a fifth folder called GFX-MUSIC-OTHER. For each project, I will add a subfolder inside it using the same name as the project. Here is where I place all non-videotape-based or non-timecode-based media, like stills, graphics, music, etc. Even scripts and producer’s notes will go into here. Again – a simple way to keep all project files together and easy to find, archive and restore at a later date.



7. Using self-contained exports.  FCP’s render file management is an Achilles’ Heel. The timeline and composites are only rendered from the top layer down and it’s easy to cause clips to become unrendered or for FCP to lose links to the render files. One way to mitigate this is to export all or portions of the timeline as a self-contained QuickTime file. This is handy when you are building a complex multilayered composite and want to create “shelf points” – layers below which nothing needs to change, but to which you can still add content on higher levels. For example, a complex promo end tag with different date/time versions. To make sure the generic build stays intact, I’ll export a “clean” version as a self-contained file. Then import it and place it on a higher track above the composite. Make sure your file labeling is logical, in case you have to retrace your steps. The self-contained file is a “flattened” version of the composite, so no extra timeline rendering is required. Adding text or other layers on top requires a quick additional render that won’t force you to slowly re-render the entire build.



8. Easy set-ups / timeline settings.  Final Cut offers a lot of versatility in frame rates, codecs and formats, but if you add some of the hardware options, like an AJA KONA3 card, the permutations expand exponentially. It’s easy to get in trouble trying to build up the right combination of capture, sequence and device settings from scratch. Fortunately FCP includes a set of presets – Easy Set-ups. These are augmented with any third party I/O installation, so rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, simply pick the Easy Set-up that matched your project and nine times out of ten, everything will be set correctly for you. Final Cut works on the basis that the sequence setting must match the master clip media format, otherwise real-time performance is diminished and rendering is required. When you start with a blank sequence and a mismatched media clip, a new feature introduced with FCP6 will prompt you to decide whether to automatically change the sequence setting to match. This is helpful when using odd file formats, like proxy QuickTimes from a RED camera. You might want to experiment with this on the first edit to see if it improves your playback, when you don’t know the exact formats involved.


9. Slow / fast motion.  When you change the speed of a clip on the timeline, it will hold the in and out marks of the clip constant, forcing the timeline after that clip to slide earlier or later. If you don’t like that behavior, adjust the speed as a source change. Do this by loading the clip into the viewer, change the speed first and then edit it into the timeline. Now change the clip’s speed in the viewer back to normal (100%), so it will be the proper speed the next time you access it. The clip that’s edited into the timeline won’t be affected by this change back to normal speed.



10. Motion, Soundtrack, Color and LiveType.  Final Cut Studio is an application suite that works as a hub-and-spoke system. Complex compositing, animated titles, audio sweetening and advanced color grading are performed outside of Final Cut Pro in the other Studio applications. Using “Send To” commands, clips and entire timelines are moved between FCP and the other applications and back. Unlike Avid, which would retain complex effects metadata within the host project, these individual applications all create their own project files. If you do a lot of this, you should pay close attention to how you manage these projects, just like you do FCP media. When you archive an FCP project, you also need to make sure that you archive any of these supporting projects, so that changes can be made at a later date. There are two alternate approaches I would suggest:


a. Create separate documents folders for each of these project types and save the project files there. For example, you would have a single Motion Projects folder for all Motion jobs and the same for the other applications.


b. Use your GFX-MUSIC-OTHER folder created in Tip 6. Save the associated Studio project files (as well as Photoshop and After Effects projects) in the specific folder pertaining to each project. This keeps all files related to a single job together.


© 2008 Oliver Peters