A moment to pause

This past week I received the news of the passing of director Reza Badiyi. He’s not a household name, like Spielberg or Scorsese, but anyone who’s worked with Reza knew he left his mark on the industry.

As a director, Reza helmed more than 430 episodes of television, plus features and documentaries. Badiyi came to the US from Iran in the 1950s to study at Syracuse University. His career journey took him to Kansas City where he was a protégé to Robert Altman, working for him as a cinematographer and assistant director. This eventually led to Hollywood where he became one of the DGA’s most prolific directors, covering an amazing range of genres including The Doris Day Show, Mission Impossible, T. J. Hooker, Falcon Crest, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Baywatch and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I had the fortune of working with Reza on two feature films produced through the Valencia College film technology program in central Florida, The First of May and The Way Back Home. I edited both, but his involvement in the first was as a consultant, so my exposure was brief. He directed the second – apparently his last film – so, there our connection was closer, as director and editor.

The interesting twist was that when it came time to work through the director’s cut on the film, Reza was invited to be one of the judges in an international film festival held in his home country of Iran. Since he came to the US during the time of the Shah, he felt he couldn’t pass up this opportunity. After all, the influence of Iranian expats throughout the international film world is quite large. In any case, we worked through a producer’s cut first while Reza was away and then readdressed his notes upon his safe return. That’s the reverse of the typical process, but we absolutely wanted Reza’s input to the cut, so we happily made the schedule accommodations.

As an editor, I always appreciate working with a director who can quickly review the options, make a decision and move on. Not to mention offering creative solutions that have escaped everyone else. Reza fit that to a tee. He was known for his level of minute organization among crew, but he was equally organized in the edit room and that’s something that can’t be underestimated. With Reza’s passing, the industry has lost a great mentor. Godspeed.

©2011 Oliver Peters

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Film editing tips – Round II

In 2008 I wrote a post covering 12 Tips for Better Film Editing. I’ve been cutting a small indie feature over the past few weeks and it’s given me an opportunity to refocus on the art rather than the tools. Here are some additional tips that hopefully will make you a better editor.

1. Consider the continuity of actors in their positions on set. In many scenes, actors are blocked to walk to a part of the set, pick up some prop and deliver the dialogue. For example, an actor opens a car door and then has an exchange with another actor in the scene. In all too many productions, the continuity folks and the director don’t keep an eye on this. Sometimes the line is delivered before the door is opened – sometimes afterwards.

As an editor this may limit your options. Maybe the best delivery is on the master shot when the door is closed, but the best version of the medium shot is with the door open. You need to pay attention to these conditions and try to make them work. Either use only takes where items match – or use the best performances where continuity doesn’t match – but then figure out a way to cut around these errors so the audience doesn’t notice.

2. “Stammering” and forgetting dialogue. Actors all have little devices to help remember lines or to cover up when they forget a line of dialogue. Sometimes this takes the form of a hesitation, an “um” or an “ah”, a small stammer of a word or two, or the repeat of a phrase or a line. Your job as an editor is to help make the actor look believable as that character. As such, you need to be aware of these tricks and mistakes and take them out whenever necessary. Of course, sometimes they are an intended part of the acting, so make sure you don’t edit out the wrong thing. Removing these means covering the edit with a reaction or another angle, but this is all part of shaping a performance.

3. Expanding or contracting scene pacing. Editing has to do with pacing, but this is more then just setting a rhythm. Pacing has to do with adding tension or speed. Removing or reducing empty pauses in the dialogue between two characters – even overlapping lines – adds a sense of agitation or excitement. Inserting extra pauses between lines adds a sense of tension between the actors. Each long pause becomes slightly uncomfortable as would be the case in a painful conversation in real life.

4. Remove “shtick”. Often actors will be allowed to ad lib scenes or the director decides to inject some humor into a scene. Sometimes this works, but it typically comes across as overacting – especially when the film isn’t a comedy. Be judicious, but it’s often better to go with the understated performances, because they appear more genuine.

5. Motivation for actions. When an actor listens for something or looks in a certain direction, the audience needs a cause for motivation. This could be an off-camera sound, like a car horn honking, or it could be an insert shot of what the character sees. It’s important to try to find these shots or to ask that the director shoot them. In the case of sound, pull temporary sound effects to place into the edit.

6. Profanity.  Often when actors are allowed to ad lib lines, they’ll toss in a few expletives for emphasis. Some folks see this as normal language and others as offensive. If you have an editorial choice, opt for the take without the profanity, unless that’s what the director specifically wants in the cut. If you can edit it out, do so. Sometimes, it’s possible to use the line, but cut it as a split-edit, so the expletive is delivered over a cutaway.  In other words, you don’t see the actor actually delivering the word. This makes it easier to remove at some point in the future, should a “sanitized” version be required by the producers.

7. Intercutting parallel character action in a scene. A scene is often more interesting when you see what the rest of the actors are doing. As you review the takes, notice the performance each actor is bringing to the scene during the parts where he or she isn’t delivering the main dialogue lines. Try to incorporate some of these as reactions and cutaways to spice up a scene where appropriate.

In other cases a character must move from one part of the scene to another. If they are integral to the scene, it helps to include a few shots that let the audience know what is happening. For example, you don’t want a character to apparently pop into the foreground to suddenly deliver a line, when the last time the audience saw them was still inside a car at the beginning of a scene. You need to include a few shots, as the scene progresses, that clarifies to the audience that the character exited the car and started moving closer to camera. Then it’s natural when they deliver their line.

8. Intercutting transitional action. Sometimes scenes, as written, don’t transition well between each other when cut into a movie. For example, you might have two scenes back-to-back, in which each scene is a driving shot with a different set of characters talking to each other in a car. If Scene 1 ends and abruptly cuts to another similar scene in a car again, this won’t feel smooth. Instead, pay attention to transitional elements – for example, additional footage of driving or a POV from the car. These can be used to open time between the two scenes, just to give the audience a moment to breathe and make the mental switch.

Another technique in this situation could be to intercut the two driving scenes, so that sections of Scene 1 and Scene 2 are interleaved into a single scene going back and forth. Again, POV shots and general driving B-roll, plus some openness between the two situations, helps the audience make a seamless transition between these two disparate elements.

9. Use all the pieces. When you cut together a scene, don’t simply rely on the selected take as your best and only choice. Perhaps the “circle take” was only noted because it’s the only complete take where the actor got all the way through the scene with a moderately good performance. Possibly Take 1 had the best opening lines and another take the best middle and yet a different take had the strongest ending. As an editor, your job is to mold the scene by using all the elements at your disposal – in order to put on screen what the script writer and director intended. This includes reaction shots and cutaways to bridge the edits that are necessitated by such a patchwork of performances. Yes, it’s called editing, but in reality you are constructing, not merely removing.

10. Let your assistants cut. Unfortunately, I’ve rarely had the opportunity of working with assistant editors who were more than media loaders. On this recent project, I had a very sharp assistant who was also capable of editing. I wasn’t under a tight schedule and we were cutting as they were shooting, so the director was away on location. This provided an ideal opportunity to let my assistant cut a few scenes. I’d review and suggest tweaks, but the scenes were his. In the end, this will give your assistant a chance to grow, but better yet, it gives you as the editor an additional perspective as to how someone else sees that scene.

Click here for tips on editing two-camera dialogue scenes.

Click here and here for additional tips on editing documentaries.

Click here and here for a look at the various stages of editing picture and sound on features.

©2011 Oliver Peters

FCP X road blocks

Final Cut editors have lamented big time about the missing features in Final Cut Pro X. For instance – no VTR i/o except over FireWire – and no broadcast video monitoring output. I agree that those are important issues, but they don’t necessarily hold me back from using the application. It’s the less obvious things that are related to the inherent design, which I find hard to accept. There are thousands of little things I do in every session that are not in FCP X or simply require additional steps. Not to mention that the overall application feels slower when you are really rocking, due to the horsepower devoted to the virtual glitziness of the program itself instead of to performance.

Here’s a just a short list of what I feel needs addressing.

Rolling audio edits. The kind of split edits you do as second nature in both Final Cut Pro 7 and Avid Media Composer are simply not possible in as fluid of a manner in FCP X. For example, it’s next to impossible to do an audio-only, double-roller trim (“rolling edit”) in the FCP X timeline.

Multiple trim points. There is no way to simultaneously select and trim several clip edit points at one time. Apple would argue that the magnetic timeline eliminates the need to do this, but that’s not true.

Multiple mono audio channels. There is currently no good way to work with multiple mono audio tracks on a single file. For example, clips from a camera or a VTR source with four or more independent audio channels. You can enable or disable tracks in the Inspector, but you can’t independently mix them at different levels nor edit their start points to different locations. The workaround is to break the clip apart or open the clip in its own mini-timeline. That’s not in context with the other clips and the former solution runs the risk of throwing audio out of sync.

Sequence timecode start. You cannot alter the starting point of the timeline. I add bars-and-tone, slates and countdowns to most of my digitally-delivered master files. I want the start of the commercial or program to be 01:00:00:00. Not possible in FCP X.

Multicam. Doesn’t exist. Very infuriating, since the previous version was so good.

Track tool. This plays a huge part in how I edit and something I really loved in FCP over Media Composer. I use it to move clips downstream to open a space on the timeline to work. If I want to do the same in FCP X, I either have to insert a placeholder (essentially the OLD Avid way of working) or select a number of clips (also the OLD Avid way). Not very effective when you have an hour-long timeline. Another reason to use the track tool is to select all the clips to the right in order to apply common effects.

FCP sequence import. I recognize that translating a complete FCP 7 project into FCP X might pose problems for all the reasons Apple has given. However, importing a single sequence with all the media linked and accurate edit points is so essential to not even be questioned. It’s OK if this means no effects translation, but I simply don’t accept that Apple was unable to do this. When they eventually open up their SDK for the new-and-improved XML – and the first developer like Automatic Duck or Boris FX offers translation capabilities – then the ProApps team is going to have egg on its face for saying it couldn’t be done.

Copy/paste/remove attributes. One of the most essential functions in my FCP workflow and one of the reasons I use FCP over Media Composer. FCP X has Paste Effects, but it’s an all-or-nothing function. Plus you can’t highlight all the clips with the track tool and paste values to them. There’s also no Paste Attributes – Content in FCP X. Same goes for pasting audio-only attributes.

2.5/3D DVE. Not really a deal-breaker, but a pet peeve for me. It’s there in Media Composer and in Premiere Pro. It should have been in FCP 1-7. Not sure why Apple simply can’t make this happen, without using Motion as the workaround.

Manual organization of bins and projects. Smart Collections and Keyword Collections are nice, but these should have been in addition to, not instead of, manual organization methods. The current method lacks the ease of grouping data and moving between bins, multiple sequences and multiple projects as one is used to in FCP 7.

Mixer panel. There is currently no way to effectively mix a complex project with many different audio channels in FCP X. Even if you could, the only method is rubber-banding key frames in the timeline. Hardly an intuitive way to work, since mixing tends to be BY EAR and generally in real-time.

Timecode overlays. Sure would be nice to see all relevant positions of clips at one point on the timeline.

Dual source-record windows. The standard 2-up editing display is more than just a nicety. It’s vital for things like matching eye lines, actor positions, etc. It’s also good when you need to gang two timelines together (also not possible in FCP X) in order to compare differences.

Out-of-sync. It’s very easy to break clips apart (audio and video) and then inadvertently throw them out of sync. This is an essential function when you have multiple mono audio tracks on a clip. There are no out-of-sync indicators nor an easy way to move or slip elements back into sync.

Interface response. Right now the GUI is S-L-O-W compared with FCP 7. Click on a type-able field for a clip in the list view of the Event Browser and there is a slight lag before you can actually type. This is because there is always a minimum of one filmstrip shown, which has to be updated for the selected clip. There are a lot of these little issues throughout the entire application and they mount up during a day of working.

It’s an island. A lot of editors have complained about the lack of legacy FCP project migration, XML, etc. – but it goes deeper. At its core, FCP X doesn’t work with anything else outside of FCP X. There’s no “send to” for any of the old or new applications.

An early deal with Automatic Duck gave us at least OMF export and Apple has alluded to a new form of XML that’s coming. In the end, this isn’t enough. The previous versions of FCP read older project files, imported XML and Batch Lists and exported XML, EDLs, Batch Lists and more. Although some of these are simple and archaic formats, they are still in active use throughout the film and video world and will continue to be so for some time. Finally, when we talk about exporting, you can no longer export QuickTime reference file or Batch Export a group of files.

 

UPDATE: I recent presented a live webinar expanding upon many of these topics. The on-demand version and bonus materials are now available for purchase at the Filmmaking Webinars site.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Understanding color correction in FCP X

Click on images for an expanded view.

One of the many new things to get used to in Apple Final Cut Pro X is the new way of handling color correction. Instead of a familiar color-wheel or curves-based grading tool, FCP X features the tabbed Color Board. This tool is a mash-up between the two color correctors and some of the image adjustment filters in previous versions of Final Cut.

Apple did not roll the functionality of Color into FCP X. If you are a fan and user of Color, then that’s a great disappointment. Color continues to be viable as an advanced grading tool, but for most FCP editors it was merely a source of confusion. Unfortunately, Apple never put much effort into developing and marketing Color and simply used it as a carrot to attract new FCP users (“you get this $25K color corrector for FREE”). Exit the FCP 3-way. Exit Apple Color. Enter the Color Board.

The Color Board toolset

Color correction takes three forms in Final Cut Pro X : automatic Balance, Match Color and manual adjustments in the Color Board tabs. When you select a clip and click Balance or Match Color, the changes are made in the color profile of the file, which means that the actual parameters that were adjusted are invisible to the user. The image and waveform/vector/parade displays change, but no slider positions have been altered in the Color Board controls. So, you still have additional correction/grading control on top of the changes caused by Balance or Match Color.

In actual practice, I’m generally not happy with the results of Balance. I’m sure the derived color balance is mathematically correct, because I see an off-center vectorscope image become more zeroed on the display. However, the image frequently looks too cool or blue than would be the case if I had simply done the balance manually. This is no eye dropper control that lets you pick the color you’d like to use for determining a white standard. In the case of HDSLR footage, like from a Canon 5D, the normal camera settings frequently yield images than are high-contrast, very saturated and somewhat orange. Here, the Balance feature often does a nice job. On the other hand, when I use this feature to automatically balance Log-C images from an ARRI ALEXA, the contrast is corrected, but I’m usually not happy with the balance changes to the picture.

Another aspect of this correction is that the Color Board controls behave differently. In the Log-C example, if I automatically correct the image using Balance, then I don’t have nearly the range of saturation available on the global slider (Color Board Saturation tab) as I do if I corrected the image manually. But, when I increase saturation using the global slider PLUS the low/mid/high sliders, then I have a lot of range. Quite possibly this is a bug. If you are working with ALEXA Log-C footage, none of the LUTs or filters designed for LogC-to-709 correction work in FCP X. Not to mention that support for REDCODE raw files (or any other raw motion format) is nonexistent to date.

Match Color is another automatic correction tool, which is designed to alter the grading of one clip based on the color of another. Select the clip to change, pick a frame on another clip to match it to, which then alters the first clip accordingly. Like Balance, this change is made in the color profile, so you don’t really know what was adjusted to achieve the results you see. An interesting aspect to this is that if have graded a clip with the Color Board and then you match another clip to that graded clip, the changes in the second clip are made in the profile and not by making comparable adjustments in its Color Board settings. Unfortunately, in most of my tests, Match Color didn’t do a very good match at all and generally could not achieve a perfect match of the exact same footage to itself. That is, correcting a clip and then trying to match an identical duplicate of the clip to that correction.

Color Adjustment tabs

The Color Board Color Adjustment slide-out panel is where you make manual color correction/grading changes. It’s divided into three tabs for Exposure (brightness, contrast, gamma) Saturation and Color (hue, tint, balance, phase). Each tab has four sliders (or button controls) for a global, as well as shadow/midtone/highlight changes. The layout is divided into a positive and negative range, so you add or subtract values by moving the slider (button control) above or below the default middle line.

The functions of these tools are a combination of both the basic and 3-way color correctors from FCP 7. Apple would suggest that this non-standard (no color wheels) layout conserves screen real estate. In fact, it takes three tabs to equal what is done in one screen by Magic Bullet Colorista Free, which would occupy the space of a single tab. I presume the tabbed design works well with gestures, so I would imagine that Apple’s long-range goal is to conform to future OS designs and to work with its own track pad.

The Color tab is where you adjust hue and color tones and is the replacement for standard hue offset (color wheel) controls. This philosophy is similar to split toning used in Adobe Lightroom. Instead of shifting the color wheel towards or away from a certain color, you move the slider (button control) over to the desired color in a positive or negative direction. This gets more confusing than the Saturation or Exposure tabs, because you aren’t limited to an up or down travel for the control. If you want highlights to be more red, then move the highlight button into the upper red area of the color swatch. This adds red tinting to the highlights of the image. If you want to make the shadows less blue, then move the shadows button into the lower blue region of the color swatch to subtract blue. There are a number of preset Apple “looks” under the gear icon in the lower right corner. Once you get the grasp of this, it’s pretty easy, but overall, it feels very imprecise compared with standard hue offset controls. Of course, none of the control surfaces like Avid Artist Color or Tangent Devices Wave work yet.

I do like the overall quality of the corrections made. In the past, when you compared the results of grading with the standard FCP 3-way filter versus a plug-in like Colorista, the latter was considered to yield cleaner results, since they each used different color models. It seems to me that the corrections in FCP X are also cleaner than using the 3-way in FCP 7. I would certainly rate this as an improvement and part of Apple’s plan to maintain pristine image quality in FCP X.

Masking

The Color Board offers two modifiers per correction – a Shape Mask and an HSL keyer or Color Mask. The HSL keyer is similar to the limit controls opened when you twirl the disclosure triangle in FCP’s 3-way filter. It doesn’t seem to be very good though and doesn’t have as much control as the older FCP keyer. It’s certainly not as precise as similar tools, such as in Colorista II. For example, I found it impossible to isolate a single color with any accuracy. I would recommend using it more for general isolation, like skin tones, in order to control subtle corrections.

There is also a shape mask, which is limited to oval and rectangular vignettes. The mask size, “squareness”, aspect and softness parameters are adjustable, but you can’t do a user-defined shape. In both color and the shape masks, correction can be applied inside and outside of the mask. As a general rule, you should only apply either the shape or color mask to one correction, but multiple masks can be applied in a single correction. When you do that though, the same correction settings appear in all masks. If you want additional masks with different corrections, then you will have to add more correction filters by clicking the rainbow “+” icon.

Unlike the filter stacks in FCP 7, color correction layers have a fixed order that can’t be re-arranged. You can’t move Correction 3 above Correction 1 and 2, as you could with several 3-way correctors applied on an FCP 7 clip. Likewise, actual effects filters are always added after color correction in the Color Board. There are two workarounds for this. The first is to work with Compound Clips – the new term for a “nest”. If you want to add a correction after the application of a filter or apply an additional overall correction to series of clips, select the clip(s) and click Option-G for a new compound clip. Now apply the new effect or correction.

It is also possible to apply some pseudo “look” effects to a group of clips on the Primary Storyline by adding a custom generator as a Connected Clip. The custom generator color, blend mode and opacity can be changed to achieve the desired effect on top of the clips. In addition, you can apply Color Adjustments to the generator. So for example, if you’d like to add a golden wash to a set of clips, then using this technique might be an interesting approach.

Workflow – or lack thereof

One of the big changes between FCP 7 and FCP X is that there is no color grading workflow. You can no longer create custom layouts for grading or use the Playhead Sync – Open feature to step through timeline clips without clicks. These two aspects of FCP 7 allowed you to work in a color correction mode, much like Avid Symphony. Their absence makes color correction much slower in FCP X.

You also can’t drag-and-drop correction settings from the filter pane onto another clip. FCP X does offer a Paste Effects function, but you have no ability to limit this selection to only filters or corrections as you had in the FCP 7 Past Attributes window. You can save Color Board corrections as presets, but there’s no way to copy a setting to a bin and then apply it to multiple selected clips on the timeline.

One last issue is that source-side effects have more or less been done away with. This has been replaced with the “open in timeline” command. When you select a clip and invoke this, the clip will open in its own mini-timeline. Now adjustments can be made to the clip (scaling, color correction, effects). These changes have been applied to the clip in the Event Browser, so every time you edit that clip to another timeline, the clip already includes the applied effects.

If you want to color correct footage BEFORE editing it, using “open in timeline” is the way to do that. But you can’t copy-and-paste effects or corrections this way from one clip to another. To do so with multiple clips, you have to go through the “open in timeline” dance for each one. It seems to be a necessary workaround, because Apple eliminated the dedicated Viewer-Canvas design. Another example of different, but not better nor easier.

While there has been a lot of advanced work done on the color side of Final Cut Pro X, using it for sophisticated color correction has now taken a serious step backwards compared with most of the previous versions. Never mind the fact that Apple Color is gone or that there’s no legacy “send to Color”, which could have helped. In the past I did a lot of grading – including feature films – strictly in FCP. That doesn’t seem like a viable option any longer with FCP X.

©2011 Oliver Peters