Every NLE is a Database

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has spawned many tribal arguments since its launch eight years ago. There have been plenty of debates about the pros and cons of its innovative design and editing model. One that I’ve heard a number of times is that FCPX is a relational database, while traditional editing applications are more like an Excel spreadsheet. I can see how the presentation of a bin in the list view format might convey that impression, but that doesn’t make it accurate. Spreadsheets are a grid of cells that are based on a combination of mathematical formulae, regardless of whether the info is text or numbers. All nonlinear editing applications (NLE) use a relational database to track media, although the type and format of this database will differ among brands. In all cases, these function altogether differently than how a spreadsheet functions.

It started with film

When all editing was done on film, the editors cut work print, which was a reversal copy printed from the camera negative. Edits made on the work print were eventually duplicated on the pristine negative by a negative cutter, based on a cut list. Determining where to cut and join the film segments together was based on a list of edit points corresponding to the source rolls of the film, plus a foot+frame count for specific edit points. The work print, which the editors could physically cut and splice as needed, was effectively an abstraction of – and stand-in for – the negative.

In order to enable the process, assistant editors (or in some cases, the editor) created a handwritten log, known as a codebook. This started with the dailies and included all the pertinent information, such as source roll, shoot days/dates, scenes/takes, director’s notes, editor’s notes, and so on. The codebook was a physical database that allowed an editor to know what the options were and where to find them.

During the videotape-editing era prior to NLEs, any sort of database for tracking source information was still manual. Only the cut list portion, known as the edit decision list, could be generated by the edit computer, based on the timecode values recorded on the tape. Timecode became the electronic equivalent of the foot+frame count of physical film.

Fast forward to the modern era with file-based camera acquisition and ubiquitous, inexpensive editing software. The file recorded by the camera is a container of sorts that holds essence (audio and video) and metadata (information about the essence). Some cameras generate a lot of metadata and others don’t. One example of this type of metadata that we all encounter is the information embedded into digital still photos, which can include location, lens data, and a ton more.

When clips are ingested/imported into your NLE – whether into a project, bin, folder, or an event – the NLE links to the essence of the media clips on the hard drive or camera card and brings in whatever clip metadata is understood by that application. In addition, the user can add and merge a lot more metadata derived from other sources, like the sound recorder, script supervisor notes, electronic script, and manually-added data.

The clip that you see in the bin/event/folder is an abstraction for the actual audio and video media, just like work print was for film editors. The bin/folder/event data entries are like the film editor’s codebook and are tracked in the internal database used by that application to cross-reference the clip with the actual stored media. Since a clip in the app’s browser is simply an abstraction, it can appear in multiple places at the same time – in various bins and sequences. The internal database makes sure that each of these instances of the clip all reference the same piece of media accurate down to the video frame or audio sample.

It doesn’t matter how the bin looks

The spreadsheet comparison is based on how bins have appeared in most NLEs, including Final Cut Pro “legacy,” Avid Media Composer, and others. Unfortunately that opinion is usually based on a narrow exposure to other NLEs. As I said, at the core, every NLE is a relational database. And so, there are other things that can be tracked and/or ways it can be displayed.

For instance, older Quantel edit systems displayed source information based on what we would consider a smart search view today. The entirety of the source material was not displayed in front of the editor, since it was a single-screen layout. Entering data into a search field would sift through and present clips matching the requested data.

Avid Media Composer systems also track media based on Script Integration (sometimes incorrectly referred to as ScriptSync, which is a separate Avid option). This is a graphical bin layout with the script text displayed on screen and clips linked to coverage of that scene. Media Composer and now Premiere Pro both permit a freeform clip view for a bin, in which the editor can freely rearrange the position of the clip thumbnails within the bin window. This visual juxtaposition by the user of clips conveys important information to the editor.

All NLEs have multiple ways to present the data and aren’t limited to a grid-style list view that resembles a spreadsheet or a grid of clip thumbnails. Enabling these alternate views takes a lot more than simply cross-referencing your bin and timelines against a set of edit points. That’s where databases come in and why every NLE is built around one.

How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?

My apologies to Firesign Theatre. A huge aspect of the Final Cut Pro X edit workflow is the use of keyword collections. You aren’t limited to being in just a single bin thanks to them. While this is a selling point for FCPX, it is also well within the capabilities of most NLEs.

Organizing your event (bin) media in FCPX can start by assigning keywords to each clip. Each new keyword used creates a keyword collection – sort of a “smart sub-bin.” As you assign one or more keywords to a clip, FCPX automatically sorts the clip into those corresponding keyword collections.  For example, let’s say you have a series of wide and close-up shots featuring both male and female actors. Clip 1 might be sorted into WIDE and MAN; Clip 2 into WIDE and WOMAN; Clip 3 into WOMAN and CLOSE-UP. So then the keyword collection for WIDE displays Clip 1 and Clip 2; MAN displays Clip 1; WOMAN displays Clip 2 and Clip 3; CLOSE-UP displays Clip 3.

Once this initial step is completed it enables the editor to view source clips in a more focused manner. Instead of wading through 100 clips in the event (bin) each time, the editor may only have to deal with 10 clips in the CLOSE-UP keyword collection. Or in any other collection. The beauty of FCPX’s interface design is the speed and fluidity with which this can be accomplished. This feature is one of the hallmarks of the application and no other NLE does it nearly as elegantly. In fact, FCPX tackles the challenge of narrowing down the browser options through three methods – ratings, keyword collections, and smart collection (described in this linked tutorial by Simon Ubsdell).

As elegantly as Final Cut tackles this task, that doesn’t mean that other NLEs can’t function in a similar manner. Within Premiere Pro, those exact same keywords can be assigned to the clips. Then simply create a set of search bins using those same keywords as search criteria. The result is the exact same type of distribution of clips into collections where multiple clips can appear in multiple bins at the same time. Likewise, the editor doesn’t need to go through the full set of clips in a bin, but can concentrate on the small handful in any given search bin. Media Composer also offers search functions, as well as, custom sift routines, which enable you to only display clips matching specific column details, like a custom keyword.

Most NLEs can only store one set of in/out edit marks on a clip within a bin at any given time. On the other hand, Final Cut Pro X offers range-based selection. Clips can retain multiple in/out selections at once. Nevertheless other NLE aren’t behind here either. The obvious solution that most editors use when this is needed is to create a subclip, which can be a duplicate of the entire clip or a portion from within a single clip. Need to pull multiple sections of the clip? Simply create multiple subclips. In effect, these are the same as range-based selections in Final Cut Pro X. Admittedly the FCPX method is more fluid and straightforward. Nevertheless, range-based selections are virtual subclips that are dynamically created by the editor; but unlike subclips, these can’t be moved separately to other events (bins). Two ways to tackle a very similar need.

The bottom line is that under the hood, all NLEs are still very much the same. Let me emphasize that I’m not arguing the superiority, speed, or elegance of one approach or tool over another. Every company has their own set of unique features that appeal to different types of editors. They are simply different methods to place information at your fingertips, get roadblocks out of the way, and thus to make editing more creative and enjoyable.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Ford v Ferrari

Outraged by a failed attempt to acquire European carmaker Ferrari, Henry Ford II sets out to trounce Enzo Ferrari on his own playing field – automobile endurance racing. Unfortunately, the effort falls short, leading Ford to turn to independent car designer, Carroll Shelby. But Shelby’s outspoken lead test driver, Ken Miles, complicates the situation by making an enemy out of Ford Senior VP Leo Beebe. Nevertheless, Shelby and his team are able to build one of the greatest race cars ever – the GT40 MkII – setting the showdown between the two auto legends at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. Matt Damon and Christian Bale star as Shelby and Miles.

The challenge of bringing this clash of personalities to the screen was taken on by director James Mangold (Logan, Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma) and his team of long time collaborators. I recently spoke with film editors Michael McCusker, ACE (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Logan) and Andrew Buckland (The Girl on the Train) about what it took to bring Ford v Ferrari together.

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[OP] The post team for this film has worked with James Mangold on quite a few films. Tell me a bit about the relationship.

[MM] I cut my very first movie, Walk The Line, for Jim 15 years ago and have since cut his last six movies. I was the first assistant editor on Kate & Leopold, which was shot in New York in 2001. That’s where I met Andrew, who was hired as one of the local New York film assistants. We became fast friends. Andrew moved out to LA in 2009 and I hired him to assist me on Knight & Day. We’ve been working together for 10 years now.

I always want to keep myself available for Jim, because he chooses good material, attracts great talent, and is a filmmaker with a strong vision who works across multiple genres. Since I’ve worked with him, I’ve cut a musical movie, a western, a rom-com, an action movie, a straight-up superhero movie, a dystopian superhero movie, and now a car racing film.

[OP] As a film editor, it must be great not to get type-cast for any particular cutting style.

[MM] Exactly. I worked for David Brenner for years as his first. He was able to cross genres and that’s what I wanted to do. I knew even then that the most important decisions I would make would be choosing projects. I couldn’t have foreseen that Jim was going to work across all these genres – I simply knew that we worked well together and that the end product was good.  

[OP] In preparing for Ford v Ferrari, did you study any other recent racing films, like Ron Howard’s Rush?

[MM] I saw that movie and liked it. Jim was aware of it, too, but I think he wanted to do something a little more organic. We watched a lot of older racing films, like Steve McQueen’s Le Mans and Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. Jim’s original intention was to play the racing in long takes and bring the audience along for the ride. As he was developing the script and we were in preproduction, it became clear that there was so much more drama that was available for him to portray during the racing sequences than he anticipated. And so, the races took on more of an energized pace.

[OP] Energized in what way? Do you mean in how you cut it or in a change of production technique, like more stunt cameras and angles?

[MM] I was fortunate to get involved about two-and-a-half months prior to the start of production. We were developing the Le Mans race in pre-vis, which required a lot of editing and discussions about shot design and figuring out what the intercutting was going to be during that sequence, which is like the fourth act of the movie. You’re dealing with Mollie and Peter [Ken Miles’ wife and son] at home watching the race, the pit drama, what’s going on with Shelby and his crew, with Ford and Leo Beebe, and also, of course, what’s going on in the car with Ken. It’s a three act movie unto itself, so Jim was trying to figure out how it was all going to work, before he had to shoot it. That’s where I came in. The frenetic pace of Le Mans was more a part of the writing process – and part of the writing process was the pre-vis. The trick was how to make sure we weren’t just following cars around a track. That’s where redundancy can tend to beleaguer an audience in racing movies. 

[OP] What was the timeline for production and post?

[MM] I started at the end of May 2018. Production began at the the beginning of August and went all the way through to the end of November. We started post in earnest at the beginning of November of last year, took some time off for the holidays, and then showed the film to the studios around February or March.

The challenge was that there was going to be a lot of racing footage, which meant there was going to be a LOT of footage. I knew I was going to need a strong co-editor, so Andrew was the natural choice. He had been cutting on his own and cutting with me over the years. We share a common approach to editing and have a similar aesthetic. There was a point when things got really intense and we needed another pair of hands, so I brought in Dirk Westervelt to help out for a couple of months. That kept our noses above water, but the process was really enjoyable. We were never in a crisis mode. We got a great response from preview audiences and, of course, that calms everybody down. At that point it was just about quality control and making sure we weren’t resting on our laurels. 

[OP] How long was your initial cut and what was your process for trimming the film down to the present run time?

[MM] We’re at 2:30:00 right now and I think the first cut was 3:10:00 or 3:12:00. The Le Mans section was longer. The front end of the movie had more scenes in it. We ended up lifting some scenes and rearranging others.  Plus, the basic trimming of scenes brought the length down. But nothing was the result of a panic, like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to get to 2:30:00!” There were no demands by the studio or any pressures we placed upon ourselves to hit a particular running time. I like to say that there’s real time and there’s cinematic time. You can watch Once Upon a Time in America, which is 3:45:00, and feel likes it’s an hour. Or you can watch an 89-minute movie and feel like it’s drudgery. We just wanted to make sure we weren’t overstaying our welcome. 

[OP] How extensively did you re-arrange scenes during the edit? Or did the structure of the film stay pretty much as scripted?

[MM] To a great degree it stayed as scripted. We had some scenes in the beginning that we felt were a little bit tangential and weren’t serving the narrative directly and those were cut. The real endeavor of this movie starts the moment that these two guys [Shelby and Miles] decide to tackle the challenge of developing this car. There’s a scene where Miles sees the car for the first time at LAX. We understood that we had to get to that point in a very efficient way, but also set up all the other characters – their motives and their desires.

It’s an interesting movie, because it starts off with a lot of characters. But then it develops into a movie about two guys and their friendship. So it goes from an ensemble piece to being about Ken and Carroll, while at the same time the scope of the movie is opening up and becoming larger as the racing is going on. For us, the trickiest part was the front end – to make sure we spent enough time with each character so that we understood them, but not so much time that audience would go, “Enough already! Get on with it!”

[OP] Were you both racing fans before you signed onto this film?

[AB] I was not.

[MM] When I was a kid, I watched a lot of racing. I liked CART racing – open wheel racing – not so much stock car racing. As I grew older, I lost interest, particularly when CART disbanded and NASCAR took over. So, I had an appreciation for it. I went to races, like the old Ontario 500 here in California.

[OP] Did that help inform your cutting style for this film?

[MM] I don’t think so. Where it helped was knowing the sound of the broadcasters and race announcers. I liked Chris Economaki and Jim McKay – guys who were broadcasting the races when I was a kid. I was intrigued about how they gave us the narrative of the race. It came in handy while we were making this movie, because we were able to get our hands on some of Jim McKay’s actual coverage of Le Mans and used it in the movie. That brings so much authenticity.

[OP] Let’s dive deeper into the sound for this film. I would imagine that sound design was integral to your rough cuts. How did you tackle that?

 [AB] We were fortunate to have the sound team on very early during preproduction. We were cutting in a 5.1 environment, so we wanted to create sound design early in the process. The sounds may have not been the exact engine sounds that would end up in the final, but they were adequate to allow you to experience the scenes as intended and to give the right feel.  Because we needed to get Jim’s response early, some of the races were cut with the production sound – from the live mics during filming. This allowed us and Jim to quickly see how the scenes would flow. Other scenes were cut strictly MOS, because the sound design would have been way too complicated for the initial cut of the scene. Once the scene was cut visually, we’d hand over the scene to Don [Sylvester, sound supervisor] who was able to provide us with a set of 5.1 stems. That was great, because we could recut and repurpose those stems for other races.

[MM] We had developed a strategy with Don to split the sound design into four or five stems to give us enough discrete channels to recut these sequences. The stems were a palette of interior perspectives, exterior perspectives, crowds, car-bys, and so on. By employing this strategy, we didn’t need to continually turn over the cut to sound for patch-up work. Then, as Don went out and recorded the real cars and was developing the actual sounds for what was going to be used in the mix, he’d generate new stems and we would put them into the Avid. This was extremely informative to Jim, because he could experience our Avid temp mix in 5.1 and give notes, which ultimately informed the final sound design and the mix. 

[OP] What about temp music? Did you also weave that into your rough cuts?

[MM] Ted Caplan, our music editor, has also worked with Jim for 15 years. He’s a bit of a renaissance man – a screenwriter, a novelist, a one-time musician, and a sound designer in his own right. When he sits down to work with music, he’s coming at it from a story point-of-view. He has a very instinctual knowledge of where music should start and it happens to dovetail into the aesthetic that Jim, Andrew, and I are working towards. None of us like music to lead scenes in a way that anticipates what the scene is going to be about before you experience it.

Specifically, for this movie, it was challenging to develop what the musical tone of the movie would be. Ted was developing the temp track along with us from a very early stage. We found over time that not one particular musical style was going to work. Which is to say that this is a very complex score. It includes a kind of surf rock sound with Carroll Shelby in LA; an almost jaunty, lounge jazz sound for Detroit and the Ford executives; and then the hard-driving rhythmic sound for the racing.

(The final score was composed by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.)

[OP] I presume you were housed in multiple cutting rooms at a central facility. Right?

[MM] We cut at 20th Century Fox, where Jim has a large office space. We cut Logan and Wolverine there before this movie. It has several cutting spaces, I was situated between Andrew and Don. Ted was next to Don and John Berri, our additional editor, and assistants were right around the corner. It makes for a very efficient working environment. 

[OP] Since the team was cutting with Avid Media Composer, did any of its features stand out to you for this film?

[Both] FluidMorph! (laughs)

[MM] FluidMorph, speed-ramping – we often had to manipulate the shot speeds to communicate the speed of the cars. A lot of these cars were kit cars that could drive safely at a certain speed for photography, but not at race speed. So we had to manipulate the speed a lot to get the sense of action that these cars have.

[OP] What about Avid’s Script Integration feature, often referred to as ScriptSync? I know a lot of narrative editors love it.

[MM] I used ScriptSync once a few years ago and I never cut a scene faster. I was so excited. Then I watched it and it was terrible. To me there’s so much more to editing than hitting the next line of dialogue. I’m more interested in the lines between the lines – subtext. I found that with ScriptSync I could put the scene together quickly, but it was flat as a pancake. I do understand the value of it in certain applications. For instance, I think it’s great on straight comedy. It’s helpful to get around and find things when you are shooting tons of coverage for a particular joke. But for me, it’s not something I lean on. I mark up my own dailies and find stuff that way.

[OP] Tell me a bit more about your organizational process. Do you start with a KEM roll or stringouts of selected takes?

[MM] I don’t watch dailies, which sounds weird. By that I mean, I don’t watch them in a traditional sense. I don’t start in the morning, watch the dailies, and then start cutting. And I don’t ask my assistants to organize any of my dailies in bins. I come in and grab the scene that I have in front on me. I’ll look at the last take of every set-up really quickly and then I spend an enormous amount of time – particularly on complex scenes – creating a bin structure that I can work with. Sometimes it’s the beats in a scene, sometimes I organize by shot size, sometimes by character – it depends on what’s driving the scene. That’s the way I learn my footage – by organizing it. I remember shot sizes. I remember what was shot from set-up to set-up. I have a strong visual memory of where things are in a bin. So, if I ask an assistant to do that, then I’m not going to remember it. If I do it myself, then I’ll remember it. If there are a lot of resets or restarts in a take, I’ll have the assistant mark those up. But, I’ll go through and mark up beats or pivotal points in a scene, or particularly beautiful moments. And then I’ll start cutting.

[AB] I’ve adopted a lot of Mike’s methodology, mainly because I assisted Mike on a few films. But it actually works for me, as well. I have a similar aesthetic to Mike. I’ve used ScriptSync before and I tend to agree that it discourages you from seeing – as Mike described – the moments between lines. Those moments are valuable to remember.  

[OP] I presume this film was shot digitally. Right?

[MM] It was primarily shot with [ARRI] Alexa 65 LF cameras, plus some other small format cameras. A lot of it was shot with old anamorphic lenses on the Alexa that allowed them to give it a bit of a vintage feeling. It’s interesting that as you watch it, you see the effect of the old lenses. There’s a fall-off on the edges, which is kind of cool. There were a couple of places where the subject matter was framed into the curve of the lens, which affects the focus. But we stuck with it, because it feels ‘of the time.’

[OP] Since the film takes place in the 1960s and with racing action sequences, I presume there were quite a few visual effects to properly place the film in time. Right?

[MM] There’s a ton of that. The whole movie is a period film. We could temp certain things in the Avid for the rough cuts. John Berri was wrangling visual effects. He’s a master in the Avid, but also Adobe After Effects. He has some clever ways of filling in backgrounds or green screens with temp elements to give the director an idea of what’s going to go there. We try to do as much temp work in the Avid as we are capable of doing, but there’s so much 3D visual effects work in this movie that we weren’t able to do that all of the time.

The caveat, though, is that the racing is real. The cars are real. The visual effects work was for a lot of the backgrounds. The movie was shot almost entirely in Los Angeles with some second unit footage shot in Georgia. The current, modern day Le Mans track isn’t at all representative of what Le Mans was in 1966, so there was no way to shoot Le Mans. Everything had to be doubled and then augmented with visual effects. In addition to Georgia, where they shot most of the actual racing for Le Mans, they went for a week to France to get some shots of the actual town of Le Mans. Of those, I think only about four of those shots are left. (laughs)

[OP] Any final thoughts about how this film turned out? 

[MM] I’m psyched that people seem to like the film. Our concern was that we had a lot of story to tell. Would we wear audiences out? We continually have people tell us, “That was two and a half hours? We had no idea.” That’s humbling for us and it’s a great feeling. It’s a movie about these really great characters with great scope and great racing. That goes back to the very advent of movies. You can put all the big visual effects in a film that you want to, but it’s really about people.

[AB] I would absolutely agree. It’s more of a character movie with racing.  Also, because I am not a ‘racing fan’ per se, the character drama really pulled me into the film while working on it.

[MM] It’s classic Hollywood cinema. I feel proud to be part of a movie that does what Hollywood does best.

The article is also available at postPerspective.

For more, check out this interview with Steve Hullfish.

©2019 Oliver Peters