Final Cut Pro X – Reflecting on Six Years

df0417_fcpx5yrs_01_sm

Some personal musings…

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has passed its five-year mark – and by now nearly most of its sixth. Although it’s getting increasing respect from many corners of the professional editing community, there are still many that dismiss it, due to its deviation from standard editing software conventions. Like so many other things that are Apple, FCPX tends to be polarizing with a large cohort of both fanboys and haters.

For me software is a tool. I’ve been editing since the 70s and have used about 15 different linear and nonlinear systems on billable work during that time. More like 20 if you toss in color correction applications. Even more with tools where I’ve had a cursory exposure to (such as in product reviews), but haven’t used on real jobs. All of these tools are a love-hate relationship for me. I have to laugh when folks talk about FCPX bringing back fun to their editing experience. I hope that the projects I work on bring me fun. I don’t really care about the software itself. Software should just get out of the way and let me do my job.

These six years have been a bit of a personal journey with Final Cut Pro X after a number of years with the “classic” version. I’ve been using FCPX since it first came out on commercials, corporate videos, shorts and even an independent feature film. It’s not my primary NLE most of the time, because my clients have largely moved to Adobe Premiere Pro CC and ask me to be compatible with them. My FCPX work tends to be mixed in and around my Premiere Pro editing gigs. For instance, right now I’m simultaneously involved in two large corporate video jobs – one of which I’m cutting in Premiere Pro and the other in Final Cut Pro X. As these things go, it can be frustrating, because you always want some function, tool or effect that’s available in Application A while you’re working in Application B. However, it also provides a perspective on what’s good and bad about each and where real speed advantages exist.

I have to say that even after six years, Final Cut Pro X is still more of a crapshoot than any other editing tool that I’ve used. I love its organizing power and often start a job really liking it. However, the deeper I get into the job – and the larger the library becomes – and the more complex the sequences become – the more bogged down FCPX becomes. It’s also the most inconsistent across various Mac models. I’ve run it on older towers, new MacBook Pros, iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Of these experiences, the laptops seem to be the most optimized for FCPX.

Quite frankly, working with the “trash can” Mac Pros, at times I wonder if Apple has lost its mojo. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a sweet machine, but its horsepower leaves me underwhelmed. Given the right upgrades, a 2010 Mac Pro tower is still quite competitive against it. Couple that with intermittent corrupt renders and exports on Adobe applications – due to the D-series AMD GPUs – one really has to question Apple’s design compromises. On the other hand, working with recent and new MacBook Pros, it seems pretty obvious that this is where Apple’s focus has been. And in fact, that’s where Final Cut really shines. Run a complex project on a MacBook Pro versus an older tower and it’s truly a night-and-day experience. By comparison, the performance with Adobe and Avid on the same range of machines results in a much more graduated performance curve. Best might not be quite as good, but worst isn’t nearly as awful.

A lot is made of new versus old code in these competing applications. The running argument is that FCPX uses a sleek, new codebase, whereas Premiere Pro and Media Composer run on creaky old software. Yet Final Cut has been out publicly for six years, which means development started a few years before that. Hmmm, no longer quite so new. Yet, if you look at the recent changes from 10.2 to 10.3, it seems pretty clear that a lot more was changed than just cosmetics. The truth of the matter is that all three of these major applications are written in a way that modules of software can be added, removed or changed, without the need to start from scratch. Therefore, from a coding standpoint, Final Cut doesn’t have nearly the type of advantages that many think it has.

The big advantage that FCPX does have, is that Apple can optimize its performance for the holistic hardware and macOS software architecture of their own machines. As such, performance, render speeds, etc. aren’t strictly tied to only the CPU or the GPU. It’s what enables the new MacBook Pro to offer top-end performance, while still staying locked to 16GB of RAM. It seems to me, that this is also why the Core-series processors appear to be better performers than are the Xeon-series chips, when it comes to Final Cut, Motion and Compressor.

If you compare this to Premiere Pro, Adobe hits the GPUs much harder than does Apple, which is the reason behind the occasional corruptions on the “trash can” Macs with Adobe renders. If you were running the Adobe suite on a top-level PC with high-end Nvidia cards, performance would definitely shine over that of the Macs. This is largely due to leveraging the CUDA architecture of these Nvidia GPUs. With Apple’s shift to using only AMD and Intel GPUs, CUDA acceleration isn’t available on newer Macs. Under the current software versions of Adobe CC (at the time of this writing) and Sierra, you are tied to OpenCL or software-only rendering and cannot even use Apple’s Metal acceleration. This is a driver issue still being sorted out between Apple and Adobe. Metal is something that Apple tools take advantage of and is a way that they leverage the combined hardware power, without focusing solely on CPU or GPU acceleration.

All of this leads me back to a position of love-hate with any of these tools. I suspect that my attitude is more common than most folks who frequent Internet forum debates want to admit. The fanboy backlash is generally large. When I look at how I work and what gets the results, I usually prefer track-based systems to the FCPX approach. I tend to like Final Cut as a good rough-cut editing application, but less as a fine-cut tool. Maybe that’s just me. That being said, I’ve had plenty of experiences where FCPX quite simply is the better tool under the circumstance. On a recent on-site edit gig at CES, I had to cut some 4K ARRI ALEXA material on my two-year-old Retina MacBook Pro. Premiere Pro couldn’t hack it without stuttering playback, while FCPX was buttery smooth. Thus FCPX was the axe for me throughout this gig.

Likewise, in the PC vs. Mac hardware debates,  I may criticize some of Apple’s moves and long to work on a fire-breathing platform. But if push came to shove and I had to buy a new machine today, it would be either a Mac Pro “trash can” or a tricked-out iMac. I don’t do heavy 3D renders or elaborate visual effects – I edit and color correct. Therefore, the overall workflow, performance and “feel” of the Apple ecosystem is a better fit for me, even though at times performance might be middling.

Wrapping up this rambling post – it’s all about personal preference. I applaud Apple for making the changes in Final Cut Pro X that they did; however, a lot of things are still in need of improvement. Hopefully these will get addressed soon. If you are looking to use FCPX professionally, then my suggestion is to stick with only the newest machines and keep your productions small and light. Keep effects and filters to a minimum and you’ll be happiest with the results and the performance. Given the journey thus far, let’s see what the next six years will bring.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Nocturnal Animals

nocanim_01_smSome feature films are entertaining popcorn flicks, while others challenge the audience to go deeper. Writer/director Tom Ford’s (A Single Man) second film, Nocturnal Animals definitely fits into the latter group. Right from the start, the audience is confronted with a startling and memorable main title sequence, which we soon learn is actually part of an avant garde art gallery opening. From there the audience never quite knows what’s around the next corner.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a privileged Los Angeles art gallery owner who seems to have it all, but whose life is completely unfulfilled. One night she receives an unsolicited manuscript from Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband with whom she’s been out of touch for years. With her current husband (Armie Hammer) away on business, she settles in for the night to read the novel. She is surprised to discover it is dedicated to her. The story being told by Edward is devastating and violent, and it triggers something in Susan that arouses memories of her past love with the author.

Nocturnal Animals keeps the audience on edge and is told through three parallel storylines – Susan’s current reality, flashbacks of her past with Edward, and the events that are unfolding in the novel. Managing this delicate balancing act fell to Joan Sobel, ACE, the film’s editor. In her film career, Sobel has worked with such illustrious directors as Quentin Tarantino, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Thomas Anderson and Paul Weitz.  She was Sally Menke’s First Assistant Editor for six-and-a-half years on four films, including Kill Bill, vol. 1 and Kill Bill, vol. 2.  Sobel also edited the Oscar-winning short dark comedy, The Accountant.  This is her second feature with Tom Ford at the helm.

Theme and structure

In our recent conversation, Joan Sobel discussed Nocturnal Animals. She says, “At its core, this film is about love and revenge and regret, with art right in the middle of it all. It’s about people we have loved and then carelessly discarded, about the cruelties that we inflict upon each other, often out of fear or ambition or our own selfishness.  It is also about art and the stuff of dreams.  Susan has criticized Edward’s ambition as a writer. Edward gets Susan to feel again through his art – through that very same writing that Susan has criticized in the past. But art is also Edward’s vehicle for revenge – revenge for the hurt that Susan has caused him during their past relationship. The film uses a three-pronged story structure, which was largely as Tom scripted. The key was to find a fluid and creative way to transition from one storyline to the other, to link those moments emotionally or visually or both. Sometimes that transition was triggered by a movement, but other times just a look, a sound, a color or an actor’s nuanced glance.”

nocanim_02Nocturnal Animals was filmed (yes, on film not digital) over 31 days in California, with the Mojave Desert standing in for west Texas. Sobel was cutting while the film was being shot and turned in her editor’s cut about a week after the production wrapped. She explains, “Tom likes to work without a large editorial infrastructure, so it was just the two of us working towards a locked cut. I finished my cut in December and then we relocated to London for the rest of post. I always put together a very polished first cut, so that there is already an established rhythm and a flow.  That way the director has a solid place to begin the journey. Though the movie was complex with its three-pronged structure – along with the challenge of bringing to life the inner monologue that is playing in Susan’s head – the movie came together rather quickly. Tom’s script was so well written and the performances so wonderful that by the end of March we pretty much had a locked cut.”

The actors provided fruitful ground for the editor.  Sobel continues, “It was a joy to edit Amy Adams’ performance. She’s a great actress, but when you actually edit her dailies, you get to see what she brings to the movie. Her performance is reliant less on dialogue (she actually doesn’t have many lines), instead emphasizing Amy’s brilliance as a film actor in conveying emotion through her mind and through her face and her eyes.”

“Tom is a staggering talent, and working with him is a total joy.  He’s fearless and his creativity is boundless.  He is also incredibly generous and very, very funny (we laugh a lot!), and we share an endless passion for movies.  Though the movie is always his vision, his writing, he gravitates towards collaboration. So we would get quite experimental in the cut. The trust and charm and sharp, clear intelligence that he brings into the cutting room resulted in a movie that literally blossoms with creativity. Editing Nocturnal Animals was a totally thrilling experience.”

Tools of the trade

nocanim_03Sobel edited Nocturnal Animals with Avid Media Composer. Although she’s used other editing applications, Media Composer is her tool of choice. I asked about how she approaches each new film project. She explains, “The first thing I do is read the script. Then I’ll read it again, but this time out loud. The rhythms of the script become more lucid that way and I can conceptualize the visuals. When I get dailies for a scene, I start by watching everything and taking copious notes about every nuance in an actor’s performance that triggers an emotion in me, that excites me, that moves me, that shows me exactly where this scene is going.  Those moments can be the slightest look, a gesture, a line reading.”

“I like to edit very organically based on the footage. I know some editors use scene cards on a wall or they rely on Avid’s Script Integration tools, but none of those approaches are for me. Editing is like painting – it’s intuitive. My assistants organize bins for themselves in dailies order. Then they organize my bins in scene/script order. I do not make selects sequences or ‘KEM rolls’. I simply set up the bins in frame view and then rearrange the order of clips according to the flow – wide to tight and so on. As I edit, I’m concentrating on performance and balance. One little trick I use is to turn off the sound and watch the edit to see what is rhythmically and emotionally working. Often, as I’m cutting the scene, I find myself actually laughing with the actor or crying or gasping! Though this is pretty embarrassing if someone happens to walk into my cutting room, I know that if I’m not feeling it, then the audience won’t either.”

Music and sound are integral for many editors, especially Sobel. She comments, “I love to put temp music into my editor’s cuts. That’s a double-edged sword, though, because the music may or may not be to the taste of the director. Though Tom and I are usually in sync when it comes to music, Tom doesn’t like to start off with temp music in the initial cut, so I didn’t add it on this film. Once Tom and I started working together, we played with music to see what worked. This movie is one that we actually used very little music in and when we did, added it quite sparingly. Mostly the temp music we used was music from some of Abel’s [Korzeniowski, composer] other film scores. I also always add layers of sound effects to my tracks to take the movie and the storytelling to a further level. I use sound to pull your attention, to define a character, or a mood, or elevate a mystery.”

Unlike many films, Nocturnal Animals flew through the post process without any official test screenings. Its first real screening was at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize. “Tom has the unique ability to both excite those working with him and to effortlessly convey his vision, and he had total confidence in the film. The film is rich with many layers and is the rare film that can reveal itself through subsequent viewings, hopefully providing the audience with that unique experience of being completely immersed in a novel, as our heroine becomes immersed in Nocturnal Animals,” Sobel says. The film opened in the US during November and is a Focus Features release.

Check out more with Joan Sobel at “Art of the Cut”.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2017 Oliver Peters

La La Land

df0117_lalaland_01_sm

La La Land is a common euphemism for Los Angeles and Hollywood, but it’s also writer/director Damien Chazelle’s newest film. Chazelle originally shopped La La Land around without much success and so moved on to another film project, Whiplash. Five Oscar nominations with three wins went a long way to break the ice and secure funding for La La Land. The new film tells the story of two struggling artists – Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician. La La Land was conceived as a musical set in modern day Los Angeles. It harkens back to the MGM musicals of the 50s and 60s, as well as French musicals, including Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

One of the Whiplash Oscars went to Tom Cross for Best Achievement in Film Editing. After working as one of David O. Russell’s four editors on Joy, Cross returned to cut La La Land with Chazelle. Tom Cross and I discussed how this film came together. “As we were completing Whiplash, Damien was talking about his next film,” he says. “He sent me a script and a list of reference movies and I was all in. La La Land is Damien’s love letter to old Hollywood. He knew that doing a musical was risky, because it would require large scale collaboration of all the film crafts. He loves the editing process and felt that the cutting would be the technical bridge that would hold it all together. He wanted to tell his story with the language of dreams, which to Damien is the film language of old Hollywood cinema. That meant that he wanted to use iris transitions, layered montages and other old optical techniques. The challenge was to use these retro styles, but still have a story that feels contemporary and grounded in realism.”

Playing with tone and time

La La Land was shot in approximately forty days, but editing the film took nearly a year. Cross explains, “Damien is great at planning and is very clear in what he shoots and his intentions. In the cutting room, we spent a lot of time calibrating the movie – playing with tone and time. Damien wanted to start our story with both characters together on the freeway, then branch off and show Mia going through her day. We take her to a specific plot intersection and then flashback in time to Sebastian on the freeway. Then we move through his day, until we are back at the intersection where our two stories collide. Much like the seasons that our movie cycles through – Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall – we end up returning to this specific intersection later in the film, but with a different outcome. Damien wanted to set up certain timelines and patterns that the audience would follow, so that we could ricochet off of them later.”

df0117_lalaland_02As a musical, Tom Cross had to vary his editorial style for different scenes. He continues, “For Sebastian and Mia’s musical courtship, Damien wanted the scenes to be slower and romantic with a lot of camera moves. In Griffith Park, it’s a long unbroken take with rounded edges. On the other hand, the big concert with John Legend is cutty, with sharp edges. It’s fragmented and the opposite of romantic. Likewise, when they are full-on in love and running around LA, the cutting is at a fever pitch. It’s lively and sweeps you off your feet. Damien wanted to be careful to match the editing style to the emotion of each scene. He knew that one style would accentuate the other.”

La La Land was shot in the unusual, extra-wide aspect ratio of 2.55:1 to replicate cinemascope from the 1950s. “This makes ordinary locations look extraordinary,” Cross says. “Damien would vary the composition from classic wides to very fragmented framing and big close-ups. When Sebastian and Mia are dancing, there’s head-to-toe framing like you would have in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film. During their dinner break up scene, the shots of their faces get tighter – almost claustrophobic – to be purposefully uncomfortable and unflinching. Damien wanted the cutting to be stripped down and austere – the opposite of what’s come before. He told me to play the scene in their medium shots until I punched into their close angles. And once we’re close, we have to stay there.”

Tricks and tools

The Avid Media Composer-equipped cutting rooms were hosted by Electric Picture Solutions in North Hollywood. Tom Cross used plenty of Media Composer features to cut La La Land. He explains, “For the standard dialogue scenes we used Avid’s Script Sync feature. This was very handy for Damien, because he likes to go over every line with a fine tooth comb. The musical numbers were cut using multi-cam groups. For scenes with prerecorded music, multiple takes could be synced and grouped as if they were different camera angles. I had my assistant set up what I call ‘supergroups’. For instance, all the singers might be grouped into one clip. The instruments might be in another group. Then I could stack the different groups onto multiple video tracks, making it easy to cut between groups, as well as angles within the groups.”

In addition to modern cutting techniques, Cross also relies on lo-fi tools, like scene cards on a wall. Cross says, “Damien was there the whole time and he loves to see every part of the process. He has a great editor’s mind – very open to editorial cheats to solve problems, such as invisible split screen effects and speed adjustments. Damien wanted us to be very meticulous about lip sync during the musical scenes because he felt that anything less than perfect would take you out of the moment. His feeling was that the audience scrutinizes the sync of the singing in a musical more than spoken dialogue in a normal film. So we spent a lot of time cutting and manipulating the vocal track – in order to get it right. Sometimes, I would speed-ramp the picture to match the singing. Damien was also very particular about downbeats and how they hit the picture. I learned that while working with him on Whiplash. It has to be precise. Justin Hurwitz, our composer, provided a mockup score to cut with, and that was eventually replaced by the final music recorded with a 95-piece orchestra. Of course, when you have living, breathing musicians, notes line up differently from the mockup track. Therefore, we had many cuts that needed to be shifted in order to maintain the sync that Damien wanted. During our final days of the sound mix, we were rolling cuts one or two frames in either direction on the dub stage at Fox.”

Editors and directors each have different ways to approach the start of the cutting process. Cross explains, “I edited while they were shooting and had a cut by the time the production wrapped. It’s a great way for the editor to learn the footage and make sure the production is protected. However, Damien didn’t want to see the first cut, but preferred to have it on hand if we needed it. I think first cuts are overwhelming for most directors. Damien had the idea of starting at the end first. There’s a big end scene and he decided that we should do that heavy lifting first. He said, ‘at least we’ll have an ending.’ We worked on it until we got it to a good place and then went back and started from the beginning. It re-invigorated us.”

Tom Cross wrapped with these parting thoughts. “This was a dream project for Damien and it was my dream to be able to work with him on it. It’s romantic, magical and awe-inspiring. I was very lucky to go from a film where you get beaten down on the drums – to another, where you get swept off your feet!”

For more conversations with Tom Cross, check out Art of the Cut.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

The wait is over – FCP X 10.3

df3116_fcpx1003_1_smAmidst the hoopla on Oct. 27th, when Apple introduced the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, the ProApps team also released updates to Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor. This was great news for fans, since Final Cut got a prime showcase slot in the event’s main stage presentation. Despite the point numbering, the bump from 10.2 to 10.3 is a full version change, just like in macOS, where 10.11 (El Capitan) to 10.12 (Sierra) is also a new version. This makes FCP X 10.3 the fourth iteration in the FCP X line and the eleventh under the Final Cut Pro brand. I’m a bit surprised that Apple didn’t drop the “X” from the name, though, seeing as it’s done that with macOS itself. And speaking of operating systems, this release requires 10.11.4 (El Capitan) or higher (Sierra).

If you already purchased the application in the past, then this update will be a free upgrade for you. There are numerous enhancements, but three features stand out among the changes: the new interface, the expanded use of roles for mixing, and support for a wider color gamut.

A new look for the user interface

The new user interface is darker and flatter. Although for my taste, it’s a bit too dark without any brightness sliders to customize the appearance. The dimensional style is gone, putting Final Cut Pro X in line with the aesthetics of iMovie and other Apple applications. Final Cut Pro X was already out of step with design trends at the time it was first released. Reskinning the application with this new appearance brings it in line with the rest of the design industry.

The engineers have added workspaces and rearranged where certain controls are, though generally, panels are in the same places as before. Workspaces can be customized, but not nearly to the level of Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. The most welcomed of these changes is that the inspector pane can be toggled to full height when needed. In reality, the inspector height isn’t changed. It’s the width of the timeline that changes and toggles between covering and revealing the full inspector panel.

There are other minor changes throughout 10.3, which make it a much better application. For example, if you like to work with a source/record, 2-up viewer display, then 10.3 now allows you to play a source clip from inside the event viewer.

Magnetic Timeline 2 and the expansion of roles

df3116_fcpx1003_2Apple did a lot of work to rejigger the way the timeline works and to expand the functionality of roles. It’s even being marketed as Magnetic Timeline 2. Up until now, the use of roles in Final Cut has been optional. With 10.3, it’s become the primary way to mix and organize connected clips within the timeline. Apple has resisted adding a true mixing panel, instead substituting the concept of audio lanes.

Let’s say that you assign the roles of dialogue, music or effects to your timeline audio clips. The timeline index panel lets you organize these clips into groups according to their assigned roles, which Apple calls audio lanes. If you click “show audio lanes”, the various connected clips rearrange vertical position in the timeline window to be grouped into their corresponding lanes, based on roles. Now you have three lanes of grouped clips: dialogue, effects, music. You can change timeline focus to individual roles – such as only dialogue – which will minimize the size of all the other roles (clips) in the window. These groups or lanes can also be soloed, so you just hear dialogue without the rest, for example.

There is no submix bus to globally control or filter groups of clips, like you have in Premiere Pro or most digital audio applications. The solution in FCP X 10.3 is to select all clips of the same role and create a compound clip. (Other NLEs refer to this as “nesting”.) By doing so, all of the dialogue, effects and music clips appear on the timeline as only three compound clips – one for each role. You can then apply audio filters or adjust the overall level of that role by applying them to the compound clip.

Unfortunately, if you have to go back and make adjustments to an individual clip, you’ll have to open up the compound clip in its own timeline. When you do that, you lose the context of the other clips. For example, tweaking a sound effect clip inside its compound clip, means that you would only hear the other surrounding effect clips, without dialogue and music or seeing the video. In addition, you won’t hear the result of filters or volume changes made at the top level of that compound clip. Nevertheless, it’s not as complex as it sounds and this is a viable solution, given the design approach Apple engineers have taken.

df3116_fcpx1003_3It does surprise me that they ended up with this solution, because it’s a very modal way of operating. This would seem to be an anathema to the intent of much of the rest of FCP X’s design. One has to wonder whether or not they’ve become boxed in my their own architecture. Naturally others will counter that this process is simplified due to the lack of track patching and submix matrices.

Wide color

The industry at large is embracing color standards that enable displays to reproduce more of the color spectrum, which the human eye can see. An under-the-hood change with FCP X is the embrace of wide gamut color. I think that calling it “wide color” dumbs down the actual standards, but I guess Apple wants to keep things in plain language. In any case, the interface is pretty clear on the actual specs.

Libraries can be set up for “standard color” (Rec. 601 for SD and Rec. 709 for HD) or “wide color” (Rec. 2020). The Projects (sequences) that you create within a Library can be either, as long as the Library was initially set up for wide gamut. You can also change the setting for a Project after the fact. Newer cameras that record in raw or log color space, like RED or ARRI models, are perfectly compatible with wide color (Rec. 2020) delivery, thanks to post-production color grading techniques. That is where this change comes into play.

For the most part you won’t see much difference in normal work, unless you really crank up the saturation. If you do this in the wide color gamut mode, you can get pretty extreme and the scopes will display an acceptable signal. However, if you then switch the Project setting to standard color, the high chroma areas will change to a somewhat duller appearance in the viewer and the scopes will show signal clipping. Most current television display systems don’t display wide gamut color, yet, so it’s not something most users need to worry about today. This is Apple’s way of future-proofing Final Cut and to pass the cleanest possible signal through the system.

A few more things

df3116_fcpx1003_4Numerous other useful tools were added in this version. For example, Flow – a morphing dissolve – for use in bridging jump cuts. Unlike Avid’s or Adobe’s variations, this transition works in real-time without analysis or rendering. This is because it morphs between two still frames. Each company’s approach has a slightly different appearance, but Flow definitely looks like an effect that will get a lot of use – especially with interview-driven productions. Other timeline enhancements include the ability to easily add and toggle audio fades. There’s simplified top and tail trimming. Now you can remove attributes and you can roll (trim) between adjacent, connected clips. Finally – a biggie for shared storage users – FCP X can now work with NAS systems that use the SMB protocol.

Working with it for over a week at the time I post this, the application has been quite stable, even on a production with over 2,000 4K clips. I wouldn’t recommend upgrading if you are in the middle of a production. The upgraded Libraries I tested did exhibit some flakiness, which weren’t there in freshly created Libraries. There’s also a technique to keep both 10.2 and 10.3 active on the same computer. Definitely trash your preferences before diving in.

So far, the plug-ins and Motion templates still work, but you’ll definitely need to check whether these vendors have issued updates designed for this release. This also goes for the third-party apps, like those from Intelligent Assistance, because 10.3 adds a new version of FCPXML. Both Intelligent Assistance and Blackmagic Design issued updates (for Resolve and Desktop Video) by the next day.

There are a few user interface bugs, but no show-stoppers. For instance, the application doesn’t appear to hold its last state upon close, especially when more than one Library is open. When you open it again the next time, the wrong Library may be selected or the wrong Project loaded in the timeline. It occasionally loses focus on the pane selected. This is an old bug that was there in previous versions. You are working in the timeline and all of a sudden nothing happens, because the application “forgot” which pane it’s supposed to have focus on. Clicking command-1 seems to fix this. Lastly, the audio meters window doesn’t work properly. If you resize it to be slimmer, the next time you launch FCP X, the meters panel is large again. That’s even if you updated the workspace with this smaller width. And then sometimes they don’t display audio until you close and reopen the audio meters window.

In this round of testing, I’ve had to move around Libraries with external media to different storage volumes. This requires media relinking. While it was ultimately successful, the time needed to relink was considerably longer than doing this same task in other NLEs.

My test units are all connected to Blackmagic Design i/o hardware, which seems to retard performance a bit. With a/v output turned off within the FCP X interface, clips play right away without stuttering when I hit the spacebar. With the a/v output on, I randomly get stuttering on clips when they start to play. It’s only a minor nuisance, so I just turn it off until I need to see the image on an external monitor. I’ve been told that AJA hardware performs better with FCP X, but I haven’t had a chance to test this myself. In any case, I don’t see this issue when running the same media through Premiere Pro on the exact same computer, storage and i/o hardware.

Final Cut Pro X 10.3 will definitely please most of its fans. There’s a lot of substance and improvement to be appreciated. It also feels like it’s performing better, but I haven’t had enough time with a real project yet to fully test that. Of course, the users who probe a bit deeper will point to plenty of items that are still missing (and available in products like Premiere Pro), such as better media relinking, more versatile replace edit functions and batch exporting.

For editors who’ve only given it a cursory look in the past or were swayed by the negative social media and press over the past five years, this would be the version to re-evaluate. Every new or improved item is targeted at the professional editor. Maybe it’s changed enough to dive in. On the other hand, if you’re an editor who’s given FCP X a fair and educated assessment and just not found it to your liking or suitable for your needs, then I doubt 10.3 will temp you. Regardless, this gives fans some reassurance about Apple’s commitment to professional users of their software – at least for another five years.

If you have the time, there are plenty of great tips here at the virtual Final Cut User Group.

The new Final Cut Pro X 10.3 user manual can be found here.

Click here for additional links highlighting features in this update.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters

Audio Splits and Stems in Premiere Pro

df2916_audspltppro_8_sm

When TV shows and feature films are being mixed, the final deliverables usually include audio stems as separate audio files or married to a multi-channel video master file or tape. Stems are the isolated submix channels for dialogue, sound effects and music. These elements are typically called DME (dialogue, music, effects) stems or splits and a multi-channel master file that includes these is usually called a split-track submaster. These isolated tracks are normally at mix level, meaning that you can combine them and the sum should equal the same level and mix as the final composite mixed track.

The benefit of having such stems is that you can easily replace elements, like re-recording dialogue in a different language, without having to dive back into the original audio project. The simplest form is to have 3 stereo stem tracks (6 mono tracks) for left and right dialogue, sound effects and music. Obviously, if you have a 5.1 surround mix, you’ll end up with a lot more tracks. There are also other variations for sports or comedy shows. For example, sports shows often isolate the voice-over announcer material from an on-camera dialogue. Comedy shows may isolate the laugh track as a stem. In these cases, rather than 3 stereo DME stems, you might have 4 or more. In other cases, the music and effects stems are combined to end up with a single stereo M&E track (music and effects minus dialogue).

Although this is common practice for entertainment programming, it should also be common practice if you work in short films, corporate videos or commercials. Creating such split-track submasters at the time you finish your project can often save your bacon at some point down the line. I ran into this during the past week. df2916_audspltppro_1A large corporate client needed to replace the music tracks on 11 training videos. These videos were originally editing in 2010 using Final Cut Pro 7 and mixed in Pro Tools. Although it may have been possible to resurrect the old project files, doing so would have been problematic. However, in 2010, I had exported split-track submasters with the final picture and isolated stereo tracks for dialogue, sound effects and music. These have become the new source for our edit – now 6 years later. Since I am editing these in Premiere Pro CC, it is important to also create new split-track submasters, with the revised music tracks, should we ever need to do this again in the future.

Setting up a new Premiere Pro sequence 

I’m usually editing in either Final Cut Pro X or Premiere Pro CC these days. It’s easy to generate a multi-channel master file with isolated DME stems in FCP X, by using the Roles function. However, to do this, you need to make sure you properly assign the correct Roles from the get-go. Assuming that you’ve done this for dialogue, sound effects and music Roles on the source clips, then the stems become self-sorting upon export – based on how you route a Role to its corresponding export channel. When it comes to audio editing and mixing, I find Premiere Pro CC’s approach more to my liking. This process is relatively easy in Premiere, too; however, you have to set up a proper sequence designed for this type of audio work. That’s better than trying to sort it out at the end of the line.

df2916_audspltppro_4The first thing you’ll need to do is create a custom preset. By default, sequence presets are configured with a certain number of tracks routed to a stereo master output. This creates a 2-channel file on export. Start by changing the track configuration to multi-channel and set the number of output channels. My requirement is to end up with an 8-channel file that includes a stereo mix, plus stereo stems for isolated dialogue, sound effects and music. Next, add the number of tracks you need and assign them as “standard” for the regular tracks or “stereo submix” for the submix tracks.

df2916_audspltppro_2This is a simple example with 3 regular tracks and 3 submix tracks, because this was a simple project. A more complete project would have more regular tracks, depending on how much overlapping dialogue or sound effects or music you are working with on the timeline. For instance, some editors like to set up “zones” for types of audio. You might decide to have 24 timeline tracks, with 1-8 used for dialogue, 9-18 for sound effects and 17-24 for music. In this case, you would still only need 3 submix tracks for the aggregate of the dialogue, sound effects and music.

df2916_audspltppro_5Rename the submix tracks in the timeline. I’ve renamed Submix 1-3 as DIA, SFX and MUS for easy recognition. With Premiere Pro, you can mix audio in several different places, such as the clip mixer or the audio track mixer. Go to the audio track mixer and assign the channel output and routing. (Channel output can also be assigned in the sequence preset panel.) For each of the regular tracks, I’ve set the pulldown for routing to the corresponding submix track. Audio 1 to DIA, Audio 2 to SFX and Audio 3 to MUS. The 3 submix tracks are all routed to the Master output.

df2916_audspltppro_3The last step is to properly assign channel routing. With this sequence preset, master channels 1 and 2 will contain the full mix. First, when you export a 2-channel file as a master file or a review copy, by default only the first 2 output channels are used. So these will always get the mix without you having to change anything. Second, most of us tend to edit with stereo monitoring systems. Again, output channels 1 and 2 are the default, which means you’ll always be monitoring the full mix, unless you make changes or solo a track. Output channels 3-8 correspond to the stereo stems. Therefore, to enable this to happen automatically, you must assign the channel output in the following configuration: DIA (Submix 1) to 1-2 and 3-4, SFX (Submix 2) to 1-2 and 5-6, and MUS (Submix 3) to 1-2 and 7-8. The result is that everything goes to both the full mix, as well as the isolated stereo channel for each audio component – dialogue, sound effects and music.

Editing in the custom timeline

Once you’ve set up the timeline, the rest is easy. Edit any dialogue clips to track 1, sound effects to track 2 and music to track 3. In a more complex example, like the 24-track timeline I referred to earlier, you’d work in the “zones” that you had organized. If 1-8 are routed to the dialogue submix track, then you would edit dialogue clips only to tracks 1-8. Same for the corresponding sound effects and music tracks. Clips levels can still be adjusted as you normally would. But, by having submix tracks, you can adjust the level of all dialogue by moving the single, DIA submix fader in the audio track mixer. This can also be automated. If you want a common filter, like a compressor, added all of one stem – like a compressor across all sound effects – simply assign it from the pulldown within that submix channel strip.

Exporting the file

df2916_audspltppro_6The last step is exporting your spilt-track submaster file. If this isn’t correct, the rest was all for naught. The best formats to use are either a QuickTime ProRes file or one of the MXF OP1a choices. In the audio tab of the export settings panel, change the pulldown channel selection from Stereo to 8 channels. Now each of your timeline output channels will be exported as a separate mono track in the file. These correspond to your 4 stereo mix groups – the full mix plus stems. Now in one single, neat file, you have the final image and mix, along with the isolated stems that can facilitate easy changes down the road. Depending on the nature of the project, you might also want to export versions with and without titles for an extra level of future-proofing.

Reusing the file

df2916_audspltppro_7If you decide to use this exported submaster file at a later date as a source clip for a new edit, simply import it into Premiere Pro like any other form of media. However, because its channel structure will be read as 8 mono channels, you will need to modify the file using the Modify-Audio Channels contextual menu (right-click the clip). Change the clip channel format from Mono to Stereo, which turns your 8 mono channels back into the left and right sides of 4 stereo channels. You may then ignore the remaining “unassigned” clip channels. Do not change any of the check boxes.

Hopefully, by following this guide, you’ll find that creating timelines with stem tracks becomes second nature. It can sure help you years later, as I found out yet again this past week!

©2016 Oliver Peters

Swiss Army Man

df2716_swissarmymanWhen it comes to quirky movies, Swiss Army Man stands alone. Hank (Paul Dano) is a castaway on a deserted island at his wit’s end. In an act of final desperation, he’s about to hang himself, when he discovers Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a corpse that’s just washed up on shore. At this point the film diverges from the typical castaway/survival story into an absurdist comedy. Manny can talk and has “magical powers” that Hank uses to find his way back to civilization.

Swiss Army Man was conceived and directed by the writing and directing duo of Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert, who work under the moniker Daniels. This is their feature length film debut and was produced with Sundance in mind. The production company brought on Matthew Hannam to edit the film. Hannam (The OA, Enemy, James White) is a Canadian film and TV editor with numerous features and TV series under his belt. I recently spoke with Hannam about the post process on Swiss Army Man.

Hannam discussed the nature of the film. “It’s a very handmade film. We didn’t have a lot of time to edit and had to make quick decisions. I think that really helped us. This was the dozenth or so feature for me, so in a way I was the veteran. It was fun to work with these guys and experience their creative process. Swiss Army Man is a very cinematically-aware film, full of references to other famous films. You’re making a survival movie, but it’s very aware that other survival movies exist. This is also a very self-reflexive film and, in fact, the model is more like a romantic comedy than anything else. So I was a bit disappointed to see a number of the reviews focus solely on the gags in the film, particularly around Manny, the corpse. There’s more to it than that. It’s about a guy who wonders what it might be like had things been different. It’s a very special little film, because the story puts us inside of Hank’s head.”

Unlike the norm for most features, Hannam joined the team after the shooting had been completed. He says, “I came on board during the last few days of filming. They shot for something like 25 days. This was all single-camera work with Larkin Seiple (Cop Car, Bleed For This) as director of photography. They shot ARRI ALEXA XT with Cooke anamorphic lenses. It was shot ARRIRAW, but for the edit we had a special LUT applied to the dailies, so the footage was already beautiful. I got a drive in August and the film premiered at Sundance. That’s a very short post schedule, but our goal was always Sundance.”

Shifting to Adobe tools

Like many of this year’s Sundance films, Adobe Premiere Pro was the editing tool of choice. Hannam continues, “I’m primarily an Avid [Media Composer] editor and the Dans [Kwan and Sheinert] had been using [Apple] Final Cut Pro in the past for the shorts that they’ve edited themselves. They opted to go with Premiere on this film, as they thought it would be easiest to go back and forth with After Effects. We set up a ‘poor man’s’ shared storage with multiple systems that each had duplicate media on local drives. Then we’d use Dropbox to pass around project files and shared elements, like sound effects and temp VFX. While the operation wasn’t flawless – we did experience a few crashes – it got the job done.”

Swiss Army Man features quite a few visual effects shots and Hannam credits the co-directors’ music video background with making this a relatively easy task. He says, “The Dans are used to short turnarounds in their music video projects, so they knew how to integrate visual effects into the production in a way that made it easier for post. That’s also the beauty of working with Premiere Pro. There’s a seamless integration with After Effects. What’s amazing about Premiere is the quality of the built-in effects. You get effects that are actually useful in telling the story. I used the warp stabilizer and timewarp a lot. In some cases those effects made it possible to use shots in a way that was never possible before. The production company partnered with Method for visual effects and Company 3 [Co3] for color grading. However, about half of the effects were done in-house using After Effects. On a few shots, we actually ended up using After Effects’ stabilization after final assembly, because it was that much better than what was possible during the online assembly of the film.”

Another unique aspect of Swiss Army Man is its musical score. Hannam explains, “Due to the tight schedule, music scoring proceeded in parallel with the editing. The initial temp music pulled was quirky, but didn’t really match the nature of the story. Once we got the tone right with the temp tracks, scenes were passed on to the composers – Andy Hull and Robert McDowell – who Daniels met while making a video for their band Manchester Orchestra. The concept for the score was that it was all coming from inside of Hank’s head. Andy sang all the music as if Hank was humming his own score. They created new tracks for us and by the end we had almost no temp music in the edit. Once the edit was finalized, they worked with Paul [Dano] and Daniel [Radcliffe] to sing and record the parts themselves. Fortunately both are great singers, so the final a cappella score is actually the lead actors themselves.”

Structuring the edit

Matthew Hannam and I discussed his approach to editing scenes, especially with this foray into Premiere Pro. He responds, “When I’m on Media Composer, I’m a fan of ScriptSync. It’s a great way to know what coverage you have. There’s nothing like that in Premiere, although I did use the integrated Story app. This enables you to load the script into a tab for quick access. Usually my initial approach is to sit down and watch all the footage for the particular scene while I plan how I’m going to assemble it. The best way to know the footage is to work with it. You have to watch how the shoot progresses in the dailies. Listen to what the director says at the end of a take – or if he interrupts in the middle – and that will give you a good idea of the intention. Then I just start building the scene – often first from the middle. I’m looking for what is the central point of that scene and it often helps to build from the middle out.”

Although Hannam doesn’t use any tricks to organize his footage or create selects, he does use “KEM rolls”. This term stems from the KEM flatbed film editing table. In modern parlance, it means that the editor has strung out all the footage for a scene into a single timeline, making it easy to scrub through all the available footage quickly. He continues, “I’ll build a dailies reel and tuck it away in the bottom of the bin. It’s a great way to quickly see what footage you have available. When it’s time to revise a scene, it’s good to go back to the raw footage and see what options you have. It is a quick way to jog your memory about what was shot.”

A hybrid post workflow

Another integral member of the post team was assistant editor Kyle Gilbertson. He had worked with the co-directors previously and was the architect of the hybrid post workflow followed on this film. Gilbertson pulled all of the shots for VFX that were being handled in-house. Many of the more complicated montages were handled as effects sequences and the edit was rebuilt in DaVinci Resolve before re-assembly in After Effects. Hannam explains, “We had two stages of grading with [colorist] Sofie Borup at Co3. The first was to set looks and get an idea what the material was going to look like once finished. Then, once everything was complete, we combined all of the material for final grading and digital intermediate mastering. There was a real moment of truth when the 100 or so shots that Daniels did themselves were integrated into the final cut. Luckily it all came together fairly seamlessly.”

“Having finished the movie, I look back at it and I’m full of warm feelings. We kind of just dove into it as a big team. The two Dans, Kyle and I were in that room kind of just operating as a single unit. We shifted roles and kept everything very open. I believe the end product reflects that. It’s a film that took inspiration from everywhere and everyone. We were not setting out to be weird or gross. The idea was to break down an audience and make something that everyone could enjoy and be won over by. In the end, it feels like we really took a step forward with what was possible at home. We used the tools we had available to us and we made them work. It makes me excited that Adobe’s Creative Cloud software tools were enough to get a movie into 700 cinemas and win those boys the Sundance Directing prize. We’re at a point in post where you don’t need a lot of hardware. If you can figure out how to do it, you can probably make it yourself. That was our philosophy from start to finish on the movie.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Voice from the Stone

df0316_vfts_1_smAs someone who’s worked on a number of independent films, I find it exciting when an ambitious feature film project with tremendous potential comes from parts other than the mainstream Hollywood studio environment. One of these is Voice from the Stone, which features Emilia Clarke and Marton Csokas. Clarke has been a fan favorite in her roles as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones and the younger Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys. Csokas has appeared in numerous films and TV series, including Sons of Liberty and Into the Badlands.

In Voice from the Stone, Clarke plays a nurse in 1950s Tuscany who is helping a young boy, Jakob (played by Edward Ding), recover from the death of his mother. He hasn’t spoken since the mother, a renowned pianist, died. According to Eric Howell, the film’s director, “Voice from the Stone was a script that screamed to be read under a blanket with a flashlight. It plays as a Hitchcock fairy tale set in 1950s Tuscany with mysterious characters and a ghostly antagonist.” While not a horror film or thriller, it is about the emotional relationship between Clarke and the boy, but with a supernatural level to it.

df0316_vfts_15Voice from the Stone is Howell’s feature directorial debut. He has worked on numerous films as a director, assistant director, stuntman, stunt coordinator, and in special effects. Dean Zanuck (Road to Perdition, Get Low, The Zero Theorem) produced the film through his Zanuck Independent company. From there, the production takes an interesting turn towards the American heartland, as primary post-production was handled by Splice in Minneapolis. This is a market known for its high-end commercial work, but Splice has landed a solid position as the primary online facility for numerous film and TV series, such as History Channel’s America Unearthed and ABC-TV’s In An Instant.

Tuscany, Minneapolis, and more

Clayton Condit, who co-owns and co-manages Splice with his wife Barb, edited Voice from the Stone. We chatted about how this connection came about. He says, “I had edited two short films with Eric. One of these, Anna’s Playground, made the short list for the 2011 Oscars in the short films category. Eric met with Dean about getting involved with this film and while we were waiting for the financing to be secured, we finished another short, called Strangers. Eric sent the script to Emilia and she loved it. After that everything sort of fell into place. It’s a beautiful script that, along with Eric’s style of directing, fueled amazing performances from the entire cast.”

df0316_vfts_2The actual production covered about 35 days in the Tuscany region of Italy. The exterior location was filmed at one castle, while the interiors at another. This was a two-camera shoot, using ARRI Alexas recording to ARRIRAW. Anamorphic lenses were used to record in ARRI’s 3.5K 4:3 format, but the final product is desqueezed for a 2.39:1 “scope” final 2K master. The DIT on set created editorial and viewing dailies in the ProRes LT file format, complete with synced production audio and timecode burn-in. The assistant editor back at Splice was also loading and organizing the same dailies, so that everything was available there, as well.

df0316_vfts_8Condit explains the timeline of the project, “The production was filmed on location in Italy during November and December of 2014. I was there for the first half of it, cutting on my MacBook Pro on set and in my hotel room. Once I travelled back to Minneapolis, I continued to build a first cut. The director arrived back in the states by the end of January to see early rough assemblies, but it was around mid-February when I really started working a full cut with Eric on the film. By April of 2015 we had a cut ready to present to the producers. Then it took a few more weeks working with them to refine the cut. Splice is a full service post facility, so we kicked off visual effects in May and color starting mid-June. The composer, Michael Wandmacher, created an absolutely gorgeous score that we were able to record during the first week of July at Air Studios in London. We partnered with Skywalker Sound for audio post-production and mix, which took us through the middle of August.”

As with any film, getting to the final result takes time and experimentation. He continues, “We screened for various small groups listening to feedback and debated and tweaked. The film has a lot of beautiful subtleties to it. We did not want to cheapen it with cliché tricks that would diminish the relationships between characters. It really is first a love story between a mother and her child. The director and producers and I worked very closely together taking scenes out, working pacing, putting scenes back in, and really making sure we had an effective story.”

df0316_vfts_12Splice handled visual effects ranging from sky replacements to entire green screen composited sequences. Condit explains, “Our team uses a variety of tools including Nuke, Houdini, Maya, and Cinema 4D. Since this film takes place in the 1950s, there were a lot of modern elements that needed to be removed, like TV antennas and distant power lines, for example. There’s a rock quarry scene with a pool of water. When it came time to shoot there, the water was really murky, so that had to be replaced. In addition, Splice also handled a number of straight effects shots. In a couple scenes the boy is on the edge of the roof of the castle, which was a green screen composite, of course. We also shot a day in a pool for underwater shots.”

Pioneering the cut with Final Cut Pro X

df0316_vfts_5Clayton Condit is a definite convert to Apple’s Final Cut Pro X and Voice from the Stone was no exception. Condit says, “Splice originated as an Avid-based shop and then moved over to Final Cut Pro as our market shifted. We also do a lot of online finishing, so we have to be compatible with whatever the offline editor cuts in. As FCP 7 fades away we are seeing more jobs being done in [Adobe] Premiere Pro and we also are finishing with [Blackmagic Design] DaVinci Resolve. Today we are sort of an ‘all of the above’ shop; but for my offline projects I really think FCP X is the best tool. Eric also appreciated his experience with FCP X as the technology never got in the way. As storytellers, we are creatively free to try things very quickly [with Final Cut Pro X].”

df0316_vfts_7“Of course, like every FCP X editor, I have my list of features that I’d like to see; but as a creative editorial tool, hands down it’s the real deal. I really love audio roles, for example. This made it very easy to manage my temp mixes and to hand over scenes to the composer so that he could control what audio he worked with. It also streamlined turnovers. My assistant, Cody Brown, used X2Pro Audio Convert to prepare AAFs for Skywalker. Sound work in your offline is so critical when trying to ‘sell’ your edit and to make sure a scene is really working. FCP X makes that pretty easy and fun. We have an extensive sound library here at Splice. Along with early music cues from Wandmacher, I was able to do fairly decent temp mixes in surround for early screenings inside Final Cut.”

On location, Condit kept his media on a small G-RAID Thunderbolt drive for portability; but back in Minneapolis, Splice has a 600TB Xsan shared storage system for collaboration among departments. Condit’s FCP X library and cache files were kept on small dual-SSD Thunderbolt drives for performance and with mirrored media he could easily transition between working at home or at Splice.

df0316_vfts_9Condit explains his FCP X workflow, “We broke the film into separate libraries for each of the five reels. Each scene was its own event. Shots were renamed by scene and take numbers using different keyword assignments to help sort and search. The film was shot with two cameras, which Cody grouped as multicam clips in FCP X. He used Sync-N-Link X to bring in the production sound metadata. This enabled me to easily identify channel names. I tend to edit in timelines rather than a traditional source and record approach. I start with ‘stringouts’ of all the footage by scene and will use various techniques to sort and track best takes. A couple of the items I’d love to see return to FCP X are tabs for open timelines and dupe detection.”

df0316_vfts_11Final Cut Pro X also has other features to help truly refine the edit. Condit says, “I used FCP X’s retiming function extensively for pace and emotion of shots. With the optical flow technology, it delivers great results. For example, in the opening shot you see two hands – the boy and his mother – playing piano. The on-set piano rehearsal was recorded and used for playback for all takes. Unfortunately it was half the speed of the final cue used in the film. I had to retime that performance to match the final cue, which required putting a keyframe in for every finger push. Optical flow looks so good in FCP X that many of the final online retimes were actually done in FCP X.”

df0316_vfts_6Singer Amy Lee of the band Evanescence recorded the closing title song for the film during the sound sessions at Skywalker. Condit says, “Amy completely ‘got’ the film and articulated it back in this beautiful song. She and Wandmacher collaborated to create something pretty special to close the film with. Our team is fortunate enough now to be creating a music video for the song that was shot at the same castle.”

Zanuck Independent is currently arranging a domestic distribution schedule for Voice from the Stone, so look for it in theaters later this year.

If you want more details, click here for Steve Hullfish’s excellent Art of the Cut interview with Clayton Condit.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters