Building a Free FCP X Color Correction Filter

df2315_opcolor_1One nice aspect of the symbiotic relationship between Final Cut Pro X and Motion is that Motion can be used to create effects, transitions, titles and generators for use in FCP X. These are Motion Templates and they form the basis for the creation of nearly all third-party effects filters, both paid and free. This means that if you learn a bit about Motion, you can create your own custom effects or make modifications to the existing ones supplied with FCP X. This has become very easy to do in the newest versions (FCP X 10.2.1 and Motion 5.2.1).

I decided to build a color correction filter that covered most of the standard adjustments you need with the usual types of footage. There are certainly a number of really good color correction/grading filters already on the market for FCP X. Apple’s own color board works well and with 10.2 has been broken out as a normal effects filter. However, a lot of folks don’t like its tab/puck/swatch interface and would still rather work with sliders or color wheels. So as an experiment, I built my own color correction filter for use with FCP X – and you may download here and use it for free as well.

df2315_opcolor_4_smLet me point out that I am no Motion power user. I have nowhere near the skills of Mark Spencer, Simon Ubsdell or Alex Gollner when it comes to using Motion to its fullest. So all I’ve done is combine existing Motion filters into a single combined filter with zero modifications. But that’s the whole point and why this function has so much potential. A couple of these individual filters already exist singly within FCP X, but Motion has a lot more to choose from. Once you launch Motion, the starting point is to open a new Final Cut Effects project from the Motion project browser. This will default to a blank composition ready to have things added to it. Since I was creating a color correction filter, all I needed to do was select the existing Motion filters to use from the Library browser and drag-and-drop the choices into the composition.

df2315_opcolor_5I decided to combine Brightness, Contrast, Color Balance, Hue/Saturation and Tint, which were also stacked in that exact order. The next step in the process was to determine the state of the filter when you apply it and which parameters and sliders to publish. Items that are published, such as a slider, will show up in the inspector in FCP X and can be adjusted by the editor. In my case, I decided to publish every parameter in the stack. To publish, simply click on the right side edge of each parameter line and you’ll find a pulldown selection that includes a publish/unpublish toggle. Note that the order in which you click the publish commands will determine the order of how these commands are stacked when they show up inside FCP X. To make the most sense, I followed a straight sequence order, top to bottom.

df2315_opcolor_3_smYou can also determine the starting state when you first apply or preview the effect.  For example, whether a button starts out enabled or disabled. In the case of this filter, I’ve enabled everything and left it at a neutral or default value, with the exception of Tint. This starts in the ‘off’ position, because I didn’t want a color cast to be applied when you first add the filter to a clip. Once everything is set-up, you simply save the effect to a desired location in the Motion Templates folder. You can subsequently open the Motion project from there to modify the effect. When it’s saved again, the changes are updated to the filter in FCP X.

If you’ve downloaded my effects filter, unzip the file and follow the Read Me document. I’ve created an “Oliver FX” category and this complete folder should be placed into the User/Movies/Motion Templates/Effects folder on your hard drive.df2315_opcolor_2

Applying the filter inside Final Cut Pro X is the same as any of the other effects options. It has the added benefit that all parameters can be keyframed. The Color Balance portion works like a 3-way color corrector, except that it uses the OS color picker wheels in lieu of a true 3-color-wheel interface. As a combination of native filters, performance is good without taxing the machine.

UPDATE (12 June 2015) : I have added one addition filter into the download file. The second filter is called “Oliver DVE” and designed to give you a full set of transform controls that include XYZ rotation. It comes from the transform control set included with Motion. This provides you with the equivalent of a 2.5D DVE, which is not available in the default control set of FCP X.

UPDATE 2 (15 June 2015) : These filters are not backward compatible. They will work in FCP X 10.1.2 and Motion 5.1.2 and forward (hopefully), but not in earlier versions. That’s due to technology changes between these versions. If you downloaded these prior to June 15, for FCP X 10.1.2 or 10.1.4 and they aren’t working, please download again. I have modified the files to work in FCP X 10.1.2 and later. Thank you.

Download the free “Oliver Color” and “Oliver DVE” filters here. My previously-created, free FCP X color board presets may be found here.

©2015 Oliver Peters

NLEs at NAB 2015


NAB is the biggest toy store in our industry. As in years past, I’ve covered it for DV magazine, where you’ll find the expanded version. The following is the segment covering the four – soon to become five – most popular NLE vendors.

df2115_NAB2Editing options largely focused on the four “A” companies – Apple, Adobe, Avid and Autodesk. Apple wasn’t officially at the show, but held private press meetings at an area hotel. Consulting company FCPworks presented a series of workflow and case study sessions at the Renaissance Hotel next door to the South Hall. This coincided with Apple’s release of the updated versions of Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor. FCP X 10.2 includes a number of enhancements, but the most buzz went to the addition of a new 3D text engine for FCP X and Motion. Apple’s implementation is one of the easiest to use and best-looking in any application. The best part is that the performance is excellent. Two other big features fall more in line with user wish lists. These include built-in masking and changing the color correction tool into a standard effect filter. Compressor has now added a preset designed for iTunes submission. Although Apple still encourages users to go to iTunes though an approved third-party portal, this new preset makes it easier to create the proper file package necessary for delivery.

df2115_NAB1Adobe has the momentum as the next up-and-coming professional editing tool. At NAB Adobe was showing technology previews of the application features that will be released as part of a Creative Cloud subscription in the coming months. Premiere Pro CC now integrates more of SpeedGrade CC’s color correction capabilities through the addition of the Lumetri Color panel. This tabbed control integrates tools that are familiar from SpeedGrade, but also from Lightroom. Since Premiere already includes built-in masking and tracking, this means the editor is capable of doing very sophisticated color correction right inside of Premiere. Morph Cut is a new effect that everyone cutting interviews will love. The effect is designed to smoothly transition across jump cuts in a seamless manner. It uses advanced tracking and frame interpolation functions to build new “in-between” frames. After Effects adds an outstanding face tracker and improved previews. View design iterations, adjust composition properties, and even resize interface panels without halting composition playback. The face tracker locks onto specific points (pupils, mouth, nose), which enables accurate tracking when elements need to be composited onto an actor’s face.

Adobe is also good for out-of-the-box thinking on new technologies. Character Animator was demonstrated as a live animation tool. Using real-time facial tracking, such as from a laptop’s webcam, the animator could do live animation key framing of an on-screen cartoon character. Import a cartoon character as a layered Photoshop file as the starting point. When you move and talk, so does the character in real-time – all controlled by the tracking. Not only can you add the real-time animation, but certain animation functions are automatically applied, like a character’s breathing motion. Another interesting tool is Candy. This is a mobile app which analyses the tonal color scheme of photos stored on your mobile device. It creates a “look” file and stores it to your Creative Cloud library. This, in turn, can be synced with your copy of Premiere Pro CC and then applied as a color correction look to any video clip.

df2115_NAB3Avid ran the second annual Avid Connect event for members of their customer association in the weekend leading up to the NAB exhibition. Although this was the first show appearance of Media Composer 8.3.1 – Avid’s first move into true 4K editing – they did very little to promote it. That’s not to say there wasn’t any news. Several new products were announced, including the Avid Artist | DNxIO. Instead of developing their own 4K hardware, Avid opted to partner with Blackmagic Design. The DNxIO is essentially the same as the UltraStudio 4K Extreme, except with the addition of Avid’s DNxHR codec embedded into the unit. Only Avid will sell the Avid-branded version and will also provide any technical support. The DNxIO supports both PCIe or Thunderbolt host connections and can also be used for Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Apple FCP X and DaVinci Resolve running on the same workstation as Media Composer.

In an effort to attract new users to Media Composer, Avid also announced Media Composer | First. This is a free version with a reduced feature set. It’s intended as functional starter software from which users will hopefully transition to the full, paid application. However, it uses a “freemium” sales model, allowing users to extend functionality through add-on purchases. For example, Media Composer | First permits users to only store three active projects in the cloud. Additional storage for more projects can be purchased from Avid.

df2115_NAB5Autodesk’s NAB news was all about the 2016 versions of Flame, Maya and 3ds Max. Flame and Flame Premium customers gain new look development tools, including Lightbox – a GPU shader toolkit for 3D color correction – and Matchbox in the Action module. This applies fast Matchbox shaders to texture maps without leaving the 3D compositing scene. Maya 2016 received performance and ease-of-use enhancements. There are also new capabilities in Bifrost to help deliver realistic liquid simulations. 3ds Max 2016 gains a new, node-based creation graph, a new design workspace and template system, as well as other design enhancements. If you’ve been following Smoke, then this NAB was disappointing. Autodesk told me that an update is in the works, but development timing didn’t allow it to be ready in time for the show. I would presume we’ll hear something at IBC.

df2115_NAB4For editors, all eyes are on Blackmagic Design. DaVinci Resolve 12 was demonstrated, which is the first version that the company feels can compete as a full-fledged NLE. Last NAB, Resolve 11 was introduced as an online editor, but once it was out in the wild, most users found the real-time performance wasn’t up to par with other NLEs. Resolve 12 appears to have licked that issue, with a new audio engine and improved editing features. New in Resolve 12 is a multi-camera editing mode with the ability to sync angles by audio, timecode or in/out points. The new, high-performance audio engine was designed to greatly improve real-time playback, but also supports VST and AU audio plug-ins. Editors will also be able to export projects to ProTools using AAF.  Don’t forget that there are also updates to its color correction functions. Aside from interface and control enhancements, the most notable additions are a new keyer and a new perspective tracker. The latter will allow users to better track objects that move off-screen during the clip. Resolve 12 is scheduled to be released in July. Blackmagic acquired Fusion last year. It’s a node-based, compositing application, built on Windows. At the booth, Blackmagic previewed Fusion 8 on the Mac and announced that it will be available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Like Resolve, Fusion 8 will be offered in both a free and a paid version.

This post is an abbreviated overview written for CreativePlanetNetwork and Digital Video magazine. Click here for the full-length version to find out about more post news, as well as cameras, effects and other items presented at NAB.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Autodesk Smoke 2015


After NAB last year, Autodesk released Smoke 2015 – their Mac-based editing application. This version also marked Autodesk’s shift from perpetual licenses to a subscription model for Smoke. Any new Smoke users must subscribe for an active license, with monthly, quarterly, and annual plans available. In order to attract new users, Autodesk also introduced a free student license, which is active for three years. This is part of a companywide initiative to make all Autodesk software available to students worldwide.

df1015_smoke_2_smI wrote an in-depth review of Smoke 2013 two years ago. This was the first major optimization (after the introduction of Smoke 2011 for the Mac) to convert Smoke from the look and feel of its Irix and Linux roots into a predominantly Mac-oriented application. Much of Smoke 2015’s interface and operational style remains unchanged from that previous version. In the intervening two years, Autodesk has decided that Smoke and Flame no longer need to remain 100% compatible or locked into the same development cycle. Each product has evolved from a core toolset, but more and more is being designed for a specific audience and user need. Smoke 2015 is targeted at editors who want a strong compositor, but are most comfortable with track-based NLEs that run on Macs. This new release is even more Mac-friendly with improved performance on Mac hardware, including the new Mac Pros, iMacs and Retina MacBook Pros.

df1015_smoke_3_smThe hallmark of working with visual effects inside Smoke is the integration of a node-base compositing tool. That can also be the most daunting part of the learning curve for new users. Building on the 2013 version, Smoke 2015 has increased the amount of effects control that you can perform in the timeline, without touching any nodes. It uses a “ribbon” of common effects that can be applied to a clip and adjusted without ever leaving the timeline display. These consist of 14 effects modules that include most of the text, transform/DVE, color correction, and speed change effects commonly used by editors. For instance, you can apply a color correction to a clip or an adjustment layer, and then alter the look by numerical entry (keypad or mouse slider). You get a lot of correction control right within this ribbon, including access to master/highlight/mids/shadows and RGB/red/green/blue parameters. If you want more control with color wheels, then simply enter the effect editor to switch to that layout for the selected clip.

Smoke had included a third-party effects API (Sparks), but other than GenArts, never had many takers among the development community interested in rewriting their Sparks Linux plug-ins (originally developed for Flame and Smoke on Linux) into Mac versions for Smoke on the Mac. Not many users bought the ones that were available. As a result, Autodesk has moved away from this API for Smoke, even though the effects tab is still there. Instead, Autodesk engineers filled in the gaps through additional effects that now come with Smoke. The bottom line is that although there’s a Sparks tab in the ribbon, it’s a legacy item with no functionality without third-party plug-ins.

df1015_smoke_5_smSmoke has undergone a big performance improvement since its original Mac introduction. In the past, you could usually only play a timeline clip in real-time, when the clip had no more than a single effect applied to it. Add more effects and rendering was needed. Now it’s possible to apply several effects to a clip and still play through it without rendering. This is based on my testing on a 2009 8-core Mac Pro with 28GB of RAM and an ATI 5870 GPU card. To enable new users to adapt more quickly to complex composites and to add effects not supplied by third parties, Smoke 2015 includes a number of presets. For example, if you add a lens flare, there’s a wide range of preset styles accessible from a pulldown menu. When you set up a chromakey, you can start with a preset selection of nodes, designed to be a good starting point. Autodesk also added 3D camera tracking into Smoke 2015, which had been previously developed for Flame.

In an effort to position Smoke as a finishing tool that works well with Apple Final Cut Pro X, Autodesk has improved the compatibility with FCPXML lists generated from that application. While this works reasonably well, I did have problems relinking to clips with frame rates that differed from the main sequence rate. For example, 60fps clips from a Canon 5D that were cut into a 23.98fps timeline and slowed, did not properly relink when I imported the sequence into Smoke.

df1015_smoke_6_smOverall, Smoke 2015 is a good upgrade. With a subscription you get updates as they come out. Unfortunately, this process is not as easy as it is with Apple, Adobe, or even Avid products. My software went from SP1 (service pack) to SP2. When I tried to download SP2, I could only find SP3. I tried this version, but it was incompatible, because that was designed for legacy perpetual license owners. I finally got SP2 installed, but only through the help of tech support. On the plus side, I’ve found Autodesk’s support personnel to be very helpful and knowledgeable, when I’ve needed them.

Smoke does not support dual-display systems in the same way as its competitors. You can run the broadcast monitoring signal to a second display, which gives you full-screen video or a duplicate of the node tree in some modes; but, the user interface is not configurable across two screens like other NLEs. Smoke also accesses media differently than other NLEs, which conflicts with some of the Mac’s internal networking functions. I typically run with my internal Mac OS X firewall set to block all connections. This works fine with all creative applications, except Smoke. Set that way, all of the media is unlinked. Rather than reconfigure my settings to run Smoke (since my main use is for demo purposes), I simply turn off the internal firewall before launching Smoke.

df1015_smoke_4_smThe long-term success of the subscription software business model among creative applications is still an unknown. Adobe and Autodesk are primarily on the vanguard – with Avid offering it only as one option. Among users, it’s still a love/hate thing. It will take a few years yet to see whether or not it’s the right move. Nevertheless, if you have the business to justify the cost and want to stay current with a top-notch editor/compositor, then a Smoke subscription might be right for you. If you are serious about Smoke 2015, then I would highly recommend Alexis Van Hurkman’s book, “Autodesk Smoke Essentials”, which may be purchased through the Autodesk website, as well as from It’s the ideal quick start guide for users committed to learning Smoke.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Fresh Dressed

df0515_frdress_2_smThe Sundance Film Festival is always a great event to showcase not just innovative dramas and comedies, but also new documentaries. This year brought good news for Adobe, because 21 of the documentaries to be shown were edited on Premiere Pro, which is more than double last year’s count. One such film is Fresh Dressed, which chronicles the history of hip-hop fashion from its birth in the Bronx during the 1970s to its evolution into a mainstream industry. It digs underneath the surface to look into other factors, like race and the societal context. Fresh Dressed was the first film written and directed by veteran producer Sacha Jenkins (Being Terry Kennedy, 50 Cent: The Power and the Money). The film features interviews with Pharrell Williams, Nas, Daymond John, Damon Dash, and Karl Kani, among others. It includes archival footage and some animation.

I recently spoke with Andrea B. Scott (Florence Arizona, A Place at the Table), who was brought in to complete the editing of the film to get it ready in time for Sundance submission. Scott explains, “Sacha and the team started shooting interviews in September of 2013. Initially there was another editor on board, who handled the first pass of cutting and organization of the project. I came to the film in May of 2014 after a basic assembly had been completed. This film was being produced by CNN and they recommended me. I definitely agree with the sentiment that editing is a lot like ‘writing with pictures’. It was my job to streamline the film and help craft the narrative, and bring Sacha’s vision to life as a moving story.”

df0515_frdress_1_smScott has worked on several documentaries before and has her own routine for learning the material. She says, “I usually start by watching the interviews through a couple of times, making notes with markers, and also by reading interview transcripts and highlighting certain passages. Then, I’ll pull selects to whittle down the interview to the parts that are most likely to be used in any given section. On Fresh Dressed, because I started with an assembly and needed to work quickly to get to a rough cut, I relied heavily on interview transcripts – going through the film section-by-section and interview-by-interview, and pulling selects – going back and forth from reading the transcript to watching the interview. Fresh Dressed involved about 30 interviews and totaled approximately 200 hours of raw footage. A lot of the archival search had already been done by the time I came on board, so I also had to watch through that footage and had a lot of good material to pull from.”

All film editing involves a working relationship between the editor and the director and Fresh Dressed was no exception. Scott continues, “It’s always a process of gaining the trust of the director. I come from the suburbs and I’m a bit younger than some of the crew, so it was a steep learning curve for me to understand the history of the hip-hop culture and fashion. It basically evolved from the urban gang culture of the 1970s, moved out from New York City, and went global from there. Inevitably, as the editor, you bring fresh eyes to the project and part of the editing process is to refine. The goal was to tell the story without voice-over, so we used the interviews to create that narrative thread. I put in a lot more archival material than was there before, which served to enliven the film with moments of nostalgia and infuse it with a fun energy. In a written script or book there can be a lot of side stories, which make sense on paper and are easy for the reader to follow and digest. But, the film we were making had to be more direct, with a linear timeline. Part of what I did was to strip away tangents that take you away from the main story.”df0515_frdress_3_sm

Scott’s touch also extended to the music. “The film was originally delivered to me with wall-to-wall music,” she explains. “I stripped out the music at first, so I could really think about story. Then I added temp score back in places to help steer the audience and underscore certain moments with another level of meaning.  In the end, we hired a talented composer, Tyler Strickland, to write the bulk of the score, and we also used some popular tracks from critical moments in the history of hip-hop.”

This was Scott’s first experience with Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Her prior experience had been with Apple Final Cut Pro (the “legacy” version). She found it to be a relatively easy transition. “The production company had already started the edit on Premiere Pro and so I continued with it. I welcomed being pushed to a new editing platform. It took about a week for me to get the hang of it. Since we were on a short deadline by that time, I simply ran it like I was used to running Final Cut. I really didn’t have the time to learn all of its nuances. I used the FCP keyboard settings, so everything felt natural to me. There’s a lot about Premiere Pro that I really like now. For example, the way it works with native media and using Adobe Media Encoder to export files.” The workstations were connected to shared storage, allowing the Scott to access material from any computer in the production office.

df0515_frdress_4_smEditors considering a shift to Premiere Pro CC sometimes question how its performance is with long-form project. Scott responds, “I was editing on an iMac and performance was fine. One tip I found that helps to speed up the loading of a large project is to discard old sequences. When I edit, I generally duplicate sequences and continue on those as I make changes. So on a large project you tend to build up a lot of sequences that way. While it’s good to save the past few versions in case you need to go back, you still have a lot of the oldest ones that simply aren’t ever needed again. These tend to slow down the speed of loading the project as all the media is relinked each time you launch it. By simply getting rid of a lot of these, you can improve performance.”

To handle the final stages of post, Scott exported an OMF file from Premiere Pro CC to be used by the audio mixer and and an XML file for the colorist. The final color correction of Fresh Dressed is being handled by Light of Day in New York. They will also complete the conform and recreate all moves on archival stills.

Scott concludes, “The film was, for the most part, made in New York, which makes sense, because Fresh Dressed really is a New York story at its heart.  Working on this film, I gained another level of love for New York, a deeper appreciation for all the many stories that start in this city, and for the deeper context that surrounds those individual stories.  Plus I had a lot of fun along the way.”

Read more about Fresh Dressed at Adobe’s Premiere Pro blog.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer Goes 4K


Avid Technology entered 2015 with a bang. The company closed out 2014 with the release of its Media Composer version 8.3 software, the first to enable higher resolution editing, including 2K, UHD and 4K projects. On January 16th of this year, Avid celebrated its relisting on the NASDAQ exchange by ringing the opening bell. Finally – as in most years – the Academy Awards nominee field is dominated by films that used either Media Composer and/or Pro Tools during the post-production process.

In a software landscape quickly shifting to rental (subscription) business models, Avid now offers the most flexible price model. Media Composer | Software may be purchased, rented, or managed through a floating licensing. If you purchase a perpetual license (you own the software), then an annually-renewed support contract gives you phone support and continued software updates. Opt out of the contract and you’ll still own the software you bought – you just lose any updates to newer software.

You can purchase other optional add-ons, like Symphony for advanced color correction. Unfortunately there’s still no resolution to the impasse between Avid and Nexidia. If you purchased ScriptSync or PhraseFind in the past, which rely on IP from Nexidia, then you can’t upgrade to version 8 or higher software and use those options. On the other hand, if you own an older version, such as Media Composer 7, and need to edit a project that requires a higher version, you can simply pick up a software subscription for the few months. This would let you run the latest software version for the time that it will take to complete that project.

df0915_avidmc83_1_smThe jump from Media Composer | Software 8.2 to 8.3 might seem minor, but in fact this was a huge update for Avid editors. It ushered in new, high-resolution project settings and capabilities, but also added a resolution-independent Avid codec – DNxHR. Not merely just the ability to edit in 4K, Media Composer now addresses most of the different 4K options that cover the TV and cinema variations, as well as new color spaces and frame rates. Need to edit 4K DCI Flat (3996×2160) at 48fps in DCI-P3 color space? Version 8.3 makes it possible. Although Avid introduced high-resolution editing in its flagship software much later than its competitors, it comes to the table with a well-designed upgrade that attempts to address the nuances of modern post.

df0915_avidmc83_2_smAnother new feature is LUT support. Media Composer has allowed users to add LUTs to source media for awhile now, but 8.3 adds a new LUT filter. Apply this to a top video track on your timeline and you can then add a user-supplied, film emulation (or any other type) look to all of your footage. There’s a new Proxy setting designed for work with high-resolution media. For example, switch your project settings to 1/4 or 1/16 resolution for better performance while editing with large files. Switch Proxy off and you are ready to render and output at full quality. As Media Composer becomes more capable of functioning as a finishing system, it has gained DPX image sequence file export via the Avid Image Sequencer, as well as export to Apple ProRes 4444 (Mac only).

df0915_avidmc83_4_smThis new high resolution architecture requires that the software increasingly shed itself of any remaining 32-bit parts in order to be compatible with modern versions of the Mac and Windows operating systems. Avid’s Title Tool still exists for legacy SD and HD projects, but higher resolutions will use NewBlue Titler Pro, which is included with Media Composer. It can, of course, also be used for all other titling.

There are plenty of new, but smaller features for the editor, such as a “quick filter” in the bin. Use it to quickly filter items to match the bin view to correspond with your filter text entry. The Avid “helper” applications of EDL Manager and FilmScribe have now been integrated inside Media Composer as the List Tool. This may be used to generate EDLs, Cut Lists and Change Lists.

df0915_avidmc83_3_smAvid is also a maker of video i/o hardware – Mojo DX and Nitris DX. While these will work to monitor higher resolution projects as downscaled HD, they won’t be updated to display native 4K output, for instance. Avid has qualifying AJA and Blackmagic Design hardware for use as 4K i/o. It is currently also qualifying BlueFish 444. If you work with a 4K computer display connected to your workstation, then the Full Screen mode enables 4K preview monitoring.

Avid Media Composer | Software version 8.3 is just the beginning of Avid’s entry into the high-resolution post-production niche. Throughout 2015, updates will further refine and enhance these new capabilities and expand high-resolution to other Avid products and solutions. Initial user feedback is that 8.3 is reasonably stable and performs well, which is good news for the high-end film and television world that continues to rely on Avid for post-production tools and solutions.

(Full disclosure: I have participated in the Avid Customer Association and chaired the Video Subcommittee of the Products and Solutions Council. This council provides user feedback to Avid product management to aid in future product development.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters



Every once in awhile a movie comes along that has the potential to change how we in the film and video world work. Focus is one such movie. It’s a romantic caper film in the vein of To Catch a Thief or the Oceans franchise. It stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie as master and novice con artists who become romantically involved. Focus was written and directed by the veteran team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) who decided to use some innovative, new approaches in this production.

Focus is a high-budget, studio picture shot in several cities, including New Orleans and Buenos Aires. It also happens to be the first studio feature film that was cut using Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. The production chose to shoot with ARRI Alexa cameras, but record to ProRes 4444, instead of ARRIRAW (except for some VFX shots). At its launch in 2011, Final Cut Pro X had received a negative reaction from many veteran editors, so this was a tough sell to Warner Bros execs. In order to get over that hurdle, the editorial team went through extensive testing of all of the typical processes involved in feature film post production. They had to prove that the tool was more than up to the task.

Proving the concept

df1515_focus_5_smMike Matzdorff, first assistant editor, explains, “Warner Bros wanted to make sure that there was a fallback if everything blew up. That ‘Plan B’ was to step back and cut in either [Apple] FCP 7 or [Avid] Media Composer. Getting projects from Final Cut Pro X into Media Composer was very clunky, because of all the steps – getting to FCP 7 and then Automatic Duck to Avid. Getting to FCP 7 was relatively solid, so we ran a ‘chase project’ in FCP 7 with dailies for the entire show. Every couple days we would import an XML and relink the media. Fortunately FCP X worked well and ‘Plan B’ was never needed.”

df1515_focus_8_smGlenn Ficarra adds, “The industry changes so quickly that it’s hard to follow the progress. The studio was going off of old information and once they saw that our approach would work and also save time and money, then they were completely onboard with our choice.” The editorial team also consulted with Sam Mestman of FCPworks to determine what software, other than FCP X, was required to satisfy all of the elements associated with post on a feature film.

df1515_focus_4_smThis was a new experience for editor Jan Kovac (Curb Your Enthusiasm), as Focus is his first Hollywood feature film. Kovac studied film in the Czech Republic and then editing at UCLA. He’s been in the LA post world for 20 years, which is where he met Ficarra and Requa. Kovac was ready to be part of the team and accept the challenge of using Final Cut Pro X on a studio feature. He explains, “I was eager to work with John and Glenn and prove that FCP X is a viable option. In fact, I was using FCP X for small file-based projects since the fall of 2012.”

Production and post on the go

df1515_focus_1_smFocus was shot in 61 days across two continents, during a three-month period. Kovac and three assistants (Mike Matzdorff, Andrew Wallace, Kimaree Long) worked from before principal photography started until the sound mix and final delivery of the feature – roughly from September 2013 until August 2014. The production shot 145 hours of footage, much of it multicam. Focus was shot in an anamorphic format as 2048 x 1536 ProRes 4444 files recorded directly to the Alexa’s onboard cards. On set the DIT used the Light Iron Outpost mobile system to process the files, by de-squeezing them and baking in CDL color information. The editors then received 2048 x 1152 color-corrected ProRes 4444 “dailies”, which were still encoded with a Log-C gamma profile. FCP X has the ability to internally add a Log-C LUT on-the-fly to correct the displayed image. Therefore, during the edit, the clips always looked close the final appearance. Ficarra says, “This was great, because when we went through the DI for the final grading, the look was very close to what was decided on set. You didn’t see something radically different in the edit, so you didn’t develop ‘temp love’ for a certain look”.

df1515_focus_6_smA number of third-party developers have created utilities that fill in gaps and one of these is Intelligent Assistance, which makes various workflow tools based on XML. The editors used a number of these, including Sync-N-Link X, which enabled them to sync double-system sound with common timecode in a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Only a little use of Sync-N-Link X was made on Focus, because the DIT was using the Light Iron system to sync dailies.) Script data can also be added to Final Cut Pro X clips as notes. On Focus, that had to be done manually by the assistants. This need to automate the process spurred Kevin Bailey (Kovac’s assistant on his current film) to develop Shot Notes X, an application that takes the script supervisor’s information and merges it with FCP X Events to add this metadata into the notes field.

During the months of post, Apple released several updates to Final Cut Pro X and the team was not shy about upgrading mid-project. Matzdorff explains, “The transition to 10.1 integrated Events and Projects into Libraries. To make sure there weren’t any hiccups, I maintained an additional FCP X ‘chase project’.  I ran an alternate world between 10.0.9 and 10.1. We had 52 days of dailies in one Library and I would bring cuts across to see how they linked up and what happened. The transition was a rough one, but we learned a lot, which really helped down the line.”

Managing the media

df1515_focus_2_smFinal Cut Pro X has the unique ability to internally transcode quarter-sized editorial proxy files in the ProRes Proxy format. The editor can easily toggle between original footage and editorial proxies and FCP X takes care of the math to make sure color, effects and sizing information tracks correctly between modes. Throughout the editing period, Kovac, Ficarro, and the assistants used both proxies and the de-sequeezed camera files as their source. According to Kovac, “In Buenos Aires I was working from a MacBook Pro laptop using the proxies. For security reasons, I would lock up the footage in a safe. By using proxies, which take up less drive space, a much smaller hard drive was required and that easily fit into the safe.”

df1515_focus_3_smBack at their home base in LA, four rooms were set up connected to XSAN shared storage. These systems included iMacs and a Mac Pro (“tube” version). All camera media and common source clips. like sound effects libraries. lived on the XSAN, while each workstation had a small SSD RAID for proxies and local FCP X Libraries. The XSAN included a single transfer Library so that edits could be moved among the rooms. Kovac and Ficarra shared roles as co-editors at this stage, collaborating on each other’s scenes. Kovac says, “This was very fluid going back and forth between Glenn and me. The process was a lot like sharing sequences with FCP 7. It’s always good to keep perspective, so each of us would review the other’s edited scenes and offer notes.” The other two systems was used by the assistants. Kovac continues, “The Libraries were broken down by reel and all iterations of sharing were used, including the XSAN or sneaker net.”

Setting up a film edit in FCP X

df1515_focus_9_smAs with any film, the key is organization and translating the script into a final product. Kovac explains his process with FCP X, “The assistants would group the multicam clips and ‘reject’ the clip ranges before ‘action’ and after ‘cut’. This hides any extraneous material so you only have to sort through useable clips. We used a separate Event for each scene. With Sam and Mike, we worked out a process to review clips based on line readings. The dialogue lines in the script were numbered and the assistants would place a marker and a range for every three lines of dialogue. These were assigned keywords, so that each triplet of dialogue lines would end up in a Keyword Collection. Within a scene Event, I would have Keyword Collections for L1-3, L4-6, and so on. I would also create Smart Collections for certain criteria – for instance, a certain type of shot or anything else I might designate.”

Everyone involved felt that FCP X made the edit go faster, but it still takes time to be creative. Ficarra continues, “The first assembly of the film according to the script was about three hours long. I call this the ‘kitchen sink’ cut. The first screening cut was about two-and-a-half hours. We had removed some scenes and lengthened others and showed it to a ‘friends and family’ audience. It actually didn’t play as well as we’d hoped. Then we added these scenes back in and shortened everything, which went over much better. We had intentionally shot alternate versions of scenes just to play around with them in the edit. FCP X is a great tool for that, because you can easily edit a number of iterations.”

Engineered for speed

df1515_focus_10_smWhile many veteran editors experienced in other systems might scoff at the claims that FCP X is a faster editor, Mike Matzdorff was willing to put a finer point on that for me. He says, “I find that because of the magnetic timeline, trimming is a lot faster. If you label roles extensively, it’s easier to sort out temporary from final elements or organize sound sources when you hand off audio for sound post. With multi-channel audio in an Avid, for example, you generally sync the clips using only the composite mix. That way you aren’t tying up a lot of tracks on the timeline for all of the source channels. If you have to replace a line with a clean isolated mic, you have to dig it out and make the edit. With FCP X, all of the audio channels are there and neatly tucked away until you need them. It’s a simple matter of expanding a clip and picking a different channel. That alone is a major improvement.”

Ficarra and Kovac are in complete agreement. Ficarra points out, “As an editor, I’m twice as fast on FCP X as on Avid. There’s less clicking. This is the only NLE that’s not trying to emulate some other model, like cutting on a flatbed. You are able to move faster on your impulses.” Kovac adds, “It keeps you in the zone.”

The final DI was handled by Light Iron, who conformed and graded Focus. The handoff was made using an EDL and an FCPXML, along with a QuickTime picture reference. Light Iron relinked to the original anamorphic camera masters and graded using a Quantel Rio unit.

Filling in the workflow gaps

A number of developers contributed to the success of FCP X on Focus. Having a tight relationship with the editing team let them tailor their solutions to the needs of the production. One of these developers, Philip Hodgetts (President, Intelligent Assistance) says, “One of the nice things about being a small software developer is that we can react to customer needs very quickly. During the production of Focus we received feature requests for all the tools we were providing – Sync-N-Link X, Change List X and Producer’s Best Friend. For example, Sync-N-Link X gained the ability to create multicam clips, in addition to synchronizing audio and video, as a result of a feature request from first assistant Mike Matzdorff.” This extended to Apple’s ProApps team, who also kept a close and helpful watch on the progress of Focus.

df1515_focus_11_smFor every film that challenges convention, a lot of curiosity is raised about the process. Industry insiders refer to the “Cold Mountain moment” – alluding to the use of FCP 3 by editor Walter Murch on the film, Cold Mountain. That milestone added high-end legitimacy for the earlier Final Cut among professional users. Gone Girl did that for Adobe Premiere Pro and now Focus has done that for a new Final Cut. But times are different and it’s hard to say what the true impact will be. Nevertheless, Focus provided the confidence for the team to continue on their next film in the same manner, tapping Final Cut Pro X once again. Change can be both scary and exciting, but as Glenn Ficarra says, “We like to shake things up. It’s fun to see the bemused comments wondering how we could ever pull it off with something like FCP X!”

For those that want to know more about the nuts and bolts of the post production workflow, Mike Matzdorff released “Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow”, an e-book that’s a step-by-step advanced guide based on the lessons learned on Focus. It’s available through iTunes and Kindle.

For some additional reading on the post production workflow of Focus, check out this Apple “in action” story, as well as Part 1 and Part 2 of’s very in-depth coverage of how the team got it done. For a very in-depth understanding, make sure you watch the videos at PostPerspective.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

df0615_panthers_3_smDocumentaries covering subject matter that happens within a generation usually divides the audience between those who personally lived through the time period and those who’ve only read about it in history books. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one such film. If you are over 50, you are aware of the media coverage of the Black Panther Party and certainly have opinions and possibly misconceptions of who they were. If you are under 50, then you may have learned about them in history class, if which case, you may only know them by myth and legend. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The American Experience, Freedom Summer, Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) seeks to go beyond what you think you know with this new Sundance Film Festival documentary entry.

I spoke with the film’s editor, Aljernon Tunsil, as he was putting the finishing touches on the film to get it ready for Sundance presentation. Tunsil has worked his way up from assistant editor to editor and discussed the evolution in roles. “I started in a production company office, initially helping the assistant editor,” he says. “Over a period of seven or eight years, I worked my way up from assistant to a full-time editor. Along the way, I’ve had a number of mentors and learned to cut on both [Apple] Final Cut Pro and [Avid] Media Composer. These mentors were instrumental in my learning how to tell a story. I worked on a short with Stanley [Nelson] and that started our relationship of working together on films. I view my role as the ‘first audience’ for the film. The producer or director knows the story they want to make, but the editor helps to make sense of it for someone who doesn’t intimately know the material. My key job is to make sure that the narrative makes senses and that no one gets lost.”

df0615_panthers_2_smThe Black Panthers is told through a series of interviews (about 40 total subjects). Although a few notables, like Kathleen Cleaver, are featured, the chronicle of the rise and fall of the Panthers is largely told by lesser known party members, as well as FBI informants and police officers active in the events. The total post-production period took about 40 to 50 weeks. Tunsil explains, “Firelight Films (the production company) is very good at researching characters and finding old subjects for the interviews. They supplied me with a couple of hundred hours of footage. That’s a challenge to organize so that you know what you have. My process is to first watch all of that with the filmmakers and then to assemble the best of the interviews and best of the archival footage. Typically it takes six to ten weeks to get there and then another four to six weeks to get to a rough cut.”

Tunsil continues, “The typical working arrangement with Stanley is that he’ll take a day to review any changes I’ve made and then give me notes for any adjustments. As we were putting the film together, Stanley was still recording more interviews to fill in the gaps – trying to tie the story together without the need for a narrator. After that, it’s the usual process of streamlining the film. We could have made a ten-hour film, but, of course, not all of the stories would fit into the final two-hour version.”

df0615_panthers_5_smLike many documentary film editors, Tunsil prefers having interview transcripts, but acknowledged they don’t tell the whole story. He says, “One example is in the interview with former Panther member Wayne Pharr. He describes the police raid on the LA headquarters of the party and the ensuing shootout. When asked how he felt, he talks about his feeling of freedom, even though the event surrounding him was horrific. That feeling clearly comes across in the emotion on his face, which transcends the mere words in the transcript. You get to hear the story from the heart – not just the facts. Stories are what makes a documentary like this.”

As with many films about the 1960s and 1970s, The Black Panthers weaves into its fabric the music of the era. Tunsil says, “About 60% of the film was composed by Tom Phillips, but we also had about seven or eight period songs, like ‘Express Yourself’, which we used under [former Panther member] Bobby Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland. I used other pieces from Tom’s library as temp music, which we then gave to him for the feel. He’d compose something similar – or different, but in a better direction.”

df0615_panthers_6_smTunsil is a fervent Avid Media Composer editor, which he used for The Black Panthers. He explains, “I worked with Rebecca Sherwood as my associate editor and we were both using Media Composer version 7. We used a Facilis Terrablock for shared storage, but this was primarily used to transfer media between us, as we both had our own external drives with a mirrored set of media files. All the media was at the DNxHD 175 resolution. I like Avid’s special features such as PhraseFind, but overall, I feel that Media Composer is just better at letting me organize material than is Final Cut. I love Avid as an editing system, because it’s the most stable and makes the work easy. Editing is best when there’s a rhythm to the workflow and Media Composer is good for that. As for the stills, I did temporary moves with the Avid pan-and-zoom plug-in, but did the final moves in [Adobe] After Effects.”

df0615_panthers_1_smFor a documentary editor, part of the experience are the things you personally learn. Tunsil reflects, “I like the way Stanley and Firelight handle these stories. They don’t just tell it from the standpoint of the giants of history, but more from the point-of-view of the rank-and-file people. He’s trying to show the full dimension of the Panthers instead of the myth and iconography. It’s telling the history of the real people, which humanizes them. That’s a more down-to-earth, honest experience. For instance, I never knew that they had a communal living arrangement. By having the average members tell their stories, it makes it so much richer. Another example is the Fred Hampton story. He was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the party who was killed in a police shootout; but, there was no evidence of gunfire from inside the building that he was in. That’s a powerful scene, which resonates. One part of the film that I think is particularly well done is the explanation of how the party declined due to a split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. This was in part as a result of an internal misinformation campaign instigated by the FBI within the Panthers.”

df0615_panthers_4_smThroughout the process, the filmmakers ran a number of test screenings with diverse audiences, including industry professionals and non-professionals, people who knew the history and people who didn’t. Results from these screenings enabled Nelson and Tunsil to refine the film. To complete the film’s finishing, Firelight used New York editorial facility Framerunner. Tunsil continues, “Framerunner is doing the online using an Avid Symphony. To get ready, we simply consolidated the media to a single drive and then brought it there. They are handling all color correction, improving moves on stills and up-converting the standard definition archival footage.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters