NLE as Post Production Hub


As 2009 closed, I wrote a post about Final Cut Studio as the center of a boutique post production workflow. A lot has changed since then, but that approach is still valid and a number of companies can fill those shoes. In each case, rather than be the complete, self-contained tool, the editing application becomes the hub of the operation. Other applications surround it and the workflow tends to go from NLE to support tool and back for delivery. Here are a few solutions.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

df2316_prproNo current editing package comes as close to the role of the old Final Cut Studio as does Adobe’s Creative Cloud. You get nearly all of the creative tools under a single subscription and facilities with a team account can equip every room with the full complement of applications. When designed correctly, workflows in any room can shift from edit to effects to sound to color correction – according to the load. In a shared storage operation, projects can stay in a single bay for everything or shift from bay to bay based on operator speciality and talent.

While there are many tools in the Creative Cloud kit, the primary editor-specific applications are Premiere Pro CC, After Effects CC and Audition CC. It goes without saying that for most, Photoshop CC and Adobe Media Encoder are also givens. On the other hand, I don’t know too many folks using Prelude CC, so I can’t say what the future for this tool will be. Especially since the next version of Premiere Pro includes built-in proxy transcoding. Also, as more of SpeedGrade CC’s color correction tools make it into Premiere Pro, it’s clear to see that SpeedGrade itself is getting very little love. The low-cost market for outboard color correction software has largely been lost to DaVinci Resolve (free). For now, SpeedGrade is really “dead man walking”. I’d be surprised if it’s still around by mid-2017. That might also be the case for Prelude.

Many editors I know that are heavy into graphics and visual effects do most of that work in After Effects. With CC and Dynamic Link, there’s a natural connection between the Premiere Pro timeline and After Effects. A similar tie can exist between Premiere Pro and Audition. I find the latter to be a superb audio post application and, from my experience, provides the best transfer of a Premiere Pro timeline into any audio application. This connection is being further enhanced by the updates coming from Adobe this year.

Rounding out the package is Photoshop CC, of course. While most editors are not big Photoshop artists, it’s worth noting that this application also enables animated motion graphics. For example, if you want to create an animated lower third banner, it can be done completely inside of Photoshop without ever needing to step into After Effects. Drop the file onto a Premiere Pro timeline and it’s complete with animation and proper transparency values. Update the text in Photoshop and hit “save” – voila the graphic is instantly updated within Premiere Pro.

Given the breadth and quality of tools in the Creative Cloud kit, it’s possible to stay entirely within these options for all of a facility’s post needs. Of course, roundtrips to Resolve, Baselight, ProTools, etc. are still possible, but not required. Nevertheless, in this scenario I typically see everything starting and ending in Premiere Pro (with exports via AME), making the Adobe solution my first vote for the modern hub concept.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

df2316_fcpxApple walked away from the market for an all-inclusive studio package. Instead, it opted to offer more self-contained solutions that don’t have the same interoperability as before, nor that of the comparable Adobe solutions. To build up a similar toolkit, you would need Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor and Logic Pro X. An individual editor/owner would purchase these once and install these on as many machines as he or she owned. A business would have to buy each application for each separate machine. So a boutique facility would need a full set for each room or they would have to build rooms by specialty – edit, audio, graphics, etc.

Even with this combination, there are missing links when going from one application to another. These gaps have to be plugged by the various third-party productivity solutions, such as Clip Exporter, XtoCC, 7toX, Xsend Motion, X2Pro, EDL-X and others. These provide better conduits between Apple applications than Apple itself provides. For example, only through Automatic Duck Xsend Motion can you get an FCPX project (timeline) into Motion. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro Audio Convert provides a better path into Logic than the native route.

If you want the sort of color correction power available in Premiere Pro’s Lumetri Color panel, you’ll need more advanced color correction plug-ins, like Hawaiki Color or Color Finale. Since Apple doesn’t produce an equivalent to Photoshop, look to Pixelmator or Affinity Photo for a viable substitute. Although powerful, you still won’t get quite the same level of interoperability as between Photoshop and Premiere Pro.

Naturally, if your desire is to use non-Apple solutions for graphics and color correction, then similar rules apply as with Premiere Pro. For instance, roundtripping to Resolve for color correction is pretty solid using the FCPXML import/export function within Resolve. Prefer to use After Effects for your motion graphics instead of Motion? Then Automatic Duck Ximport AE on the After Effects side has your back.

Most of the tools are there for those users wishing to stay in an Apple-centric world, provided you add a lot of glue to patch over the missing elements. Since many of the plug-ins for FCPX (Motion templates) are superior to a lot of what’s out there, I do think that an FCPX-centric shop will likely choose to start and end in X (possibly with a Compressor export). Even when Resolve is used for color correction, I suspect the final touches will happen inside of Final Cut. It’s more of the Lego approach to the toolkit than the Adobe solution, yet I still see it functioning in much the same way.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

df2316_resolveIt’s hard to say what Blackmagic’s end goal is with Resolve. Clearly the world of color correction is changing. Every NLE developer is integrating quality color correction modules right inside of their editing application. So it seems only natural that Blackmagic is making Resolve into an all-in-one tool for no other reason than self-preservation. And by golly, they are doing a darn good job of it! Each version is better than the last. If you want a highly functional editor with world-class color correction tools for free, look no further than Resolve. Ingest, transcoded and/or native media editing, color correction, mastering and delivery – all there in Resolve.

There are two weak links – graphics and audio. On the latter front, the internal audio tools are good enough for many editors. However, Blackmagic realizes that specialty audio post is still the domain of the sound engineering world, which is made up predominantly of Avid Pro Tools shops. To make this easy, Resolve has built-in audio export functions to send the timeline to Pro Tools via AAF. There’s no roundtrip back, but you’d typically get composite mixed tracks back from the engineer to lay into the timeline.

To build on the momentum it started, Blackmagic Design acquired the assets of EyeOn’s Fusion software, which gives then a node-based compositor, suitable for visual effects and some motion graphics. This requires a different mindset than After Effects with Premiere Pro or Motion with Final Cut Pro X (when using Xsend Motion). You aren’t going to send a full sequence from Resolve to Fusion. Instead, the Connect plug-in links a single shot to Fusion, where it can be effected through series of nodes. The Connect plug-in provides a similar “conduit” function to that of Adobe’s Dynamic Link between Premiere Pro and After Effects, except that the return is a rendered clip instead of a live project file. To take advantage of this interoperability between Resolve and Fusion, you need the paid versions.

Just as in Apple’s case, there really is no Blackmagic-owned substitute for Photoshop or an equivalent application. You’ll just have to buy what matches your need. While it’s quite possible to build a shop around Resolve and Fusion (plus maybe Pro Tools and Photoshop), it’s more likely that Resolve’s integrated approach will appeal mainly to those folks looking for free tools. I don’t see too many advanced pros doing their creative cutting on Resolve (at least not yet). However, that being said, it’s pretty close, so I don’t want to slight the capabilities.

Where I see it shine is as a finishing or “online” NLE. Let’s say you perform the creative or “offline” edit in Premiere Pro, FCPX or Media Composer. This could even be three editors working on separate segments of a larger show – each on a different NLE. Each’s sequence goes to Resolve, where the timelines are imported, combined and relinked to the high-res media. The audio has gone via a parallel path to a Pro Tools mixer and graphics come in as individual clips, shots or files. Then all is combined inside Resolve, color corrected and delivered straight from Resolve. For many shops, that scenario is starting to look like the best of all worlds.

I tend to see Resolve as less of a hub than either Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X. Instead, I think it may take several possible positions: a) color correction and transcoding at the front end, b) color correction in the middle – i.e. the standard roundtrip, and/or c) the new “online editor” for final assembly, color correction, mastering and delivery.

Avid Media Composer

df2316_avidmcThis brings me to Avid Media Composer, the least integrated of the bunch. You can certainly build an operation based on Media Composer as the hub – as so many shops have. But there simply isn’t the silky smooth interoperability among tools like there is with Adobe or the dearly departed Final Cut Pro “classic”. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. You can add advanced color correction through the Symphony option, plus Avid Pro Tools in your mixing rooms. In an Avid-centric facility, rooms will definitely be task-oriented, rather than provide the ease of switching functions in the same suite based on load, as you can with Creative Cloud.

The best path right now is Media Composer to Pro Tools. Unfortunately it ends there. Like Blackmagic, Avid only offers two hero applications in the post space – Media Composer/Symphony and Pro Tools. They have graphics products, but those are designed and configured for news on-air operations. This means that effects and graphics are typically handled through After Effects, Boris RED or Fusion.

Boris RED runs as an integrated tool, which augments the Media Composer timeline. However, RED uses its own user interface. That operation is relatively seamless, since any “roundtrip” happens invisibly within Media Composer. Fusion can be integrated using the Connect plug-in, just like between Fusion and Resolve. Automatic Duck’s AAF import functions have been integrated directly into After Effects by Adobe. It’s easy to send a Media Composer timeline into After Effects as a one-way trip. In fact, that’s where this all started in the first place. Finally, there’s also a direct connection with Baselight Editions for Avid, if you add that as a “plug-in” within Media Composer. As with Boris RED, clips open up in the Baselight interface, which has now been enhanced with a smoother shot-to-shot workflow inside of Media Composer.

While a lot of shops still use Media Composer as the hub, this seems like a very old-school approach. Many editors still love this NLE for its creative editing prowess, but in today’s mixed-format, mixed-codec, file-based post world, Avid has struggled to keep Media Composer competitive with the other options. There’s certainly no reason Media Composer can’t be the center – with audio in Pro Tools, color correction in Resolve, and effects in After Effects. However, most newer editors simply don’t view it the same way as they do with Adobe or even Apple. Generally, it seems the best Avid path is to “offline” edit in Media Composer and then move to other tools for everything else.

So that’s post in 2016. Four good options with pros and cons to each. Sorry to slight the Lightworks, Vegas Pro, Smoke/Flame and Edius crowds, but I just don’t encounter them too often in my neck of the woods. In any case, there are plenty of options, even starting at free, which makes the editing world pretty exciting right now.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Easy 4K Workflow


In the last post I questioned the visual value of 4K. However, it’s inevitable that more and more distributors will be asking for 4K deliverables, so you might as well start planning how you are going to achieve that. There are certainly plenty of demos showing how easy it is to edit 4K content and they use iPhone video for the demo material. The reality is that such footage is crap and should only be used when it’s the only camera available. At the low end, there are plenty of cameras to choose from that work with highly-compressed 4K images and yet, yield great results. The Blackmagic Design URSA Mini, Sony FS7 and Canon C300 Mark II come to mind. Bump up to something in a more cinema-style package and you are looking at a Sony F55, RED, ARRI or even the AJA CION.

df1816_easy_4k_1While many cameras record to various proprietary compressed codecs, having a common media codec is the most ideal. Typically this means Apple ProRes or Avid DNxHD/HR. Some cameras and standalone monitor/recorders can natively generate media in these formats. In other circumstances, it requires an interim transcode before editing. This is where system throughput becomes a big issue. For example, if you want to work with native 4K material as ProRes 4444, you are going to need fast drives. On my home Mac Pro tower, I have two internal 7200RPM spinning drives for media striped as RAID-0. In addition to these and the boot drive, I also have another internal SSD media drive. When I checked their relative performance with the AJA System Test utility, these clocked at 161 write /168 read for the RAID-0 stripe and 257/266 for the single SSD. That’s good enough for approximately 27fps and 43fps respectively, if the media were large 3840 x 2160 (2160p) ProRes 4444 files. In other words, both drive units are adequate for a single stream of 2160p/23.98 as ProRes 4444, but would have a tougher time with two streams or more.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end with drive performance alone, because some NLEs handle real-time playback of 4K media better than do others. I’ve performed a number of tests with 4K files in Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Avid Media Composer and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. This has been on a number of different units, including a couple of Mac Pro towers, as well as a newer “trash can” Mac Pro. Plus, I’ve run tests with local drives, attached media RAIDs, and network-attached storage systems. What I’ve found is that as long as you have fast drive performance, then the bottleneck is the NLE.

Pretty much all of these choices can handle a single stream of 4K media without too much of an issue. However, when you stack up a second layer or track for a simple 2D PIP composite, generally the system struggles. In some cases, FCPX has performed better than the others, but not consistently.  The others all choked to varying degrees. When you limit it to a single stream of 4K video with associated audio, then FCPX performs more fluidly at a higher quality level than Media Composer or Premiere Pro, although Media Composer also performed well in some of the tests. My conclusion, for now, is that if you want to work with native 4K media in a client-involved session, and with the least amount of rendering, then FCPX is the clear winner – at least on the Mac platform. For many editors it will be the most viable choice.

Native workflow

The first big plus for Final Cut Pro X is how easily it works with native media that it’s compatible with. That’s one thing I don’t generally advocate on a large project like a show or feature film – opting instead to create “optimized” media first, either externally or within FCPX. Nevertheless, a lot of native codecs can be quite easy on the system. For example, one client cut an indie feature, using all native camera files from his Sony FS7. His Final Cut system was a tricked out iMac that was a couple of years old and a Promise Pegasus RAID array. Initially he cut the film from native 4K FS7 files to an FCPX 1080p timeline. I was doing the grading in Resolve, so I had him export a single, flattened movie file from the timeline as 1080p ProRes 4444. I brought this into Resolve, “bladed” the cuts to create edit points and applied my color correction. I exported a single ProRes 4444 master file, which he could import back into FCPX and marry with the post-production mix.

df1816_easy_4k_2Fast forward a year and the film distributor was inquiring whether they could easily produce a 4K master instead of a 1080 master. This turned out to be relatively simple. All my client had to do was change his FCPX project (timeline) settings to 4K, double-check the scaling for his clips and export a new 4K ProRes 4444 file of the timeline. In Resolve, I also changed the timeline setting to 4K and then relinked to the new 4K file. Voila! – all the cuts lined up and the previous grades all looked fine. Then I simply exported the graded 4K file to send back to the client.

In this example, even with a roundtrip to Resolve and a change from 1080p to 2160p, FCPX performed perfectly without much fuss. However, for many, you wouldn’t even need to go this far. Depending on how much you like to play and tweak during the color grade, there are plenty of ways to do this and stay totally inside FCPX. You could use tools like the Color Board, Hawaiki Color, Color Finale, or even some home-brew Motion effects, and achieve excellent results without ever leaving Final Cut Pro X.

As a reminder, Media Composer, Premiere Pro CC and Resolve are all capable of working with native media, including 4K.

Proxy workflow

df1816_easy_4k_4In addition to native 4K post, Apple engineers built an ingenious internal proxy workflow into Final Cut. Transcode the camera files in the background, flip a toggle, and work with the proxy files until you are ready to export a master. When you opt to transcode proxies, FCPX generates half-resolution, ProRes Proxy media corresponding to your original files. As an example, if your media consists of 2160p XAVC camera files, FCPX creates corresponding 1080p ProRes Proxy files. Even though the proxy media’s frame is 1/4th the size of the 4K original, FCPX takes care of handling the scaling math in the timeline between original and proxy media. The viewer display will also appear very close in quality, regardless of whether you have switched to original/optimized or proxy media. The majority of legacy A/V output cards, like a Blackmagic Design Decklink, are only capable of displaying SD and HD content to an external monitor. FCPX can send it the proper data so that a 4K timeline is displayed as a scaled 1080 output to your external video monitor.

Although proxies are small for a 4K project, these are still rather large to be moving around among multiple editors. It’s not an official part of the Final Cut operation, but you can replace these generated proxies with your own versions, with some caveats. Let’s say you have 3840 x 2160, log-gamma-encoded, 4K camera files. You would first need to have FCPX generate proxies. However, using an external application such as EditReady, Compressor, etc, you could transcode these camera files into small 960×540 ProRes Proxy media, complete with a LUT applied and timecode/clip name burnt in. Then find your Proxy Media folder, trash the FCPX-generated files and replace them with your own files. FCPX should properly relink to these and understand the correct relationship between the original and the proxy files. (This post explains the process in more detail.) There are several caveats. Clip name, frame rate, clip length, aspect ratio, and audio channel configurations must match. Otherwise you are good to go.df1816_easy_4k_3

The benefit to this solution is that you can freely edit with the proxies on a lightweight system, such as a MacBook Pro with a portable drive. When ready, move back to a beefier unit and storage, flip to original/optimized media, double-check all effects and color-correction on a good monitor, and then export the master files. It’s worth noting that this workflow is also potentially possible with Premiere Pro CC, because the new version to be introduced later this year will include a proxy editing workflow.

Naturally there is no single solution, but Final Cut Pro X makes this process far easier than any other tool that I use. If 4K is increasingly looming on the horizon for you, then FCPX is certainly worth a test run.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Automatic Duck Xsend Motion


When Apple transitioned its Final Cut Pro product family from Final Cut Studio to Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5, and Compressor 4, it lost a number of features that editors really liked. Some of these “missing” features show up as consistent and reoccurring requests on various wish lists. One of the most popular is the roundtrip function that sent Final Cut Pro “classic” timelines over to Motion for further compositing. To many, it seemed like Motion had become relegated to being a fancy development tool for FCPX plug-ins, rather than what it is – a powerful, GPU-enabled compositor.

df1516_AD_2At last, that workflow hole has been plugged, thanks to Automatic Duck. Last year the father/son development team brought us a way to go from Final Cut Pro X to Adobe’s After Effects by way of the Automatic Duck Ximport AE bridge. This week at the FCP Exchange Workshop in Las Vegas, Wes Plate reveals the new Automatic Duck Xsend Motion. This tool leverages the power of the FCPX’s version of XML to move data from one application to the other. Thanks to FCPXML, it provides a bridge to send FCPX timelines, clips, or sections of timelines over to Motion 5.

df1516_AD_4Xsend Motion reads FCPXML exports or is able to process projects directly from the Final Cut Pro X Share menu. The Xsend menu enables a number of settings options, including whether to bring clips into Motion as individual clips or as what Automatic Duck has dubbed as “lanes”. When clips are left individual, then each clip is assigned a layer in Motion for a composition made up of a series of cascading layers. If you opt for lanes, then the Motion layers stay grouped in a similar representation to the FCPX project timeline. This way primary and secondary storylines and connected clips are properly configured. Xsend also interprets compound clips.

Automatic Duck is striving to correctly interpret all of the FCPX characteristics, including frame sizes, rates, cropping, and more. Since Final Cut Pro X and Motion 5 are essentially built upon the same engine, the translation will correctly interpret most built-in effects. However, it may or may not interpret custom Motion templates that individual users have created. In addition, they plan on being able to properly translate many of the effects in the FxFactory portfolio, which typically install into both FCPX and Motion.

df1516_AD_3While Xsend Motion and Ximport AE are primarily one-way trips, there is a mechanism to send the finished result back to Final Cut Pro X from Motion 5. The first and most obvious is simply to render the Motion composition as a flattened QuickTime movie and import that back into FCPX as new media. However, you can also publish the Motion composition as an FCPX Generator. This would then show up in the Generators portion of the Effects Palette as a custom generator effect.

Automatic Duck Xsend Motion will be officially released later this year. The price hasn’t been announced yet. Current Automatic Duck products (Automatic Duck Ximport AE and Automatic Duck Media Copy) are available through Red Giant.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Spring Tools


It’s often the little things that improve your editing workflow. Here are a few quick items that can expand your editing arsenal.

Hawaiki Super Dissolve

df1416_tools_3The classical approach to editing transitions suggests that all you need is a cut and a dissolve. Given how often most editors use a dissolve transition, it’s amazing that few NLE developers spend any time creating more than a basic video dissolve, fade or dip. After all, even the original Media Composer came with both a video and a film-style dissolve. Audio mixers are used to several different types of crossfades.

Since this is such a neglected area, the development team behind the Hawaiki plug-ins decided to create Super Dissolve – a dissolve transition plug-in for Final Cut Pro X with many more options. This installs through the FxFactory application. It shows up in the FCPX transitions palette as a dissolve effect, plus a set of presets for fades, dips and custom curves. A dissolve is nothing more than a blend between two images, so Super Dissolve exposes the same types of under-the-hood controls as After Effects and Photoshop artists are used to with compositing modes.

Drop the Super Dissolve in as a transition and you have control over blending modes, layer order, easing controls with timing, and the blurring of the outgoing and/or incoming image. Since you have control over the outgoing and incoming clips separately, different values can be applied to either side, thus enabling an asymmetrical effect. For example, a quick fade with a blur off the outgoing clip, while bringing the incoming side up more slowly. As with the default FCPX dissolve, there’s also an audio crossfade adjustment, since FCPX transitions can effect both audio and video when these elements are combined. If you really like the ability to finesse your transitions, then Super Dissolve hits the spot.

XEffects Audio Fades

df1416_tools_6Free is good, so check out Idustrial Revolution’s free effects. Although they are primarily a video effects developer for Motion and Final Cut Pro X, they recently added a set of audio fade presets for FCPX. Download and install the free pack and you’ll find the XEffects Fades group in the audio plug-ins section of your effects palette.

XEffects Fades includes a set of preset fade handles, which are applied to the audio on your timeline clips. Drag-and-drop the preset with the fade length closest to what you want and it automatically adjusts the fade handle length at both ends of that audio clip. If you want to tweak the length, apply the effect first and then adjust the length puck on the clip as needed. Existing lengths will be overwritten when you drop the effect onto the clip, so make sure you make these adjustments last.

AudioDenoise and EchoRemover

df1416_tools_5CrumplePop is another developer known for its video effects; but they, too have decided to add audio effects to their repertoire. AudioDenoise and EchoRemover are two Final Cut Pro X plug-ins sold through the FxFactory application. These two effects are easy-to-use Apple Audio Units filters designed to improve poorly recorded location audio. As with Apple’s own built-in controls, each filter includes a few sliders to adjust strength and how the effect is applied. When applying any audio “clean up” filter, a little goes a long way. If you use it to its extreme range, the result sounds like you are underwater. Nevertheless, these two filters do a very nice job with poor audio, without presenting the cost and complexity of other well-known audio products.

Alex4D Animated Transitions

df1416_tools_1For a little bit of spice in your Final Cut Pro X timelines, it’s worth checking out the Alex4D Animated Transitions from FxFactory. Alex Gollner has been a prolific developer of free Final Cut Pro plug-ins, but this is his first commercial effort. Animated Transitions are a set of 120 customizable transition effects to slide, grow, split and peel incoming or outgoing clips and lower third titles. Traditionally you’d have to build these effects yourself using DVE moves. But by dropping one of these effects onto a cut point between two clips, you quickly apply a dynamic effect with all the work already done. Simply pick the transition you like, tweak the parameters and it’s done.

Post Notes

df1416_tools_4One of the best features of Adobe applications is Extensions. This is a development “hook” within Premiere Pro or After Effects that allows developers to create task-oriented panels, tools and controls that effectively “bolt” right into the Adobe interface. One example for After Effects would be TypeMonkey (and the other “Monkeys”), which are kinetic effect macros. For Premiere there’s PDFviewer, which enables you to view your script (or any other document) in PDF format right inside the Premiere user interface.

A new extension for Premiere Pro CC is Post Notes. Once installed, it’s an interface panel within Premiere Pro that functions as a combined notepad and to-do list. These are tied to a specific sequence, so you can have a set of notes and to-dos for each sequence in your project. When a to-do item is completed, check it off to indicate that it’s been addressed. This tool is so straightforward and simple, you’ll wonder why every editing software doesn’t already have something like this built-in.

Hedge for Mac

df1416_tools_2With digital media as a way of life for most editors, we have to deal with more and more camera media. Quickly copying camera cards is a necessary evil and making sure you do this without corruption is essential. The Mac Finder really is NOT the tool you should be using, yet everyone does it. There are a number of products on the market that copy to multiple locations with checksum verification. These are popular with DITs and “data wranglers” and include Pomfort Silverstack, Red Giant Offload, and even Adobe Prelude.

A newcomer is Hedge for Mac. This is a simple, single-purpose utility designed to quickly copy files and verify the copies. There’s a free and a paid version. If you just want to copy to one or two destinations at a time, the free version will do. If you need even more destinations as a simultaneous copy, then go for the paid version. Hedge will also launch your custom AppleScripts to sort, transcode, rename or perform other functions. Transfers are fast in the testing I’ve done, so this is a must-have tool for any editors.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot


As most readers know, “whiskey tango foxtrot” is the military way to communicate the letters WTF. Your imagination can fill in the rest. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the movie, is a dark comedy about the experiences of a female journalist in Afghanistan, based on Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Paramount Pictures tapped the writing/directing team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (Focus, Crazy, Stupid, Love., I Love You Phillip Morris) to tackle the film adaptation, starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alfred Molina.

df1116_wtf_2Glenn Ficarra explains the backstory, “When the military focus shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq there was a void in coverage. Barker was looking for a change in her life and volunteered to embed as a correspondent in Kabul. When she got there, she wasn’t quite ready for the high-adrenaline, partying lifestyle of many of the journalists. Most lived in dorms away from the general Afghan population. Since there weren’t that many females there, she found that there was a lot of interest in her.” This is the basis of both the book and the film – an Afghanistan story with a touch of Animal House and M*A*S*H.

Filming in Afghanistan would have been too dangerous, so production shifted to New Mexico, with Xavier Grobet (Focus, Enough Said, I Love You Phillip Morris) as the director of photography. The filmmakers also hired a female, Muslim journalist, Galereh Kiazand, as the second unit photographer to pick up B-roll in Kabul, which added to the authenticity. In addition, they also licensed stock shots originally filmed for The Kite Runner, but not used in that film. Ficarra adds, “We built two huge sets for Kabul and Kandahar, which were quite convincing, even to vets and Afghans who saw them.”

df1116_wtf_9With efficiencies realized during Focus, the team followed a similar course on this film. Ficarra explains, “We previously pulled the editing in-house. For Whiskey Tango Foxtrot we decided to do all the visual effects in-house, too. There are about 1,000 VFX shots in the film. It’s so great to simply bring on more artists as you need them and you only have to pay the crew. At its peak, we had about 20 Nuke artists working on shots. Doing it internally opens you up to more possibilities for minor effects that enhance shots. You would otherwise skip these if you were working with an outside effects house. We carried this approach into the filming as well. While traveling, it was great to quickly pick up a shot that you could use as B-roll. So our whole mentality has been very much like you work in film school.”

Adjusting the workflow for a new film

df1116_wtf_3The duo started production of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot on the heels of completing Focus. They brought along editor Jan Kovac, as well as use of Apple Final Cut Pro X for editing. This was the off-the-shelf version of Final Cut Pro X available to all customers at the time of the production – no special version or side build. Kovac explains what differed on this new film, “The biggest change was in camera formats. Instead of shooting [Apple] ProRes 4444, we switched to using the new ProRes 4444 XQ codec, which was deployed by ARRI on the ALEXAs. On Focus, we recorded ARRIRAW for the green screen shots. We did extensive testing with this XQ codec prior to production and it was perfect for even the green screen work. Most of the production was shot with two ALEXAs recording in a 2K theatrical format using the ProRes 4444 XQ codec.”

Light Iron provided a DIT on set who took the camera files, added a basic color LUT, synced production sound, and then generated viewing dailies, which were distributed to department heads on Apple iPads. The DIT also generated editorial files that were in the full 2K ProRes 4444 XQ resolution. Both the camera original files and the color-corrected editorial files were stored on a 160TB Accusys ExaSAN system back at the film’s post headquarters. Two Mac Minis served as metadata controllers. Kovac explains, “By always having the highest quality image to edit with, it meant that we could have the highest quality screenings at any given time. You always see the film in a state that is very close to the final product. Since visual effects were being handled in-house, it made sense to have the camera original files on the SAN. This way shots could quickly be pulled for VFX work, without the usual intermediate step of coordinating with the lab or post house that might otherwise store these files.”

df1116_wtf_6Another change was that audio was re-synced by the editing team. First assistant editor Kevin Bailey says, “The DIT would sync the production mix, but when it got here, I would sync up all the audio tracks using Sync-N-Link X. This syncs by timecode, making the process fast. I would group the cameras into multicam clips, but as many as 12 isolated audio tracks were also set up as separate angles. This way, Jan could easily switch between the production mix and individual mics. The only part that wasn’t as automatic was that the crew also used a Blackmagic Pocket Camera and a Sony A7 for some of the shots. The production was running at a true 24.0 fps frame rate, while these smaller cameras only shot 24 frames at a video rate of 23.98. These shots required adjustment and manual syncing. The reason for a true 24.0 frame rate was to make it easy to work with 48fps material. Sometimes the A-camera would run at 24fps while the B-camera ran at 48fps. Speeding up the B-camera by a 2X factor gets it into sync, without worrying about more complicated speed offsets.” In addition to these formats, the Afghanistan second unit footage was shot on a RED camera.

df1116_wtf_5Bailey is an experienced programmer who created the program Shot Notes X, which was used on this film. He continues, “Our script supervisor used Filemaker Pro, which exports a .csv file. Using Shot Notes X, I could combine the FCPXML from Final Cut with the .csv file and then generate a new FCPXML file. When imported back into Final Cut, the event would be updated to display scenes and takes, along with the script notes in the browser’s notes column. Common script codes would be used for close-ups, dolly shots, and so on. Filtering the list view by one of these codes in Final Cut would then display only the close-ups or only the dolly shots for easy access.” Bailey helped set up this pipeline during the first few weeks of production, at which point apprentice editor Esther Sokolow took over the dailies processing. Bailey shifted over to assist with sound and Sokolow later moved into a VFX editor role as one of several people doing temp VFX.

From trailer to home base

df1116_wtf_8During production in New Mexico, Kovac worked out of an editorial trailer equipped with a single Mac Pro and an 8TB G-Raid drive. There he was cutting using the proxy files that Final Cut Pro X can generate internally. During that 47-day period, Kovac was doing 90% of the editing. The amount of footage averaged about three hours and 40 minutes per day. In April, the unit moved back to home base in Los Angeles, where the team had two Mac Pro edit suites set up for the editors, as well as iMacs for the assistants.

John Requa and Glenn Ficarra are “hands-on” participants in the editing process. Kovac would cut in one room, while Ficarra and Requa would cut in the other. After the first preview, their collaboration slowly changed into a more traditional editor-director format. Even towards the end, Ficarra would still edit when he found time to do so. Post ended just before Christmas after a 35-week post schedule. Glenn Ficarra explains, “John and I have worked together for 30 years, so we are generally of one mind when we write, direct, or edit. Sometimes John would cut with me and I’d be the ‘fingers’ and other times he’d work with Jan. Or maybe I’d work with Jan and John would review and pick takes. So our process is very fluid.”

df1116_wtf_4The Whiskey Tango Foxtrot team worked deeper into temp sound and visual effects than before. Kovac explains, “Kevin is very comfortable with sound design during the edit. And he’s a good Nuke artist, too. While I was working on one reel, Kevin could work on a different reel adding in sound effects and creating monitor comps and screen replacements. A lot of this work was done inside of Final Cut using the SliceX and TrackX plug-ins from CoreMelt. We were able to work in a 5.1 surround project and did all of our temp mixes in 5.1.” The power of the plug-ins let more of the temp effects be done inside Final Cut  Pro X, resulting in a more efficient workflow with less need for roundtrips to other applications.

All media and render files were kept on the ExaSAN storage, but external of the Final Cut Pro X library files, thus keeping those small. The library files were stored on a separate NFS server (a Mac Mini using NFS Manager) with a separate FCPX library file for each reel of the film. This enabled the editors and assistants to all access any FCPX library file, as long as someone else wasn’t using it at that time. A shared iTunes library for temporary sound effects and music selections was stored on the SAN with all machines pointing to that location. From within Final Cut, any editor could browse the iTunes library for music and sound effects.

When it came time for sound and picture turnovers, X2Pro Audio Convert was used to pass audio to the sound design team as an AAF file. Light Iron’s Ian Vertovec handled final color correction on their Quantel Pablo Rio system. He was working off of camera original media, which Light Iron also stored at their facility after the production. Effects shots were sent over as DPX image sequences.

Thoughts on the cut

df1116_wtf_7The director’s cut for Whisky Tango Foxtrot ran about three hours, although the final length clocked in at 1:52:00 with credits. Kovac explains, “There were 167 scripted scenes in the original script, requiring a fair amount of trimming. Once you removed something it had consequences that rippled throughout. It took time to get it right. While it was a tougher film from that standpoint, it was easier, because no studio approval process was needed for the use of Final Cut Pro X. So it built upon the shoulders of Focus. Final Cut has proven itself as a valuable member of the NLE community. Naturally anything can be improved. For example, optical flow and auditions don’t work with multicam clips. Neither do the CoreMelt plug-ins.” Bailey adds, “For me the biggest selling point is the magnetic timeline. In areas where I would build up temp sound design, these would be the equivalent of ten tracks deep. It’s far easier to trim sections and have the audio follow along than in any other NLE.”

Glenn Ficarra wrapped up with these thoughts. He says, “A big step forward on this film was how we dealt with audio. We devised a method to keep as much as possible inside FCPX, for as long as possible – especially for screenings. This gave us more cutting time, which was nice. There was no need for any of the in-between turnovers I’ve gone through on other systems, just to prepare the movie for screenings. I like the robust third-party approach with Final Cut. It’s a small, tight-knit community. You can actually get in touch with a developer without going through a large corporation. I’d like to see Apple improve some features, like better match-back. I feel they’ve only scratched the surface with roles, so I’d like to see them develop that more.”

He concludes, “A lot of directors would like to cut for themselves, but find a tool like Avid impenetrable. It doesn’t have to be that way. My 12-year-old daughter is perfectly comfortable with Final Cut Pro X. Many of the current workflows stem from what was built up around film and we no longer work that way. Why adhere to the old film methods and rules? Filmmakers who are using new methods are those that aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They are willing to push the boundaries.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

More LUTs from IWLTBAP


With more cameras shooting in some form of a log or flat color profile and more editing software being able to integrate color look-up tables (LUTs), numerous developers have designed their own LUT packages. Some, like Koji, strive to duplicate the colorimetry of certain film stocks, while others, such as SpeedLooks from LookLabs, create stylized “look” files that give you a range of creative color correction choices.

One new developer offering a package of easy to use LUTs is French filmmaker IWLTBAP. Through the website, you can pick up a comprehensive package of LUTs in the 32x32x32 .cube format, which are compatible with most modern editing and compositing software applications. If you edit in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, the Lumetri Color panel lets you browse and add any .cube LUTs you’ve saved on your hard drives. If you cut in Apple Final Cut Pro X, then the addition of a LUT plug-in, like Color Grading Central’s LUT Utility, enables you to add third-party LUTs to any clip on the timeline.df1316_iwltbap_4

I took these LUTs for a spin and like most LUT packages, they come in a groups. First you have Utility LUTs, which are designed to convert color spaces from log to Rec709 (the standard video color space) or in the opposite direction. These are organized by camera type, since not all manufacturers use the same logarithmic values. Then the color correction or “look” LUTs are grouped into Standard and Log versions.

The Standard LUTs are to be applied to images that are already in Rec709 color space, while the Log versions can be used as a one-step LUT to be applied to generic log images. For example, you could apply both a Log-to-Rec709 Utility LUT and a second LUT from the Standard group to achieve your result. Or simply apply the single Log version to that same clip and end up with similar results. The dual-LUT approach gives you more incremental control over the Log conversion based on camera models, whereas the single-step solution is designed for generic log images. However, both can yield the desired grade, depending on the clip. In addition to the paid LUT package, IWLTBAP offers two Bonus LUTs, which are available as a free download from the website.

df1316_iwltbap_2There are over 80 LUTs in each group and these are organized by color style and number. The numbers don’t really mean anything. In other words, they aren’t an attempt to mimic a film stock number. As you ascend in numbers, the next step is a more aggressive or somewhat different version of the previous. The key is the prefix and suffix for each. These LUT files carry a STD or LOG suffix so you know whether these are from the Log or Standard group. Then there’s a prefix: C for cold, H for hot, W for warm, F for film, and X for creative. Each style has several variations within that general look. For example, the LUT file labelled “F-9490-STD.cube” is a LUT with a filmic curve designed for a Rec709 image.

df1316_iwltbap_7When working with LUTs, it’s often hard to know what result you get until you try it. Then if you don’t like the look, you have to continue to slowly browse through your LUT files – applying each, one at a time – until you get the right look. Often that can lead to a lot of trial and error. The IWLTBAP package ships with lightweight Windows and Mac preview applications, however, the developer warns of some occasional instability on some machines. The easiest solution is to use their web-based LUT previewer. Simply upload a reference JPEG from your clip and then toggle through the LUTs to preview how those will affect the shot.

df1316_iwltbap_6I ran some tests on Blackmagic Design camera footage in both FCPX and Premiere Pro CC and got some really pleasing results. In the case of FCPX, if you use LUT Utility, you have to copy the .cube files into LUT Utility’s Motion Templates folder. This is found under Effects/CGC. Files stored there become visible in the LUT Utility pulldown menu. Note that only the first 50 or so files in that folder can be accessed, so be selective. If you apply two instances of the LUT Utility to a clip, then you can apply a Log-to-Rec709 conversion in the first and then the creative look LUT in the second. This plug-in has a mix slider, so you can adjust the intensity of the LUT to taste. As an effects plug-in, you can also place other effects, such as color correction in-between the two LUT Utility effects as part of that stack of effects. Doing this gives you nice control over color within FCPX with very little overhead on the application’s performance.

df1316_iwltbap_3If you are an FCPX user that has adopted Color Grading Central’s ColorFinale grading tool as your go-to color correction plug-in, then all of this LUT management within the application can be simply handled from the ColorFinale interface itself. Stack layers of LUTs and other color tools all inside the ColorFinale panel. LUT choices can be added or removed using the integrated LUT Manager and then relaunching FCPX to activate them as part of ColorFinale.

If you are a Premiere Pro CC editor, then the latest version was enhanced with the Lumetri Color panel. This control is organized as a stack of color modules, which include two entry points to add a LUT – in the Basic and the Creative tabs. In my testing of the new URSA footage, I applied a Log-to-Rec709 LUT for the URSA in Basic and then one the “look” LUTs, like the free Aspen standard version, in Creative. You still have all the other color control in the Lumetri panel to fine-tune these, including the intensity level of the LUT.

df1316_iwltbap_5LUTs are a creative tool that should be thought of as a stylistic choice. They aren’t an instant fix and shouldn’t be the only tool you use to color correct a clip. However, the LUTs from IWLTBAP provide a good selection of looks and moods that work well with a wide range of shots. Plus the package is very affordable and even more so if you get it after reading this blog! Readers who are interested can get 25% off of the retail price using the discount code DIGITALFILMS. Or by using this direct link.

Last but not least, check out the free, downloadable 4K film grain clip. It’s a ten second ProRes file that can be overlaid or blended to add grain to your shot.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X Keyboard Tips


As most editors know, customizing your NLE keyboard settings can improve efficiency in how you use that tool. Final Cut Pro X already gives you a large number of existing commands mapped to the keyboard, but, as with any NLE, they are not all in places that work best for every editor. Therefore, it’s preferable to customize the toolset for what will work best for you.

The choices among the basic keys plus the modifier keys are extensive, but interestingly the “F” or function keys are not already mapped. This leaves you fertile ground to add your own commands without changing the standard map. Of course, the number of function keys you have depends on your keyboard. The Apple extended keyboard (the one with the number keypad) has 19 function keys. The smaller Bluetooth keyboards only have 12.

In my case, I’ve decided to map a few useful tools to some of the F-keys, as well as the shifted-function positions. Most of these are interface-related, but not entirely. FCPX doesn’t let you create and save custom workspace layouts like FCP7 or Adobe Premiere Pro CC, however, there are a lot of interface panels that can be displayed or hidden depending on the task at hand. By mapping these tools to the function keys, you get nearly the same effect as swapping workspaces, because it reconfigures your screen layout at the click of a button. Unfortunately you still can’t move modules from where Apple has chosen to have them appear.

I work with dual screens more often than not in a fixed edit bay. This lets me get the most out of the various FCPX windows and modules. If you own both an Apple laptop and an iPad, the Duet Display app also enables you to pair the two devices into a dual display arrangement. This eliminates the need to drag along an external screen for location editing gigs. Therefore, you can still get the maximum benefit of these layouts.

Here are the commands I’ve currently mapped. These work for me and, of course, might change in the future as I tweak my workflow. You’ll note that a number of these commands already have existing keyboard locations, so mapping these to a function key is redundant. Quite true, but I find that placing these concisely into the F-key row makes switching between them easier and you’ll be more likely to use them as a result.

The basic F-key row (no modifier key):

F1 – Show Events on Second Display

F2 – Show/Hide Viewer on Second Display

F3 – Show/Hide Event Viewer

F4 – Show/Hide Inspector

F5 – Show/Hide Effects Browser

F6 – Show/Hide Timeline Index

F7 – Show/Hide Video Scopes

F8 – Replace from Start*

F9 – Replace from End*

*These last two selections are edit commands.

The F-key row plus the Shift modifier:

Shift-F1 – Clip Appearance: Waveforms Only

Shift-F2 – Clip Appearance: Large Waveforms

Shift-F3 – Clip Appearance: Waveforms and Filmstrips

Shift-F4 – Clip Appearance: Large Filmstrips

Shift-F5 – Clip Appearance: Filmstrips Only

Shift-F6 – Clip Appearance: Clip Labels Only

As you can see, I use the shifted function keys to switch between the various timeline appearance settings that are available from the lower right pop-up menu. It’s nice that once you adjust the size of the filmstrips or waveforms using the slider, that setting stays until changed. Therefore, you can go between a large waveform view and the thin clip label (aka “chiclet”) view, simply by switching between these function keystrokes.

Customized keyboard maps can be saved and recalled for easy access. You can also create more than one customized keyboard preset.

©2016 Oliver Peters