We are very pleased to publish the story of how the wonderful short film 'Watchtower of Turkey' was made. Nominated as Best Video of 2014 on Vimeo, Final Cut Pro X provided all the tools for Leonardo Dalessandri to produce a spectacular and inspirational piece of work.
If you are not one of the 2.5 million people who have viewed “Watchtower Of Turkey” on any of the popular video platforms in the past three months, this is the time to do it. The video went viral as soon as it got published. Thousands of people expressed their admiration on a multitude of websites and social media.
Watchtower of Turkey got nominated Best of Vimeo 2014 and Leonardo Dalessandri, the young Italian filmmaker who made it, got offers from producers all around the world to work with him.
And if you wonder why a 3-minute travel video can blow away so many people, just have a look at it:
There has been much speculation on the Internet about how this video was made. So we simply have asked Leonardo to tell us himself. In this interview he talks about his love for cinematic impressions and about how important audio and music are for a movie.
And of course you will get a detailed rundown of the equipment and the techniques he used in this video. But above all you will discover an extremely talented young filmmaker who has deeply fallen in love with the new Final Cut Pro.
Tell us something about yourself and how you came to making this video
I am 30 years old and I went to film school in Parma, Italy. After my studies I did a lot of commercials and music videos as an assistant of Filippo Chiesa, a renowned Italian DOP.
Gradually I started to direct my own productions. I have worked all around the world. I did documentaries as well as lots of commercials, promo videos for national tourist agencies and music videos. The latest film I directed and edited was in October 2014 for Google in Los Angeles and now I’m back in Turkey, working on a big project for the Ministry of Health in collaboration with the largest film and TV studio in Istanbul.
Besides my commercial work I like to do one personal project each year. Something where I am completely free to do what I want, as with the Watchtower videos. I had done a first one in Morocco in 2012 and I really wanted to do this again.
In October 2013 I was in Turkey with an Italian crew to shoot a music video with the Arri Alexa and the Phantom high-speed camera. But I also had taken my own GH3 and my GoPro 3 to film some stuff for myself.
The day we arrived I was free, so I took my GH3 and I went out to take some pictures. The next week I had another day off and I did some more shooting. I was so happy with the footage that I said: “I am going to stay in Turkey, I’m going to visit 5 or 6 more cities and I will do my next Watchtower video here.”
I had some time between projects and I had enough money to cover all my expenses. I asked Meryem Aboulouafa - a young Moroccan woman who was staying in Turkey as a resident musician - to come with me.
She knows Turkey and the Muslim culture very well, and she had already worked with me on the Moroccan video, so I was happy she accepted.
We travelled across this beautiful country, covering over 3500 km in 23 days. We filmed breathtaking landscapes, architecture and nature. But most important we got the chance to capture the soul of Turkey, its people.
What equipment did you take on the trip?
When you are on the road shooting a personal project you cannot bring loads of equipment. Besides my two cameras, the Panasonic GH3 and the entry-level GoPro3, I had my MacBook Pro 2013 and two LaCie rugged portable 2TB drives. I didn’t use anything else. No sliders, no mounts, no stabilizing gear. I had a little tripod, but I did every shot hand-held.
I had three lenses on my GH3: a Lumix 12 - 35 f2.8, a cheap 14 – 140 zoom lens and my favorite: a Leica 42.5 f1.2 nocticron. On the screenshot you also see an old Sony camera that I did not use. Most of the footage in the video came from the GH3.
I also took a little Tascam audio recorder. It is very cheap but very cool for what I need when I’m traveling. We used it to record typical ambient sounds at the places we visited: people, street noise, water, a flock of birds flying by, a call for prayer, etcetera. Those specific little sound bites are extremely important in the final edit because they can add a lot of impact to the visuals.
The video footage was recorded in 1920x1080 format. For the GH3 I used the all-I 25p, 72Mbps, H.264.MOV setting. I also shot hyper lapse sequences in photo mode.
How much footage did you shoot?
During our trip I have filled up the two 2TB drives with footage. That’s massive, considering these small cameras use a highly compressed recoding format. But in order to make such a video you really need a lot of footage. There is no script and I make up the story while I work, so you never know when you will get that one extra shot that will help your story shine.
How did you prepare all that footage for your edit?
The editing technique I use for these videos is so intensive that I don’t want to be bothered with tons of unusable footage or with incorrect white balances during the creative process. To eliminate all the garbage shots I first previewed the clips in QT player 7. Then I exported the trimmed clips to ProRes 4444 and I put them in folders: “People”, “Landscape”, “Transitions” etc. I still had thousands of shots, but at least all of them were usable now.
I also wanted to colour-balance the clips before starting to edit. I have experience with Magic Bullet Looks, but for this personal video I wanted to try out the colour presets from VSCO. Many people use VSCO with their iPhones or iPads.
Unfortunately the Film plugin package only works with photo editing applications for now. So I converted all the clips to image sequences and I opened them in Photoshop Camera Raw. I created a customized preset for each image sequence and I exported the corrected clips back to ProRes.
I’m happy with the result but this process took a tremendous amount of time, I could never do this on a commercial project.
Then I imported all the media in FCP X. It was fantastic to see all my folders appear as organized keyword collections. I continued to further organize my clips in the FCP X Clip Bowser, creating more keyword collections based on scenes, content, matching colours, matching movements...
Tell us something more about your editing process
I want the viewer to perceive my edit as one continuous flow of impressions and movements, cut on the rhythm of the music and emphasized by the ambient sounds. I like to make the pictures work with the music, and not the opposite. So I first did the soundtrack for this video.
It took me a long time to find the right music. When I heard “Experience” from Ludovico Einaudi (The Untouchables, Insidious...) it instantly struck me. It really reflects the spirit of Turkey: it has a classic orchestral side but also a very popular feel.
Actually I heard the same instruments that I had heard in Istanbul during a street party on a Friday night. I also thought it would fit perfectly within my editing style. I had 4 versions.
I cut and mixed parts of each version in FCP X until I got exactly the moods and the rhythm I wanted.
The voice you hear at the beginning of the video is from Meryam Aboulouafa. She has a beautiful voice, and I regretted I had to record it with a Tascam on the road.
But during the edit I noticed that this sound had exactly the effect I was looking for. I enhanced the voice with a parametric EQ and I added some compression to make it stand out. Then I mixed it into the music.
While assembling the soundtrack I started to get more and more in the mood of the video I wanted to make. This helped creating the visual story in my head and knew I was ready to do the edit.
This is not the kind of edit you can do half and start again later. Once the story is in your head, you have to finish it. So there is no offline/online workflow. I take my first image and I start working on it. If it needs effects or additional lighting I do it immediately on the timeline, then I go to the next shot.
Retiming, compositing, secondary colour correction, adding sound effects... everything is done shot by shot right inside FCP X. I cannot go to the next shot unless the one I am working on is completely finished and in perfect rhythm with the music. If it is not finished I would constantly worry about it and I would not be able to get along with the editing. I edited and finished the complete video in one long weekend on my maxed out MacBook Pro 2013 with 16 GB RAM and an external G-Speed Pro 8 TB Thunderbolt RAID from G-Tech.
There are about 280 different shots in this 3 1⁄2 minute video, 95% of the edits are cuts. How did you manage to turn all these shots into one continuous flow of visual impressions? And how did the toolset in FCP X help you with this?
To create a continuous movement, every cut must appear to seamlessly transition into the other. And you can only see if shots really work together while you are cutting them on the timeline.
You can have a shot that is very cool but the colour, the content or the movement doesn’t match with the preceding or the following shots. So you have to find another one. It’s like a puzzle. Finding those shots that match perfectly together and that also fit with the story and the overall flow of the edit can be a big problem when you have so much footage. You have the right clip somewhere, but if you lose too much time looking for it you will break your creative flow and your editing process will slow down considerably.
And this is one of the things where Final Cut Pro X really shines. Anytime I wanted to build a specific mood or effect for a scene I could find the right clips for it in no time. You can have the same clip or part of it in dozens of different keyword collections referring to the place it was shot, the content, the dominant colours, the action, the mood etc.
The advanced search possibilities make it very easy to filter the clips, and skimming through the thumbnails you can instantly see the ones that will fit in the visual sequence you are creating. No other NLE has this organizational power.
The video is a mixture of match edits, in-camera effects and also some hyper lapses and compositing shots. Sometimes I used crash zooms, back-time cuts, picture inverses and light effects to add a dramatic touch between the cuts, but I always tried to use these effects in a functional way so that the viewer does not perceive them as effects but as organic parts of the edit.
To create match edits you need shots that have something in common such as continuous action, movement, colour or content. The eye focuses on the continuity of the movements, colours or actions and this makes the cuts seem invisible. It’s a classic montage technique.
In these two clips the dominant blue colour in the middle of the image makes for a natural cut between a child on a playground and people working on a roof.
Here the movement of the person’s finger pointing towards the camera in both shots attracts the attention of the viewer. This makes the cut between the shots natural, even though the clips have very different colours and content.
Matching content, action and colours create a seamless transition from the joy of a balloon trip to the serenity of lighting a candle in a mosque.
I also had filmed some in-camera effects such as cover shots and “animates” to be used as transition cuts: people who pass in front of a shot, a pan or tilt shot behind fences, a women who covers the shot with her hand or boys pouring water over a glass plate placed in front of the camera...
In some scenes I used blend modes and animated masks to make the transition from one shot into the next one. I had a perspective panning shot of a ruin that I wanted to cut to a tilt down and track hyper lapse of a modern bridge with people. I took a clip with a flock of flying birds, which I blended into the sky of the two shots. Although the ruin and the bridge were shot at two completely different locations, the birds flying by in the two shots create an illusion of continuity.
An animated mask over a person passing in front of the camera creates the transition from the bridge to a sequence of children. The continuity between every shot in the sequence is made with soft wipes or masks that are animated over the people who pass in front of the children.
The sequence ends with a hand that closes a window over the shot. The cut to the last boy is created by opposite actions: the hand closing the window and the last boy opening the door. Although the actions were continuous, the position of the window did not match with that of the opening door. That’s why the clip with the door is flipped horizontally to preserve the visual continuity.
While the choice of matching shots is very important, the real challenge is stitching all these shots together while maintaining a fluid movement. This requires a lot of fine-tuning on the timeline. One frame can make the difference between a cut that feels natural and one that feels uncomfortable.
I found the timeline in FCP X perfect for this. It is very intuitive, it has easy trimming and compositing tools and you can try out alternative edit decisions while the clips keep playing to the music. All the tools are easily accessible. I also love how you can preview any effect in the effects browser to see how it will look on a clip before even applying it. All these little things make you save time while you are editing. I guess that’s why anyone who uses FCP X perceives this NLE as being extremely fast.
Which third-party plugins did you use?
I used CineFlare for some of the transitions. I also used some other commercial plugins to add little lighting accents, light leaks or just a subtle smog effect to certain clips. In the screenshot you see how the lighting effects on the windows diffuse the buildings outside, bringing out the depth of the interior. One of the commercial plugins always crashed my system. But whatever happens, you never lose any work and that’s another thing that I like very much with this application.
You also mentioned hyper lapse shots. How did you deal with these?
Hyper lapses are photo time lapses shot over a very long distance to create a sense of tracking. Usually you use a tripod or a stabilizing rig to keep the framing correct. But these were shot hand held, so the photo sequences jumped quite a bit and I needed to re-frame them before I started editing.
I used the warp stabilizer in After Effects to do this. Reframing requires quite a bit of zooming into the images to avoid black borders. But as the photos were high resolution this did not affect the quality too much.
I exported the image sequences to ProRes files, which I imported in FCP X. While editing I added a second stabilizing pass to further smooth out the jumps, and I applied speed ramps to make the hyper lapses play with the rhythm of the music.
Playing with time seems to be an essential part of your editing style.
Actually, every single clip in the edit has some kind of time manipulation applied to it. Retiming and speeds ramps are crucial to me because I use them to make my edits follow the mood and the intensity of the music.
I love how speed ramping works in FCP X. We have compared Speed Ramp on different NLEs and none can achieve the smooth ramp transitions that FCP X has. Extreme slow motion with optical flow is also really stunning. A perfect example of this is the shot of the young women walking on the white sandy hill.
Although this may be less obvious to the average viewer, the sound design in this video is at least as impressive as the picture edit.
People say that audio makes 50% of a movie; I say it is 80%. That’s why sound design is extremely important to me. Sound effects and ambient sound bites are essential to emphasize the visuals and the mood you want to create.
I had over 3000 sound bites I could work with. I had live sound from the camera. I also had external sound clips that I had recorded with the Tascam, such as the call for prayer or the sound of the ocean waves. And I used stock sound effects from the sound library in FCP X to emphasize transition cuts or specific movements in the picture edit.
I had dozens of audio layers in Final Cut to create all the ambient audio under the picture. Most of them were mixed very subtly with the music to add that extra dimension of dramatic impact and continuity.
I love the way I can work with audio in FCP X. You can quickly search for the sound bites you need and you have a lot of professional audio plugins from Logic right inside the app to make the audio clips sound exactly as you wish. The audio fade handles work just like in a professional DAW. You put two sound bites on top of each other and you can perfectly sculpture the way they cross-fade from one into the other to create very organic transitions.
And all this can be done while you are cutting the picture, so you have instant feedback of picture and sound. Of course to record and mix instruments you would use Logic Pro X, but as a sound designer you can easily work in FCP X.
How long have you been working with FCP X and do you think your choice of NLE made any difference in making this video?
I am not a full-time editor; I am a creative director who knows the ABC of editing techniques. But I have worked with all major NLE software for my commercial projects and I have used Final Cut since version 4. I started looking at FCP X since 2012 and I found it very easy to learn.
But I took the time to really get familiar with it and whenever I had questions I searched the Internet for answers. I learned a lot from the help forums on FCP.co. You have to get used to the new design and some other things that have changed, but it’s still Final Cut at heart.
Actually, Watchtower of Turkey was the first real project I cut in FCP X. And yes, it definitely made a difference. I did Watchtower of Morocco in FCP7. Although the concept, the imagery and the editing techniques in both videos are the same, Watchtower of Turkey has a much more polished and powerful feel to it. And that’s mainly because I felt more comfortable while working in FCP X, even though I knew FCP7 much better.
This has nothing to do with features or technical things. There is something special about FCP X that makes it very attractive to work with. This application takes away the burden of technology, which works very inspiring. You can concentrate on your creativity and on your story and that’s what really matters.
Although I finished this video faster than the previous one, I had much more time to work on the details. I actually enjoyed myself during the edit. And people feel this when they watch your work. I guess that also explains the huge success of this video.
Are there any features that could be added to FCPX and that would have helped you?
I like the grading presets from VSCO Cam. If this plugin would be available right inside FCP X I would also use it for my commercial projects. And I would like to be able to do all my colour corrections in RAW mode, just like we can already do with R3D clips. Native support for ArriRAW, DNG and raw photo sequences would be great. As I do a lot of compression for the web I also would like to see H.265 implemented in FCP X and Compressor.
What project are you working on now?
I am back in Turkey now, working on a big production for the Ministry of Health. I have a team of 4 editors for this project and the production company I work with here uses Avid. It’s a very solid editing platform and I know its strengths and its weaknesses. But I have had such a great experience with FCP X that I really don’t want to edit on anything else.
So I sat down with my editing team and I told them I was going to cut the first movie of this production myself, using Final Cut. They can watch me and learn how the application works. Then they can edit all the other projects in FCP X as well. And they have agreed, they trust me with this. This is a photo of my apartment in Istanbul. While I’m preparing the production here, the company is installing a new FCP X editing suite for me and for my team at their premises.
Most of the production companies and post houses I work with are on Avid and I don’t think that will change very soon. It’s an established system and such companies don’t easily move from one system to another. But I do see a lot of them looking with much interest at Final Cut Pro X because they realize how popular this NLE is among young filmmakers.
A few weeks ago I was asked to do a demonstration with FCP X in the Film School of the University of Istanbul. When I asked the students how many were using Final Cut Pro X, every single one of them raised their hands. I think the future of Final Cut has never looked so good.
Finally, where will your next Watchtower video be shot?
Since the video went viral I cannot say how many people have contacted me to do something similar for them. I got requests to do a Watchtower for Greece, Panama, Spain, Portugal and many other countries. But they all said something like “You can film 15 days in January and we would need it two weeks later”. I really would like to do this, but I know it would be impossible.
My next personal trip will probably be to India. I have already worked there on a movie project in 2011 and I have honestly fallen in love with the Indian culture, its colours and its intensity. I think this would be a great place to make my next Watchtower.
A few very large thank yous. Firstly to Leonardo for not only telling his story, but giving the FCPX world a huge shot of filmmaking inspiration. There are many lessons to be learnt from his editing style.
Secondly, many thanks again to Ronny Courtens for taking the time to interview Leonardo and translate his conversations into English.