From convincing the Hollywood Studio to use FCPX, to how the movie was actually edited right down to keywords and trimming, we publish our biggest Final Cut Pro X article so far.

This is not just a cut and paste from the Apple article, we have new interviews, new pictures and most importantly, lots more detail.

With unique access to the Editor Jan Kovac, the Directors Glenn Ficarra, & John Requa, Light Iron CEO Michael Cioni, Technology Consultant Sam Mestman and First Assistant Editor Mike Matzdorff, we follow the groundbreaking story of the post production of Focus on Final Cut Pro X.

By now, we are sure you’ve come across Apple’s In Action story on the film, a great article that has received huge publicity, but it doesn’t go into the detail we love here on FCP.co. As you will see, the time we spent with the everyone involved with the film should give a deeper insight into the editing of a large budget Hollywood feature film.

 

In the first part of this two-part article, we pick up the story before the first frame of Focus was shot, but first a few lines from the guys to whet your appetite:

John Requa "As artists, It’s just you and the material, if you just want to find your material, get intimate with your material, FCPX gets you closer together than any other system."

Glenn Ficarra "I could cut at least twice as fast if not three times as fast on Final Cut Pro X as I could on Avid."

Jan Kovac "This was a community effort, it started 12 months before the first day of shooting. Many people were involved, from people who got paid, to FCP.co and the people on the Forum there."

Michael Cioni "The full dynamic range of the ALEXA media was always available in the cutting room, which is unheard of in a feature editing room."

Sam Mestman "The only way the studio would give approval was if we showed them how to be able fire us!"


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Although Jan Kovac has the Editor credit on Focus, it is important to point out that Jan, Glenn and John all worked together on editing the film. All three have editing backgrounds.

Glenn "We went to film school, we were cutting everything, tape to tape, VHS, 3/4 U-Matic & CMX."

John "We’ve done it all!"

Glenn "Both John and I have worked extensively in post production when we were younger. I was a day-to-day grunt type of editor doing cuts for syndicated television & promos for talk shows. It was around the time where everything was starting to go over to non-linear with Media 100 and Avid, which was an incredible step forward. Eventually we started to do our own thing, writing and directing."

in the Autumn of 2012, Jan had been working in a post house and was using FCPX 10.0.4 for jobs that were file based and didn’t involve tape delivery. His boss was keen to move things forward using new technology. He had been oblivious to the brouhaha over FCPX’s release as he had been completely immersed in a project recutting Curb Your Enthusiasm. He soon discovered that FCPX’s simplicity hid a much more powerful NLE underneath.

Jan "We are all visual people and the brain absorbs a lot of information that goes directly into the subconscious. Clutter on the page or clutter in the UI will take away from your creative thoughts, I think that’s why people are saying it is fun to cut again. The simplicity of FCPX is deceiving, you discover the depth of it, but it still has all the ease of use."


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Left to right Jan Kovac, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra

 

Jan had met Glenn at that post house and shortly after John joined to make a team that would hang out together and help each other on their short film projects.

Glenn and John were coming to similar conclusions about FCPX’s design.

Glenn "We worked with Avid editors on our features and it struck us that things just hadn’t progressed. There was this huge reinvention of how you edit and then it stopped. We had shot a movie digitally, but it felt as if we were still cutting on a flatbed.

I was one of those people when the revamped iMovie and Final Cut Pro X came out that didn’t really get it at first. It wasn't until the pros started getting really p****d off at it that I downloaded a demo to see what the fuss was about. I thought ‘I gotta see this.'

That’s when we noticed that it was designed to cut digital video from the ground up, not just made to emulate the film experience, it was really appealing. And then when we found how easy it was, it was amazing, I could cut at least twice as fast if not three times as fast on Final Cut Pro X as I could on Avid. There was so much less thinking and less clicking than that flatbed emulation.

There is no way that Final Cut Pro X would have been ready to cut a studio feature shot on film, it would've been a nightmare. However, once you have left the film world and all those legacy technologies behind, it all made sense. You are just dealing with files, we cut 2K not because we had to, but because we could. Reading Philip Hodgett’s book on metadata helped too."

Discovering more about FCPX came from different places including a very familiar monthly meet up.

Jan "I went to the Los Angeles Creative Pro User Group in September 2012 and started to ask questions to the gurus of the group. That’s how I met Philip Hodgetts and then I met Sam Mestman who I knew through his FCP.co articles."

Sam "Jan told me at the meeting that he was thinking of cutting a film on FCPX and I didn’t really understand the scope of what he was planning! He came to a technology presentation at LumaForge and at that point felt comfortable enough to tell me it was a large studio feature. I’d already cut a film myself on FCPX 10.0.8 and on that basis I ended up becoming a consultant on the project."

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The Gallery Theater at Barnsdall Art Park where Jan met Sam Mestman & Philip Hodgetts at a LACPUG meeting.

 

Jan "In December of that year, myself, Glenn & John had a meeting with Michael Cioni at Light Iron that was organised by the Associate Producer of Focus, Jeffrey Harlacker. We discussed what we needed for a studio feature film environment, not only did we have to work out an FCPX workflow, we had to work out a ProRes workflow too.

Michael Cioni "Up until about 2 weeks before we started shooting, ProRes was not actually approved for use on Focus as the main capture codec.  Numerous tests were shot in both ProRes and RAW and we projected them in 4K for various departments including Warner Bros. post in an attempt to make everyone feel comfortable with the ProRes plan.

'Image stress-testing' is crucial when taking a financial risk of this magnitude, which is why we evaluated under-exposed ProRes and RAW images side-by-side and scaled them up 500% for precise comparisons.  But it was the combination of the 1.3 anamorphic Hawk lenses and the (then) brand new ProRes anamorphic codec that allowed these critical test images to exceed the expectations of how ProRes typically performed on the big screen.  Sometimes we are influenced by the number of "K's" but it's imperative to also examine the megapixel count.

Prior to shooting Focus, ALEXA ProRes measured only 1.9 megapixels in a 1.85:1 academy aspect ratio.  With this new anamorphic ProRes combination, we were able to project 3.1 megapixels, which measures more than 63% active resolution on screen when compared to HD.  Once the creative and technical teams saw the images, we received the green light to shoot ProRes for all principal photography.

For ultra-precision, the uncompressed makeup of ARRIRAW tested superior to ProRes anamorphic, so production recorded ARRIRAW on the 300 visual effects shots in the film.  So when you see Focus projected in cinemas, ProRes4444 anamorphic represents more than 85% of the images."

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Jan "That gave us the advantage of having a pristine picture throughout the editing process so the directors got to work with material as it would look in theatres.

We also got a meeting with Electric Entertainment where Dean Devlin was generous in sharing his information on what their issues were in producing a weekly TV series cut on FCPX. Then people on FCP.co shared their information, it was a community effort and some people get more credit than others, some parts seem small, but without them we wouldn’t have got the thing going."

The Directors were also sharpening their FCPX skills. The drive was coming from the wish to streamline the production process, make it more efficient, save money and end up with a better product. Glenn was doing research, coming up with new ideas and solutions to problems right from the start.

Glenn "I did the Ripple Training and thought, this is great, we can definitely do this, but we had to deal with sound turnovers. Mike Matzdorff our First Assistant came aboard, he helped set up the workflow pipeline, did some tests and made sure it all worked."

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Director Glenn Ficcara planning the workflow.

 

So with the directors, editor and assistant editor all behind the move to FCPX, there was one obstacle left. Studio approval.

John "They were rightly nervous, but they respected our desires."

Glenn "They wanted us to have what we wanted, which was nice, they weren’t up on the latest FCPX information, all they knew was the kerfuffle when it first came out."

John "They wanted a little due diligence on our behalf and Mike walked Warner Bros. through the process."

Glenn "They just didn’t want downtime, that would cause frustration and cost money, they were cautious, but open to the possibility. In the end it all worked out great, in fact Dean Devlin is cutting his new movie for Warner Bros. on FCPX also and they’re consulting with us about our experience, which is a rather cool feedback loop."

Embarking on such a large project without a backup plan would be slightly foolish. Was there a plan B?

Jan "There was a B and C plan. If you have finished the Director’s Cut and the studio doesn’t like the movie, who would they get to recut it that has the talent and can work FCPX? We needed to prove that if that happened or if key staff got sick, the project could go to Avid or FCP7."

Mike Matzdorff "There was a big production meeting with all of the post production people at Warner Bros. including trailers & marketing. We had done some preliminary testing with the QuickTime media running through basic change lists, sound turnovers, all of the the utilitarian things you need to do."

There were a lot of people involved in perfecting the workflow pipeline as a film can be made up from many different parts. Mike collaborated with Paul Urmson, the Sound Designer, John Weckworth, the in-house VFX Supervisor and of course the people at Light Iron and Philip Hodgetts

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First Assistant Editor Mike Matzdorff pondering the workflow problems.

 

Mike "We were able to prove that we could supply EDLs and AAF files to Pro Tools, we had a organisational plan, but what they insisted on was a path back to Avid. I talked to Wes Plate and tried Automatic Duck. The path would have had to have been FCPX to FCP7, out of Automatic Duck and into Avid as an AMA link. That was possible, but what they finally agreed on was a path back to Final Cut Pro 7.

We actually made a ‘FCP7 chase project’ that was fully up to date with dailies, we didn’t move any cuts over, but that would've been possible using Xto7. We also kept a Cinema Tools database populated because of the way we made audio EDLs."

Sam Mestman wrapped up the contingency plan.

Sam "The only way the studio would give approval was if we showed them how to be able fire us!"

With the post production workflow sorted and the studio happy, Glenn, John and Jan headed off onto location. Sam joined them for the first week in New Orleans to get them up and running.

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Jan's trailer parked next to the directors' trailer at basecamp.

 

Jan "The idea was for me to cut on the set in a trailer. We used the trailer that Michael Khan used on Lincoln, so it was already suited to post production. We experimented with positioning the trailer on the set or at the basecamp. It turned out to be easier to be parked at the basecamp right next to the director’s trailer. This enabled the directors to come over at lunchtime and I could show them cuts, they could then see what worked and what didn’t and if they had everything they needed for a scene.

So on day two, you basically start with working with the dailies from day one. I was cutting as the footage came in, it could be the whole or part of a scene, getting the structure, the texture and flow of the film."

Michael Cioni "Because anamorphic footage wasn't automatically de-squeezed in FCPX at the time, we had to take the anamorphic ProRes files and convert them to 2K flat (2048x1152).

Thanks to the engineers at ColorFront, their tool Express Dailies created 2K ProRes files for FCPX that were gamma encoded in log (ARRI LogC gamma).  Xavier worked with his DIT, Brandon Lippard, to apply colour correction which was baked into ProRes renders without a gamma corrected LUT. 

This is significant because Focus is the first feature to use FCPX Log Processing which means you can embed colour decision list values (CDLs) into ProRes files but leave the gamma to be encoded entirely by FCPX.  That means the full dynamic range of the ALEXA media was always available in the cutting room, which is unheard of in a feature editing room."

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On-set editing trailer Day 1: Jan and Sam are happy with the ProRes 2K 4444 test footage on the monitors.

 

Full resolution and full colour pictures were great in the trailer but using FCPX gave Jan an advantage of being able to continue to edit with proxies wherever he liked.

Jan "I was cutting on location in the trailer for two months in New Orleans, I could switch between the 2K material and proxies whenever I wanted to.

In Buenos Aires I couldn't have the trailer, so I ended up cutting using proxies in my hotel room to remain close to the directors. The drives with the media had deep password protection and were locked in the safe whenever I finished working with them."

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Jan's edit setup in the hotel in Buenos Aires.

 

Jan "I then hand carried my media to Los Angeles, plugged up and carried on working. It’s great never have to worry about relinking or conforming the new work you've done."

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Jan's luggage including the media on the drives ready to fly back to Los Angeles.

 

Jan "Me being there from the start allowed us to get the structure of the film as we went along. It was all very fluid, sometimes they were cutting a scene and I was doing the recuts."

Glenn "John and I are very committed to being hands-on editors, it’s a much cleaner way of communicating. It’s like, ‘Let me take that for a while and I’ll work on that, you work on this.’ It really became a bunch of friends collaborating rather than going through a Wizard of Oz experience where you had to to curry favour with the editor."

Jan "FCPX also allowed me to cut a scene and hand it over to John and Glenn, they could then make their notes themselves and I could get on with something else. So no tedious reviews which I think was great for the creative process.

I spent about 11 months on this project and the most precious commodity is perspective. The more time you spend with it, the harder it is to keep that perspective. One trick I like to do is finish a scene and then sleep on it overnight. Then my subconscious works on it and I usually wake up with better ideas the next morning."

John "We shot this movie with alternative versions of many scenes. If we ever felt we were losing the audience and they weren't buying the ‘con’ we’re spinning at that time, we needed to have options to reinforce it or add comedy and tone. We basically had four movies, we had to work fast, cut a lot of versions and preview a lot of versions to work out what worked the best. In fact one night we previewed two different versions in cinemas next door to each other."

Glenn "It was pretty sweet, all with the final colour too."

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And that’s where we leave the story for this part. In part two, Jan, Glenn and John return to the Warner Bros. lot for the Director’s Cut, a new Mac Pro, a new library system and 12 weeks to get the film finished. We go into detail with Jan about the mechanics of editing a film in FCPX, libraries, events, projects, keywords and more.

We also sum up with what the guys liked about FCPX, what worked and what didn’t. 

 PART TWO:  How the Hollywood feature film Focus was edited on Final Cut Pro X

©2015 FCP.co
Photographs ©2015 J Kovac/J Harlacker/A Tehrani/M Horton