We are very pleased to publish part two of the story of how the Hollywood feature film Focus was cut on Final Cut Pro X.
This time we concentrate on how it was used and how the Libraries, Events and Projects were set up. Exactly how did Jan Kovac edit? What keyboard and control surfaces did he use? How did he trim? (Yes we asked that dynamic trimming question!) And the biggest job of all, how did he and his team keep everything organised?
We finish off with what Jan Kovac the Editor and the Directors Glenn Ficarra & John Requa liked about FCPX, what they didn’t like and some good ideas for the future.
If you haven’t read part one of the story, you will find it here, it concentrated on why FCPX was chosen to post produce the film, how the studio accepted it and how it performed on location.
The production moved back to the Warner Bros. studio lot after principal photography. Jan had been cutting on an iMac with a 3TB Fusion Drive, all attached to a 32TB Thunderbolt Areca RAID on location. This wasn’t going to be enough as the assistant editors needed to share the same media.
On the lot he had a new Mac Pro, connected to an Xsan Fibre Channel based SAN built with 2 Cineraid Chassis that housed about 96TB of media. Sam Mestman installed the SAN and he knew it would perform well with trusted connections and Fibre to Thunderbolt adaptors (Atto Thunderlinks). The assistant editors had iMacs similar to the one Jan had been using.
All the hardware and software used to edit the film was available to anybody.
Jan "We didn’t use a custom version of the software, it was the public version we used."
Which caused problems when Apple updated FCPX to 10.1 in December of 2013. The addition of the Library structure and the changes to the way Events and Projects were stored caused some headaches for the team, but they were solved pretty quickly.
Sam Mestman and Assistant Editor Mike Matzdorff talk 10.1 updates and pie.
It was arranged that Jan also had a fairly heathy list of software installed the machines.
1) X-FX Handler from Spherico: For purging effects from XML in case any applications won't import it.
2) Producer's Best Friend from Assisted Editing: FCPXML to spreadsheet in many forms. Used for VFX reports, codebook.
3) Change List X from Intelligent Assistance: For picture change notes.
4) Sync-n-Link from Assisted editing: To sync production sound to picture. See note at bottom.
5) QT Edit from Digital Rebellion: For detailed QuickTime fiddling. Used for setting the Log-c flag on non-arri clips.
6) EDL-X from Rainer Standke: For generating EDLs and fishing out xml issues in regard to speed changes.
7) X2Pro from Marquis Broadcast: FCPXML to AAF for Protools.
8) Cinema Tools (From Apple! and used sparingly): for change notes and audio EDLs.
9) Xto7 from Assisted Editing: To facilitate any FCP7 work.
10) Conformalizer from The Cargo Cult: To help with change notes. (used & purchased by sound department, not editorial.)
11) Memory Clean from FIPLAB Ltd: To reboot RAM although this wasn't used on the Mac Pro.
Jan "We only used Sync n Link on 10 scenes at the start when we were not getting metadata we needed from Live Play. That problem was quickly fixed. Sync-n-Link has since clearly proven the way to go and we are using it on every scene on our current film."
So with the hardware & software sorted out, the next thing was to have a plan to organise the media. Glenn had sent Jan sample pages from the script supervisor.
Jan: "We wanted to get a script sync emulation going in FCPX as that was the only thing that Glenn and John liked about Avid. For example if we were working on scene 5, they wanted to see every take of a certain line."
Sam Mestman: "I remember saying to Jan something along the lines of… “well, there’s a million different ways we can do this… how do you want to search for things?” At which point, he went off and came back with the idea of keywording according to script supervisor line codes.
We then sat down and refined the approach within the FCPX keyword structure, settling on the idea of using built in keyword commands (ctrl 1-9) to correspond to 3 line increments within a scene so that the keywords for a scene would show up (1-3,4-6, 7-9) etc…
Because the script supervisor was so detailed in her approach, we were able to come up with a system that made it very easy for people to decode the script with keywords in the edit, and make the script extremely accessible within the edit."
Jan "We had one big Library and in that Library were Events for each scene. Every scene is broken down, even character’s lines are numbered and this resets each scene. So we were always within three lines of the line we wanted to find. The assistant editors also placed a marker on each line on the clip.
This changed the way I edit because as the selections were three lines, I was ‘pre hearing’ parts of the scene before I started cutting it. These sections might have been a full page or just a paragraph in the script, but they gave me a better overview of what I wanted with the scene.
Glenn and John bracket performances so they get the full gamut of emotions, broadness & humour to much tighter stuff. This gives them the facility to make a part of the film more dramatic or funnier. I was just able to click on a keyword and show them all the options immediately."
Taking a look at an event from the film, you can see how Jan and Mike Matzdorff had everything labeled. Jan explains.
"Note field: A shot description from a script supervisor. Comes in handy. CDL= camera dolly left. CDR= camera dolly right. I had smart collections built based on such script supervisor’s codes.
X - rejected: Assistants rejected everything before the ‘action’ and after the ‘cut’ so I didn’t have to bother with those sections. This also came handy later in the cut when I was searching for some specific moment or a look and switched the view to rejected only to search for such moments outside of the take.
Action 1- Green to do marker was used for visibility to mark Action within a series to make it easy for me to go to whichever take I wanted to.
ALT and AD LIB markers marked any line where actors went off the book."
Keywording worked well for Jan and the directors, but there was feature that would have helped the edit. As over 85% of the film was shot with multiple camera angles, they were looking for a way to cycle through the different multicam takes.
Jan "We loved Auditions, but they don’t work with multicams. It would have been great to have my assistant load up each multicam take into an audition then just preview it and then I could pick and choose.
For example, there was one scene where we had to make a hard decision. We had to watch each take in context so I got my assistants to break apart the multicams and make the angles into Auditions. So the entire timeline was filled with every single take and angle of what was shot so we could preview it.
That was the only time we used Auditions creatively the way we wanted to."
Assistant Editor Andrew Wallace building and unbuilding multicams & turning off unwanted audio tracks.
Having selected the correct take, how did Jan watch through the clips?
Jan "The Skimmer is just amazing because I don't think you need a jog wheel any more. People are trying to invent surface controls such as an iPad controller or a physical jog wheel, but the Skimmer replaces those, I tried both."
Then came one comment from Jan that struck a chord with us and is also very relevant to that ongoing dynamic trimming argument that other editors just won’t let die.
Jan "The skimmer replaces the JKL keys, I stopped using them, I just us the space bar for play and stop and the Skimmer for the rest. The other great thing about the Skimmer is if you hover over a clip it basically solos it, it solos any audio track. And of course it selects the clip without having to click on it , so I can trim it without having to select the clip manually, that is really cool and it saved so many clicks. I can also keep the timeline playing and adjust other items further down the line without playback being affected.
I didn’t have a problem with any trimming, I didn’t feel I had a problem making a fluid decision on the fly. I use the trim tail and end a lot using commands to trim without selecting the clip. At the start of putting togther a scene, I’ll trim on the fly just to get a good organic rhythm going or choose a good edit spot. Then once we start refining the edit, it’s less on the fly, just making sure that it’s really finessed.
It definitely feels as if the interface has been designed to work on some touchscreen."
Jan liked to work on one monitor. On the right is the Apogee Quartet which was used as a volume control after the Blackmagic Design Ultrastudio 4K. Speakers were Maudio BX5 D2 Deluxe and monitoring was with a 24inch LCD Flanders Scientific LM-2461W screen.
Although he wasn’t a fan of the engineered control surfaces, Jan used the traditional Apple peripherals.
Jan "I have a mouse and Magic Trackpad, the trackpad is all you ever really need, it can be programmed with so many functions. After focus, I added a Wacom Intuos tablet, so I now work with the trackpad for my left hand, the Wacom pen in my right and the keyboard placed at an angle at the top of the tablet.
Using the pen with FCPX gives you the feel of slipping film through a Moviola. At first it didn't seem useful, but when I'm at home editing on my MacBook Pro I do miss it. On the next movie I might try using the CintiQ.
Although I had two monitors in the trailer on location, I like to cut on one big screen, I like to have everything in front of me. The 27 inch screens are so big, when you hide the browser and just have the timeline below with nothing around it, it's very good for cutting."
Jan in the trailer on location
Final Cut Pro hasn’t got a customisable screen, you can hide items, but you can’t move things around or save layouts. So we were keen to find out from Jan how he browses his media.
Jan "On the movie I mainly used the list view, I switched back to the icon mode just for a quick visual overlook of the scene. If I was searching for something in list view I'd make the filmstrip as large as I could across the screen. I might then push the viewer over to a second screen so I could skim through the whole scene.
The list view is also important because in the notes field, the assistant editor had entered the scene description from the script supervisor. So without playing the clip I could see what it contained."
We are not huge fans of remapping the keyboard, but there are a few extra keys that can make life easier, especially when it comes to avoiding FCPX slowing down by rewriting the audio waveforms.
Jan "I had F1 and F2 mapped to the Inspector and the multi angle view so I could turn them off and on as we had a few playback issues at the beginning. There were some scenes when I was editing when I had Glenn & John behind me, then I’d put the multicam viewer on the big screen so they could see all the angles. I’d then turn it off and on as we went."
With the video sorted, what sound did Jan have on the timeline?
Jan "The dailies had a mixdown on channel one, but we had all the separate mics for each character on different tracks. We mainly used the mixdown, but if something didn’t sound good, we went and found the isolated mic."
So did Jan cut with the audio collapsed into the video or the audio components visible?
Jan "The assistants would make sure that all the other audio components were turned off apart from the mixdown. If I wanted to use another channel, I could see the names of the mics in the Inspector so if I needed Will Smith’s lav, I could pick that.
To start off with the roles didn’t really work, but the assistants changed things so the mics came in as sub roles. This complicated matters slightly when we started to get 5.1 stems back from Pro Tools. To listen to the mix I had to disable all the other roles. Then If I wanted to recut the footage, I had to turn off the stems and toggle back on all the production sound and sound effects."
No matter how small an edit is, we all end up making multiple copies of the timeline or different versions. How were those tracked?
Jan "We didn’t use Snapshots, we had a Smart Collection named 'Active' that had a space at the top and that was where my latest version existed. So if I duplicated a project, I just got rid of the space on the old one and then I could always find the latest version.
We started by having an Event per scene, but later into the post production when we were working in reels, I’d have the Smart Collection for the reel. That could contain the whole reel, or just scenes from that reel that I was working on."
With all that valuable data stored, Nic Mimides looked after the SAN.
With the edit finished, they had to pass the final cut on to Light Iron for conforming.
Jan "I was really afraid of the DI process and the conform as we were going from Apple to Quantel Pablo. We wanted to do it in house with Resolve, but that didn’t happen. They had to extract the CDL values from our dailies for the conform, but it all worked seamlessly."
This process involved supplying Light Iron with:
A low resolution QuickTime of the project (1280x720) made with Compressor.
FCPxml of project.
EDL of project.
To generate the EDL:
1 Duplicate sequence
2 Remove audio
3 Remove titles
4 Move all video clips possible into the main timeline
5 Export project XML
6 Open project XMLin EDL-X
7 Check prefs in EDL-X (see below)
8 Save EDL
The EDL-X preferences used to get an FCPXML into Quantel's Pablo.
Jan "X-FX handler can be used to clean FX from the XML if there’s a reload issue on their end. For any handheld VFX shots we added 3 tracking points to each shot with the moves applied to them so they could be retracked.
We were visually noting optical effects on the reference movie (blowups, speed changes e.t.c.) Constant speed changes are reflected in the XML/EDL. Blow up details are reflected in the XML.
Conforming to sound was more complicated due to our decision to embed sound into editorial dailies and the sound department wanting to access the original media. We simplified and fulfilled that need by doing the syncing ourselves with Sync-n-Link on our current film."
Looking through Jan's notes on how they exported the audio of Focus to Pro Tools, his description is right. It consisted of no less than 27 operations, which to be honest would make fairly dull reading on here and is now irrelevant as the guys are not embedding audio in the dailies. Another case of FCPX simplifying the feature film workflow and thus saving costs.
If you would like to know more about outputting audio, we suggest downloading Mike Matzdorff's $10 Final Cut Pro X Workflow book where he will go into detail about the process they used on Focus.
So with the film finished and delivered, looking back, what did everybody like and dislike about Final Cut Pro X?
Glenn "The Magnetic Timeline, it's all about the Magnetic Timeline, Compound Clips, the Audition feature, tagging, favouriting, and the metadata flowing through was very helpful. There are so many ways to do things, there’s not one set path you have to go down, it’s incredibly customisable.
It's much more hands-on, you're much more in it, it's about you and the media and everything else just falls away. The upsides more than make up for the growing pains, but the thing I like most about it is it's not done yet."
Jan "The Magnetic Timeline and the way FCPX is organised, being able to put sound above the picture, backgrounds below the main storylines, having the story staying in the storyline.
The sub-frame editing makes cutting music so much better. I think we are looking at the future with roles. Organising your media based on content rather than just numbers is just out of this world. And just the overall cleanliness of the app, it doesn’t clutter your mind.
I describe FCPX as a very good assistant that does the drudgery and you concentrate on what you need to and nothing else."
Director John Requa making a toast at the Focus wrap dinner.
And what wasn't liked or needed to be improved?
John "I don’t want to see the beachball anymore, can we lose the beachball? Can we have the wristwatch back?"
Glenn "I think we have to improve turnovers for sound, we had what we needed to do it, but it wasn't ideal. We didn't have huge problems, but there are little things like using multicams in auditions that we would like to see added.
Using roles and subroles is awesome, you can see how powerful it may be, you can tell it's a really powerful idea and they just haven't had time to fully implement it yet. Role-based mixing and bussing would be nice."
Jan "It would be good if the the functionality of muticam clips changed so that optical flow would work and you could use tracking plugins such as SliceX.
It would be good to be able to finalise multi cams and disable the other angles so when I hand it over to my assistant or another department, they don’t accidentally click on an angle key and switch to another angle. It happened a couple of times, so I had everybody disable the shortcuts for angle switching on their machine. A flatten/unflatten feature like FCP7 would be great.
Role based mixing would allow us to stay in FCPX longer. I’ve always thought it would be nice to have my roles colour coordinated, but I was just working on an animation project with stems and I ’m not too sure now. The job had roles and sub-roles all named properly such as dialogue, music and effects and I really enjoyed highlighting the role I was working in and maybe collapsing the other roles. That was enough to orientate myself in the timeline and work with the audio."
Some final thoughts from our contributors:
Glenn "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."
Mike Matzdorff "When we were all done I was archiving the show and chatting with the post people at Warner Bros, they asked me “Did you ever keep that Final Cut Pro 7 project going?” and I said “Yes, every day is part of the archive” and they were surprised that we had kept it up."
Jan "For me what is exciting about FCPX is that a fourth grader is using the same software that I’m using on their YouTube videos. You have that at one end and a project like the Tour de France at the other. You go online and find the same information and do the same things that I can do. Glenn will tell you, his young daughter cuts on it!
Prices will come down, but it will bring up more talent, it will end up being on everybody's resume. It’s all about access, look how many more chess masters and piano virtuosos there are now. It’s not that there are more talented people around, there is more access for them to immerse themselves in whatever area they are trying to excel in."
Michael Cioni "It's still somewhat uncommon to find filmmakers that are willing to take sizable workflow risks like Glenn, John, Jan, and Xavier Grober the DOP are, but when you come across leaders that are comfortable with being uncomfortable, it's amazing to see how quickly that ideology begins to influence the minds of the people who surround them."
Jan "Glenn & John’s only loyalty is to the film, they are very indiscriminate. It is like the film itself, if something doesn’t work, they cut it immediately. If they felt Final Cut Pro X was a hinderance to their creative process, they would not use it. So it is a big endorsement from them that they are doing it again."
The crew showing their 'appreciation' at the wrap dinner.
The crew are indeed doing it again on Final Cut Pro X. Jan is cutting the new Tina Fey film Fun House. The story is about a journalists' war experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's being shot again by Xavier Grobert and directed by Glenn Ficcara and John Requa. Margot Robbie plays the lead.
We would like to thank everybody for their cooperation in writing these two articles on Focus. To Glenn, John, Sam, Mike, and Michael for sharing their time, knowledge and experience. To Jeffery, Luke and Michael Horton for the photos and to James, Alex and Jo for proof reading over 7000 words written not by a journalist, but by an editor.
And of course a very special thank you to Jan Kovac for the access and all the help with the article. We think he's been a complete inspiration and his workflows will change the way film and television series get edited.
Photographs ©2015 J Kovac/J Harlacker