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We are back with a great user story. David Tillman describes his journey from being put off by FCPX from the initial scare stories to how he embraced Apple's new generation NLE cutting two high profile documentaries. A great read, we think his story will echo a lot of other editor's experiences.

 

My experience editing with FCPX started, as so many things do these days, with an email.  It was from filmmaker Tom Jennings, whom I have been working with on documentaries for several years.  He had been approached about a potential new project – a show about the O.J. Simpson civil trial to air on A&E.

I was to send over my resume, and oh by the way, the executive producers wanted the film to be edited with Final Cut Pro X.  I stopped dead in my tracks.  In the kind of way you do while reading an email. 

I’d never actually used FCPX before.  But I’d heard things.  

The things I’d heard started with the backlash from the Final Cut Pro-loving community in 2011.  There was the Conan O’Brien sketch that poked fun at FCPX later that year.  The stuff I read on tech blogs and social media compared it to iMovie (the horror!) and was generally dismissive.  Within a year, when it became obvious there would never be a Final Cut Pro 8, the NLE community picked up the pieces and moved on, like the crowd at a concert when the house lights come on and it becomes obvious there will be no second encore.

I remember hearing the reason Apple had to start over – that the infrastructure of the FCP7 software couldn’t handle the processing speed of Apple’s newest Intel microchips or graphics cards or something that totally made sense, but at the same time totally didn’t.   

While many moved on, I worked on three separate documentaries for MSNBC in 2012 using FCP7.  By the time I worked for them on ‘Heist’ in 2013, FCP7 was officially outdated and their post department asked us to edit using Avid Media Composer, which I didn’t happen to actually know how to use.   So I had to learn Avid, and luckily was able to do so on the job in a kind of baptism by fire, thanks to the help and support of the other editors on the show.

Gradually I started to hear rumblings that some of the initial deficiencies in FCPX were being ameliorated.  I had friends who used it to edit web content for a YouTube channel, but without knowing better, I still dismissed it as too prosumer to be taken seriously for professional work.  

In the meantime, I used Avid on several projects including ones for Discovery and Smithsonian Channel.  I even broke down and used it on a personal project to gain a little more experience.  I found my way with Avid, and it did the job, but it’s clunky – I would find myself pounding angrily at the keyboard -- and it filled me with dread when I would get strange errors like “Exception: System Error,” “Assertion Failed,” or my personal favorite, “Segmentation Fault” and have to frantically google for possible solutions.  

The folks were generous with their troubleshooting answers on the Avid message boards, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.  How and why did my media become corrupt, though?  Why did I have to rebuild my database by deleting a strange msmFMID.pmr or msmMMOB.mdb file in the first place?  It just didn’t compute with me.

I still used FCP7 whenever possible, and luckily I was given carte blanche to use the editing software of my choice on many projects, including on The Fidel Castro Tapes – a documentary for PBS that was nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy in 2014.   But I was starting to feel that using software that hadn’t been updated since 2011 just didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

“You can learn on the job.”

That’s what executive producers Chuck Braverman and Stephen Auerbach told me when I interviewed with them for the O.J. Simpson documentary, which would later be titled, O.J. Speaks: The Hidden Tapes.  (My assistant editor on the film, Patrick Southern wrote quite the case study on our FCPX workflow for the project, and I highly suggest you read it – and also anything else Patrick says on the internet. He actually did a whole webinar on FCPX doc workflow as well.)

A little backstory:  these intrepid producers had begun shooting another OJ Simpson documentary, ‘The Secret Tapes of the O.J. Case: The Untold Story’, and had made the decision – due to the plethora of different cameras they had been shooting with as well as troves of archival footage – to use FCPX.  Since they’d had assistant editors logging and keywording the archival footage for months, it made a lot of sense to re-use all the organization that had already been done, especially because much of the same archival footage could also be used in the documentary I would be working on.

“Try it.  If you don’t like it, you can always go back and use Final Cut 7 if you prefer.”

It was an enviable position.  I was lucky enough to learn Avid on a previous job, and now I would be given an opportunity to learn FCPX in the same way.  

“And if you have any questions, you can just ask Patrick.”

“Just ask Patrick,” became a kind of mantra for the next few weeks.  I jumped right in, with Patrick sitting at an adjacent desk.  Luckily he’s not the type to get annoyed with simple or even repeated questions – maybe he built up a tolerance during his time working as a FCPX Trainer at Apple.

At first I found myself fighting against FCPX, I wanted the layout of my sequence -- I mean “project” -- to look more like FCP7 and Avid.  I even collapsed the tracks -- I mean “storylines” -- down to their most miniscule to make me feel more comfortable, eschewing the convenience of waveforms or thumbnails for the familiar look of other NLE’s.   (I later learned that some referred to this as “chiclet mode,” some wonderful editing slang that needed to come into the universe.)  

The struggle continued -- I hastily re-mapped my keyboard commands to allow me to work quickly and easily with keystrokes I was comfortable with.  I frantically looked for an Audio Mixer tool, but to no avail.  I searched desperately for a way to “Select Right” so that I could move everything in the sequence down and create space to insert new content.  I had to settle for inserting gap with Command-W.   

Slowly but surely I acquiesced. I fell in love with having the audio tied to the video, instead of somewhere down below.  I used the Q key to insert new material with reckless abandon.  I wondered how I ever found footage before without FCPX’s thumbnail view, without being able to quickly skim through hours of footage, easily tag items with keywords and mark favorites.  Finding stills in the browser was a joy since I could make the thumbnails as large as I wanted to without them becoming so pixelated they were unrecognizable.   Then applying motion to photos for use in the offline edit was a breeze thanks Alex 4D’s free Grow-Shrink plugin.  I even found practical uses for Compound clips.  When I finally broke down and stopped detaching my audio when making L-cuts, and begrudgingly embraced “split edits,” I knew there had been a tectonic shift.

I started to trust that whoever designed this software, and effectively turned Final Cut Pro on its proverbial head, did in fact have my best interest at heart.  It took a while, but eventually I came to terms with the fact that if a one-frame-audio-dissolve didn’t exist, maybe someone smarter than me had made that decision for a reason.  Although if that smart person could reconsider, say in the 10.3 update, I would really appreciate that.

After two weeks or so, I found myself strangely excited to open up my project – I mean “Library” -- in FCPX, in a way I hadn’t felt in years.  There was an ease to the interface, a warm fuzziness to the magnetic timeline and an excitement to doing this thing I’d been doing hours on end for years, but thinking about it in a new way that seemed to break down mental barriers.  I informed the executive producers, Chuck and Stephen -- I was on board with FCPX – there would be no going back.

One day, for an unrelated job, I needed to open an old project that had been edited in FCP7.  It was like opening up a time capsule.  The interface felt so outdated, it was physically shocking.  I was taking a sip of coffee at the time, and some of it wound up coming out of my nose.  I started to remember transcoding footage to Apple Pro Res 422, having to find footage by way of bins, the way it made me feel (like a caged animal) to have to keep all my SFX on two specific tracks.   How could I ever go back?

But as I would find out, FCP7 still did have a place – it could still be useful as a kind of cog in the workflow machine -- though those days are probably numbered.

During the O.J. Speaks edit, I was tasked with cutting a pitch reel for another potential show – a project I wouldn’t be able to use the 5K iMac at work to edit.  I decided I wanted to cut the pitch reel in FCPX and bought a copy to use on my personal computer, a mid 2012 MacBook Pro.  However, I quickly learned that to be able to install FCPX, I would be forced to upgrade my operating system to Yosemite – something I had been avoiding like the plague just in case it would compromise by ability to use FCP7, Compressor and other software I’d long since installed.  

This may seem like a tiny detail, but it was kind of a turning point.  I was willing to risk losing everything to have my own copy of FCPX.   Maybe not everything, I mean I had a Time Machine backup, but you know.

As I wrapped my work on O.J. Speaks, another project came my way.  The new project was a documentary about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, and was to be aired in conjunction with the 30th anniversary in January 2016.  The film would be called Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes, commissioned by National Geographic Channel.  

The format of the documentary would be the same as some of the others I’ve produced and edited with Tom Jennings and 1895 Films.  We would tell the story of an important historical event using only media reports to tell the story – no narration or interviews.  Our vision is to use archive as art, cutting together rarely seen footage and news reports, long forgotten photos and audio recordings in an attempt to put the viewer in a front row seat to witness history.  In this way, the film has a way of feeling stuck in time, like you’ve been transported to back in time to a pivotal day in history and are flipping channels on your television. 

 

 

There was a catch.  The film’s edit schedule would be abbreviated, with only about 5 weeks to put together the Rough Cut in order to deliver the show before the December holidays and have it ready to air in time for the anniversary.

I was dead-set on using FCPX for the offline edit.  The only problem with this was the workflow needed to do color correction and the sound mix.   With the short schedule and strict delivery deadline, there wasn’t time for any hiccups in the process.   The O.J. Speaks documentary had successfully used Resolve for finishing, but in that case using Resolve was, in part, a necessity due to the nature of the footage, some of it raw and 4K, with more latitude for color correction.   

The online editor we use at 1895 Films, the supremely talented Shane Ross, was extremely busy with other projects, and with the short window he had to complete the online edit, he would be able to plow through much quicker if we were to use FCP7 for the online.  Because the footage in the documentary would be comprised completely of archival video from the 1980s, doing the color correction in Apple Color wouldn’t leave anything to be desired.

We found that by using XtoCC software, there was in fact a way to translate a FCPX sequence into a Final Cut Pro 7 sequence.  Of course, we would not be able to transfer effects used in FCPX, and only animation that used FCPX’s Transform panel would translate -- but those were limitations that were easy enough to live with for a documentary with this archival format. 

It was decided -- I would do the offline edit in FCPX, move my sequence over to FCP7 at Picture Lock and we would finish the show in FCP7, the way we’d been doing since before FCPX was born.

The offline edit went extremely smoothly.  Our researchers and associate producer created a folder structure for the material on the Finder level that mimicked the chronology of events.  Those folders became keywords when imported into FCPX.  The way each individual file was named, with the source, date and description made searching for material and organizing it further a cinch.

In order to capture some Beta tapes that came in the mail from NASA, we used FCP7 with an AJA KONA card to up-res the footage to HD.   Most of the other footage came by the way of digital screeners from archival footage houses, or in some cases DVDs from other archives.

We had hours of audio from radio programs and press conferences that I wanted to have transcribed to cut down on the amount of time I would have to spend listening through for good sound bites.  To further streamline the process, we used “Transcript Mode” in the amazing Lumberjack software. 

To divvy up the work and enable the logging to happen even more quickly, we had multiple people transcribing audio and formatting it so that it could be recognized by Lumberjack.  When I synched these transcripts with the corresponding footage in Lumberjack and then imported into FCPX, I instantly had the footage married to the transcript, searchable in the search field, organized by timecode and easy to read in the “Notes” field.  As the edit progressed, I could quickly and easily find material from these transcribed clips, simply by searching, which was invaluable.

 challenger image001

A look at the fruits of our Lumberjacking labor.  Complete with asterisks to denote quality soundbites.

One of the biggest challenges in editing the film was to build up tension leading up to the explosion of the Space Shuttle.  Since most people who will watch the film will probably know about the tragedy that is about to unfold, and may have seen news footage of the disaster, it was important to present it in a fresh way, with an immediacy that makes the viewer feel like they’re experiencing it for the first time.  

We accomplished this by obtaining footage from numerous sources showing reactions from several different viewpoints:  the CNN newsroom, Kennedy Space Center spectator grandstand, Concord High School, rare home movie footage and more.   It was important to cut it in a way that would convey the hopeful build-up to the launch, the frenetic chaos of the explosion and its aftermath, and the raw human emotion displayed by those just realizing what they were seeing.  It was a challenge to piece it together in such a way that was faithful to the timeline in which the tragedy occurred -- just minutes of real time.  Keywording helped to group the footage, photos and reporting chronologically so that I could simply and easily find footage that fit within that timeframe.

The director, Tom Jennings, wanted the lower thirds and titles in the show to evoke the 1980s and requested that they type on with a DOS-like font.  Patrick was able to design the lower thirds in Motion and we were able to use these pre-built animated titles in FCPX throughout the offline edit.  However, to meet the network deliverables he would eventually needed to re-design them in After Effects and deliver the AE project so that the network could translate the show into other languages.

 challenger image002

Patrick mastered the look of 1980’s DOS titles, right down the scan lines and illumination.

After our Picture Lock cut was approved by the network, we moved everything over to FCP7 and I began to conform the cut where necessary.  This task was minimal and was comprised mostly of deleting empty audio tracks and pushing in so that some of the footage would fill the HD frame.  I then exported the OMF from FCP7 to deliver for the sound mix, and media managed the project onto a new external hard drive to deliver to Shane for the color correction and online edit.

One problem we ran into was that FCP7 is unable to handle still photos that are over 4000 pixels in size without spitting out an “Out of Memory” error.  Some of the high- resolution images in the show exceeded this size.  In order to use the full resolution of the master photos and lighten the load in the online, many photos were exported with animation as Quicktime files from FCPX and edited into the FCP7 online sequence.

In all, it was an incredibly smooth workflow that enabled us to edit quickly, using all the advantages FCPX brings with keywords and organization, the ability to skim through dozens of hours of footage in thumbnail view and sort through hundreds of photos in a visual way.  However unprofessional FCPX was deemed in the beginning, I can’t help but feel I’m kind of a poster child for how today, it can be a revelation in non-linear editing.  I was able to pick it up very quickly and before long my brain was thinking about editing in a completely new way.  

More and more I’ve been able to concentrate on storytelling, without worrying about pesky things like tracks or what bin a particular clip is in.  I think there’s legitimate proof that FCPX is working for me – I consider OJ Speaks: The Hidden Tapes, which was my first 2 hour documentary, and Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes to be some of the best editing work I’ve done.  And in each case I had less time to edit than I’ve had on previous projects.  

I’m not sure if this was a case study, or an endorsement or an unsolicited confession, but I hope my experience helps continue to dispel the myth that FCPX is anything but an incredible editing tool.

 

You can follow David Tillman on twitter at @davidtillman,but be prepared for musings about his yellow lab, Woodrow and month-old son, Maxwell.  

Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes premieres on Monday January 25th at 9pm on National Geographic Channel.