The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women is a documentary about the photographer Erwin Blumenfeld. It's just aired in the UK and it was post produced on FCPX for Auntie.
Nick Watson got in touch with us as he was putting the finishing touches to the documentary. As it was edited on Final Cut pro X for the BBC, he asked if we would be interested in featuring it here on FCP.co. We of course said yes...
I’m Nick, a self-edit, self-shooting PD and for the past eight weeks I have been editing The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women, a documentary about the photographer Erwin Blumenfeld that I have been making with his Grandson, and esteemed television producer, Remy Blumenfeld.
It’s been a fantastic experience. And I’ve edited it on the ‘X’. Here is the show opening:
The spec :
Shot by me on a Canon XF305
Mac Book Pro 2.2 Ghz Intel Core i7
Two Genelec Monitors with a Scarlett 2i2 USB soundcard/amp
WD Thunderbolt 8tb Drive
Click for larger images
The project started about two years ago, when Remy first asked me if I would like to make a documentary about his Grandfather. We’ve been filming interviews in London, Paris and New York since then, and I finally sat down to edit the programme in March, when it was commissioned by BBC4.
I had been using Final Cut 7 for TV and online projects but was still pretty skeptical when Final Cut Pro X first came out. My friend Fernando finally convinced me to give it a go when we were working together on another project, our interactive stage show "Choose Your Own Documentary" which has since been shown at the Southbank. He had raved about Final Cut Pro X so by the time this doc came along, I felt it was right for the job and was excited by the prospect of editing a doc on X. On a laptop. Genius? Brave? Insane?
First up was getting the 3TBs worth of interviews into X for editing and the initial sync pull. After getting really confused as to whether the content I had was encoded as MPEG-2 or ProRes 422, I started again and everything went in as ProRes. Took a while but all good.
Then I started getting the interviews in. We had all the interviews transcribed with time code, so I individually placed the interviews on separate timelines and began pulling down relevant sections, according to the script. I was amazed at how quick this process was and in two days I had a two hour version of the doc on my timeline.
Sound proved slightly trickier to manage. I had recorded the interviews and any actuality with a gun mic in channel one and radio mic in channel two. Initially, I detached the audio from the video and then changed the audio settings to dual mono, killing off the channel I wasn’t using, which 95% of the time was the gun mic. I then spoke to Ade, my dubbing mixer, who advised me that having both channels available was really the ideal. I used expand audio components to give me the two audio channels, similar to the way I work in FCP7. Rather than to killing the channel I wasn’t using, I just reduced the volume to 0. The way X is set up, is to have the sound in one layer but I prefer the way it was in 7. I'm in no doubt there are more effective ways of working and I would love to hear them!
Next up, the photos. Thankfully the keyword editor is so easy and powerful to use as it was only when reaching the end of the project that I realised just how many photos we had - 1300 in total, an incredible amount.
Initially I got all the photos into my computer, naively thinking that the media management side of things would be easy. Just set up some folders and whack the photos in there - job done. When I came to actually putting the photos on timeline it soon became clear that most of my time was spent looking for stuff. And re-looking. And then wondering where it was, if I had actually scanned it, or dreamt it. Hair was lost. Tensions were raised. So I started again, and did what I should’ve done from the start and organised it properly!
What I really like about keywords is how simple it is. You see a photo of Erwin in his studio, you add the keyword - Erwin Studio, but it’s also a self portrait, so you add that as well. Pretty soon I had a comprehensive break down of all 1300 photos in categories and sub categories. We also had some moving archive so I did the same to this. In, out, add a keyword. Then I went through and favourited the best photos. Simple, effective and a startlingly quick way to find the exact stuff you want. Then, when I noticed the “Import folders as Keyword Collections tick box" I was like, that’s genius. It all made sense.
The temptation when starting a massive project is to get stuck in straight away. Who wants to spend two days archiving? Don't! Use the keywords, use the tick box, they make a massive difference. The only downside to the keyword collection is the annoying search box, which doesn’t search for keyword names, only names of clips (if i’m wrong here, please correct me).
We then had archive to go in, given to me in a plethora of horrible codecs. I sent most through MPEG Streamclip to ProRes, knowing that I would get better quality versions later down to the line.
By this point I have a few weeks to go and I'm feeling positive, my Mac Book Pro however, was suffering. It would play fine for a while then refuse to play. You’d hit the space bar and get that annoying noise when it’s not going to do what you want, after export the QuickTime would have black holes in, no sound, no vision for seemingly no reason! It was driving me crazy and I could ill afford this defiant behaviour with viewings coming up so I invested in Pro Maintance Tools. Straight away I realised that many of my photos were far too big. Hitting triple figures, the first search I did for corrupted files using this really useful set of tools nearly gave a me a heart attack. After putting these images through Photoshop and getting them down to a realistic size I was back on track and my mac could handle everything again. Lesson learnt here - images over 4000x4000 are bad for FCPX and your sanity.
Pretty soon the doc is looking in great shape. Remy, Mike (the Exec) and I have hammered out what we believe to be an incredible documentary. The pictures are in, the narrative is tight, the music is working incredibly well, all is going positively. I've got a week before heading off to the grade and sound dub and the pictures are static.
My initial plan was to use Motion to get pictures moving. In the good old days, you’d just Send To Motion from FCP 7, do your moves and send them back. It would add a bit more time but ultimately result in much nicer, cleaner, Ken Burns style moves. In X you can’t Send To. I found a plug-in that offered this feature but you couldn’t get that in the UK. So I tried exporting the clip I wanted to animate from FCP X as ProRes 422 (akin to slow painful death), before then starting a new Motion project and finding the photos I needed (remember 1300 photos on my drive!) before giving up and waving goodbye to Motion.
Thankfully, as quickly as Apple raises frustration with one poor decision, they placate with another. Ken Burns. Ok, so it could do with being able to hold the image for a few seconds before and after the move (please sort this Apple), but what a simple and super fast way to rostrum my images. Amazing. Couldn’t have done the doc without this.
I’d just like to add that the Alex4D Trim plug-in was another godsend. In X, you can, trim, crop or Ken Burns, but you can’t combine these. This free plug in enables you to crop, AND Ken Burns. I salute you Alex.
Photos moved and onto an even bigger challenge, the dub and grade. During the edit, I knew that I could get the programme I wanted out of FCP X. I had a clear vision in my mind of the look, feel, pace and tone and was really happy with what I had achieved. The next stage was like a great leap into the unknown. I felt jealous of my Avid friends who have a workflow that has been established for years, with experienced hands left right and centre to guide them through the final polishing process. I didn’t have this and was really conscious of it all falling apart, before ending up tail between legs in a Avid suite, humble to the mighty Avid, iMovie Pro having let me down.
Thankfully, I was wrong! I got two experienced pros involved who were not put off by the prospect by working with X. Ade was the dubbing mixer and getting the audio to him in ProTools was like, four clicks worth of stress. X2Pro Audio Convert did the job. Never used it before. Worked like a dream.
Then the grade. Dave, the colourist and online whizz had access to the Baselight suite where we were going to grade the shots. I exported my final cut from FCP X as a ProRes 422 (HQ) file and used the Xto7 plugin to create an XML file that could be read by Baselight/Avid/FCP 7. It worked! Obviously, it’s not a perfect solution, but this workaround did the job. The only real stumbling block we had was with the transitions and several of these needing tweaking in the final online, but hey, pretty small stuff comparatively. From the Baselight, Dave then took it into the Avid for the online and it was all over (as FCP X doesn't print to tape we had no other option). We had the usual editorial tweaks and changes over the next week, but it wasn’t the car crash I worried and others had assumed it could be. We just need someone (hopefully they are reading) to design a X2 Pro Audio Convert for pictures. As an aside, I was going to use DaVinci for the grade as I know that speaks with X but this was costly.
Click for a larger timeline. (It's big!)
I really enjoyed using FCP X. It makes editing fun. It has many flaws, some of which I have outlined below, the rest I am planning to send to Apple, but I believe the benefits outweigh those. It is very visual - which sounds weird as editing is all about pictures and sound but let me explain. Producers, PD’s, whoever you are working with often end up pointing at the images or video that they want. Working with people seems a much more democratic and open process with no more going through the endless bins of FCP 7. You can easily see what you’ve shot and so can whoever is working with you. It is also fast. Just using the Q, W, E and buttons to dump stuff on your timeline is very intuitive and sequences are built in no time at all. The keywords help you find what you want much more quickly.
Would I use it again? Yes, definitely. It’s a very slick editing tool. Who knows whether it will catch on in the professional television sector and at the moment the signs aren’t promising. Disdain, disbelief and contempt are the general responses I've received when I mention the X. Have these people used the X? No. I say don’t knock it till you tried it.
I think Avid is an incredible editing tool and it wouldn’t have been as successful as it has been if it wasn’t amazing. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for anything else. Certain Avid editors talk about FCP X being rubbish, a joke, but if this is the case they have nothing to worry about. But for me, Avid it is like watching someone edit on a computer circa 2007 - grey screens, grey buttons, grey bins. It doesn’t seem faster than FCP X for what I was doing, or more intuitive. I don’t leave Avid suites thinking this is the editing software of the future.
Maybe one day I will use Avid if work on the X dries up, but Avid doesn’t excite me as much as working in X does. The community is growing day by day, I found solutions to my problems online in no time and the possibilities with the software are increasing.
The most important thing in the end is the product. For the viewer sitting on his or her sofa, how you get there is irrelevant. So I end on the press reviews for The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women, made on a laptop on FCP X. Try to get to catch it if you can, I'm immensely proud of what myself, Remy, Mike and the team at BBC Bristol have achieved.
Pick of the day in : Radio Times, Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer, Mail, Mail on Sunday, Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Independent, Independent on Sunday.
“Astonishing” - RADIO TIMES “Gripping and Shocking” - THE GUARDIAN “Spellbinding…. even the untrained viewer will fall head over heels for Blumenfeld’s work.” * * * * TIME OUT * * * * MAIL ON SUNDAY “It’s astonishing that it’s the first such screen tribute to a figure of Blumenfeld’s stature.” * * * * * Tom Birchenaugh “Wry wit worthy of a jewish standup…Dazzling” **** FINANCIAL TIMES “Watch it.” OBSERVER “This fascinating profile tells the remarkable story of his life and times and showcases a portfolio ranging from Dada to Vogue” SUNDAY TIMES “A lovingly made retrospective…. like a lavishly illustrated book that someone left in my house” The LADY “A compelling documentary which uncovers an extraordinary history” THE LONDON EVENING STANDARD “The unknown story of Blumenfeld….illustrates the story of the first modern art: photography itself” HUFFINGTON POST
Many thanks to Nick for putting together such a great read, I'm sure he is up to answering any questions you have in the comments below.