The increased use of video on social media has seen a rise of the “square video” format. As we’re seeing more of this type of video around the web, we asked Chris Roberts to look into it for us and explore how we can use Final Cut Pro X to “squarify” our edits.

So, it’s hip to be square?

Ok, I admit it! Ever since I was asked to look into this subject I’ve had the Huey Lewis And The News song running through my head… So, now that’s out of the way, what’s with all this square video and where can we find it?

I have, on occasion, been asked to put together specific edits for sharing on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. When I was first asked to do this, Instagram only supported the uploading of square video formats which was completely alien to me. After all, these days video should be 16:9, surely? Soon after, it was with some relief that I heard that Instagram had started supporting “proper” 16:9 video. And as for vertical video, well my blood begins to run cold…

However, the subject of editing square video has recently resurfaced for me. Last month I was asked by a client to help produce a series of social media videos that had to be square. They had been shot in 1080p HD, but needed to be uploaded to Facebook and Instagram in a square format.

The more I looked into this, the more I began to understand the reason: mainly that square video (and, to a lesser extent, vertical video) proves to be more engaging on mobile devices.

The format fits the Facebook news feed nicely as well as the Instagram grid view. It also means that viewers can enter full-screen playback without having to rotate their device to see the video at an optimum size. (I know, I know…)

In all seriousness though, in today’s reality where bank balances are increased through clicks and “likes”, this matter of engagement can make all the difference between whether a social media campaign is successful or not; and this makes your choice of aspect ratio an important consideration.

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This is likely to become a much more common request from clients too. As recent announcements from Facebook indicate, video is very much central to their future plans and the fact is that we’ll need to produce video that’s as engaging on a tablet, mobile, computer or TV screen at whichever orientation.

First Principles

Ok, so down to the detail. Let’s first assume that you’re not shooting square video. I think this is a fair assumption as most cameras are shooting video in 16:9 aspect at HD or UHD resolutions.

Of course, whilst apps such as FiLMic Pro do allow you to shoot a variety of aspect ratios including 1:1, it’s likely you’re working on a project that has a much wider use than just social media meaning that the edit that’ll appear on Facebook or Instagram is likely to be a teaser for the main feature on YouTube or Vimeo.

Alternatively, you may be shooting material than might need to be integrated into other projects at 16:9. As always, an understanding of what you’re trying to achieve in a wider sense will influence how to shoot something.

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One thing I would add here is that if you are shooting in conventional 16:9 aspect ratio and you think there is the possibility that you’ll need to produce a square version then you really need to frame shots a lot looser than you would normally.

The square aspect ratio is very tight and unforgiving and a nicely framed 16:9 shot tends not to sit comfortably in a 1:1 frame. Of course, this leaves us in the quandary of how best to frame any shot. In this case might shooting loose with a UHD resolution offer the best compromise for both 16:9 HD and 1:1 delivery?

So, assuming we’re working with 16:9 material, how best to work on a square video in Final Cut Pro X?

Sometimes you might be tempted to just crop an existing 16:9 edit to square. Sure, you can do this easily enough by setting up a Compressor preset. However, as a down-and-dirty solution it leaves much to be desired. Firstly, you may obviously lose some important action in the cropped area. Above all though, changing the aspect ratio will influence your editing, pacing and storytelling. Surely it’s best to work in the aspect ratio your audience will see? All of which means that, even if you’re taking an existing edit, there’s likely to be a bit of re-editing will be needed for the 1:1 aspect ratio.

Setting up a square project in Final Cut Pro is easy enough. Instead of choosing the automatic settings, go into the custom settings and switch the video format to custom. You’ll now be able to type in whichever resolution you want.

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I’ve been tending to choose 1080 x 1080 as this seems to be sensible size. As you’ll see later, you can still choose which resolution to share to. If you’re working mainly with UHD material, then I guess there’s an argument for 2160 x 2160.

However, just be aware of what happens to your video on your social media platform of choice: I’ve found whilst most will accept 1080 (albeit with a filesize limit and a maximum of 30fps), they are generally viewed at lower resolutions. No doubt this will change at some point in the future.

(Just for giggles I decided to see if FCP would let me create a project at a much higher resolution - 100,000 x 100,000 - and it did, although it crashed soon after! Nevertheless, I’ll take it as another nice example of how FCP seems to be future-proof for whatever resolution we may be working at in a few years….)

Unfortunately you can’t save project settings “presets” in FCP, so if you’re having to create more than one square project it might be best to duplicate new projects from an empty “master project” in your event. I’ve also found that FCP will ask you for the project settings if you use the automatic settings and add a square video first as it doesn’t recognise the video properties.

Spatial Conform

So, we’ve got a square project and, because we’ve specifically chosen the settings, we can start adding clips as we would normally. When we do this though, you’ll quickly notice that FCP keeps the original aspect ratio of the clips and leaving blank areas at the top on bottom. This is due to the Spatial Conform settings of each clip.

By default, when you add a clip to a project, FCP will automatically “resize” that clip to fit the project. So, whether you are working with UHD, HD or SD material, everything is conformed to fit the project settings in the best way. This is because, by default, every clip has its spatial conform set to “fit”.

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If we change the spatial conform for the clip(s) to “fill” then Final Cut Pro will make sure the video image fills the project frame size. Obviously we’re now losing a portion of the video off to the sides, but we can reframe the footage by using the X Position value in the Inspector if required.

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To Crop or Not to Crop?

I’m a huge fan of the cropping features in FCP X. Not only is it so easy to reframe a shot, but the quality of the results is astounding. I have managed to reframe shots in an insane way and whatever voodoo is employed behind the scenes it always gives great results. I’ve even used the Ken Burns setting on many video clips to add emphasis, it’s so useful!

Pressing SHIFT-C and switching from the standard trim setting to crop gives you an outline that you can use to reframe the shot. Just be careful not to go beyond the edges of your clip!

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This method of reframing your material has the added advantage that you can see what else is in the frame at the same time whilst maintaining the aspect ratio of your project.

However, there’s a gotcha… Use this technique instead of the spatial conform and/or scaling method. It appears that FCP applies all these settings together meaning if you’ve spatially conformed and/or scaled the clip and then cropped, you’ll get unexpected results (which nevertheless make sense). So if you’re using the crop technique, make sure spatial conform is set to fit and scale is reset to 100%.

Effects and Transitions

So far, so good. Apart from having to keep an eye on the framing, I’ve found editing in these square projects to be the same as editing a 16:9 aspect ratio. Of course, it’s also an opportunity to apply some heavy-duty “grading” for that true “Instagram” look!

I’ve found that the video effects in FCP X work as you expect them to, though because of the repositioning of the shot within the square project, some of the on-screen controls don’t display, because they are often defaulted to the anchor point of the clip, which you might not be viewing in your reframed view.

Generally, the same is also true of transitions. Most of them continue to work as expected, however I have noticed the occasional exception. For example, if you’re a fan of the Mosaic transition you’ll find when the transition starts the video reverts to displaying the full frame (as if the spatial conform for the transition is set to fit).

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I’ve found no straightforward way of overcoming this issue: there’re no settings in the transition control in the inspector and using compound clips doesn’t seem to help either. It would appear these are settings “baked in” to the transition which can’t be overcome - at least not unless you’re prepared to rebuild the transition in Motion (as this is one of the few transitions that can’t be opened in Motion.

I’ll let others take that pain for the team (Alex4D maybe?), and until then I’ll just be avoiding the transitions which don’t work in a square project. Sometimes the simplest solutions remain the best…

Titles

I’ve found the same caveat can be applied to Titles. As text on social media videos is currently all the rage because most people currently watch them without sound, it’s good to know that titles seem to generally work ok. There are a few companies that produce templates that have square video options, the just released XEffects Viral Video is one of those.

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The only thing I’d probably draw your attention to regarding titles is that I’ve noticed that if there’s any build in or out animation the timing tends to be a little off presumably because the title is built with a 16:9 project in mind and therefore the animation is taking this wider frame into account when it builds in and out.

This means you might need to adjust the start of the title in the timeline to start slightly earlier than you want it. Again, volunteers welcome if anyone wants to solve this issue too.

Sharing

And so on to actually getting this online and two approaches here would be to either create a video file that you would manually upload to your social media site, or upload directly from FCP X.

Whilst FCP X does have built-in support for uploading directly to Facebook, YouTube, etc., other social media sites such as Instagram don’t have this feature. So, let’s start by looking at outputting a square video that you can transfer to your phone or upload from your computer.

Firstly, this is easy and another example of the clever voodoo that underpins Final Cut Pro X. I initially thought I’d need to be creating custom Compressor presets for getting the right format. However, I was very pleased to notice that simply by going to Share > Master File the resolution automatically defaults to the square aspect ratio for the master .mov file!

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H.264 is often the recommended codec for uploading to many social media accounts. However, if you switch the Format option to “Computer” to create a .mp4 then you have additional options to adjust the resolution to 720 x 720, or lower. Check out the options for yourself. Whether you’re creating a .mov or .mp4, both file types can be Airdropped to your iPhone for uploading if required.

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With that in mind, the next piece of information should come as no surprise: if you’re used to uploading directly to Facebook from FCP X, then you can still continue to do so for your square videos, including choosing a lower (square) resolution from the settings.

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Using this option I’ve found that Final Cut Pro will upload a good quality file (approx. 10Mbps for a 1080 clip and 5Mbps for a 720 version). Of course, Facebook stamps on this with a 1080 clip streaming at about 1.5Mbps and a 720 clip at 750kbps.

What is interesting though is that if you upload a 1080 x 1080 video, the recompressing process retains the original resolution, whereas if you were to upload a standard 1920 x 1080 file, then it would recompress it to 1280 x 720. So, if there’s one compelling reason to preserve with square video, in the short term at least, then that’s probably it.

To demonstrate a quick test of this process, I uploaded a square video from Final Cut Pro X which you can view here.

 

*** UPDATE ***
Since this article was first published, it’s been highlighted on Twitter and in the comments here that your videos (square or otherwise) can be easily tweeted for the price of a decent coffee using VideoTweet by our friends at Arctic Whiteness.

Certainly, it would seem that Twitter has good support for displaying 16:9, 9:16 and 1:1 videos when viewing your feed in a browser, though thumbnails in mobile apps seem to default to 16:9 no matter what the aspect ratio of the uploaded original.

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C Roberts headshot

Chris Roberts is a freelance video producer, editor and trainer specialising in working with Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro CC. Apart from contributing to FCP.co, his greatest claim to fame is that he was at university with Matt Lucas.