How does Final Cut Pro X perform when it comes to editing a comedy web series? Michael Hadley from Screen D'Or Pictures tells us about his workflow on Knights of New Jersey and how FCPX was the best choice of NLE.
When it came time to cut Knights of New Jersey, a new comedy web series, there was never any question as to the NLE we would use: FCPX.
At Screen D’Or Pictures, our video production company, we were early X adopters, having made the transition from FCP 7 to X about 6 months after it launched in 2011. Since then, we’ve cut hundreds of projects on it—mainly corporate, commercial and non-profit projects for clients ranging from Fortune 500 behemoths to local hospitals.
We’ve weathered the storm of post-launch X criticism and come to really appreciate its strengths, including an array of third-party plugins that we’ve come to see as essential to out workflow. CoreMelt, Color Finale, Neat Video, CrumplePop, MotionVFX, FCPeffects, Alex4D are in use on a daily basis. And of course, we’ve come to rely on fcp.co for insight, advice and practical tips, having become a member way back in 2011 (under the user name Screendor).
Is X perfect? No. Do we wish there was better/easier integration with the outside world, especially when it comes to audio mixing, yes? Do we continually look over our shoulder at Premiere Pro? Yes. But all that said, for our needs, a small video production company with two full-blown edit systems, X is pretty darn good—and our first and only choice to cut Knights of New Jersey.
Knights takes the viewer behind-the-scenes at the fictional Arden Dale Renaissance Faire. We get a close-up look at the daily grind endured by a group of performers, from clashes with Game of Thrones cosplayers to the petty politics of the Lord Mayor’s entourage. Despite a series of increasingly painful humiliations and mishaps, these friends pursue a world of make believe where virtues like courage, honor and leadership are real.
Episode 1: The Mother of Dragons
The initial three-episode story arc was shot over the course of a single weekend in late October. The shooting schedule was aggressive to say the least, with twenty-six pages of script, 10 speaking parts, a dozen extras, period costumes and a crew of 15. And the fact that we were shooting exteriors meant that we were limited to 12-hour days—once the sun went down, that was it. Additional b-roll footage had previously been captured during two shoots at Renaissance faires in New York and Pennsylvania.
Working with DP Peter Trilling, we decided that a two-camera, mostly hand-held approach would help us move quickly and give us maximum coverage for the edit. We are both big fans of the HBO show Veep, and the loose, cutty style they employed was something we sought to emulate. Also, I’m a firm believer that when it comes to comedy, reaction shots and cutaways are critical to adjust the timing and emphasis of the humor, and this approach served us well.
Since our primary outlet is the web, we agreed that HD 1080 would work for the project. Canon C300s were the main A and B cameras (with a Canon 5D added for a couple of scenes). Given that we knew we were going to have to deal with shifting lighting situations, we shot in C-Log, to give us a bit more latitude during the day, and a bit more exposure as the sun started to diminish.
Actors were on wireless mics with a boom used as well, and a stereo split running to both cameras. Audio Recordist Mike O’Brien also ran an 8-track WAV file with matching time code, and those separate audio tracks proved vital once we got into the edit room.
Dual Canon C300s were used to capture the shoot.
Dailes were off loaded to Lacie ruggedized 1TB hard drives in the field, and then brought back to the edit suite to begin the post-production process. The Canon MXF files were imported and rewrapped to Pro Res files via FCPX, with all media stored on an external Promise Pegasus R2 8 TB drive, connected to a 2013 6-core Xeon E5 Mac Pro Tube, with 32 GB of RAM.
For back up, we use Carbon Copy Cloner and clone to an 8 TB CalDigit drive. Back ups happen at the end of every session. And once or week or so, the project is also cloned to a 3 TB G-Drive—just for that extra bit of safety.
Audio is monitored via a set of 8” M-Audio speakers, and an Apple 27” Thunderbolt display and a 23” Apple Cinema display are used for coloring and grading. The majority of our work is non-broadcast so we do not use an external video box and high-end grading monitor. Have agonized over this for years but the truth is, for non-broadcast work there really is no specific standard we can grade to and we and are clients are quite happy with the results we achieve. We do however spend a lot of time with X’s built in scopes to make sure blacks are in the right place, skin tones are correct, etc.
In any case, the first order of business was creating multicam clips from the two camera sources and the 8-channel audio wave files. FCPX excels in this area (and in multicam in general) and once the files were properly tagged with the right scene numbers, creating and syncing the multicam clips was easy. Next, keywords and scene numbers were added to clips and the edit could begin.
The basic edit rig consisted of a 2013 Mac Pro Tube, Promise Pegasus Thunderbolt drive, m-Audio speakers and two Apple monitors. And of course, the standing desk and stool combo—gotta have them.
From there, it was time to get down and dirty with the footage. Reviewing, selecting, playing one option against another. As mentioned above, the shoot had to move at a lightning pace and we didn’t have a script/continuity person—so there were definitely some issues that had to be dealt with and the edit decisions were sometimes driven by the practical considerations of making sure everything cut together smoothly. (Another reason why two-camera coverage was super helpful).
We did have the advantage of rehearsals with our extremely talented cast prior to the shoot to work out basic blocking and movement, and there was never a situation we weren’t able to cut our way out of in terms of making sure we got the best aspects of the performance we wanted and making sure everything cut smoothly.
As the writer-director and now editor of the project, I was of course extremely familiar with the material, so there wasn’t a need to use extensive keywording of the takes—which is one of X’s strengths. However, the audio track is densely layered and roles were quite helpful in keeping everything organized. Sound effects and music tracks were sourced from a variety of online resources, including pond5.com, istockphoto.com, and audiojungle.net.
Once the cut was in good shape, it was time to move on to finishing—my favorite part of the edit because all of the heavy lifting is done. Plus, it was exciting to see the footage emerge from the muddy, bland C-Log look and into the light of day of a properly graded shot.
But here’s the thing about log and LUTS and FCPX. For reasons unknown, I’ve never found the standard rec709 LUTS to be helpful. At least in C-Log, they tend to super crush the blacks and blow out the highlights—yuck. So I don’t bother with adding a LUT to the footage from the outset. Instead, I build my look from the ground up as normal.
Starting with basic color correction—and here let me give a shout out to Color Finale from Color Grading Central. The basic correction was applied to the individual shots within each multicam clip. Once that was done throughout, it was time for creating a look, which was applied on top of the clip via an adjustment layer.
Depending on the shot and the scene, this involved adding a look from CrumplePop’s ColorKit looks or Color Grading Central’s Luster Grade Presets (just a smidge). If it was a beauty close up, I would also add a light vignette via SliceX from CoreMelt. Also, everything got a dose of sharpening from X’s built-in sharpen filter. The C300 is a decent camera, but I find a little sharpening is helpful throughout.
Kurt Smith as Sir Robert and Mackenzie Lansing as Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons, in a split screen that shows the importance of color grading to the story we were trying to tell.
One new plug-in we used on this project was the denoiser from Neat Video. As mentioned, this was an available light shoot and once the sun started to set, we started to run out of photons at the end of each. Have to say that Neat Video really saved our bacon. Yes, because we shot in C-Log we were able to tweak exposure in the edit to get things where we needed them. But the grain was intolerable—much too noisy to cut well with other footage. The Neat plug in is actually super easy to use, and the automatic settings generally suffice. Even better, you can customize and add a bit more sharpening, which really helps in those very low-light situations.
The last shot of the day—rescued in post, thanks to C-Log and Neat Video.
For the opening title sequence, we made extensive use of two templates from MotionVFX. We’ve used their plugins on tons of our corporate and commercial work and always found their stuff to be terrific so it was natural to consider them when it came time to get creative with opening credits.
For a couple of other unusual situations we relied heavily on CoreMelt plugins. We had used TrackX recently on a couple of videos for MasterCard, and knew how easy it was to track graphics into moving shots. For a shot in the opening scene of Knights, we filmed an actual wooden sign at one of the locations, and did a slow pan through it, knowing that we wanted to comp in a new sign to be created later. Using the fiverr.com web site, we hired a graphic designer for $20 to create a custom logo for our fictional Arden Dale Renaissance Faire. Using CoreMelt’s TrackX plugin, we were able to composite the fake sign into our real footage and it worked perfectly (you can see the results at :40 in on the first episode).
In a couple of slow motion shots, we also used CoreMelt’s Sharpen Shape Mask to track the eyes of our actress as she moves through the screen. It’s a minor detail but having the tools available and easy to use enables you to really improve the look of your project.
At present, we’ve just launched the initial episode on YouTube and Facebook, with the others to follow shortly. In the meantime, we’ve created multiple versions for entry into a dozen (and counting) film and TV festivals. The reaction from our audience has been terrific and our goal is to secure funding to produce additional episodes later this year. In the meantime, put this down as another win for FCPX and the plugin ecosystem. In my book, X is indeed the Faire-est NLE of them all.
Mike Hadley is a partner at Screen D’Or Pictures, a New Jersey-based video production company, serving corporate, commercial and non-profit clients. You can follow the continuing exploits of Knights of New Jersey at @KnightsofNJ1 and the Knights of New Jersey YouTube Channel.