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Post Production on “What Happened, Miss Simone?” An Oscar Nominated Documentary Edited on Final Cut Pro X

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Not only did 'What Happened, Miss Simone" open the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, it's also on the nominee list to win the best documentary feature at the 2016 Oscars. The editor, Joshua L Pearson and Tim Moyle, the assistant editor tell FCP.co about how the film was edited on FCPX with special emphasis on managing and keywording a lot of archive.

 

Joshua L. Pearson is an editor at Outpost Digital in New York City and jumped on to Final Cut Pro X during the early days of its development. He was the editor on the 2016 Oscar nominated feature documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” about the life of the American singer, songwriter and civil rights activist, Nina Simone. He has written up a short overview of his experience using Final Cut Pro X on such a massive project:

Before we hear from Joshua, let's take a look a the trailer.

 

 

 

I was honored to work with director Liz Garbus on the documentary film “What Happened, Miss Simone?”, but I was a little intimidated by the prospect of wrapping my head around a massive collection of Nina’s music, archival clips of her performances, and most intriguingly, about 40 hours of never-before-heard audiotape recordings of Nina telling her own life story. But I quickly discovered that the organisational features of Final Cut Pro X really accelerated the early stages of the 9-month edit.

I had used FCP X before on a few short form projects and was already familiar with its basic functionalities and I enjoy editing with it — it is smooth and quick. But I had yet to fully dig in to the keyword collection paradigm and now was my chance. One great thing was how my assistant, Tim Moyle, had already prepared multiple keyword collections for each archival clip and music track, so that I could easily at a glance find something by date, by place, or by genre. If I wanted to see all the album tracks and archival performance clips from 1967, it was one click away. Conversely, I could see only the album tracks or only the archival performances. 

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We shot about 18 hours of interviews with her intimate circle of friends, including her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly (an executive producer of the film) and her guitarist of over 40 years, Al Schackman. These interviews were then sorted into keyword collections based on certain life milestones and stories common to all the interviews. For instance, a keyword collection like “civil rights beginnings” would instantly present to me all the clips of everyone talking about Nina’s initiation into the civil rights activism that eventually took over her life.

Included in these keyword collections were Nina’s own stories. Over the years she had worked with 3 or 4 different journalists to help her write her autobiography, and all of these conversations were recorded on tape recorders or dictaphones. We had exclusive access to these amazing recordings and they too were sorted into keyword collections of her life, like “Nina goes to Africa” and “Nina on abuse”. Of course, the quality of the recordings was very often quite poor and that’s where the incredibly quick and easy audio enhancements of FCP X helped a huge amount to clean it up in the offline edit sessions. I was able to very quickly and easily apply compression, noise reduction and EQ. 

Overall I would say that the metadata features of FCP X made the sorting and editing of Nina Simone’s life a very smooth and quick process, getting us to a rough assembly very quickly, and allowing us more time to explore bigger structural explorations of the film as the edit continued.

Tim Moyle is a former computer programmer who transitioned into the post-production world five years ago. He was recently the lead assistant editor on the fifth season of Oprah's Master Class on the OWN Network and is currently the assistant editor on a documentary to be released in 2017. Tim Moyle was the assistant editor on the Nina Simone project and had this to say about prepping the edit and then handling the turnovers for sound and color grading:

“What Happened, Miss Simone?” was largely driven by the huge amount of archival concert video, television appearances, publicity stills and scanned personal photos and documents that the archivists had collected. They maintained a detailed database with metadata about the assets. I created custom metadata fields in FCP X and wrote a Python script to convert our existing database records into FCPXML (the XML metadata format for FCP X) and then matched the records with the low resolution files on our SAN. I imported these FCPXML files into FCP X and applied keywords to the all the footage. We grouped keywords into folders such as "People" or "Year" or "Songs", so that way we would have multiple ways to view the material.

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Using Compressor is the standard workflow for conforming archival material at Outpost Digital. We conformed it all in Compressor to bring it to a standard ProRes 422 HQ, 1080p at 23.98 fps and then brought it into FCP X. We ended up getting so much archival in different frame sizes and frame rates and wanted the flexibility to choose between Nearest Frame/ Motion Adaptive/ Motion Compensated retiming while preserving duration.  We also had some videos come in with strange pixel aspect ratios and Compressor let us fine tune these to the standard 1920 x 1080. 

We approached all the footage on a clip-by-clip basis in an attempt to preserve the quality while conforming to 23.98 fps. One of our edge cases was some gorgeous footage from a filmmaker who worked in North Carolina in the 1930s, H. Lee Waters. He shot lots of silent footage in African-American neighbourhoods that we used to illustrate Nina's childhood. The footage was shot at 18 frames per second and, on top of that, some if it also needed to be time-stretched.

We used Optical Flow quality for a lot of time-stretched retiming in FCP X and it worked really well. We would often conform archival material in Compressor, cut it into FCP X, apply Optical Flow and render that speed change out of FCP X as a new clip.  We did color in DaVinci Resolve and VFX and online in Autodesk Smoke, so that was the best workflow to make sure that what the editor and director had seen in the offline edit carried all the way into the final deliverable. 

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The Ken Burns effect ended up being the trickiest effect to work with since there aren't any controls to allow you to fine-tune the starting and ending points, just the red-and-green-rectangle in the onscreen controls. This was a particular problem when we received the masters for the stills, which often came in at different dimensions than our proxy and meant having to re-create the move as closely as we could.  We cut Oprah’s Master Class in FCP X also, but our workflow there was different. The moves on stills were done by a graphics artist in another application so the difficulties didn't apply.  

I had been diligent about applying roles to all of the material as I imported it, which helped to reduce the amount of time to organize audio for our sound mixer. I used Marquis X2Pro to generate an AAF which worked perfectly ProTools for the final mix.

Once I conformed all of the archival in Compressor and cut it back into the timeline, I exported an FCPXML to import into Resolve for the final color grade.

Going in we definitely had some concerns on how FCP X would work in delivering a feature-length, archival-heavy documentary, but we were pleasantly surprised with how well FCP X fit into our standard post-production workflow.

 

We wish Joshua and the team the best of luck for The Oscars on February the 28th 2016.

 

 

 


Written by
Top Blogger Thought Leader

I am the Editor-in-Chief of FCP.co and have run the website since its inception ten years ago.

I have also worked as a broadcast and corporate editor for over 30 years, starting on one inch tape, working through many formats, right up to today's NLEs.

Under the name Idustrial Revolution, I have written and sold plugins for Final Cut Pro for 13 years.

I was made a Freeman of Lichfield through The Worshipful Company of Smiths (established 1601). Though I haven't yet tried to herd a flock of sheep through the city centre!

Current Editing

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2020 has been busy, the beginning of the year was finishing off a new property series (cut on FCP) for Channel 4 called The Great House Giveaway. I also designed and built the majority of the graphics as Motion templates. It has been a great success and the shows grabbed more viewers in the 4pm weekday slot than any previous strand. It has been recommissioned by C4 for 60 episodes, including prime-time versions and five themed programmes. The shows have also been nominated for a 2021 BAFTA.

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Although both were postponed to later in the year, I worked again on ITV's coverage of the Tour de France and La Vuelta. 2020 was my 25th year of editing the TdF and my 20th year as lead editor. The Tour was the first broadcast show to adopt FCPX working for multiple editors on shared storage.

 

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BBC's Snooker has played a big part in my life, I've been editing tournament coverage since 1997. I'm proud to be part of a very creative team that has pioneered many new ideas and workflows that are now industry standard in sports' production. This is currently an Adobe Premiere edit.

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Covid cancelled some of the regular corporate events that I edit such as trade shows & events. I was lucky however to edit, from home, on projects for Amazon Kindle, Amazon Black Friday, Mastercard and very proud to have helped local charitable trust Kendall & Wall secure lottery funding.

As for software, my weapon of choice is Final Cut Pro and Motion, but I also have a good knowledge and broadcast credits with Adobe Premiere Pro, MOGRT design and Photoshop.

Plugin Design & Development

I'm the creative force behind Idustrial Revolution, one of the oldest Final Cut Pro plugin developers. It hosts a range of commercial and free plugins on the site. One free plugin was downloaded over a thousand times within 24 hours of release.

I also take on custom work, whether it is adapting an existing plugin for a special use or designing new plugins for clients from scratch. Having a good knowledge of editing allows me to build-in flexibility and more importantly, usability.

FCP.co

Now in its 10th year and 4th redesign, running FCP.co has given me knowledge on how to run a large CMS- you are currently reading my bio from the database! Although it sounds corny, I am pretty well up on social media trends & techniques, especially in the video sector. The recent Covid restrictions has enabled live FCP.co shows online. This involves managing a Zoom Webinar through Restream.io to YouTube and Facebook. 

The Future

I'm always open to new ideas and opportunities, so please get in touch at editor (at) fcp.co. I've judged film competitions, presented workflow techniques to international audiences and come up with ideas for TV shows and software programs!

 

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