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Editing an Indie Feature-doc While in a Bus Through Iran

Yes, I admit it, the title is kind of clickbait. But it is true, I did work a lot on the rough cut of our latest 76-minute music documentary while sitting in a bus for hours, travelling across Iran to our next filming location.

This edit-as-you-go workflow was necessary as you will read later and was only possible with the help of beloved FCPX (10.4). And yes, we also went “viral” at the end of 2020 when we reached 100,000 views on the final film within 2 weeks on YouTube and brought the project to success that way. But let me start from the beginning.

Based in Berlin, I have been a professional film and video editor for a long time now and already brought 3 feature-length (music) documentaries to festivals, cinemas, DVD and VOD alike. There were also some TV shows and broadcasts I did. I used to be a heavy FCP7 user and was reluctant to jump to X when it first came out in 2012.

Like with new OS versions, I gave it about a year to take a deep dive and change to a new workflow. Don’t get me wrong, like many others I was not amused at first. But the performance and ease of use kept me interested. To me, the big selling point was not only the one-time price, which still to date is the absolute fairest offer, but the native h264 support as well as intelligent way of mixing frame rates and resolutions – with documentaries you have this sort of issue all the time: some assets are archival, some are phone, some are RED RAW, others are h264 – all in different FPS and sizes.

And in terms of real non-linear editing (the magnetic timeline is your friend) it absolutely revolutionised and evolved the creative editing process: So, again, FCP was a big part of enabling this project.

What am I talking about? My latest feature-length ethnic music documentary “The Female Voice Of Iran” (a completely independent, partly crowdfunded venture), which I co-produced and edited, was in production for over 4 years and only came together in October 2019 when we spent a month travelling Iran – for the fifth time for some of the crew. Not me, I became part of the team later, when there had already been footage from the years before.

 

 

Speaking of YouTube, the whole thing started with two music festivals in Berlin, Germany, called “Female Voice Of Iran” (where I helped with filming) which became huge successes for both, press and audience (and later on YouTube) – while being completely non-political and “safe”, just transporting the beautiful music of Iran.

                               The team at EFM, from left to right Andreas Rochholl, Sebastian Leitner and Yalda Yazdani

You see, the thing is, that since the Islamic revolution it has been forbidden for women in Iran to sing in public. Or dance for that matter. Cultural life in general has been strongly limited for women. After the so-called “green revolution” many platforms like Facebook and YouTube got filtered or blocked even.

The only channel where female singers could publish their work was and still is Instagram.

The music festivals in Berlin were put together with such sensitive and caring fingers that everything went by smoothly, safely but with high emotional impact. One part of this was that the crew produced short portraits on every one of the 10 invited women each year to tell the story of their surroundings, backgrounds and situations. And this is why I said you get all kinds of mixed footage for documentaries: The crew produced 20 little portraits over the course of 4 years, using all kinds of different equipment.

When I watched all of those stories back to back, immediately the idea of a whole movie arose. I’m something like a “puristic” filmmaker. I’m really not about the gear, more about the (visual) storytelling and emotional components – which is what you care most about in montage, the editing process.

the team on the persian gulfThe team on the Persian Gulf

Also concerning the strict limitations and regulations you have when working in such countries and environments. You just cannot work like you would in the west.

Sometimes even a tripod is too much and looks too professional. You can get in trouble really quickly.

So in the end everything has to look touristic enough, to be left alone, to work on directing and filmmaking. Same goes for the sound: a large boom pole is a no-go. Or lights for that matter. So, you see, this is where the “puristic” filmmaker in me thrives: To use the tools at hand and still make a rich, quality movie, concentrating on the really important things: Not drones or gimbal shots, but people, their story and the right audio-visual message for it.

And FCP helped a lot, I think it even enabled this process because it does not get in the way of creativity but supports it.

One argument for this is the quick start of any project, the media management is all built-in. I just created a DCI 2K Flat 1998x1080 project in 24p – the smallest cinema standard and not 16:9 anymore. I do not understand why there is no preset by Apple for this?

Sebastien Leitner

Anyway, this is where the professional comes in and knows his way around: So I began dropping in the footage we already had from previous years and built a rough cut of many pillars of the movie long before even going to Iran to film the rest. I did this on my 2015 maxed-out iMac 5K, where I also use a Contour ShuttleXpress jog wheel, which I mainly use for play/pause, horizontal scrolling and timeline zooming.

All the material lived on a LaCie Rugged 1 TB HDD with Thunderbolt 2, which was joined by another one for the new material we shot in October 2019. On the road I brought by MacBook Pro, also from 2015, also maxed-out. So, only with FCP (still “X” back then) it was possible to really get the best performance and battery life. I had 2 hours to edit if there was no power outlet around.

iran travel map with most places we visitedIran travel map with most places we visited

So, I prepared 40% of the film in rough even before we started work on the actual story, so that we knew what we had. It’s a documentary and should tell the story not only about our protagonists but also our journeys and personal experiences – we wanted the process of bringing so many women from all over this vast country together to be the main part of the story, due to the strict regulations it’s something very rare and kind of “Impossible”.

FVOI poster

We knew whatever we would plan always has a high chance of being “impossible”, so staying flexible in both, concept and production was the key to this project. And FCP once again proved its partnership: When we finally had an idea of what we wanted to do and how (the logistics were very complex) I made sure I could revisit the rough cut (with many gaps) any time I wanted and add to it on the go. When we finally set of to Iran, I could add a small chapter every day, adapt the whole project, try things, scrap them, re-assemble or simple start somewhere new. And this is where we can connect to the title of this story: Yes, many parts were done in a bus, where we spent half a day sometimes.

Keeping the timeline fluent at all times meant: No 3rd party plugins and keeping source material on external drives. We also brought USB3 SSDs for backups and faster copy from SD cards, which usually happened with an extra, tiny device called a “FileHub”. After all, we had to travel as tourists to make sure everybody stays safe and we do not draw too much attention.

All the things I love about FCP came together nicely with this project. Using just the touchpad and shortcuts I could not only quickly but also accurately and at a very high quality assemble a rough cut, polishing audio, using ranges for “ducking”.

We mostly used a Sony a7s and a7s II together with the latest smallest companion RX0 II (if we needed to be really inconspicuous), with some older footage being shot on a 5D Mk III or even phones. 

travelling by train and our storyteller negar trains actually take longer than bussesOur storyteller Negar travelling by train. Trains actually take longer than busses

As a professional cinema mastering supervisor I knew how to set up the picture profiles within the cameras and how to post-process the footage. We used a special* custom rec709 LUT which recovered most of the highlights and bringing out skin tones, because we shot at lot outside, in the desert or the mountains where you have to make quick choices of exposure.

The “filmic” look came mostly from my final color correction touches – I did not really dive into grading since the material was all 8 bit 4:2:0 HD only but I did add some things from the editor’s bag of tricks to improve many shots and make them work together, even if they were shot with years apart in time. I used the “highpass sharpen” filter from Motion ported to FCP** which works better than the FCP-native “sharpening” to my eyes.

Our cameras had internal details set to near 0 for better visual quality. I also basically (slightly!) stabilised 50% of the film with FCP’s native algorithms, due to the many handheld shots and often rudimentary, quick decisions on set (keep in mind the a7s series does feature quite good stabilization already). Remember, we also could not bring a professional tripod with a fluid head. On some shots I did use another algorithm during final cut and finishing, which was Crumplepop’s Better Stabilizer, which worked on shots where FCP struggled.

(Click for larger images, double click for pixel for pixel)

full film in simple projectFull film in simple project

So, we now arrived at the point where we are back in Berlin and working on the final cut, polishing phase and, again, many new creative choices. Apple added noise reduction so I could immediately apply it to many clips which needed it. It’s worth mentioning that it was very easy to transition from MacBook to iMac, I cloned the drives and picked work up where I left off. Relinking was quick and painless, I prepared well and all clips had unique file names and a clear folder structure.

I love that FCP reflects that by automatically creating smart keywords for folder names. So I could immediately jump to specific days and go back in production history easily.

I sync all of my libraries witch Google Drive, they are skeleton libraries, meaning they do not carry any of the render or cache files. This way, I can always choose which machine to edit on, given I have the source material on a disk with me, which has proven vital over the past few years.

streamlined library without anything but projectsStreamlined library without anything but projects

Thanks to the great optimization of mac systems and FCP itself I never needed proxy files or render/optimize anything for that matter. Also not on the MacBook Pro.

I also have the fantastic CommandPost to tweak a few things with FCP. Apart from that we used X2Pro of course to prepare and create an AAF for further, professional sound mix (in 5.1). But I could already delivery a good sounding movie within the rough cut stage by just using FCP, lanes, ranges, EQ, reverbs and, yes: iZotope RX7. Like being a puristic filmmaker, I’m also a puristic editor and like to keep my projects as simple and easy to “read” as possible. That way adjustments and clean versions etc are a lot easier and safer to do.

full film in simple project with audio lanesFull film in simple project with audio lanes

The master export was ProRes HQ for further cinema processing (which I did in Davinci Resolve Studio). We had the luck and honor to have an internal, for industry guests only, premiere at EFM of Berlinale – We became part of EuroArt’s catalogue for global TV sales shortly before (because they also have my previous film Cairo Jazzman).

So when the second COVID wave emerged (what we all anticipated) we decided to do the right thing in terms of our mission: Bringing East and West closer, building bridges and connect people. We have built a strong following and network over the years on Instagram (mainly in the East), Facebook and YouTube (both mainly in the West), that’s why we successfully raised 10.000 € via crowdfunding for the whole process of post production. Building on this very following, the decision to release the film for free into the world on YouTube (which Iranians use with a VPN on a daily basis) was definitely the right choice. We did not monetise it but started a countdown 10 days before, constantly posting content like photos or clips. So many people from all around the globe already shared our promotions and were excited about the release.

We wanted 2020 to end with a strong, positive signal and also with the message that there is still many other things going on – nevertheless, let’s not give up hope.

Together with 600 people from all around the world we watched the film live as a YouTube premiere for the very first time, the chat was filling up with lots of love and happiness. 600 people, more than we could have ever had in a cinema during a pandemic, meant the premiere was a huge success. And once again we felt that we really touched people’s (and our) hearts again. With all the struggle and work that goes into a project like this – remember, all of us did this without official funding or help – it was very satisfying.

                               All protagonists and crew in the garden

We have around 3K hits per day, many many comments and still people are sharing our efforts on all platforms, encouraging people to watch. You see, even in Iran, many do not know these voices, because there has not been a platform or general promotion. We did our best to make a positive, music and life-driven film, together with our Iranian team members and friends. After all we became very close and want the world to experience these magical stories and voices.

Notable mentions: I also want to give credit to some addons that helped me many times, also with some scenes of this project. I find myself using all kinds of tricks from Idustrial Revolution's XEffects Toolkit and Ripple Tools Complete, as well as Dashwood Smooth Skin (discontinued but still working great) which are all on FxFactory. And Tap5a presets/titles (free via youtube) became part of the mix as well. There are also some mDust (motionVFX) elements.

Of course with a project like this, subtitles and captions are vital. You will see that our translations became part of the movie, of our particular style. We want people to understand content but still look into someone’s eyes. We deliberately did not translate songs, because emotions are universal and we are not keen on plain “information”.

We had many different languages and dialects to deal with and all interviews had to first be transcribed from mainly Farsi into English for me to work on. There was also Kurdish, Azari, Turkmen and Arabic. I ended up working on timecoded printed out paper first, highlighting the paragraphs I wanted, putting them back together. There are many languages which do not auto-translate/transcribe well. The meaning is so sensitive often and can be interpreted in many ways. You needed to know the person to really understand and also to find a safe way to translate it, with great care and thought (sometimes leaving out things to reduce the message to a simple minimum but still keeping it truthful) to not create any problems for our protagonists anytime after – words can be deceitful.

the SRT languages we started the premiere withThe SRT languages we started the premiere with

So FCP’s easy and great subtitle options which came with 10.4 really helped. But we first did our English version, which features rendered title animations as translations (a creative choice) and then used my favourite tool X-Titles (Spherico, Andreas Kiel) to extract all titles into subtitles and a SRT. We had many contributors who wanted to help telling these stories so we handed them the English SRT to translate into many more languages which can now be switched on/off on YouTube.

FCP also makes it easy to quickly build a so-called “clean” version, meaning switching off any titles or texts for broadcasters (language versions).

*Special custom-made LUT: (Free)_by_IWLTBAP.zip (The “optimized V2” in folder “cube/utility/divers”)

**Highpass Sharpening in Motion (Get the ported version to FCP from the files of the FB group.

Cairo Jazzman official website with trailer and VOD.
The Female Voice Of Iran official website with trailer and free full film.
Sebatian's personal website for SLFILM media. 

Copyright for all images: Zeitgenössische Oper Berlin

 


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“I love telling stories on a larger scale, film has to entertain and should not simply be "art" in my eyes."

I studied Applied Physics at University of Vienna but are now located in Berlin (Germany), where I work as a professional freelance film and video editor, teacher, director and cinema mastering supervisor. My debut feature “Noseland”, a music mockumentary w. John Malkovich & Roger Moore, premiered at KVIFF, Karlovy Vary in 2012 – also awarded “Most Entertaining Documentary” in the US the same year. It got me NOMINATED for “BEST EDITING” at IFF Madrid in 2012. I was again nominated for it in 2017 for “Cairo Jazzman”, my second music docu-feature, which premiered at RIFF, Rotterdam in 2017.

www.sebastianleitner.com (SLFILM media)

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slfilm's Avatar
slfilm replied the topic: #111509 15 Dec 2020 14:40
drop a comment if you have more questions! hopefully i see them in time!
Ben Balser's Avatar
Ben Balser replied the topic: #111551 17 Dec 2020 13:44
Great article! Thanks for sharing your experineces.