FCP X: What do we do now?

So at the moment, FCP X is pretty much a disaster. Lots of people are saying that it will get better, but for now I could never make a movie with it. That’s not being elitist or anything, it’s just a tool that I can’t use. Maybe it will get to a point where we can use FCP X, but for now I’m working under the assumption that FCP 7 is the end of the line for me.

Now, I just upgraded to FCP 7 a couple weeks before the release of FCP X, and I’m feeling pretty clever about that. But it also points out an important thing. We don’t always have to use top-of-the-line software to edit. I tend not to work under crazy deadlines, so things like 32-bit rendering and lack of multicore support are more minor annoyance than workflow killer. If I can bring videos files in, convert them to a nice codec, edit them, and then export in several different ways, including OMF, then I’m very happy.

So I’m not here to complain about FCP X. Maybe it will end up being awesome. At the moment I worry about little things like having to trick it into doing audio and video transitions separately but maybe the world is changing and I won’t be the cool kid who know how all the software works anymore. I’ll be using FCP 7 until it stops being useful to me then I’ll try something else. I want to explore the other options I’ve ignored for so long because FCP was so good.

First up is Avid. Avid has really stepped up its game in the past few years. They’ve put out a ton of releases, and most importantly for me, they’ve started limited support for 3rd party I/O hardware. Cost has always been my biggest problem with Avid. I know it works great, but I just don’t have the money for a $5,000 Mojo DX. I’m using a $200 Blackmagic Intensity Pro right now, and it does absolutely everything I need. Avid doesn’t support any Blackmagic cards, but the $450 Matrox MXO2 Mini they currently support is a fair deal. The great thing about Avid is DNxHD, which is just as wonderfully simple as ProRes, and it’s freely available, which will become important as we look at other options.

I experimented with Adobe Premiere back in college, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It wasn’t quite as confusing as iMovie, but it immediately turned me off. In the meantime, Adobe has totally overhauled the program, and it is by many accounts a great program. I’ve always considered it a bit of a joke, but considering that it already comes with the Production Premium suite, a lot of places I work already own it. And it works with all the same hardware FCP does. I’m anxious to try a small project with it to see how things turn out. It seems like a poor-man’s FCP 7, but a very rich man’s FCP X. It’s written in modern code, and fully takes advantage of the power of our modern computers, but it also looks and feels like a regular editing program. What it doesn’t have is a ProRes or DNxHD. If you already have FCP on your computer, you can use ProRes, but that’s not something we can rely on indefinitely. It seems like DNxHD would be the best choice, since you’ve long been able to install Avid codecs on any computer separately from the Avid software.

The wild card I started thinking about this week is Lightworks. It has a long history, with long-time Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker being the most prominent of the fancy-pants editors who use it. I talked with her assistant about it a couple years ago and he was actually using FCP to do a lot of supplemental work, because Lightworks was missing some of the fancy new HD features FCP could handle at the time. It was recently turned in to open source software, although the full source code hasn’t been released yet. The price of $0 is hard to beat. They plan to update it with a lot of the things that I would like to see in an editing software, including support for the fancy codecs I like so much. I’m going to download it and try it out soon, and I will report back on my impressions. At the moment it only runs on Windows, which is a big scary thing for some people, but I for one would welcome a return to Windows. The only reason I switched to Mac OS was for FCP, but with that out of the picture, all the major programs are available for either platform.

I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson recently, that counting on a single company to supply all of our needs is foolish. I’ve even seen some rumblings online that Apple might abandon the Mac Pro. Without the expansion slots and huge processing power of the Mac Pro, you’re left with the future promise of Thunderbolt, which sounds pretty cool, but leaves out decades of legacy connectors only available through PCI Express slots, like Fiber, SCSI, SAS, etc. and we can’t all just go out and buy new storage solutions every couple years. What we can definitely be flexible about is software. Software is cheap, and the more of it we know, the better off we’ll be.

Not Yet!

Tips for Double System Audio in FCP

These days you can record great on-camera audio on many cameras. But there are lots of reasons to still record audio separately even if it’s just a backup. Today I’ll be discussing workflows that only use separate audio recording; the classic double system film workflow.

Start by finding all the visual slates. This is pretty easy. Open the clip, scan through the beginning until you see the clapper hit. If the 2nd AC has read my post on slating, then it will be simple.

Not Yet!Not Yet!

There's the SlateThere’s the slate. Mark an in point (“i” on the keyboard) for most slates, or an out point (“o” on the keyboard) if it’s a tail slate. While you’re at it, fill in some metadata. When you’re at this frame you can easily see the Scene and Take number, so fill those in in the appropriate columns of the bin. A brief description will be very helpful too.

Once you’ve marked all the visual slates and filled in the metadata, move on to the audio. FCP makes this really easy by displaying the waveform in the viewer. Slates are pretty obvious.

Mark the first frame of the slate (the sound lasts for a couple frames) with an in point. If it’s a tail slate, mark the first frame with an out point. Fill in the appropriate metadata. Usually you’ll just need Scene and Shot/Take, which the 2nd AC should say clearly right before the marker.

(UPDATE: This part does not appear to work in FCP 7) Now, most tapeless cameras include at least two audio tracks in their files by default. P2 cameras seem to go with 4 as a general habit. This makes things nice and easy when you’re using the on-camera audio. But, for double system audio those tracks can get in the way. If you want to get rid of those extraneous audio tracks, select all of the video clips you plan to sync up and make them offline by choosing “Modify/Make Offline…” from the menu or hitting shift+D on the keyboard. A dialog box will pop up. This is important:

DO NOT DELETE OR MOVE THEM TO THE TRASH!!!! Leave Them on the Disk. All we’re doing here is breaking the link between the clips in the bin and the media file on disk. We’re going to need these files later if we want to edit with them. Hit OK and you’ll have a bin full of offline clips:

Notice in the last row (Tracks) we have “1V, 2A” listed for all the clips. We want to only see “1V” because that’s all we want to work with. Select the clips again and choose “Modify/Clip Settings…” from the menu. Uncheck the “Audio” check box like this:

Hit OK and you’ll see that the “2A” has disappeared from all our clips.

Now, the clips should still be selected, so just choose “File/Reconnect Media…” and Locate the media files on disk. You’ll get a warning about a File Attribute Mismatch

but you already knew that. We changed the number of tracks on purpose, right? So click Continue and then Connect. The files will reconnect and you should see this:

Now you’re ready to sync. Move your audio clips into the same bin as the video clips and sort by Scene by clicking on the Scene header in the bin, with a secondary Shot/Take sort. Hold down shift before clicking on a the header to do a secondary sort. If all your metadata matches, you’ll get nice pairs of clips lined up like this:

Selected one video and one audio clip (hold down shift or ⌘ to select multiple clips) and click Modify/Merge Clips… To save time I assign Merge Clips to the ⌘+Y keyboard shortcut. You can’t assign it to an unmodified keyboard command like just plain Y because that would unselect your clips and select the next clip in a bin that starts with a Y. However you do it, the Merge Clips command will bring up this dialog box:

Choose “in points” and hit OK. The Timecode options are for working with jammed timecode or smart slates. I’ve found that smart slates often drift and that syncing up manually like this is more accurate. Your mileage may vary. If you have jammed TC, you don’t need most of this tutorial. In the case of tail slates you’ll use “out points.”

Go through each pair of clips you want to sync and Merge them. You’ll get a third clip with ” Merged” tacked on to the end of the video clip’s name. This is what you’ll edit with.

Kyle Slates Cheech & Chong's Hey Watch This

How to Slate a Movie

I’ve worn a lot of hats in my filmmaking career. I’ve been a script supervisor, data wrangler, post-production supervisor, assistant editor, editor, title designer, and every once in a while I’ve had to slate.

I rather enjoy slating, because later on when I sync up the movie, I know I’ll have quality slates.

I don’t always get quality slates. If you’re slating a movie, here are a few tips to make the editors happier:

Start with the slate in the frame, clapper raised, before the camera rolls.
The first frame of the shot should look a lot like the one above. While the shot is setting up, pay attention to what is actually in frame so you know where to put the slate. On a wide shot like the one above, it’s pretty easy to nail, but in a close-up on a long lens you might need the camera operator to help you find the spot. A slate without the slate in frame is not a slate. And you might need a rack focus. An out of focus slate is not nearly as helpful as one in focus, especially if it’s a smart slate. And you shouldn’t put a slate in an actor’s nose, so it’s a lot easier to find a focus mark for the slate and then rack to the first position for the scene.

Clearly say the shot and take number, then “marker.”
Make sure there is a microphone near you. Just like the camera might need to change focus, the boom operator might need to swing over to you. And don’t say letters. Say words. 24A take 3 is “Twenty-Four Apple Take Three… Marker.” Don’t feel embarrassed if you don’t know the standard codes for letters. You can be creative.

Hold the slate steady as you push the clapper down.
I’ve seen many slates where the slate is moving as it claps, which blurs the whole thing so much that you just have to guess where the mark is. Be careful. Plant your feet. Use two hands. And don’t just let it drop. Push it down. On the other hand, you don’t want to smash it a few inches from an actor’s ears, so you can push it down softly. In that case, say “soft sticks” so the editors know not to listen for a huge click.

If you mess up the first slate, say “Second Sticks.”
There are a lot of things to deal with when syncing a movie, and it can be hard to find the right slate if there’s more than one. If you did the first one out of frame and then re-adjusted to get it right, or if the sound wasn’t recording yet, it’s a quick and easy way to let the editors know.

Sync up a movie yourself.
Nothing teaches you how to slate better than wading through hundreds of bad slates trying to fit all the pieces together.

Back it Up!

My soccer coach always said Expect The Unexpected. I swear to God he also once said there is no “me” in team.

In general, hard drives don’t fail during the first few years of their lives. As long as they stay under normal operating conditions they’re pretty reliable. But they’re also delicate and fragile machines spinning around at intense speeds. Stuff goes wrong. So if your masters are data based and not tape or film, you better be prepared.

Last night I came home with the first dailies from a new movie on a portable hard drive from Glyph. I’ve had great experiences with their drives. I like the little leather cases on the Portagigs and I love the standard power cables on the fullsize ones. But last night when I tried to copy the dailies to my editing drive, on ten of the files, I consistently got a -36 error, unable to read or write to the disk. I got a little worried, but I wasn’t extremely concerned because I had a backup.

Whenever I work on a movie shot on cards (which is pretty much all of them now) I always insist on transferring to at least two drives. Sometimes I do three. Drives are cheap. Re-shooting a whole day is not. This morning I went back to set and copied the files from the backup drive to the one I had brought home. It worked fine. Notice I didn’t have the backup with me. Another important step is to physically separate your backups. If you drop your bag in front of a subway train, all that backing up won’t matter.

Why Are These People So Angry?

I’ve seen a couple videos making the rounds among the film nerd websites this week that seem to be made by what I can only describe as disgruntled old farts. First was the “Cinematographer vs. Producer” video in which a comically clueless producer has the ABSOLUTELY INSANE plan to shoot a feature film on a Canon 7D.

Frankly, this is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. What’s so special about “Feature Films” anyway? People used to shoot feature films on DV cameras for God’s sake! And depending on the look you’re going for, you might not need a lot of lights. I’m in pre-production on a feature right now that will be shot on a 7D and I have absolutely no qualms about it. This imaginary producer is an idiot, but clearly this is the wrong DP for the job. Maybe they should give Shane Hurlbut a call.

The one that really drove me nuts was a little closer to home. “So, you’re an editor…”

It’s another straw man talking with a professional editor who apparently can’t figure out how to use Final Cut Pro. I’ve certainly never had the problems he describes. This one is upsetting on a couple levels. First, why should anyone expect the average person to understand what an editor does? It’s a specialized and confusing job. I don’t know what middle managers do all day either. And as a lifelong freelancer, I still fundamentally don’t understand how vacation/sick/personal days work. Mocking people who don’t know about editing and don’t need to know about editing is just petty.

Second, of course is the attitude about Final Cut Pro. Like the 7D video, it takes a fear-based approach to things that are outside the comfort zone of the author. Rather than take the time to learn how to use the extremely flexible and powerful Final Cut Pro software, the author calls it a piece of prosumer crap and repeats a bunch of scary myths about how it works. With the 7D the author is on better ground, since all of the things he says about the 7D are true, but they are less of a problem than he makes them out to be.

My point is, I for one welcome our new insect overlords. I’m perfectly happy to round you people up to toil in the 7D’s underground sugar caves.

Do it Yourself

I have a never-ending need to understand the tools I work with, and the new tools that might help me make movies in better and less expensive ways. It’s why I continue to build my own computers and insist on understanding how to run the Mac OS on those computers. It would be a lot easier, and potentially cheaper to just buy a Mac Pro and be done with it, but for me it’s no fun unless I can get under the hood and tinker with it.

I’ve written before about inexpensive production equipment, but today I’m thinking about something I know a little more about; do-it-yourself post production.

At this point, picture editing is wide open. You can do it any way you want and you don’t have to pay a lot for equipment. To really get the most of your gear though, you should have a good, expandable desktop. iMacs and laptops can hold you back when it comes to finishing a film. Obviously the Mac Pro is the simple choice. I built a system around a quad core Core 2 Duo a few years ago and overclocked it from 2.4 to 3 GHz. It’s served me well, but it’s due for an upgrade. Rendering HD is one of the most processor intensive things you can do, and working on 8 core Nehalems makes me jealous.

The best piece of equipment I have is a Blackmagic Intensity Pro card, which you can get for less than $200. It outputs almost any kind of HD or SD video you could want. I have it attached via component cables to my trusty 37-inch Panasonic 9UK plasma. It will take any video the Intensity throws at it, including 25 fps formats. Blackmagic has also just released a USB 3.0 Intensity Shuttle which will be great if Apple & Intel get on board with USB 3.0. It would allow laptop or iMac-based video outputs. For now, unless you’re editing on Premiere in Windows 7 and have USB 3.0, stick with the card.

I haven’t worked on a tape-based project in at least a year. If a film is shot on a tapeless format I can take the camera originals, convert them to ProRes, edit the picture, and color correct, all without bringing in an outside vendor. Now, I can tell you that the Panasonic plasma is far from a reference monitor. But there’s perfect, and there’s good enough. If the budget allows, I always go to a professional colorist, but if you’re making an indie film for a few grand, you can’t afford perfect. And if you’re doing the color correct yourself, you can futz around all you want for weeks if that’s something you want to spend your time on. The great thing about Color is that even when I go to a professional colorist (who also uses Color) I can still make a tweak here and there if I see something I don’t like a few weeks later.

Now, what about sound? If you’re making anything you plan to distribute beyond YouTube, you better believe you need a 5.1 mix. You can’t do that in FCP, but you can do it in Soundtrack Pro. You’ll need 6 audio outputs. I’m just starting to investigate the “home 5.1 mix” angle, but I like the look of the M-Audio Fast Track Ultra, which is less than $300, has 8 in and 8 out, and works with Pro Tools M-Powered.

Audio is another situation where you want a good room, and the professional mixers with dedicated equipment have a real edge. But in the do-it-yourself “good enough” range, you can run those 6 outputs to a consumer 5.1 receiver and speaker set. Reducing noise in the room becomes crucial here. You don’t want to find yourself in a quiet theater and hear things that were masked by fan noise in your improvised mixing room.

The moral here is not that you necessarily should do any of this stuff. But you can. You’re not required to make a perfect mix or a perfect color correct. If it looks good to you, it looks good to your audience. A lot of dialogue-driven films will be just fine with a 5.1 mix that puts 90% of the audio in the Center speaker. Some films look fine without any post-production color grading beyond a basic legalization process.

In order to pull this off though, you need good source material. You need a well-shot film with well-recorded audio. You can do a lot with these tools, but don’t force yourself to. Make it easy on yourself by getting it right on set.

And of course, you need to know how to operate all this software to get what you want out of it. You might consider hiring someone like me to do that.

Cheech & Chong’s Hey Watch This is coming out on 4/20!

In a silly–but wholly appropriate–stunt The Weinstein Company is releasing a movie I edited, Cheech & Chong’s Hey Watch This on 4/20. I’ve heard a rumor that it might come out in a few theaters as well. There’s no trailer yet, but you can pre-order the Blu-Ray for hardly any money on Amazon. I can assure you that it is a lot of fun.

If you want to see some very similar material (almost exactly the same material in fact) in animated form, check out the trailer for the new animated Cheech & Chong movie which apparently does for Cheech & Chong’s old comedy albums what HBO is doing for Ricky Gervais’ old podcasts.