The debate about which editing software is best has largely died down over the past year or so. Initially when FCP 7 was replaced by X, it took quite a while for the post-production world to stabilize… Some editors stuck with Avid, may former FCP 7 editors went with Premiere Pro, and a handful of others decided to give FCP X a try – including the post team on Will Smith’s latest feature film, Focus.
Last year, I posted an article that teased some info about a $100 million Warner Bros. feature that was being cut on FCP X. While it took a while for concrete details to emerge about the film itself, eventually we learned that the film in question was Focus – a very large scale Hollywood production starring Will Smith. After reading up on the production/post on Focus, what was most interesting to me wasn’t simply how they pulled it off, but rather why they chose to use FCP X in the first place. As someone that has been editing with FCP X since day one, I know how stable the software has become and how capable it truly is of cutting a feature of this scale, but I was still very much intrigued as to what led the filmmakers to go down this path.
These days, I think of editing platforms much in the same way that I think about cameras. You should pick the right NLE for your project, just like you pick the right camera for your shoot. For my needs FCP X is the best choice in many cases, however there are definitely projects where I will use Premiere Pro for one reason or another, and seldomly I will even use Avid Media Composer. I think it’s really important to understand different editing platforms as a filmmaker (even if you aren’t primarily an editor) so that you can pick the best software for the task at hand. That’s exactly why FCP X was used on Focus. The production had a unique set of needs that FCP X was able to deliver on, and ultimately the post-production team benefitted immensely by making this choice.
Apple has posted an ‘In Action’ story about FCP X on their website here, and while I won’t re-iterate every last detail that they outlined, I do want to share some of the highlights from my perspective.
If you don’t know how these work, essentially Smart Collections search for a set of criteria (that you as the editor specify) when ingesting footage, and automatically organize your footage into collections – sort of like bins – based on that criteria. So for instance, you might be working on a multi-cam project that was shot on 5 different cameras, and can use Smart Collections to automatically organize the footage based on the camera names into 5 unique collections.
The Focus team developed a fantastic workflow using Smart Collections that allowed them to organize “everything from scene information to dialogue tags” automatically. You can imagine how much time that must have saved in the edit bay, especially for the assistant editors. While many editors have a seemingly adverse reaction to anything that happens automatically during the editing process, my feeling is quite the opposite. The more time that is left to actually edit and be creative, and the less time that you need to waste organizing the project, the better. Not to mention once the footage is organized so perfectly it becomes very quick and easy to locate shots that might have otherwise been overlooked.
Editing On A MacBook Pro
Although the film was later edited and finished on an 8-core Mac Pro desktop, a lot of the initial editing actually happened on set (or in hotel rooms) on a MacBook Pro laptop. This came as no surprise to me for a couple of reasons, but mainly because: A) I know just how fast MacBook Pro’s are today and what they are capable of, and B) I’ve witnessed first hand the trend of editing on set becoming commonplace. But even still, I can remember a time not that long ago that I would have conversations with editor friends of mine about how one day even Hollywood level films would be cut on laptops because they are getting so fast, and now that day is here. While Focus is obviously not the first film to be cutting on set using a laptop, it is still quite impressive to me that they were able to pull off such a seamless workflow when eventually moving to their main edit bay. Essentially there was no offline/online editing needed. The edit was just transplanted from a laptop to a desktop, and the process continued onwards.
One of the things I’ve always loved about FCP X is that it has some amazingly powerful titling tools built right in. Unlike most editing platforms that have a separate title tool, FCP X allows you to manually adjust your titles on the viewer (or canvas) so that you are able to make changes much more intuitively and precisely. The post team on Focus made use of this capability throughout their editorial process, and the final titles of the film were actually created in FCP X. That might not seem like a big deal, but when you consider that on a feature of this scale that is practically never done, it is quite impressive. Usually temporary titles would be created within the editing software, and then the final titles are later re-done using different software (titling or motion graphics software), which replace the placeholders. In this case though, the producers were so happy with the temp titles created in FCP X with their built in title tool, that they actually used that for the final product.
3rd Party Plugins
One of the biggest criticisms of FCP X from the get go was that certain tasks required additional plugins to be executed. The big complaint of course was that there was no ‘Export To OMF’ feature built into FCP X, and to get your FCP X timeline into ProTools you needed to use a plugin like X2Pro. For me, this was never a big deal – especially when considering the cost of FCP X. The whole design of FCP X is built around being a modular system. You can use it as is for your basic day to day tasks, but when you need some added functionality you can then buy the plugins that you need to expand the software. This helps keep the cost really low (it’s only $299 to buy), and allows users to customize the experience to their needs.
On Focus, the team made use of X2Pro to send their edit to ProTools, and used Roles to assign tracks to each set of audio clips. They were also able to use Slice X from Coremelt in conjunction with the built in Keyer in Final Cut Pro X to complete some of their green screen work right inside the software. As with any major feature film, I would have to assume that the green screen work was later re-done in proper vfx/compositing software (such as Nuke), but the fact that the editors were able to do a pass that got them really close within FCP X is pretty amazing. I’m sure it was a much better creative experience for the director and producers to be able to watch those scenes with the keys already pulled, and not have to imagine what it would look like without the green screen in the shot.
Here is the official breakdown of their workflow from Apple’s site:
(New Orleans, Buenos Aires, New York City)
The movie was shot anamorphic for the correct widescreen aspect ratio on location at multiple sites using an ARRI ALEXA digital camera at 2K resolution.
Full-resolution ProRes dailies were produced on set using an Outpost mobile post system.
Sync-N-Link X was used to batch sync second-source audio with the ProRes footage.
Metadata was imported from the set and made searchable in Final Cut Pro X.
All editing was done in 2048×1152 ProRes 4444 using the Outpost media in Final Cut Pro X, just hours after shooting.
Motion 5 titles built into Final Cut Pro X were used for final opening credits and as placeholders for effects.
The built-in real-time Keyer in Final Cut Pro X was used to quickly and accurately preview green-screen gallery in the timeline before final effects were delivered and added to the edit.
X2Pro Audio Convert from Marquis Broadcast was used to send the Final Cut Pro X project to Pro Tools via AAF; Roles were used to automatically allocate audio to tracks in Pro Tools.
Final Cut Pro X on a MacBook Pro enabled quick editing changes on the fly during screenings on the soundstage.
Change List X from Intelligent Assistance was used to track changes to and from the sound department and the visual-effects teams.
Final color grading and finishing was done on the Quantel Pablo Rio system.
I would predict that Focus is just the tip of the iceberg for FCP X. Many other major productions, large post houses, networks, etc. have already moved over to FCP X despite the backlash that it got in the early days for being too “different”. Premiere Pro and Avid Media Composer are both excellent software options as well, and it is pretty amazing that as editors and filmmakers we have the ability to choose between three very strong platforms. I can certainly see why many editors that were familiar with FCP 7 weren’t initially comfortable with making the jump to FCP X… But with that said, I think for those that are willing to take the leap and try something new, there is a whole lot to be gained by going with FCP X.