What happens when you put Final Cut Pro X in the hands of a respected Director/Editor who has grown up with flat bed editors, in-camera effects and classic animation techniques, who has worked with Lightworks, Avid, classic FCP, Shake and Flame and who says (quote) he is “too lazy” to read manuals and to always learn the newest software?
We take a look behind the scenes of three music videos created by Clayton Jacobson, an Australian based film and television veteran who has directed and edited some award-winning feature films and TV-series as well as TV-commercials for Honda and music videos for INXS - just to name a few.
We will talk about green screen shooting and keying, keyframing, keyword collections, the magnetic timeline and playback performance with complex layers. You will see how you can create out-of-this-world backgrounds, machines and characters from hair rollers, straws, plasticine, cardboard, foam and (quote) “other useless shit” - and how you can use FCP X to animate and combine all these elements into compelling visuals… even on a 2007 MacPro.
When you watch the first clip you will understand why we absolutely wanted Clayton to tell us more about his workflow.
Siskin River - Up
Pretty cool when you know that everything you see in this clip has been done right inside FCP X: the keying, the animations and the effects up to the final grading. And it gets even more impressive if you know that all the movements and the tracking were done with manual keyframing. No motion tracking software, no plugins… just keyframes.
So inevitably our first question to Clayton was: why didn’t you use Motion 5 or any other applications to do all this? We will let him take it from here:
It is true that all the digital effects and animations in these music videos were entirely created using FCP X. I'm really a lazy editor at heart. I know I could take the time to learn Motion, which I’m sure would garner better results. But I try to do everything in FCP, it’s just the way my mind works.
I have been cutting since the seventies working on flat bed editors through to U-Matic to online systems with ADO and Flame. And so I come from that headspace of taking 2D planes and manipulating objects with keyframes to approximate depth. It was all you could do before 3D graphics arrived - so it’s more old-school animation based. I guess I’m often trying to approximate a more hand made feel with such clips. I certainly wouldn’t be using these manual techniques on anything I would want to look photo real.
My approach is simple: use old fashioned in-camera effects mixed with a bit of wonderful modern tech and you can create extremely organic looking layers and visual magic. The Siskin River clip is a perfect example of this. Siskin River is a popular group in Australia, with a unique sound and striking live performances.
The artists came to me wanting a clip that looked like a Tim Burton animation. Once I freaked them out on what that would cost versus what they had saved up for the clip, I told them I could try and approximate a similar feel for under $10,000. The next day I went to my local $2 shop and purchased hair rollers, straws, paint cans, foam, cardboard and a box of other useless shit.
My son Jesse and I then went about building a miniature city and characters we could animate. My brief was: keep it simple. I built a cave out of foam stuck together with nails then sprayed it brown and doused it with water to give a nice wet rock feel. I brought in tree elements and gravel elements from around my farm and then shot a number of plate shots that I could combine later.
Then I brought the plates into FCP X and I keyed them over background elements I had shot. I added some fire and smoke that I grabbed from the media library in Motion 5 and finally I used the available color tools, mattes and blend modes in FCP X to create that special dark atmosphere for the scene.
Another example of how I work would be the steam driven vehicles in the video.
I created static cogs in Photoshop, I rotated them in FCP X and I exported the rotation out with a green background. I replicated that image to make each wheel and I played with the axis to give a false sense of perspective.
Then I made some characters with plasticine, I made an engine block out of hair curlers and straws, I filmed them against green screen and I animated it all together with keys, blend modes and keyframes in FCP X. Again I added elements from the Motion library and layers of texture to the scene: dust, fire, smoke, lens flares… until it started to feel like something aesthetically pleasing.
The 3D-like leaves falling from the tree on the hill is just one single leaf multiplied into three separate 2D plates which I then distorted using keyframes to approximate a 3D feel, slightly blurring foreground from background for greater effect.
The skeleton lady was built from cutting up each limb from a picture of a skeleton and keyframing each joint and limb movement a frame at a time in FCP X. The profile shot of her singing with the skull mimicking her lip sync is done the same way. The foreground hair and background hair were two separate plate shots.
I also used a few characters that were animated in-camera to suggest animation without needing to keyframe the objects.
My son made the tree character like a puppet on strings and I removed the strings in FCP X. The tree robots and the worms were actually remote control toys my son owns. I just stuck foam on them and sprayed them to look wet and uniformed. I filmed them on green screen and keyed them over the animated background in FCP X.
All the green screen and talent shots were recorded at my studio. I’m lucky in that I live on 6 acres of land and so I have built my own film studio complete with 20x20 green screen and black and white cyclorama facilities.
I own a Canon 5D and a Canon C 300, which I often use together. I’ll use the C 300 for the wider shots and the 5D for the closer long lens imagery and I find they co-exist very well.
I have a simple set of Canon EF lenses, a 14mm, 50mm, 85mm and, my favorite, a 45mm Shift and Tilt. I also have a JIB crane and a 7-foot slider that I often use to create movement in my shots.
The entire video was made constantly playing with keys in FCP X: super impositions, blending modes, non-additive mixes, alpha channels and the like. I mostly used the internal keyer for the green screens and it did a pretty good job.
When you have a decent green screen and you can shoot in a high quality format you can get amazing results with only a few tweaks. But sometimes I’m forced to shoot green screen with my 5D as well, and this highly compressed footage doesn’t lend itself to great keys. For such cases I would like more subtle controls in the keyer. Also I often have to animate mattes around green screen keys, so I would like a simpler spline function on the mattes that could be easily animated using keyframes.
I know there are more powerful keyers around, also for FCP X, but those would require a lot of tweaking and time as well to get perfect results with problem keys like this. And for this clip we had to work with the time we could afford. It really was a work of love. The artists don’t have a lot of coin so my deal was: give me two months and I can build it between my regular gigs, which I did.
I used tons of keyframing to animate all the elements together and to move objects and compositions across the screen. This worked perfectly in FCP X. I have done so much keyframing over the years it has become second nature to me. I know what to expect and where things can go wrong, and there are a few tricks to making things work.
Choosing linear or smooth curves to do your moves can be the difference between failing and winning. Also knowing when you have to set manual keyframes and when you can let the application do the in-between calculations. Often I will create compound clips and add start and end moves that live outside either cut point of the clips in the CC so that you don’t perceive the plotted move coming to halt. Nesting clips is a big part of what I did here.
When the individual scenes were created I nested the animated layers in compound clips, or I exported them out and imported them again, and I placed a very subtle underwater effect on top of the final composition. This tends to make everything stick and gel and it provides an almost unnoticeable undulation, which I find both milky and pleasing to the eye. Then I did the final grade, mostly using the built-in color tools. I also used the Crumple Pop ColorKit plugin to create short cut looks on some scenes.
The Lygon Street Meltdown video I did for the Melbourne Ska Orchestra uses similar techniques, but the style is completely different:
This was a lot of fun. We shot the 33 band members against a large white cyclorama for a day in a traditional studio. Then my son and I created rough building and lamp post plates in Photoshop. The footage was imported in FCP X and keyed over the plates with the internal keyer.
Then the plates and the characters were manipulated around the screen using keyframes. The simple act of greying off layers as they fell back into the distance helped create a feeling of perspective. It’s my home made nod to Sin City and the TV series of Batman.
A lot of ideas for these videos are added during the editing process. I used to plot and plan everything, but I found the creative process unrewarding.
Nowadays I treat my work in both directing, writing and editing more like a sculptor would. I build a basic framework to make sure I have a good theme to glue ideas on, and then I allow myself to be very free and open to inspiration from within the work and outside of it.
I do like treating music videos like little narratives. Not so much stories but little personal connections that may only mean something to me, but that I know will at least create a sense of structure to an audience.
The third clip is a classic rock music video with fast cuts, smoke and fire effects and again lots of movements and keying in FCP X:
Robot Child - Ignition:
This was interesting because the band never played together ever in this clip. Each member was shot on a large Lazy Susan rotating platform against green screen.
I stacked the different takes of each artist on the timeline and I synced them up visually just by looking at the large waveforms, which is so easy to do.
Then I cut out the fat and I went looking for the shots that would give me the most dramatic impact. I did not use the multicam feature, I just cut and moved clips around until I got the very best takes.
I’m a musician as well and I do many, many music videos. Over the years working for groups like Crowded House or INXS I have learned that many times my favorite moments in a clip were not taken from the shots that were recorded for exactly that spot in the song. So I really move things around to find those few seconds or even frames that will work best with the music and with the effect I want to create.
I do know that multicam in FCP X is amazing, I always use it on my longer projects. I recently did a 90 minute corporate video that had lots of multicamera interviews, and working with this tool was just great. But for fast-paced effects driven clips like these I prefer just cutting up stacked shots in the timeline.
The grouping shots were assembled with keys and keyframes, adding different background elements under the selects I made on the timeline and making them move along with the camera shots.
The lighting effects were all created in FCP X. We drew a static rig in Photoshop, with white circles where we wanted the lights to appear. I animated the rig and I added and rotated the lights over the white circles using a volumetric light plugin.
It’s amazing how you can achieve such visuals in this software with some very affordable plugins. Finally I added fire and smoke elements from the Motion 5 media library and snow effects shot in the studio. I also added an earthquake shake to the finished piece to give it all extra energy.
Again I’m sure we could have achieved more technical perfection on some compositions for this video if we had been able to shoot with 50K cameras and lossless codecs. But when you have to work with a limited budget and you want to create stunning visuals and effects you have to take an impressionist attitude to the production.
I have known the days when videos like this one would have been impossible to make without breaking the bank. Today I can do all this in my own studio using affordable cameras, a 300 dollar software and some plugins.
We are sure someone as talented as Clayton could use any given software to achieve these results. But that’s not the point. He does all his work in FCP X, so we will give him the final word explaining why he likes using this software and what he would like to improve in his workflow.
Computer wise I’m not one to constantly keep up to date with the latest gear. I have a 2007 8-core 3 GHz Mac Pro running OSX 7.5. The Mac has 16 GB RAM, it was updated with an ATI 5770 graphics card and an SSD drive. As I cannot update the OS to anything higher than Lion I am still using FCP X 10.0.9 for all my work.
What baffles me about this software is the ability to layer an insane amount of effects and commands, and keep playing everything while you work in the timeline, even on this hardware. I love the instant feedback on what I do and I try not to think about what this machine is processing from shot to shot. The things I’m doing in my home office now I could only do with dedicated Shake or Flame stations 6>7 years ago.
I started off many years ago cutting on super 8, then 16mm, 35mm, Lightworks and Avid and then Final Cut. When I found Final Cut I knew I was at home.
I have edited television shows, docs, commercials and features on it. Then the new Final Cut came out and my dear friend and tech guru Sean Lander told me “Don’t get angry, don’t be impatient. Take the time to learn this system and you will never regret it”. He was spot on. It took me three days to get up to speed, but once I arrived I found I could edit in half the time I was used to.
Why? It has such great tools for organizing and finding your footage. You can track and preview tons of clips in no time, allowing you to stay with the creative flow and concentrate on your editing. I also like the trackless magnetic timeline. It’s very intuitive to work with. I love how you can just move clips around while keeping everything connected. Sometimes this can get in your way, but then you just press a key to temporarily switch it off. So you have the best of both worlds.
It does take some time getting used to the software. I had adopted very personal workflows editing on Avid and FCP, so starting to work with FCP X somehow felt like learning to walk again. But I found that instead of learning to walk again, I actually learned to run.
At a certain point you really reach that “aha” moment many people talk about, and from there it always gets better. I guess it’s all in your mind.
I have cut many projects in the new Final Cut now, both long-form and short-form, and I have come to a point that I would find it really hard having to go back to the old one.
I have already mentioned I would like to have more subtle controls in the keyer and better options for animating spline masks. I think the color board works pretty well, but I do prefer color wheels. I have always worked that way, so color wheels make perfect sense to me.
The software is cheap and it constantly evolves. It is a very powerful editor with extra tools that will work fine for the majority of its user base. But there is also a vast network of third-party developers providing specialized add-ons for the people who need them. So if I want a more performant keyer, automatic mask tracking or those beautiful color wheels, I can just add them to the software. I think that’s a great way to conceive an NLE.
Which brings me to the fact that I will have to update my computer in the near future. As my system only supports Lion, some great plugins I could use won’t work on it.
My son is learning 3D now, and I heard there is a plugin that allows us to easily integrate complex 3D models in FCP X and Motion 5 on the newest OS.
Sean Lander told me that working with FCP X on a new Mac with a thunderbolt RAID will blow my mind, and I believe him. When I get it I will update FCP X to the latest version, and while I do this I might as well learn Motion 5. It would be great if Apple could create a perfectly seamless workflow between these two applications.
I also might have a look at Resolve for color correction. But as I said: I don’t want to spend too much time learning many different pieces of software. We are a small independent studio and besides directing, writing an editing I also produce movies.
Time management is an essential part of my life and I’m also lazy at hand with manuals. So if I can find tools that can get me across the road without being bowled over by a bus, I will use them. I am preparing the production for my next feature film now, and I’m looking forward to editing it on my new Mac with the latest Final Cut.
Two big thank yous from FCP.co. First of all we must thank Clayton for sharing his story, it has to be one of the most interesting and creative user stories we have published. Expect to see Clayton's line about 'learning to walk again' get quoted often.
Secondly a huge thank you to Forum member Ronny Courtens for taking the time to write this article. If you have ever put together a similar piece, you will know the amount of work that goes in to writing such an article.