Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the new comedy war film from Paramount Studios starring Tina Fey. We asked director Glenn Ficarra, Editor Jan Kovac, Assistant Editor Kevin Bailey and Apprentice Editor Esther Sokolow how the film was made, what was different from Focus and of course how well Final Cut Pro X performed?
We think you know the answer already, but again their detailed workflow is well worth a read. Especially if you are going to cut your next Hollywood feature film on Final Cut Pro X!
Last year's FCP.co's two articles on Focus, the first major Hollywood studio film to be cut on FCPX, proved to be highly popular. So when we were asked if we would like to find out more about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the latest Tina Fey film from directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, we jumped at the chance.
Those two articles are a good starting point if you haven't read about the FCPX workflow on a feature film. In this article, we will try to add more detail as the workflow and editing process was analysed and refined after Focus.
Jan Kovac: We did have a debriefing or post mortem after Focus. We laid out what we liked, what we don’t mind and what should get better. Then we adjusted our workflow to that. There were zero custom builds of Final Cut Pro X on Focus and zero custom builds when we edited Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. There were also no engineers in the edit room handholding us.
Glenn Ficcara: It’s much easier to get into and obviously we had done it all before. We had worked out the inefficiencies and wanted to stretch it a little further this time, which we did. It was pretty seamless. It’s all about what you are comfortable with. I’m doing another project with another editor, a TV project on Avid and I don’t regret our decision to cut on Final Cut Pro X one bit!
We were totally willing to share the information about FCPX from Focus. But what I find most fascinating of all and it still continues to this day is when we talk about what we did and what we used, people still think we are talking about Final Cut Pro 7. I don’t know why but I guess it is so far out of their realm they think its not doable - which I’m very quick to correct them!
One big change this time, the film was produced for another studio, were they nervous about using FCPX?
Jan: This was a new film with a new studio, Paramount. We were curious to see if we had to go through a rigorous approval process as we did with Warner Bros, but they just said fine, if you like it, go for it.
Glenn: The studio understood that myself, John and Jan had done this before so they were happy. Whatever made us happy they were fine with as long as the usual caveats of it being on time and on budget. It was on time and under budget so there was no complaining!
Shooting on two Arri Alexa on location.
The film was again shot in 2K on an Arri Alexa, but this time using the new Apple ProRes 4444 XQ codec.
Jan: We used the new codec ProRes 4444 XQ that was developed by Arri and Apple. The idea was to not have to deal with Arri RAW which was used in Focus for the green screen shots. ProRes 4444 XQ performed exceptionally well and was used for all the VFX and green screen work on Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. We also shot on a Blackmagic Pocket camera, which out of all the small cameras performed best when projected on the big screen.
We also had the Sony A7s which was amazing and used for night shots in available light. In Kabul we had footage that was shot on RED, but the bulk of the film is Alexa.
Editor Jan Kovac and Assistant editor Kevin Bailey going over some technical details.
With multiple cameras, multiple camera angles and multiple locations, handling all this material was going to be the key. This time Kevin Bailey was Assistant Editor with Esther Sokolow as Visual Effects Editor.
Kevin: The cards would get taken to an on set colourist who would offload the cards and do a basic colour grade pass. Some scenes are exposed differently to how you want it to look, underexposing so you don’t blow out a background for example.
At the end of the day that footage would be transferred to the LightIron DIT who would take the files and the CDLs created by the on set colourist and render new ProRes 4444XQ QuickTimes for editorial as well as make dailies for the studio. The on set colourist made iPad dailies for the editorial team.
He was plugged into our XSAN to copy directly, rather than going via another drive. They are massive files and about 47TB of footage over 48 days of shooting. All the media was rendered into 2K ProRes 4444XQ even the Sony media which was shot at UHD and the Blackmagic which was in 1080.
Jan: I wanted to sync the audio in editorial rather than rely on an outside company to embed the audio into the clips as before. It got problematic when doing sound turnovers. By using Sync-n-link we could sync our dailies ourselves.
Jan in the edit trailer with nick from LightIron (Before acoustic panels!)
Kevin: The LightIron 2K footage including multiple mono audio files was supplied with XML that contained scene information and data like circle takes. We took all this into FCPX, relinked, checked formats and then ran a program called Shot Notes X which combines FCPX XML with a CSV file of script notes from the Filemaker Pro database that the script supervisor used. That renames the clips, adds the notes into the notes field with other metadata such as camera angles all in a batch.
The production audio was then run though Sync-n-Link with FCPXML which batched synced the clips and made multiclips. The syncing took about 45 minutes, 5 minutes of syncing and the rest checking!
We would then begin line breakdowns like Focus which took about two to three hours a day. Each scene had an event and those were made into an FCPX Library for each reel. For the first three weeks I got the synching system up and running and then Esther took over for the rest of the production. All the editorial crew helped with the script breakdown.
Director Glenn Ficarra talking to Billy Bob Thornton.
There were 12 weeks of production in New Mexico, Jan again had his trailer set up at Basecamp. Editorial had an office set up at the production office which was an hour and a half to an hour away in Santa Fe or Alberquque. As soon as Kevin and Esther had the footage, they would start generation of proxies from the synched and marked up media in FCPX.
Kevin: The latest proxies were then copied onto one of two 8TB Thunderbolt GRAIDs as an incremental backup using ChronoSync. The drive was then driven over to Jan at his trailer were it was swapped out for the other GRAID and the new events copied into his Library. That was done every day for 47 days! All media was kept external to the libraries to keep the files size down, but the analysis files bulked a library up to 3 to 6GB a reel.
FCPX works so well with proxies. You can drop a 6K R3D file in, generate proxies and then flip a switch and you are back on R3D, it’s worth using FCPX for that feature alone.
Kevin with the daily delivery of synced dailies to Jan's trailer.
Jan: We worked the same way on Focus with myself, John and Glenn editing and sharing Projects and Events. The director's trailer was always next to me and as we didn't have time to watch dailies together, my first cut would provide a starting point for the conversation. They would spend 10 minutes with me every lunch break, telling me where they wanted to go, which takes they liked and which performances were best.
We cut LCR right from the get-go in the trailer, not stereo. Because of that, It was much easier to go 5.1 once we hit post.
Jan's edit trailer at basecamp
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was shot in 24FPS instead of 23.98. This would help with synching cameras running at higher frame rates. One problem here was the Sony A7s ran in 23.98 FPS even though they were set to 24FPS, so they drifted. The second Alexa would often shoot at 48FPS.
Jan: I had two versions of the 48 FPS material. One set at 48 FPS so I could use it for action or slomotion for example. Then I had the same footage retimed then added to a 24 FPS multicam clip with the original audio. Then I could cut between both angles easily.
Kevin: The really good thing about multicam in FCPX is the fact that you can open up the multicam clip and affect the clips inside it. We could make a multicam clip at 48FPS, open it up and then retime angles. This helped because in FCPX 24FPS is exactly 200% of 48FPS not 201% or a similar odd rate. So we would end up with two multicams, one at 24FPS with production sound and one at 48FPS without audio.
They were labelled that way in the event such as Scene1-1 and Scene1-1_48. FCPX doesn’t really care and as the ARRI when it shoots timestamps 48FPS as 24FPS it plays back in FCPX as 24FPS.
Multicam shooting, showing Tina Fey shooting!
One problem Jan ran into was the fact that the workflow was creating multiple copies of multicam clips if scenes were swapped between reels. The team were working with reels roughly about 20 minutes each, that enabled Glenn to work on one reel, Jan to work on another and Kevin a third etc.
If a scene starts on reel one and then gets moved to another reel, if that scene is brought back into reel one it will make another copy of the multicam clip. You can't delete the clip as it being used on the timeline and you might end up with clips next to each other on the same timeline that match frame back to the different multicam clips!
The workaround was to move the new multicam clip to an event named so that it would be at the bottom of the list so that Jan wouldn't see it. No extra media is generated and it doesn't affect final output.
Jan: One thing that would save me a lot of time would be to make the multicam functionality the same as a single clip. I could then use optical flow, Track X and Slice X. I would also like to be able to match frame back to an angle and be able to copy the timecode. And of course to be able to use a multicam clip in an Audition would be good.
It was so easy to flick the timeline from proxies into 2K, Glenn, John and Jan wanted to improve the temporary sound that accompanied the working edit, having good audio almost the moment they have cut a scene.
Glenn Working in 2K resolution means we can have a screening at any time in full res and because we were working with the original material, everything was very self contained. We ended up doing a lot more in house this time, a lot more audio stuff. With Focus we were concentrating on it just working, but this time we pushed it further and the next round out will be even further.
When Kevin dropped off the drive of the day with the new material, he also took back a copy of the up to date Library with Jan's latest cuts. He got instructions from Jan on which scenes to do the temp sound on.
In each multicam were multiple mono tracks, each as an angle which meant the mix could be quickly swapped out for the boom for example. Sometimes he had a left channel and a right channel mix and certain parts were clearer on each, which meant he had to go through checker boarding the audio components.
One piece of software that got unexpected use was iTunes.
Kevin: We had a large sound FX library on the SAN and on Jan’s drives under the same file path. Everything was in a single shared iTunes library that lived on the XSAN so that all the 6 FCPX machines could search for music and FX in the browser. I didn’t know the iTunes thing would work to start off with, but you can even make a playlist. Glenn would make a playlist of tracks for a scene and that would show up in Jan’s browser as a playlist labeled with the scene number.
The audio post guys came out on production for a few days and recorded everything, Humvees driving, C130 Hercules aircraft taking off, various gunfire and we used that in the temp sound.
That meant for the first screening we had done a sound pass on every scene in the movie.
Assistant Editor Kevin Bailey
When it came to the sound turnovers, the power of FCPX's metadata and surround sound mixing ensured it was a relatively simple process.
Kevin: We had the original production audio and that already had Roles assigned to it from the iXML data. We used X2Pro to take an XML and make linked AAFs for the dialogue and embedded AAFs for the music and sound effects. We also sent them a watermarked QuickTime with burnt in timecode.
Change lists are still a problem, so we sent the audio guys a handmade change list. We would also use EDL-X to send them Role EDLS.
5 x 5.1 stems were supplied back. Dialogue, Music, FX, Background and Foley. These were brought back into FCPX and assigned sub roles so we could keep the stem process going all the way through. If I had to cut a new scene in, I’d still get perfect stems out of FCPX.
Jan's edit desk in the edit trailer including the large LCD Cintiq tablet.
From the pictures you can see in the trailer, Jan started on the film using a large Cintiq touchscreen tablet, but later converted back to the traditional keyboard and mouse. This was not the most adventurous way of working FCPX on the film. That award goes to Glenn!
Glenn: I always find that Final Cut is really smartly built around using the Trackpad. I can cut superfast on a laptop and I think that has to do with the trackpad. I just find it effortless and quick.
I just recently built my own controller 'cradle' around the trackpad with extra keys and encoders around the trackpad to make it even faster.
All this came about because my partner John misses the jogwheel, but I didn’t want another piece of outboard gear as I already have one hand on the trackpad.
It's a 3D printed enclosure designed in Sketchup and wired with Cherry MX switches, rotary encoders and a thumb operated jog/shuttle switch.
The usb interface is a Leo Bodnar DIY joystick board and it is all mapped with "Joystick Controller" app. The encoders control volume/soloing/nulling, timeline appearance, zoom, subframe and frame nudging and the dual encoder in the middle navigates the inspector and controls values.
I use the better touch tool, I’ve got a bunch of custom gestures for certain things like four finger tap and force clicking for soloing. It’s all about becoming one handed editing!
I'm probably going to build one of my home-brew controllers for Jan as well!
Glenn continued with his home-brew projects, this time with an air conditioner for the edit suite in editorial.
When it came to timesaving, organisation was essential. That included using the keywording and Smart Collections in FCPX.
Part of the dailies process was to assign keywords. There was a template of keywords in each scene’s event, one for single camera, one for 48FPS for example. In the notes field it would say if it was a circle take or not, Glenn & John’s favourite. A Smart Collection was created that would filter down to all the multicam circle takes easily. There was also one for Projects and one for the role of Music as importing fromm the iTunes Library doesn’t get audio keyworded.
Kevin: We had a 35 week post and 12 weeks on location. With 170 scenes, 3 hours of footage a day over 47 days, over a 100 versions of a cut, you have to be organised. So with every scene having its own event, we had about six or seven Smart Collections in every one so that Jan and Glenn could find everything quickly. The Smart Collections were populated from the metadata so if anything new was shot such as pickups for a scene, those would automatically get added to the collection.
The decision to have the VFX in-house had two rewards: faster turnaround and a large cost saving.
Esther: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot may not seem like a vfx-heavy film, but VFX is meant to be invisible, and we actually had over 1200 VFX shots. The trick lies in selling Albuquerque, New Mexico as Kabul, Afghanistan in the midst of war, not to mention the small things that add up: like rig removal, split comps, tv monitors and screens, and the like.
We had a phenomenal visual effects supervisor in Johnny Weckworth. Johnny was the VFX Supervisor on Focus with the team as well, and has honed in on this film a perfect system for complementing editorial with an in-house vfx team.
Apprentice Editor Esther Solokow.
In editorial, we work with 2K ProRes 4444 XQ and proxies generated through Final Cut Pro X. On set, our Data Image Technician (DIT) worked with the directors and cinematographer to create an on-set color look for each scene. This color was communicated to editorial through CDLs (Color Decision Lists), which we had baked into our offline ProRes footage. Because of this, it was incredibly important that Johnny and I iron out a full color pipeline.
Every shot delivered back to editorial needed to match one-to-one with our offline media. Given that we shot on over 5 different camera formats, a custom pipeline had to be designed for each camera.
Editorial turnovers to Johnny’s team consisted of:
- The vfx plates delivered as 2K DPX image sequences in sLog colorspace
- Acount sheet indicating the work to be done, the elements in the shot, handles, timecode, as well as various additional metadata information
- A QuickTime reference of the shot in the edit for the artist to match to
- A QuickTime reference of the sequence/scene as a whole
- The original CDL to be baked into the offline QuickTime of the vfx shot that would be delivered back to editorial
- A CSV record of all VFX in the current turnover batch (with additional metadata) kicked out of the Editorial VFX Database for easy import into the database used by Johnny’s team
VFX would return:
- 2K sLog DPX of the vfx shot for VFX review at Light Iron and for online once finaled
- Offline QuickTime of the vfx shot with the baked-in CDL to be cut into the edit
- A CSV record of all vfx shots delivered (with additional metadata) for easy import from Johnny’s database back into the Editorial VFX Database
Esther: VFX shots in FCPX were marked with orange chapter markers. We placed the chapter markers in the center of the vfx shot so that Jan could ripple and trim without accidentally clearing the mark. Chapter Markers could be viewed and searched within the Timeline Index under the chapter marker section. Each Chapter Marker was labeled as such:
ex: 101_CMP_0010 (SCENE_TYPE_VFXID)
We increased vfx id by increments of 10 so that we had room for shots added in between over the course of the course of the cutting process.
I would indicate status as well following the vfx name ( - Turned Over / - Finaled / Waiting on elements / etc ). This way, we were able to use the Timeline Index to quickly scan vfx shots. It made it incredibly efficient to at a glance be able to see how many remaining shots we had in a Reel to turn over, and how many more were outstanding for Final.
When turning over vfx shots to Johnny and his team, I would pull out a copy of the scene and shots to turn over into a separate FCPX Library. After exporting watermarked QT references of the shot as it appears in the edit, I would break apart each shot according to its elements and would chart any resizes and retimes. All this information could be carried through the XML, but we wanted to ensure accurate timecode calculations all the way through to Resolve.
Once prepped, I would kick out an XML of the sequence. This XML would be used in two places - first, it was brought into DaVinci Resolve for pulling ONEG media, and then was also imported into my VFX Database in FileMaker Pro for building the count sheets for Johnny’s team.
Because we had an in-house visual effects team, it made sense to also do all our own vfx pulls in-house too. This way we could match the same efficiency and sense of immediacy. Having a lab do our pulls for us would have slowed down significantly our ability to move back and forth between the departments.
The DPXs were kicked out of DaVinci Resolve with 24 frame handles, though the work request for VFX was set to 8 frame handles. This way, if a shot was extended slightly, we could simply redeliver an updated count sheet and QT reference without doing the full pull again.
Directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra talking to Tina Fey.
During editorial there were two types of screening. One for the directors and editor which was just a compilation of exported ProRes QuickTime reels. At that point they were in 5.1 and they happened about once a week.
For the more public screenings for the studio, DCPs had to be made. Traditionally DCPs are a 48 hour turnaround, but on Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a guy brought the DCP creation machine in on a cart into editorial. That took 2K ProRes 4444 (not XQ as this was a windows machine which doesn’t support XQ yet) and audio stems from FCPX or the audio team.
Kevin: They would come in at 8 in the morning and we would give them a drive of 256 GB of reels and by noon we were watching the DCP in the theatre as a quality check before the screening that night. We had the time if something went wrong we could do it again, but nothing did go wrong!
We are definitely pushing the quality of early screenings higher. We are not cutting on Avid in DNX36 or DNX115, you might not notice on HD TV in the cutting room, but on an 80 foot screen, you notice the pixel blowup.
The picture quality is noticeable as is the quality of VFX. Cutting in the same resolution as the quality and format it was shot really helps the filmmakers be immersed in the movie.
The film was finished with a conform at LightIron. Kevin would regularly send them a video only XML and they would bring that into a Quantel system and colour grade it. Once the cut was locked, they sent him a QuickTime back and the team would check every single cut in the entire movie to make sure that everything matched exactly.
Assistant Editor Kevin Bailey, Editor Jan Kovac and Apprentice Editor Esther Sokolow.
So with the film finished, what was everybody's opinion of Final Cut Pro X?
Jan: I’ve been cutting exclusively on Final Cut Pro X now for almost 4 years since the Fall of 2012 so I think I’m a bit of a veteran now! I haven’t touched any other edit system.
However people are still not aware of the advantages of FCPX. It's deceptively easy to use so it seems like it's a deceptively easy NLE because it is not intimidating. People think that is because there's a lack of functions and they don’t take the time to learn the application thoroughly.
The biggest issue I have right now is the lack of knowledge amongst Union Assistant Editors. It is hard to keep a group together as, being freelance, they work on other projects that can overlap. It is getting better as there are more FCPX projects happening and the overall awareness is increasing.
Glenn: The number one advantage is that it’s a breeze, it’s a lot more efficient. You spend more time editing and less time preparing to make an edit. It is really fast, geared towards that part of the process, you spend a lot less time with the technical stuff and a lot more time on the actual fun stuff. More time, more ideas.
We got to edit longer because we didn’t have to work as hard with turnarounds, we had it all at our fingertips rather than it being spread all over the place.
All this from an application that costs $300. We have detailed before how the knowledge to cut Focus was gained from the FCPX community including right here on FCP.co.
Glenn, John and Jan haven't stopped learning and what we like is they are picking up the same tips for their Hollywood film with a global theatrical release as a one man band cutting a local event for YouTube. One great example came from Glenn.
Glenn: My favourite thing has been the hold frame ringout that you can do on an audio track. As directors, John and I were so happy to have that as there is nothing worse than an ugly audio cut when you are trying to concentrate on what you are doing. I want to kiss that guy who posted that tip!