So just how efficient can Final Cut Pro X be in feature film post production? Find out from the story of the post production process of Gabriel, a new film from Portuguese Director Nuno Bernardo.
A few years ago, I wrote an article for FCP.CO talking about my experience using FCPX on our feature-length TV documentary about stand-up comedy, "The Standups". The text was focused on our adventures and troubles moving from a Classic FCP workflow we used for a decade to the new version of Apple’s video editing software. Since that experience, FCPX has been our NLE of choice, and we’ve been using on Feature Films, High-End TV series, TV Magazines and digital projects.
At beActive, we have a continuous quest of being efficient, faster and reduce costs on post-production stages. FCPX is the central piece of our workflow, but we’ve been adapting and using new tools that allow our editors to finish projects on time and with higher quality. One of these projects was my feature film debut as a director, “Gabriel”, a coming of age story set in the world of boxing.
The movie tells the story of a young Cape-Verdean that travels to Lisbon to find his lost father, an ex-boxing champion. In this process, Gabriel will end up accepting a violent fight against a local thug. Gabriel screened at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival in early August 2018. The movie will be released in cinemas in Portugal early 2019, and other countries will follow after that.
Gabriel was shot with two Alexa cameras recording in ProRes 4444, and we used a post workflow we perfected last year when we shot “A Família Ventura” a primetime TV limited series to our local public broadcaster RTP. The series was set as a special Christmas event – 4 one-hour episodes – to be broadcasted during four consecutive days around the December 24th. The shoot of the series happened in October and November, so post-production schedule was very compressed – episodes needed to be delivered by December 15th.
On "A Família Ventura" we used a combination of tools, all linked to Final Cut Pro X: Tentacle Sync TC dongles, a production iPad with Movie Slate (TC synced to Alexa Cameras) for logging, Tentacle Sync Studio for syncing audio and video files and Shot Notes X to bring the logging from Movie Slate on FCPX as metadata. Then X2Pro to turnover audio to Protools and Davinci Resolve for grading and deliveries. That allowed us to have synced and fully descriptive files by the end of each shooting day so the editor could start editing the rushes of the previous day, early in the morning.
The difference from “A Família Ventura” to Gabriel was on the sound workflow: the TV Series used a Zoom F8 and the feature film a Sound Devices 788. In both cases, Tentacle Sync kept the TC accuracy between the two Alexa cameras, the sound recording device and the iPad running Movie Slate. We synced all devices twice a day, and we never had a TC issue in both productions what shows how good the small Tentacle Sync dongles are.
In both cases, sound recordists entered metadata on the audio files (Scene, Take) that was used as a backup if anything went wrong with our main metadata workflow. We also used a traditional clapboard was backup for the editor – but barely necessary, as all the files were synced correctly and renamed with their proper scene and take data (and all the other precious information recorded by the script supervisor).
The experience we gathered with “A Família Ventura” gave us the confidence to use the same tools and workflow for the feature film. During the TV Series, the only issues we had happened half-way the production with a bug on bringing XML from Tentacle Sync Studio to Shot Notes X and then FCPX. After 15 days of working without an issue, on day 16 the metadata refused to be imported into FCPX. After contacting Kevin Bailey from Shot Notes X on a Thursday evening, he sent us back, less than 24 hours later, a new version of Shot Notes X with the bug fixed and metadata was back on FCPX. We couldn't wish better support from the developer.
One of the reasons why the “A Família Ventura”, and “Gabriel” workflows didn’t generate hiccups was because we avoid some of the mistakes we made on “The Standups” documentary as listed on my previous article. On these new projects, we didn’t use different cameras; we make sure that everything had the same frame rate (or if it was a VFR, that was identified on the metadata), we didn’t upgrade software versions during production, and the editor was always on set from day 1. This way we were able to move from Rushes to Edit to Turnovers to Sound and Grading faster and trouble-free. Also, we benefited from the fact that FCPX is now a very mature product and the integration with Davinci Resolve and Protools is tried and tested.
As a summary, this is the workflow we tested on “A Família Ventura” and perfected to the “Gabriel” feature film.
- Production used two Alexa cameras and recorded PRORES 4444 at 3.2k in Log format. I know that most of the productions can’t afford Alexa, but even so, I recommend recording PRORES when possible (using a Blackmagic or Atomos recorder) as the editing process is painless and you don’t need to generate proxies or transcode. We were able to edit these files directly from off-the-shelf hard drives on MacBook Pro 15 (2013 model) computers without any playback problem. The Tentacle Sync dongles were used to keep all cameras, the audio recorder and the Script Supervisor iPad locked on the same frame. On a previous production – where we couldn’t afford the Alexa – we used the GH5, and the TC was recorded as an audio file in one of the tracks what allowed us to keep the same TC workflow. This feature is one of the beauties of the Tentacle Sync devices: it can integrate with almost any workflow.
- The Alexa cards were delivered to the D.I.T. technician that used a MacBook Pro 15 to copy the footage to three different Hard Drives, Seagate USB3 8TB Hard Drives using Hedge for Mac, our favouritefile copy tool. The interface is very simple and allows us to copy the files to three simultaneous hard drives, with checksum security at fast speeds (when compared to competing apps). As we ended up with 14TB of footage we needed six hard drives in total (three pairs). One pair stayed with D.I.T. technician overnight, the other was sent to the producer’s office, and a third was kept, between shooting days, with the Line Producer. We avoided having expensive Raids as PRORES footage, even at 4444 compression and 3.2k frame size, don’t require more than a Fast Hard drive.
- Audio files were also transferred using the workflow mentioned above. Hedge for Mac copied the CF cards to the Hard Drives. The hard drives were organisedby shooting days, then by cameras and then inside each camera, the reel numbers.
- At the end of the shooting day, the script supervisor will upload to the cloud, the log document generated by MovieSlatecontained all the metadata: scene, take, framing, lens used, actors in the scene, day/night, etc. plus the marks on Circle Takes and notes per shot. The D.I.T. was then able to download this file and import it to Shot Notes X. We tested MovieSlate's own Mac OS X companion app for bringing metadata from their iPad logging tool to FCPX, but comparing the results of both, we got better metadata integration results from Shot Notes X.
- The Sync processed was done on 2 steps and usually took 2 to 3 minutes. The D.I.T. technician will open Tentacle Sync Studio (as mentioned above we used the small Tentacle Sync dongles to sync audio recorder, cameras and Movie Slate) and drag and drop the folder of the footage and audio of that day. We could use Sync and Link, but the Tentacle Sync Dongles come with free licenses to Tentacle Sync Studio, and the results were as good, we prefer going this route. As we organise footage per day, we just needed to drag a folder. Tentacle Sync Studio will identify both audio and video files, sync the ones that can be synchronised (VFR files are of course, not synced) and generate an FCPX XML file. We then use that XML file and import it to Shot Notes X where we merge it with the XML file created by Movie Slate. We then export the Shot Notes X XML directly to FCPX and magic happens. Video and audio files show up fully synced, and they include all the metadata and information recorded by the Script Supervisor. In the process, the clip name is also changed to a combination of Scene-Take-Shot so the editor can find them easily.
- In this process, keywords were generated by the type of shot and framing: Wide, Medium, Close-up, character’s name, scene name, and other information recorded by the script supervisor. The editor can then reorganisethem or delete the ones he doesn’t need. Another big advantage of this workflow is that, during long takes, as a Director, I was able to mark ranges and performances that I liked and mention that to the script supervisor on the fly. Even if the overall take was not good or usable, expressions or performances were logged in and appeared as markers inside FCPX. So, even if the full take was not a circle take, the Editor could easily find small bits that I liked on set and create sub-clips with them to use in the editing.
- Whenever necessary, the D.I.T. technician will upload rushes to Frame.io directly from FCPX. Also, one of his tasks was taking screen grabs from scenes that can be used by script supervisor to maintain continuity between scenes. Sometimes, the same scene was shot in parts on different days, so it was vital to have these grabs. That was crucial on the final fight sequence of Gabriel: the same fight was shot on five consecutive days, and each day we shot the full match from the first to last round. Every day we shot the same fight sequence but from different angles. So, on each day, everything needed to match – especially the make-up of the fighters (blood, bruises, broken noses, etc.).
- Editing of the film lasted two months after the production wrapped (plus the month the editor worked on set). As we needed to screen the movie to the local Distributor ASAP, we had a very tight schedule. Editing was done on a 2012 Mac Pro with a GTX980ti GPU, Blackmagic Decklinkcard connected to an external JVC monitor and a pair of speakers. The editor applied a LUT created by our cinematographer (the same used to monitor on set), so the editing and preview of the shots could be done with footage looking as close as possible to the intended look (and not on Log C). This process takes only one click: select all the files and change the LUT (by default, FCPX detects the Alexa Log Files and apply the Log to 709 Lut).
- For the first screening to the Distributor, there was no time to bring an audio editor on board, so the editor leveled all the dialogue and add ambiences and temp FX (including hundreds of punch sounds) to make the fights more realistic. The fact that you can connect audio files (i.e. sound effects) to a specific frame on a video file was crucial to be able to link hundreds of punch sound effects to the fight scenes – as they need to be frame accurate.
- In our short post-production schedule, one important part was the Grading. During post, our Colorist and Cinematographer were in a different city – 300km north of Lisbon, so we established a simple remote workflow. We sent a pair of Hard Drives (exact copy of the editing hard drives), and the editor will send FCPX XML files with update edits (cuts for the feature, trailer, etc.) and the Colorist will send back small Davinci Resolve .drpproject files that allow us to recreate the grading on our side and give notes remotely. We know that this is not an “elegant” collaboration workflow but it simply works and the files being exchanged are a few megabytes in size (and we don’t need remote storage, cloud services and complex infrastructure to be able to have a remote grading operation).
- We used Davinci Resolve to export a master (in PRORES 4444) with the final cut of the film. Instead of using the DCP Tools on Davinci Resolve we use a small tool called CuteDCPfor Adobe Premiere (Media Encoder) that allow us to create a trouble-free DCP that just works.
- Based on the feedback we got on initial screening we went and fix some editing issues and then went with a full sound design and mix and final grading. X2Pro is our tool to bring the XML into an AAF that we sent to the Audio Editor. Although during the edit we only use the stereo mix from the on-set sound recordist, we leave the 8 individual tracks linked (but muted) on the FCPX timeline so the Sound editor will have them synced to the video and doesn’t have to go back to the original WAVE files and re-sync them again.
- The final version of the movie was screened on the Locarno Film Festival early August 2018. We did all the subtitling inside Davinci Resolve 15. For the first time we didn’t need to hire external subtitling services as the new subtitling tools are so straightforward that anyone can add them – frame accurate – to the timeline. We had the translator adding them directly on a separate version of Resolve in a small notebook. Finally, we also exported a DCP with the first theatrical trailer that is already being showed in Portuguese cinemas, ahead of the premiere of the movie.
In both cases we were able to finish post-production in record times at the same time we were able to cut costs. It’s not just FCPX that allow us to do that, but it’s the magnetic effect that FCPX had on the community: dozens of useful tools appeared in recent years or others, like Resolve or Movie Slate, integrate directly with FCPX. This ecosystem and allow filmmakers to develop the workflow that suits their needs and budgets and not conform to a “standard” (read expensive) workflow that was established for big budget movies decades ago, that is cumbersome, and not fit the way we produce films and tv shows nowadays.
Writer, Producer, Director and Published Author