"When I would tell you have to pack everything you need for a year to live, produce and deliver a documentary series from the road into a 4WD and a camper trailer, would you call me crazy or jump at the opportunity?"

We are very excited to publish the first part of Carsten Orlt's amazing Final Cut Pro X user story. Making good documentaries is hard enough, but working from a mobile base adds another level of hassle and complexity!

We thought we would wait until the first episode was released on YouTube and we are very pleased to publish that and the first part of Carsten's story, the other two will follow.

Although the time differences make it slightly tricky, we will be dedicating a live YouTube show to Carsten, the programme and his workflow. So if you have a question from reading his story below, please subscribe to our channel.

In the meantime, enjoy the first Visible Farmer episode and enjoy the article!

 

 

Intro

When I would tell you have to pack everything you need for a year to live, produce and deliver a documentary series from the road into a 4WD and a camper trailer, would you call me crazy or jump at the opportunity?

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We think it’s one of the best ideas we've had and so last year we set out to film a series of short documentaries on female farmers in Australia called ‘Visible Farmer’.

In a time when our food production is under severe threat from climate change while at the same time needing to feed an ever increasing population, a chronic workforce shortage because less and less people want to work on farms, and a dramatic under-representation in agricultural organisations of the gender that produces 50% of all we eat, we felt that the stories of our female farmer need to be told.

And to reach the widest possible rural and urban audience, as well as encourage sharing and networking within not only the group of female farmers, but hopefully the wider population, we decided to create a Facebook Page @visiblefarmer, a website visiblefarmer.com and a YouTube Channel, where we will publish all films for free.
Featuring female farmers from Western Australia, we will start to release the first 15 stories from 28 August this year.

Background

Visible Farmer FCPX 1 02We are an independent production company based in Australia. In the last 15 years we have produced several very successful one hour natural history documentaries for the internal broadcast market. I have been editing with Final Cut Legacy since 1999 and I now use Final Cut Pro X for everything in house.

While planning the current project I had to use Avid and Premiere on a few jobs I fitted in as a freelance editor, so I have a good understanding where the 2 major competitors are at right now. 

I think Final Cut’s way to organise your footage is in a class of its own.

This is specially true for documentary work which is all I have done for the last 15 years. No other NLE lets you tag your footage allowing for multiple ways to describe the same clip, or just parts of a clip, without duplicating it in your library.

Combined with skimming this is the fastest way to find what you need and is crucial for me to make sure I never miss the best part(s) of my footage.

Combine this with a timeline that takes away the complications of dealing with tracks, patching and sync control, and allowing audio to be edited at sample level all the time, makes Final Cut the most advanced NLE today.

Big words I know, but this is what I believe, and I have worked with NLE’s since 1992. Final Cut X is the first NLE that actually starts to use the computer platform to its full potential and doesn’t just provide an electronic interface emulating analogue machines with a few added tricks. 

Planning

When we had the idea for the ‘Visible Farmer’ project we pretty quickly realised we had to be on the road continuously.

Through many years of filming in Australia we knew that farm locations can be so remote that it would burst every normal budget in regard to days of gear and crew hire due to extensive travel times.

Visible Farmer is also our first online project without a traditional broadcaster attached. Funding works very differently for an online project and it’s very rare to get funded before you start. Taking all the above into account we decided we have to shoot the stories ourselves.

I had shot a little B-Cam here and there on the 1 hour docs and for some of the teaser we made but for this project it was only me and my wife. This alowed us to get on the road and spend the time we needed with each farmer without thinking about how many days we can afford a crew.

It also allows us to be very flexible with time on the farm knowing that farmers are very busy people. Add to this things you can’t control like the weather, we wanted to give us every possible chance to capture a real portrait of a female farmers life.

Because of the vast distances in Australia, we also knew going back and forth between locations and our home in Sydney would cost too much time. So we made the decision to stay on the road for at least a year, travelling from farm to farm. Everything we needed to live, produce, shoot and edit had to be made mobile and had to fit into a 4WD and a camper trailer.

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It also had to function off-grid if necessary. This required month of planning and looking at everything we used daily in the office (and our normal lives) to see whether it would work on the road as is, or whether we needed a mobile solution for it.

Those month of planning really paid off as we haven’t encountered a situation so far where we couldn’t do the job because we forgot a tool or the one we had wasn’t working.

This planning becomes even more important when we had to find solutions that don’t break the bank. When working in remote locations we also had to consider that gear could fail and that it would take time to get it fixed or replaced. We covered for this situation partly by being able to extend our time on a farm without extra external costs while organising a replacement, and partly by going through the gear and checking whether an item could be used in different ways, e.g. can I connect the radio mics directly to the camera in case the audio mixer fails?

Hardware

The filming hardware setup was a little easier as we pretty much knew what we wanted. Only complication was that we had to own everything because hiring equipment would have been way to expensive for a whole year.

After using the original Canon C300 on our last in-house production featuring a young shark activist, we were set to get the newer Canon C300 mkII because it has 4K (more on that later) and a lot of other great focus and exposure assist features that help a lot, specially when you don’t have the muscle memory of years of camera work.

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For sound we decided on the Zoom F4 recorder because of it’s great price/performance value and it has timecode which is essential for easy syncing.

Money was very tight, so initially I thought we could use the MacBook Pro 15’’ my wife owns as the only computer for her and me to share. Luckily my wife, and a good friend, convinced me that we would end up fighting over the computer (and possibly killing each other) and so I needed a beefy MacBook Pro 15’’ for myself as well.

But with limited funds how can you afford a new camera and a new laptop? Luckily you don’t need to.

Here is my biggest tip for any film maker, specially if you start out. Buy 2nd hand.

Do your homework and look for the models that are 1-2 years old and are still up with the current specs. You can save half or more on the purchase price compared to new! And it’s better for the environment too.

As it was 2nd hand I could get a killer lens included with the C300 mkII and a huge 2TB SSD in the laptop which we definitely couldn’t have afforded if we would have bought everything new. 

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One big problem to work out was the power requirements when you need to be able to work off-grid. We didn’t know whether we would have mains power available while working in remote areas. With the help of a good friend we optimised the battery setup in our camping trailer to be able to work with solar, car alternator or mains power.

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For one specific part of the hardware setup, hard drives, this power problem influenced the whole media workflow I set up for the project.

At our home office I have a hardware raid which of course has its own power supply. To reduce power consumption and to avoid having to deal with multiple power supplies for laptops and an unknown amount of hard drives I would need, I decided the only option was bus powered drives.

Currently (after finishing shooting the first season) I use 4x5TB and 5x4TB LaCie drives plus a mix of Seagate and WD 6x2TB drives. It’s a mix of USB3 and USB-C type drives totalling 48TB. It’s cheaper too. Half the price compared to a raid the same size.

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Not being able to carry any external screens, I only packed my trusted Contour Shuttle Xpress which makes ‘jogging’ through footage so much faster compared to the left and right arrow key. I bought an external keyboard and trackpad when I edit for longer periods because it’s just better ergonomics.

Software

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When it came to what software to use, the decisions were even easier. I already owned Final Cut X, Motion and Compressor.

I also bought Hedge to download camera cards for the last project. ‘Producers Best Friend’ and Speedscriber where in the toolbox already as well.

The one software I didn’t have, but I knew I wanted was Sync-N-Link. I always hesitated buying it because of it’s price tag but being on the road and not having the time you have in the home office to sync your rushes, I decided I needed it. And I’m very glad that I did buy it.

What took 1 or more days on the last project was done in seconds. If you have matching timecode in a dual recording setup this is the best purchase you can make!

There is other Mac software I don’t want to live without, like Pixelmator, Scrivener, Magnet and 1Password. These are not necessary for editing video but make you computer life easier and more enjoyable. 

Shooting Format

When it came to decide what format to shoot on there were a few things to consider.

We had no experience with 4K as our last projects were all 1080p25. We were of the opinion that no broadcaster we worked with transmits 4K, so we don’t need to shoot in it.

‘Visible Farmer’ was planned as an online only project in stage 1 with either a 720p25 version for Facebook or a 1080p25 version for YouTube so no need for 4K here either.

Looking ahead, we wanted to be able to possibly create a long form version in stage 2 of the project for online or broadcast. But this was just an idea and had no outside interest attached to it. So why then consider 4K and the added complications with increased storage requirements and processing power needed?

3 main reasons made us change our mind and decided to shoot 4K after all.

Visible Farmer FCPX 1 09To future proof the material we had to account for the possibility that in a few years time broadcasters do not accept less than 4K for acquisition, regardless whether they broadcast in it or not.

There is also an advantage for working with 4K in a 1080 timeline in that it lets you zoom in 200% without any loss of quality. This effectively gives you another camera angle. Because we were doing the camera ourselves, we decided it would be very useful when shooting a more observational documentary style.

And finally we discovered that the Final Cut proxy workflow makes working with 4K really a breeze even on a laptop. By using proxies we could not only handle the 4K footage but also work with bus powered and therefore cheaper hard drives. 

Workflow

What I ended up doing is the following:

Copy cards from camera and audio recorder via Hedge onto external media drive A.

Create a new Final Cut library on the laptop internal SSD for the female farmer we were shooting at the time.

Then make a 2nd copy of only the original video clips by importing them into Final Cut with the media storage set to external media drive B.

I then switch the media storage to ‘in library’ and import the audio only files from the external media drive A into Final Cut.

I have now video and audio in 2 physical locations in case one drive fails. One is a 1 to 1 copy of the original camera and audio recorder cards, the second the video and audio wrapped into Quicktime and Wave files.

Initially I create one event per shooting day. Once a filming day is complete and with the media drive B still connected, I can now sync the rushes using Sync-N-Link.

Leaving the media storage to ‘in library’ I can also create proxies for the video clips only. Proxy creation is mostly done overnight after importing and syncing all rushes for a shooting day. Once this is done I disconnect all external drives and can start editing with the proxies inside the library stored on the internal SSD. 

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The reason I have to import the audio into the library, and not store it externally, is that Final Cut doesn’t make ‘proxies’ for audio only files. Therefore I have to pay great attention to switch the media storage location between importing video and audio.

It would be fantastic if Final Cut would allow me to set the destination for video/audio only/stills/proxies/optimised separately. Managing media in a proxy workflow using a dual recording method would be so much easier.

Another great improvement would be if Final Cut could always display the external media drive(s) for a library so I could open the library and it would tell me which drive I need to connect for the original media.

Right now I have a spreadsheet that lists all media locations because after 15 different shoots over a year things can get slightly confusing. Of course still images had to be imported into the library too because again FCP doesn’t create proxies for those.

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Once a shoot for a female farmer is complete, I backup the FCP library and all necessary external media onto LTO tapes. This copy gets sent back to Sydney as a safe storage of the media.

The internal SSD with the FCP libraries is constantly backed up via Time Machine. Not all 15 libraries of the first season fit on the internal SSD so I move libraries that are almost finished onto an external drive and manually backup that drive to another drive (not the Time Machine drive).

The rule that I follow is that every file, no matter what it is, has to exist twice on seperate physical drives in case a drive or the internal SSD dies.

LTO is for long term storage as it’s the only medium guaranteed to have a 30 year life-span.

We shoot with the C300 mkII in Canon Log2 and I apply a LUT in the clip inspector I got from the Canon site to all video clips to do a base colour correction which I use for editing. We also use a GoPro Hero 7, a Phantom 4 Pro and the iPhone 8 and I have LUT’s for these too.

The part I like the most about the workflow, and I only realised this once I started to edit the first story, is the power of proxies inside Final Cut.

Of course I tested the basic workflow before we left but I was still assuming I had to reconnect to the original media to do effects and colour correction. Wrong. You can do now everything in proxy mode and only connect the original media drive for final output.

I was always wondering why Apple made the ProRes proxy relatively large seeing so many people creating workarounds to get really small proxies. The reason I think is that the ProRes proxy is small enough to work fluently on a modest computer or laptop but has enough detail and colour information so you can actually do all your grading and FX work with the proxy.

Initially plugins weren’t working well in proxy mode, specially the Coremelt ones. But with the latest updates I can now use any plugin with proxies without restrictions and do not have to adjust them once I connect to the originals. Brilliant!

This whole workflow now allows me to import everything, disconnect all external drives, and edit and finish a story on the laptops SSD or an external USB3 drive, and only connect media drive(s) for final render. Super handy when you work in confined spaces without the space or power to connect multiple peripherals like raids.

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Now there was one little problem I had to work out much later in the project. The average storage requirement for the original video clips per story on the external media drives was about 1.2-1.5TB.

Always maxing out the space on the external media drives, I of course had some stories where the original media for a story was stored across 2 drives. No big deal when you have 4 ports on the laptop.

But what happens when you start to edit trailers and pull material from 7 or more stories? You could easily run into the problem that you need 4 or more of the external media drives attached at the same time for ‘online’ (and one port is used for power which you need because otherwise the battery in the laptop drains pretty quickly.) There is no USB-C hub and for a USB3 hub you need an external power source attached to the hub to feed the bus powered drives.

It is actually pretty simple to accomplish. Create a ‘Trailer Offline’ library. In proxy mode start editing by editing clips as needed from all the different individual female story libraries into a new project ‘Trailer Cut’.

Final Cut will copy the necessary clips together with any media it can find (proxy and audio) into this new library. Once you have a lock-off, copy only (from the File menu) the ‘Trailer Cut’ project into a new library called ‘Trailer online’ on a new empty drive.

Select to include proxy and optimised and Final Cut will again copy all necessary clips and all media it can find into this new library.

Last step is to connect the necessary original media drives one by one and copy the missing media into the ‘Trailer Online’ library with the consolidate function in the inspector. Here comes in handy that you also copied the proxies across because otherwise you would have no visual reference to where your missing original media is coming from.

Normally the filename is just a generated number from the camera so it’s really hard if you need to find things just by that number.

End result is one library on a new drive holding all proxy and full res media to play or output the ‘Trailer’ project.

As the whole series develops, continue to create new Trailer projects in your original ‘Trailer Offline’ library by re-using clips already in there, or add new ones. Once a new ‘Trailer Cut 2’ project is locked-off, repeat the steps above.

Final Cut always creates a new event in the target library for your copied project. After the copy process has finished (wait for all media to copy) it’s a good idea to move the project into your event where all previous online projects are.

This makes it easier for Final Cut to establish links to already existing media, because if part or all original media already exist in the ‘Trailer Online’ library, Final Cut will simply link to those, if it’s not there pull them in with the consolidate function as before.

 

Next time I will go through the whole editing and online process!

 

A big thank you to Carsten for taking the time to share such a fascinating FCPX user story with us. We are currently arranging for Carsten to be a guest on our live show on our YouTube channel, so please make sure you subscribe and hit the bell to get notification when we will be on!