Recently we were contacted to help put together a promo for the second season of CBC’s Canada’s Smartest Person series. The deadline was tight; we had only a few short days to turn everything around and as a result we needed to make sure we worked as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Naturally I turned to Final Cut Pro X to help. I had a pretty good idea of how to tackle the project, and figured that despite the original show being cut in Avid that Final Cut Pro X was up to the job.
There were a few bumps along the way, and some lessons learned that I wanted to quickly share with my fellow editors so they are prepared should they ever find themselves in the same boat.
Early 2009 Mac Pro
2 x 2.93 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon
24 GB 1066 MHz DDR3 RAM
AMD Radeon HD 7950 3072 MB Graphics Card
OS X vr. 10.9.5
8 TB RAID (2x4TB drives)
Final Cut Pro vr. 10.1.4
CONVERT MXF TO PRORES
On Wednesday we received several drives with media for us to work from. This included final master outputs of the series in MXF format, with 8 channels of audio (5.1 and stereo masters). Considering the tight turn-around schedule (we had to have something to show the produced by 5pm the next day, and the final delivery had to ready for Tuesday) I opted to just work with the MXFs natively in Final Cut Pro since it now supported the format.
Looking back on it this was probably ill advised, at least had we not had a tight turnaround. Because Final Cut Pro X now considers MXF an “optimized format”, there is no way to convert the files in Final Cut itself, so I would have had to use Compressor to do a batch, wait for the batch to finish, and then import those new files in. We simply didn’t have time to do so, and so we stuck with MXF from start to finish. And while FCP handled the MXFs fine, I’ve also never had a project crash or lock up as much as this one did. In fairness, this could have been due to the fact that each episode’s file was over an hour and a half, and there were at least 9 of these, so it was a lot of media to handle. Also, it probably didn’t help that it was in XDCAM which Final Cut has never played nice with, but I’m still pretty confident that if everything was in ProRes things might have been a bit smoother.
I did try converting the material to Proxy, but found the workflow a little clunky, since it meant every file that came in needed a proxy version created, which again was time/friction we wanted to avoid.
Be that as it may, we were able to finish the project while using MXF the whole time, which proves that it is possible, just maybe not the best.
APPLE NEEDS TO DEAL WITH WAVEFORMS
It’s no secret that waveform generation and Final Cut Pro X is problematic. It will slow your project down to a crawl, and your life is so much easier if you turn off waveforms. But the reality is at some point you’re going to need to see them, and when you do the associated pain will come rushing back. I mentioned that I never had a project lock up as much as this one did, and while some of that could be related to the MXF files, I think a lot of it had to do with waveform generation.
Again, it didn’t help that we were dealing with incredibly long clips, but there needs to be a better workaround for dealing with waveform generation, because it’s affecting everyone.
ROLES ARE INCREDIBLE!
Most of the things I’ve cut to date haven’t required complicated outputs and deliverables, so I never worried much about roles. However, once it was brought to my attention that this piece would be sent out for audio mixing, I quickly made sure that I set up all my roles appropriately. And once you do it’s pretty magical. Not only does it allow for quick stems creation, but you can turn each role on or off in the timeline so you can isolate elements quickly. Most importantly, if you export an AAF file for your audio guys, each role will come in on its own track, and they’ll received an incredibly well organized project which will make them super happy.
Moving forward I can see even more uses for being organized with roles. Hell, properly executed it could make textless masters a breeze - simply do an output and disable the "text" role. I'll definitely be using these more and more going forward, all it takes is a little organization and planning early on (though it's easily adjusted once locked too).
As I mentioned, to date we never had need to do AAF outputs, which meant that we had to invest in some software in order to do so. The go to tool is X2Pro, and let me tell you it’s well worth the price of admission. While smaller projects could probably get by on the cheaper LE version of the software, because of the aforementioned 1.5 hour long files I upgrade (via in app-purchase, which worked just fine) to the full version of the application in order to set handles and trim away all the unused media.
It also took a little bit of trial and error to get the application to read my FCPXML file, mostly because I had used an “audition” in my project. Weirdly despite telling Final Cut Pro to “Finalize” the audition, X2Pro kept giving me an error saying there was an audition present. Sure enough when I re-opened the project the audition was still there. Ultimately I just flipped back to the original clip and replaced the audition with that and all was well.
Apart from that minor issue I had no real problems with the AAF prep, and the team working on the audio finishing reported no problems with the resulting file. While it’s unfortunate that Final Cut Pro X doesn’t have AAF export supported natively, and it requires you to purchase a somewhat costly third-party application, the results are far better than the native support Legacy Final Cut Pro had (remember the pain of doing OMF outputs!?).
OVERALL WORKFLOW SPEED
This was the first time I had tackled a project like this in Final Cut Pro X, and as a result I had to come up with an optimal workflow on the fly. I spent a lot of time front loading my organization; taking all the notes from the producers and building selects and keyword collections based on their selections. I then took time to skim through each episode and highlight any viz I liked and put it into corresponding keyword collections.
While this meant that my initial assembly/organization process took longer than usual it was incredibly helpful after we delivered the first cut to the client. I was able to address their notes so much faster because all of the elements I needed we already organized and at my fingertips. Need a different reaction of someone being frustrated, or celebrating a win? Just hop into the corresponding keyword collection and grab a different shot. Not wild about that celebrity's reaction? That’s fine, I have already built a collection with all of them. I was able to turn around notes in a matter of minutes because I took the time upfront to make sure my library was hyper organized; which is especially important when working from 1.5 hour long clips. The magnetic timeline also made it really easy to switch out the temp audio we had recorded with the final performance from the host. Sometimes her reads were slightly longer than our temp audio but we were able to ripple and roll the project with great ease to accommodate these changes.
Apart from the aforementioned issue with waveform generation there are still a few “missing pieces” I’d love to see addressed. The big one is once again, colour coded roles. Once I took the time to make sure everything was nicely organized with roles it’d be really great to be able to visualize it without enabling/disabling the roles themselves. Looking at the timeline can be a bit overwhelming, but having some colours to differentiated between narration, SFX, Music, and dialogue would help take away some of that anxiety.
It would also be nice to see things like AAF outputs built into FCP X natively, and maybe one day that will happen (after all, MXF support used to require Third Party applications until Apple bought them out), but I also understand that it’s not a feature everyone needs which is why Apple is happy to let third-parties deal with it (including tech support, which is perhaps reason alone for them not to bother).
I'd also like to see Apple adjust how it deals with media reconnect. Files have to be in the same format, and frame size in order for Final Cut to reconnect, meaning that I couldn't just start out with XDCAM MXFs, convert them to ProRes over the weekend, and then reconnect to these new ProRes files. It'd be great to be able to force Final Cut to reconnect to whatever I tell it to so that this would have been possible.
Overall though, Final Cut Pro X was definitely the right tool for the job. Thanks to some careful organization up front I was able to turn the project around in record time, and everyone was incredibly pleased with the final product, which in the end is what matters most.
Season 2 of CBC's Canada's Smartest Person is now casting. If you're interested in participating, or know someone brilliant you want to nominate, please visit their website and apply!