Editing I Am Eora on Final Cut Pro X
I’m primarily a director and cinematographer, but I have always really enjoyed editing. In the ’80s, I was cutting music videos on film on a six plate 16mm Steenbeck, including Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning, and was an early-adopter of digital editing in the ‘90s, helping set up the Radical Transmission Syndicate, one of Sydney’s first community access NLE suites with a Media 100.
In December 2011, Larry Meltzer and I were commissioned by STUDIO, the SBS subscription arts channel, to document the creation of writer/director Wesley Enoch’s I Am Eora for the 2012 Sydney Festival, an indigenous rock opera with a cast of 45 singers, actors and dancers from around Australia, including Miranda Tapsell, from The Sapphires, international diva Wilma Reading and the legendary Jack Charles.
We shot at Carriageworks in Redfern on a Canon 5D Mark II and a Panasonic AF102, using the 5D for interviews and time lapse and the Panasonic as the cinema verite workhorse – it had two channels of XLR audio inputs and better depth of field. Both cameras had radio receivers from sound recordist Graham Wyse’s rig.
Having just finished a project in Final Cut Pro 7, I felt it was clunky and past its use-by date. Intrigued by the new Final Cut Pro X, I went to the Apple store several times and spent an hour or two each session re-editing and colour-grading the movie pre-loaded into the floor demo computers. I immediately liked the software. Colour-grading directly in the timeline was brilliant.
I decided to upgrade to FCP X and bought the software from the App Store for a measly $300 – from memory, my first iteration of FCP 5 was over $1500. At that time, the on-line forums were full of rants against Apple for dumbing down the software and FCP 7 editor friends of mine were appalled at my decision to actually use the new software. They were deserting FCP like rats from a sinking ship, swimming over to Adobe Premiere and even Avid. I knew I was going against the tide, but I jumped in.
Working on a late-2011 model 27" iMac, 3.4 Ghz Intel Core i7, I wrangled my own data each night of the shoot, making two copies of everything onto 2TB G-Drives we had Fedexed in from B&H Photo Video in New York City. Using the “optimize while import” option, all footage was transcoded to AppleProRes 422 in the background.
As I got to work, I found the software fast but glitchy. Cursor functions would randomly disappear. Doing anything fancy with titles often caused it to freeze or crash. Re-starting seemed to fix the problem. I quickly doubled my RAM from 8GB to 16GB for around $300, and that seemed to make everything run smoother.
I graded the show as I went because I hate watching ungraded rushes and because I could do it in the timeline without round-tripping to Colour, adding multiple vignettes which were easily tracked with keyframes (once I discovered how to access them). Over the two months of editing, I was able to fine-tune the grades on an on-going basis, which meant I didn’t have a huge grading process at the end and avoided the rushed pressure of a telecine session.
Eora was an intricate musical edit, with live bands and vocalists, feeds from the mixing desk, sync dialog with live music in the background etc, and I laid up the music in FCP X because I wanted the flexibility of not having to lock off the picture cut. I ended up with 30 separate tracks laid up and I could still make picture changes right until the day before the mix, confident that my tracks were all staying in sync. However, it was when I came to export the audio to ProTools for the mix that I really paid the painful price of being an early adopter.
It was a risky move, but to improve stability of the platform, I updated from 10.0.2 to 10.0.3 halfway through the cut – and there was no going back. Automatic Duck, a little piece of free software that enabled exports of AAFs from FCP X 10.0.2 to ProTools, didn’t work with 10.0.3! There was no way to output the audio for a professional mix.
I was up shit creek for a few weeks, spending a lot of time on the phone to FCP X tech support in the USA, but I seemed to know more about the subject than they did. I even experimented using Apple’s pro audio software Logic (which I have used for over ten years) to export an AAF, but its integration with FCP X was hopeless. Then a new app called X2Pro came out, designed to seamlessly integrate FCP X with ProTools. It was an early version and I didn’t have any luck with it. Though they came too late for me, subsequent free updates of X2Pro have fixed the issues I was having and I will try it again on a future production, as it really has the potential to streamline this kink in the FCPX post work flow.
In the end, I assigned each region of audio to one of 30 different “roles”, a new feature of FCP X, and manually added handles where necessary. I output each “role” as a separate WAV file. Mixer Brent Heber, of SumSound at Trackdown, imported the 30 WAVs into ProTools and deleted any areas of silence, instantly re-creating the regions. Over the three days of mixing, if my assigning of “roles” ever inadvertently merged different elements into the one track, I was able to deliver fix-ups to Brent. The mix was a dream.
I did all the sub-titling, a multi-layered opening title sequence and closing credits in the timeline, without using Motion. I relaid the final stereo mix and output a flawless AppleProRes 422 [HQ] master, 56 minutes long, which took around 40 minutes.
At the premiere screening on a big screen at Carriageworks in Redfern, after tweaking the colour temperature of the digital projector for half an hour, the final result looked crisp, with rich blacks – exactly as it looked on my iMac screen. The 5D footage looked spectacular.
Currently, I'm cutting a feature length documentary called Putupurri in FCP X 10.0.5 and it’s stable. The titling glitches appear fixed. I have discovered a host of new features that were lurking in the GUI that eluded me on Eora. My favourite: to fade titles in and out, click the little icons at the right-hand edge of the clip and tweak away.
Working on FCP X really feels like I’m operating a genuine “media composer”. I’m editing, creating graphics, colour-grading, sound-editing – in one seamless workflow. It's quite addictive.
To keep everything running smoothly, I close and re-open FCP X every few hours. If I’m having a coffee break or lunch, I close it down, cool down the iMac, as it runs hot. Every evening, I back-up my project and event folders to two separate G-Tech hard drives, still connected via Firewire 800 I'm afraid. I'm waiting for the price of Thunderbolt drives to fall before I order any from B&H in New York.