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‘Focus’: The Feature Future of Final Cut Pro X

The movie, from Warner Bros. Pictures, happens to be the first studio feature cut in Apple Final Cut Pro X.

Every once in a while a movie comes along that has the potential to change how we work in the field of film and video. Focus is such a movie. It’s a romantic caper in the vein of To Catch a Thief or the Oceans franchise. It stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie as master and novice con artists who become romantically involved. Focus was written and directed by the veteran team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love), who adopted some innovative approaches in this production. Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC, shot the film.

Focus is a high-budget studio film shot in several cities, including New Orleans and Buenos Aires. The movie, from Warner Bros. Pictures, also happens to be the first studio feature cut in Apple Final Cut Pro X. The production team chose to shoot with ARRI Alexa cameras but record to ProRes 4444 instead of ARRIRAW (except for some visual effects shots).

Photo by Frank Masi.

At its launch in 2011, Final Cut Pro X had received a negative reaction from many veteran editors, so using it on Focus was a tough sell to Warner Bros. executives. In order to get over that hurdle, the editorial team tested the NLE exhaustively in all of the typical processes of feature film postproduction. They had to prove that the tool was more than up to the task.

Proving the Concept

Mike Matzdorff, first assistant editor, explains, “Warner Bros. wanted to make sure that there was a fallback if everything blew up. That plan B was to step back and cut in either [Apple] FCP 7 or [Avid] Media Composer. Getting projects from Final Cut Pro X into Media Composer was very clunky because of all the steps—getting to FCP 7 and then Automatic Duck to Avid. Getting to FCP 7 was relatively solid, so we ran a ‘chase project’ in FCP 7 with dailies for the entire show. Every couple days we would import an XML and relink the media. Fortunately, FCP X worked well and plan B was never needed.”

Writer/director Glenn Ficarra adds, “The industry changes so quickly that it’s hard to follow the progress. The studio was going off of old information. Once they saw that our approach would work and also save time and money, then they were completely on board with our choice.” The editorial team also consulted with Sam Mestman of FCPworks to determine what software, other than FCP X, was required to satisfy all of the requirements associated with post on a feature film.

This was a new experience for editor Jan Kovac (Curb Your Enthusiasm), as Focus is his first Hollywood feature. Kovac studied film in the Czech Republic and then editing at UCLA. He’s been in the Los Angeles post world for 20 years, which is where he met Ficarra and Requa. Kovac was ready to be part of the team and accept the challenge of using Final Cut Pro X on a studio feature. He says, “I was eager to work with John and Glenn and prove that FCP X is a viable option. In fact, I had been using FCP X for small file-based projects since the fall of 2012.”

Production and Post on the Go

Jan Kovac, editor

Focus was shot in 61 days over a three-month period and across two continents. Kovac and three assistants (Mike Matzdorff, Andrew Wallace and Kimaree Long) worked from before principal photography started until the sound mix and final delivery of the feature—roughly from September 2013 until August 2014. The production shot 145 hours of footage, much of it multicam. Focus was shot in an anamorphic format as 2048 x 1536 ProRes 4444 files recorded directly to the Alexa’s onboard cards.

On set the DIT used the Light Iron Outpost mobile system to process the files, de-squeezing them and baking in CDL color information. The editors then received 2048 x 1152 color corrected ProRes 4444 “dailies,” which were still encoded with a Log C gamma profile. FCP X has the ability to internally add a Log C LUT on the fly to correct the displayed image, so the clips always looked close the final appearance during the edit.

Ficarra says, “This was great because when we went through the DI for the final grading, the look was very close to what had been decided on set. You didn’t see something radically different in the edit, so you didn’t develop ‘temp love’ for a certain look.”

A number of third-party developers have created utilities that fill in postproduction gaps; one of these is Intelligent Assistance, which makes various workflow tools based on XML. The editors used a number of these, including Sync-N-Link X, which enabled them to sync double-system sound with common timecode in a matter of minutes instead of hours.

Mike Matzdorff, first assistant editor.

Script data can be added to Final Cut Pro X clips as notes. On Focus, that had to be done manually by assistants. The need to automate the process spurred Kevin Bailey (Kovac’s assistant on his current film) to develop Shot Notes X, an application that takes the script supervisor’s information and merges it with FCP X Events, adding this metadata into the notes field.

During the months of post, Apple released several updates to Final Cut Pro X and the team was not shy about upgrading mid-project. Matzdorff explains, “The transition to 10.1 integrated Events and Projects into Libraries. To make sure there weren’t any hiccups, I maintained an additional FCP X ‘chase project.’ I ran an alternate world between 10.0.9 and 10.1. We had 52 days of dailies in one Library and I would bring cuts across to see how they linked up and what happened. The transition was a rough one, but we learned a lot, which really helped down the line.”

Managing the Media

Final Cut Pro X has the unique ability to internally transcode quarter-sized editorial proxy files in the ProRes Proxy format. The editor can easily toggle between original footage and editorial proxies, and FCP X takes care of the math to make sure color, effects and sizing information tracks correctly between modes. Throughout the editing period, Kovac, Ficarra and the assistants used both proxies and the de-squeezed camera files as their source. According to Kovac, “In Buenos Aires I was working from a MacBook Pro laptop using the proxies. For security reasons, I would lock up the footage in a safe. By using proxies, which take up less drive space, a much smaller hard drive was required, and that easily fit into the safe.”

Jan Kovac with Sam Mestman (of FCPworks) in the editorial trailer on location in New Orleans.

Back at their home base in Los Angeles, four rooms were set up connected to Xsan shared storage. These systems included iMacs and a Mac Pro (“tube” version). All camera media and common source clips like sound effects libraries lived on the Xsan, while each workstation had a small SSD RAID for proxies and local FCP X Libraries. The Xsan included a single transfer Library so that edits could be moved among the rooms. Kovac and Ficarra shared roles as co-editors at this stage, collaborating on each other’s scenes.

Kovac says, “This was very fluid, going back and forth between Glenn and me. The process was a lot like sharing sequences with FCP 7. It’s always good to keep perspective, so each of us would review the other’s edited scenes and offer notes.”

The other two systems were used by the assistants. Kovac continues, “The Libraries were broken down by reel and all iterations of sharing were used, including the Xsan or sneaker net.”

Setting Up a Film Edit in FCP X

As with any film, the key is organization and translating the script into a final product. Kovac explains his process with FCP X: “The assistants would group the multicam clips and ‘reject’ the clip ranges before ‘action’ and after ‘cut.’ This hides any extraneous material so you only have to sort through useable clips. We used a separate Event for each scene. With Sam and Mike, we worked out a process to review clips based on line readings. The dialogue lines in the script were numbered and the assistants would place a marker and a range for every three lines of dialogue. These were assigned keywords so that each triplet of dialogue lines would end up in a Keyword Collection. Within a scene Event, I would have Keyword Collections for L1-3, L4-6 and so on. I would also create Smart Collections for certain criteria—for instance, a certain type of shot or anything else I might designate.”

The film’s edit bay in Los Angeles.

Everyone involved felt that FCP X made the edit go faster, but it still takes time to be creative. Ficarra continues, “The first assembly of the film according to the script was about three hours long. I call this the ‘kitchen sink cut.’ The first screening cut was about two and a half hours. We had removed some scenes and lengthened others and showed it to a friends and family audience. It actually didn’t play as well as we’d hoped. Then we added these scenes back in and shortened everything, which went over much better. We had intentionally shot alternate versions of scenes just to play around with them in the edit. FCP X is a great tool for that because you can easily edit a number of iterations.”

Engineered for Speed

While many veteran editors experienced in other systems might scoff at the claim that FCP X is a faster editor, Mike Matzdorff was willing to put a finer point on that statement for me. He says, “I find that because of the magnetic timeline, trimming is a lot faster. If you label roles extensively, it’s easier to sort out temporary from final elements or organize sound sources when you hand off audio for sound post. With multichannel audio in an Avid, for example, you generally sync the clips using only the composite mix. That way you aren’t tying up a lot of tracks on the timeline for all of the source channels. If you have to replace a line with a clean, isolated mic, you have to dig it out and make the edit. With FCP X, all of the audio channels are there and neatly tucked away until you need them. It’s a simple matter of expanding a clip and picking a different channel. That alone is a major improvement.”

Ficarra and Kovac are in complete agreement. Ficarra points out, “As an editor, I’m twice as fast on FCP X as on Avid. There’s less clicking. This is the only NLE that’s not trying to emulate some other model, like cutting on a flatbed. You are able to move faster on your impulses.”

Kovac adds, “It keeps you in the zone.”

Designing the editing workflow for the film’s collaborative editing.

The final DI was handled by Light Iron, which conformed and graded Focus. The handoff was made using an EDL and an FCPXML, along with a QuickTime picture reference. Light Iron relinked to the original anamorphic camera masters and graded using a Quantel Rio unit.

Filling in the Workflow Gaps

A number of developers contributed to the success of FCP X on Focus. Having a tight relationship with the editing team let them tailor their solutions to the needs of the production. One of these developers, Philip Hodgetts (president of Intelligent Assistance), says, “One of the nice things about being a small software developer is that we can react to customer needs very quickly. During the production of Focus, we received feature requests for all the tools we were providing: Sync-N-Link X, Change List X and Producer’s Best Friend. For example, Sync-N-Link X gained the ability to create multicam clips, in addition to synchronizing audio and video, as a result of a feature request from first assistant Mike Matzdorff.”

This collaborative spirit extended to Apple’s ProApps team, who also kept a close and helpful watch on the progress of Focus.

Photo by Frank Masi.

For every film that challenges convention, curiosity is piqued about the process. Industry insiders refer to the “Cold Mountain moment,” alluding to the use of FCP 3 by editor Walter Murch on the 2003 film Cold Mountain (the first Hollywood feature film edited entirely in Final Cut Pro). That milestone added high-end legitimacy for Final Cut among professional users. Gone Girl did that for Adobe Premiere Pro, and now Focus has done that for a new version of Final Cut. But times are different and it’s hard to say what the true impact will be among professional editors. Nevertheless, the successful post experience on Focus gave the team the confidence to remain with Final Cut Pro X on their next film.

Change can be both scary and exciting, but as Glenn Ficarra says, “We like to shake things up. It’s fun to see the bemused comments wondering how we could ever pull it off with something like FCP X!”

For those who want to know more about the nuts and bolts of the postproduction workflow, Mike Matzdorff released Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow, an iBook that’s a step-by-step advanced guide based on the lessons learned on Focus. It’s available through iTunes and Kindle.