In 2011, when Apple officially released Final Cut Pro X, the reception was less than stellar. Many industry pros who had, for years, relied on Final Cut Pro 7 had trouble making the leap to a magnetic timeline and found the new software lacked many fundamental tools. A lot has happened in the last 8 years, and FCPX has climbed back up the ladder as a main competitor in the NLE game.
Mystery Box started on Apple’s Final Cut 7 and changed to Adobe Premiere in 2011 as we found it was the closest match in tool set and UI to Final Cut 7. After 8 years of streamlining workflows and building muscle memory, last year Mystery Box made the decision to jump the Adobe ship and make FCPX our NLE of choice. We now edit exclusively on FCPX. Our choice was not an easy one; there were many debates at company meetings about the pros and cons of each software, but the overwhelming advantage of FCPX, which ultimately pushed us over the edge, was organization with metadata tags Apple calls “keywords”. This post is not intended to be a “Battle of the NLEs” comparison. There are plenty of those in existence. Instead we want to focus on organization with keywords, smart collections, and our experiences with them. It’s the feature that sets FCPX apart from the competition, and the feature everyone else is now scrambling for.
In the end, an NLE is simply a tool for building a story. Less time spent fighting the software and searching through endless folder structures for needed footage means quicker turn-arounds, which makes you and your production more valuable. FCPX and its keyword workflow has proven itself as the fastest workflow and most reliable NLE for our needs.
Metadata Tagging in NLEs
Metadata tagging isn’t new. It has been an essential part of FCPX since its initial release in 2011, but as a result of the extremely polarized reviews during its launch, this powerful feature has taken several years to really hit the spotlight. Avid’s Media Composer, Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, and Adobe’s Premiere Pro all make limited use of metadata organization, but none come close to the fluid UI, flexibility, and granularity of FCPX’s solution. For FCPX, the magic happens in an advanced database system Apple calls the “Event Browser”. Within this database, users can apply any word or phrase as a keyword tag. These tags can be organized in user-created “Smart Collections”. This, in and of itself, was a game-changer for media organization, but FCPX took it a step further by enabling metadata tags for ranged selections within a target clip.
In the Event Browser, if a clip has in and out points set, keywords can be applied to that specific range (not the entire clip). Until now, FCPX has been the only NLE to offer this powerful tool. Recent versions of Resolve have made good progress towards “range-based keywording” but lack the finesse of FCPX. For every 5 keystrokes it takes to tag something in FCPX, it takes 10 in other NLEs. A good demo a FCPX-esque workflow in Resolve was detailed by Scott Simmons in this video. Note that Simmons starts the video by showing the FCPX workflow as, in his words, “the standard bearer” of fast and robust organization.
Keywords in the Real World
To illustrate just how much this workflow improves our edit experience, we want to look at two past projects Mystery Box produced: our recently released feature documentary Iron Cowboy: The Story of the 50.50.50 (available in HDR on iTunes), and a documentary style web series project we produced for an app called “Famify”.
Documentary Film: Iron Cowboy
The first case study is a documentary called Iron Cowboy chronicling the journey of extreme endurance athlete James Lawrence as he attempts to accomplish the world’s first 50.50.50 (50 Iron Man-length triathlons, in all 50 states, in 50 consecutive days). As you can imagine, this project was a logistical nightmare. The amount of footage was astounding, locations just as plentiful, and there was a good amount of featured people as well.
The insane logistics that went into James’ journey is something you must see to really understand, and we are truly proud to have been able to document the ride. You can check out the documentary on iTunes now at this link. Mystery Box was on the fence about FCPX in 2015 when Iron Cowboy headed into production. We knew the organization tools of FCPX would be perfect for the heavy volume of footage, but were nervous about the stability, lack of features, and growing pains associated with changing to FCPX right before a feature length documentary. At the time, FCPX had yet to deliver on some essential features, particularly in the color management and sound departments. To be perfectly honest, we weren’t ready to completely trust FCPX with such a big job. The decision was made to make FCPX our logging solution, Adobe Prelude the transfer method for the FCPX generated metadata, and Premiere the main NLE. It was a huge decision, but we felt strongly that it was the safest route for our team to delivery a feature at the time. In hindsight, we should have remained in FCPX.
Premiere does have metadata tagging capabilities. Colin Smith over at VideoRevealed does a great job detailing an FCPX-like approach to sorting media within Premiere Pro in this video. Adding metadata tags in Premiere is not really an advertised feature of the software and proved too cumbersome. Prelude, which is Adobe’s ingest software was able to convert FCPX metadata (exported as FCPXML) into something Premiere could handle. Natively, Premiere only recognizes the Final Cut 7 XML format. 8 years ago the FC7 XML format was the industry standard, but it is now completely out-of-date. FC7 XMLs lack the ability to transfer important timeline info such as effects, keyframes, custom metadata tags, speed changes, color space info, and captions. Ask anyone who round trips timelines from Premiere to Resolve on a regular basis: everything must be stripped down to the simplest cuts. Yet, Resolve recognizes the updated FCPXML, meaning a round trip for a FCPX timeline needs no alteration before exporting the XML. Speed ramps, blurs, and transitions all appear in Resolve just as they did in FCPX.
Because of the lack of updated XML support, Premiere required special treatment and forced us to use the FCPX > Prelude > Premiere workflow. This allowed us to tag quickly in FCPX, painstakingly move it over to Premiere through Prelude, and find all our tagged clips within the Premiere project. It was still faster than logging everything in Premiere, but slower than using FCPX natively. In the beginning, this seemed to work just fine. Range-based keywords (more on this below) appeared in the Premiere as duration markers and our FCPX keywords were searchable in Premiere. But as the production continued and footage kept flowing in, the Premiere project got bigger and bigger. Each import added more footage and the associated metadata from FCPX. Before we knew it, the Premiere project would take 20 minutes just to open. It got so bad that we would just leave the project open all the time because we didn’t want to wait for it to reopen. Premiere could not handle the large amounts of media and metadata database.
In the end, we finished the film editing in Premiere. But we kept our FCPX project open and used it to skim and find the assets, before flipping back over to Premiere to work with them in a timeline. If we had known how much of a pain the performance was going to be going into the project, we would have stayed in Final Cut: the learning curve was negligible compared to the time we lost waiting for Premiere to work. Hindsight is 20/20.
Social Media Series: Famifi
The second case study is a web series produced for an app called “Famify”. This content was shot in 3 cities across the U.S. over 6 shooting days, in a 3-camera multicam configuration. Each day we shot an average of 12.5 interviews with different people on the streets, making around 75 total interviews. The client’s request for delivery was 21 x 3-5 minute videos over a month and a half, each showcasing answers to the same set of questions from a variety of people. For example, one video showed responses to the question, “When should kids get a smartphone?” We wanted to quickly find all the responses to each specific question because speed was imperative. Luckily, FCPX made that considerably less painful than traditional methods.
This project had similar needs to the Iron Cowboy. Let’s say we are working on the 3 minute video for the question, “When should kids get a smartphone?” Our edit is looking good, but the client requests that we add another response from a woman to even out the male and female ratio. In FCPX this is quite simple, if you’ve used your keywords well. Making a new “Smart Collection” allows us to sort based on keywords, but also qualify that we want only clips with the keyword “Female” AND “When should kids get a smartphone?”. Each new keyword selection added to the smart collection has these 4 options:
Include Any (shows clips containing any one of the selected keywords)
Include All (shows only clips will all the selected keywords)
Does Not Include Any (excludes clips with any one of the selected keywords)
Does Not Include All (excludes only clips with all the selected keywords)
Taking our example further, let’s say the client didn’t want this new response to be from the footage in San Diego because we have already used too much of that location in the series. In addition to an “Include All” keyword selection of “female” and “when should kids get a smartphone” we could add a “Does Not Include Any” selection for “San Diego”. Within seconds we have pinpointed all the female responses to that specific question, but only from the other two cities.
The utility of the keywords and qualifiers in FCPX smart collections cannot be understated, but none of it would mean much if FCPX didn’t also have range-based keywords. Each of the interviews for the Famifi project was 15-30 min in duration, and each person was asked some 15 questions. Keeping with the above example, if we didn’t have ranged selection, the results of our smart collection query would be a hand-full of 30 min clips of women from the two other cities. Sure, it lowered the terabytes of footage down to the specific clips we need, but now we still have to play through each 30min clip to find the specific question we are looking for. Typically, we’d have needed a solid time-coded transcript of each interview to manually look through and find the answers. But in FCPX, we didn’t need one: this is where range-based keywords come into play. The keyword “when should kids get a smartphone” was only applied to the in/out points we set. So instead of showing the entire clip, only the part of the clip with that keyword surfaced in our Smart Collection, giving us the exact moment the question was asked and responded to. Finding the exact answer we wanted took moments, and we could add it to the timeline immediately.
Using this workflow requires careful attention during the logging phase. Keywords only help to the extent that you use them. It is important to plot out how your team wants to organize media BEFORE you start logging. For the Famifi project we knew we needed each location, sex, race, question asked, interviewed person, and b-roll to be keyworded. With the amount of footage we were working with, this task was a team effort and took several days to complete. But the time put into preparation more than paid off during the editing phase, as sorting through all the footage took literally seconds. Need a clip of Jane answering the question “What’s your greatest fear?” in Atlanta? Boom! That perfect moment out of countless hours of footage is found within seconds.
Ease of Use
Perhaps our favorite part of the FCPX keywording system is how easy it is to apply them. In the Famify project, the questions we keyworded were full sentences. This would be annoying to type every time, but we can assign each question a numbered hotkey. Instead of typing “What is your greatest fear as a parent?” we could simply hit the number 1 key.
Another awesome feature of FCPX keywording is the auto keywording during import. When you initially backup data from a camera’s card, you are probably already organizing the data into folders. Perhaps that is by date, the shooting day, by camera, or by location. Whatever your folder structure is, you have the option to keep that organization in FCPX upon import. With the Famifi project, we structured our folders by location and camera. When we imported those folders into FCPX, all the contained clips were already keyworded by location and camera (A Cam, B cam, or C Cam).
The Event Browser also offers great integration of the keyword workflow with the color-coded indicators on each thumbnail and scrubbing those thumbnails for at-a-glance metadata info. Each thumbnail in the browser will have colored bars to represent certain status values. These bars only extended to the range of that status within a clip:
Orange: Clip in Use
This means that in a smart collection of your favorite b-roll clips, you can quickly see the exact sections of each clip that have already been used in the edit. Every step of the keywording workflow in FCPX has been streamlined to make it as quick and easy as possible. It is, without a doubt, the most pain-free and effective media organization we have seen in an NLE.
Discussion on NLE choice can get heated. Most editors swear by the software they have worked with for years. This is completely understandable. The thought of starting over and spending countless hours mastering a new software is daunting to say the least. Not to mention the hardware/software investments made when mapping out a post-production workflow (the NLE often being a center-piece of that flow). But at Mystery Box we like to keep an open-mind. If there is a product that will increase flexibility, organization, and speed, we don’t care who makes it. That’s something worth exploring. Now, after several projects under our belt, we can say without reservation that FCPX is worth the time and energy investment.
Every year companies make huge improvements in software development. At NAB 2019 both Avid and Blackmagic announced major changes to their NLEs, with some very promising features patterned after Final Cut X’s organization. We’re looking forward to trying these in the future, as they get more mature and stable. And as for Premiere, well, developers must find a balance between feature richness, user experience, and performance. Premiere has leaned too heavily on adding features for some time now without improving or adapting its media core, leaving it feeling bloated, unstable, and inefficient. They need to take a step back and improve efficiency before it can keep pace with the competition. And as for us, we have experienced the power of metadata media organization, and there is no going back. We can’t say what NLE we will be on in the years to come, but it will definitely have to compete with FCPX’s keyword workflow. Nothing else compares, at the moment. FCPX has dramatically increased the speed at which Mystery Box can turn around any given project.
Written by Chris Workman, Editor