Using Final Cut Pro X for Quick Color Correction

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Yesterday I had a really hard time getting a project in to Black Magic’s DaVinci Resolve (lots of mixed media, QTDecoder bug which I still haven’t figured out, but I think it has to do with H.264 media from a Canon 5DMKIII). I don’t have the time to troubleshoot right now, so I decided to brave the FCPX color correction avenue (because that’s what the project was cut in). It’s not as robust as DaVinci, but you can still do a lot—Much more than I initially thought. Unsurprisingly, Apple’s take on color correction is just as distant from the norm as FCPX is for editing.

 

Color correction "classic"
Color Correction “classic” (DaVinci Resolve)

 

It's like the original iMac's silly one-click mouse...sleek, shiny, and frustrating.
Apple’s new color correction method—It’s like the original iMac’s silly one-click mouse…sleek, shiny, and frustrating. (FCPX)

 

 

First thing to know: You’ll be moving pucks around. A lot. And it’s still not fun (when doing your primary correction). If you’ve ever opened FCPX up, you’ve probably seen them. One for highlights, mid tones, shadows, and global. I prefer the 3-color wheels, as is common throughout post production applications. This is possible with some third-party plugins (FilmConvert being one of them), but I’d rather just be in DaVinci (when it works).

 

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These color correction wheels are a little difficult to work with…but still a good effort.

 

As for the pucks in FCPX, they do actually become a pleasant surprise to use when adjusting specific hue v hue/hue v luma/hue v saturation scenarios. As you can see in the examples below (check out that sweet .gif I finally figured out how to make!), changing specific hue properties in DaVinci Resolve is a powerful and easy process. The best way I’ve found to mimic this usage in FCPX is to apply color masks, which can be a surprisingly powerful tool. It’s easy to add or subtract a range from a color mask select (by holding shift or option while you have the droplet tool selected on a new color correction level).

 

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Oops, I’m getting too much of the shorts along with the green trees…that’s what you get for shooting 8bit 4:2:0 and color correcting in an editing application!

 

If you have a decent GPU, it’s not a problem to keep stacking these color corrections. It does start to get disorganized very quickly though. In DaVinci you can create many ‘nodes,’ and arrange them graphically in a flow chart representation. But FCPX is limited to a simplified version. You also don’t need to create a new instance or node every time you want to adjust a hue in DaVinci, so you can see where FCPX is really for just a few minor touch ups—it’s not great for organization, creating ‘looks,’ or dealing with any higher-end color correction abilities (nodes interacting, and other complex stuff that’s way over my head).

 

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This is how you adjust hue specifics in DaVinci…pretty simple.

 

When it comes to hotkeys, I’ve found that FCPX is what you make of it. You can assign a toggle for color correction (hidden deep within the keyboard prefs, option+command+k) which is pretty essential. I set it to Command+D to emulate DaVinci’s disable feature (though it overwrote something, but I’m not really an editor, so I was throwing caution to the wind—stuff gets crazy in post-production). Command+7 will get you your video scopes (which are actually pretty nice), Command+6 brings up the color correction palette, and control+tab will toggle color/sat/luma tabs. They’re pretty handy shortcuts (you can see the workflow in the gif below).

 

CC_FCPX

 

You could write a really rather lengthy book on DaVinci Resolve, but when it comes to FCPX’s color correction abilities, you’d be looking at more of a pamphlet at best. I still get caught up on small things that shouldn’t be an issue—like when you make a shape mask, you have to go to the very bottom of the color correction pane to toggle “inside” and “outside”…you’ll definitely miss that the first few times. Still, it’s more powerful than you think. It’s no Color (the color correction application that used to be bundled with Final Cut Studio), but for a really quick turn around, it should get you most of the way there—just don’t expect to be using power windows on this bad boy.

 

Look at all that sweet, sweet real estate!
Look at all that sweet, sweet real estate!

 

Filming and Photographing Hubbardton Forge

Back in late March, I was hired to film and photograph a Vermont-based business called Hubbardton Forge. AOL teamed up with Ford to do an article and short video about one American-based business for every state. This particular shoot was challenging as I only had two hours to film at the forge (to create a one minute video that was up to me to cut and find the story), as well as take enough photos to delivery about 25 selects to the client. It was tough, but really fun. My favorite aspects of filmmaking are traveling, meeting new people, and learning about something I previously knew nothing about—I was able to do all of those on my trip to Hubbardton Forge.

While the shoot itself was a challenge (that I was only able to complete with the great support of the Hubbardton Forge employees), the post production process (which had an equally tight schedule) was where I learned some new techniques for delivering a good product quickly.

In my previous post, I wrote about getting client photo selections out of Zenfolio and in to Lightroom, which was for this gig. The clients seemed to really enjoy using Zenfolio, and it was very easy for me to get the list and start the color correction process. I also broke down and finally purchased VSCO film pack 02. The VSCO film packs really helped correct some of the left over nasty colors thanks to industrial lighting. It also gave the images a nice film look, and helped me deliver the final product much faster than I could have if I was doing everything by hand (the “orange skin fix” preset is worth the fee alone).

The hero of this project was FCPX and my new 27″ iMac. I finally upgraded from a Mac Pro 1,1 (7 years old!) to an i7, 4GB of video RAM power house (I never thought I’d call an iMac a powerhouse). I got the rig just in time—literally the day before. And I’m so glad I did. I didn’t have to wait for transcodes, I didn’t have any crashes, and with 16GB of RAM, I could have Lightroom and FCPX open at the same time without any issues!

Why I Really Like FCPX

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This past January, I wrote, shot, and edited a quick video review (for the Metabones SpeedBooster). I had been sick all weekend, but made it a goal to have the review done before midnight. The product was being released the next day, so I didn’t have a lot of time. I truly believe the only NLE (Non-Linear Editing System) up for the task was Final Cut Pro X. It got me thinking about the negative reactions that still occur to this day when you dare utter the name “Final Cut Pro” (without a “Seven” to follow).

Apple-Refunds-Final-Cut-Pro-X-Purchases-for-Unsatisfied-Customers-2
While Apple may have some of the most hyperbole-driven marketing on the planet, they’re not too far off here.

 

It’s a debate (well, argument) that has been long-standing: Which NLE is the best? If you work in film and television, you’ve heard it, and probably been a part of the discussion. And we as humans just love to argue, myself included. Mac vs PC, SNES vs Genesis, Peanut Butter and Jelly vs Peanut Butter and More Peanut Butter—they’re all pretty much the same argument, which is to say, there really isn’t an argument. And when it comes to NLEs, there is no ‘best,’ only that which is ‘most applicable.’ And FCPX has been most applicable for my personal work, specifically the criteria of editing a video whose running time is less than five minutes with a short deadline.

I was using the old version of Final Cut Pro (can we call it “classic”?) back in High School, which got me in to this whole crazy film world. College taught and forced me to use Avid Media Composer (on Windows). I didn’t like it, coming from Final Cut and Mac OS X, but I dealt with it. Working at Florentine Films, I switched back to Mac OS X, but still dealt with Avid Media Composer. I’ve dabbled in Premiere Pro for some passion projects of mine, and have used FCPX to cut short videos for clients. So, I haven’t used them all (Lightworks, Smoke, Vegas, that weird Boris one, etc), but I’ve used the three big names, and I think each has it’s own claim.

But enough about the other NLEs, Final Cut Pro X needs to be taken seriously. Yes, I believe Apple did a poor job with the launch—They’re actually really bad at starting, and finishing things. But their software always comes around, and after a few rocky point releases (that felt more like alpha -> beta -> gold master releases), FCPX has really shaped up.

Here’s a run down of things I love—and things I hate—about Final Cut Pro X (10.0.8). Note: This post has taken me so long to finish that Apple has released version 10.0.9, but it’s primarily bug fixes, so everything I’ve written about still applies.

 

ORGANIZATION

Keywords

I really love organization. Especially when it comes to editing. Trying to edit something—whether it’s a feature or a two-minute video for your family—needs to be done in an organized way.

Avid has a classic folder structure, where FCPX has the ability to really utilize metadata, something that's becoming more and more important.
Avid has a classic folder structure, where FCPX has the ability to really utilize metadata, something that’s becoming more and more important.

 

Command + K brings up the floating keyword prompt, and you can just start organizing away. When it comes to organization, working with Avid is like data entry in an Excel file. It’s old and slow. Even copy and pasting one piece of text to multiple metadata fields in an Avid bin is so counter-intuitive it seems like they had an R&D department just to make it as complex as possible.

Here’s how you paste text into multiple fields in Avid.

1. Copy text that’s in a specific column.Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.23.44 PM

2. Highlight the clips you want to paste to.

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3. Right-Click (on the correct field) and navigate that monsterous menu to find “Set [name of columns] column for selected clips…” where you are then prompted with a dialog box, to paste the text you copied.Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.24.23 PM

4. We’re not done yet! One more dialog box to make sure you definitely want to do this.Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.24.30 PM

And here’s how you do the same thing, in FCPX:

1. Highlight the clips you want to change.

2. Type.

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Four steps vs. two (well, I’d hardly call it two). This may seem like nit-picking, but this round-about process really adds time to your organization. FCPX is fluid, it keeps you moving so you don’t break your concentration. Avid stops you at every step.

MAGNETIC TIMELINE

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Last week I had to get a video out for a client very quickly. A 12-hour turn around for a 5 minute video that had no script and two angles (here’s a version of that video). Meag and I used every trick in the book to make FCPX be able to output this video as quickly as possible. It was a blur, but by the end of it, I was about ready to review before exporting when I realized, “Oh crap—I never bothered to check the music edits!” It turns out that the magnetic timeline ended up saving me a huge amount of time by forming around the music. All I had to do was roll a bit of the track out, and it was pretty much good as new! I definitely got lucky with the beats lining up (mostly Meag’s brilliant editing), but with something like Avid or Premiere Pro, I’d have bits and pieces of that audio track all over the timeline at that moment (yes there are work arounds, but this is precisely the function of the magnetic timeline). The magnetic timeline may be a controversial feature (let’s step back a second and put in to context how ‘controversial’ is not at all the right word), but it really has been an extremely efficient tool for me, saving me hours of work in the end.

EXPORT

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This is the one. I can’t believe how often this has saved me. That extremely quick turnaround I was talking about? It was only possible because of FCPX’s all-in-one export. I was able to set the output and leave for another gig. I got an email that my vimeo video had been uploaded, and then forwarded the address and password to the client.

You can send a cut straight to Youtube, Vimeo, and Facebook, all with the click of a button. It does the transcoding and uploading all on its own. Now I know Compressor has some scriptability like this, and I’m sure you could get Premiere Pro to do something too, but this is just so easy. And it works.

That’s just the default. There’s a lot of ways to easily customize your outputs. Drag and drop the customizable output to the list, and it shows up on the Share drop down menu. Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 1.43.10 AM

Again, this isn’t new to an NLE, but it’s very easy and a solid GUI design. Sometimes Premiere Pro feels like a programmer’s take on an editing suite. And Avid always felt like they stopped putting money into GUI development in the early 90s.

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This is a ‘feature’ from the new version of Media Composer (7). I know I’m harsh on Avid, but that’s some slow development if you ask me. They only recently enabled the ability to hold shift while clicking in a list to select multiple items. I’m pretty sure that’s been a GUI standard for decades now.

Those are the things about FCPX that keep me coming back to use it as an NLE for quick projects. There are some other great built-in features (transitions, audio plugins, Motion integration, etc), but that’s for another post. Here are a few things that I absolutely can’t stand about it.

BROWSER TABS

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This is garbage. I don’t know what half of these icons mean when I’m frantically looking for a transition (not just a cross-dissolve, which typically NLEs have hotkeys for). I’ve been using FCPX for a long time now…actually, since it was released two years ago. It’s sort of embarrassing, but I still can’t decipher some of these icons.

“T” for text. Okay, I’ve got that one. And the little “2” in a bullseye is supposed to be Academy Leader, I’m assuming. Okay, that’s video, so probably generated video, yeah that makes sense! Okay, then the hour glass thing is a transition—but whats the thing that’s text and transition? Themes? What are music and photo tabs—MEDIA TABS—doing down here? And this thing to the far left…is that a composite? Is it supposed to be an optical effect process?

What I mean by all this rambling, is that it shouldn’t exist. Apple is often the leader in great design. But this thing is a fall from grace.

FIXED GUI

One thing I love about Premiere Pro, and really just about every Adobe product, is the ability to completely rework the GUI (window placement, sizes, etc) to whatever works best for you, and the project you’re working on. Premiere Pro works a lot like Bridge: There are different columns, and within those columns are tabs, and every element is modifiable. It’s really fantastic, and helps you quickly make a presentable, customizable set up to make editing as efficient as possible.

Just one of the many ways Premiere Pro can be customized.
Just one of the many ways Premiere Pro can be customized.

FCPX let’s you change the size of some of the window elements…slightly. It’s one big window (except for the second-monitor feature). You can close and open certain elements, but it’s really not changing much. Hopefully it works for you, otherwise you’re really not going to enjoy your FCPX experience.

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Check out that sweet customization…I can hide some windows and make the viewer all big and stuff! But that’s really it.

Honorable mentioning to Avid for letting you change how buttons look, and colors of windows. It probably works well for some people, but I’ve always found Avid customizations to be a hassle (and eventually you’ll hit an error that resets it, and all those hours of customization will be gone). Also, they’re all individual windows, where something like Premiere Pro has dynamic tab elements that automatically resize when other parts of surrounding windows change.

CONCLUSION

This is by no means written in stone, but this is how I see each NLE being utilized:

Feature Films? Avid.

Documentary? Premiere Pro.

Quick promo/one-man-band production/personal video? Final Cut Pro X.

Avid is still a ‘standard’ to some degree. Lots of bigger studios and production companies have really in-depth workflows that require Avid. You still can’t beat ISIS. It has the best media management out of anything (note: not media ingest, or export—only managing media when it inevitably goes offline). The Roosevelts, a mini-series I worked on at Florentine Films, is a 7-part documentary, each episode being about 2 hours long. The only way you could arrange and keep track of this massive amount of media was through Avid (Unity then, but they’ve since upgraded to ISIS).

Premiere Pro is noted for acting a lot like Final Cut Pro 7, but with updated technology. It takes orders from no one, and has remained codec-agnostic (both a blessing and a curse). It can take any thing you throw at it, you just need to have the right gear and know-how to make it work. It’s also an incomplete NLE—media management and other core NLE functionality is still in its infancy with Premiere Pro. If you don’t believe me, wait until you need to relink media, then after a half-hour of trying, check out the creative cow forums. It gets pretty dismal, and threads always end in “Make sure to tell Adobe! Hopefully it’ll be in the next release…”

As for FCPX, well, there’s not much to say that I haven’t already said. If you play by Apple’s rules (as per usual), all will most likely go well. FCPX still has some really crazy glitches, but most of the crippling ones were taken care of within the first year.

FCPX is all about saving time. Why would we dismiss that? I think a lot of legitimacy to our tools comes from how difficult it is to use them. If you’re constantly trying to find job security through knowing the Arcane Arts of Avid (there should be a blog dedicated to it’s cryptic error messages), then you’re missing the bigger picture of what it means to be a good, valuable filmmaker.