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The Best Final Cut Pro Workflow

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Jerry Hofmann shows you how to develop the best Final Cut Pro editing workflow — one that works best for you.
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The Best Final Cut Pro Workflow

Most of the time, workflow is at least slightly different between one project and the next. Very likely, today's editor is not just doing narrative films, commercials, or corporate videos. Nearly every day a new form of the medium is being used. It's more likely that a successful career is being built around a combination of project types. So the process changes often between one project and the next. Moreover, not everyone's brain works the same way. What seems to be intuitive to one person feels counterproductive to another. Teaching hundreds of different editors over the past few years has opened my eyes to this. This article attempts to get you to start working the way that makes the most sense to you. It's far more important to finish a project that is successfully completed on time and that meets its goals than it is to use a certain method (or even software application) to get there.

So, what's the best workflow? There isn't one. There's not a right or wrong way to work with Final Cut Pro. There's your way. As you've already seen, Final Cut Pro offers many different ways to accomplish the same task. For example, you can get source material that is contained in the Browser to your sequence in at least five different ways!

  • Drag the clip directly from the Browser to the sequence in the Timeline window.

  • Drag the clip from the Browser to the Viewer, (optionally) mark In and Out points, drag the clip to the Canvas overlay, and insert or overwrite it to the track of your choice.

  • Drag the clip from the Viewer directly to the Timeline.

  • Double-click the clip in the Browser, (optionally) mark In and Out points, and press one of the F9-F12 keyboard keys to place the clip in your sequence.

  • Press Cmd+4 to make the Browser active. Use the up and down arrow keys in combination with the Enter key to open bins or load clips into the Viewer. (Optionally) create In and Out points. Press Cmd+2 or Cmd+3 to highlight the Canvas or the Timeline. Use the J, K, and L keys to navigate to an In point, and press one of the function keys to place the clip where you want it. This method does not use the mouse at all.

Any of these methods gets material from the Browser to the sequence. There are even more ways this single task can be described and achieved, and there are just as many ways to trim, add effects, navigate windows, or accomplish any other task you might need to perform.

One thing is certain, though. As you get your footage together, organization is key. The first thing you need to do is create bins and clips that are organized in such a way that you can find the source material quickly. Then the process of putting the material into a sequence can begin more efficiently. The biggest time-waster is looking for clips in poorly organized bins or, even worse, no bin structures and no organization at all. If you don't have a lot of clips, this really isn't a problem, but if you do, a very tedious edit session is in store for you.

Following that, the process you use to get those clips into your sequence can and should be your own. I find that double-clicking a clip to open it in the Viewer, marking an In and Out point, and then dragging the clip from the Viewer to the Timeline is the most intuitive method for me most of the time. Sometimes I'll even put the clip on a higher video track to hold it there for a moment until I drag it into a position between clips. There are even times that I'll grab a section of clips in the Timeline I've already edited, put them later in the sequence, overwrite a clip or set of clips into the blank area of the sequence, and then pull the moved clips back. There's nothing wrong with this. It might not be the quickest way, but for me, this particular edit just feels right. This might feel totally wrong for you, though, and I'm not here to tell you that there is only one way to do anything. I don't think I ever lock tracks so that I can't make a mistake with them. This would be heresy from another editor's point of view.

Some editors like to use keyboard commands for everything. I find this somehow less intuitive than a combination of techniques that at times uses the mouse. Some editors never use keyboard commands and always use the mouse to edit. With the addition of the button bars in FCP 4, I think this will become more and more common. It's probably slower, but it makes more sense for some people, and it's better than not having your source material organized. I seem to use a combination of mouse and keyboard; I find that most editors do. You'll know you've begun to arrive at your particular "best" workflow when you are editing with confidence and not making too many undos!

As you begin to learn Final Cut Pro, you will discover keyboard shortcuts or some other form of working with the software, such as using the Find command or sorting columns in the Browser, that eases your particular brand of editing.

Whenever I've watched other editors using the same application, they all seem to use a combination of the mouse and keyboard, but each seems to have his or her own method of accomplishing the same task. There's nothing wrong with using different methods to do the same task, but it could be argued that fewer mouse moves and keyboard commands to accomplish the same task is better.

The reasoning is that once you've made a mental edit decision, you want to preview it as fast as you can or trim it as fast as you can so that the time you spend working on a given project is allocated more to previewing edit decisions and not actually getting you and the computer to perform the edit. Spend your allotted time working with the material; don't spend it just getting a particular task done. The more time you spend previewing different approaches to the same project or scene, the better the edit, communication, or achievement of the project's goal.

In my experience, I've never sat back and said, "No matter how much more time I spend with this project, I can't improve it anymore." There's always just one more change that might improve things. You as an editor usually have an allotted amount of time to finish the project, and you are also the last person in the process: The project is written, and then shot, and lastly edited. It's the editor who is up against the wall in the process. Unfortunately, it's also the editor who sometimes has to fix it in post. You're up against a release date, a trade show, or an airtime for an ad campaign. Don't make your significant other an "editor's widow or widower." You have to have a life. Philip Hodgetts said, "An edit is never finished, only abandoned when the editor runs out of time." How true that is.

I find that completing a rough cut of the entire sequence serves me well. It gives me a feeling for the timing, pacing, and placement of scenes. Whether I'm working on a narrative, training, or marketing film, knowing where I need to get to helps. It also apprises me of what is yet to be done. Sometimes, when watching the first cut, I place markers in areas that need further refinement or make notes that shots are missing or need to be shot. Then I start over at the head of the program and start refining as I take another pass at it. I repeat this process until I'm out of time or am satisfied that it's ready to show a client. Changes are almost always made after a client sees the program for the first time, and the process continues to evolve.

Think about this. How many ways can a movie or program be edited? Let's do the math. Assume that you have 10 hours of useable source footage. If there are 30 frames of video per second (in NTSC video--the numbers for PAL would be different), that's 1,080,000 unique frames. You could cut on any of these frames, right? The number of possible combinations of edits is astronomical. But let's assume that there are just 100 video edits. The number of possible different combinations of edits based on a unique In point and Out point is then 1,080,000 to the 100th power times 2!

Of course, this is an extreme example bordering on the ridiculous, because I'll wager that 99% or more of the possible combinations of edits could be discarded out of hand. However, this makes the point that there must be more than one way to edit any particular project, and you will never have enough time to try them all. If you spent your entire lifetime working on this single project, you still wouldn't have enough time to preview them all.

That said, it is important to voice a point of view held by many an experienced editor. If you are faster with your editing system, you will create more time to try all the what-ifs I mentioned early on. It takes much longer to use a menu command than it does to use its keyboard shortcut. Over time, these little moments begin to mount up. So learning and using the keyboard commands makes you work faster with Final Cut Pro and creates more time to be, well, creative. In most professional jobs, you have a certain allotted time to finish, and it's far better to try more ways of telling your story than to wait on your physical movements to get to those "trial" edits. Each time you access a menu command that takes you 3 or 4 seconds, that's 3 or 4 seconds lost to mechanics, and therefore less time for creativity.

Discovering shorter and quicker ways to accomplish the same task takes time. Very few editors learn to master any NLE in a short amount of time. Probably six months of working 40 hours a week with any given editing software is sufficient time to master it. Final Cut Pro was designed to accommodate many different ways to accomplish the same thing so that many different sensibilities or practical situations can be catered to. You'll know that you are approaching proficiency when you don't even think about how to perform a task, and more and more of your time is being spent thinking about different edit decisions to make your program more effective.

The bottom line is that the best way for you to approach the workflow of editing your material is only limited by your imagination. The beauty of a nonlinear editor is that you can edit in any way that makes sense to you. If you like the idea of working in a linear fashion, (much like you've been editing while working with this book), you can. If your sensibility is that you want to work on different areas in the order of your choice, you can do that too. It might make sense to edit the climax of your story so that you can see where you are headed before you choose the path to get there, for example.

Techniques You Should Use

There are some habitual techniques in your workflow you should always use. One usually begins after the first or second cut of the material. When these early cuts are done, to get the most effective rhythm for your piece, you need to watch it beginning to end with fresh eyes (this is no easy task). It's also beneficial to view your project in the format in which it will be delivered. If it will be shown on a 70-foot movie screen, this might not be practical, but it's best to see it as close as you can to the final format.

You'll be surprised when you see your project in a large format. (My students are amazed the first time they see their films projected on a large screen.) I think it's because your brain doesn't always take in what you thought it would. Your film looks quite different on a wide screen than it does on your computer's display. You need to take into account this difference when you are editing for a format other than the 5- or 6-inch Canvas you are using for your edit decisions.

It's also wise to show your film to people who haven't seen it to truly have a fresh set of eyes watch it. Your piece must stand by itself. Giving any information about what the story is about will taint reactions, so avoid it. Don't tell them anything about the piece up front, other than its title and that it's a rough cut. They'll understand that they aren't looking at a finished movie and will forgive a lot of blemishes such as color timing or audio level problems. Watch them as they watch the movie, and see where interest lags or confusion arises. After your friends have viewed this early cut, ask them what they think, and ask them to be brutally honest.

You'll find that perhaps there are areas they don't understand. Remember, you know the material very well, and you even have a script with off-camera notations in front of you. Just because you get it doesn't mean that they will. The whole point of communication through storytelling is to be understood and to move your audience emotionally, keeping their involvement. If you don't accomplish this, the audience will be off to the popcorn stand, thinking about their troubles, or just sitting there feeling uninvolved. They certainly won't be motivated to buy your product, right?

I'll give you an example. In the middle of "The Midnight Sun," when it was first cut, I didn't put in the very quick shot of Cap pulling out the gun. Some first-time viewers thought he ate the dogs! Once the gun was shown, this reaction went away. Wrong reactions like this can really minimize the story. He loved the dogs too much to let them suffer from starvation, so he shot them. This was the real story I wanted to depict. If the audience thought he ate the dogs, they would lose some of their identification with Cap. Thus, the tension in the final scene would be lost, and the audience might lose their emotional reactions, all for the want of a single 2 1/2-second shot.

You can't pace an entire movie very well without seeing the entire movie. You won't know that a scene is too fast or too slow without watching the whole film end to end. You might be watching the movie when a scene comes along that slows down the story. Or you might find some frames of a single shot that just don't need to be there. Today's "sound bite MTV" audience wants information fast and direct. If you want success, keep them involved. These same statements hold true for any piece you might be working on, including a training film or a documentary. It just doesn't pay to bore or confuse your audience when the goal is to communicate something to them. The more emotionally involved the audience becomes, the more likely you'll achieve the goal you set out to achieve.

Starting a scene with a long beauty shot of the location is OK, but repeating it at the end of the scene is boring. We've seen it already; we don't need the same information over and over. Keep your story in action. Never slow it down with superfluous shots that you might like just because they are pretty. Don't show us material we don't need to see, and don't forget to show us information we must have in order to understand what's going on. Cut when the information has been given about that shot and only when more information can be gleaned from the incoming shot.

If a scene drags, shorten it. If a scene is too fast and thus confusing, lengthen it; rewrite it with pictures and sound to make it clearer. It takes time to learn how to "forget" what you know about the story, but you must strive to gain this invaluable asset and constantly look at your project with fresh eyes, as if you know nothing about it and are seeing it for the first time every time you watch it. Remember that cuts are faster, and transitional effects tend to slow things down. And now for the biggie....

Don't involve your viewers in anything that doesn't move the story forward. Keep it coming at a crisp pace so that they don't have time to think about the popcorn stand. Don't show them the mundane. If a character says he needs to go to the grocery store, it's totally unimportant to show him getting into his car, turning the key, backing out of driveway, and so on. It's usually better to just cut to the moment that the character enters the store if what happens there moves the story forward and is an integral part of the story. Never bore your audience with material that they can easily just assume happened. Just because it was shot doesn't mean it needs to be there. Cut out the ordinary; give us the extraordinary. Also refrain from showing us mistakes. If it doesn't work exactly right, don't show it to us. The audience will never know you made a mistake if you don't show it. The moment you think they won't notice, trust me, they will. If you see an error, so will they.

When editing narrative film, most editors cut the audio first, just letting the picture fall where it may in sync with the sound, and changing it after the pacing has been set by the audio. The beauty of nonlinear editing is that you can change things at will anywhere and at any time during the process. If you need to add time in the audio track later for a reaction shot, it's not a problem. That's what insert editing was made for.

If you're stuck, and you aren't happy with the way a scene or moment is going, move on. Leaving it for another time will give you time to think, and many times it will dawn on you later how to approach a section of your piece. You'll be amazed how difficult it is to make wise decisions at the end of the day when you're tired. The next morning, that same scene will just fall into place. Trust me--you work better and smarter when you are rested and have taken a break from the work physically and mentally.


Every day you spend editing without backing up the project file away from your computer's hard drives is a day closer to disaster. If your hard drive takes a dive, you can lose all your work to date. Imagine a feature edit you spent six months or more working on. Or a documentary that's been in post for two years! Losing a hard drive certainly doesn't happen often, but you should count on it happening, because it does. CD-Rs are probably the best way to handle this. You can always recapture the footage automatically if it has timecode associated with it. If it doesn't, such as VHS or graphics files, dub the VHS first to a format that does handle timecode, make copies of any other computer-generated media, and keep them in a different place from your editing bay. This should be part of your daily routine.

Minimize the Rendering; Maximize the Editing Time

When you are working on a program that involves a lot of rendering of effects or corrections, wait until the end to render them as much as you can. Put proxies in place of effects that you eventually need to perform to get the timing of your whole piece down first. Why render things that won't be used? Of course, this isn't always possible, but minimize rendering as much as you can.

Final Cut Pro 4 comes to the rescue here for a lot of situations with RT Extreme, but you'll still have times when you need to render if you are working on complicated effects, as you will in upcoming chapters. Do it at lunch, or at breaks, or overnight instead of during the precious time when you are fresh and are more effective creatively. Watching the render bar isn't my idea of a good time. Always save the project before rendering. I've seen machines crash during a long render, and thus lose work. What if the power goes out?

You can cancel rendering at any time too. Final Cut Pro saves what was rendered so far and commences rendering from where it left off. Turn on rendering automatically, just in case you forget to start the process manually and have taken a two-hour lunch.

Color correction should usually occur late in the process. Why work on color when you aren't sure that the shot will be used? Audio sweetening sound that ends up being cut is a big time-waster as well. Manage your time effectively by rendering at times away from the computer whenever you can. It will serve your edit well because you won't be using your allotted time on renders you don't end up using, and you won't waste your fresh and rested self on watching the render bar. Computers don't get tired, but you do.

A last word here about this book. In no way was this movie edited in the order the book has followed. So the linear fashion that is used here isn't the best way to edit the film. Rather, I found this linear approach to be the most effective way to teach the software.

A Change of Pace: Accenting the Horror Editorially

The following scene you'll edit in this chapter's workshop starts with a montage of shots where Cap tears up the floorboards and builds a fire. Its form is similar to that used when Cap has to kill his dogs rather than let them starve. There's one exception to the series of cuts, though. It's the dissolve used between the two shots of Cap as he loads wood and then uses the shovel in the furnace. In this case, I used it because the two shots might have appeared mismatched in action. A dissolve lets the viewer know it's later in time, so it's OK that Cap suddenly has a shovel in his hands.

We quickly go outside with Cap to wait while Sam's body burns, building some tension (that's Sam's body burning; the smoke is what's left of Sam). Then, to create even more tension, the pace of the next set of shots is the quickest in the film. Cutting back and forth between Cap approaching the hot furnace and the furnace itself creates tension. Faster cuts reflect nervousness, heightened fear, or even terror. They always reflect a fast heartbeat. Whenever you have to do something you really don't want to, or are afraid of, doesn't time seem like it will never pass? (How about the dentist's chair while he shoots you up with painkiller?) Every moment feels like an eternity. The technique used to create this horrific, can't-get-it-over-with-quickly-enough moment is intercutting between Cap's POV (point of view) of the furnace and the furnace's POV of Cap as he creeps toward it.

Keeping the moment feeling even longer, and extending the tension, the furnace never gets closer. Cap moves, but the furnace does not. The idea here is to convey the feeling that Cap doesn't want to open it. The moment of moving toward what Cap thinks might be a grisly sight (and hopefully the audience thinks this as well) doesn't come quickly or easily. The shots of Cap finally opening the door extend this tension even further. Will we ever get to see what's inside? The intercutting just reflects Cap's own feelings of trepidation. Then, instead of seeing what's in the furnace, we see Cap's reaction to it first, the paramount moment of horror, accented with a surging music cue. Hopefully, the audience will close their eyes in fear of seeing too much gore or something. It's just another way to add to the story. Cut the scene to reflect the feelings of the character we now know and hopefully are identifying with and feeling emotionally involved with and care about. The creepy music helps here too; pay attention to it and its accents. Each moment of this scene was thought about moment by moment to set up the surprise.

When we suddenly see Sam happily sitting up in the fire, the shock and surprise are complete. Once the film's "punch line" is over, it's best to get out of the movie quickly. We do so with only two more shots past the end of Sam's move to close the door: a shot of Cap's confused reaction, accenting the fun, and, of course, the shot of Cap as he "walks off into the sunset." It's an appropriate ending to a classic American tale.

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