Tactical articles for postproduction professionals. Our mission is to create tactical, actionable articles that teach valuable skills. We want to highlight the amazing work that’s being done every day in our industry, but instead of conducting armchair interviews, we dive into the messy details and
show you how it actually works.
Shortcuts save time, everyone knows that. But in this article, we’re going to show you why they can transform your creative workflow. We’ll highlight individual shortcuts. We’ll start with the basics and progress to ones that you may not know. But more importantly, you’ll learn how to chain them together into powerful sequences. Master these moves to edit more fluidly, and enable your mind to think more creatively.
They say that a state of flow is a “complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.” I think that pretty well describes the feeling when you’ve mastered the shortcuts in your favorite NLE. Instead of thinking about the tools, your mind can focus entirely on the creative choices.
We’re going to highlight Final Cut Pro X in this article, but really these principles can apply to any professional NLE. It’s important to master shortcuts so that you reach for the mouse less often.
FCP X is already fast, but it is still an important discipline to identify repetitive tasks and create your own shortcuts. That’s one mark of an editor who has separated themselves from the crowd.
Top shortcuts for FCP X Beginners
It can be overwhelming to try to remember the dozens of shortcuts available to you, so start with just a few at a time. Take them, play with them, and learn how they can speed up your editing. Eventually, they will become muscle memory, and then you can add a few more. Pretty soon, your fingers will be flying over the keyboard.
If you are just getting started with FCP X here are some of the top shortcuts you should know about.
The first four enable you to change the “focus” area of your commands.
CMD-1: go to Library Browser
CMD-2: go to Timeline
CMD-3: go to Viewer
CMD-4: show/hide Inspector
If you need to find a certain clip in your timeline, this sequence will open the timeline index and highlight the search box:
Shift-CMD-2: go to Timeline and open Index
And if you need to find a clip in the browser, instead of clicking on the search box, try these two in quick succession:
CMD-1: go to Browser
A good example of keyboard shortcuts for manipulating the viewer is changing zoom level—a little red box appears in the viewer to indicate your zoom level. In the viewer it will zoom in on the picture, but if you do it while in the timeline, it will zoom in on the playhead. And then “Zoom to Fit” to see the entire timeline or picture in the viewer.
CMD-3: go to Viewer
CMD-+/-: zoom in/zoom out (hold to affect the zoom level)
Shift-Z: zoom to fit
Last but not least, I would be remiss not to mention the keyboard shortcuts for the cursor/selection tool.
A: the regular selection tool
P: the position tool (allows you to move clips without the magnetic snapping effect)
Every NLE comes with a set of key commands already set. Many are standard across not only NLEs (e.g. JKL), but across all kinds of programs (CMD-N to create something new; CMD-X and CMD-V to cut and paste respectively).
But every great editor will have their own set of key commands they like to use that helps them work faster and more efficiently. Most NLEs will have a way to customize these commands. In FCP X, it’s in the “Commands” menu (Final Cut Pro > Commands > Customize)
The Commands menu allows you to customize commands to fine-tune the app to your liking. You can save multiple command sets, and import/export them when you move between computers.
Many editors spend years fine-tuning their muscle memory. Your fingers might know all the shortcuts for FCP 7 or Premier Pro better than your brain! So a common approach for users switching between apps is to adjust the keyboard shortcuts to be a bit more familiar.
A good example of this is setting your default transition. If you’re a Premiere user, you’ll know that Premiere’s default transition shortcut is Command-D, while FCP X’s is Command-T.
In the FCP X command editor, go to the “Main Menu Commands” group and select “Add Default Transition” press (CMD-D). FCP X lets you know that CMD-D is already assigned to a function, in this case “duplicate”. Confirm the change. Now you have re-assigned the same function to a more familiar shortcut if you’ve come from Premiere.
So find your most used shortcuts and map them in FCP X to give yourself an edge when making the transition. One of the nice aspects of this feature is that you can save custom sets of commands. That way if different people use FCP X on that computer, each can use a customized set of short-cuts that suits their style. Those saved sets can also be moved to other computer systems.
Final Cut Pro X introduced some new techniques to editing. So it has some shortcuts that don’t directly correspond to other NLEs. So I want to share with you some of my favorite ttime savers.
FCP X uses the traditional keys to review clips in the browser or to set In and Out points. I often use the “append” command (E) to quickly add a clip to the end of your timeline without touching the mouse (think of “E” for “end”). Or if you navigate the playhead in the timeline to a spot you can use (Q) to connect some b-roll above the main storyline (think of the little curly tail on the letter “Q” being the connection to the storyline).
J,K,L: navigate playback in the browser
I: set an in-point
O: set an out-point
E: append to end of primary storyline
Another variation on this “3-point edit” is to use the Range tool to draw a “range” in your timeline.
Then navigate in the browser to the beginning of the portion that you want to connect and hit (Q). The clip will only cover the section that is selected. The range tool is very interesting because it allows you to make selections in your timeline that go beyond clip boundaries. You’ll find that it unlocks all sorts of interesting editing techniques. You can perform traditional overwrite edits (D). Or try using the Shift key and experiment with a back-timed edit.
R: select the Range Tool
Q: add a connected clip
D: overwrite edit
W: insert edit (think “W” for “wedging in a clip”)
Sometimes you’ll want to turn a clip “off,” and you can do that by disabling it. Hover over a clip with your cursor or the skimmer (enable or disable your skimmer with “S”) and press “C” to select the clip. Then press “V” to disable the clip. This technique lets you quickly see how a scene plays with or without a particular shot of b-roll. If your skimmer is turned off, pressing “V” disables the clip below the playhead, a little circle on the playhead lets you know which clip your key commands will be applied to. Enabling or disabling clips is also a great way to try out different bits of music or sound effects.
Once you have selected a clip, your shortcuts will apply directly to that clip. For instance, press Control-V and open the video animation properties of the clip. Click on the arrow in the box under “Compositing: Opacity” and adjust the fade in of the clip without the need to apply a transition.
FCP X features amazing retiming features. Select a clip and hit CTRL-OPT-R to see the custom retime menu. Now you can easily enter a new percentage value, or enter a duration value, in order to speed up or slow down a clip. With this window activated, a grab handle appears at the end of the clip and you can drag that handle to fine tune the duration. Of course, if the clip is located in the main storyline, the FCP X magnetic timeline ripples the entire timeline’s duration to match the your clip’s new speed.
It is important to note that you are setting the speed of the clip, rather than the length of the clip. So 200% means the clip is now twice as fast, resulting in a clip half as long in duration. CTRL-OPT-R returns your clip to its original speed.
When you are doing transitions, it can be fun to ramp a clip’s speed from fast to normal. Shift-B blades the speed of a clip without splitting it into two separate clips. Now you can do a simple adjustment to the speed of the first or second half of the clip. FCP X automatically provides a range that does the “easing” for you, and you can adjust its duration as well.
Rather than clicking around menus, you can use shortcuts to quickly reveal info about your clip in the timeline. Adjust the color, check your scopes, switch multicam angles or reveal your clip in the browser with a keystroke.
A really handy set of shortcut commands to create in FCP X is for audio fades. The commands for adding fades to one or both ends of a clip is under the Modify > Adjust Volume menu. However, you can go into Final Cut Pro > Commands > Customize menu to create your own set of shortcuts. At the top of the window you can select the keys for Control and Option and search for the word “fade”. Now you can see which keys are unassigned. I set up three custom commands.
TPN is a joint venture between two major entertainment industry association giants—the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and the CDSA (Content Delivery and Security Association). TPN is a new, global, industry-wide film and television content protection initiative that provides a set of requirements and best practices around preventing leaks, breaches, and hacking of pre-released, high-valued media content.
This is a major milestone over a year in the making. We have undergone a rigorous audit process from an independent third-party auditor who was vetted and trained in securing pre-release entertainment content by the TPN itself. The audit, performed with content security in mind, included the examination of physical security, asset management, content life-cycle, enterprise security, risk assessment, vulnerability management, security operations and incident response, policy & procedures, human resources processes, and most importantly, Frame.io’s cloud infrastructure.
Obtaining the TPN certification reaffirms our relentless commitment to the security and privacy of our customers and their data. As an open body, TPN allows any of our existing or potential customers to request a copy of our audit report.
Frame.io’s mission is to “Power the world’s video creation”by building the industry standard platform which centralizes creators with their content, collaborators, and audience. As a TPN-compliant provider, we now not only have one of the best collaboration platforms in the industry, but one of the safest.
Searching breaks the mold and sets a new standard for the “on-screen” film.
Creating a feature-length “animatic” of the full film (with the director filling in all the roles) prior to shooting.
Premiere Pro’s integration with Illustrator and After Effects played huge role in the creation of media used in the film.
Every element on the screen was created by hand in Illustrator, and not by screenshots.
There were three stages of post-production, starting even months before shooting began.
Director Aneesh Chaganty loved using Frame.io and the directors and producers used it…a LOT.
In Every Frame A Painting’s 2014 video essay A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film, Tony Zhou notes that, “many have tried, [but] we still don’t have that one really good way of depicting the internet.” Although he goes on to praise the then-new concept of the “desktop-film,” he quickly bemoans the lack of innovation when it comes to American films of the genre.
Four years later, Searching appears to be that answer.
SEARCHING - A New Cinematic Language Featurette (Debra Messing, John Cho) | AMC Theatres (2018) - YouTube
Set entirely on computer screens, Searching stars John Cho (of Star Trek and Harold & Kumar fame) as a father desperately trying to find his missing daughter by searching her laptop for clues.
On-screen films may seem like familiar waters (Profile and the Unfriended films quickly come to mind), but for Searching, director Aneesh Chaganty needed a post team that could help him bring a more cinematic approach that still hadn’t fully been explored within the genre. For that, he enlisted the help of editors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson.
Where most of these films primarily hold on a wide of the screen, almost like a play, with Searching there are a variety of traditional camera moves and compositions like close-ups, montages, and pans.
In order to bring this vision to life, the Searching editorial team ended up building their own workflow, using motion graphics techniques from After Effects to craft computer-screen “performances” that accompanied the powerful live-action performances of John Cho and Debra Messing. The result is a film where even the movements of the screens and cursors are evocative.
When’s the last time the movement of a mouse made you cry, or kept you on the edge of your seat?
While the two editors had never met before (let alone worked together), they shared an alma mater and had both previously collaborated with Aneesh on separate projects.
“We both went to USC [University of Southern California], but we actually never met there,” Will told me at their offices in Los Angeles.
“We both knew Aneesh as well. I edited this Google spot for Aneesh [Seeds, a short film shot entirely on Google Glass] that got him a job there. He worked there for two years, and when he came back, he hit me up to edit this weird movie he was making that all takes place on a computer screen.”
Seeds [through Google Glass] - YouTube
Seeds, directed by Aneesh and cut by Will, was shot entirely on Google Glass.
Nick had his own history with the director in film school, sharing several screenwriting classes and DP’ing a short Aneesh produced in 2012. After he graduated, Nick edited features, shorts, and mini-series. When the Searching team realized they’d need another editor to share the workload, Nick was Aneesh’s first phone call.
Choosing Premiere Pro
Timur Bekmambetov, who produced Searching, the Unfriended films, and directed Profile, has become a huge champion of the on-screen aesthetic; he even developed the “Screenlife” software to aid films like this.
Most of the “desktop-films” I mentioned earlier were either cut in Avid (the dominant industry NLE in Hollywood) or Final Cut Pro X. But despite the suggestion by Timur’s production company (Bazelevs) to use one of these programs, Will and Nick quickly agreed they would edit on Premiere Pro. Will and Nick felt right at home in Premiere and relied on its integration with other Adobe products as part of the post-production process.
And as you might expect, a film like Searching had a very unconventional production process, especially when it came to post, which they referred to as three stages: Pre-Post, Post, and Post-Post.
“We met with Aneesh a month or so off-and-on before the crew started shooting,” Will recalled. “That was just what he called ‘rehearsals with editors.’ So we were just talking through the movie. We threw frames in from the script. ‘This is what this is going to look like.’ ‘In this scene, the mouse is going to go over here.’ ‘What does this window look like?’ Then we got in the editing room, and we edited for seven weeks and basically put together an animatic. It was really an unusual thing, because, as editors, you very rarely come to a timeline with a totally blank slate with no assets at all. So we were just there creating our own assets basically just doing rough screen recordings.” They primarily did this by taking screenshots and screen records of each other’s text messages and FaceTime calls.
To properly divide up labor, they broke the script down into 26 sections identified by an A-to-Z ‘editing scene code,’ generally broken up by natural stopping points since the film didn’t have traditional slug lines or scenes.
“For a lot of action, you break down by physical location, because that’s the easiest metric,” Nick said. “And we didn’t have that in the script; the script was originally a ‘script-ment’ [a mix between a script and a treatment], so we were just doing it by chunks and scenes.” Production later turned that into a 200-page traditional script format for the assistant director to use on set.
As they each cut their 13 given scenes, they would then trade them back to the other so each editor would get a pass on the scene. According to Nick, “It was great to have somebody else there to bounce ideas off of, especially in terms of workflow.”
Will agreed, “Imagine going wrong, and you’re the only editor and you can’t even explain where you went wrong to the director and producers.”
Adobe Premiere Pro Out-of-the-Box
You might assume the duo used several plugins to make this film happen, but they really didn’t. “We weren’t using particle engines or anything insane like that,” Will noted. In fact, Nick and Will relied almost entirely on Premiere Pro’s basic out-of-the-box capabilities: as they put it, they used a lot of cropping, a lot of frame holds, and a LOT of nests—with sometimes 45+ video tracks of assets.
This became a challenge at times, especially when it came to adjusting timing. Will said, “We’d do a lot of little timing adjustments, so we’d have to go in, adjust the timing of say 20 or so tracks inside the nest, remember how many frames you moved it by, move the camera keyframes, and then we’d have to move all the sound assets as well.”
Despite the few challenges they faced, ultimately it was Premiere Pro’s tight integration with Illustrator and After Effects (which both played a major role in the creation of the film) that made it all worthwhile. More on that later.
Directors of “Virtual Photography”
The nests could be frustrating at times, but they became necessary as the editors worked closely with the director in these early stages to add the more cinematic elements of the film.
Nick said that, “We would create camera moves just by using motion keyframes on our nests that had the entire computer screen in it, and we could focus wherever we needed to at any time. It sort of grew iteratively through the whole editing process. We would come up with cooler camera moves, and in general we found ourselves going in for fewer wides and more close-ups as we kept editing. Then at the end we even added some handheld motion to some of the shots.”
In film school, you’re generally taught the basics of camera and editing rules; but with Searching, it quickly became apparent that some rules were made to be broken. Will said, “Early on I remember talking through it just in theory, like, ‘Well if we’re over here in a close-up on one side of the screen we can’t cut over here to another side of the screen,’ which ended up being totally false. We were still hashing out what the cinematic rules were, and continued to develop them all the way up until we were locking. We just got more comfortable.” Nick added, “I think we could do even more now”.
The amount of visual input the editors now had control of with on-screen assets led co-writer/producer Sev Ohanian to offer them a new, additional credit: “Directors of Virtual Photography” (and don’t worry, DP Juan Sebastian Baron approved).
Finishing the Pre-production Animatic
For the live-action elements of the animatic, Will said that they, “Assembled it by using screenshots of Aneesh’s face and voice as all of the characters. The only problem being Aneesh talks at 1.5x the speed of a normal human being, so even though our animatic was an hour forty minutes (which is the exact runtime of the finished film), there was a lot of fat in there because he was talking much faster and emotional beats weren’t there yet.”
Nick concluded, “So we trimmed a lot, but it ended up slower-paced. But yeah it ended up at the same runtime.”
With full animatic and script in hand, the crew set off to shoot Searching in 14 days—largely on GoPros—and while they were in production, Nick and Will were already adding in footage from each night’s shoot into their sequences.
Will said, “They took our animatic, showed it to the crew the night before production, and then they shot the entire movie using that animatic as a reference. So John [Cho] and Debra [Messing] were able to see what would be on their screens, and where their eyes were going. Then we just slowly cut throughout production; as we were getting dailies every day, we’d watch them and cut them in. That was the traditional part of the process.”
Nick had already cut a handful of features before, and according to him the organization process on Searching wasn’t too different. “We had edits, we had our sequences—both by reel and by section. The fundamental organizational process that we did right from the beginning was to break the script down into sections. That allowed us to work on things simultaneously, but also organize the assets that are specific to, say, ‘montage A,’ into a bin that’s for ‘montage A,’ which is then broken down into apps.”
Will also noted that, “Our graphics folder was our biggest and probably most non-conventional part of the movie, we even put it above our footage folder. We also had a general folder for things like mouse cursors, pointers, desktops, things that recur constantly.”
Because so much work had been done before the production crew ever stepped on set, Nick and Will had full rough cuts pretty early on in the process. When deciding on how to best receive feedback from the director and producers, Frame.io quickly came to mind.
[Editor’s note: as the audience for the Frame.io Insider grows, so will the variety of content we cover. We will always provide the deep, tactical, and practical articles geared towards the post-production professional. But we will soon begin providing additional stories, articles, “tips and tricks,” and even op-eds that are relevant to the industry as a whole. Today’s fantastic article by Katie is a step in that direction. Let us know if you’d like to see more articles like this. And if you think you can write an industry-related story that our audience would appreciate, email us at email@example.com to give us your pitch.]
All of the discussion about inclusion and diversity in the industry is overlooking a huge population—those with sensory-based disabilities.
Blind audiences are the most overlooked by producers, yet they are watching many of the same shows as able-bodied audiences.
Preparing your productions to be well-received by a blind audience starts with gathering great audio in the field.
It’s surprising how much an audio description can add to the story without being disruptive.
There’s an art to making an audio description that preserves the same emotional beats without giving away too much.
The benefits of closed captioning extend far beyond just serving the hearing impaired.
As powerful as speech-recognition AI is, live humans are still needed to help train and improve the AI’s results.
I do a lot of writing and speaking on issues of diversity, particularly when it comes to the workplace in the Screen Industry. I am someone who looks for what’s missing—I seek out and lift up those who often get left behind. Recently I realized that while diversity and inclusion initiatives seem to be increasingly popular both on and off-screen, we’re still overlooking one large sector of our community. We’re missing people with disabilities.
In thinking about this, I realized I had a few questions to answer. I set out to explore them within my local Screen Production community. I wanted to know:
How do blind people watch television and movies?
How are deaf people consuming and producing media?
As an able-bodied person, I didn’t want to write a piece speaking on behalf of anyone. Instead, I decided to share my journey of answering these questions, and a few of the many things I learned on the way.
According to a 2010 OECD study, globally, there are more than 1 billion people with some form of disability—that is about 15% of the world’s population (or one in seven people).
We as people without disabilities often see the physical barriers those with disabilities face—but we often underestimate the additional barriers faced due to social misconceptions and attitudes.
With so many people around me living with disabilities, my first and most logical step toward learning more would be to ask a friend or colleague.
A block from the post-production house where I work, is a production company called Attitude, where they specialize in creating accessible content about people living with disabilities. One-third of the staff there are disabled themselves, so it seemed like an obvious first place to go.
I knew Dan Buckingham and Jai Waite already; we generally hang out together at industry events. Jai and I can talk endlessly about technology and hot sauce. I brought donuts, knowing that Dan had just participated in the New York Marathon. Dan is tall, handsome and well-spoken. He’s played rugby for most of his life–first as an able-bodied athlete through college, then as a wheelchair athlete, winning a Gold and a Silver medal at the Paralympics. He started his television career as a researcher, eventually becoming a Post Supervisor, Producer, and is now General Manager of Attitude Live.
Producer Dan Buckingham
We started our conversation by talking about some of the things Attitude did to make their own content more accessible to a wide range of people. Dan told me that while they knew they would have to consider ways to make content for people who are blind and deaf, it was working with and creating content for people with intellectual disabilities that surprised him the most.
“Even though I’d worked in the sector for many years, I still had some preconceived ideas,” he told me, referring to when they first launched their video content on the web. During user testing, he noticed how easy it is for people with intellectual disabilities to navigate online, where they’re given the time to work things out. “We did things like make sections color-coded so people could navigate easier, used clear concise wording, and incorporated lots of iconography.”
He also noted that having lots of white space, consistency across pages, and color contrast also helped people with visual impairments better navigate the site, whether via a screen-reading device, or with partial vision.
Making Videos for the Blind
An estimated 4% of the U.S. population identifies as blind. Dan told me that blind audiences are the most overlooked by producers when it comes to accessibility, but that in fact, blind audiences are watching many of the same shows as I am. They do this through Audio Descriptions added to the soundtrack.
Across the table from me was Jai Waite. Like most editors I know, he is as nerdy as he is artistic. Right at home in a small cutting room, he’s often quiet until the conversation turns to something he can geek out about. Jai said that making content better for blind audiences is something he does in the edit.
“I like listening to audio documentaries to keep myself in that space of being aware that sound is so important. Blind people really like lots of natural sounds in a scene to help paint the picture.”
He encourages production crews to capture as much good, clean location sound as possible. He then consciously leaves spaces in the edit where he can, to allow for audio descriptions. “In the edit, it’s a balance. You want to try and leave more space, but you also don’t want to add dead-air to too much space. But you can leave space in sequences, like musical interludes—just do what you can to make it accessible and enjoyable to all.”
The guys told me that it’s worth trying to watch something with the audio description on. It’s amazing how creative it can be and how much it can add to the story without being obtrusive. It struck me what a creative process it must be to write and produce these elements, so I went to see how it’s done.
Creating Audio Descriptions
Netflix and YouTube are providing a growing number of videos with Audio Descriptions. Here in New Zealand, where I currently live and work, Able is a non-profit organization providing subtitles and audio description services for content on local television. I met James Kupa, whose smooth, enunciated radio voice and bright disposition makes it clear that he is an Audio Describer, and he loves his job.
James and his colleagues describe a wide range of content for blind audiences, from live events, to crime procedurals, even The Simpsons. The day I met him, James was in the middle of describing a BBC Drama Mini-Series.
“We get the media, which is this here,” he says, pointing to his monitor which has an NLE timeline of the show itself in a single part. “This is what goes to air. We find breaks in the dialogue, and we describe what’s happening in the scene or what’s pertinent to someone who might not be able to see what’s on screen. So if you didn’t watch this,” he continues, hitting play, “you wouldn’t see any of this.”
I watch a long shot of a man driving his car down a deserted road. There’s no dialogue, but in true British Drama style, a lot is going on. James goes back to the start of the shot, and narrates the scene in a way that feels like he’s reading the story as a novel.
“Rosie and Jack are riding their bikes down a narrow road. David passes them in his car.He pulls over, and gets out.”
After stopping the recording, I turned to James and said “this sounds like the shooting script”. On his second monitor, I see James has a script, that he’s constantly writing, amending and annotating. I ask him if he ever uses the stage direction or script to make his job easier. He tells me he gets the scripts from Production, but that his script is quite different. Not only does he literally have to describe what’s on screen, but he needs to avoid describing too much of the character’s motivation or feelings. “Everybody experiences watching a show differently. So you want people to be able to make up their own minds about who’s guilty and who they should be sympathetic with.”
I watch as James continues his work. It’s interesting how much he holds back. There are places where he has time to describe, but chooses not to. He wants to ensure the blind audience gets to experience the same emotional beats, pauses and tension as the director intended. He tells me that there are rules he follows, too. He doesn’t use a character’s name until their name is used. Instead, he describes them using physical traits. He doesn’t want to give away anything in the story; but sometimes, he says, there’s a look in a character’s eye that wants to tell the audience “that dude looks shady”.
Before taking up too much of his work day, I wanted to ask him one more question.
“What is the hardest thing to describe?”
“Comedy,” he says immediately. Able has audio described The Simpsons, which is dialogue-heavy, full of visual gags, and of course, is weird. Describing the opening “couch gag” alone was an enormous creative challenge for their writers and describers, and episode 1 took two hours to write the audio descriptions script.
I wanted to know more, so I went to talk to Wendy Youens, Able’s CEO. She outlined the creative process that goes into describing, as efficiently as the descriptions themselves.
“The creative process comes down to what are the key elements that are important to the story in this visual shot, what’s just happened, what’s happened since the last description, what’s going to happen before the next one, and what do people really need to know?”
She explains that the describers are constantly making judgment calls that affect how much an audience can enjoy the content. They must determine what is the most important thing to describe, in the small gap between dialogue. I asked her, “If a picture paints a thousand words, how do you fit a thousand words into four seconds?”
“You just can’t,” she replied. “There’s only so much you can describe.”
Like Jai Waite, Wendy and James also told me that content creators need to leave gaps for audio descriptions. I’m reminded that adding accessibility features is good for everyone, especially when it enables a wider audience to enjoy the work I’ve created.
YouDescribe is a great online tool that crowdsources audio descriptions, allowing volunteer sighted describers to take a YouTube video and easily create an audio description soundtrack for it so that blind audiences can enjoy the same viral videos, movie trailers and cultural content.
Just down the hallway from the audio describers at Able, men and women were training machines to help them create captions for the 80% of deaf and hearing audiences who for various reasons, enhance their media consumption with subtitles.
Audio for the Deaf is Video for Everyone
Subtitles, captions, timed text—we’re all familiar in some way with these terms, especially as they are becoming more common than ever in the content we create and consume. In 2014, captions became part of iOS. They’re now automatically part of most online social content, and part of the standard deliverables to streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and BBC iPlayer. There are laws in most countries that require certain film and television content to be captioned, and these days it’s considered best practice to do so.
Official statistics suggest an estimated 4% of the U.S. population is deaf—the same proportion as those who are blind. This encompasses those whose hearing is impaired enough that they have trouble listening to normal conversation, even with a hearing aid.
Captions are not only used by deaf and hearing-impaired audiences. They are also popular with people who are trying to learn or improve their skills in a second language, or those seeking to consume content from other cultures. They’re also becoming ubiquitous to those of us who watch videos on mobile devices—85% of videos on Facebook are viewed without sound. Using captions allows for second-screen or less disruptive viewing in public environments.
YouTube allows the uploader to select automatic captions, created using speech to text AI, or to upload captions created manually. Amara crowdsources captioning and translation for video content, making it more accessible and affordable for productions. Subtitle Edit is a free online tool for creating caption files, and of course Avid has Subcap as part of the NLE.
Able has a large captioning department, where captioners specifically work to create subtitles for a wide range of content and platforms. Wendy told me that the most important things to consider when creating captions are readability, accuracy, and placement on the screen. Make sure they aren’t too fast, that you’ve checked the spelling and grammar, and that the captions aren’t obscuring important action on the screen. She suggests you ask your viewers for feedback and follow up on it where you can.
Captioning has been around in broadcast content since the 1980’s. Recently, technology has changed how it’s done, enabling audiences to watch much more with subtitles. Wendy explained to me that there’s some really interesting technology augmenting people’s abilities, especially for the deaf.
Hearing Loops are an older technology, yet still very popular. In a movie theater, for example, the Hearing Loop allows a person to connect their hearing aid device directly to the audio output feed. Also in participating cinemas, there are screens that plug into the seat, showing captions in sync with the movie. There are apps that use voice recognition to automatically caption on your phone what is being spoken on the movie screen; but both the app and the screen, Wendy noted, are not ideal. “It’s not great, having to have your phone screen on in a cinema. It’s disruptive and not exactly comfortable to have to look at both screens at once.”
We walked down the hall, past rows of captioners typing text and watching videos, and I asked how much of their work is done using AI. I was surprised when she told me that they use speech-to-text and Machine Learning in an unexpected way.
In a corner of a room was a woman wearing headphones and speaking to a computer as though it were alive, but just learning English. A cup of tea sat on the desk. I felt witness to a great deal of patience. “That’s one of our re-speakers, teaching the computer,” Wendy said.
We stepped out of the room, and Wendy explained that they work around the errors and limitations of speech-recognition AI by using a small team of individuals, called re-speakers. These re-speakers work with a single copy of a speech recognition software called Dragon, taking time every day to train it to specifically and perfectly learn their individual patterns of speech. Then, when a live production goes to air, every time a person speaks, the re-speaker repeats it to the computer. The software is so well-trained on that one person’s speech, it automatically captions without errors. The re-speakers also say all the necessary punctuation, getting mostly-accurate text on screen with minimal delay. Wendy explained that this used to be done by specialist typists, and audiences had to accept that it would be relatively slow, and prone to errors.
As we strolled back through the office, I paused at a bookshelf across one wall. “Are these dictionaries?” I asked. Wendy smiled. “Yes, those are a blast from the past. We use the Oxford Online dictionary for all our spelling. But we like to keep the old library from before.” The bookshelf contained more dictionaries than I knew existed. There were books of slang, culinary terms, and thesauruses. The collection even contained different editions of favorite volumes, for what I imagined were simply nostalgic purposes known to librarians, linguists, and captioners.
As I was leaving, I asked Wendy whether any of their staff were blind or deaf. “My job is the only one here that doesn’t require a person to have good eyesight and hearing,” she explained. “That’s the thing about diverse hiring though. You have to consider what physical attributes really are required. Most desk jobs, especially, don’t require a person to be able-bodied.”
Wendy helped me realize that making content more accessible is easier than I thought. Aside from her practical solutions, she urged me to think about simply being a better ally to people with disabilities, using whatever influence I have to bring positive change. “The best thing you can do is influence those you’re dealing with to consider accessibility. Talk to your distribution chain. Ask yourself where is your film going, and how will it be made accessible throughout its life cycle? Ask whether screenings of your film will be accessible, and if not, why not? Do what you can to raise awareness about the importance of accessibility for everyone.”
One thing we can all easily do is consider how each production we work on can be made more accessible in some way. (See the addendum at the end of the article for ways of creating captions for the hearing impaired).
“Some people worry that once they start trying to be more accessible, lots of these questions come up and they’re opening up a can of worms. But just start where you can. Work with the feedback that you get and make changes as you can.” -Wendy Youens
Dan Buckingham, as a producer, also acknowledged that even when the production wants to make their content as accessible as possible, sometimes you’re on a deadline and you have to make a compromise. In terms of seeing more people with disabilities in the office, I haven’t stopped thinking about how much value would be added to the team by someone who approaches everything in life from a different perspective, and who is by necessity an expert problem-solver. The changes we need to make to have more inclusive workplaces are so minimal, and would benefit the whole team. Dan told me the best thing we can do is “design for the edges”, that when you make something more accessible for someone, you make it better for everyone.
If our content is going on YouTube, we can use the automatic captions, which are created by speech-to-text AI, but I’m told we should always review and correct them because they can be quite error-prone. You can edit the automatic captions by going to video manager, click Edit > Subtitles and CC. In this menu, you can also click Add New subtitles or CC, and either upload or manually type in your own.
For the majority of post-workflows out there, the chances of you finishing your audio in your NLE are rare. In most high-end, professional situations, audio is sent out to Pro Tools or some other DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) upon picture-lock.
But what if you didn’t have to? What if your NLE gave you all the audio capabilities required to deliver a professional audio mix?
Today we’re going to dive into FCP X’s audio capabilities and also point out some of its lesser known audio features to see if we have enough to avoid round-tripping out to Pro Tools, Logic or some other DAW. Don’t let the simplicity of FCP X’s interface fool you. As you will soon find out, the number of audio features under the hood are vast.
Ingest and Prep
Let’s first look at some of the tools and features you’ll use when first importing audio media.
When you import Audio into Final Cut you can assign it a specific Role (dialogue, music, SFX etc). You also have the power to create custom roles and sub-roles within FCP X to organize your project even further.
To create custom roles and sub-roles head over to the Timeline Index (CMD+SHIFT+2) and click on the Roles tab.
At the bottom you will find Edit Roles. Click on this to bring up the Role Editor. Here you can create new roles, sub-roles and rename existing roles.
Assigning each audio clip a Role becomes incredibly helpful the more complicated your edit gets. Normally you would spend some time neatening up your Timeline before you dove into audio editing; but in the case of FCP X all this neatening and organization is done with the click of a keystroke.
When you’re ready to focus in on audio editing simply head back to your Timeline Index to your Roles tab and click on Show Audio Lanes. This takes all your disparate audio clips and organizes them according to their Roles into separate Audio Lanes. You can even solo one Lane at a time to focus in on one particular Role (let’s say you wanted to focus just on dialogue or only on music).
BEFORE Show Audio Lanes
AFTER Show Audio Lanes
Show Audio Lanes with Focus on Dialogue Role
Finder Tags and iXML Metadata
You can also import any iXML track name info along with your audio files if your sound recordist labeled their channels properly upon recording. In addition, any tags you add to media at the finder level—along with folder names—be turned into their own keyword collection upon import if you utilize the proper import settings.
This is incredibly helpful as it allows you to organize your media even more precisely as it comes into FCP X. One of the many obvious benefits of this is when you have your video and audio organized on your hard drive and labeled with the proper day, reel, scene etc., all your media will essentially come into FCP X already organized in their appropriate keyword collections (folders) where you can easily find the secondary audio to be synced with its corresponding video. This is especially important because as we’ll learn later, you need to select your clips in the browser to sync them—not in the timeline. Coupled with FCP X’s trackless timeline and audio Components, this makes it difficult to lose sync by accident while editing and allows you to easily view, edit, mix and master your audio in myriad ways.
Automatically Fix Audio Problems
Another great feature in FCP X is its ability to Analyze and Fix basic audio problems automatically. I would never recommend this for a fine audio edit, but if you are looking to do a quick temp mix, the Loudness, Noise Removal, and Hum Removal trio do a surprisingly good job. You can do this upon import or after the fact by right clicking a clip(s) and selecting ‘Analyze and fix audio problems’.
You can also click on the little magic wand icon in the Inspector next to where it says “not analyzed”. The wheels will spin and it will recommend the optimal settings for anything it feels the need for.
If one of the parameters (loudness, NR or Hum) do not engage, it means the audio does not need that adjustment (No Problems Detected) and if they do engage it means they did (Fixed).
Audio Components are FCP X’s way of wrapping all the separate audio tracks/streams for a clip into a single expandable/collapsible container in your timeline. This is incredibly helpful when you are dealing with multi-track audio from set.
Let’s say you have 2 tracks of a stereo mixdown, 2 boom mics, 2 lavs and 4 additional ISO’s (Isolated Tracks/Channels of Recorded Audio). Having 10 tracks of audio in your timeline while editing for picture can be quite annoying and can lead to accidentally shifting things out of sync.
When you edit a clip into your timeline—regardless of how many audio tracks the clip contains—FCP X shows you a single waveform mixdown of all the audio tracks in that clip. You could think of it as a quasi-compound clip of audio only.
To reveal and edit the clip’s individual audio tracks, right-click that clip in the timeline and choose Expand Audio Component (CTRL-OPT-S) and the audio expands in the timeline to show you all your separate ISO tracks. You can then delete silent tracks, edit others, and apply effects on an individual basis. Once you’re done, right-click, Collapse Audio Component to get a nice, neat timeline again.
You also have access to these separate tracks in the Audio Inspector, but you’re limited to what you can do with them there. Essentially, in the Inspector, you can either disable/enable tracks or change their channel configuration (Dual Mono, Stereo, Left, Right etc.)
Expanding vs. Detaching Audio
FCP X can be a little confusing sometimes because in addition to the Expand Audio Component function, there is also just Expand Audio and Show Audio Lanes—both function similarly, but are subtly different.
This is an important feature for those interested in doing J and L cuts. Right-click a clip and select Expand Audio (CTRL-S) in order to separate the audio component from the video whilst retaining its synced relationship with the clip. This allows you to extend the audio from a clip without affecting the length of the video (or vice-versa)—hence creating J and L cuts. You can then right-click and Collapse Audio to neaten it back up; but be careful because any audio extended beyond the end of the video is still there but not viewable in the timeline once collapsed. This can lead to a problem I like to call rogue, or “phantom”, audio.
When J or L cuts are hidden from view (because the audio is collapsed), the overlapping audio of the cut is that aforementioned “rogue” audio. If you are hearing something in your timeline that you’re not seeing as a waveform anywhere, all you need to do is right-click and select ‘Expand Audio’ on the clips in and around where your “phantom” audio is playing.
Once expanded you’ll be able to see if there was any audio extended past where the video cuts that had become hidden from view when it was collapsed. You can then trim it off or silence it to fix the issue.
Show Audio Lanes
If you go up to View’ → Show Audio Lanes you will see that the timeline acts as if you’ve just hit the Expand Audio button for every clip at once. This is another way in which to get to your J and L cuts. The basic difference between Show Audio Lanes and Expand Audio is if an audio Component contains all the same type of Roles (all dialogue for instance) and you hit Show Audio Lanes the Component as a whole will remain collapsed yet separated from the video so you can J and L cut with the Component as a whole. If your Component contains multiple types of Roles (dialogue, music, effects) and you Show Audio Lanes, the Component automatically expands in the timeline as different Roles need to be organized into their separate lanes.
Expand Audio: audio is separated but Lanes aren’t labeled.
Show Audio Lanes when all audio tracks are the same Role: audio is separated, Component collapsed and Lanes are labeled to the far left under the first clip.
Show Audio Lanes when audio tracks are different roles: audio is separated, Component is expanded and Lanes are labeled to the far left.
This one you have to be careful with because once you right-click a clip and select Detach Audio (CTRL-SHIFT-S) the audio and video are no longer associated with each other and all bets are off. Essentially you have created two completely separate clips—a video-only one and an audio-only one. I don’t really recommend doing this except under rare circumstances when you really only need either the video for b-roll or the audio for sound design. Instead, disable entire audio clips you don’t want to hear by either un-checking them in the audio tab of the Inspector or by selecting a portion of the audio with the Range tool—audio must be expanded or shown in lanes—and hitting V (enable/disable).
The easiest way to bring back the audio after you detach and delete it is to Match-frame (SHIFT-F) back to the original clip in the browser and Replace Edit. This will also replace your video though, so if you’ve made any color corrections or added any effects you’ll want to copy the clip’s attributes/effects before you Replace Edit so you can paste those attributes back onto the replaced video and not lose your work.
Or, perhaps easier, you could do an audio-only edit (Shift-3) and connect the audio to the clip in question in the primary storyline (Q)—although if you do this, the audio will not be married to..
Getting paid for your art has probably taken its toll on your enjoyment and fulfillment.
You can regain your passion and fulfillment, and still make a living.
You don’t necessarily need to make a living doing your art
Personal projects can both recapture your creative passion, and ironically also lead to financial rewards.
There are six exercises you can start today to get your creative juices flowing and moving you closer to fulfillment.
It’s not enough to be creative every now and then—you must lead a creative life.
Is getting paid for your art really the ultimate achievement for a professional artist? “Popular Oscars” and MTV Movie Awards aside, if you got paid for your art, even if you got paid a lot, would that be enough to make you happy and fulfilled?
Maybe. But, if you’re like most filmmakers I’ve met over the years, you didn’t fall in love with this craft because you saw it as a sure fire way to financial freedom. Most likely, some movie you saw captured your imagination: whether it was something as ubiquitous as the 1977 release of Star Wars, or the Powell and Pressburger classic The Red Shoes. Whatever it was for you, you embarked upon this journey for artistically pure reasons.
And then something changed.
Getting Paid. Losing Passion.
For the past three weeks, we’ve explored the ongoing debate of “does art pay?” It started three weeks ago with the release of the first Frame.io Masters film by Mark Toia. A 150+ comment thread on the /r/photography subreddit inspired last week’s post that covered 4 specific things you can do to get paid for your art.
But that begs the question: “do you want, or even need to get paid?” Are financial rewards the only end worth justifying in the endeavor of film and video production? And is there a way to have your proverbial cake and eat it too?
If you’ve chosen the creative arts as a career path, somewhere along the line, the passion and creativity that drove you in the beginning began to diminish. Maybe it was dealing with that umpteenth client that wanted way more than he was willing to pay. Maybe it is all those jobs you took that didn’t really excite you, but “hey, they paid the bills.” Or maybe you’ve shot and/or edited just one too many vapid blow-up-the-bad-guys summer blockbusters that leave your soul feeling lifeless and your creativity dry.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
The Secret is Simple
Believe it or not, the secret to bringing back joy and fulfillment from your craft is simple: minimize input to maximize output. Meaning, minimize the weight and the impact of the people who have a say in executing your vision. The more you control what projects you take and how those projects are realized, the more fulfilled you’ll be.
There are four paths you can follow to make this happen:
Become a Master
Entertain the Masses
Keep it on the Side
Make it Personal
Become a Master
If you’re in this field to make a living, the best way to maximize both your creative fulfillment, as well as your financial intake, is to become a master. What’s a master? Someone like Mark Toia and the other people we’ll be featuring in the series. Filmmakers whose work is so amazing, they can 1) command whatever rate they want, 2) take only the jobs they want (Mark frequently has to turn down work) and 3) can often be granted ultimate creative control.
Legendary designer Paul Rand comes to mind when I think of people like this. According to the official Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson, back in 1986 when Jobs was ousted from Apple and founded NeXT Computer, he wanted a world-class brand. So he hired a world-class designer: Paul Rand.
Rand had designed the logos for a number of international brands—UPS, ABC, and IBM to name a few. Jobs paid Rand $100,000 for one design. That is nearly a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money. Paul made it clear that Steve would get ONE design. No revisions. Take it or leave it. And in any case, Paul would still get his money.
This is the category most of us who make a living creating art wish we could be in—where our work is in such demand, our style so distinctive, we can charge what we want and include the parameter that the client has absolutely no say in the matter.
In truth, this is probably more of a unicorn in today’s world. You have to be on true legendary status to command 100% carte blanche powers. But, you can bet pretty darn close if you possess the right skills or have the experience. (And regardless of your “master” status, you still will need to collaborate with others.)
To become a master takes years of experience, training, and talent. If you’re not quite there yet, here’s option #2.
Entertain the Masses
This is the artist who makes the kind of art they want to make, and either 1) people are willing to pay them for it, or 2) they can generate ad revenue due to the traffic their art creates. Great examples include:
YouTubers like Casey Neistat, Freddie Wong and iJustine
Filmmakers like Ed Burns who has his movies go direct to VOD or iTunes
Photographers like Trey Ratcliff who supports a company of employees solely on the licenses of the photographs he takes (which he posts online in full resolution for FREE personal use under Creative Commons.)
Popular YouTuber Freddie Wong has co-created Rocket Jump, a production company born from years of VFX-heavy shorts. He’s gone on to create one of the most popular YouTube series ever (“Video Game High School”) as well as a short series Hulu deal, Rocket Jump: The Show.
Admittedly, this is one of the hardest achievements to accomplish. It usually takes years of creating content and building an audience (or one lucky, jackpot-winning viral video). But if you can, few things are more rewarding for a filmmaker.
If you are neither a master nor original creator, there’s option #3.
Keep it On the Side
The one option you will always have at your disposal is to maintain the creation of your art as something you do for personal enjoyment only—on the side. For many of you that may mean keeping your regular J-O-B. And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Don’t give in to the notion that you have to start a business or get a job related to your craft.
For fifteen years I ran a small video production and marketing company and as fulfilling as some of my work was, much of if had lost its allure. Now that I have as my primary job in life keeping you fine people intellectually fed on this blog, there is a tremendous amount of relief and satisfaction that comes with knowing that the video projects I now work on are personal in nature, fun to do, and only need to please me.
But the truth of the matter is, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, chances you are in this business to make money at your craft. Either in a business you started yourself, or working for someone else. And the overwhelming majority of you can’t name your price and pick and choose which projects you take. Most of you don’t run your own successful YouTube channel with 8+ million subscribers. And, your J-O-B is your art. So strategy #4 for keeping your passion alive is a version of “keep it on the side.”
Make It Personal
From the hundreds of professional artists I’ve interviewed over the years as a podcaster, writer, and documentary filmmaker, the most popular recurring theme I came across was the power and importance of personal work.
If the creative work you do on a daily basis is not fulfilling, personal and passion projects are the antidote. They allow you to…
Explore your creativity in ways you may not be able to do on someone else’s budget.
Explore provocative themes and subject matter you may not be able to do with someone else’s brand.
Explore and experiment with equipment you don’t have access to on someone else’s production.
It is in the execution of this work where you will rediscover the joy you originally had for this craft. It’s the reason why international movie stars who can command tens of millions of dollars to star in a blockbuster will work for scale to be in a small indie project that allows them to break out of a typecast.
At the end of the day, whether you work in front of the camera or behind, above the line or below, as an artist, all filmmakers want to keep growing.
Profiting from Your Passion Projects
The irony in the quest for personal rather than financial fulfillment through passion projects is that more often than not, the passion work you do may very well lead to financial profitability.
It was personal work that attributed to the phenomenal success of multi-Vimeo-Staff-Pick-winning commercial filmmakers Dan Riordan and Dana Saint of Gnarly Bay. Because of their personal projects, they have been hired by Fortune 500 agencies to produce work for brands like REI, Facebook, Slack, Verizon, Chevrolet, and many more.
It was Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s personal documentary “Hollow” that won her a Peabody, her first Emmy nom, and has led to now two Netflix original documentaries (“Heroine” and “Recovery Boys”).
Recovery Boys | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix - YouTube
And few can forget the heartfelt and powerful 7-minute personal doc Last Minutes with Oden that put Eliot Rausch on the map and a highly sought-after director (Rausch directed the short doc The Revenant: A World Unseen, based on making of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film, The Revenant.)
The list of passion-to-profit case studies is long:
The creation and subsequent video documentation of his passion projects is what led Film Riot creator Ryan Connolly’s to YouTube success.
Commercial photographer Zack Arias was catapulted to fame in the industry when he made the personal film “Transform” for ScottKelby.com.
With no video experience, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Vincent Laforet spent $5,000 of his own money to make his now famous “Reverie” film, credited with launching the DSLR filmmaking revolution (the 10th anniversary of which is this October). It should be noted that most of the professionals we surveyed for our Game Changer article listed that as the last real game changer.
Jesse Rosten’s fun project iPad+Velcro video was actually put on Apple’s website, which garnered him a modicum of fame and access to bigger projects.
Drea Cooper’s co-created series “California is a Place” racked up millions of views and led to some pretty high profile commercial work, including the Netflix Original “Flint Town.”
Filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg’s “Portal: No Escape” catapulted him to the point where five years later he was given the helm of 10 Cloverfield Lane, the 2016 sequel to J.J. Abrams monster movie hit Cloverfield.
World-renowned commercial photographer and founder/CEO of CreativeLive Chase Jarvis attributes some of his best gigs from his personal work with the iPhone or his photos of Seattle.
Many other professional filmmakers have been able to attain additional work and new opportunities this way. Naturally, there’s no guarantee your passion projects will lead to fame or fortune, but the beauty is, that doesn’t matter. If your motives are artistically pure and true, the real reward is something entirely different.
It’s fine knowing that artistic fulfillment can be recaptured just by investing time (and maybe personal money) into a creative project; but time and the lack of it (perceived or real) is actually the one thing that is most likely going to hold you back.
We’re all pulled in so many different directions, it can be easy for us to constantly avoid taking the necessary steps forward to work on the projects that can recapture “the magic.” So here are six simple creative exercises you can do right now to give you that proverbial shot in the arm you need to get creative juices flowing, exercise your creativity, and get sparks of inspiration.
Learn one new feature/trick a day: I bet there’s a feature in your NLE you’ve never used and/or haven’t discovered. Find it, and learn how to use it. Play around with EQ and other audio controls. Or dive deep into color grading features. Been meaning to learn After Effects? Do it. Go and finally watch that Master Class you purchased last month and have yet to crack open.
Impromptu Projects: one of the ways I’ve been teaching my aspiring filmmaker son is through a project we call Spontaneous Cinema. We go out for 2-4 hours, make up a story on the spot, then shoot it on my iPhone. He then goes back and edits it (he often even creates original music). So, go out and make up a story, shoot it, then edit it, all in a day. (The next best thing is finding a local 24- or 48-hour film project and join a team. I led a team once and it was both the most challenging and most rewarding filmmaking experience of my life). As of this writing, the GIF-making and hosting site Giphy just launched an 18-second film festival. Go join it.
Read a book that challenges or pulls you out of your comfort zone: there are plenty of books about reigniting the flame of creativity. But what I’m suggesting is one of those artsy books that gives you random assignments. One of my favorites is “How to Be An Explorer of the World” by Keri Smith. It encourages you to look at the world in new and different ways. The “Light” exercise asks you to collect different objects based on how they reflect light and to list the different qualities such as reflective, translucent, refracting, etc. Smith’s “Wreck this Journal” series are also worthwhile “reads”.
Morning Pages: first noted in Julia Cameron’s critically acclaimed book “The Artist’s Way,” morning pages are a way for you to force yourself to create. Every morning, you write three pages—longhand (no screens allowed). You write whatever is on your mind. A dream. An idea. A frustration. Whatever. But you must write. Every. Single. Day. Countless artists have extolled the virtues of morning pages and the effect it’s had on their lives.
Street Photography Stories: for nearly six months this year I traveled through Europe and my love for street photography was reignited. But I began to add a unique element. Inspired by Humans of New York—where photographer Brandon Stanton interviews his subjects then writes their stories as captions for his photos—I would take my street photos and just make up stories. So go out, take a bunch of photos, then come home and make up stories to go along with them.
For this photo of two men I took sitting outside a cafe in Carcassonne, France, I wrote this short story: a make-believe dialog between two old friends debating whether or not one can separate an artist from his “sins”.
Baby Steps: last but not least, if you do have a passion project you’ve been working on (or want to work on), but haven’t gotten around to it, take baby steps. Every day make one small move toward your goal. It may be a page of a script. A character description. Half a lesson on DaVinci Resolve. Momentum and the act of moving forward is the most important thing.
Live a Creative Life
You’d be surprised about how much you can learn from the creative process of artists in other disciplines. The documentary short below weaves excerpts from interviews with award-winning filmmaker Brandon McCormick of Whitestone Motion Pictures; Brandon’s partner and film Composer Nick Kirk; brand agency creative director Blake Howard of Matchstic; and painter Suzy Schultz. The insights they share are inspiring and surprisingly universal.
“When you have a story that needs to be told, you can’t help yourself but to go make it.” Brandon McCormick, Whitestone Motion Pictures
The key learnings from the film that you can take away today:
Have structure in your creative process
Create from a personal space
Once you finished one project, move on to the next
Listen to the muse that tells you to “go make something”
But perhaps the most insightful piece of advice comes from Blake:
“Creativity is a habit. It’s something you have to live, it’s a lifestyle. It’s not something you just wait to pull out of your pocket. We treat creativity, or our process, like chapstick; our lips are chapped and we go for out chapstick and we just slather it on, when that’s really not the problem. The problem is, we might be dehydrated, and we haven’t had a lifestyle of drinking water.”
That quote convicts me every time I hear it. I think it perfectly encapsulates the exercises I recommended and points the way to the solution for curing any artistic doldrums you may be experiencing.
Whether it’s the work you do on a day-to-day basis, or the time you find after work..
Being an artist sucks. Rarely do you get paid what you’re worth. You have to put up with dead-end jobs to make ends meet while you work on being an “auteur.” Family members look at you cross-eyed, and frequently your physical and mental health suffers.
So why do it?
Why not stick to getting the safe 9 to 5 that comes with sick leave, a steady paycheck, and vacation time (two whole weeks!) and if you’re lucky, a gold watch when you retire (do they still pass out gold watches? Do people still “retire?”)
Last week we premiered the inaugural episode of a new film series called Frame.io Masters, where some of the most gifted and talented filmmakers working today explain why they do what they do. Up first was the award-winning master craftsman and globe-trotting commercial director from down under, Mark Toia.
The film has had a tremendous response as thousands of artists have been inspired by its message and imagery. But it also has been the spark of some very heated and provocative conversations across the web.
This post on the /r/photography sub-Reddit was particularly heated (I know. A provocative debate on Reddit. Shocker!) The topic in contention was a key part of Mark’s film—the statement he makes near the beginning where he repeats the advice a teacher of his told him years ago—“art doesn’t pay.”
This debate is not new to the industry (filmmaking, photography, or any other creative field). Whether or not one can make a career out of doing creative work that you love is probably as old as neandertal paintings on cave walls. There seem to be two leading mindsets:.
First, Mark’s film is great and all, but his story is rare. He’s the 1/10 of 1% of those who make it. One Redditor replied:
“Beside the epic self-promotion of Mark Toia, the moral in this clip is kinda full of sh*t. I’m glad this guy made it, but it’s the story of 0.1% and not the 99.9% that went all in for the same goal and failed. He makes it sound like if you put the hard work it will pay in this domain; well it’s full of broke asses that never made it [yet] went all in. Art doesn’t always pay. Amazing story, epic demo reel, but this is the outcome of the guy who finished 1st place, not the story of the 50,000 others who went for the same race.”
And it’s nice to know that cynicism is still alive and well in the creative community. As one other Redditor put it:
“Yeah it’s like if you put an NBA player in this video and changed the title to “Basketball doesn’t pay”.”
But not everyone had that feeling.
The second mindset is that art can pay—it IS hard to get there, but worth the effort. The reply to the aforementioned comment summarizes the opposing view:
“I think you’re completely missing the point. Where did you hear him say that going “all in” was how he got to where he is? It’s not because you go all-in that you’ll make it. What you missed is that he had a passion from a very young age and took a shot at it. He earned 1 small paycheck and REINVESTED his earnings into his passion. If you get into ANYTHING with a unique outcome to earn money, you’ll fail. He had a passion, gave it a small shot, earned a tiny bit of money and kept at it. Your analogy of the race isn’t the best either ‘cause at the beginning, they all have the same chance, it’s about who put the work in and who doesn’t give up.”
This echoes similar debates related to whether one should follow your passion vs. play it smart.
As with most issues regarding the pursuit of success in a creative field, the answers are nuanced. I absolutely believe that art can pay; not only in the traditional financial ways, but in intangible ways which are just as significant.
Today we’ll look at the financial ways in which art can pay. Next week we’ll tackle the intangible.
So let’s start with the four key lessons we can take away from Mark’s story. I call them the “Be Attitudes.”
Be self-aware. (Know your abilities.)
Mark makes it clear from the outset that he was a gifted student of the arts. He could draw pretty much anything. That skill was undoubtedly the impetus for his teacher giving him that advice. (The teacher saw a raw talent, and in a desire to protect mark from a life of starvation, he gives him the warning “art doesn’t pay.”)
One of the leading arguments against “following your passion” is that many people have a passion for something they’re not really good at. They pursue it only to be disappointed in the long run. This video by Mike Rowe addresses this point directly. In summary, he proclaims that many people have a passion for something in which they have no actual skill or talent. They would be better off keeping their passion, just don’t pursue it as a way to earn a living.
If you want to make a living at your art, you need to have skills that others want to pay for. There’s no getting around that. That means knowing what you’re good at and what you’re not. Then hiring or partnering with those who fill your gaps.
Social media marketing icon, VC and speaker Gary Vaynerchuk lives and dies on this soapbox. As he says in the video below, a lot of people are lying to themselves. His advice is to go all-in on your strengths—and as he puts it in the New York, GaryVee style for which he’s known, “Don’t give a f*** at what you suck at.” It’s not just betting on your strengths, it’s accepting your shortcomings.
This is exactly what Mark has done. But his road to attain creative success was done in a way that allowed that success to blossom. Which leads to lesson #2.
Be smart. (Work other jobs if you have to.)
Near the beginning of the film, Mark shares how he worked many other jobs before he became a full-time filmmaker. Very rarely can one make a living as a full-time filmmaker right out of the gate. The waiter/filmmaker is a stereotype that exists for a reason. In order to survive, you must bring home a paycheck. It would be foolish to venture into the professional filmmaking and video world without such a plan. In any risky professional endeavor (whether working to be a filmmaker or starting a business), the side hustle is often necessary. It’s all about the hustle.
Which leads to lesson #3.
Be bold. (Jump fences in front of car crashes.)
We had the opportunity to interview Mark for a longer article and learn more about his story. What he didn’t share in this film was that after he got that $50 paycheck, he set out to replicate what he did. Paying photo jobs didn’t just start popping up. He hustled and did whatever he could to get paid again.
One of those turning points came when he jumped a fence at an indy race track, pretending to be an official photographer (as he had no credentials yet to get through the front door). He would do this kind of thing often, and on one fateful day, he grabbed a shot of a huge crash. That photograph led to him being hired by a Reuters producer, for whom he freelanced over the next two years. The work he did there led to more jobs and the spread of his reputation.
Even the way Mark got that job speaks to this attitude of boldness. That Reuters producer offered him $400 sight unseen (these were the film days) when he saw Mark get the shot. But something in Mark told him to decline the offer. Think about it: here he was trying to replicate that $50 payday, and a stranger offers him $400 for a photo neither one of them knew for sure was even any good (remember, this was back in the film days). When Mark declined the offer, the producer invited him to the media area to develop the film. When he saw it, he ended up paying Mark $1,000 for the shot (keep in mind this was $1,000 in 1988 money).
I would suppose the hustler attitude as well as his self-awareness both played a part in Mark’s instincts to hold out for the larger payment.
Mark took bold chances.
Now, I’m not saying you need to go out and start trespassing. However, being willing to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone is imperative in the creative field. That may sound easier said than done; but one way you can exercise those muscles is by joining local networking groups. This could be a local group of post professionals and editors like LACPUG, a local videographers association, or even a local BNI or Chamber of Commerce.
The networking events held by these organizations will help you get accustomed to getting out of your comfort zone, and they’re also a fantastic way to find potential mentors.
Which leads me to lesson #4.
Be learning. Always.
As Mark states in the film, he made it a point to learn as much as he could about every photographic technique there was. He wouldn’t settle for resting on his laurels. This is a theme we have seen played out in numerous professionals we’ve had the opportunity to interview for this blog.
Mission: Impossible editor Eddie Hamilton shared the importance of education and learning not only about the mechanics of editing, but of storytelling. John Wick: Chapter 2 editor Evan Schiff spoke of learning tangential skills as an editor (e.g. VFX, coding, music, etc.) Mark Toia himself follows this mindset. He made it a point to learn every major aspect of post-production, like color grading and VFX, so that he could shorten his turn-around time and keep more money.
One of the few recurring critiques on that aforementioned sub-Reddit was the feeling that Mark is encouraging the full-sail disposal of rational thinking—that if you do what he did, you too can be as successful.
But at the end of the day, this film is Mark’s story. Nothing more. Nothing less. He doesn’t suggest you go run off and drop everything to pursue your passion. Quite the opposite—as he shared, he worked a number of blue collar jobs before getting to where he is.
He makes it clear—this industry is not for the meek and lazy. It’s hard ass work. Yet it’s easier than ever to get started. So you have no excuse not to at least TRY.
And for the record, the fact that Mark now uses expensive equipment does not invalidate his point. This was also brought up quite a bit—the seeming contradiction between Mark’s commentary on the inexpensive cost of equipment nowadays, while showing 8K RED Dragons and helicopter rigs.
Every filmmaker of note that has the wherewithal to shoot on the best of the best—from YouTubers like Ryan Connolly to blockbuster directors like Robert Rodriguez and Martin Scorsese—have exhorted aspiring filmmakers to get out and make films with whatever they have at their disposal.
The point that’s overlooked here is that Mark didn’t start off shooting with $50,000+ equipment. If anything, knowing his humble beginnings in the field and seeing what he has now should serve as further inspiration. Besides, as Frame.io CEO Emery Wells pointed out, “If you gave Mark an iPhone, he’d still create something amazing.”
“It’s not about the tools you use, it’s about the execution of your idea to try to get your imagination onto a screen.” ~Mark Toia
I think the moral, if there is one, is that if you have talent, and you want to give it a go at this career (or any creative career), then do GO FOR IT. Yes, you might end up like many others and not become “as successful” as Mark. But you don’t have to be a globe-trotting A-list commercial director to get paid, or to even make a decent living. (I did so for 15 years and I don’t have a quarter of Mark’s cinematic skill. And there are thousands more like me doing the same.)
Had Mark stuck with his teacher’s advice permanently, he wouldn’t be where he is now. And if a person decides to give up before they even start, then not only will they definitely never get paid for their art, they’ll die never knowing if they could have. I’d much rather die trying and fail than leave this world without ever having thrown my hat in the ring.
Perhaps the best example of this sentiment came from the Redditor who responded to someone’s cynical reply with this retort:
“Hopefully there’s some kid out there who reads your post and says, “f*** it, I’m going to do it anyways.” He’s gonna be the next Mark. Not you.”
[Editor’s Note: we asked award-winning Hollywood film & television editor Zack Arnold, ACE (Empire, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., Glee) to share his wealth of knowledge on how to have a long-standing career in this business. You can listen to him read it to you, or read it yourself.]
Avid Media Composer. Adobe Premiere. Final Cut Pro X. DaVinci Resolve.
I could debate until the end of time which piece of software is the most important to learn if you want to be a successful editor. Regardless of which NLE I believe has the most likelihood of leading you to success, I would be wrong.
And so would you.
We are not keyboard monkeys, we are storytellers. Our ability to tell compelling and engaging stories and make an audience feel something supersedes our knowledge of any specific piece of software.
Yet so many people in the post-production industry get hung up on the “hard skills” needed to climb the ladder to success. They believe if they become “Avid certified” they have a higher probability of landing the next job. But most clients, producers, and directors honestly don’t care if you’re certified or not. They care if you can tell compelling stories, move people emotionally, and deliver on deadline. And most importantly, they care whether or not they can work with you in a dark room for 60 hours a week (without you murdering each other).
Of course you need to have software proficiency to get (and keep) good jobs; but once you get beyond entry-level positions, software proficiency is automatically assumed.
I haven’t had a job interview in over a decade where I was asked, “Are you familiar with the [insert-your-favorite-NLE-here]?”
Once you have become proficient in your NLE of choice, I suggest you stop focusing on getting 5% better at learning software and instead start focusing on the “soft skills” necessary to build meaningful relationships with people you’d like to work with for years to come.
The most important “soft skill” you must master if you intend to have a lasting and fulfilling career as an editor is becoming “great in the room.”
Here’s the difference between proficient editors and those who are considered “great in the room”: A good editor can often be seen as another set of hands executing notes as requested; a great editor on the other hand often becomes the #1 choice for clients, directors, and producers when they are hiring for their next project because they enjoy working with them so much in the room.
If you’re interested in becoming an editor who is considered great in the room, there are only two things you have to focus on: Trust and comfort.
If you can make your collaborators (clients, directors, producers, etc.) trust your creative abilities and feel comfortable working with you, you have the ability to build a referral network that will provide a safety net and ensure you always have another job lined up—without you ever having to look for work again.
Yes, you can be that good.
Here are five practical approaches any editor can apply to their work to build trust with collaborators and establish a feeling of comfort and therefore be considered “great in the room.”
1. Create a safe environment, i.e. a “No Chaos Zone”
Filmmaking is messy. As editors, we have the luxury of a controlled space (usually). But when you’re a director or producer, you have to deal with every single fire that arises, whether it’s a script problem, a costume that has gone missing, a tempermental actor or actress, or studio executives emphatically demanding more results in less time (with less money).
Francis Ford Coppola on the set of “Apocalypse Now”. From “Hearts of Darkness”, American Zoetrope.
As an editor, I see myself as not just a creative collaborator helping to write the story one last time; I also see myself as a therapist to the directors, producers, and showrunners. After a long day of dealing with nothing but problems, my goal is for the editorial suite to function as a “Zen space” where people can decompress, share their challenges with me openly, and feel like they left my room a bit calmer, more focused, and confident the project is going to be amazing (and delivered on time).
Creating this “Zen space” and serving as therapist doesn’t require a PhD in cognitive behavioral therapy. There is only one simple thing you have to do consistently to enable an environment of trust: Listen.
That’s it. Just listen.
If a director or producer rushes into your room, shuts the door in a hurry and huffs and puffs on your couch, ask them what’s wrong—and then listen. Your willingness to let collaborators unload their burdens onto you (and them knowing what is shared in your edit suite stays in your edit suite) will enable a feeling of trust that can build the foundation of a genuine and lasting relationship.
Furthermore, as an editor it’s quite common to feel like a child stuck between two divorced parents. The director might say, “Do this and don’t listen to the producer,” while the producer is saying an hour later, “The director is an idiot. Just make this change and don’t tell him I told you to.” And shortly after you get a call from the studio giving you completely different notes that supercede both the director and the producer!
Your job as the editor is not to take sides; your job is to show allegiance to the story and to deliver the best final product possible. Enabling trust does not require siding with one party or the other. You build trust when you function as an effective mediator and get everyone on the same page. In my edit suite, it doesn’t matter who makes a suggestion—the best idea always wins… even if it comes from the janitor.
2. Accept that everyone has their own process, and set clear expectations on Day 1
Creatives are just weird. We all have our own way of doing things, and we’re all convinced that our way is the best way. If you want to build lasting relationships with collaborators who want to work with you again and again, you have to let go of the idea that your process is the best process.
Some directors want to give you a boatload of notes and let you “do your thing.” Other directors will turn your edit suite into their own personal conference room and spend days on the couch. And other directors spend twelve hours a day sitting next to you with their feet kicked up practically on top of your keyboard.
When you begin working with someone you’ve never worked with before, talk with them about what they prefer, rather than assuming they want to work your way. You’ll find that, when it comes to the editorial process, even experienced directors and producers often don’t have a single way of doing things, because they often begrudgingly just do what the editor tells them to do. If you simply ask them how they’d like to work, most directors will respond with tremendous gratitude because nobody ever bothers to ask.
Once you have had an honest conversation about the process you both think will work best, make sure to set clear expectations going forwards. For example, if you and your collaborator just sit down and say, “Let’s get to work,” as you hit the play button they might start giving you notes. You assume they want to do the notes right then and there so you stop playback and start making changes. Their assumption was that you would simply write down their thoughts and execute everything after they brain-dumped their notes onto you.
So now they’re annoyed because they have a 3pm meeting across town yet they’re watching you scrub through a single edit and massage it by 3 frames. If the person you’re working with is experienced, they will most likely say, “Oh I’m sorry. My plan was just to give you the notes and have you do them after I leave.” But if this person is a bit less experienced they might actually feel intimidated saying so. So they spend hours sitting on your couch thinking, “Oh my GOD is this boring, I wish I could just give notes and leave now. But am I ok to do that? Is that how this process works?”
The number one rule of post-production is: Never Assume.
Talk upfront about the process and make sure you are both approaching the material from the same direction with the same expectations. This allows your collaborators to feel comfortable with you.
“Empower your producer to give you notes when and where it’s best for her.”
3. Embrace and experiment with new ideas (no matter how stupid)
Everyone has stupid ideas, no matter where they are in their career; and there will always be bad notes. Many long for the day when they have finally “made it” so they can work with people who know what they are doing and no longer make bad suggestions.
You will be bombarded with bad ideas your entire career. Bad ideas are where great ideas begin. Your job is to help shepherd the terrible ideas down the path to becoming brilliant ones. Come out the other side wowing your collaborators with results they never expected, and they’ll trust you with any future ideas, big or small.
The first step to embracing all ideas (no matter how stupid) is abolishing the phrases No, I can’t, and That won’t work from your vocabulary.
The term “Grumpy Editor” exists for a reason. Ask most directors or producers to quickly describe the process of working with an editor, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear the word curmudgeon.
Don’t be that editor.
Be willing to collaborate, listen, and embrace ideas that at first might seem completely ridiculous. As the editor, you know the material better than anyone else on your project—including the director or producer you’re working with. This is why they trust you; but this can also get you in trouble. Making the assumption that you know the material better than anyone else can very quickly lead to the assumption that you also have the best ideas for how to assemble that footage. Remember, the best idea always wins—and it might not be yours.
If someone suggests that you make every character in the scene pink and put purple polka dots all over their faces, resist the urge to immediately say, “There’s no way that’s going to work (you moron).” Instead, embrace the opportunity to explore new ideas with the understanding that you’ll do everything you can to present the best version of this (awful) note. After all, you have no excuse not to, given that it costs nothing to duplicate your timeline.
If you take this approach with your closest collaborators and prove to them on a regular basis that you have put 100% effort into every single one of their notes, this gives you much more license down the road to honestly say, “I don’t think that will work,” or “I tried that and it just wasn’t working.” If the person you’re working with knows you gave it everything (and you always do), they will trust you’re probably right and just move onto the next idea.
4. Become a ninja at finding “The note behind the note”
While you might see the world through a very creative lens, many of the collaborators you work with might not. It’s not uncommon to receive notes from executives, non-creative producers, or the janitor’s grandmother’s cousin who just happened to get access to your cut. And often those of us who understand storytelling scratch our heads wondering, “How do they come up with this stuff?”
For example, the best note I’ve ever received in my entire career was a studio note from Fox Home Entertainment after reviewing a TV spot for The Passion of the Christ.” Their main note was, “Can we make it happier?”
You can’t make this stuff up.
While there are certainly some notes you have to politely dismiss out of hand, the vast majority of notes that seem ridiculous, uninformed, ignorant, or downright dumb might actually have some truth buried underneath. Unfortunately, most notes are written to suggest potential solutions whereas the real problem might not even be addressed at all, even if you follow the note as indicated. In this case it’s your job to find the “note behind the note.”
Our default mode as humans is to point out problems that are obvious and provide potential solutions to fix those problems. Unfortunately, storytelling isn’t that simple. For example, a contractor who is called in to address a water leak in the ceiling has a couple of options: He can either put pots under the leak to make sure the floor doesn’t get wet; or he can go on the roof and fix the hole that’s causing the leak.
Storytelling is infinitely more complex than a water leak. If a note tells you that “this scene is too slow, so let’s lift it,” the best solution might have nothing to do with this scene at all. If your gut instinct is the scene must stay, think much deeper about why someone’s first reaction is to cut the scene. Perhaps you’ve received this note because three scenes prior there is a story point that is overlooked, and without that specific story point, the intent of the scene in question is confusing. With confusion comes boredom, and with boredom comes the instinct to cut a slow scene.
Enabling trust and a feeling of comfort with your fellow collaborators often requires you to think twice before executing their notes. Your default mode should not be to simply cross off each note and say, “Here. I did exactly what you asked” even if something isn’t working. Instead, take the time to dig into the larger intention of each note by asking “WHY?” When you do that, your collaborators will know that you always have one goal in mind—telling the best story possible.
5. Become so fast you can finish people’s sentences (and find any shot instantly)
While some might not admit it, most people (including editors) hate sitting on a couch watching people edit. Watching someone shuttle through footage and assemble when you’re not clued into their internal thought process is akin to watching paint dry. Luckily (and unluckily) directors and producers come prepared with their smartphones and often pass the time scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, and keeping up with their email while you plod along from note to note.
Your goal as an editor is to become so fast at executing their notes in the room that they never have the time to whip out their phones.
My goal with every director or producer I work with is to be able to anticipate their needs, even before they say it. Then act accordingly. For example, if we’re working on a dialog scene and they’ve expressed the scene isn’t feeling “emotional enough,” I’m already thinking about multiple ways I can fix this problem. If we’re scrolling along and I’m asked to stop on a medium shot, and the person I’m working with says, “I’m thinking this shot would be more emotional if we used a close-up.” I might then follow up by saying “I’m way ahead of you. Something like this?” At this point, I’ve already queued up the close-up version of the line in question. You won’t always be right, but the more you listen and pay attention, the better you’ll get at being able to anticipate the needs of others.
Being able to anticipate your client’s thoughts is not a skill you can develop overnight, and it certainly isn’t something you automatically do successfully the first time you work with someone new. But there is one thing you have complete control over that will vastly increase your ability to move quickly:
If a director says, “Can I take a look at the insert of the book on the table?” and it takes you five minutes to find the shot in question, you’ve lost.
Know your material inside and out and use whatever organizational system you need so that all pertinent material is a single click away. Prep time at the beginning of a project can make you look like a hero down the line when there’s no room in the schedule for error.
The more consistently you can demonstrate you are intimately familiar with the material and can find anything at the snap of a finger, the more collaborators will trust that you are the true guardian of the footage, and the less they will question you when you say things like, “I’m sorry but that shot doesn’t exist.”
Just remember, when the smartphone comes out, it’s game over.
Good Editors vs. ‘Rockstar’ Editors
Good editors focus on the WHAT and the HOW. They are proficient with their editing software, they execute the notes in front of them, and they service their clients’ needs with a good attitude.
There is nothing wrong with being a good editor. But if you truly want to become a “Rockstar” editor, you have to be willing to dig much deeper into the WHY behind every note. And rather than focusing all of your time and energy on just getting better at using software, you must also prioritize improving your ability to make collaborators trust you and feel comfortable with you in the edit suite.
The editorial process of converting 35mm anamorphic film to DNxHR LB UHD in true 24 fps.
Cutting 70 hours of footage down to 7+ minutes! (And other seemingly “impossible” tasks.)
The organizational process of working with a 10-person post-production team.
When you’re making a movie that you want millions of people to enjoy, don’t be precious: if it doesn’t serve the story, it doesn’t stay in the movie.
Three pieces of advice and three book recommendations for every editor aspiring to work in Hollywood.
In a meta, life-imitating-art way, Mission: Impossible is not only the title of the hit movie series, it also describes the challenges of getting a big-ticket blockbuster from script to screen.
Ethan Hunt, the protagonist of the uber-successful franchise, is a badass extraordinaire by anyone’s measure. And Tom Cruise, who has embodied Hunt since 1996, has demonstrated some serious badassery of his own along the way. He’s the ultimate pro, both in front of and behind the camera, always raising the bar when it comes to thrilling an audience.
So, if you want to work with guys like that, do you have to work like them, too? Editor Eddie Hamilton A.C.E., returning for his second Mission: Impossible film, helps answer that question with some seriously badass insights and advice.
Eddie Hamilton never attended film school. Rather, he began his career as a runner in a post facility in the 1990s where he made it his business to learn everything he could about how to edit from both an operational and storytelling standpoint. Full and uncompromising immersion, the kind that keeps you at work late into the night and on the weekends, out of choice.
As a result, he’s gone on to cut some of Hollywood’s biggest movies, including X-Men: First Class, the Kick Ass movies, and the Kingsman films, before working with director Chris McQuarrie on the fifth Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation.
See for yourself why companies like Disney, Universal, BBC and CBS trust Frame.io
Chris McQuarrie struck gold early in his career, earning his first Oscar and BAFTA for his original screenplay for The Usual Suspects and has now directed three Tom Cruise films (the two Mission: Impossible films and Jack Reacher).
Chris asked Eddie back for Mission: Impossible – Fallout because, when you need an editor who is at the top of the game both in terms of storytelling and high-stakes production logistics, you’re looking at a pretty elite group.
A film with a $150 million budget boasts some serious tech, especially with releases in both IMAX and 3D.
The film cameras used were the Arriflex 235 and Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2. According to Eddie, “The majority of the movie was shot on 35mm anamorphic, which was scanned to DPX files on a really cool scanner called a Scanity that does 16 frames a second at 4K. Then, everything was transcoded at Pinewood Post to Avid DNxHR LB ultra high-definition media files at 2160p, all running at true 24fps. It allowed me to work at ultra high-def throughout the entire process.”
They digitized all the negatives immediately after shooting, which was then stored on a huge server run by Fluent Image in London, so that they could send files quickly to the various entities who needed them: visual effects, color grading, 3D conversion, etc.
Eddie is one of the few Hollywood editors cutting with ultra-HD offline media. As we learned in our deep dive into the workflows of last year’s Oscar nominees, most editors are still cutting their films offline at 1080p resolution.
The most important part of managing a film of this magnitude is organization, and Eddie’s team is serious about it. Some of the team worked with him on Rogue Nation, and some came from his previous project, Kingsman – The Golden Circle, so they were already mindful of his high standards.
The M:I crew was composed of two first assistants, two second assistants, a trainee, two visual effects editors, a music editor, and later a 3D editor. The assistants made sure that the cutting room was properly set up before actual footage started to come in, and tested the workflow processes. They requested test footage from the cameras to ensure that the metadata would translate across the whole process.
That step is absolutely vital, no matter whether you’re editing a Hollywood blockbuster or a reality TV show. Always always always test the workflow before you begin shooting. The lead VFX editor, Ben Mills, was “the mastermind of a rock-solid data and color pipeline with Double Negative, the primary VFX house,” Eddie says.
Once dailies start to come in, he has the assistants prepare the bins so he can get right to work in order to be able to advise Chris if there’s anything problematic or missing as soon as possible. Getting additional coverage or reshoots is much less difficult if they can be done when the set is still intact.
Standing, from left to right: Chris Hunter (3D Editor), Ben Mills (Lead VFX Editor), Riccardo Bacigalupo (First Assistant Editor), Eddie Hamilton (Editor), Tom Coope (First Assistant Editor), Robbie Gibbon (VFX Editor), Nicola Ford (3D/Post Production Co-Ordinator). Sitting, from left to right: Ryan Axe (Second Assistant Editor), Christopher Frith (Second Assistant Editor), Hannah Leckey (Editorial Trainee), Cécile Tournesac (Music Editor) Canine VFX and Editorial Support: Stan
Eddie has a straightforward numerical bin folder structure for the various tasks (cutting copy, scene bins, VFX, music, sound effects and so on), and in the scene bins he makes subfolders for the scenes from 1-20, 21-40, and so on. “One of my assistants on Rogue Nation added the slate letters from the take to the scene numbers so it was easy to find the slate numbers, as well. And then I like to add a brief description of the scene, which makes it easier yet. “
Excellent organization is important to Eddie for a number of reasons. First, there’s the sheer volume of material. Then, there’s the ease of sharing work with team members and managing turnovers to different departments.
But perhaps most importantly, Eddie wants to be able to address Chris’s requests quickly.
“For example, the assistants break down all the dialog scenes in a very detailed way, and I have massive line strings where I have all the line readings for each line in the script broken down by wides and mediums and overs and tights. That way, when Chris asks me to show him the options for the lines, I can skim through, show him the shot sizes, and we can audition the various readings quickly, which means we can make fast progress.”
One might imagine that an editor of Eddie’s caliber could argue for his vision of a cut, but actually, it’s quite the opposite. “I’m not at all precious about any of my work. I sketch out the scenes, and if Chris doesn’t like it, I try something different straight away. I try everything, always with the best interest of the film at heart. It’s one of the strengths of editing digitally.”
In the previous M:I films, Cruise has performed some hair-raising stunts, from clinging onto the side of a flying airplane, to holding his breath underwater for six minutes, to hanging off of the tallest skyscraper on the planet.
In Fallout, he outdoes himself, performing a HALO (high altitude low opening) jump (shot on a Red Weapon 6K camera strapped to the cameraman’s head).
The helicopter sequence was shot on Panavision DXL 8K digital cameras mainly because, as Eddie points out, “they could run for much longer. They would start the cameras and then the helicopters would take off. They’d get in position and perform the stunts, and then fly back to refuel after 40 minutes, at which point they would change the magazines on the cameras.”
When you consider that Cruise is putting his life on the line for the sake of verisimilitude (yes, those looks of fear on his face are very much the real deal), you realize that the responsibility to honor his efforts in the finished film is considerable. And Eddie’s approach to that task is every bit as calculated, single-minded, and dedicated as Cruise’s and the stunt team’s.
The helicopter sequence is one of Eddie’s proudest achievements. There are thirteen helicopters in the production, with three of them in breathtakingly close proximity to one another. Special camera mounts were fabricated to focus on Cruise, and watching him perform a barrel roll over a waterfall in New Zealand is, as Chris says in the behind-the-scenes film, “very upsetting,” indeed.
Eddie traveled with the crew to New Zealand for the six weeks of filming it took to capture the footage for this sequence. In the nearby house in Queenstown, where Eddie was working with his assistant Christopher Frith, Pinewood Post set up a satellite digital lab to transcode the dailies so the editors could work in tandem with the production.
“They used many cameras, and even though there was a lot of footage at the takeoff and landing stages—which wasn’t intended to be used in the film—I still watched it all, just in case. I always want to make sure there aren’t any nuggets of gold hiding in the dailies,” Eddie says.
Just as Cruise spent over 2,000 hours at Airbus learning how to fly the helicopter at an expert level, Eddie spent more weeks and hours than he can count to cull through the approximately 70 hours of footage that would end up as a 7.5-minute sequence in the finished film.
“It was an extremely long process of whittling down those 70 hours to about 12 hours. Then to 4 hours; then to 2.5 hours; then to 1 hour. Then to 30 minutes and then to 20 minutes.
“I have a thoroughness gene, I suppose, and I want to know the very best options in terms of performance with Tom, visual energy, choreography, composition, and story—a lot happens in those 7+ minutes, and it’s vital to get the story and the beats of the action right. But it was amazing to watch, and when you’ve climbed that footage mountain, ever so slowly, getting to the mountaintop can be very rewarding.”
Eddie still had the rest of the film to attend to during the subsequent process of refining that sequence, which meant that he would return to the helicopter footage in his “spare” time.
“Especially if I was traveling. When I was flying back from New Zealand to London, I just sat on the plane with my laptop and a 4TB hard drive with the footage on it. I was watching it constantly on the plane, making selects. Then I would watch it in the car as I was going to and from the studio back in England.” Don’t worry—someone else was driving.
Eddie also spent several weeks on the military base in Abu Dhabi for the HALO skydive shoot, where he was able to maximize time with Chris—because they were only shooting for three minutes at sunset each day—and then worked from the stage at the Warner Bros. Leavesden Film Studios in northwest London. During complex setups, Chris was available to sit with Eddie for a couple of hours, always making the most of every available moment.
If you talk to an editor on almost any project, the one constant is that there’s never quite enough time. And even on a project of this magnitude, with a huge budget, the schedule was intensely tight.
For one thing, Tom Cruise actually did have a stunt-related accident, shattering his ankle as he leaped from one building to another, which occurred roughly two-thirds of the way through the 159-day schedule and necessitated a three-month hiatus in shooting for his recovery.
Tom Cruise Stunt Injury on 'Mission: Impossible 6' Set in London - YouTube
The movie’s deadline, however, remained the same. What that meant to editorial was that during the break in filming, Eddie and Chris were able to work very intensely with what had been shot up until that point, and work on refinements to the script and shooting strategies for when filming recommenced.
Then, to add just that extra little pinch of pressure, the first friends-and-family screening of the entire film was scheduled for four days after shooting wrapped—with subsequent screenings scheduled every two weeks thereafter. You might call it the editing equivalent of jumping out of an airplane at 25,000 feet and nailing your target.
When all filming was completed, the team moved to a space in Soho, which made it simpler for Chris and Eddie to get to all the different post-production houses. The cutting room was walking distance from Double Negative, as well as from De Lane Lea, where they did the sound post, and Molinare, who did the color correction for the DI.
They were also turning “reasonably” locked sequences over to D-Neg’s sister company, Prime Focus, to begin the laborious 3D conversion process even as they were still cutting the film as a whole.
According to Eddie, the conversion is “astonishing,” which is good news for 3D enthusiasts. “There’s a lot of information about the depth of certain objects in the VFX shots that can easily be communicated for the conversion,” he explains. “The depth in the helicopter sequence in particular really conveys a sense of speed and danger.”
Considering how many post-production balls were in the air and the constant deadlines for screenings, the entire editorial crew was working flat out. In order to avoid burnout, some of the assistants worked on staggered schedules. But despite this pressure, Eddie considers editing to be “the best job in the world,” and takes what he does extremely seriously—while maintaining an essential sense of humor to keep the crew’s spirits up, and nibbling chocolate when an energy boost is needed.
“I think the trick to staying calm under pressure is never to be surprised by anything that happens. Every day, interesting developments occur and your job is to manage the situation calmly and professionally.”
A movie like this is crewed by the most accomplished professionals, all of whom trust one another with, well, their lives in the case of the stunt pros. Similarly, the editorial team is trusted to deliver a movie that makes the studio’s enormous investment pay off. Maybe it’s not life and death, strictly speaking, but at times it feels like it.
Chris put his trust in Eddie throughout the project, relying on him to let Chris know if there were any coverage or technical problems with the footage. It’s part of the reason why it was so essential for him to be on the set at critical points in the shoot.
You’re sitting in an edit bay with your creative team and the clock is ticking on a piece that airs in three hours. It’s a good story—a suburban housewife relating the near-death experience that changed her life thirty years ago.
But it’s a story that takes her three minutes to tell and all you’re looking at for those three minutes is her sitting in a chair. And it’s a grey chair. Blank stares are exchanged and then you blurt out that question that so many editors have uttered before—“How the hell are we supposed to cover this?”
I’ve been a package editor for the Rachael Ray Show for the last five seasons. I can tell you that due to the constraints of our show—indeed most network and cable shows—there simply isn’t time for a three-minute story. In our world, that’s an eternity and you don’t want the only thing visually filling that space to be an interviewee sitting in a chair, no matter how interesting that grandfather clock in the background is. The channel switching risk is too great.
Also, most interviewees are going to flub a story that long at least a few times. Maybe they’ll have long pauses, have a lot of “ums”, “hmms” or say “like” or “you know” a lot. In most cases, by compressing their story, you’re going to make it more compelling, coherent and captivating.
Our job as creators is, in most cases, to make that interviewee look as good as possible. You aren’t doing your subjects or the viewers any favors by leaving elements in that most folks, given the opportunity, would want to take out themselves.
Our job as creators is, in most cases, to make that interviewee look as good as possible.
So my mission today is to provide you with some techniques, tools, and ideas to make these stories from the past more visually compelling. These concepts can be adapted to be used across all genres, they’re not just for editing packages. If time permits, you might have the opportunity to use these techniques to shoot additional footage after principal photography is complete, but all these techniques involve shoots where talent isn’t necessary. This makes producers much more amenable to getting what you need because it’s a lot cheaper to shoot without talent. Sometimes you’ll be able to shoot with an iPhone right in the edit bay and ingest into your edit system immediately. Finally, even though they’re presented as discrete bullet points, it is very common to use several techniques in concert with others for an enhanced effect.
1. Nature Visuals/Abstract Visuals
When your interviewee is recounting their past experience, showing footage of the environment where it took place is very effective for situating the viewer. Things like blowing leaves, cityscapes, skies can be effective at evoking emotion. The effect is often enhanced by varying speeds of your footage, either speeding it up or slowing it down. Tailor your scenics to the tone of the story—feelings of sadness expressed with rain, feeling of happiness with sun, etc.
Dissolves or cuts can be used depending on the mood you’re trying to reinforce. Visual stylization can also be used to heighten the emotion. You might convert the footage to black and white for somber emotions or enhance the chrominance if the memories are happy ones.
A further enhancement to consider are blending modes, like screen or multiply, that you can use to superimpose your footage over the interviewee or other footage. Most editing systems have this capability built in, though you might have to hunt around a little for them. These modes can serve to enhance the connection you want the viewer to make between the footage and the interviewee’s story.
I’ve had occasions where this footage has come from material that was shot, but not initially considered usable. (This is a good time for a cautionary note to make sure you ingest EVERYTHING that was shot).
She Started Running After Being Held at Gunpoint — Now Instagram-Famous Trainer Inspires Thousand… - YouTube
From :13 to :56 of this package, the woman tells the story of how she was held hostage in a bar. The footage of the bar has been heavily treated to evoke the dark mood. Some of it consists of inadvertent swish pans to empty restaurant ceilings (the setting where the event took place) that have been repurposed for effective content. I would also add that, in a case like this where the event is a traumatic one, you would want to make the footage as abstract as possible so the bar isn’t identifiable.
2. Sound Design
Sound is a very powerful generator when it comes to emotion. Try to imagine the sounds that might have been occurring during the events described by the interviewee. If they’re recounting a scene by a quiet lake, add gurgling water to your cut. A reminiscence that describes events during a tornado would be enhanced with wind effects, storm effects and sounds of destruction as homes are torn to pieces. Very few of our packages are unaccompanied by music, so obviously, your choice and scoring of music is going to have a profound effect on the emotional impact of the piece. Visualize a transcript of the interview (or even have a hard copy of one produced). You’ll find that when the paragraph breaks occur is usually a good time to switch to a fresh music track.
MAN ON WIRE - Twin towers scene - Philippe Petit (sub ita) - YouTube
From about 1:00 to 1:30 in this clip from Man On Wire, Phillipe Petit relates the start of his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. When he begins the walk, sound effects of the wind and birds engage us and help us share his experience. You’ll note that the cue for these sound effects is the line, “something… called me upon that cable” which makes for an elegant introduction to the “calling” of the sound effects. With time, you’ll hopefully develop this skill of editing what your interviewee is “telling” you to do.
3. Creative Use of Stills
Sometimes there are occasions where you will have some coverage, but it’s not exactly what you need or not nearly enough of what you need. This can be a common issue with stills. You might have stills of the interviewee from a different period of their life, or in a setting different from the milieu of the story being told.
I always urge producers not to be too straight-jacketed by these considerations. Audiences are usually pretty forgiving about such things. If the interviewee is recounting a story from their teens, you can usually get away with a photo from that general period, even if they’re in their twenties. There are some editing tricks you can do that will give you even more leeway.
Using your editing system’s native tools, or a third party plug-in such as StageTools, you can zoom in very close on the eyes in a photograph. Viewers instinctively lock in on eyes. This can excuse a multitude of sins that may be occurring due to mismatches of time period or setting. Try and get high-resolution photos whenever possible as this will let you zoom in very close with little, if any, resolution loss.
Sometimes you’ll have a very limited number of stills to cover a substantial amount of time. This could be because they are the only stills that exist or, for budgetary reasons, they’re the only stills that can be used.
LOVE/LUST and the Bikini (Clip) - YouTube
From about 2:00 to 4:00 of this clip from Love, Lust and the Bikini, we see the first bikini ever made modeled for the first time. One still is used repeatedly. But, because it’s color treated in so many different ways, has so many different camera moves put on it (pushes, pulls, pans, 3D treatments), and so many different areas of details are highlighted, the problem of having limited material is mitigated.
Develop sensitivity to the kind of camera move that makes the most sense. When a particular feature is being discussed, a push in to that detail makes the most sense. Pull-outs are more like reveals to show the overall scope of the scene. If you have a series of stills, you’ll find a checkerboard pattern of push-in, pull-out to be most aesthetically pleasing. Repeating the same type of move can get monotonous quickly. If you weren’t able to get a higher resolution still, multiple low-resolution ones can be used to fill the screen. If you need a background, it’s a common practice to blur and blow up the still and use it for that purpose. You can see that technique used for some of the standard definition archival footage in the Love, Lust and the Bikini clip.
4. Create a “second” camera angle in the edit bay
On higher budgeted shows or packages, you’ll often have the good fortune of having multiple camera angles of the interview at your disposal to choose from. In this case, you could just use that second angle (or third) to cover your jump cuts. You don’t really need any further techniques like the ones outlined here, though it might be nice to aesthetically enhance the interview if you’re so inclined.
But what if there was no second camera? Well, you’re out of luck, right? Not necessarily.
When I was starting out and dinosaurs roamed the earth, standard definition ruled the land. 720 times 480 non-square pixels of glory. (Ah, the good old days). Well, those days sucked. Because enlarging that image by more than about 20% in most editing systems was going to turn it into a pile of pixelated mush.
Thankfully, we’re in a 2K, 4K, 6K, and even 8K world now. A one-camera shoot just became a two-camera (or even three-camera shoot if the capture resolution was 6K or higher). If you’re editing strictly for the web, where 720p is still a common delivery resolution, even 1080p footage can be punched in. In a worst-case scenario, where the capture resolution matches the editing timeline, I’ve gotten away with close to 50% enlargement of footage with little to no perceivable quality loss.
Shooting in a higher resolution allows you to crop in with no quality loss. In one shot you get a wide and a medium close-up.
Current technology makes punching in for a straight cut completely feasible. You’ll usually find this works best if the camera is locked off. You can also leverage this technological capacity to go to another level. Switch to your director’s brain and create your own camera moves using the software of your editing system. Listen to the emotional tone of the interviewee and let that guide the staging of the camera move. These cover the gamut from dramatic zooms to the face (more common for a comic effect), to subtle drift ins/drift outs.
Listen to the emotional tone of the interviewee and let that guide the staging of the camera move.
Parents Claim 31-Year-Old Son Terrorizes Them - YouTube
In this package from the Dr. Phil show about a son terrorizing his parents, notice that on many of the sit-down interview shots of the parents, there are slight drift-ins. It’s a subtle but effective way of heightening the urgency of the piece. In pieces I edit, a slight drift in on an emotional bite ending a package is almost de rigeur.
5. Creatively adding stock footage
Packages are usually presenting a very unique, personal story, so you might be surprised at how effective adding stock footage can be, especially combined with the techniques already covered. A quick Google search will reveal a panoply of stock footage resources at your disposal. Some of them even feature stock footage that’s free of charge with Creative Commons 0 licensing (i.e. you can use it without having to credit the creator. The caveat here is that many of those CC0 stock sites do not vet contributors to ensure proper model release forms have been cleared. So use at your own risk).
In addition, Avid and Adobe, among others, have branched into the field (either directly or through affiliate companies) and created in-application links that will instantly connect you to stock footage libraries (provided you’re online). In the neverending bid for your production dollars, you’ll find plug-ins from some of the major stock footage companies that provide similar convenience.
Keep in mind, you’re going to have restrictions if the topic of your project is a sensitive one. Nobody with a recognizable face, stock footage or not, wants to be tagged in your serial murderer documentary, at least not without additional compensation.
So how do you find the footage that will work best with the story your interviewee is telling? Obviously, you can look for footage that coincidentally features actors recreating the event in your piece. But that’s going to take a lot of luck. Additionally, footage that features actors’ faces has a tendency to look overly stagy and cheesy. It’s a better idea to look for footage that features parts of the body that could pass for the interviewee in a pinch. On a formal level, footage like this involves showing what the camera would be shooting (“seeing”) during the telling of the story. But looking for footage that articulates what the person would see (POV) can be equally effective.
Pbs Frontline 2002 The Man Who Knew - YouTube
In this episode of Frontline, The Man Who Knew Too Much, from 2:55 through 3:40, the narrator describes agent John O’Neil arriving at his office at night. This production had a higher budget, so stock footage probably wasn’t used, but the principle is the same. All the shots in this sequence represent what could have been the POV of the protagonist. Generic elevator shots, readily available on stock footage sites, were used to “move” him from point A to point B.
6. Solid Colors
Most editing systems can generate any solid color or gradient you want. It’s not something that’s conventionally thought of as coverage, but that’s exactly what it’s serving as every time you fade to or from black. At the time of this writing, the hottest trend in movie trailers is fading in and out of black. It’s been compared to the opening and closing of a curtain. Transitions to and from black can also be effective if your story is a sad or somber one. Transitions to or from white will lend your material a more ethereal feel. I’ve even cut or faded to red on occasion. If you’re clever with your music scoring, this can greatly enhance the pacing of the interview, in addition to the obvious purpose of hiding those jump cuts. (Click image below to see video).
In this package from the Dr. Oz show, from :48 through 2:24, a woman talks about her near death experience. There are multiple occurrences of cuts and fades to black, white and gradients. The subject of death encompasses both dark, solemn and spiritual subtexts and a creative editor can use tools as simple as colors to evoke this.
7. “Keep It Naked!”
Lastly, after giving you six methods for creating and/or dressing up your coverage, don’t make the mistake I’ve seen so many inexperienced editors make.
The sin of over-coverage.
If you have a good interviewee telling a compelling story, there are going to be moments where the interviewee gets visibly emotional if the story is a sad or poignant one. There might be a funny section where she really lands a humorous verbalization or gesture.
These moments are powerful and engaging. The viewer will want to see the interviewee’s face and eyes during these moments to make emotional contact. Leave them uncovered! Don’t lose sight of the primary goal of your package—to elicit emotion. I’ve seen editors cover emotional footage of an interviewee breaking down with footage that doesn’t come close to matching the intensity of a person crying (which makes me sad as an editor watching a missed opportunity).
Don’t lose sight of the primary goal of your package—to elicit emotion.
There they are—seven techniques and theories for enhancing the storytelling and emotional impact of your piece. Come to your edit bays armed with these extra ideas and concepts and you can help produce a more professional looking and sounding piece with greater emotional impact. It’ll make your producer happier, your interviewee look better and might just land you your next gig.