How To Get Organised in FCPX
The life of the filmmaker is never far from chaotic. Scheduling, budgets, logistics… everything is sent to test your organisational skills. In this article, we’re going to address the final stage of production where all that initial effort and subsequent shooting hopefully pays off.
In my experience of nearly 15 years making creative, corporate and commercial videos, I’ve never been the most organised person working on a production. But all that changes when I sit down to edit. Therein lies the opportunity to make sense of an intangible world, in a way that never seems entirely possible in physical reality.
This double-header of articles addresses explicitly the less thrilling, but arguably most crucial stage of any post-production process – getting your content organised. Because only by having access to all your content as immediately and directly as possible, can you fully surrender to the creative aspects of story construction.
We’ll be using examples from and making direct reference to the terminology used in Final Cut Pro X, but the principles cover any non-linear editing software. Your programme of choice might offer different features, but fundamentally the idea is same – get organised before you get cutting.
When Final Cut Pro was overhauled to become Final Cut Pro X, it polarised the post-production community. But I stayed faithful and stuck with it, and now love it for most of the reasons other editors abandoned it. FCPX has a prescribed workflow, constructed to get the most of the application, and therefore you as an editor. This structure starts with how you import footage.
At the very top level, FCPX uses Libraries to house your content. Inside those Libraries, you can allocate Events into which material can be imported. Subsequently, the Project timelines you then create to start edits, are in the Event also. Treat an Event as exactly how the name suggests – the reason you started filming in the first place. Therefore, all the material related to that event should live inside it. The event might be a corporate video, a social media update or literal event like a wedding. Either way, keep everything related to the film you’re making in the same Event.
One common mistake I see is when shoots have used more than one camera. The first camera is imported into the default event (named by the date the Event was created) with the second camera then imported into a separate Event. This is unnecessary and goes against the way FCPX is designed to be used. In some respects, doing it this way, actually makes things more confusing. Rather, clips from all cameras should live in the same Event, with the next level of organisational features used to differentiate as much as needed between them. Likewise, you don’t need a different Events for non-film elements like still images or music – they can all go into the same Event, if they’re going to be used in the same edit.
An example of circumstances under which a new Event should be created is when you’re creating an overall series of episodic parts. Because it’s likely episodes will share common elements – titles, establishing shots, music – having an overall separate Library for each is a step too far. Instead, creating a new Event in the series Library for each episode makes cross-reference of a few things easy, but keeps separate all elements unique to each episode.
The Import window in FCPX offers options as to how the programme handles and stores the materials being brought into it. Let’s look at each section of the right pane in turn.
Firstly, you’re asked into which Event the selected material will be housed – either one already existing, or a new one in a currently open Library. Notice you can give your Event a custom name now, or even once it exists.
Files: More often than not, you will want to copy them to a library, rather than leave them at the source. The latter will only create an alias shortcut file in FCPX’s architecture, meaning the source will have to be present everytime you want to use that material. If you go with this to save space on a drive, I’d suggest getting a new drive, rather than risk losing anything.
Keywords offer a glimpse into the subcategorisation options in FCPX. If you have a folder on your system containing elements that need appear in the video (i.e. the client’s logo) FCPX can automatically create a keyword listing for it, based on the name of the folder in which you have it saved.
Audio roles relate to the colours FCPX displays sound items designated for different uses in your projects. Dialogue is dark blue (same as video), Effects turn teal (light blue-green), and Music files stand out in bright green. These roles can be assigned after import manually, so Automatic is OK until you’re comfortable with the differences.
Transcoding is a story for another article, but if you want to use 4K video on a less-that-high-spec system, utilising proxy media is a good idea to avoid sluggish playback and slow processing. Because either of these options will create copies of your files, they will require additional disk space.
Similarly, Analyse and Fix are useful if you suspect your visual or audio quality might have been disrupted or compromised while recording. If you’re unsure, it’s best to explore these options manually, before committing to automatic analysis for future imports.
On this list, Find People can be useful if you have a mix of talking heads and non-human centric b- roll. It will automatically create a list of all the clips that feature human faces, unquestionably saving time during the next stage of organising.
Once your material has imported, it’s useful to explore the file structure behind Final Cut Pro X. Locate your FCPX Library file (which, for reasons of performance and security, should not be on your startup disk) and right-click > Show Package Contents.
The critical thing to spot here is that a folder is created for each Event made inside the application. Inside each Event folder, subsequent folders will be made to store each Project you start. The primary focus here though is the Original Media folder. Therein lies copies of all the footage and material imported to your Event (or aliases for those chosen to remain in place.) If anything goes missing from this Original Media folder, it will cause offline clips in FCPX, and they’ll have to be relinked or even reimported.
If you’re worried about this at any point during a long and messy edit, the Final Cut Pro menu option File > Consolidate Event Media will gather up items used from across your system, and make sure there’s a full copy in your associated Original Media folder.
Hopefully, expanding this file structure also explains why creating multiple Events without cause is ultimately confusing for you and the programme. Using our two camera shoot example, if you create a project in an Event, but then ask it to go outside into a different Event folder > Original Media folder to find half the footage it needs, it creates extra processing work that is better served towards creative actions. Fortunately, if you happen to split content that should be together into different Events, you can easily drag-and-drop files between them inside the programme. FCPX will thank you, by dealing with the back-end filing.
Now that we’ve covered importing content into Libraries and the differences between those and Events, we can dig deeper into making sense of your material.
I will point out, that everything explored in this article is entirely optional – you don’t have to go through any or all of these steps to start an edit – you can just create a new project and dive straight in. To do so, however, would be undermining Final Cut Pro X and the tools available to make your editing life more comfortable overall.
The first stage of in-depth organisational practice is using the Keyword function. Inside the Keyword Editor, you’re able to assign word or phrases to clips in your events, to help quickly distinguish between them. For example, you can swiftly apply different Keywords to your b-roll and main interview shots and logically extended to a Keyword for each interview subject. If you’re working on a scripted project, you may have scene numbers or dialogue passages to delineate each section of the film. Keywords can be applied to entire clips, or to sections, using the same In/ Out point markers used in general editing. Once a part or all of a clip is tagged with a Keyword, a blue line is drawn across it to indicated which parts have Keywords applied to it.
Keywording is a non-destructive process, and nothing is moved physically in the FCPX back-end storage. Using Keywords is very much like making playlists of songs on iTunes. The songs don’t shift around the library, but you can narrow down which tracks you want to play at a given time.
There is no limit to the number of Keywords with which clip can be tagged. Do however use your better judgment as to how many are needed. The goal of Keywords is to quickly and accurately find material that will be used together in your projects, at different stages of building them. Once you begin creating Keyword collections, they are listed under the Event in your Browser, visible via the disclosure triangle. Not only do I use these for marking-up what’s in my clips, but I also use Keywords to differentiate between groups of content. For instance, I’ll use Keywords to gather up my music tracks, likewise any sound effect files and almost always on corporate work, Keyword together everything related to logos and branding.
Before your list of Keywords becomes too long and counterproductive, you can create Folders, to make Keywords even more natural to manage. For example, creating a Folder for your interview subjects, allows you to drag and drop the Keyword for each interviewee inside it. Now, you can open the folder to see your collated Keyword Collections and hide them again, just like using Finder’s List View on macOS. You can even put folders inside of folders, to further replicate your film’s structure in your event organisation.
Depending on how detailed you want to get with Keywords, it might be best to start at a top-level of distinction, before going deep into using Keywords for the sake of them. Consider how Folders offer the chance to group related elements, without needing a specialised Keyword applied to all possibly included clips.
Once you have set Keywords across your content, they can be changed or removed at any time, by highlighting the section already marked and making changes in the Keyword Editor. You can even delete an entire Keyword Collection if it no longer serves a purpose. Of course, this won’t erase the actual clips inside, just as deleting an iTunes playlist doesn’t remove your music.
What would be tempting now – and amazing if possible – is to jump directly into the part of the film you want to edit using the appropriate Keyword Collections. But even before you begin to make cuts, you should first exercise your critical faculties towards your clips and evaluate their quality. To do this, FCPX allows you to mark clips as Favorites or Rejected.
As most filmmakers know, watching back through your rushes is either a blessing or a curse. It’s one thing to do so as the film’s director, but a whole different ballgame when doing so as the editor. If you happen to be fulfilling both these roles, you’re about to become your own worst enemy. Don’t even get me started if you also operated the camera.
Whether for technical or performance reasons, you will have to decide which takes or shots are the best you have. Some will immediately stand-out as being great, and marked in part or as a whole as a Favorite. Doing so attributes a green line over the clip thumbnail in the Browser. Anything that stands out as being less than desirable can be marked as Rejected, indicated by a red line.
The Browser window features a pop-up menu with an option to Hide Rejected clips, to make the process easier. They are not removed or deleted but filtered out from the current view. Likewise, once you’ve decided which of your clips are the best in their Collection, you can choose to view only your Favorites.
Features like this menu in the Browser are designed to help you focus on important content without distractions from other clips. Always remember that you might be filtering-out something you need, before panicking over ‘missing’ material.
Mostly, the job of favouriting clips is such so you can begin making editing decisions before assembling clips in your project. The Magnetic Timeline in FCPX doesn’t easily allow for a film to be spread out and shape itself across a whole canvas. Preferably, the workflow designed around it prefers projects to be built from the ground up, knowing which parts are likely to come immediately next. Once you’re looking at just your Favorite clips for a particular scene, you already have the content of your first cut. There might be a multiple takes to choose between, but by having the best elements filleted out, it’s much easier chop and change as your edit develops.
One final useful step in getting organised is using Roles. Mentioned before in the first half of this article, Roles play a large part in visually understanding your project timeline. Right-click on an item in your Browser and Assign Audio/Video Roles is an available option. Changing these Roles where appropriate, alters the clip’s colour in the Browser and timeline. The default option themselves are used to immediately highlight the differences between straight video content and any titles used in your project. If you employ a lot of still photos or images, it might be worth using Edit Roles on the menu to add further visual differentiators to your content.
Similarly, I always make sure to assign music tracks to that particular Role. Having the music show as green against the standard audio-visual blue blocks helps me quickly understand the various components in-play, especially when there’s featured dialogue. For me, Roles are a clear example of essential, top-level organisation that is a great way to get into good habits, which yield immediate improvements in project management.
In these two articles, I’ve hopefully expressed the importance and methodology of how systematic organisation of material in Final Cut Pro X, makes for more comfortable editing, by making your content easier to understand and evaluate.
Overall, some editors prefer to dump all the clips in a timeline and swirl them around until the picture becomes clear. If that sounds like you, then perhaps Final Cut Pro X isn’t the software for which you are looking. While this is the pre-request for any non-linear editing programme, the nature of FCPX’s organising tools steers you towards making fundamental content decisions before building scenes, by knowing what the best materials for the job are and the order in which to use them.
While your creativity should know no bounds, it’s vital to have some boundaries to keep the fun on course and your workflow working for you.