FCPX Has Its Cold Mountain Moment with Focus, Proves It Is An Amazing Feature Film NLE

by Karin Gottschalk1 Comment

The surest test of any moviemaking software or hardware product is in using it throughout the making of a major motion picture. Final Cut Pro X was put to the test doing exactly that in the latest Will Smith star vehicle, Focus, and Apple’s sometimes controversial NLE passed with flying colors.

Focus First Assistant Editor Michael Matzdorff formerly declared FCPX to be “utterly unusable”. Now he has written the book on how the Focus editorial team utterly depended on it.

When I was researching story ideas for a documentary production company some years ago, I came across Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman and was entranced. The book engrossingly told the story of how Walter Murch edited the 2003 Civil War feature film Cold Mountain on Final Cut Pro 4, an early predecessor to Final Cut Pro X, and all the travails and successes he met along the way.

Given how radical the notion of editing a major motion picture in a sub-$1000 software-only non-linear editing system was at the time, the book focused more on Apple’s relatively new editing technology than it did on the editing itself. Fair enough given the book’s subtitle is “Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema”.

For those wanting to know more about how Walter Murch, one of the greatest movie editors and sound designers, there are other books like his own In the Blink of an Eye and a documentary, MURCH – Walter Murch on Editing, was released in 2007. MURCH is available as a Vimeo video-on-demand streaming rental for those who have access to decent broadband.

Just a side note. I have a soft spot for Walter Much quite apart from his brilliance as an editor and sound designer. He edits standing up and that fact is depicted on the cover of Behind the Seen. I edit, use computers and carry out many other creative tasks while standing up too.

Most of my friends and relatives think I am nuts for working while standing and are puzzled at how I manage to stay upright. I used to keep Behind the Seen at my side just to show that I am not the only crazy one who achieves the impossible by being on my feet all day.

I have only managed to convince one employer to let me work standing up and then it took an enormous amount of negotiation just to get there. I still have the desk that I bought for working there and use it every day. Standing.

Editing a Hollywood feature film on an early version of Final Cut Pro “Classic”, as some call it, was radical enough in its day. Doing the same thing in Final Cut Pro X is seen by many in the same light. Michael Matzdorff, author of Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow, Proven Techniques from the First Major Studio Film Edited with Final Cut Pro X, shares that he once tweeted how “FCP X is utterly unusable”. Now, he admits, “I was wrong.” Matzdorff was the First Assistant Editor of Focus, shot in 2013 and released on February 27, 2015.

Those ten years between Cold Mountain and Focus have seen a seismic shift in how movies are shot and edited. Cold Mountain was shot in analog film, Focus was shot with the ARRI ALEXA. Focus was edited with an array of supporting hardware and software that barely existed back in the days of Cold Mountain.

Final Cut Pro X

Fina Cut Pro X, photograph courtesy of Apple Inc.


Apple’s article on the movie, Focus: A New Take on Feature Post, amply lists and links to all those supporting players. At the moment I am planning and budgeting for a feature documentary and the knowledge that Apple and Matzdorff are sharing is an eye opener. Learning how the big boys are doing it on big productions is invaluable. The view from the top of the mountain looking down across the landscape of possibilities is so much better than standing at the foot of the mountain looking up and trying to work out how to get there.

Your own mountain may not be as high as the one the directors, producers, editors and the rest of the team on Focus scaled but height is relative after all. And their lessons are there for all of us. As Sam Mestman of FCPWORKS and one of the chief workflow architects for Focus points out, “there’s no mysterious industry tool or process anymore.” He concludes that “anything the big guys are doing, you can do too.”


And so we can. As the author of Apple’s article reminds us, “the most remarkable aspect of the Focus post-production workflow was that everything from Final Cut Pro X to inexpensive third-party plug-ins to the Mac desktop and notebook computers could be purchased by anyone.” I have some of that hardware and software in front of me right now and none of them cost a fortune. That is a far cry from my exposure to my first NLE in an agency in London where their state-of-the-art hardware plus software solution cost in the vicinity of £50,000 and was considered a bargain at the time.

I am not planning on obtaining everything the makers of Focus worked with but now I have a damned good list of items to research and choose from if I need them. Some of that software is made by people I have bought other products from, some I already have like CoreMelt’s Lock & Load X and Slice X, others are well within the bounds of affordability. [bctt tweet=”FCPX has its Cold Mountain Hollywood moment with Focus, proves it is an amazing feature film NLE.”]

Even Final Cut Pro X costs a fraction of what Final Cut Pro 4 did. And some items like Alex 4D Feature Overlays by Alex Gollner are absolutely free! Michael Matzdorff lists all the software used in editing Focus in Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow, and he tips his hat to three programs he tested after the movie was completed including PrimariesExporter – free, ClipExporter – not free, and Color Finale. Many other items in his list are free or affordable.

Speaking of free, Light Iron is presenting a free special event on Saturday March 7 in Los Angeles and it is guaranteed to be worth attending. You can learn how they did it from key members of the crew. There is even a free breakfast beforehand and a free lunch afterwards.

Not free are two key items that the directing team on Focus is using to shoot their current production, The Taliban Shuffle aka Fun House, starring Tina Frey. USA Today reports that the comedy war movie is being shot with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and the Sony A7s, to be edited once again on Final Cut Pro X.

Focus: A New Take on Feature Post

Via Apple:

Directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra believed that to make a compelling film about a con man, they’d need to lie at least as persuasively as he did. “Any movie is a series of lies,” says Requa. “But you have to make sure the lies work so you don’t alienate the audience.” For their new feature film, Focus, that meant creating intricate, tightly edited scenes that convincingly sell the schemes of grifter protagonist Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith).

Sustaining complex misdirection required an editing tool that was just the opposite — clear, straightforward, and accessible enough that the directors could edit footage along with lead editor Jan Kovac. It needed to be fast so they could experiment with scores of alternate takes. It had to be flexible so they could easily move between cutting on Mac Pro in the edit suite and working with MacBook Pro on location. And it had to be robust enough to reliably organize and process 2K Apple ProRes 4444 footage from production through multiple stages of post.

After researching several workflows, Requa and Ficarra decided to cut their major studio feature entirely in Final Cut Pro X. The results were even better than they’d expected. The movie came in on time and under budget, and it played and looked just as they’d envisioned it. “We got exactly the film we set out to make,” says Requa. “What I love about Final Cut Pro X is that it allowed me to be involved with, and in control of, every aspect of making our film.”

Outpost techs Ethan Schwartz and Dylan Damian supported an on-set crew who generated Apple ProRes 4444 dailies. Photo credit: Alex Tehrani via Apple

Outpost techs Ethan Schwartz and Dylan Damian supported an on-set crew who generated Apple ProRes 4444 dailies. Photo credit: Alex Tehrani Source: Apple

Organized Right Out of the Camera

Before the directors or editors even saw a frame, Final Cut Pro X was saving them time by efficiently organizing hours of footage. The crew used Mac Pro–equipped on-set mobile post systems from Light Iron — a cutting-edge Los Angeles–based post-production company — to generate dailies with metadata imported from the camera and the directors’ notes. Final Cut Pro X made all of this metadata searchable, while handling the full-resolution ProRes 4444 files with ease. Neither task had been possible with previous nonlinear editors.

Using Light Iron’s Live Play app, the production team could view same-day H.264 versions of the dailies on iPad from anywhere on set. And editing began just hours after the camera rolled. Metadata markers allowed the edit crew to quickly find and use the best shots. “When you’re cutting a movie, it’s a struggle for clarity,” says Requa. “You get fatigued and you get really tired of your footage, and you need access to a new point of view. A lot of times, the metadata provided an insight into what we were thinking when we shot it.”


The Focus team used many of the built-in effects tools in Final Cut Pro X in making the movie. Photo credit: Alex Tehrani Source: Apple

Ficarra believes that the metadata advantage gave them unprecedented control over their story line. “I was able to say, ‘I need Will’s side in this take,’” he says. “And because even his improvisations were specially tagged, we were able to filter and come out with it. The upshot was just infinite searchability. We could change direction so fast and do multiple iterations. Sometimes while we were editing we felt as if we were actually rewriting the movie.”

Read full article at Apple “Focus: A New Take on Feature Post”

(cover photo credit: snap from Apple)


  1. I just purchased the book Final Cut Pro X Workflow by Matzdorff on iTunes. Now I can read it on my iPad while between meetings. Looks very interesting. Always looking for new ways of doing things in my current FCPX workflow.

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