Art of the Cut takes a deep dive into what it’s like to cut a feature film in FCPX with Clayton Condit. Over 15 years ago, Condit co-founded the well-known and well-respected Minneapolis post house, Splice. His diverse editorial background includes cutting music videos for Prince. Clayton’s previous feature film experience included cutting the movie, “Older than America” starring Bradley Cooper. He also cut the PBS documentary, “America’s Lost Landscape: The Tallgrass Prairie.” Our discussion today centers around the movie he just completed using FCPX called, “Voice from the Stone.” Will Smith’s movie, “Focus” was widely touted as the first big feature cut in FCPX, but like most of the Art of the Cut interviews, the tech discussion takes a backseat to the creative process of the editor.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the movie.
CONDIT: The film is a mysterious and suspenseful romance starring Emilia Clarke and Marton Csokas. It’s a beautiful film with amazing performances. It’s the story of how a nurse helps a boy who has not spoken since he lost his mother who happens to be a world-renowned concert pianist. It takes place in 1950s Tuscany in this amazing castle. The film was a great collaboration between producer Dean Zanuck and director Eric Howell who I’ve worked with on a couple of shorts before this.
HULLFISH: This was not cut in L.A. Tell me a little bit about cutting at Splice in Minneapolis.
CONDIT: Technology makes it so easy to cut from anywhere. Splice is in LA, Minneapolis and London. The director lives in Minneapolis so we cut the film there. We have a couple of very comfortable edit rooms built specifically for cutting features with large screen projection and 5.1 surround. I was on location for the first six weeks cutting scenes on my MacBook Pro and to be available for the director. The film was shot in Italy, just north of Siena for the exteriors. Then we moved to a second castle just north of Rome where we shot the interiors.
HULLFISH: Tell me about that dailies process.
CONDIT: We shot dual Alexas. We had a DIT and data-wrangler, so the two – Francesco Scazzosi and Flavio Lombardi – managed everything exceptionally well. They created two sets of dailies: one for the production team to view and one for edit. We did 1080 ProRes LT edit dailies. Having edited and mixed the film at this point it is clear we had an amazing sound mixer on our film. Maurizio Argentieri provided a stereo mix for dailies and delivered beautifully captured isolated production tracks as broadcast WAV files. My assistant Cody Brown used a third party app called Sync-N-Link X that extracts the metadata to derive channel labels and created my multi-cam edit clips with production audio attached.
HULLFISH: So dailies just had a stereo track, but Sync-N-Link would let you grab the rest of the multi-tracks from the sound mixer?
CONDIT: The way Sync-N-Link works is, you feed it the two cameras and your production audio and it will sync audio and make all of your multi-cam clips for you. It’s pretty slick. The feature I appreciate most is it pulls the metadata out of the broadcast WAV files so now your channels are labeled with the character and microphone names so you quickly know which channel is which. This information can then drive Audio Roles within FCPX, which is a cool thing I love about FCPX. When we did our turnovers to Skywalker for final mix, all that information goes across.
HULLFISH: Did you use multi-cam really?
CONDIT: Yes. Every take was shot with two cameras, so I always had a primary and secondary option to choose from. The DP, Peter Simonite would light for a primary setup and then give me a secondary framing.
HULLFISH: Tell me about organizing a dramatic scripted feature in FCPX. How did you prep or organize materials for a scene?
CONDIT: FCPX terminology initially throws people off. So to clarify, what Avid calls a project is called a library. The timeline in FCPX is called a project. And what Avid would call bins or folders are
CONDIT: Right. I broke the film into 5 reels. I had five libraries – one for each reel. Then in a separate library I had my assemblies; the editor’s cuts, director’s cut, all the different assemblies along the way so I could track and go back to versions as needed. We have a pretty robust sound library – so I used SoundMiner for searching. Because I had common sound elements that would be used throughout the film, instead of having them redundant in each reel I had a separate library for audio using Events to organize ambiences, scene specific effects and temp music. I had a separate library called “Backstage” for any good outtakes. If I find a fun moment, I quickly cut and paste into a working timeline string-out. At the end of production we were able to do a really fun wrap party video very quickly. We also kept a master library with footage organized with an Event for each shoot day. This came in handy from time to time as an alternate way to find footage.
HULLFISH: I had a similar organization going on “War Room.” Everything was organized by day, but the exact same clips were also organized by scene number of course. But sometimes, if you thought something might be missing from a scene, you could track down what day it was shot and go back to the day’s shooting material to see if you could find it.
CONDIT: Exactly. And then I had a separate Library for all the extra stuff like second unit b-roll footage. Within each reel I used a separate Event for each scene. In that Event would be the footage organized by setup and take, along with a string-out of all the takes and scene edits. I rarely edit source/record. I put everything in string-outs and I just cut and paste and pull selects and everything is gestural editing.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about the gestural editing – but first, about the string-outs, some editors I’ve talked to use them as a source. Others edit the string-out like a sculptor uses a block of granite: chipping away at the string-out itself until they have a sequence.
CONDIT: I’ll use both approaches. My string-outs typically stay as my go to source sorted by setup and take. I put gaps between each setup so I can visually see and quickly navigate to find takes and favorite moments. When watching for the first time I will use a combination of markers for first impressions and cutting favorites and pop them up out of the primary storyline. This keeps all my notes, selects and first impressions in one place so that months later I can come back and easily try alternate edits as the film evolves. To build a scene I will quickly cut and paste best moments and selects into a first assembly with redundant moments and then I’ll do the chisel approach to craft the scene until it meets its scene objective. I also use your sculptor metaphor approach for montage scenes where you are playing and whittling down to explore options.
HULLFISH: So you can load a sequence into what would be the Source monitor in Avid? I know there was only one monitor for a while in FCPX.
CONDIT: You can have 2 viewers now but cannot scan a Project (timeline) on the source side. I don’t use the source viewer much but I can see how it would be nice if you could scan a Project like any other clip without loading it into the timeline. One of my primary complaints about FCPX is that while you can have multiple timelines open you don’t have control over how they are organized. You can advance through them with a keystroke or control click an arrow and see what’s open and choose one but it’s awkward. I want my tabs back; like FCP7 had so I can have them in a logical and useful order. Bottom line I typically use a single viewer full screen on a second monitor. That viewer toggles as needed between source and record or multi-cam mode.
HULLFISH: I’m all for a single viewer. That’s the way it basically was in the linear days…you’d see your source in it if you were controlling a source deck and you’d see your program in it if you were watching your edit. So describe this gestural editing.
CONDIT: I have to think about that. It’s all muscle memory, right?
CONDIT: I used to work on Avid and Fire or Smoke and I always used a Wacom tablet. So on Avid and FCP7 I’ve always used the Wacom tablet. For whatever reason, in FCPX I cannot work with a tablet but have become a big fan of the Magic Trackpad moving clips around and trimming. Once you learn the magnetic timeline and utilize things like audio roles it’s just really fast.
HULLFISH: I’m envisioning Tom Cruise in “Minority Report.”
CONDIT: That would be cool. My director commented – because we did his first short on FCP7 and his last short and this feature both on FCPX – “It’s night and day. It’s so fast and you don’t even think about it, we’re moving sections around, we’re reorganizing scenes, and there’s nothing technical in your way.” So clips are like building blocks that you gesturally move around as you build your timeline. You have a primary storyline and can work with individual clips. You can quickly create secondary timelines for video or audio only to keep things together with a single sync point. One complaint I often hear about FCPX is that when you move stuff everything’s magnetic and jumps around. And that is true if you are in Select (A) mode. But if you go into Position (P) mode you are working in an “overwrite” style where everything stays locked in place. Being able to quickly change between these modes and work in a gestural way is very fast.
HULLFISH: What’s the process of working with your director? How do you collaborate?
CONDIT: It was a very collaborative process. We had many discussions leading up to pre-production. We did scene objectives together as he refined the script. I showed up on set a couple days early and was just there for him to discuss and validate and start editing. Having gone over scene objectives together, I knew what he wanted. We were pretty much in sync. When I was ready I showed him my first assembly and we spent time together refining his cut to present to the producers. This was an indie film with a small but very collaborative group where we could have healthy debates and really refine the film as a team.
HULLFISH: You’ve mentioned scene objectives a few times. How did they come into play as you were cutting scenes?
CONDIT: For the director I suspect it helps him stay focused during the crazy of production and scene objectives become his touchstone as he is working with the actors. For me, you can often take a scene different emotional directions based on performance and nuance. The scene objectives keep me grounded with the director’s vision for the film as I do the initial assembly. Later in the process as you get feedback and step back a bit , scene objectives fuel the creative debates as you remind yourself why you shot the scene. You are always free to evolve or change the objective of a scene as the film evolves but you have a foundation to work from as you make the hard decisions of trimming or maybe even cutting scenes entirely for pacing and clarity.
HULLFISH: Wow. I love that idea. So define for me what a scene objective is and give me an example.
CONDIT: You have to ask yourself, “What are we trying to do with this scene? What’s the emotion we’re trying to extract? What is this scene supposed to accomplish for the overall storyline or character arc?” One example was a key scene at the end of the film where as an exercise we recut the entire scene taking out all dialogue except for a single line. It worked beautifully and even hit the scene objective in a much stronger and more effective way. That is the scene you will see in the final cut.
HULLFISH: I’ve never heard anyone talk about that before. I love it. Can you give me a specific example of a scene objective from this film?
CONDIT: So a scene objective can be a short sentence or just a few words that sum up why a scene exists and how it helps and fits into the film. One of the first scenes is of our lead character the nurse as she painfully leaves one family to go to the next place. The scene objective was to “Setup Verena’s loneliness, pain & stress.” She continues on her journey riding a bus as she adds a letter of referral to a stack of other similar letters. The objective was to “Establish backstory—setting her goal—lonely journey.”
HULLFISH: Walk me through the process of cutting a simple scene. What’s your approach? Your assistant has prepped it for you in a specific way and then you sit down to a bin of dailies and…
CONDIT: Every scene’s a little different but in general I watch everything and I’m looking for moments that move me. Ultimately it’s about emotion and empathy. When I’m watching a cut I find I’m kind of moving with it. The whole thing is a dance. It has to flow. The motion needs to work, but ultimately it’s character and less is more when it comes to performances. So it’s really about finding and building moments that work together for the overall scene. I try to show very refined cuts so I do a lot of sound work before I present. Sound really is half the picture and you’ve got to have it in there to sell the edit. You don’t want anything to pull you out.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about some of the decisions you guys had to make in terms of killing those babies or shortening things up.
CONDIT: We were on a tight production schedule, so we had to be very disciplined in what we shot, so we didn’t get a lot of fat. We were “killing babies” in production by cutting scenes that were determined non-critical to the story since we had to budget our time in production. I found the final round of editing this film to be the most rewarding and collaborative part of the process. We did some major trims on scenes to pick up the pace. We shuffled structure toward the end to build more suspense. We tried a variety of ways to open the film. We tried cutting entire scenes out and some of them found their way back in after reworking them with a fresh eye. We had healthy debates and really found the best film we could and that sometimes meant losing great moments.
HULLFISH: So what was the length of your first rough cut to where you are now?
CONDIT: It’s funny. I tend to not look at the length of the film very often, plus through versions I lose track. I think we landed at just short of 94 minutes including closing credits. My first assembly was maybe 110 without credits and I trimmed that pass before showing the director. I remember having a 104-minute cut that we trimmed down to 93 before screening for the producers at which point the true collaboration and real editing began.
HULLFISH: How is the film going to move through the post-production chain from FCPX?
CONDIT: Davinci Resolve is at the center of that workflow. We color and online with shared media on a SAN and utilize Resolve’s shared working environment. Our VFX team manages shots through a variety of software depending on the need and everything funnels through Resolve for finish. Our final deliverable for the film is a 2K DCP.
HULLFISH: I’m really interested in that process of getting this film from FCPX to Resolve.
CONDIT: It’s all just XML magic. I don’t want to over-simplify it. Cody, my first assist and Nick Gumm my on-line editor essentially handled all of that, but it’s a pretty clean, straight-forward XML workflow. FCPX and Resolve work fairly seamlessly now.
HULLFISH: Tell me about pacing. How do you determine when to make that next cut?
CONDIT: Wow. How do you articulate that? It’s feeling. It’s motion. A scene is a dance. How the actors relate to each other. I’ll base my first cut on the actors’ performances because that’s hopefully the most natural, but then you can step back and say, “Let’s let that moment breathe.” Maybe you want to create an interruption that wasn’t there. Who you’re on for a particular line, for emphasis – what’s more important: the delivery or the reaction? Go back to the scene objective. What are we trying to accomplish? That really dictates who’s on camera and if you want to make a moment slightly more awkward, then you open the track up and let it breathe a little. So it really is instinct or feel. A lot of times you’ll step back and a scene will feel rushed or sometimes you milked it too much. Then you adjust.
HULLFISH: Talking to Kirk Baxter about “Gone Girl” and I know some twins and I picked up that the dialogue between the twins was very fast paced. They were almost stepping on each other every time they talked, BECAUSE they’re twins. So the pacing is always in service to the story.
CONDIT: Yeah. This film is a subtle, mysterious, suspenseful thing. It’s not a thriller. It’s not a horror film. So, I agree, every film has a little different need in the pacing for the characters.
HULLFISH: “Brooklyn” is another one of those movies, like you’re describing with a very stately pace. There was no big action scene. Just a love story. So the story called for a specific pace to allow the lead actress to show the emotions that were not spoken in dialogue. Check out my interview with the editor of that movie.
CONDIT: Awesome. I’ll check that out. I just saw Mr. Holmes… that was a similar delicate pace.
HULLFISH: What were some of the hardest scenes for you to edit in this movie and what made it difficult to cut?
CONDIT: (chuckles) There were a couple scenes that I put off and kept avoiding. It was funny because they were the same scenes the composer Michael Wandmacher saved for last as well, because they’re just hard. It’s the emotion of it combined with lots of footage and dialogue-free scenes to build. You just have to work through that first cut and then build and refine from there. I remember cutting the love scene to Cold Play’s Midnight – which was completely wrong for the film – but it helped inspire a direction and creative momentum.
HULLFISH: Were they long scenes that had so much footage or just a scene with a ton of coverage?
CONDIT: Mostly just a lot of coverage. My first cut for those scenes were exceptionally long. I never even showed the long cuts to the director. I like your earlier analogy, and I’ve said it as well, “You’re sculpting.” Your long cut is the block and you need to create the block first so you can start chiseling away to find the heart of it. Find the double beats and repeated moments to start carefully trimming. And if you have a whole lot of great moments, well, you know what? Some of those great moments are going to have to go away, because you don’t need three similar great moments. Remind yourself of the storyline and scene objective and keep refining.
HULLFISH: Collaborations between editors and directors really runs the gamut. What was yours like?
CONDIT: What’s great about Eric and me is there’s complete trust. Every time Eric came in he would bring a fresh eye and find something that would make a scene better. I would find moments he had not considered. He would get me back on track if I had strayed. We would brainstorm different ways to create a moment or connect ideas. From production through post, the whole filmmaking process requires trust. It’s crucial to create trust and an environment where you feel “safe” to try things without criticism. You need to stay open and think beyond what you thought the film was going to be. A film really reveals itself slowly. The script says one thing, until an actor brings their unique perspective and then you get to play with all the nuances and directions you can take the film. We tried to be very deliberate on when to show scenes and watch the film down as a full assembly. You get so close to the footage that you do everything you can to stay fresh. The director is so close after production that he needs a break while I do the first cut. Then as the editor I get close to it, which is perfect timing for the director to come in fresh and challenge my cut. It is a true collaboration.
HULLFISH: I think you mentioned you’re cutting on a big screen. Tell me about your room.
CONDIT: My cutting room has a 110-inch projection screen with 7.1 surround. FCPX allows me to work in 5.1, which is a great way to offline and play and allows even better temp mixes throughout the process. The edit position is centered and on a stage just behind a row of seats with console space to my sides for the director so we both are looking at the same thing. I use the projection for my program monitor and my computer monitors are ergonomically set to allow me to easily look up and down as needed. I typically use 3 computer monitors to spread things out but mostly use the center 27” Apple display for my timeline and primary workspace. I like to work in the dark like a theatre so I have a lighted keyboard and controlled task lighting from above for script and notes. I have also gone to great lengths to have a very quiet environment so I can hear everything. I like to really refine my temp mixes to avoid having anything pull you out of the edit. This setup also allows me to step away from my workstation and sit in a comfortable chair and watch scenes from a different perspective.
HULLFISH: How does watching a screen that big affect your sense of pacing and timing?
CONDIT: We are making a film and it needs to feel cinematic. That’s why I like to work in surround to help create a big emotional experience. You just can’t get that out of a 24″ TV screen and small speakers. When you’re in a dark room with a big screen and enveloped in sound, it’s just a very different thing. You mix a film on a stage in a large space for technical and acoustic reasons, but it’s also emotional. You don’t mix a film in a small room, so why should you cut a film on a small screen?
HULLFISH: What were you doing specifically with sound design – this isn’t a big action movie – in a love story?
CONDIT: Ambiences, music, transitions, off camera story elements, “The Voice”, you name it. We worked with EJ Holowicki our supervising sound designer at Skywalker to design “The Voice” and we were even as specific as to give each room sort of its own ambient character or maybe there was a storm brewing to add some tension. We used a Rachmaninoff cue as a theme and manipulated parts of that song for transitions or to bring a specific character into a scene. All that stuff adds up and helps to tell the story and make it all more cinematic. Foley nuances can help make the viewer “lean in”. Maybe you’re not quite sure if you heard something or not. And being able to position those details in surround space, instead of just between a pair speakers completely helps you sell your edit and what you’re imagining will happen once you go to full sound design and final mix.
HULLFISH: I love that answer. In my article on the sound edit of the last movie I edited, “War Room,” the sound designer spent a lot of time with these surround ambiences. It’s really the sound of nothing other than the way the dialogue basically, bounces off the walls. But that completely envelops you and sells the authenticity of the mono dialogue tracks.
CONDIT: Absolutely. The space you are in has a character and playing with that just makes it all more believable. One location for our film was a quarry where we layered detailed sound elements of a waterfall with lapping water and winds and really created a space. Or the sound of the courtyard of this old stone castle or the tomb. That’s the fun stuff. I remember Eric and I struggled to make a particular scene work. We had a cat concept, the cat didn’t work and ultimately the film didn’t need the cat. Instead of the cat hissing we needed something else to motivate our actress to go into a room. We found another sound that fit the storyline but it wasn’t working. We tried positioning it in time with different reactions from the actress but it just wasn’t feeling right. I EQ’d it a little and panned it left and all of a sudden it worked. All it needed was to be in the mix right and sound real so you believed it. So now you can lock picture confidently.
HULLFISH: I had a very similar experience of a character looking up, kind of unmotivated by anything, to notice that another character is listening in on a conversation, and what finally sold the moment was a sound effect very carefully mixed.
CONDIT: Exactly. As you describe that, three or four other moments in the film come to mind where even a music cue placed properly can help the picture cut.
HULLFISH: I’m really interested in hearing about FCPX. I’m assuming when you’re not cutting features, you’re cutting TV spots or something up at SPLICE?
CONDIT: I am focused on feature work now, but have a fairly diverse background that includes documentary, spots and music videos. We actually did a promotional music video for Voice From The Stone using the end title song with Amy Lee from Evanescence. It was fun to cut a music video again.
HULLFISH: The reason why I’m heading down that road is because I’m interested on your take on FCPX as a feature tool as opposed to a TV spot tool or a music video tool. You can say that “a tool is a tool” but features really need to be part of a much bigger workflow and be much more collaborative than some other forms of editing.
For someone coming at this either as a feature editor on Avid or Premiere or FCP7, or even as an FCPX editor who’d never done a feature, what do you need to know? Is film editing in FCPX a unique animal, or do you not even see that there’s a question there?
CONDIT: Every tool has its strengths and wish list. Regarding feature films you really just need to understand the process—how to organize and manage a project and how to turnover to other departments for VFX, color and audio. I particularly enjoy FCPX. The way you can manipulate the timeline, keyword searches, speed-blade and optical flow, working in 5.1. One specific example on this film where FCPX saved me was the opening scene where two hands are playing piano. In production they recorded the song live and used that recording to do all the takes like shooting a music video. In the end the cue ended up being twice the speed as they performed it. I had to re-time picture to match so I used the speed blade for every finger push and I was able to re-map that entire visual performance to match the final cue. I don’t know another tool that could do that as elegantly.
CONDIT: And once you’ve speed-bladed it, you can ramp the speed in and out and this is all sub-frame accurate so you can get very precise with how it syncs to the audio. I was able to make a seamless sync performance to a completely different performance of the song. But to answer your question—workflow and process matter. You need to go into a film with a defined workflow that works for the entire team. When I do another film, my first choice would be FCPX today, but if they need me to cut in Avid or otherwise, whatever.
HULLFISH: I’m not trying to get you to switch tools. I have no desire to do that. I’m interested in the other side. Convince ME to switch tools! On my last movie, FCPX was an option and why I didn’t consider it seriously was because of the way I felt a feature needed to be organized and the workflow of getting the film out to the other creative professionals at the end of the process: sound mix, composing, color, DI. While cutting a TV spot, key words or something like that would work great, but that’s not the way you put together a feature.
CONDIT: I’ve used other software and FCPX is definitely changing the timeline and how you approach a project, but it’s not really that profound. There’s cool stuff like “Replace and Add to Audition.” You can have multiple takes and if one take is three seconds long and another take is four seconds long, it ripples the timeline for you and changes the duration of the shot while keeping everything in sync. That’s the beauty of the magnetic timeline. Everything’s so fluid and you just stop thinking tech and are really free to be creative and try things without worrying about timeline management. People think that the audio gets messy because there are no tracks. I think it is actually cleaner and easier to work with. A lot of your audio is nested in the video of the primary storyline so that makes for a super clean timeline. Individual audio clips can have specific sync points and that becomes a visual cue when editing and moving things around. You can use Audio Roles and collapse what you don’t want to see without worrying about sync. You can create secondary timelines to organize and manipulate sync for a group of clips. I find it very fast and quite frankly a really fresh way to cut.
HULLFISH: And this third party app was able to take all these “non-track” tracks and deliver something to Skywalker that they were able to put into ProTools and mix a movie.
CONDIT: For them it was no different. You export an XML from FCPX, use X2Pro Audio Convert to create an AAF using your assigned Roles to organize the tracks ProTools will see. I find you have MORE ability to control how it’s organized and turned over. I organize by stems—dialogue, music, ambiences and sound effects. You can organize it however you want, plus you have channel labels so Skywalker can see exactly which microphone is which. Using roles also allows me to kick out temp mixes as isolated stems which comes in very handy for approvals or sending reference files to the composer so he can easily turn off my temp music separately.
HULLFISH: And you were cutting with ProRes?
CONDIT: Yes, 1080 24p ProRes LT.
HULLFISH: Many people see me as an Avid fan-boy, but I love showcasing the benefits of other tools. In the end a tool is a tool. Joe Walker said, “If they shot a movie on wet string, I’d cut that.” So it’s great to know that FCPX can successfully work in the feature film workflow and that there are so many exciting capabilities. Well, this has been a fascinating look into the potential and the strengths of FCPX and into your own personal creative process. Thank you so much for spending so much time sharing your experience with Art of the Cut.
CONDIT: Always fun to geek out and share creative ideas. Thank you for facilitating all these great conversations and for including me.
To read more Art of the Cut interviews check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish