FCPX Helps College Produce Historical Documentary About the Underground Railroad

dawn ofDay fcpx banner

If there is one quality you can use to single Final Cut Pro X out from the rest of the NLEs out there, it’s the program’s ease of great visual storytelling. Rusty Earl details how he used FCPX to construct the historical documentary ‘Dawn of Day.”

For the last five years I’ve worked for the College of Education at Kansas State University producing documentaries and educational programs. Creating films was not always part of my job description. But, as we discovered a few years ago the best content we create is not about marketing, it’s about telling people’s stories.

Today we produce two documentaries a year themed around a variety of educational topics (usually 30 to 45 minutes in length). These films are used as resources in K-12 schools across the mid-west, in universities across the United States, and are often aired on local PBS affiliate stations. All of our programs are cut in FCPX in a shared storage environment with a small team of editors- myself and one or two student editors.

In January 2015 I was given the opportunity to work on a rather unique project; a historical documentary on the Underground Railroad in Kansas called, “Dawn of Day: Stories from the Underground Railroad”. The trailer for the documentary is posted below

Although I had produced several documentaries, this was my first foray in directing/editing a historical documentary. Too be honest, I was nervous at the sheer scope of the project, let alone the time it would demand. But I was also excited for the opportunity. We were free to try some pretty ambitious things that I might not have tried before without the all the organizational tools built inside FCPX.

Preproduction

Former-slaves-Kansas-Territory-1860s-

The creative process began with four months of research and rough scripting with our narrator, Richard Pitts. Half of the dialogue would be scripted as a personal journey of Richard studying the underground railroad in Kansas. The other half would be unscripted conversations with Richard interviewing descendants of abolitionists and slaves, as well as historians. While questions were developed in advance, the outcomes were not.

Our goal was to create an engaging 45-minute program that could be used in K-12 schools to teach kids about the underground railroad, as well be shared on the web and via statewide broadcasts.

(Right click for larger images)

preproduction

As an editor it’s amazing how doing your own research can help you craft a story before it ever shows up in the timeline. The more we interviewed and connected with historians and descendants of both abolitionists and slaves, the more their stories merged and took on a life of their own. Even though it never felt like enough time, I was grateful for those four months of research to get us on the right track.

After every interview, we used Final Cut’s powerful metadata to organize all of our b-roll, interviews, and archival images into keyword collections and events. That saved us hours in the edit bay.

Production

We shot with a pair of matching Panasonic GH4 cameras set up with custom picture profiles that got us a little closer to the final grading of the film. We also had a mix of DJI drone footage. Audio was handled through Beachtek DXA_SLR adapters and Sony wireless mics.

production-2-

All interviews were shot in 4k @ 23.98fps with a medium-to-wide frame so that we could crop in for additional angles and reframing in a 1080 @ 23.98 timeline. All of our b-roll was shot at 1080 @ 60fps so we would have the option to slow things down from scene to scene.

Besides using two cameras for sit-down interviews, we did a series of walk-and-talk discussions between our narrator and a few of the historians utilizing two cameras in 4K. This was extremely valuable as we were able to get a lot of coverage of a single conversation using a mix of wide and medium shots while walking with a gimbal and a stationary tripod.
setting-up-walk-and-talk

walk-and-talk-w-Rusty-

This is where working with the multi-cam editor in Final Cut saves time. It does such a great job of synching footage (with or without a timecode) as long as you label the names of your cameras and keep things organized from the start. Many thanks to Larry Jordan and Steve Martin for the tutorials on how to do this!

angle-editor

Editing Workflow

For this particular project we chose to go with one Library and several events. Near the end we created a second library just for creating credits and trailers. This allowed my assistant editors to grab stills and clips from a few master files to use in marketing and social media. All footage was shot in h.264 and optimized on the way into FCPX. Original media was approximately 1.5 TB. The final film was closer 4.7TB.

Along the way we sent out a few master files through Frame.io for collaborative VFX work. It works great for sharing ProRes files!

events

We organized events by each day of filming as well as by locations. I also set up a number of events for commonly used files: temp music, purchased music, archive stills, SFX, motion templates, rendered titles, etc. Keywords and favorited range selections are invaluable at making events work for me.

Another strength of FCPX is the ability to create snapshots of projects. I love using snapshots for different versions of a scene as a way to try out new cuts quickly and then return to the master timeline if you’re not happy with the result. In total we had eight scenes in the film. Depending on the scene we had up to six different snapshots for each timeline/project.

snap-shots

Setting up Roles

We kept this pretty simple, only adding a few extra roles for cleaned up dialog audio sfx, nat sound, etc. The main audio mix was done inside final cut using roles.

Roles

Audio Sweetening

All dialogue audio was cleaned up using a mix of Adobe Audition and Izotope RX5. We were fortunate with most of our field recordings, but we still needed to clean up several tracks. Since almost all of the dialog (including narration) was contained in multi-cam interviews, we were able to export the dialog from the angle editor, clean them up in large batches, and then reimport them.

I cannot overstate how much time it saves to work with audio in the angle editor. Even when you have to export it to a third party program and bring it back in; all of the audio in the timeline matches the changes made in the angle editor. For those considering Izotope RX5 we found the dialogue denoiser plugin VERY effective in cleaning up background noise. I look forward to doing more of our cleanup work without having to leave Final Cut.

Third-party Effects

Throughout the process of editing the film we used CS Slice X for masking and Color Finalefor color corrections.

color-finale -cs-slice-x

These two programs have allowed me to move quickly and efficiently to correct and modify images. I’m still new to color grading, but for shot-to-shot matches, Denver Riddle has done a phenomenal job making color correction tools accessible for newbies.

In summary

FCPX has always been about liberating the creative process. With each new update Final Cut continues to speed up our workflow. I have lot to learn still, and I appreciate the FCP community for sharing your stories and experiences. It’s sites like this that make my job easier.
Dawn of Day” premiered May 6, of 2016 and has been seen by thousands of students in Kansas schools and is currently being broadcast across the state on PBS affiliate stations. It feels great to know that what we are producing in our college is having an impact in classrooms today.
For more information about “Dawn of Day: Stories from the Underground Railroad” please visit http://coe.k-state.edu/dawn-of-day/

Rusty Earl

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2 thoughts on “FCPX Helps College Produce Historical Documentary About the Underground Railroad

  1. Spring McDonald says:

    Rus, that was awesome to read the background, and even though I didn’t know a lot of the lingo for film editing it was really interesting to read how you accomplished it.

    And P.S. Your head shot looks awesome!

    On Sun, May 7, 2017 at 12:44 PM, Rusty Chain Productions wrote:

    > rustychainproductions posted: ” Published: 18 October 2016 If there is one > quality you can use to single Final Cut Pro X out from the rest of the NLEs > out there, it’s the program’s ease of great visual storytelling. Rusty Earl > details how he used FCPX to construct the historical ” >

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