Tackling an independent film project can be a lot like trying to assemble a piece of furniture from Ikea. If you don’t have the right tools, it can be an infuriating, tedious waste of time. For what it’s worth, never try to use a pocket knife screwdriver to assemble an Ikea desk comprised of a thousand pieces and a thousand more allen key screws. Yes, this actually happened. It was a painful lesson in having the right tools for the job, and it directly applies to assembling the right kit to complete a successful indie film project.
So when it came to making my own independent feature film, I knew I needed the right tools for this job. I had just come off of working on The Hobbit trilogy for Sir Peter Jackson in New Zealand. On that project, I was officially the on-set colorist, although my duties ranged considerably depending on the needs of the director of photography, the wonderful, late Andrew Lesnie.
I was fortunate enough to be the bridge between the on-set and post worlds, working with the stereo 3D, color grading and new 48fps 5K technology. I was also fortunate enough to work with some of the very best people in all these areas, and saw first hand how these skilled people wielded their weapons of the trade. I saw what it actually took to create a project on such a massive scale — but I also saw what it didn’t take. I quickly learned the art of discerning what was absolutely essential, and what was a ‘nice to have,’ but could do without.
I returned to my home town of Canberra, Australia, in one of the hiatus breaks on The Hobbit and worked with a friend Dallas Bland to make a short film called Blue World Order. It was for a local film competition called ‘Lights, Canberra, Action!’
We made the whole thing in a weekend. People wanted to know more about the Blue World, and so it made the perfect basis to build our own independent film on. We developed the story into a feature, and I wrote a novelized version — all designed to be something that utilized the resources we had.
I knew the right tools for the job included an end-to-end FCPX pipeline. A full feature would put the FCPX workflow to through its paces, and also show that there’s no reason you can’t use FCP to produce a feature film. Being a long-time FCP user, I wanted to demonstrate that it was a viable end-to-end solution, and one that we could use on our minimal budget.
Blue World Order was written to take advantage of the local environment — the landscapes, the caves, the ruins. The idea was to produce a film as efficiently as possible, but even a small film is a big task….Especially when you get a fleet of DeLoreans and a genuine Billy Zane!
Our primary shooting camera was the BlackMagic 4K Production Camera, supplemented with the Canon C500 (which was great in the low light of the caves), some iPhone 6, Canon 5D, and various drones, predominantly the DJI Inspire. So for starters, we were dealing with a mix of formats, codecs and resolutions. For FCPx that was no real problem.
Our basic workflow looked like this:
- On-set, we’d ingest the first block of shooting at lunchtime, then again at the end of the day. The media card from the camera was copied onto a hard drive. We then renamed all of the files in finder based on camera, date, clapper information. Files were then backed up.
- Import: We then imported in FCP with a separate event for the original camera and audio takes and a separate event for working files.
- Synchronize: Next we moved the new synchronized clips into the working event and moved any MOS, etc. into working event.
- Metadata: We added metadata to clips, like shot number, scene number, location, etc., in FCPX.
- Smart Collection: The smart collections were created to catch all takes, across all cameras, for a single shot.
- Proxies: We generated to a location outside of the FCP library to keep the library small. A small library meant it could be handed over if needed, so long as each person had copies of the original files to relink.
- Sharing: FCPX proxy files were copied from the master RAID to the director’s and assistant editor’s drives.
- Updating: Either event XMLs were used to update the director’s library (via Dropbox folder) or the master library was copied to the director’s drive. Later in the process we were able to update events via trading XMLs (due to FCP update).
- Audio: Audio was organized into lanes with ‘track blockers’ (renamed titles). Roles were assigned based on audio type. XML was exported and then imported into X2Pro to create an AAC.
Between the editing and the final delivery stages of completing the film, I was lucky enough to present some of the workflow to Apple. It was great to see their implementation of ‘Audio Lanes’. This gave us the ability to deliver final stems based on the roles the audio was given (ie. music and effects, dialogue, etc.)
With FCPX as the hub, I would use the proxy files to create an edit of each scene in a separate project. My editor would also create an edit. We’d exchange project XMLs, look them over and then we’d sit together and make a third version of the scene. The ability to exchange XMLs and relink to either hi-res or proxy files made the sharing process great.
I did many of the VFX as a guide first using FCP specific plug-ins, and then outsourced the more advanced VFX to specialist artists. Mostly, I used Coremelt and FXfactory. A lot of the guide VFX made it into the final film, such was the quality of the plug-ins.
On the Coremelt side, we used a lot of the ‘Slice X’ and ‘Track X’ plug-ins for objects removal. In particular, drone shadows and logos that were hiding in the shot. These were great and the Mocha tracking did a really good job. One of the good things about these plug-ins is how easy they are to use, and how well they work on areas of repeated patterns, like areas of grass or bush.
I also used Coremelt for a lot of the color grading for final matching. The film was graded by colorist Warren Eagles using Resolve, but after some new versioning, and new VFX came in, ’Chromatic’ proved a very useful tool to be able to match the grades I needed if Warren was busy on other projects. One of the things about being an independent film is that you get small windows of opportunity to work with people. They very often have to ‘fit you in’ between the larger commercial jobs. Having the ability to do some of that work yourself when your experts are unavailable can mean the difference between hitting or missing a deadline.
Blue World Order was cut entirely in Final Cut Pro, and delivered from the very laptop that I’m writing this article on. The tools for the job - you have the tools at your fingertips.
I would urge any young filmmaker to spend their time learning the great tools they have access to, rather than pining for all the ‘high-end’ (read ‘expensive’) equipment they don’t have. Because at the end of the day, if it’s not accessible, then it’s not the right tool!
An audience only cares about what’s in the frame, not how it got there. With Final Cut Pro, there’s great plug-in community and a lot of imagination. And everyone has access to the tools for the job.
Blue World Order
is available now on iTunes, Amazon, Dish, and other VOD platforms. You can watch it here: