Cut Lines: Editing Workflow in Final Cut Pro
Posted Sep 1, 2009

This month we’ll look at professional, efficient editing workflow. It all begins with organizing your media to save time. If you drag and drop all your edits, you’re wasting hours on every project. Trying to refine each edit point as you go along in your rough cut will also add hours of time to your work, and you’ll end up with a frustrating, exhausting editing experience. So I’ll show you a proven editing workflow, specifically in Final Cut Pro, that will cut your editing time, make your editing easier, and help you get more refined edits, giving you an overall better product to deliver to your clients.

Note: This tutorial was written for Final Cut Pro 6. The screen shots reflect this, but the workflow remains the same in FCP 7. October’s Cut Lines on Replace Edits will include instruction in both FCP 7 and FCP 6 for those who haven’t upgraded yet.

Project/Media Management
To begin with, media management is vital. I have a template folder that I duplicate for each new project. If you frequently do weddings (or any type of project where the management format will always be the same), you have the same type of nonvideo assets for every project: audio, graphics, and photos. Your video assets will go into your Capture Scratch folder, of course.

To organize my assets, I make a folder called Project Template. Inside that folder are subfolders called Music, Photos, Graphics, and Output. There is also an FCP project file called Project Template (Figure 1, below).

Figure 1. Project assets organized in a template folder with subfolders

When you start a new wedding, simply right-click this template folder, and from the pop-up menu, select Duplicate. Move the duplicate to an appropriate place, and rename it with the name of this specific new project. Rename the FCP project file with the same name.

Now a word about that FCP Project Template file. First, I open FCP, and in a new project, I use Easy Setup to set the default format for the project. I make a bin (folder) called Sequences. Inside that I create all of my normal Sequences: Opening, Photomontage, Pre-Ceremony, Ceremony, Pre-Reception, Reception, Closing, Master Output. Of course you’d set this up to suit your own style and projects. If you do longform projects, never work on a full 2-hour-long Sequence in the Timeline window—it’s a waste of time, it’s difficult, and it’s not professional. Chop each individual, unique section up into its own Sequence. The Master Output Sequence is the one you’ll drop your other Sequences into (called Nesting Sequences), and make your Chapter Markers for output to Compressor/DVD SP, H.264 for the web, or iPhone/iPod/Apple TV compressions. These output files all go into the Output folder inside the main project folder.

I also make a bin called Clips. Inside of the Clips bin, I make other bins with appropriate names: Pre-Ceremony, Ceremony, Reception, and the like. Then, before I start to capture the various types of footage from tape or ingest it from tapeless media, I right-click the appropriate bin, and from the pop-up menu that appears, I choose Set Logging Bin. This sets this bin as the location that all of your captures and ingests will go to, rather than just filling up the Browser window helter-skelter. Change the bin that is designated as the Logging Bin for each type of footage you bring in.

You’ll see the FCP logo show up next to the bin that is currently set as the Logging Bin. Good media management like this, I can assure you, will lend itself to faster, easier, more enjoyable postproduction experiences, as well as a better end product for the client.

I also customize the columns in my Browser window. I hide the ones I don’t need, and I keep the ones I find I use often and save the arrangement as a custom Browser column layout. I simply right-click the title bar of each column to hide it and to show others and save the configuration as a custom layout. I find this helps a lot. Once I set up my Browser window columns, I actually use them to move through my projects faster.

Then, once I have all of my photos, music, graphics, and so forth all together, I populate them into the appropriate folders inside my main project folder. Once I have all of my assets gathered, I’ll right-click in the Browser window, and from the pop-up menu I’ll choose Import Folder and bring in all those folders with my assets. The result is a nice, clean, organized, easy, and fast-to-work-with Browser window (Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. A Browser window organized for efficient editing

Do Rough Edits First
The first thing an efficient editor will do is to review all the footage and name each Master Clip appropriately. You can get a good feel for your footage, as well as label it properly while you’re capturing/ingesting it. But if someone else does this, or if you leave this to be done unattended, review your footage. Know what you have and don’t have. Don’t go rummaging through your footage and assets during your editing sessions. It’s a huge waste of time! Review all your footage and assets first, then you’ll have most of the edit done unconsciously before you touch an editing tool.

Then start the edit. Pick which Sequence you want to work on and open it into the Timeline window. Then click the disclosure triangles of the appropriate bins to give you access to the Master Clips you need to work with. (This is faster than opening each bin in its own window.)

Then, use the 3-Point Editing process to create a rough cut. Open a Master Clip from the Browser into the Viewer window. Set your patch tabs to the correct tracks in the Timeline. Scrub through the Master Clip, and set an In and an Out point. Hit F10 (overwrite edit). Open the next Master Clip from the Browser into the Viewer, and so forth. Don’t worry about refining the Edit Points in the Timeline window at this point; just drop in the clips you need with “rough” In and Out points. Then pop through it as fast or slow as is comfortable for you. Think twice about each clip, and don’t do or worry about anything else. Forget text, forget cutaways, forget coloring, forget effects; just drop in clips for the rough edit—and nothing else—using the 3-Point Editing process.

3-Point Editing simply means there are three points that determine what goes where. The first two points are the In and the Out points in the Viewer. The third is where the playhead is in the Timeline. When you drop a new clip in, it’s automatically set to the frame after that clip.

If you’re working with a Multiclip edit (see June and December 2006 Cut Lines), set it up to edit in the proper Sequence. Run through it a few times to get a good feel for it, unless you’re already comfortable with the content. Then do your Multiclip edit. Remember that the Multiclip edit is a “rough cut” process. Once the rough Multiclip edit is complete, do a Select All (Cmd+A) in the Timeline window, right-click on anything selected, and from the pop-up menu, choose Collapse Multiclip. This reduces the stress placed on the CPU.

If you have cutaways to place, once your main video track is done, change your patch tabs (see May 2009 Cut Lines) to the next video track, disconnect the audio track tabs (if necessary), and use this same rough-edit process to place your cutaways into the Sequence. And one final word on the subject: Drag-and-drop editing has its place, but the rough edit is not the place for it.

Do Refine Edits Second
Once the rough cut is done, hit the Home key to get back to the beginning of the Sequence in the Timeline window. You may want to set the Preview Pre-roll and Post-roll to about 2 seconds under Final Cut Pro > User Preferences > Editing (Figure 3, below).

Figure 3. The Editing tab in User Preferences

Next, use your up and down arrow keys to place the Timeline playhead on the first Edit Point, and also highlight that Edit Point. You can highlight the first edit point by clicking on the first spot where two clips come together. This will highlight the Edit Point, not the clips themselves (Figure 4, below). Hit the backslash key (the one above your Return key, below the Backspace key) to preview this edit point. This keyboard shortcut will take the playhead the number of seconds you specified in the Preview Pre-roll and Post-roll previously, play through where it originally was (on that edit point), and play past it according to the settings you specified previously.

Figure 4. The edit point highlighted

You may want to hit the backslash key to preview this edit point more than once. If you need to make a change, you can use the Ripple tool (keyboard shortcut: rr) or the Roll tool (keyboard shortcut: r) to adjust and refine that specific edit point. Hit the forward slash key again to preview your refinement. Once you’re satisfied with the edit, hit the down arrow key to move on to the next Edit Point. Preview and refine it the same way.

Once you’ve run through all of your Edit Points in this manner, review your Sequence. You may run across clips that need to occupy the same physical space in the Sequence but need their In and Out points adjusted. Use the Slip tool (keyboard shortcut: ss) to do this. Or you may need to move a clip as-is a tad to the left or right without disturbing the rest of the Sequence. Use the Slide tool (keyboard shortcut: s) to do that task.

For more information about using the Ripple, Roll, Slip, and Slide tools, see the April 2006 installment of Cut Lines.

In this workflow, while refining your Edit Points one by one, you’ll touch only the forward slash key, the down arrow key, and the r key, and nothing else. If you can learn this process and make yourself do it once, you’ll find you can get through refining your rough edits not only in record time, but with more accuracy and in better quality than before.

Every clip depends on all the clips before it and also after it for its impact in the production to be determined. If you refine edits as you go along with your rough edit, you will run into changes in the Sequence’s dynamics as more clips are added. These clips added later can change how that specific edit point you already refined may change. Then you have to go back and re-refine that Edit Point. Basically, as any great Hollywood editor can tell you, you don’t know how to refine an Edit Point if you don’t have all the content in the Sequence that comes not only before but also after that Edit Point.

Transitions and Compositing
Only after you’ve properly gone through the rough-edit process and then properly refined all your edits will you decide which edits get transitions and which ones get cuts. In fact, I’ll take this a step further. Do all of your compositing before doing transitions. Compositing is putting in text (November 2007 Cut Lines), filters, overlays, cutaways, and so forth. When all that is done, throw in your transitions. Don’t do them before this step, or I can assure you once again that you’ll waste time coming back and changing them up. And remember that transitions, filters, and anything you do for effect and not to clean up or stylize a clip is icing, not the cake, and should be done for specific reasons.

I was taught that when you use transitions, you should always ask yourself this question every time you apply one: “How does this specific transition help me to tell the story I’m trying to relay to my audience?” Doing transitions just because they’re cool will yield amateurish productions for your clients. The same goes for special effects. Why are you applying that special effect filter? How does it assist you in telling your story? What specifically does it do that you need to tell your story successfully?

Sound Finishing
At this point, go through and clean up any audio that may need to be sweetened. Do your final audio mix. Make sure levels are correct. (See the October 2006 and March 2009 installments of Cut Lines for more on working with sound in Final Cut Studio.)

Final Output
To finish off our Sequence, the next step is to apply Chapter Markers. If you’ve used Markers to help with your edits, delete them (Mark > Markers > Delete All). Then go through and place Markers where you’ll want DVD Chapter Markers to be. Don’t make them Chapter Markers at this point; just make generic Markers. Done! Lock this edit down and on to the next Sequence!

Once all of your Sequences are done and locked down, open your Master Output Sequence. Drop all of your finished Sequences into it. This is the one place you will use drag-and-drop editing. Once all your Sequences are in place, place your final Chapter Markers if you’re going out to DVD or to a podcast or other digital delivery method which lends itself to chapters. Highlight a nested Sequence. With the nested Sequence highlighted, hold the Shift key while using the up and down arrow keys to jump between Markers that are inside that nested Sequence. When you get to the first one, deselect the nested Sequence, and press M to make the Marker. Press M a second time to bring up the Marker edit window. Name the Marker as you want it named on your DVD chapter menu, and click the Chapter Marker button to specify it as such. Do this to complete the project.

Now you’re ready to output to the various file types you may need to work with. Just remember to put all of those exported files into the Output folder we made at the beginning of the project creation process.

I hope this helps some of you to get through your Final Cut Pro editing process faster and easier and to create better-quality products for your clients. I didn’t make this process up myself; it’s a well-documented, very widely practiced and frequently taught workflow. Time is money in postproduction, and the less time we can spend on a project, the more of the money that we make is profit. And since editing a project for days on end can be stressful, this will help to make things easier to deal with, relieving some of that stress. The less time you spend on technical details and the more relaxed you are during the process, the more creative you can be, and the more fun you can have.

So until next time ... rock your edits!

Ben Balser (benb at is an Apple Certified Trainer and Support Professional based in New Orleans. Along with training and consulting, he also produces documentaries and educational material and designs digital storage systems.