Final Cut Tips for Documentary Filmmakers


Li Jing demonstrates her form for the Women's Army

Rae and I have learned quite a bit about using Final Cut to create our documentary, Autumn Gem. Here are some tips that will save you a lot of time when putting together your film.

  1. Backup regularly
  2. Run Final Cut Pro on a clean system
  3. Get out of GOP and embrace ProRes 422
  4. Use whole integers with Ken Burns Effect
  5. Gaussian blur
  6. Avoid JPEGs
  7. Set subtitle opacity to 90%
  8. Using the Outline Text generator for your subtitles
  9. Watch your gamma
  10. View your footage on a broadcast monitor

Backup regularly

Have offsite backups in addition to real-time backups

Make sure you backup your video project on a daily basis and have offsite backups. Disaster can strike anytime to your hard drives, and it behooves you to be prepared for the worst.

In the photo to the right, I am taking recent backups of the documentary, system, and photos hard drives off to an offsite location. I rotate through these offsite backups at least one a month. Read this article for more information on my backup strategy.

Run Final Cut Pro on a clean system

Do not run Final Cut Pro on your normal Mac OS X user account. Create a separate video user account that has as little third-party software or system extensions installed. This will ensure that your system is running as optimally as possible. If you run FCP from your regular user account, you may experience dropped frames and other oddities that will have you questioning your twenty-year faith in Apple products.

Get out of GOP and embrace ProRes 422

No, this is not a political tip. If you shoot in HDV, consider capturing your footage using the ProRes 422 codec and get out of GOP (Group of Pictures) hell. We did not do this when we imported our tapes, but we have Final Cut Pro configured to render in ProRes and export into ProRes. For reasons too long to explain in this post, ProRes 422 is a much better codec to use for editing and color grading than native HDV.

Use whole integers with Ken Burns Effect


If you are creating a Ken Burns effect on a photo, ensure that your start and end keyframes in the Motion tab in the Viewer are set at whole integers (i.e. 0, 1, 50, 196, 250, -500). There have been times when the rendered video is jerky or flickering when these points are not set at whole integers (i.e. -1.12, 0.15, 20.56, 512.445). This tip also applies to the scale and other attributes under the Motion tab.

The past several days, I’ve been going through each and every photo in Autumn Gem and resetting these values. Trust me when I say you don’t want to do this after your film has been edited. Do it from the get-go and save yourself a lot of time!

Gaussian blur

Photos are a stable of many documentaries. At times, a finely detailed photo or an image scanned at a high resolution will exhibit flickering when moving on screen. To resolve this, apply a light gaussian blur filter (I use a setting of 1) to the image. This may seem counter-intuitive to those coming from a photography background (tack sharp!), but remember you’re in the moving picture business now where the rules are different!

Avoid JPEGs

I’ve read reports that say to avoid using JPEGs in Final Cut projects because they lead to the possibility of jittering images in interlaced footage. We’ve been using a combination of JPEGs, PNGs, PSD, and TIFF files. So far after using the two tips above, we haven’t seen any issues with our remaining JPEG files. In the future, however, I think I’ll avoid JPEGs altogether and stick with PNGs and TIFFs.

Set subtitle opacity to 90%

Put an opacity of 90% on your subtitles and captions. This helps avoid any broadcast safe color errors.

Use the Outline Text Generator for your subtitles

Originally, we used the standard Text generator to create our subtitles. Later, we switched to the superior Outline Text generator because it allowed us to have a stroke around each character. This delineates your subtitles more cleanly than just a simple drop shadow. The Outline Text generator also allows you to put a background image behind your text.

Watch your gamma

I touched on this in an earlier post, but you should set your Mac’s display to 1.8 gamma when using Final Cut. FCP adds gamma to the canvas, making it appear like a display with 2.2 gamma. If your monitor is set at 2.2 gamma, Final Cut will happily add additional gamma. When you get around to exporting your project, you’ll be confused when the picture looks all washed out in QuickTime Player or DVD Studio Pro.

Even if you have your gamma settings right, you may still need to add gamma correction in Compressor when sending to DVD Studio Pro or when performing a web export.

View your footage on a broadcast monitor

Matrox MXO

If you really want to see what your film looks like, make sure you are viewing it on a broadcast monitor or an Apple Cinema Display with a Matrox MXO scan conversion device ($999). With the MXO, I can color grade with confidence, knowing that what I see is eventually what I’ll get when I send this to the post-production house for conversion to HDCAM and DigiBeta1

Note, if you get an MXO, you’ll want to calibrate the secondary display to 2.2 gamma. This seems to fly in the face of the previous tip, but it’s the correct thing to do when using the MXO. Read more about configuring and using the MXO on Ken Stone’s Final Cut web site.

1 At least that’s what I’m hoping for, as we are planning to do the transfer to HDCAM next month!


3 thoughts on “Final Cut Tips for Documentary Filmmakers

  1. Howard

    Thanks for sharing your experiences !
    We’re planning a documentary. Do you know which size and codec, etc is best for a production that will be movie theater capable, and suitable for the web and DVD ?
    We want to start in the right format, to not limit our uses later on.
    Thanks for your time.
    Howard Ferguson

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