Focus
A New Take on Feature Post

Directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra confer with Will Smith on the set.
“What I love about Final Cut Pro X is that it allowed me to be involved with, and in control of, every aspect of making our film.” - John Requa, Director

Directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra believed that to make a compelling film about a con man, they’d need to lie at least as persuasively as he did. “Any movie is a series of lies,” says Requa. “But you have to make sure the lies work so you don’t alienate the audience.” For their new feature film, Focus, that meant creating intricate, tightly edited scenes that convincingly sell the schemes of grifter protagonist Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith).

Sustaining complex misdirection required an editing tool that was just the opposite — clear, straightforward, and accessible enough that the directors could edit footage along with lead editor Jan Kovac. It needed to be fast so they could experiment with scores of alternate takes. It had to be flexible so they could easily move between cutting on Mac Pro in the edit suite and working with MacBook Pro on location. And it had to be robust enough to reliably organize and process 2K Apple ProRes 4444 footage from production through multiple stages of post.

After researching several workflows, Requa and Ficarra decided to cut their major studio feature entirely in Final Cut Pro X. The results were even better than they’d expected. The movie came in on time and under budget, and it played and looked just as they’d envisioned it. “We got exactly the film we set out to make,” says Requa. “What I love about Final Cut Pro X is that it allowed me to be involved with, and in control of, every aspect of making our film.”

Outpost techs Ethan Schwartz and Dylan Damian supported an on-set crew who generated Apple ProRes 4444 dailies. Photo credit: Alex Tehrani

Organized Right Out of the Camera

Before the directors or editors even saw a frame, Final Cut Pro X was saving them time by efficiently organizing hours of footage. The crew used Mac Pro–equipped on-set mobile post systems from Light Iron — a cutting-edge Los Angeles–based post-production company — to generate dailies with metadata imported from the camera and the directors’ notes. Final Cut Pro X made all of this metadata searchable, while handling the full-resolution ProRes 4444 files with ease. Neither task had been possible with previous nonlinear editors.

Using Light Iron’s Live Play app, the production team could view same-day H.264 versions of the dailies on iPad from anywhere on set. And editing began just hours after the camera rolled. Metadata markers allowed the edit crew to quickly find and use the best shots. “When you’re cutting a movie, it’s a struggle for clarity,” says Requa. “You get fatigued and you get really tired of your footage, and you need access to a new point of view. A lot of times, the metadata provided an insight into what we were thinking when we shot it.”

Ficarra believes that the metadata advantage gave them unprecedented control over their story line. “I was able to say, ‘I need Will’s side in this take,’” he says. “And because even his improvisations were specially tagged, we were able to filter and come out with it. The upshot was just infinite searchability. We could change direction so fast and do multiple iterations. Sometimes while we were editing we felt as if we were actually rewriting the movie.”

“Sometimes while we were editing we felt as if we were actually rewriting the movie.” - Glenn Ficarra, Director
Jan Kovac, lead editor, Focus. Photo credit: Alex Tehrani

Editing on Set

Working with tagged dailies, lead editor Jan Kovac was able to edit on location in New Orleans, Buenos Aires, and New York City on a MacBook Pro. The ProRes footage included high-quality sound that had been batch-synced from second-source audio using Sync-N-Link X. And because each take was organized by scene and line, he could find any take with a single click. The freed-up hours were spent making more creative editing and effects choices.

“I created Smart Collections beforehand that were automatically collecting everything from scene information from our script supervisor to dialogue tags,” says Kovac. “They were a great help because everything was at my fingers instantly. I was able to try out more shots. And I got moments that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.”

Editing by the Numbers

Lead editor Jan Kovac edited Focus in a trailer in New Orleans, a hotel room in Buenos Aires, and a post-production studio on the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles.

61 days of shooting
145 hours of footage
1 editor,
3 assistants
11 months of editing
117 scenes edited, at full resolution

Swapping Edits

The flexibility of Final Cut Pro X made it easy for Kovac to collaborate with the directors as he built his early edits. In Buenos Aires, they frequently worked on a MacBook Pro in Kovac’s hotel room. “We wanted to be hands-on,” says Ficarra. “We wanted to follow Jan and tweak scenes and try stuff ourselves. To do that, there’s no editing tool better than Final Cut Pro X.”

Using the Magnetic Timeline in Final Cut Pro X, they were able to easily swap whole parts of the story without worrying about knocking things out of sync. “To be able to yank out a sequence and have it just snap into place in the moment as you’re cutting, that’s huge,” says Ficarra. “I’ve cut on all the other systems, and I can easily say I’m three times faster on Final Cut Pro X.”

Requa credits these collaborations with helping them hone the story they wanted to tell. “Because Final Cut Pro X is so easy to use, when we got frustrated trying to figure out a scene, Glenn could just cut a version and show it to Jan. We didn’t have to try to verbalize it. If we were cutting on another system, we couldn’t have been this hands-on. We’d have been relegated to the couch, pointing, being frustrated.”

All About the Performance

When shooting wrapped, the team moved to a dedicated edit suite in Los Angeles that was outfitted by facilities company Digital Vortechs, where they used a Mac Pro to edit even faster. Working with Final Cut Pro X and the dual GPUs in the Mac Pro, editor Jan Kovac and the directors continued cutting in 2K without waiting for renders and without having to transcode footage to a lower resolution.

“Final Cut Pro X allowed the Focus editorial team to be their own online and offline facility,” says Light Iron CEO Michael Cioni. “It’s drawing on metadata. It’s drawing on high-res media. And it’s drawing on optimized hardware. When you run it on the Mac Pro, you get really great performance. This is the creative edge that edit rooms really desperately want.”

“I’ve cut on all the other systems, and I can easily say I’m three times faster on Final Cut Pro X.” - Glenn Ficarra

Seeing Their Way Through

Because Final Cut Pro X gave the directors and editors the ability to edit at native resolution all the way through their workflow, they could view high-quality footage throughout production and during post. So they were far more aware than on previous projects of how dialogue, pacing, and effects would play in the finished film.

And the ability to quickly and easily do preview screenings of edits in full resolution directly from Final Cut Pro X helped them resolve one of the trickiest structural issues in their film. “There’s a three-year transition from the first half of the movie to the second,” says Requa. “We weren’t sure how to bring the audience across. So we shot that transition three ways in three separate locations on different days.

“Instead of trying the one we thought would work, we edited three different versions using Compound Clips and previewed them simultaneously in adjacent theaters at Warner Bros. And that showed us exactly which way to go. I don’t know if we could’ve done that using any other system than Final Cut Pro X because there wouldn’t have been time. But with Final Cut Pro X we didn’t have to conform the material. All we had to do was export.”

“I’ve been doing a lot of rough-cut screenings,” says Cioni. “The first thing filmmakers say is, ‘Don’t judge the picture because it’s low-res.’ But at the Focus screenings, we were looking at the highest-quality output we could possibly have, the same quality as the original footage.”

The Focus team used many of the built-in effects tools in Final Cut Pro X in making the movie. Photo credit: Alex Tehrani

Screen-Ready Effects

The crew also used built-in tools in Final Cut Pro X to create comps for about half of the movie’s digital effects. Motion 5 was used to make temporary titles and to mark effects for round-tripping. And the built-in real-time Keyer in Final Cut Pro X was used to quickly and accurately preview green-screen shots before final effects were delivered and added to the edit.

The directors were happy enough with the animated opening credits — created by editors using the standard text tool in Final Cut Pro X — that they decided to use them in the final movie, which is extremely rare for a high-production feature film.

For audio editing, multichannel files were initially edited in Final Cut Pro X then exported directly to Pro Tools with X2Pro, using Roles to automatically assign the track names. “Final Cut Pro X fits really well into the in-house system,” says Requa. “The idea of bringing effects, color, sound, everything in-house — I feel as if that’s where it’s all going.”

Ian Vertovec performed the final color correction after a seamless media transfer from Final Cut Pro X to Quantel Pablo Rio. Photo credit: Alex Tehrani

Off-the-Shelf Post

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Focus post-production workflow was that everything from Final Cut Pro X to inexpensive third-party plug-ins to the Mac desktop and notebook computers could be purchased by anyone. The editing and post tools were off-the-shelf apps, and nothing was custom-built or specialized for the production. “I hope younger people who are coming up understand that even though we had this bigger sort of studio process around it, we were using the same Final Cut Pro X that anyone can download from the App Store,” says Ficarra.

“There’s no mysterious industry tool or process anymore,” says Sam Mestman, cofounder of FCPWORKS and one of the chief workflow architects for Focus. “The bottom line is that all of these deliverables can be created from your living room. With just a few third-party apps, you can easily take your media through Final Cut Pro X to 4K output. So anything the big guys are doing, you can do too.”

Focus directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Photo credit: Alex Tehrani
“I think we’ve absolutely proven that you can cut a major Hollywood feature film with Final Cut Pro X.” - John Requa

Wrap and Repeat

Requa and Ficarra predict that these kinds of accessible tools will shape the future of moviemaking, noting that this arrangement is not possible with other nonlinear editors. “I have a dream of doing everything in-house,” says Ficarra. “It’s hard in a studio system, but there is absolutely zero reason in an independent situation why you can’t do that with Final Cut Pro X right now.”

Requa says the filmmakers are preparing to cut their next feature project with Final Cut Pro X on location in New Mexico. “I think we’ve absolutely proven that you can cut a major Hollywood feature film with Final Cut Pro X.”

Workflow

The unique workflow designed by the filmmakers to produce Focus used off-the-shelf hardware and software, including Final Cut Pro X and publicly available third-party plug-ins.

Production

(New Orleans, Buenos Aires, New York City)

The movie was shot anamorphic for the correct widescreen aspect ratio on location at multiple sites using an ARRI ALEXA digital camera at 2K resolution.

Full-resolution ProRes dailies were produced on set using an Outpost mobile post system and the Colorfront Express Dailies system.

Sync-N-Link X was used to batch sync second-source audio with the ProRes footage.

Metadata was imported from the set and made searchable in Final Cut Pro X.

All editing was done in 2048x1152 ProRes 4444 using the Outpost media in Final Cut Pro X, just hours after shooting.

Post-production

(Los Angeles)

Motion 5 titles built into Final Cut Pro X were used for final opening credits and as placeholders for effects.

The built-in real-time Keyer in Final Cut Pro X was used to quickly and accurately preview green-screen gallery in the timeline before final effects were delivered and added to the edit.

X2Pro Audio Convert from Marquis Broadcast was used to send the Final Cut Pro X project to Pro Tools via AAF; Roles were used to automatically allocate audio to tracks in Pro Tools.

Final Cut Pro X on a MacBook Pro enabled quick editing changes on the fly during screenings on the soundstage.

Change List X from Intelligent Assistance was used to track changes to and from the sound department and the visual-effects teams.

Finish

Final color grading and finishing was done on the Quantel Pablo Rio system.