Xtrem Productions. Fast Turns at Le Mans

The 24 Hours of Le Mans, held every June in midwestern France, is the world’s oldest active endurance car race. Like other races in this class, Le Mans tests both speed and durability, pushing the capabilities of world-class cars and drivers over 24 consecutive hours. The demands of the race, along with its compelling and unique format, led National Geographic to name Le Mans the top sporting event in the world.

In 2013, on the 90th anniversary of the race, the competition was broadcast live and in fast-turnaround highlight reels by major sports channels, including Europe’s No.1 sports network. And for the second straight year, Xtrem Productions, a high-end French post-production company selected to cover the race, edited its programmes entirely in Final Cut Pro X on Thunderbolt-enabled Mac computers.

To follow dozens of speeding race cars over hundreds of laps and thousands of miles at Le Mans, Xtrem used the live broadcast feed from 40 trackside cameras, 11 cars equipped with three HD cameras each, and a Cineflex helicopter camera. Three mobile Xtrem news teams also captured footage for race reports, interviews and B-roll using hand-held cameras and eight GoPro cameras mounted on selected cars. Over the course of the race, the post-production team accumulated approximately 80 hours of footage from these different camera sources.

“At Le Mans, we don’t have time to waste,” says Xtrem Productions manager Sacha Le Coroller. “The final programme has to be finished the night of the race. Things are easier to do in Final Cut Pro X, and they’re much faster, which means we can not only do more segments, but we can do more with them. And our editors can spend more time editing because we have fewer problems with tracking assets, rendering and export.”

Crafting Segments

Starting the weekend before the race, a small Xtrem crew of journalists and post-production specialists began chasing the shifting story lines. And each day, from a post-production trailer equipped with MacBook Pro and Mac mini computers running Final Cut Pro X on shared storage, they turned round broadcast-quality race highlights, driver interviews and video features — frequently in just hours.

Producer/journalist Richard Barnes, who’s covered motor sports since 1993 and led an Xtrem news team at Le Mans, was well positioned in the mix. “Our crew carried Canon EOS 5D and Sony FS700 cameras,” says Barnes. “Agility was key as we moved on the paddock and in the pit lane, often with fire suits and a lot of high-speed traffic around us. The footage got ingested into a central archive in the post-production office, and from that I grabbed whatever I needed to craft my stories.”

Barnes, along with the other journalists and editors, used the multi-sourced footage to build several video magazines. “When we cover a race, we put together the 52-minute programme made up primarily of interviews with drivers as well as features about new cars, teams and new racing technologies,” he says. “We also do about 30 minutes of race highlights.”

Turnaround schedules varied, but every segment needed to be delivered with extreme urgency. “The biggest challenge is to get the final programme edited, finished and voiced over with English commentary by Sunday night,” he says. “The race goes from Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, so it’s a lot of work editing highlights down to 30 minutes from 24 hours. What you cannot afford is equipment problems while you are fighting the clock at the same time.”

Help at Hand

To avoid these issues, Barnes and the other journalists used MacBook Pro to report and shape their video segments. This included researching, writing scripts, and ingesting dailies and selected clips for the magazine and interview features.

“I’ve been using the MacBook Pro for a number of years,” says Barnes. “It opens up and starts straightaway, without me having to wait for it to boot up. And it’s extremely robust; it just keeps on going. I trust it, and I can’t think of any other machine I could trust.”

Sacha Le Coroller (seated) and Laurent Masini discuss an edit.
Photo credit: Noah Sheldon

Reading the Race

Highlighting the 2013 race was an all-night back-and-forth battle in drenching rain between Audi Sport Team Joest and Toyota Racing, won eventually by Audi. As the race progressed, Barnes and the other journalists adjusted their coverage as necessary. “We have to be as perfect as we can in the time provided,” he says. “In racing, nothing is repeatable, and there are a lot of unknowns. Simple interviews can turn into a completely different story depending on what happens on the track.”

To annotate those happenings, Barnes used an iPad with an app called Cut Notes to mark footage and generate lists of notable race events. “Deciding what to leave out of the highlights is one of our hardest tasks,” he says. “I’d email lists of significant action to my editor as the race was on so he could immediately use it to start selecting images. In the past, we’d just scribble stuff on paper and try to find our notes later.”

Start Your Editors

Final Cut Pro X allowed Barnes to quickly find and use the media he needed to build his stories: “What I find easy about Final Cut Pro X is that if you have a sequence that you’re editing, perhaps an interview that runs five minutes, it’s particularly easy to just hit an in and out in your source footage, which then simply drops down to the timeline.”

Barnes shares the rough cut with his editor via AirDrop or an Ethernet connection. The editor then imports the XML, relinks to common media in the central pool and finishes the edit. Because the projects are lightweight, the sharing was extremely fast.

Pre-structuring his magazine segments allowed Barnes to collaborate much more efficiently with the editors to create compelling storylines. “I used to sit with an editor to select footage to make a sequence. Now I can look at interview footage myself and make a rough edit in Final Cut Pro X — actually do the ins and outs — with the parts of the interviews that I want to use. That’s a lot easier than it used to be. And a lot more efficient as well.”

Barnes says that sending roughs along with his scripts gives editors more time to optimise their edits. “Final Cut Pro X allows the editors to be more creative,” says Barnes. “Now the final result is much more interesting, which creates extra value for the TV stations and for the viewers.”

Fast-Track Assets

Using Thunderbolt capture devices and storage in combination with the asset management capability of Final Cut Pro allowed Xtrem to select the best race images more efficiently.

Media manager Benjamin Montavy had no trouble handling footage from so many sources. “What I particularly like in Final Cut Pro X is that I can add keywords and markers to organise all the footage in the event. This is a huge time-saver.”

Keyword Collections were especially helpful in locating story-worthy clips. “Keywords for finding cars and drivers have become indispensable and really helped to speed up our workflow,” says Xtrem editor Laurent Masini. “When we get a request to do a special on car 51, we just select that Keyword Collection and create a rough cut in a couple of seconds.”

All Assembled

After he found the video sources he needed, Masini was able to assemble them faster than ever. “Final Cut Pro X is so much better than Final Cut Pro 7 in helping us move quickly when working with lots of shots,” he says.

Masini, who over the course of the race week typically edited two segments a day, also used Final Cut Pro X to untangle skeins of video clips. “Final Cut Pro X is really useful when you have a lot of footage,” he says. “With the filmstrips, it’s easy to navigate and find what you want — even if you have thousands of files.”

“Roles are a big help as we often have to provide different versions for different international markets, which involves removing graphics and changing audio. Final Cut Pro X allows us to export all those versions at the same time. When we’re racing against time, this is a huge benefit.” — Sacha Le Coroller, production manager To handle the variety of video feeds required to assemble his edits, Masini made frequent use of multicam: “I love multicam. We use a lot of GoPros and other onboard cameras. Stitching it into a single Multicam Clip with 12 or more angles — then editing it swiftly — was a great help.”

Masini believes that the speed and efficiency of Final Cut Pro X translated to higher-quality edits overall. “We don’t lose time with rendering and searching for the right assets,” he says. “So even with our tight deadlines, I have extra time to refine the edit and work on transitions, colour correction and effects.”

Custom Finish

Rather than sending edited segments to a high-end finishing system for final polish, Xtrem finished the files onsite with Final Cut Pro X using its customisable effects and colour grading. And with real-time performance and background rendering, Xtrem was able to do more effects and still finish faster. “When we apply an effect, we see it in real time,” says Le Coroller.

Although Xtrem produces its primary programmes with English commentary, it also creates international versions for TV channels that have their own journalists or commentators. For that task, too, Xtrem found an efficient tool in Final Cut Pro X. “Roles are a big help as we often have to provide different versions for different international markets, which involves removing graphics and changing audio,” says Le Coroller. “Final Cut Pro X allows us to export all those versions at the same time. When we’re racing against time, this is a huge benefit.”

Racing Ahead

Le Coroller says that Final Cut Pro X allows Xtrem to scale or change if it needs to for each event it covers. For that reason, Xtrem will use the same Final Cut Pro X workflow to cover other races during the year, including this year’s remaining FIA World Endurance Championship races.

Says Le Coroller: “We’ll use Final Cut Pro X for sure. The primary reason is the quality of the results. We know that when we use Final Cut Pro X to do high-level television broadcasts, we can do beautiful things with it.”