“The Magnetic Timeline is great for Tsui because it lets him experiment with big changes without worrying about accidentally throwing things out of sync.” — Baiyang Yu, editor

Tsui Hark - Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

In more than 30 films over three decades, renowned Chinese director Tsui Hark has regularly looked to the past to move his art forward. By bringing the advanced filmmaking techniques of the West to Eastern genres like wuxia (sword fighting and kung fu), gangster dramas, and romance, Hark helped create the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema.

In 2010, Hark used the formula to score a commercial and critical hit with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), a potent blend of wuxia, mystery, and comedy about a Tang Dynasty Sherlock Holmes. The film competed for the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival and received numerous international awards, including the #3 spot in Time magazine’s list of top films of the year. Encouraged by the film’s success, the director recently took another step back to the future with Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, a highly anticipated prequel shot with state-of-the-art 3D cameras and edited in Final Cut Pro X.

Redialing Dee

Before directing the original Detective Dee movie, Phantom Flame, Hark spent more than a decade researching the background of Di Renjie, the historical figure on whom the Detective Dee character is based. The rich detail gathered in creating the first film ultimately sparked the idea for the second. “When we read stories about Di Renjie, we realized he wasn’t an amazing detective, but a judge,” says Hark. “While making the first Di Renjie film, we talked a lot about how Di Renjie would have developed as a judge when he arrived in Luoyang. That’s how the story for the new film took shape.”

Hark emphasizes that in bringing historical stories to the screen, imagination always trumps research. “This kind of subject is not easy to write,” he says. “It involves historical figures, but we’re not basing our story on historical facts. It’s our interpretation of history that makes it easier for an audience to appreciate and enjoy the details and events.”

Close Direction

Hark takes that interpretation to another level in production and post with fast, fluid camera work and editing designed to pull audiences irresistibly through the story. Each frame from any Tsui Hark film reveals his close creative direction.

Hark’s editor and longtime consultant on editing software and hardware Baiyang Yu confirms the director’s hands-on participation in editing the prequel. “Tsui likes to cut his own projects while shooting on the set, so he was already very proficient with the tools,” says Yu. “We had a very good workflow going for several pictures using Final Cut Pro 7. Tsui likes to see things assembled while we shoot, and typically that involves a lot of temporary visual effects compositing, color grading, and retiming. But that meant a lot of time waiting for things to render, and Tsui doesn’t like to wait.”

Workflow Switch

The idea of eliminating render delays drew the filmmakers to Final Cut Pro X. A longtime Final Cut Pro editor, Yu is also an Apple Certified Trainer (ACT). “I became the first ACT in China to certify in Final Cut Pro X,” he says. “Then I used it to edit some small projects and quickly became convinced of the application’s power and flexibility.”

Because the crew was using the application SGO Mistika for visual effects and compositing, it required an edit decision list (EDL) to conform edits coming from Final Cut Pro. “At the time, EDL-X, an application that creates Final Cut Pro X EDLs, wasn’t available,” says Yu. “So we created our own PHP script to convert Final Cut Pro XML to EDL.”

Yu presented Final Cut Pro X to Hark as a test platform during the production of the new film. “I told Tsui that Final Cut Pro X could give us a better workflow, so he agreed to try it out,” says Yu. “We converted the current edit to Final Cut Pro X using Intelligent Assistance’s 7toX and then used it on set. After a week, I asked Tsui if he liked the new version and wanted to continue the project with it. He said yes, and at that point we completely migrated the movie to Final Cut Pro X.”

“I think when it comes to software, the easier it is to use, the better,” says Hark. “If software requires a lot of time to learn, that makes it very difficult to use on my films.”

Editing on Set

Because the prequel was shot in 5K 3D using RED EPIC cameras, for each take, the left eye camera (3D video is typically shot with two synced cameras representing the right and left eyes) was converted to 1080p ProRes and imported into an Event in Final Cut Pro X. 

While shooting, Hark took advantage of any downtime on set to edit directly in Final Cut Pro X on a MacBook Pro with Retina display. “In addition to consulting with the editor, director assistant, and producer, I sent different versions of the film to many people to get their feedback,” says Hark. “Although I know the film I shot very well, the feedback from other people is a good reference for me.”

In making their edits, Hark and Yu took full advantage of the new features of Final Cut Pro X. “The Magnetic Timeline is great for Tsui because it lets him experiment with big changes without accidentally throwing things out of sync,” says Yu. “That makes my life much easier. It also made it easier to trim or replace hundreds of sound effects and music clips in the timeline.”

The new software helped Yu manage the considerable assets of the complex film. “Keywords and favorite ranges made organization much more efficient and flexible in Final Cut Pro X. And the Skimmer was great for helping me go through lots of footage quickly. It was always easy to find any clip I needed.”

Fast Export

As the editing progressed, completed project timelines were exported as EDLs and sent to SGO Mistika for compositing, visual effects, color grading, and 3D conforming. Audio was sent out as scratch track QuickTime files via FTP directly to the sound design team and composer Kenji Kawai in Japan. 

“Whenever we finished a version, we needed to export the whole movie with different watermarks to different VFX vendors, the music composer, the sound editor, our marketing team, and the distributors. That meant 8 to 10 different copies of the film. It used to take so much time in Final Cut Pro 7, and we had several sleepless nights in the editing room waiting for the output. With Final Cut Pro X, it takes a quarter of the time.”

Down to the Wire

Yu expects Hark will edit the prequel right up to its expected opening in fall 2013. “On Flying Swords of Dragon Gate we went through 15 versions and ultimately had to stop when the distributor reminded us the film was about to be released,” says Yu. “It’s going to be the same for the prequel. Our editing will not be complete until the last possible moment. We’re changing everything all the time.”

Yu says he and Hark will use Final Cut Pro X for their next movie after the prequel is released. “Definitely, Final Cut Pro X will be my first choice,” he says. “Switching to Final Cut Pro X meant changing our workflow and retraining people, but it was really worth the effort. I hope our experience will help persuade more editors to try Final Cut Pro X — it’s a great tool.”