Apple FCPX and the Making Of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
COW Library : Creative Community Conversations (was FCPX Debates) : Tim Wilson : Apple FCPX and the Making Of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
There are 1200 visual effects shots in this movie.
No, we’re not talking about the latest comic book adaptation or fantasy epic. We’re talking about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, an action-comedy starring Tina Fey as a journalist covering the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the fourth and latest film directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
I was pleased to speak to Glenn, as well as First Assistant Editor Kevin Bailey, about the this one, but just before we began, I told Glenn that I was surprised to learn that there were 400 VFX shots in the previous film that he and John directed together, Focus, which they’d also written.
(They’ve written 6 films together, including the cult favorite Bad Santa, which they didn’t direct. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Crazy, Stupid, Love are the two they’ve directed but not written.)
To the postproduction world at large, Focus was most notable as the first major studio feature to be edited with Final Cut Pro X. Looking at it more broadly, though, I was struck by how much VFX work had been done on it. That’s when Glenn told me: 400 VFX shots may sound like a lot to you, but there are 1200 VFX shots in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
If not quite as many as Deadpool’s 1500, it’s still 100 more VFX shots than were in The Martian, and 200 more than were in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. 1200 is a lot of VFX shots, especially with a VFX team that only briefly topped out around 20 people, just a handful more than the team that completed a quarter this many shots on Focus.
This might lead you to think that what follows is a story about how capably FCPX handled a VFX-intensive editing workflow on a Hollywood feature for a major studio. That’s true, but this is not an editing story.
If this was a story about editing, I would certainly start by mentioning that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is edited by Jan Kovac, who also edited Focus, while also adding that, having worked for many years as editors themselves, Glenn and John were actively involved both of these as well. I’d certainly note that Jan and VFX Supervisor John Weckworth are among the members of the team who came up several times in our conversation, but this is not exactly a story about postproduction per se, either.
As the title suggests ("the making of" rather than "the editing of"), this is the story of FCPX from a filmmaker’s perspective, specifically, how keeping as much VFX and audio temp work as possible inside FCPX during production allowed Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to open up new possibilities for how they made Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
This is also not quite the first time that this kind of thing has happened. The first two feature films cut using Final Cut Pro were released 9 weeks apart in 2002, Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction and Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal. They were quite different from each other, but shared this striking similarity: they were made by filmmakers with strong identities as writers and directors, who tend to touch lots of different parts of their productions, and who, above all, weren’t looking for new software: they were looking for new ways to make a movie.
The net result being in both cases that both became advocates for FCP-centered productions, from their perspective as directors, because of the filmmaking processes that FCP enabled.
And what do we have here, in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa? Filmmakers with strong identities as both writers and directors, who tend to touch many parts of their productions, and who have become advocates for what Final Cut Pro X has helped them do not as editors, but as filmmakers.
Glenn Ficarra (left) and John Requa on location for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
“My partner John and I have been making movies since we were little kids,” says Glenn, “and it was always a do-it-yourself attitude. We just really like that. Between us, we've done every job on the set and in post and in prep and in production, and we love all parts of the process. For me personally, as a director who edits, I like the all-in-one approach simply because I want to be able to drill down into the elements of anything.”
Noting again that we’re talking temp work inside FCPX, during production. VFX and audio finishing were handled with Nuke and Pro Tools. Nevertheless, says Glenn, “We had significant, significant savings because of the way we did all these things with Final Cut Pro X.”
How significant? Enough to buy 10 extra weeks of postproduction without affecting the budget.
(Now there’s a potentially interesting angle on the conversation about NLE speed: not how many minutes did you save opening the project, or how many hours did you save on rendering, but how many weeks on location did your NLE help you save?)
“Whatever saves you time in production is the real money savings, because nothing is more expensive than a day of shooting,” says Glenn. “You’re making all these decisions to answer the question, ‘How can we save days?’ Because that’s the only way you’re going to knock big numbers down. On a production like ours, every three to four days of shooting is a million dollars. You have to use every trick in your arsenal to do that.
“Given the right amount of preparation and the right amount of knowledge of what you're capable of in post, you can save a tremendous amount of money, and you're not compromising at all. It gives you the opportunity to do really cool stuff for less and get projects you prefer made, as opposed to having to go for the projects that fetch the biggest budget.”
They certainly didn’t scale down their ambition in making Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Those 1200 VFX shots started from a whole bunch of cameras, including ARRI ALEXA, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, Sony a7S, and iPhones on location in New Mexico, with a second unit in Morocco and Afghanistan shooting RED.
“The Sony a7S we used for its low light ability. For example, we lit an entire scene just with glow sticks, and it looks fantastic. We couldn't see a thing when we were shooting it,” Glenn laughs, “but it looks so cool. We also have a lot of military stuff, and night vision seems a little played out, so we went with this hypersensitive camera, and it turned out really great.
“Each one of those has its own way the media needs to be treated, and that's what our effects team and editorial team were really good at locking down beforehand. That gave us the freedom to just have an idea, and do whatever we want.”
FCPX VFX AND COREMELT
Specifically regarding the VFX-heavy approach to making Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, working as much as possible inside FCPX, the third-party MVP was CoreMelt, especially their products TrackX and SliceX, which operate as FCPX plug-ins.
Developed by longtime Creative COW member Roger Bolton (dating back to his 20th century pre-software days as a VFX artist) and taking advantage of planar tracking technology licensed from mocha, TrackX was used for a lot of screen and background replacements that required combined tracking and compositing. SliceX was used for the many occasions when an effect needed to be applied to part of a frame, or multiple effects to different sections within a frame.
As Glenn says, “It’s hard to give justice to how valuable it is to have CoreMelt mocha tracking in Final Cut.” First Assistant Editor Kevin Bailey, responsible for creating many of these temp VFX shots, adds, “I can't think of a single reel in our movie that doesn't have TrackX on it somewhere.”
There was a wide variety of effects overall, says Glenn. Some was as simple as beauty fixes to soften occasionally harsh digital images. Some was performance-oriented, using optical flow to morph performances across jump cuts.
For effects taking advantage of CoreMelt plug-ins in particular, a major category included screen replacements: computer screens, TV screens, viewfinders, camera backs – you name it. In a movie that includes a wide variety of TV news, cameras, and other tech as visual elements within so many scenes, there are scores of them.
And with the phrase “run and gun” applying very directly to the kinds of shooting the film’s characters were doing, it was only natural that the people filming them be operating along the same lines. It’s easy to imagine how many shots called for stabilizing.
Kevin pointed out that a number of shots need a combination of stabilization and tracking. “We used SliceX for doing split screens, but not just straight splits. Sometimes we’d have Take 1 of a character on side of the screen, and Take 2 of a different character on another side of the screen, so it's like some crazy weird shape to split them. And because everything is handhelds, you have to then track each side of the split separately to make it look like a single shot.”
Why does any of this matter for temp VFX while still on set? In the real world of major studio filmmaking, a lot of people see the movie in a lot of stages of completion, long before it gets to what we normally think of as post.
“I don't care how used to roughs you are,” says Glenn. “It's always going to distract you. Yeah, maybe a seasoned editor or seasoned director can push that stuff out of their mind, but that's asking a lot from people along the line, whether executives or audiences. This is just one more simple step that keeps people focused on the performances.”
“Using TrackX, we were able to very quickly and easily in Final Cut temp out really good, high quality VFX that we could show in a professional setting,” Kevin adds. “The takes were all selected, and some of these temp shots were in place for months and months, through many stages of previews and director’s screenings before they got handed off to the VFX department.
ECONOMIES OF PACE
This is where it’s essential to understand the value of this approach to working with FCPX from a filmmaker’s perspective. Clean temp comps mean speedier review cycles – and knowing that you can use this approach to save time on review cycles also means that you don’t have to belabor location scouting.
Not “fix it in post” as an excuse for lack of production finesse, but as a carefully considered strategy of the best use of time, money, and creativity. “So you’re finding locations more quickly, you’re getting more footage. You’re just moving through every day faster.”
That was their relentless push. “You're making all these decisions. How can we save money? How can we save days? That's what it comes down to. On a movie like ours, every three to four days of shooting is maybe a million dollars. Saving days is the only way you're going to knock big numbers down.”
And enjoying it more, no doubt about it. “We're always versioning in editorial, but I would just do a lot of temp VFX on my own,” says Glenn. He pauses, then adds with a laugh, “Because I’m a nerd. I come from an effects background, so I'm comfortable with it. I think it's easy enough now that a lot of people can do it. I think could be a little easier, and it possibly will be in the future, but, certainly, if you can use Photoshop, you can get your mind around anything I think.”
“It's been really fun, actually. We get some idea in editorial, and we have a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera here that matches surprisingly well with the ALEXA. And we'll just shoot elements right here in the editing room, a little green screen, a little shooting stuff off of monitors, drop a rough comp with some CoreMelt tracking.
“It's been really, kind of like a garage band.”
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot First Assistant Editor Kevin Bailey is a new member of the Glenn Ficarra – John Requa band. “I used to be an assistant editor,” says Glenn, “and I used to have to be anally retentive, but I have too much on my plate now, so it's great to have someone like Kevin who knows what he's doing and can basically do the work of three people.” Not just typical edit room organization/picture cutting assistance, and the VFX we’ve discussed, but also sound.
“Kevin working on sound was a huge upgrade. We didn’t have solid in-house sound going on Focus, because we were ‘focused,’ so to speak, on being the first movie to use Final Cut 10. But, we knew that we wanted to iron out those sound inefficiencies this time. It was great having Kevin to clean up after us so we could just plow through assemblies.”
Of course, as the assistant editor, Kevin’s days during production typically began with dailies. Given the relatively large scale of the production, and the wide range of cameras and formats to juggle, this sounded potentially arduous to me. Actually, says Kevin, “at the height of production, we had four hours of dailies basically sunk and ready to go in under two and half hours. This came from a lot of custom pipelining, and me just being generally a big nerd and getting things as tuned as possible.”
(Speaking of nerdery: allow me to note here that while this particular article is intentionally focusing on the artistic and logistic implications of taking an FCPX-centered approach to filmmaking, not just editing, we did in fact get quite technical along the way. I spoke later with Kevin at length about some of the technical issues specifically related to interop with the dedicated teams in VFX and sound, the third party software he used in addition to CoreMelt, as well as Kevin’s own experience as a third-party FCPX developer. Stay tuned for that installment soon.)
After syncing, Kevin then passed scenes off to Jan Kovac for cutting, after which they’d come back to Kevin for sound work, including some custom elements of his own. “For example, Glenn mentioned the glow stick scene earlier on -- I needed the sound of glow sticks cracking when they open, so I went and bought some glow sticks and took our TASCAM recorder from editorial, and went in a room with that bunch of glow sticks and started recording.
“We kept everything in one giant iTunes library which then shows up in the Final Cut media browser. So I can search directly in Final Cut for all our sound effects and just grab them from there. And basically I did fade handles, volume adjustments, EQs, reverbs, all within Final Cut.”
“It's all about getting everything as polished as possible in the Final Cut before delivering it to the next crew,” says Kevin, “whether it’s the sound crew, music crew or the VFX crew. Keeping it in Final Cut is a lot more efficient as well. Glenn can close out his library, I can open it on my machine, do the quick temp, and half hour later, ‘Okay Glenn, open up your library and keep cutting.’”
He adds, “We're cutting in virtually uncompressed 2K, using ProRes 4444 XQ recorded by the ARRI, with temp VFX that looks really, really good. And we spent a lot of time polishing the sound, with our sound effects libraries, reverb and EQ all in Final Cut. Some of our early studio screenings were played straight out of Final Cut with the edits that Jan and I put together.”
The priority on finessing temp audio is the same as for finessing temp VFX, says Glenn. “You’re trying to screen something rough but not let people get distracted by the little stuff that pulls your ear. You need everyone to be focused on what they need to be focused on.”
“It’s all about eliminating inefficiencies.”
Of course, there are ways in which inefficiency is in the eye of the beholder. For example, there are directors who don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about editing software, much less be in it up to their elbows. It’s more efficient to them to let someone else do it. Not so for Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. To them, efficiency means keeping everything where they can touch it.
For that matter, not many directors would find partnership to be an efficient approach, but Glenn and John have worked together over 20 years now, going back to when they met as undergraduates in the film program at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Presumably enough time to, repeating a frequent phrase from our conversation, “iron out the inefficiencies.”
We didn’t actually talk about this at all, but in the time since our conversation, thinking about this in my multiple roles that do in fact include being a fan of theirs, I’ve been thinking about the roots of artistic choices in personal style. Looking at their work as writers and directors, one thing that becomes vividly clear is that these guys aren’t afraid to take risks as storytellers.
Their acclaimed 2009 self-penned directorial debut, I Love You Phillip Morris, for example.The pitch that goes something like, “Jim Carrey as a sociopathic con man who finds true love in prison with tender-hearted Ewan Macgregor in a true-crime mélange of broad comedy, heartfelt tragedy, adult situations, and escalating cycles of prison breaks and fraud” was never going to be the easiest sell, but my goodness, this thing is audacious.
Stellar execution led to nominations including the Writers Guild for Best Adapted Screenplay, Critics Choice Award for Best Comedy, and the Casting Society of America award for outstanding achievement in casting a feature comedy. Glenn and John themselves were nominated for the Caméra d'Or (Golden Camera) at the Cannes Film Festival for best first feature, and Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Independent Film Awards, among others.
When it came to handling messy, sometimes unsympathetic characters in a mix of comedy, romance, discomfort, and even heartbreak, they stuck the landing with their second directorial outing, 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love. Their modulation of Dan Fogelman’s script and a murderer’s row cast (Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Marissa Tomei) is so sure-handed that, thinking about what just happened even as the credits roll, it’s almost incomprehensible that they pulled it off.
No matter who wrote ‘em, not many of the characters in their movies are unambiguously pleasant people, and some of the most pleasant are the least trustworthy – until the characters within the movie toward each other, and us in the audience toward them, find ourselves ready to take the risk of trusting each other that maybe this thing won’t all blow up in our faces.
Who better, then, to tackle the first major studio features made using Apple Final Cut X?
FCPX & THE WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT MOMENT
The title “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment” refers to the commonly-used phrase “the Cold Mountain moment,” to describe the “moment” when, in 2003, it was established in the making of Cold Mountain that the upstart Final Cut Pro editing software was able to capably stand in for the more traditional choice of Avid Media Composer on the production of a mainstream, substantially-budgeted, major studio motion picture.
This is in contrast with low budget The Rules of Attraction and Full Frontal ($4 million and $2 million respectively) and their intentionally edgy approaches to storytelling. They don’t have moments named after them because they didn’t reflect mainstream moviemaking, but they also reflect something of why, in practice, “the Cold Mountain moment” proved to be something of a molehill.
Yes, it was ennobling for some professional and aspirant FCP users to find their choice of NLE validated by one of the Masters of the Craft in Walter Murch, whose work on Cold Mountain was rightly Oscar-nominated. A closer look at the details of the production suggests that many of the problems the filmmakers had to overcome might have been avoided simply by not choosing FCP in the first place, but the reason why “the Cold Mountain moment” has a name is that it revealed, yes, if you want to keep working the same way you’ve been working, except with FCP instead of MC, it can be done.
But on the whole, the industry itself tells the tale: FCP Legacy simply didn’t solve enough meaningful problems, compellingly enough, to change the way that those kinds of movies are made.
The movies made the year before, for all that they had dramatically smaller budgets, had bigger ambitions. Roger Avary and Steven Soderbergh wanted to use new capabilities in FCP to expand the range of what it was possible to do with time, money, and creativity for making movies.
Steven Soderbergh on the set of Full Frontal, Miramax photo by Bob Marshak
The degree of difficulty for Glenn Ficarra and John Requa in establishing Focus as a “moment” for FCPX was much higher than for the original wave of FCP breakthroughs, I think. Whatever shade thrown on Final Cut Pro Legacy as a toy for hobbyists, hacks, and wannabes back in 2002 became amplified by outrage over the advent of Final Cut Pro X in 2011 – in some cases, ironically, expressed by the same FCP editors who had been so heartened by “the Cold Mountain moment.”
There was a feeling expressed in some quarters that Apple had abandoned professional filmmakers by stripping out proven toolsets and ways of working, replacing them, if at all, with alternatives that weren’t up to the task.
(Or so I’m told. Where such lamentations might have happened, I have no idea.)
Apple acknowledged that some missing pieces would soon be delivered, and indeed, they continue to be. Apple also acknowledged that while the frameworks for extensibility were in place, that it would be up to third parties to deliver crucial features for niche markets like Hollywood filmmaking. This too has come to pass, with developers including CoreMelt’s Roger Bolton among the many stepping forward to enable features in every corner of the filmmaking workflow that may not have even been possible before.
As a production, Focus was in every important way much closer to Cold Mountain – major stars, major studio, major budget, multiple continents, prestige picture – than the scrappy, indie worlds of The Rules of Attraction and Full Frontal. Its goals were more similar to those though: to exploit the widest-possible range of new filmmaking possibilities.
Glenn was quick to point out that while Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a remarkable number of VFX shots, it’s obviously not a CGI epic with cityscape-scale set pieces. “That’s a different world,” he says firmly. “To expect to do all that in house? I don't think so. But for the average film, a drama, comedy, a light effects movie, I think this is the way to go.”
What keeps coming back to me about FCPX on Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, though, is the way that Glenn and John used it to change the way that every creative team worked. They used FCPX to change the nature of locations that could be used. It changed their approach to VFX and sound. It changed the nature of their interaction with studio executives and other audiences.
For that matter, FCPX was a key part in helping them eliminate entire out-of-house teams, for example, by acting as their own lab.
FCPX helped give them 10 extra weeks to make the movie they wanted to make.
Specifically, not a $2-4 million indie, but a mainstream, A-list, substantially-budgeted, VFX-intensive, major studio picture. That’s a space that FCP Legacy had barely dented, but if others can follow the trail that Glenn and John are blazing, FCPX has the opportunity to significantly reshape it.
The potential ramifications are massively liberating, says Glenn. “In the ‘Golden Age,’ you had the A-movie, and the B-movie. The B-movie was the cheesy science fiction movie, and the A-movie was the classy movie. The A-movies got the big budgets and the B-movies got the low budgets.
“There were great B-movies, and bad A-movies, but that’s how they were made.
“Nowadays, we live in a world where the A movies get the low budgets, and the B movies get the big budget, and it's been going that way steadily since the 80s. Not to say you can't make a great huge movie, but if you want to make movies of a certain quality, you have to do it for less. This technology and this process can trickle all the way down to the most independent level, and now, you're capable of great things.”
Glenn Ficarra (left) with Tina Fey on location for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
BEYOND WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT
“Our next evolution is to iron out inefficiencies in the sound workflow,” says Glenn. The dream is to avoid turnovers wherever possible and operate entirely within the Final Cut environment, which I believe is possible. We probably could have done it on this movie, and I think we will do it on the next one. Not that we would finish the sound in Final Cut, but we would go through the entire temp and preview process all within Final Cut, and then just hand it over, once, for finishing.
“Along the way, if we have to kick something out to Pro tools because it's something that Final Cut can't do, fine, but all that work needs to be in a place where it can be accessed and tweaked in Final Cut. Then we can tighten up the interplay between the departments and not have these rolling picture locks and constantly going in and out of Pro Tools. That’s just so inefficient and so behind the times for the media that we're using.”
Given how strongly they feel about moving these kinds of activities forward in the production process, rather than waiting for what’s traditionally seen as post, Glenn and John have already been exploiting an unexpected overlap between sound and VFX.
“We’re constantly telling the sound guys, ‘Listen, just drop the boom into the shot, we'll paint it out.’ And they won’t at first,” Glenn laughs. “Professional pride stands in the way. They don’t want to drop the boom in the shot, but John and I would much rather have good sound and not do ADR.
“It's primarily because John and I hate ADR. We hate having to do it, we hate having to ask actors to replicate a performance, because we want to be kind to their performances, and so it's ultimately just as important to us to capture good sound on location as it is to get good picture. If that means dropping a boom in and painting it out, it's not a big deal because you can do it really quickly and easily, and basically for free.”
Glenn laughs again. “It's cheap enough and easy enough to do, so much so that we've been talking about, ‘Well, hell, let's just put microphones all over the place and paint ‘em out.’ Maybe with lavs or something that can be outside actors’ shirts. All sorts of ideas like that. By having cleaner sound on set, you’re going to save yourself a lot of trouble later.”
Not that these guys are afraid of trouble. They happily jump straight into one kind of trouble – visible mics, in this case – if it saves another kind of trouble – ADR. But the tradeoff has to be worth something. For them, FCPX has overwhelmingly paid off their investment. Not just for editing. For the entire filmmaking process.
“For me personally as a director who edits, I like the all-in-one solution simply because I want something I can drill down into the elements of anything, of a visual effects shot, of sound, the music, anything.
That’s why I think there’s a very good chance that we’re going to look back on FCPX’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment as by far the most transformative of all of these “moments” yet. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s choice of FCPX opened up shooting locations to them, accelerated VFX production, reduced review times, sped dailies, facilitated studio feedback, enabled more efficient sound design – and that’s before we even start talking about picture editorial.
Which, uhm, we didn’t.
I had in the back of my mind that they’d been very happy with FCPX on Focus, of course. As Glenn said at the time, “I could cut at least twice as fast if not three times as fast on Final Cut Pro X as I could on Avid” (which prompted this vigorous discussion), and I had every reason to believe he was at least that happy this time.
But in fact, that was my own “wtf moment” as I put this story together: realizing that Glenn and I never actually got around to talking about the specifics of editing with FCPX, because it was so much more energizing to talk about what kind of future for A-list filmmaking that FCPX might help enable.
As well as what kind of conversations we might be having about the meaning of words like “speed” and “efficiency” in the context of using software to save weeks of production, while making more ambitious movies, and having more fun.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot, indeed.