Using Automator for repetitive tasks in Final Cut Pro
Using Automator for repetitive tasks in Final Cut Pro
A Creative COW Feature Article-Tutorial

Using Automator to perform repetitive tasks inside FCP
Creative Cowdog

Dustin Lau

© All rights reserved.

Article Focus: Automator is a tiny application included with Mac OS X with big power, quickly and easily creating custom workflows based on the work you actually do - no programming required. It's the perfect way to handle those pesky repetitive tasks in FCP. Do something once, then let Automator take it from there. This handy little tool can make the difference between keeping and losing your sanity -- and making or missing your deadline.

The core idea behind Automator is easy to understand:

Effortlessly streamline repetitive tasks.

Automator is a powerful little application included with OS X, and offers a number of ways to relieve the pain of repetitive tasks. Starting with Leopard, you don't even have to tell Automator what to do. Just tell it to record while you work, and you have pretty much all you need to never have to do it manually again.

Like so much else in the Mac OS, it's built on principles found in Unix. In this case, it's building complex capabilities from small, simple modules, which in Automator are called Actions. You can string together as many of them as you need, loop the results, customize them on the fly, load them into contextual pop-up menus to call them up when and where you need them, and more. The sky's the limit. If you can do it with your Mac, you can automate it.

Automator lives in your Applications folder.

Apple Automator for OS X Leopard

It includes hundreds of built-in workflows, mostly in the finder, and although there are some included Aperture actions, most are in much more general-interest applications like iTunes, iCal, and so on.

Basic Automator workflows

You can download thousands more of these from Apple to do things like extracting pages from PDFs, free RAM by quitting Dashboard, creating icons from any picture...You get the idea.

If that was the whole story, it wouldn't be a story here. Seriously, if you can do it with your keyboard and mouse, you can automate it -- in applications including Photoshop, Office, and of course Final Cut Pro. The Cow's Dustin Lau shows how he built a custom workflow for creating scores of graphic animation sequences for multiple episodes of a TV series.

While it's highly unlikely that you'll ever need Dustin's specific workflow for episodic TV title , you'll learn a lot about what Automator can do in Final Cut Pro, and how, with some troubleshooting tips along the way.

Cute little toy? Nope. Automator is ready to do your heavy lifting in FCP. Wait'll you see what we mean.

Bonus: you'll learn a ton of FCP keyboard shortcuts.

Here's what Dustin has to say.

I thought you all might be interested to know how I've managed to use Automator's new "Watch Me Do" feature to automate a rather complex sequence of events.

It's pretty useful for repetitive tasks like the one I'm doing now which is

replacing a set of 4 pictures in a simple animated sequence

  • opening the inserted picture's properties page,
  • copying each picture's filename (which has been strictly standardized for the execution of the next step)
  • pasting it into LiveType
  • stripping away the .jpg to make it a "title" (ie Alexandre Pato.jpg becomes Alexandre Pato)
  • saving as the same filename but replacing .jpg with .ipr,
  • returning to FCP, importing the newly created LiveType file
  • inserting it into the graphic sequence
  • repositioning and proceeding to the next item.

Because of certain ways that FCP works it is sometimes necessary to have certain conditions in place before the scripts work (eg auto-select tracks are toggled by cmd-numpad0).

There is no absolute deselect or select, so if a sequence has all, none or some auto-select tracks enabled, you do not know how the shortcut cmd-numpad0 will react, either selecting all or deselecting all. In my case, I made it such that all working sequences had all auto select track disabled.

That said, it opens a vast array of options which I think is very exciting in an incredibly nerdy way.

Here is a full list of the commands automated in this script.


  • Playhead on first frame of first image
  • Image sequence with 4 images to be inserted placed directly after it
  • Each nested sequence has image to be replaced selected


Select Effects palette

Select Timeline.The timeline needs to be selected, but if I only put a cmd-3 when it's already selected, it deselects. Hence the cmd-5 first, as deselecting the effects palette does not affect the execution of the script.

Auto-select video track1
Select image1
Cut image

Close gap.

This brings the next image in the sequence into place to be processed

left arrow
Playhead to the last frame of the 5-layer image sequence.
Deselect auto-select video track 1
Deselect auto-select video track 2
Open video nest
Paste attributes of copied picture to pre-selected placeholder picture
Select contents
Open picture attributes
Copy filename.
To clear any open dialog boxes
Mouseclick LiveType in Dock
To close any open dialog boxes
This is the same as selecting the Effects palette, then the timeline: selecting a non-crucial window first to ensure that selecting the desired window does not deselect it if it is already active
Select all text
Paste copied filename. In episode 1, this is Alexandre Pato.jpg
Go to end of text
backspace x4
Pressing backspace 4 times removes ".jpg" from the end of the file name: Alexandre Pato.
Up x2
Go to start of text
Opt-delete x3, then Delete
This deletes the file label. ("Episode 1: Connections")
Save As
Cmd-V, backspace x4, enter
Pastes filename, deletes ".jpg"
Clears any dialog boxes
Click FCP in dock
Go to folder. Automator is set to then navigate to /Volumes/disc/folder/livetype
Switch to Detail mode. You should set it to sort by Date Modified, with newest at top
To select newest
Switch bck to 3-column view
Select Effects Palette
Select File Browser
Open imported LiveType file in Viewer
Select Timeline
Move playhead to start of sequence
Autoselect video in Track 3
Mark placeholder LiveType clip on Track 3
Set Viewer Video Patch to Video Track 3
Overwrite placeholder LiveType
Home, Enter
Select and Open LiveType file
I've bound this to Navigate tabs, this opens the Motion tab
Tab, 100, tab x3, 250
Set scale to 100, locate to x=0, y=250
Select Effects Palette
Select Timeline
Close nested sequence tab
Deselect autoselected video track 2
Move to next image


The cycle repeats with the next image but selecting a different track in the image sequence.

This process takes 8 minutes 26 seconds for Automator to execute. I only take about 3, but with more than 80 of these to do, it is very tedious. I scripted it to do about 12 episodes at once, then left to do other errands.

The hard part creating an automated workflow is that even your pauses are recorded. You can't take too long to think about the next step, or you'll have to manually edit the pause duration after the record.

Also, you sometimes need to pause longer so the software can catch to the steps executed, eg. opening a complex sequence, moving from a single video layer section to one that has many layers, etc.

Building custom workflows yourself isn't complicated. You just need to be clear the exact steps required.

Thanks, Dustin!

Automator for FCPIf you'd like to learn more about Automator, including how to integrate AppleScript and entries from the command line, start with the Apple Developer Connection's look at Automator.

Sure, this goes into more detail than most people need, but it really is a great place to start. And since when is "more than you need" a bad thing?

Here's an Apple online seminar on integrating Automator with Remote Desktop. See? ready for heavy lifting. You can find plenty more Apple online seminars for all levels of Automator expertise.

And when you're ready to develop Automator workflows for others to download, here are the pertinent Apple Human Interface Guidelines.