Final Cut Pro: Why Log Clips?

Filmmaking is a creative process. One of the exciting things about editing on a computer rather than with traditional video or film editing machines is that we are free to try new techniques in a comparatively risk-free way. Because of this freedom, I personally found it a bit jarring that Final Cut tries, in subtle ways, to channel the user into doing what I considered to be annoying bookkeeping when capturing video from tape. Specifically, Final Cut tries to encourage you to log your clips rather than just capturing them.

It took me a month and a large project to be come face to face with the problems that you invite when you don’t log your clips. Now, I understand why the authors of Final Cut push us this way, and I’m a believer. Except for the most trivial of projects, always log your clips. Let’s have a brief discussion of what it means to log clips, what the process is for doing it, and most importantly, why you should log clips.

Capture Techniques

A clip is the basic unit of video (and, if applicable, audio) in Final Cut. Clips can be divided into subclips or built up into sequences. Final Cut offers three ways to capture clips: “capture now,” “capture clip,” and “batch capture.”

Capture now is the simplest of the three. Users migrating to FCP from iMovie or Final Cut Express 2 often want to use this mode, because it seems the most analogous to the capture workflow in those tools. Click the “capture now” button, hit “play” on your camcorder or VTR, and Final Cut will begin capturing the video until you hit the escape key, up to a maximum of 30 minutes of video. Capture clip involves logging a single clip, and batch capture involves logging a bunch of clips and then telling FCP “Go capture these clips now.” To log a clip, you tell FCP at a minimum the name of the tape or reel the clips are on and the starting and ending timecode of each clip. You can optionally provide scene or take names; if you don’t provide them, FCP will pick names for you, along the lines of “clip-1”, “clip-2”, etc.

Why Should I Log?

So why not just use “capture now” for everything? If I’m willing to live with the 30-minute-per-chunk limitation, isn’t it less work than doing all this logging stuff?

Well, no. If you use “capture now,” you are limiting your ability to use some of Final Cut’s most powerful features. The 30 minute limit is just the first subtle pressure FCP puts on you to avoid the use of capture now. There are other pressures, too: unlike iMovie and FCE 2, FCP won’t do the magic “clip separation” where it detects where you paused and unpaused the video camera and splits those clips into separate subclips for you. (Reader Bj¯rn Hansen correctly points out that you can use the “DV Start/Stop Detect” function in the “Mark” menu to do this splitting after the fact, and then make your subclips into independent master clips to approximate the FCE/iMovie experience. I personally have had issues with master/affiliate clips where FCP behaves unintuitively – for example, you delete a subclip or a ‘duplicated master,’ and a whole bunch of media that you didn’t expect to go offline disappears, so I avoid this technique).

When you use “capture now,” you end up with one big glob of video and audio data, and no metadata other than what you add after the fact (in the initial revision of this article, I claimed that this made it impossible to work in OfflineRT mode, but reader Tom Wolsky pointed out that I am mistaken). The lack of metadata is a problem in larger projects: I have an interview project which spans 5 DV tapes. All the interviews are with one subject. Frankly, I have no idea which segments of the interview are on which tape, other than through logging. Had I used “capture now” instead of logging the clips, when I wanted to reconnect media (either for offlineRT work or because I deleted media to conserve disk space), I would have to manually start looking at all the tapes to figure out which one I needed before recapturing. Sure, I could keep a page of copious notes attached to every tape, but avoiding that sort of drudge work is why I’m using a computer. If I log my clips, when I need to recapture, FCP prompts me to insert tape “interview-daytime-4”, I find my clearly labeled tape on the shelf, and I’m done. I think that’s worth something. “Capture now” is a workable solution if you always know exactly what scenes are on what tapes. I don’t; I prefer to let the database in Final Cut track that information for me.

Tom Wolsky still thinks I am being too hard on “capture now,” and he has written books about Final Cut Pro, so you should probably listen to him, and not me. Tom’s point is that even if you use “capture now,” you are still (morally) obligated to actually log information about reels, etc, and so really it’s no different than using “capture clip” or batch capture. I both agree and disagree with Tom – I agree that if you log carefully, the use of “capture now” is fine. My concern is that that path makes it too easy to say “Well, I’ll capture now and then log later” and then you skip the log later part, and now you’re in a world of hurt. I think this is especially true for people coming to FCP from the iMovie world, who are less likely to understand why one should log clips carefully. So my personal rule is to log them beforehand.

So this is one reason we log clips: Our tapes have timecode, the timecode never changes, so if we tell Final Cut what clips a project contains in terms of timecode and tape rather than in terms of “grab this clip”, we can recover. No matter what goes wrong, no matter how badly we screw a project up, at least if we have a list of logged clips and an original tape, given a backup of an edit list file that takes up just a few kilobytes, we can recover a lot of our work.

Another reason we log clips is it allows us to offline clips with impunity. If we are running low on disk space or memory, we can edit a project in OfflineRT mode at a lower resolution and increase the responsiveness of our machines. Or we can simply chose “make offline” and delete clips that we’re not actually using at the moment, knowing that when we want to work with them later we can just slap the tape in the camcorder, hit “reconnect media,” and go get a cup of coffee while FCP does the drudge work for us.

One final reason I want to suggest is that logging clips can actually help the creative process by giving you what amounts to a pre-edit winnowing. If you’re anything like me, you shoot too much material. Not being Orson Welles, I very often shoot from the hip. Sometimes I go into a project not having a plan, but just say to myself “well, I’ll shoot way too much and then edit it down later.” Logging your clips gives you a chance to look at your work in raw form and make the easy choices before devoting time and disk space to capturing it.

Typically, if I’m capturing from a 60 minute tape (assuming it’s on a project I haven’t organized carefully beforehand – there are of course exceptions), I’ll typically find only about 20 minutes of material worthy of actually capturing. Those 20 minutes get captured. I will also certainly winnow further while editing online, of course, but that first step gets a huge amount of material out of my way. That frees me up to look more closely at the material that was actually worth working on without getting distracted by footage that I knew was garbage to begin with.

How to Log Clips

Everyone has their own workflow for logging clips. I’ll share mine here. Generally, I’ll sit down with the camcorder or a monitor and a pad of paper and a pen. I generally don’t do this first phase at the computer, because otherwise I get tempted into making edits and moving too fast. Also, my tiny simian brain is easily distracted by shiny things, and the Final Cut Pro GUI is very shiny. By working with just the video and a piece of paper, I’m able to focus all my attention on the content. I’ll play the tape and start taking notes on what timecodes correspond to logical clips in my mind. It’s fine to be approximate here - rounding to the nearest second or two will be fine.

When I’m done watching the tape, I have a handwritten list of timecodes and names of clips. I then take those, choose “Log and capture” from the file menu, and start logging the clips. I’ll generally log even the clips I know I won’t capture, just so that I have the record preserved.. Some people might find the first ‘offline’ viewing to be intolerable; I find it helps keep me focused on the content and not the UI of my editing program. It’s entirely possible to do your first cut online and log clips directly into FCP as you see them. Some of the URLs in that follow this article give a good explanation of how to do this.

Last Words

Now you’ve logged your clips, captured what you want, and you’re ready to edit, right? Wrong! There’s one more thing you should do:

Pick up your carefully labeled tape, flip the write-protect tab to ‘read- only’, and put the tape away. Don’t use it again. Once you’ve logged clips from a tape never write to it again. All it takes it one slip of the finger to turn your carefully collected logging data into a worthless pile of junk. Sure, it means you have to buy more tapes. A tape costs $5. Your time is worth much more than the cost of a tape. Put the tape away.

And, lastly, don’t forget to back up your project files frequently.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. When I first started using Final Cut, I found lots of material explaining how to log my clips, but not really any in-depth explanation of why I would want to do so. If you’ve found this article to be useful, feel free to let me know. Likewise, if you see any errors or inadequacies within, I’d like to hear from you so I can correct them.

Additional Resources