A Shift to FCPX Keeps the Virally Famous Talks in Constant Rotation
TED talks, once for the privileged few who attended the various eponymous conferences in person, are now the de facto way online to learn about something new, and potentially, gain a new perspective on an age-old topic in the process. Many TED talks go viral and rack up views in the millions and beyond. If the curator, TED's term for producer, has done a good job, the talk will also make you laugh and may even bring tears to your eyes.
The conference was acquired by entrepreneur and former publisher Chris Anderson in 2001 and has expanded more recently to include TEDGlobal and TEDWomen conferences and TEDFellows Retreats. Anderson defines TED as a Web-empowered revolution in teaching, and Michael Glass, TED's Director of Film + Video, heads a staff of 30 in New York City who plan, edit, finish and distribute all that inspiring knowledge to a voracious audience of students, the general population and, more than likely, a growing legion of future TED speakers. In early September, Glass led the transition to an Apple Final Cut Pro X workflow, with the help of FCPWORKS Workflow Architect Sam Mestman (also the founder and CEO of the collective We Make Movies in Los Angeles).
The editorial schedule at TED is undeniably tight. Glass and his team of four full-time editors and freelancers post one video a day during the work week, adding 20 new videos to the online archives per month. "We're editing many more during that same time," he says, "usually from 12 to18 a week. So anywhere from 50 – 100 videos are cut by the editing group per month." While on location at a conference, the team creates a "sprint version" of the live talk. "Someone is literally running with hard drives from the truck down to the media cave, where it's quickly ingested and edited for delivery the following morning," says Glass. We'll also save some talks in the archives that we don't start cutting until four months after they are shot."
TED editors are also in regular rotation. "Once you've edited 40 TED talks in a row," says Glass, "you really do need a little variety in your life. At the same time, there's a lot of institutional knowledge and subtleties to what we do during the edit that bringing on freelancers can be a bit more complicated than we anticipate."
With a core production team and camera lead who manages all the freelance operators in a production, Glass and his team shoot all of the TED headquartered productions, including the TED flagship conference in Vancouver, TEDGlobal and TEDU. All of the global TEDx conferences, the independent offshoot that creates TED-like presentations in their own communities, are completely independent. The department has developed a set of shooting guidelines it uses for freelance operators and shares with TEDx organizers. "We are constantly evolving the guidelines as new technology enters the market," he says. "The TEDx folks keep in close touch with us so they can capture the video in a way that suits the post-production workflow here."
Although his team is camera agnostic, they insist on specific formats and frame rates. "We feel strongly that our operators only shoot progressive video," says Glass. "We avoid interlaced video at all costs. We're also really committed to 24p, or 23.98 fps or 25p. We feel like the look we've always aimed for has that extra patina or filmic sensibility to it that you just don't get when you're shooting in other formats. That really narrows the field of what cameras you can use, but beyond that, it's the operator's choice." 4K video capture is also on the horizon for Glass's team. "We've already shot in 4K and edited it and feel most comfortable with FCPX's ability to manage 4K-heavy media. Premiere also handles 4K beautifully but FCPX ultimately suited us better with its multicam functionality."
The group's editing workflow has evolved significantly in the eight years Glass has been with the organization. "We currently shoot about eight cameras, give or take a few (we try to have no fewer than five but we will drop down to four), and record everything to a dual-system hard drive for backup," he says. "After each session, which includes five to seven TED talks, those sessions are collected and ingested into a single shared storage unit. It used to be media managed very much by hand and had to do a lot of fussy synching, and chopping and batch exporting. Now, with Final Cut Pro X, we've got a really reliable and robust XML export. We essentially can just create a multicam clip in FCPX, select ranges in the talks and feed the XML to our ingest system called "The Hoover" — the department's DAM — "and it does the rest. That saves us a great deal of time and also gives us a lot less margin for error."
Once a TED talk is in the system, it goes through a more complicated iteration process with TED curators and the production manager. "That's the point at which I'm assigning different talks to various editors, along with the edit notes from the curators as well as the speakers themselves," says Glass. "The editor then gets a package prepared for them, which is how we refer to it, based on the way the particular payloads are shared. We pass that package off to an editor and they begin cutting." The group first began using Final Cut Classic before the multicam feature was completely integrated, says Glass, and at the time used a stacked track approach. "We synched tracks and you turn on various tracks, depending on what you want to cut to," he says. "We've been working like that for years, for the bulk of the time I've been here. That workflow had some advantages, in terms of how deliberate each of the cuts have to be, even on your first pass, but ultimately it really slows the process down when compared to multicam. One of the things we looked at when we saw the opportunity to upgrade from classic to 7, were the multicam functionality that best suited our workflow. That was also one of the reasons we landed on FCPX, because we really liked the implementation and we liked the way Apple has continued to improve it since they first rolled it out."
TED made the official transition to FCPX on September 1. "There really was a long runway before officially switching," says Glass, "but we made that the date at which we would never open FCP7 again in order to edit a talk from scratch," he says. "If we need to go back into a previous edit, instead of trying to translate from one to the other, we'll edit in the old software." Assisted by Mestman, the TED editorial team spent six months training in the new version, starting with tutorial on Lynda.com and Ripple Training and moving to one-on-one tutoring with Mestman, especially at the beginning and again during the week "marathon" leading up to the official transition. "This whole process really started almost two years ago," says Glass. "We knew Final Cut Pro X was there, but we also looked at Premiere, Avid, even Smoke at one point. We narrowed it down to Premiere and FCPX, and once we had the lay of the land from the press and what we could read about it, we took two-to-three-day intro courses offsite to both softwares. That gave us a good handle on where the problems would be, whatever we took on, and also what the advantages would be."
The critical piece of the decision process came next. "We then deliberately paused so we could clearly compare and contrast the two contenders," he says. "We felt both had a stable multicam functionality, and project sharing and archiving was simple and robust. Media management also needed to be very flexible for us for many reasons, namely that we process as much video as we do on a daily basis. And we of course wanted reliable XML, which is ideally clean, readable and comprehensive. Based on those four factors, our needs tipped toward Final Cut. We consulted with four full-time editors, the media management team and the post-production team, which included the assistant editors and engineers. We also made sure editors started their first edit in FCPX with a clear slate and not the usual daily pressures. Their responsibility was to determine the which workflow fit the best into their system. That's where the consensus ultimately added up."
It wasn't unanimous, at first. "Well, honestly, there's never consensus, but it all added up that Final Cut X was the right decision," adds Glass. "As much as I had our video delivery team, our engineers and pre-production team embracing FCPX, the editors were the hold outs. They wanted to make sure they could do their job without having to use a tool that slows them down. People were starting to come around to the idea of FCPX before Sam showed up for a week here, rotating through two-hour sessions one-on-one with each of the editors and assistant editors. I think having someone be able to walk you through the nuts and bolts of how it all worked, as well as give the context of how to think about this new-ish approach to editing made the editors finally feel safe and excited about taking on the new technology. But to make that leap you still need someone to encourage you along the way that you'll land safely. That's when everyone came around. They went from saying, half-heartedly, 'OK, I can use this,' to 'Wow, this will actually improve my workflow, and even makes editing kind of fun again.' That was better than even I expected."
Glass says the team also made sure they socialized the learning process by "putting ourselves in a room and a bit more systematically made sure everyone voiced their concerns and shared their ideas. A lot of good has come out of that." Adds Mestman, "I understood what they were going through. I'd made the switch previously and I'd been where they were. I was even the guy who banged my head against the keyboard and got really mad until it all clicked and changed the way I work." Mestman says his role was to be more of a guide than a dictator. "What I usually would come in and do is start with what they were frustrated with and look at what was holding them back. I'd throw out ideas; the key was letting them discover it and not telling them, 'this is how you have to do it.' No one likes that. By the end of each session, they'd tell me to go away. They didn't need me anymore."
The editorial team regularly uses Adobe Photoshop, as well as Keynote and PowerPoint to access the speaker's original presentation during the edit and bring it into the timeline. "Sometimes they will tweak the original to make the slides more clear and dynamic," says Glass. All videos are encoded with Apple Compressor and Fx MPEG, the open source encoding binaries. TED editors are also in regular rotation. "Once you've edited 40 TED talks in a row," he says, "you really do need a little variety in your life. At the same time, there's a lot of institutional knowledge and subtleties to what we do during the edit that on boarding freelancers is a bit more complicated than we ever anticipate."
If you want to know what makes for a great TED talk, says Glass, ask a TED curator. What makes for a good TED edit, he says however, is invisibility. "We'd like you not to be aware that we spent eight to twelve hours editing this seemingly fresh and personal talk from scratch. There's a live switch at the conference for other purposes, but when we sit down to edit a TED talk, we take the isolated recordings of each camera and start at frame one, cutting it exactly how we would have been able to if we were shooting a film short."
The pleasantries that precede most live speeches are the first to go. "We always find that starting strong has a big impact." he says. "No 'thank you, it's nice to be here' and referencing the prior speaker. You'll rarely see a speaker give an introduction in a TED talk that they have during the live conference. And philosophically, it's really important to us to maintain the integrity of what the speaker is trying to put up there. We've had speakers spill water on themselves or get hung up on a detail and do a lot of um-ing and er-ing and ah-ing, and those are the bits we feel don't contribute much to the talk or the audience's ability to absorb the information. And yet we don't feel that removing them, nine times out of ten, changes the overall feel of what the speaker is trying to get at. For the production team and editorial team, we try to keep that piece as sacred as possible. It's a tricky line to walk, to make the best talk and be invisible without altering things. As a testament to our editors, I think they do a great job of striking that balance."
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