It is a challenging time for us all, especially students trying to continue to learn. Rusty Earl decided to use Final Cut Pro X to document his local school district’s journey to teach remotely during COVID-19.


Like many of you I have been working at home for the past two months. It has been a time of stretching and compromise to make things work. It has reminded me that sometimes less is more.

My primary work is producing documentaries and educational content for a large Midwest university.

When our campus closed abruptly (due to COVID-19), we had just a few hours to gather our laptops, copy a few projects and head out the door to start working from home.

I still remember the panic of trying to decide what I could fit on a small hard drive, knowing that it could be weeks before we would be allowed back campus. . . Gratefully, two months later, I am still employed. I have found ways to keep productions rolling by getting creative and learning to embrace imperfection.

This week we released a 13-minute documentary that was produced and edited remotely with Zoom interviews and a mix of amateur footage. Here’s the story on how we created a high-impact short film in record time using FCPX.
(If you want to skip ahead and just watch the film, you can do that too.)

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Kansas was the first state in the US to close all public schools for the rest of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This announcement took communities by surprise and forced administrators and teachers to innovate quickly. In just one week our local school district went from serving 1,600 students in a traditional setting to 100% online “remote instruction”.

During the first week of our new normal, my wife and I were nervous for our kids. Would our kids want to do this? Could we keep them motivated?

So many of the activities that are a big deal for our kids, like choir, theater, and time with friends were gone. At the same time, we were genuinely touched by the teachers desire to stay connected with our children. They were making personal phone calls, dropping off supplies at our house, and going out of their way to make sure each child felt needed and loved.

After catching up on a few projects for work, I pitched the idea of documenting our local school district’s journey to teach remotely during COVID-19. My dean was supportive of the idea as our college trains future teachers.

The only catch was that I had just two weeks to produce the story while following social distancing guidelines.

Working with the superintendent, we quickly worked out story arc of their experience and identified teachers, parents, and administrators who could represent those parts of the story best. While the superintendent felt comfortable being filmed in person for his interview (using a long lens and social distancing), we needed to film the rest of the teachers remotely. So, we settled on a combination of Zoom interviews and screen recordings using QuickTime.

To help increase the interview quality, the participants being interviewed were sent a diagram for filming themselves. Art work by me :)

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Interestingly side note, when we set up the Zoom recording preferences the resolution was set to “HD” (720p) but only two of the recordings kept that resolution. In large group Zoom sessions, it is common for Zoom to drop resolution and even frame rates depending on everyone’s bandwidth. Luckily FCPX does a pretty good job of conforming frame rate issues in the timeline.

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In total we recorded eight interviews 15—30 minutes each. Each participant was asked similar questions (10 total) with a little variation depending on the story. That allowed us to group their answers quickly for the edit.

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For b-roll we asked each participant to submit 10+ phone clips of their work environment, screen shots of them on zoom with their students, working with their own children, etc. 50% of what you see in the film was captured by the teachers themselves. They submitted the clips to me via frame.io.

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We also got permission to film inside two of the closed schools for an hour at a time (proper safety precautions were taken). I already had a fair amount of drone footage from a previous filming project, so we captured just about everything we needed in two days. For the intro we sourced three clips from national news networks.

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Editing was done on a 16” MacBook Pro. Since we were on a tight timeline and were dealing with light files there was no transcoding needed and only light color corrections were done. All the audio was mixed in FCPX with a simple denoiser and compressor. Audio captured online through Zoom can be atrocious but (embracing imperfection) we got decent recordings. Titles and lower thirds we created with templates already found in Final Cut Pro.

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With just three days for the edit I challenged myself to work on adding only the sound bites that stood out to me on the first and second review. Using range selections, I added the interview clips to a single timeline rather than subtracting from each interview like I normally do.

Because we were telling the story of the district and representing our college, we had to get the final version reviewed twice in a short amount of time. Total time available to color and tweak audio was 3 hours.

We posted our short film “Wamego’s Response” to our Facebook Page the second to the last day of school. It was good timing. I think most classes were streaming it by the afternoon. It was inspiring to see the comments of support for our good teachers and administrators.

In small towns, schools are often the subject of scrutiny, but the general reaction was very positive.

In just 24 hours the film was seen 20,000 times and shared more than 350 times.

It helps to live in a smaller community, but it also goes to show that people really connected to the teachers in our story.

In summary:
While I would have preferred to shoot all our interviews in person with real cameras, professional lighting and sound, this didn’t stop us from capturing a current event with real heart. To my surprise the low production value interviews didn’t prevent us from making emotional connections with our participants. If anything, the imperfections made it more relatable. A good reminder that story is king. . .

Thanks for reading. If this film inspires you, please share with a teacher you care about.

Also from Rusty:

Refuge in the Heartland: A Case Study in Shared Workflow with Student Editors

FCPX Helps College Produce Historical Documentary About the Underground Railroad 


Rusty EarlRusty Earl is a Director/ Producer for Kansas State University.
He recently published a free YouTube series on editing documentaries in FCPX. You can check out more of his work at rustychainproductions.com


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