Oliver Peters talks to Knut Hake, the editor of the Netflix film Blood Red Sky that was edited on Final Cut Pro.
Like many professional film and television editors in the Final Cut Pro world, Knut Hake started his editing career on Avid Media Composer and later migrated to Apple Final Cut Pro (v4.5). He was an early adopter of Final Cut Pro X (around 10.0.6), pushing the editorial boundaries on such projects as the popular German TV series, Danni Lowinski, which was highlighted in an early Apple In Action spotlight article.
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Earlier this year Hake completed Blood Red Sky, a Netflix Original feature film. It’s a thriller that blends action, horror, vampires, and hijackers, but also with plenty of heart. Infuse this drama with a healthy dash of visual effects and you can quickly see how demanding this can be for any post-production pipeline. I recently interviewed Hake about his use of Final Cut Pro for high-end editing, in particular Blood Red Sky.
How did you first get involved with this production?
I cut another Netflix movie two years ago called Isi & Ossi. The director of photography [Yoshi Heimrath] also filmed Blood Red Sky. They were looking for an editor and he recommended me. The producer called and set up a short meeting with the director [Peter Thorwarth] at the Berlin station. He was on a stopover from Cologne on his way to Prague, where the film would be shot. We hit it off and I was hired.
I was supposed to move to Prague and edit there during the filming, but then Covid hit. The production was on hold for about four months, and then, due to travel restrictions I stayed in Berlin during the whole shoot.
I really enjoyed the blend of genres. Was this how the original script was written?
It's definitely a genre mix. It is a vampire thriller, but the director always said that the emotional journey of mother and son are at the center of our narration. The mother unleashing her power to fight for her son. That aspect was always in the script.
As I understand it, this is a Netflix Original as opposed to a movie acquired by Netflix. Correct? Any plans for a theatrical release?
Yes, it's a Netflix Original. The director had the idea 15 years ago and he planned to make it a movie for the cinema. A former producer, now working for Netflix, approached him about the film, which he once pitched to him, as something for Netflix. Of course, the director was very interested.
It's streamed on Netflix. Unfortunately, there is no theatrical release planned. But we had a small friends-and-family screening for Netflix in Munich at the beautiful ARRI cinema. It was awesome to see it on the big screen.
The first screening as a premiere was at the film festival in Munich. It was - not a disaster - but, a night to remember. (laugh) So I heard… Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there, because I was on vacation. My assistant editor, Sam Plümacher, was there. It was an outside screening because of Covid. There was a thunderstorm - rain and lightning - and they were all sitting on metal chairs, so that's kind of scary. The event organizers supplied transparent umbrellas to the audience. So, it was not too pleasant to be there, but the pictures are really cool!
Does a Netflix Original come with extra guidelines?
Yes, it does. It depends on the production company and how they deal with it. With this one, we had to use all of the Netflix infrastructure. Review-and-approval is through PIX. Media up and downloads are managed through the Netflix content hub. In addition, an HDR master has to be supplied to Netflix, although we edited in SDR [standard dynamic range]. I think overall the approach is closer to a studio production in Hollywood.
Please walk me through your workflow for Blood Red Sky.
The film was shot on ARRI cameras using ARRIRAW. The on-set DIT pre-graded the dailies and transcoded ProRes LT files for editorial. I like using ProRes LT because the quality holds up when you show it on a larger screen. The original plan was to use custom camera LUTs for each clip, which would be similar to using a CDL [color decision list]. It didn't work out in the end, because Final Cut was getting too slow. So we changed and baked the LUTs into the ProRes LT files.
I wanted to use the camera LUTs because production did a lot of re-grades. It was a lot easier just to change the custom camera LUTs and those settings would ripple through everything I edited. That's a really nice way to work. The problem is that when you launch Final Cut Pro, it scans the custom camera LUTs folder every time.
As you can imagine, if you have a custom camera LUT for each video file that you import, then there are tons of LUTs in that folder. It gets painfully slow whether you use them or not. The only solution was to kick them out. It was a nice idea, which did work in the beginning. When they send you re-grades, the files are only a couple of megabytes. You don't have to re-download and replace the whole video file.
The shoot schedule in Prague lasted approximately 54 days. All of that media was put on the Netflix content hub along with the original location sound files. Then my assistant would download the files and prep the dailies for me. It usually took two to six hours to download a day’s worth of dailies. Each of us had mirrored RAIDs with local media - same drive name, same folder hierarchy, and same content. That way there was never the need to relink.
I understand that you used Postlab for collaboration.
I've used Postlab before, but this was the first time we really put Postlab through its paces as a way to work between us. My assistant prepped everything from each shooting day. I was working in an edit library. When he was ready, I would close the edit library and upload it to Postlab. He would update my library and re-upload it. I would then open the library back on my system.
Postlab was essential for our workflow. It makes working in a team - even if it's only an assistant and the editor - so much easier. I would use Postlab even if I were in the same room with my assistant. Actually, I would recommend using Postlab even if you're alone, because of versioning. I don't think about versioning anymore, because Postlab is my versioning tool. Of course, whether or not that functionality should be built into Final Cut Pro is a different question!
Obviously, Covid has had an impact on the way all productions have worked in this past year and even now. Many editors have been working completely remotely apart from the director. How did you tackle this issue?
The collaboration was remote during shooting, of course, because I couldn't go to Prague. But then afterwards I went to Munich, where the director was located. They rented a huge apartment where I could set up the edit suite. I took my gear and actually brought chairs, table, everything. We worked there together - side by side. Sam stayed in Berlin and he kept on working on VFX turnovers and sound passes for me.
It felt so long due to Covid, because we had that four-month break. We started out in January 2020 and had an almost-finished edit shortly before Christmas. There were additional minor edit changes, because some of the VFX shots turned out differently or needed a little more time to see the blood or whatever. So the film was truly wrapped by February of this year - about a year after the start.
When you edit a feature film, do you like to build scenes first and then organize those into reels? Or do you prefer a different method?
While a film is being shot, I typically start out by working in scenes. On most films I start to build those into reels about halfway through the shoot, because then it's worthwhile to start combining the scenes. I was working in four reels for Blood Red Sky. But, I started directly in the first reel rather than scenes, because that part of the shoot covered the first part of the film chronologically. Therefore, it was easy to start out in that first reel. You can still easily re-arranged scenes, even when you break up the film into a different library for each reel.
It was really a good idea to work in reels on Blood Red Sky, because there was so much back and forth between Sam and me. There were a lot of visual effects shots that had to be added to the movie. Whenever I was done with a reel, he could work on it. Postlab was really cool for that.
Feature film productions record with double-system sound and multiple cameras for each scene. There’s a bit of a debate among Final Cut Pro editors whether you should create synchronized clips or just combine everything into multi-cam groups. I don’t know whether that’s a concern about system performance or the later hand-off for the mix. What are your thoughts?
I've never understood why people would use multi-cams over synchronized clips. We actually do both. Clips are first synchronized with sound and those synchronized clips are combined into multi-cams, since much of the film was shot with two cameras.
The system bogs down in long timelines, but that's not a problem of multi-cam or synchronized clips. If you have more than a 1,000 items in the timeline, the timeline gets slow. That's a Final Cut Pro issue.
Was there anything unique about working on this film in Final Cut Pro compared with your past feature films or TV series?
We had to create captions for playout for Netflix’s reviews and screenings. This was easy to do with Final Cut’s captioning feature. The captions carried along through the different edits. Since the film was 50% German, we translated the German into English and English into German. Depending on the audience, we could easily switch on what we needed.
We also used LockItNetwork - the same folks that make the LockIt timecode syncing hardware. It's an online service that you can buy per shoot day. You get all of the metadata from the set, especially the script supervisor’s information. You send the Final Cut Pro XML to LockItNetwork. They merge the data, send back the FCPXML, and that goes automatically into Final Cut. The script supervisors usually like it, too. Script continuity looks more like their regular layout, so they don't have to create separate CSV files for the editors.
We used Notion as an extensive digital codebook for the movie. In it we had boards for the structure map of the film, shooting schedule, VFX status, etc. On top of that, we also shared important documents like the script, call sheets, sound reports, and so on through the Apple Notes application. Notion, Slack, Apple Notes, and Postlab really made our collaboration structured and easy to use. All of the information was always at hand.
You’ve been editing high-end projects in Final Cut Pro (formerly X) for nearly a decade. In spite of this track record, do you still get pushback for wanting to use it?
Some directors have reservations about it, of course. But almost all of them really enjoy me using Final Cut. I was already a fast editor on other systems, but I don't think you can be as fast as on Final Cut. You don't feel the technical side of editing when you edit with Final Cut Pro. Directors really enjoy it, because you don't have to wait for things like making room for audio, changing clips, or changing the order of clips.
A bit of the pushback comes from post houses. Some of them hate Final Cut. They don't know how to use it and then they go back to the botched introduction of Final Cut Pro X. They tell me about all the things they think you can’t do. I tell them, “Look, I've done all these movies and series and the’ve all been cut using Final Cut and they're on the air. So it works.”
Once you pass the first hurdle and they get the AAFs that X2Pro produces, then they’re usually happy; because these are tidier than any session they get from another editor.
Final Cut Pro recently passed a 10-year milestone. Many veteran FCP editors have been expressing their frustration at the pace of development compared with other editing applications. Thoughts?
I get frustrated, too. There are some editing things that I just don’t get why they haven’t been fixed yet. The engineers have added a lot of stuff, which I don't really need. That’s OK, because there are so many users of the software - all with diverse needs.
I’m sure that every time I talk to the Pro Apps team, they must think, “Oh, my God, that German nag.” (laugh) I say, “Guys - please fix it.” For instance, it’s a pain that simple trimming functions behave differently whether you are using the keyboard or the mouse. Why can’t I see a two-up display when trimming with the keyboard? I don't get it. Why is trimming in Avid still so much better? (laugh)
In the high-end workflows that we use, like VFX turnovers, some processes are painfully difficult for no reason. I don’t think there’s a better implementation of multi-cam than in Final Cut. But there are times when multi-cams get in a way. A really easy solution is just to flatten multi-cams in place. I’ve asked for that for five, six, seven years now - since the introduction. These things frustrate me, because they take a lot of time.
Audio mixing issues need to be addressed. When you work in compound clips, you can apply audio effects to the dialogue roles. The problem comes when you edit with the director sitting beside you. He says, “Oh, it sounds good now.” And then you double-click to edit inside the compound and it's all gone. I'd like to see a mixer, like maybe a roles-based mixer. But more importantly, I need to be able to use a hardware mixer. I miss Eucon control daily, which I had used with Final Cut [classic] and Avid. Nothing is faster than a hardware mixer when you mix music.
I just hope Apple still has an interest in professional editors, considering that we are such a small niche of the business. But in spite of all of that, I still prefer editing with Final Cut Pro, because it's so much faster and it's just more fun to edit with.
For more information, Knut Hake has developed a comprehensive guide in Notion, which outlines workflow and tips for using Final Cut Pro on high-end productions like feature films. Feel free to review it at this link.