Last Updated on March 30, 2018 by

Before reading this article, I’d like to point out that I’m a fan of most professional NLE software (Avid, Premiere, DaVinci, FCPX). Most professionals acknowledge that there is no one definitive tool to rule all projects. A lot of decisions are made based on what operating system you’re using and its specifications, the type of capture media and codecs, post-basic editing needs, deadline, etc.

In my editing career, I’ve been bombarded with clients’ questions about which software I use. My response – “Which software would you like me to use?” Most of the time, the response is indeed a rhetorical question, as I’d prefer to use a software that best fits the job. If I need to work with multiple editors accustomed to Premiere, then I switch to Premiere to accommodate their workflow. But when I am a sole editor and the choice of software is mine, I go with FCPX. Why? Because it’s different.


Initial Frustrations with Final Cut Pro X

A few years ago, I was terrified to approach FCPX, as I was much accustomed to the layout of FCP 7, which is more similar to Premiere than to its own upgrade. FCPX 10.1 did nothing to engage my interest. I was holding on to FCP 7 for as long as I could until I made the switch to Premiere. After about 2 years, I decided to give FCPX another try. At first, a lot of features did not go over well with me – the layout was all wrong, the CAPTURE SCRATCH folder organization was off, and why on earth did we go from editing a project’s sequence to editing an event’s project?

However, the biggest issue was the magnetic PRIMARY STORYLINE. In FCP 7, we could drag our clips to tracks V1, V2, V3, while the audio would go to A1, A2, A3 accordingly. Video tracks corresponded with audio tracks. If I had to move a clip on any of those tracks, we just selected the clip(s), and moved them, without affecting other clips on any of those tracks.

If we had to move all the clips in, let’s say V2 and V3, without affecting track V1, we put a lock on track V1, selected all clips, move them to a new position, and voilá. FCP7’s strength was that all clips could be independent of each other.


FCPX’s Primary Storyline

In FCPX, we have been tutored to add the clip to the PRIMARY STORYLINE, which is (for the FCPX beginners) that dark grey block in the middle of the project.

screenshot of fcpx magnetic timeline

Once you move a series of clips into the PRIMARY STORYLINE (shortcut W), every time you’d change the length of any of those clips, all other clips would SNAP to the last frame of the affected clip. This, in turn, would modify the length of the overall project.

GIF demonstrating trimming video clips on fcpx's magnetic primary storyline


Subsequent Clips

The problem increases when you are trying to keep the subsequent clips (above or below the PRIMARY STORYLINE). Since the subsequent clips are magnetically attached to the PRIMARY STORYLINE, they will move with the PRIMARY STORYLINE. It may become frustrating trying to juggle all the clips back to their intended spots. The main idea behind it: use the PRIMARY STORYLINE for A-Roll, and the subsequent clips would serve as B-Roll.

This idea would work well if you wouldn’t have to juggle audio files, which complicates the workflow.

My preference is to keep my video files structure like so:

<– Video on top –>

<– Primary Storyline in the middle –>

<– Audio on bottom –>

screenshot of fcpx magnetic timeline

screenshot of fcpx magnetic timeline

Every time you append the clip to the project, you only see one block (with video and audio attached). Being big on saving my editing workstation’s computing and rendering power, I know which visual portion of the clip to delete, keeping only its audio portion. I right-click and Detach Audio from the clip (shortcut Control+Shift+S). As the detached audio snaps below the PRIMARY STORYLINE, I delete the top video portion of the clip.

GIF demonstrating how trimming a video on the fcpx's primary storyline affects the entire timeline


Problems With The Magnetic Timeline

Upon completing my 3-min project (both visual and audio-only cuts), I suddenly find out that I need to trim the project to 2.5 mins. I start trimming the length of the clips in PRIMARY STORYLINE, which affects all subsequent visual and audio clips. My Video and Audio clips lose their place due to their repositioning since they’re magnetically attached to PRIMARY STORYLINE.

On smaller projects, the fixing of the problem may not be a bad deal. But for bigger projects, fixing and juggling those clips becomes a pain. But there’s a solution!


The Solution

2 years ago I was editing my first feature documentary on FCPX, and as I was looking for the best workflow to edit SCENES (besides utilizing compound clips), I stumbled across the notion of:

Why do I have to append the clips to a PRIMARY STORYLINE? Why can’t I just make all clips subsequent clips, and imitate the style of editing in FCP7 (tracks V1, V2, A1, A2, and so on)?

screenshot of fcpx magnetic timeline

GIF demonstrating trimming and moving a video clip attached to the primary storyline

How about using the PRIMARY STORYLINE block as an ISLAND to which I attach all of my A-Roll, B-Roll and other Video and Audio clips. This way, I can change the length of the one clip that needs changing. My other video and audio clips are not affected by that change, and neither does the PRIMARY STORYLINE.

GIF demonstrating the ability to move audio independent of video after detaching it

Magnetic Primary Storyline…Or “Island”?

Another great usage of using a PRIMARY STORYLINE block as an island to efficiently juggle the scenes. When editing a feature documentary I had to juggle “scenes” within the same project. Imagine if everything would be connected to one main PRIMARY STORYLINE block? I’d have to re-arrange clips all over the place, detaching, re-attaching, and moving them. It’s a mess!

Instead, my “scenes” would be independent PRIMARY STORYLINE blocks, with all video and audio clips being subsequent clips attached to the block.

screenshot of fcpx magnetic timeline

I can make little changes only to those clips attached to the ISLAND, and then move that whole block three scenes before or after. I literally “fly” the whole PRIMARY STORYLINE block over other blocks, and place it between the other PRIMARY STORYLINE blocks.

GIF demonstrating the ability to move chunks of video and audio files with the magnetic timeline

(To separate the PRIMARY STORYLINE block into separate islands, place the cursor where the SPLIT will happen, shortcut B (for BLADE), and click where the cursor is.

screenshot of fcpx magnetic timeline

Let’s say I need to completely modify the scene. I create a new project, name it “Scene 5”. I then copy the entire ISLAND with its correlating clips from my “Main Project” to the “Scene 5project to make necessary edits, color grades, audio edits, etc. Once I’m satisfied, I then copy (ctrl+c) the entire island, place the cursor at where “Scene 5” will begin in the “Main Project”, and paste(ctrl+v) my newly modified “Scene 5”, while deleting the old “Scene 5” PRIMARY STORYLINE ISLAND.

As we can see, the PRIMARY STORYLINE block can be used as an individual transparent ISLAND, to which all subsequent clips can be attached.

At first try, this technique looks a bit confusing. But once you try it, you may be amazed at the power and efficiency of the Magnetic Primary Storyline. This technique allowed for a much-needed improvement in my workflow.

While FCPX may look somewhat incomplete to those who are coming from another editing platform, I believe the software engineers did an amazing job in camouflaging a lot of functions that simply need a little exploring. Give it some time and you may find yourself choosing Final Cut over Premiere yet again.