How the Magnetic Timeline Keeps You Focused on the Story

When Final Cut Pro’s magnetic timeline hit the scene six years ago, professional editors were already quite adept at wielding the tools of Avid, Premiere Pro, and Final Cut Pro 7. The mechanics were straightforward. Clips go in bins and a source-record viewer previewed your bins and timelines. Video tracks and audio tracks indicated visual priority. FCP7 allowed exports to many other platforms without plugins. Editors would lock and unlock tracks. We’d target tracks after carefully considering where clips would go in our timeline. And it seemed great—other than the occasional Avid editor asking “Does Final Cut have a real trim mode yet?”

Limitations of the Old Method

In a track-based editing program you’re constantly asking yourself “where in time does this clip go?” At 30 seconds in? 45 seconds? And so on. But when you’re editing a story, the primary decision isn’t when something needs to happen in timecode. The primary question is one of story relationships. Here are a couple examples.

  • “This audio queue should happen when that boat comes around the corner.”
  • First I want to see the wide, then the medium, then the tight.”

But traditional track-based timelines asked us to think in a way that wasn’t focused on story, but rather on a set of technical specifications. “This audio cue needs to happen at 45 seconds and 12 frames in, which happens to visually correspond to what is going on with 5 tracks up the timeline and out of my view.” There weren’t great ways to establish flexible relationships with clips to the story and to each other—rather everything was constrained by placement and time. Apple’s designers (who, on the whole, tend to know what they’re doing) took a hard look at this limitation, and determined that the limitation was artificial.

A Story-Based Approach to Software

What if the NLE was rethought to focus on story? After all, that’s what this is all about. A story has a spine. Here are some examples of a spine:

  • The main interview you just conducted
  • The scene in the script you are working with
  • A voice over track
  • A song, with beats that structure the edits

This is the starting place for FCP X’s magnetic timeline. Start with the main story. Everything else should relate to that. There shouldn’t be dead space, unless it is intentional, and every B-roll clip, sound effect, or piece of background music relates to a primary story element.

Final Cut Pro X asks us to rethink how we look at the NLE; but it frees the editor to focus on her main story and how everything relates to that. It organizes the software around the concepts of story, instead of shaping the discipline around the constraints of software.

The primary storyline comprises clips that define the main story. Secondary storylines are then connected to clips on the main storyline so that if something earlier is removed, all of the rest of the story relationships remain established. The timeline automatically “ripples”, and all of the relationships between story elements are preserved.

It’s All About the Relationships

Final Cut Pro X does an amazing job of letting you bundle related things together. Sync clips, effortlessly create multicam clips, and join raw audio and video together in the browser before it ever hits your main project. It might strike you as odd that FCP X refers to “timelines” as “projects.” But that is an indicator that FCP X is putting the emphasis on story rather than timecode.

The magnetic timeline saves an enormous amount of time. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that FCP X encourages you to quickly organize your footage before editing. Place some keywords, mark important spots in the browser, and make notes on clips. All those things make your editing more precise.

Then as you drop clips into the storyline, the dialogue should be synced up and wrapped into the main clip. You can toggle audio channels, and so on.

But the big thing is that the dialogue is married to the visuals in a way that prevents it from getting out-of-sync. You have to consciously disconnect and move it if you want to override that sync. Again, it is all about the relationships.

On most NLEs, the editor has to constantly worry about accidentally losing sync. It is easy for the sound to lose sync with the video, and it’s even easier for two pieces of video to slide around relative to each other on the timeline. That second error can be extremely difficult to repair, because there is no inherent “correct” relationship between two independent clips on the timeline, as there usually is between the audio and video of a single clip. In spite of sync locks and the other tools that NLEs give you to help mitigate these errors, no editor is immune to them.

Key Features of the Magnetic Timeline

Let’s dive into some specific features of the Magnetic timeline that help boost editing speed, all the while maintaining that “story/clip” relationship.

The “Magnetic” Part

Remove a clip out of your primary storyline and all the other clips ripple down. That’s the “magnetic” part. It keeps the story together, and eliminates unintentional “black frames.” In a track-based NLE, it’s very possible to delete a clip but accidentally leave 1-2 frames of blank space in between, which can be very hard to spot. So by default, FCP X keeps your story together. Now, if you want to override that behavior you can “shift-delete” a clip and it will produce a “gap.” That is an intentional portion of black, you might know it as a “slug.” They are very useful.

No More Collisions

Track-based timelines have a big problem—clip collisions. These occur when you attempt to trim out a portion of your story, but clips above and below now conflict with other clips on their tracks. FCP X does away with tracks, and so there are no more collisions. Your clips move out of way and everything remains in your timeline. Now you can see where things overlap and make a very visual decision about what should be seen. It’s a huge improvement over Final Cut Pro 7.

Keyboard Oriented Trimming

As hinted earlier, Final Cut Pro 7 had a weakness: trimming. Avid allowed editors to enter a mode where quick, tight adjustments were driven by the keyboard. That proved to be a linchpin in Avid’s appeal to professional editors, particularly those who edited narrative films and TV shows.

Final Cut Pro X set about to remedy FCP 7’s weakness. The magnetic timeline is designed with keyboard-oriented trimming in mind. Two shortcuts come to mind.

  • Trim Start – option + [
  • Trim End – option + ]

Frankly, those two short cuts can change your life. In my opinion, there is no more fluid and rewarding operation in the world of software than skimming across a massive timeline and hitting “option + ]” and seeing the entire story ripple down in obedience. It allows for quick, precise trimming of unnecessary bits. And let’s be honest, as editors, that’s what it is all about—quickly cutting out the fat to get to the meat of the story. FCP X gives you worry-free trimming.

Storyline Connections Keep Your Story Elements In Sync

If you find a clip in your browser that you want to superimpose on top of a clip in your primary storyline, hit the shortcut “Q”. That will drop it into your timeline as a “connected clip.” There’s a little line that indicates that it has a relationship to a clip in your primary storyline. And it relates to a specific time in that clip. That is more important from a story perspective than that clip’s relationship to the overall time in your project. That defines the relationship of a B-roll clip to the rest of your project. When you move an A-roll clip, it moves that associated B-roll clip too. When the A-roll slips and slides, that B-roll goes with it.

One thing to note about using the above trim operations with connected clips: FCP X will trim the clip with the highest visual priority. So basically the top “track” if there is a clip under the skimmer.

C is for Selecting

FCP X has two “playheads.” The normal playhead and the skimmer. The skimmer lets you go crazy zooming all around the timeline and browser without even needing to click. However, sometimes there may be multiple clips under your skimmer, and you only want to apply a trim command to one of them. Hit the shortcut “C” to select the clip under your cursor, and now you’ll know for sure what clip you are working with. You don’t even have to click the clip first!

Redefining the Relationship (Overriding Storyline Connections)

As essential as connected clips are, sometimes you want to override their relationship to story, connected clips, audio cues and so on. For instance, you may need to move an A-roll clip but you want that B-roll clip to stay right there. At this point, the B-roll relationship to another clip, or to the overall timeline, may trump the initial relationship you defined. This is where the tilde key (~) comes into play. (It is next to the number 1 on your keyboard.)  Hold that key down while while moving a clip, and it overrides all the connections it has to clips. This feature is great for quickly moving clips without their connections (especially if you’re still getting used to the Magnetic timeline). But I find I use it less than 1% of the time.

You can also accomplish this with the Position tool (use the tool selection menu, or hit the letter P).

When the Position tool is selected, FCP X lets you put the clip where you want it in time and places a gap where the clip was. Again, I find this to be a rare operation, but essential when you need it.

Another way to redefine a relationship is by clicking on a connected clip and pressing “command + option”. This redefines the connection point. This is really critical when you have longer B-roll clips. You can make sure that sound effects, and B-roll have the right connections. It is common to use this when creating a “J” cut where an audio clip begins slightly before the clip that it is primarily related to.  In the example below, “Water Lake 1” was originally connected to “Clark Stringout HD ProRes”. By moving the connection to the previous clip, if I were to move the “Clark Stringout” clip, Water Lake 1 would remain where it is, connected to it current clip.

Uncharacteristically, this feels like a little bit of “mental overhead” at first. FCP X does a good job of having you “not think about” so many things like clip collisions, sync, and tracks. But this is one instance where you do need to pay attention. Take note of which clip in your primary storyline your connected clips are connected to. Going back to the Water Lake example, now the clip connection is back on the Clark Stringout clip. Wherever I move that Clark Stringout, Water Lake will follow, maintaining its relative position to the clip.

If you take this concept out to the Nth degree, imagine building a mini “scene” with connected audio and visual clips. You’ve painstaking added music, B-roll, SFX, etc. You can now move that main clip anywhere in your timeline, confident that all the work you spent adding the supporting media will follow along and remain in sync.

Bottomline: FCPX provides a way of working that focuses on each clip’s relationship to the story, but also gives you the tools to override the defaults when you need to.

Secondary Storylines

When you have several audio or B-roll clips adjacent to each other, they probably have a relationship to each other. It might be wide, medium, tight shots, or clips of a VO. FCP X allows you to reinforce that relationship by selecting them and hitting “command +G”. That allows you to form a “mini track” of sorts, called a secondary storyline. It helps to secure them visually and makes it easier to move them together. The limitation is that a secondary storyline is limited to a single level of visual hierarchy.

A Word About Roles and Lanes

An aspect of the Magnetic Timeline that has really irked veteran editors is the absence of traditional audio and video tracks. For all the brouhaha over FCPX being a trackless system, you actually do have the ability to work with tracks…in a sense.

One of the most powerful features of FCP X is the ability to assign color-coded “Roles” to clips and other forms of media. For instance, you could mark audio as Dialog, VO, SFX, Music, etc. When placed in your sequence, the color-coding makes them easily stand out. When exporting to other NLEs or Digital Audio Workstations, Roles can take on the characteristics of tracks when creating stems for broadcasters and distributors.

And for those of you who want to see actual “tracks,” there’s the ability to turn on the “Lanes” feature. This is done in the Timeline Index, a feature that allows you to easily navigate to or select various parts of your timeline.  When the “Audio Lanes” feature is turned on, the various Roles are split into, well, “lanes”—which for all intents and purposes are like the tracks you may miss so much.

From here you can hide the Lanes, expand or collapse them, or even focus on just one Role (so that the other are collapsed).

The full power and capabilities of Roles go beyond the scope of this article, but it’s another aspect of maximizing the use of the Magnetic Timeline (and FCP X in general).

Conclusion: It’s About Time

The Magnetic Timeline transforms your approach to editing by placing the emphasis on the story instead of on the tools. It does take a little getting used to, but it is well worth it. When used to its fullest potential, it saves you an enormous amount of time  and even “protects” you from needless mistakes. Final Cut Pro X really offers an amazingly powerful interface and the Magnetic timeline is the star of the show.

Reuben Evans

Reuben Evans is an award-winning screenwriter, executive producer at Faithlife, and a member of the Producers Guild of America. He has produced and directed numerous documentaries and commercials. Reuben’s tools of choice are RED Cameras, Final Cut Pro, and DaVinci Resolve. He writes for Insider and is part of the Blade Ronner Media writers network. Reuben resides in Washington state with his wife, four kids, and one crazy goldendoodle puppy named Baker.