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.

Screen Shot 2017 10 11 at 12.14.03 AM

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.

fcpx browser

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.

Screen Shot 2017 10 11 at 10.08.19 PM

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.

fcpx slug

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.

Screen Shot 2017 10 11 at 12.33.49 AM

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 + ]
Screen Shot 2017 10 11 at 12.13.14 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2017 10 11 at 12.14.03 AM 1

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!

skimmer playhead

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).

Screen Shot 2017 10 11 at 12.32.16 AM

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.

Connect 1

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.

Connect 2

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.

Screen Shot 2017 10 11 at 12.14.10 AM

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.

fcpx lanes tagged

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.

Screen Shot 2017 10 11 at 12.14.36 AM
  • Brian Seegmiller

    Was Farmer and the Belle edited in FCP X?

    • Reuben Evans

      Actually, The Farmer and The Belle is still in pre-production 🙂

      • Brian Seegmiller

        My bad. I miss read the end. So the question still is will it be edited in FCP X?

        • Reuben Evans

          I’m not sure yet. But we’ve talked about using FCPX to process dailies.

  • Shane Ross

    I call Shinanigans. Sorry, but your opening statements are stock full of bad assumptions.

    “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. ”

    Wrong. Editing decisions are based on story, and when we feel that a shot needs to go somewhere. In a doc, when someone says something, do we cut away to what they are talking about? Or a shot to bridge a cut in the interview. In scripted, you make cuts or add shots to add emphasis to the moment…cut when the story dictates. NEVER EVER based solely on time. “Oh, it’s been 30 seconds, I need to put a shot in.” Short form commercials might put more emphasis on time, because of their short nature, but we never go “at 10 seconds we need a shot of this, at 15 a shot of this, at 18 a shot of that.” Never. Story and emotion always dictate when we cut, and when a new shot is added. So, that’s statement number 1 that is wrong.

    “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.”

    WRONG. Audio cues are added when the story calls for it. If someone says something emotional, we add a cue. If a tense moment starts, we add a cue…if something happens in that tense moment, we edit the cue to fit, or add another cue or change the cue. Add SFX. ANY AND ALL music and SFX editing is based on story, never ever based on time in the track. Never is it “5 frames after the person said this, we need a cue.” It’s all based on story beats and emotion of the scene. Not sure where you got that idea about cues needing to start exactly 45 seconds and 12 frames. That’s literally NOT how things are done.

    That’s number 2 that is wrong.

    “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.”

    EVERY editing software is there to help tell a story. It’s main focus is to enable editors to tell a story. This isn’t something FCX has an advantage with. It’s not like I can’t tell a story because I’m using Avid and have tracks. Story is always the main focus.

    Sorry, the bulk of the article about the advantages of the magnetic timeline are good, you do show how it’s a great unique thing that helps many people edit better. But your setup premise is completely wrong. I don’t know where you got the idea that having a timeline and tracks assumes that editors then make edit decisions based on time, based on timecode…and not on story, or feeling. That literally is the exact opposite of how editing works.

    • Thanks for your input Shane (and I’m assuming you’re the same Shane who will be referenced in a soon-to-be published article? If so, thanks for reading.)

      I cannot speak for the author, but FWIW, I think the point he’s making is that when placing a clip in a traditional timeline, it’s tied to a specific point of time (ergo, the name “timeline.”) If you move an a-roll clip, the b-roll associated with it usually stays in place, unless you move it too. It’s connected to a point in time (e.g. 30 seconds, 45 second, etc.)

      That being said, I could see, based on your feedback, how it could be taken to mean that an editor is making a choice strictly based on time and not story. I think Reuben’s main premise is that audio and video cues are physically tied to their associated clip as opposed to a point in time.

      I’ll leave it to Reuben to defend or clarify his point, but that’s how I took it.

      Thanks again for commenting.

      • Shane Ross

        Yes, that is me, I’ll be in an upcoming article about going from offline to online.

        If I move an A-roll clip and want the b-roll and other elements to move with it, I can do that. I can lasso that whole section and move it. Or click on just the things I want to move. Or select all upstream or downstream and move them. That’s nothing new.

        And as for being connected to a place in time, 30 seconds, 45 seconds…while FCX doesn’t have a timeline, it does have a PROJECT and that does have time. There’s timecode associated with it…and you can go to 30 seconds from the start, or 45…or navigate to 1:01:35:16. It is a timeline, it’s just not called a timeline. Well, part of it is called THE MAGNETIC TIMELINE…as the point of the article. And yes, every clip on it lives at a point in time on that. Just like on a timeline with tracks. So no, that’s not it. It was the “you needed to add music at 45 seconds and 12 frames”…well, sure, but we didn’t make that decision because of that specific time. It was made because the story called for it, and we added it not paying attention to the time on the timeline, but paying attention to the story cues. Editors ALWAYS make decisions based on story, not time. WE don’t go “I need to cut to something 10 frame from now.” We cut when the moment calls for it. Not 8 frames after that moment. Based on story and emotion…feelings, not timecode.

        • Ievgenii Larin

          The author emphasized FCPX strong sides. Clearly @disqus_pGp5PnZX2f:disqus didn’t mean that track-based NLEs force editors to make only timecode-driven decisions.

        • Shane Ross

          Then why say: “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.””

          That statement clearly states a timecode only based decision. We don’t make decisions based on timecode and distance from a clip. All decisions are made based on visual, or emotional cues. Story points, beats. Never timecode position.

        • Ievgenii Larin

          I’m not going to fight to death like Bill does on the Cow forum. I welcome any piece of content that emphasizes FCPX unique toolset. I agree that the phrasing in the article could be misinterpreted.

        • Reuben Evans

          Hi Shane, I appreciate your thoughtful reply. I think we may be looking at things from two different angles. When I wrote “track-based timelines asked us to think in a way…” I was referring to why the software design asked of the user, rather than how users normally think. My point is that a track-based timeline is asking the user of the software a non-story related question. “When and Where” do you want this placed?

          Of course, all of us here can produce amazing results with any NLE.

          To give you a little background, I do video production for a company that has as its main line of business software. So that means everyday we are asking questions of software like “what is this primarily asking of the user?”

          I think the shift in intention from timecode and layers to story is reflected in the new nomenclature “Primary Storyline, Secondary Storyline, and Connected Clips.” The emphasis is on the relationships of the clips to each other and to the story. I also think in Apple’s initial unveiling of the software they alluded to this, but it has been a long time since I saw that unveiling.

          So I believe you are approaching editing from “what is an editor thinking?” And I am asking here, “what is the software UX design primarily asking from me as a user?”

          Does that help to clear it up?

        • Shane Ross

          “My point is that a track-based timeline is asking the user of the software a non-story related question. “When and Where” do you want this placed?”

          And I disagree, at least on the WHEN part. ALL editing software asks or requires a WHEN do you want this. I want the CU after the WIDE because we are getting more intimate with this conversation. And I want it to cut to the CU …now. And I want the music to start right when she says “I’m leaving you.” Track based editing doesn’t come in to play here…this is something you do with FCX and Avid and Premiere. You mark an IN point where you feel you want the next shot to start, not “2 seconds and 3 frames after she says this, I’m going to insert this CU shot.” No, you do it by feeling, but your gut. This is how you edit regardless of what you are using.

          WHERE, OK, that I can see. With track based editing, we need to target the audio tracks where we want them to go. Video typically goes on V1, and really, only gets targeted to V2 or higher if you are layering “options” (secondary story lines in FCX terms) or are planning a transition or layering effect. So this is different, but that wasn’t mentioned in your article.

          “I think the shift in intention from timecode and layers to story is reflected in the new nomenclature “Primary Storyline, Secondary Storyline, and Connected Clips.””

          Again, editors, when cutting, aren’t really paying attention to timecode when it comes to telling the story. We aren’t thinking “10 frames after this, I’m putting that” or “I’m going to add a cutaway for 2:15.” No. Any editor worth their salt pays attention only to story, and emotion and beats. The only time we pay attention to timecode is when we have to meet target times….meaning “Act 1 needs to be between 9 and 11 min.” “This 30-min sitcom needs to have a total duration of 22:35 including two 5 second act breaks.” “This reel needs to be around 20 min long.” Then pretty much everyone, regardless of NLE, needs to pay attention to it, even those cutting with FCX. Because the FCX Project (timeline) still is linear, still has timecode marks, and a timecode display. Tracks really don’t come into play when cutting for story, paying attention to story. Yes, it can be distracting to have to target your tracks, and THAT is the one thing that does take you away…I will give you that.

          This does clear it up a bit, thank you. This wasn’t clear in the article, and I can tell you, it really did distract me completely from the point you were making. Because it felt like your premise for the whole article was wrong….based on editing assumptions that were wrong. So a little better clarification might be needed. IMHO.

          thanks for responding.

        • Reuben Evans

          No worries, I appreciate the engagement 🙂

  • Josh Bowen

    Here’s the problem I have with FCPX.

    A lot of it’s strength is touted as “removing mental overhead”, as I think it was put. You don’t have to organize tracks, you can just edit. The thing is, organizing tracks isn’t mental overhead. If you’ve been cutting for more than a few years, it should be automatic. It’s not something you have to think about. You just now how it works. By muscle memory alone I know where music tracks go, where sound design cues go, how to trim and have the whole sequence ripple, how to make space for additions, and it all happens in seconds.

    The added benefit is, I have complete control over all of that and it’s nice and neatly organized. Having audio tracks all over the place and marked by “roles” seems like unnecessary chaos. Why do I need to do that when I can just put it on one of the four dedicated music tracks I have for every sequence? Is anyone actually saving time with this? It all just seems like a solution in search of a problem.

    Everytime I’ve done something in FCP X, the only benefit I see is increased speed by virtue of the fact the hardware and software are integrated to a degree Adobe/Avid will never achieve, because they aren’t the ones building the hardware. Everything else seems like taking the long way around in the interest of some vague concept of “speeding up workflow”. Which makes no sense to me, because anything I want to do I can already do in Premiere/MC as quickly as I can think of it in a timeline.

    • Thanks for joining the conversation Josh. First and foremost, I’ll reiterate what I’m sure you already know: use whatever NLE works for you. A lot of this stuff is subjective, based on how people like to work.

      Personally, I’ve found roles to be the exact opposite of chaos. Once a video or audio clip is assigned a role, I know that no matter where it is in the project (whether or not it’s in a timeline), I can use that data to aid in my organization and cutting. And even though it’s a small thing, I like not having to “target” tracks. I can just drop in a clip, wherever, and know that because roles are assigned, I can always easily see, move, or manipulate a clip. And if I really want the visual “order” I used to have with tracks, I just turn on audio lanes.

      We’re planning to have a more in-depth article on the use of roles, as I believe most people don’t use it to its full potential (admittedly, I know even I don’t)/ But like I said, to each his/her own.

      Bottomline: use whichever tool helps you do your best work. What we try to do here is show the pros (and sometimes the cons) of every NLE to help post production professionals make the best choice of tools. We appreciate you reading and coming along for the ride.

  • Daryl Campbell

    The more I use Fcpx, The less guilt I feel in ditching Media Composer.