The Pros and Cons of Cutting a Film in DaVinci Resolve
We recently wrote in this article that Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve 14 could soon become the ultimate post-production tool. But I wanted to put it to the test on a real project. Would I be able to edit an entire film in Resolve, without ever having to go to my staple NLE?
A wailing baby. A horde of 35 extras playing an angry, shouting mob. Foam bats, fake wounds, choreographed fight stunts.
And me, at a rickety folding table, furiously editing in the midst of chaos.
As a feature film editor, I like quiet. I like temperature controlled edit suites. And I like using software that I know inside and out.
How then, on that relentlessly sunny day in late August, did I find myself tasked with assembling an entire day’s footage, on set, in DaVinci Resolve—a program I had never before considered a capable NLE—to help put together the following day’s shot list?
A few months earlier, my co-writer and I took the plunge and set a production date for our short film, Currency.
Currency takes place in a small town one week after all banking, credit, and electronic monetary records disappear. A family-run gas station becomes the most important storehouse in a small town, but the family finds itself deeply divided about what to do with its newfound “wealth.”
As pre-production started buzzing around me, I was knee-deep in writing a previous article on DaVinci Resolve and came across this bold statement on the Blackmagic website:
“Huh,” I thought, my curiosity officially piqued. “Maybe I should edit this thing in Resolve.”
As both post-production supervisor and editor, I was my own devil’s advocate. The shoot was already under enormous pressure. We would have three days to turn a quaint, country store in upstate NY into our personal pre-Apocalypse.
Caption: Before and after at the Forestburgh General Store. Production Design by Sarah Caye; Art Direction by Langston Kahn; Carpentry by Ryan Murphy.
And we had scheduled our toughest scene for day one—a full on riot with stunts including gunshots, wounds, and a ton of extras to wrangle.
Here’s the top of the scene:
The scene clocks in at two pages, but it’s dense—54 shots in total. It was the film’s most ambitious day. To have a chance of cramming it all in, we’d need to move lightning fast, including me.
On set, I’d be editing in as close to real time as possible so that we’d know, definitively, that we had the coverage to cut a great scene.
I needed a workflow that would let me fly through ingesting and syncing and get to the edit as fast as possible. I thought it over.
- Batch sync with the click of a button? Check.
- Batch label and organize clips? Check.
- Easily handle mixed frame rates in a single timeline? Check.
- Deliver on its promise of industry-standard professional edit tools? Check…?
My curiosity was getting the better of me, and so I decided.
I’d cut the first day’s footage on set in Resolve. If all went well, I’d consider cutting the entire film in the software. If not, at least I’d get a firm grasp on what Resolve was capable of.
The first thing I did to make absolutely sure I wasn’t dooming us to failure was open up Resolve’s keyboard mapping. I’m an enthusiastic keyboard-based editor and my muscle memory for my custom Premiere shortcuts was extra strong, as I had just come off a feature edit.
Caption: Keyboard mapping in Resolve. I used the “Adobe Premiere Pro” set as a baseline.
One by one, I recreated my shortcuts in Resolve, and was immediately impressed. There really were a ton of new edit features, and I began to feel pretty confident that I wasn’t going to be missing too many shortcuts I enjoyed in Premiere.
I was ready to dive in.
But before we go any further, a few relevant project details:
- I worked on a Macbook Pro (2.6Ghz Core i7, 16GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M 2048 MB)
- We shot on two RED cameras, using Kowa anamorphic lenses
- We shot between 3K-6K and simultaneously recorded ProRes in-camera proxies at 1920×720 (de-squeezed in camera)
- We shot at both 23.976fps and 47.952fps
- We used jam-synced timecode and recorded in-camera scratch tracks
- I used the free version of Public Beta Resolve 14
On a bright, dry day in late-August, the extras were fed, briefed, and in place; the last few set dressings were going up; and our fearless director and co-writer Scott Gabriel was ready to rock. We were a bit behind schedule, but no matter. The cameras started rolling, and so did the footage!
Caption: It takes a village. From left to right: Nick Heppding (sound mixer), Scott Gabriel (director), Nikhil Kamkolkar (2nd AC), Jonny Kapps (AC), Matthew Canada (“B” Camera Operator), Matthew Weitz (Ed, on ground), Jan Lucanus (fight choreographer), Our Incredible Extras (behind gate).
Of course, I barely saw any of that late-summer sun. I was inside, laying claim to my wobbly table and ingesting footage into Resolve.
Caption: My edit suite, before it became an active set the following day and I retreated to a dark corner.
In terms of media management, I already knew that Resolve shines. I detailed my preferred method of ingesting and syncing in a previous article, and I followed those same steps on this project—I chose to auto-sync via timecode to the in-camera ProRes proxies.
Within a matter of minutes, my footage was synced and ready to be labeled.
The Media Page
The first thing I appreciated is that Resolve has an entire interface designed for importing and organizing media. Sure, in other NLEs you can use a dual monitor setup and make your bins as large as you want; but Resolve has some carefully thought–out features that make a tedious process nearly instantaneous.
The Media page will be familiar to most editors, with a browser for locating media, a bin list for organizing, and a source monitor for viewing clips. In addition, there’s the media pool, which is essentially a larger view of any selected bin where you can easily add or remove columns to see as much metadata as you’d like at a glance, as well as sort clips by that metadata.
You can also toggle showing or hiding the inspector in the top right of the page, and you can choose which metadata to display or edit from a drop down menu.
The inspector can be used to see information for media in the media pool, or incoming media in the media storage browser.
Use Metadata To Rename Clips
Resolve has recognized that, depending on where you are in the post process, you’ll find different information useful.
For an editor, a clip’s filename is most useful during the initial import and syncing process, and after that, becomes just a string of characters that doesn’t provide much information.
In Resolve, you can switch between showing that file name or showing a display name.
In the media pool, right-click any column heading and check the “Display Name” box to show the column.
The column defaults to the clip’s filename, which you can change per clip by entering information manually.
But even better, you can use your clips’ metadata to auto-populate the display names, all at once.
In most higher-level film productions, your sync audio will be labeled on set with scene and take information. If you’ve synced footage in Resolve, then this metadata is available for each synced clip, via the audio file.
Select the clips you want to rename in the media pool, right-click, and choose “clip attributes.” Navigate to the Name tab. You’ll see an input for Display Name.
In the Display Name box, type in a ”%” symbol and you’ll see a list of metadata popup.
You can choose any combination of these categories to auto-populate the display name for your clips!
I choose to label with %scene%take and hit OK. My Display Name column is automatically filled.
Even more useful, you can toggle between showing the filename OR display name, by navigating to View > Show Display Names.
When you have Show Display Names enabled, they will be shown in key places:
- The media pool’s thumbnail view
- The name of each clip in the timeline
- The source viewer title bar
If you toggle Show Display Names off, then the clip’s filename will appear in those places. This becomes very handy if you plan to color your project in Resolve as well, where filenames are more handy than display names.
Caption: Display name (in red) with scene/take labels vs. File name (in red) for finishing
Here’s an excerpt from my bin labeled via display names, for this one scene alone.
Triple letters – that’s a lot of shots!
Yet ingesting, syncing, and labeling the first day’s footage took no more than 15 minutes.
So far, Resolve had me impressed!
Outside, our armorer/pyrotechnician was hiding squibs (those fake blood capsules that explode through a shirt) on a featured extra and one of our co-stars. Wardrobe was standing by with an armful of shirts for multiple takes.
Caption: Blood spray from a squib hidden in Walter Masterson’s (Don) shirt, controlled by Brian Schuley of The Specialists (right edge).
I knew I’d want to look at these gunshot stunts as soon as the footage came in, since today was the only day we were cleared to shoot blanks on set.
To help set the scene for the edit, here’s another excerpt from the script, just after an angry mob storms the gate behind the store. Javier, the store’s owner, defends his stock of gasoline:
Although this is an action scene, there are also some important character turns and emotional beats to highlight. At its heart, this scene is about a family in a horribly desperate moment.
Overall, a tough scene to cut, especially under time pressure. Getting an assembly together would be a much deeper test of Resolve’s capabilities.
The first cuts went into the timeline smoothly. As long as you’ve done your homework setting up your keyboard shortcuts, you should feel very at home in a Resolve timeline.
After a few minutes, I honestly forgot that I was testing out a program I’d never cut in before. I got the sense that Resolve took a deep look into what makes other NLEs great and made sure it wasn’t lacking any standard features.
Something in particular I loved was being able to tab between the Edit page and the Media page, as needed. Every so often, I noticed a labelling error or that a clip was a few frames out of sync. In either case, switching back to the Media page immediately provided a dedicated interface that minimized time and effort to fix problems.
Here are a few other basic edit tips I picked up along the way:
You can change the background color of the source and viewer monitors from black to gray by clicking the settings wheel in the lower right corner of the timeline, navigating to the General Options tab and checking the box, “Use gray background in viewers.”
Since my clips had a widescreen aspect ratio, I couldn’t tell where the edge of the clip was next to the black background.
Caption: Black vs Gray background
Switch to Timeline After Edit
By default, when you make an edit in Resolve via the source monitor, for example, setting in/out points, then performing an insert or overwrite edit, Resolve automatically makes the timeline active.
That can certainly be useful, but in the early stages of an edit when you’re pulling selects, I find it more useful to have the source monitor remain active, so that you can quickly make a number of different edits into the timeline from the same clip. After much hair pulling, I finally figured out how to toggle this option on or off.
In the top menu, navigate to Edit > Switch to Timeline After Edit.
You can adjust the framing on a shot in two different ways. You can select the clip in the timeline, open up the inspector, and adjust your settings from the panel.
Or, you can toggle on the transform button in the lower left corner of the Viewer, allowing you to resize the clip by dragging the bounding box.
From the transform button’s drop down menu, you can also access crop tools and a “dynamic zoom” tool, which allows for some quick and dirty keyframing on your clips.
Full Screen Playback
When playing back either a clip or a timeline full-screen (Cinema Viewer mode), a scrub bar appears that allows you to easily navigate the entire clip. I love this!
However, a frustrating downside to Cinema Viewer mode is that you can’t mark in or out points while playing. I would love to see this feature added in the future.
Before I knew it, I had an assembly laid out before me. I watched it back, and cringed more often than not. But there was something there.
A scene like this is all about rhythm—every frame counts in a sequence where your average shot length is 1 second.
At this point, it was choreographed chaos outside. That nice bright sunlight had baked deep red sunburns onto our cast and crew. We were running a few hours behind and losing daylight fast. There was almost no way we’d get through the day without needing to do pickups tomorrow.
Caption: Some of our incredible extras, rocking their new farmer’s tans.
As our producer and AD were frantically rescheduling the next day, I realized that I would have the rare opportunity to request the shots I felt were missing.
That also meant I would have to have cut the scene well enough to know what was missing.
I picked up the pace. I had my assembly, and it was time to deep dive into Resolve’s trim tools.
I started making broad trims and cuts here and there. Resolve’s fast trim tools (optimized for either the mouse or keyboard) function just as you’d expect.
You can make different trim selections by hovering the mouse over a cut point and dragging clips forwards and backwards, or rolling a cut point. All of these operations can be performed in Resolve’s standard timeline mode, “Normal Edit Mode.”
Caption: A basic, mouse-based trim, extending the edit point
Trim Edit Mode
Resolve also has a dedicated Trim Edit Mode, which you can enter by clicking the Trim button or using the default shortcut “T”.
In Trim Edit Mode, you can perform all the same trim functions as in Normal Edit Mode, but with added functionalities such as ripple trimming and trimming during real-time playback, with either the keyboard or the mouse.
Since I rarely make trims at 100% playback speed, I never consistently found a use for Trim Edit mode. You can’t take advantage of trimming in fast forward, frame by frame, or by using the JKL transport tools.
Dynamic JKL Trimming
To get around the limitations of Trim Edit Mode, Resolve has a different set of tools called Dynamic Trim Mode.
Pressing the default keyboard shortcut “W” will enter the timeline into Dynamic Trim Mode. You’ll see the words “Dynamic Trim” followed by either “slip” or “slide,” depending on which mode you’re in, appear on the timeline toolbar.
Here’s where it starts to get a bit confusing—within Dynamic Trim Mode, you also have access to either Selection Mode or Trim Mode, which are the same buttons as Normal Edit Mode and Trim Mode, but have different functionalities when you’re in Dynamic Trim Mode.
- In Selection mode (A), you can dynamically resize or roll edits, and move or slip clips.
- In Trim mode (T), you can dynamically ripple or roll edits, and slip or slide clips.
In Dynamic Trim Mode, as long as you have a cut point selected, the JKL keys will only function to trim that selection, while the spacebar will initiate a “play around” the edit.
While it would take another in-depth article to provide a complete look at how Dynamic Trim Mode works, my impression was that it was an unnecessarily separate, and limited working mode. I would love to see just one trim mode, where you can perform any type of trim with the JKL transport keys.
As my edit progressed, I became more focused on rhythm and pacing and my instincts about what needed to happen came faster and faster.
Yet, I found that I lost my stride every time I attempted to make a keyboard-based trim.
Because dynamic trimming acts as its own edit mode, there are a number of extra keystrokes to perform simple edits.
For example, to ripple trim a cut frame by frame, I have to enter Dynamic Trim Mode (W), select Trim Mode (T), and choose the edit point I want to adjust before I can perform my ripple trim using JKL.
Once I’m done, I have to exit Dynamic Trim Mode (W), yet if I exit it while Trim Mode is selected (almost always the case for me), I’ll have to hit another shortcut to get me back into Normal Edit Mode (A).
That’s A LOT of keystrokes to perform a simple trim!
In addition to the constant switching between modes, these two points baffled me:
- In Dynamic Trim Mode, the up/down arrows don’t allow you to select the next or previous edits—meaning you have to use the mouse to change your edit selection, in a mode dedicated to keyboard trimming. What’s even more confusing is that in normal Trim Mode, the up/down arrows move you up and down the edits in the timeline exactly as expected.
- As soon as an a/v clip became unlinked in the timeline (which happened constantly because of a ripple cut/delete behavior I address at the end the article), any keyboard shortcut I tried to map to select the next edit point would only select A1 as the active trimming track, even when all track selectors were on. I couldn’t figure out a way to map a shortcut that would select ALL edits on a cut point, as the default, whether the clips are linked or not.
As I continued trying to fine tune the edit, my curiosity about the software quickly turned into vexed frustration.
I’ll admit that I lost valuable hours trying to understand exactly how Dynamic Trim Mode is supposed to work.
Eventually, I was pulled outside by our director to talk through a camera set up. The sun was beginning to set and the day had cooled off significantly. Despite knowing that we weren’t going to make our shoot day, the cast and crew were in good spirits.
I stepped over a dummy, patiently awaiting his role as a stunt double, and took a deep breath.
Caption: Our lead Jay Santiago’s stunt double. Somehow we found ourselves with only one pair of pants, which Jay was wearing at the time of this photo.
Let’s Try That Again
Back at my computer, I gave up on trying to master dynamic trimming for now, and turned to the great tools Resolve does have. Despite my preference for keyboard editing, I simply used the mouse more, and was able to fall into a different kind of groove.
I knew I’d be editing into the night to get the last few camera cards of media into the project, but as we wrapped on day one, I had a very rough cut I felt good about, and a list of shots I knew we’d need to get during tomorrow’s pickup shoot.
Resolve got the job done, working best when I gave up on trying to force it to behave like another NLE, and instead, concentrated on its strengths.
The Verdict & Final Impressions
So, did I cut the rest of the film in Resolve? No.
Ultimately, my inability to gain a firm grasp on dynamic trimming was a major factor in me choosing to use Premiere Pro for the rest of the Currency edit.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll reach the same conclusion. It’s clear that Resolve is a very capable NLE.
I’ve personally developed a fluidity that relies on being able to trim on the fly as needed. I sometimes have a director looking over my shoulder all day, for months at a time.
I’ve got to be fast. And I simply couldn’t edit fast enough to keep up with my ideas.
Is there a chance that I’ve misunderstand Resolve’s intention with dynamic trimming altogether? Absolutely. I’d love to be proven wrong on this one.
And I still consider the experiment a success.
Just take a look at my Resolve timeline:
It may not look like all that much, but ingesting, organizing, and cutting together two-thirds of a scene with over 40 distinct shots in a single, hectic day was no small feat!
In addition to dynamic trimming, a few other issues consistently bugged me during the edit, despite consulting the manual and performing many Google searches.
I’m hoping someone with more Resolve experience might chime in with fixes or answers to these outliers:
- Ripple Cut/Ripple Delete
- If a selection being ripple cut or ripple deleted includes a portion of a linked audio/video clip, the clip will inexplicably (and frustratingly) become unlinked after the selection is removed.
- Ripple cut doesn’t close gaps on the timeline that are included in your in/out selection.
- Ripple delete does close gaps, but doesn’t add the deleted selection to the clipboard.
- I couldn’t figure out how to copy and paste timecode from the timeline or source monitor, a feature I consider non-negotiable in an NLE.
- Creating a compound clip breaks any media with an alpha channel, simply displaying black. This bug severely limits the quality and level of vfx work you can do in the timeline.
- I couldn’t find any display that tells you how many clips you have selected in a bin, or even how many clips a bin holds.
- When you open a bin in a floating window, there’s no way to make it small enough to be useful. The “smallest” size is huge if you’re working on a single monitor.
- The more footage I added to the project, and subsequently, the timeline, the less responsive my project became. In particular, the command “reveal in media pool,” a tool I use constantly to return to any given scene’s bin, became unbearably slow.
- Severe audio dropouts became an issue as the timeline grew in audio complexity. Sometimes just a few frames would cut out, other times, I couldn’t get the audio to start playing again without relaunching the program.
- Rather than project files, Resolve uses “databases” where it stores and manages your project’s information. While this method has benefits, it can be confusing to an average user, especially one who’s used to swapping Avid bins or a Premiere project files.
A Look to the Future
Resolve began as an impressive color correction tool and it’s developed into an equally impressive NLE. No other software can beat the functionality you get for the grand total of $0.
Resolve is attempting to do something that simply hasn’t been done before—provide software that truly does it all. With dedicated media management, edit, color, audio mix, and delivery tools, Resolve gives you the option to divorce yourself from an offline/online workflow and work in what the developers describe as a “parallel workflow.”
While I haven’t had a chance to try it out just yet, Resolve’s collaborative workflow (available in the studio version for $299), allows for simultaneous editing, grading, and clip management by multiple people within a single project. Wow!
Is Resolve ready for your next feature length edit? Maybe not, unless you can be reconciled with the limitations I’ve described here. Is now the time for you to dive in, get your feet wet, and keep an eye on the next release? Absolutely!
Oh, and if you’re wondering how the rest of the Currency shoot went? Take a look at our trailer and find out!